At long last, the dreaded shoulder season is upon us. It is too wet to climb outside, too muddy to risk tearing up the singletrack, and, worst of all, not yet snowy enough to ski. In a few short weeks, Anchorage will be cross-country skiing to work and spending its weekends earning turns, but in the meantime, I am consigned to my two least favorite forms of exercise.
I can run, which, even on my favorite trails, makes me feel oafish and slow, or I can climb at the gym, where I am surrounded by peacocking and ego-stroking and general douchebaggery. Fall in Southcentral Alaska is rough, from an adventure standpoint, so it’s a good thing I have plenty of time to read. (Kidding! All I have time to read these days are endless, soul-crushing drafts of my thesis in its final stages.)
In all seriousness, I’ve found that for most outdoorsy types, shoulder seasons require a good book to keep the stoke alive. Now that a) it rains constantly and b) I have Netflix, I’m in constant danger of becoming trapped in an infinite keeper hole (see? Whitewater metaphors!) of Gilmore Girls, which is why I’ve been making frequent trips to the Anchorage Public Library.
Most adventure-themed reading lists include a mountaineering narrative, an account featuring a token minority—a female character, maybe, or a blind athlete—and something by Krakauer. I’ve read enough mountaineering literature over the course of my graduate career to last a lifetime, and anyway, I’d rather look forward to the season ahead than face the grim reality that I’ll probably spend some time fending off frostbite in a freak snowstorm. I’ve read Into the Wild nearly every summer since I was a teenager (I’ll even admit to owning and regularly listening to the Eddie Vedder soundtrack to the movie), but the experiencing the feelings associated with heroes and acquaintances dying and disappearing has irrevocably changed my perspective, and it’s perhaps still too fresh for me to pick it up again.
Fortunately, as the demographics of the outdoor industry diversify (slowly but surely), so too does its output of books. Thanks to recommendations from friends and fellow sufferers of wanderlust, I have compiled the following short list of adventure books for the young and restless:
Byl’s account of her sixteen seasons working on trail crews in Montana and Alaska—first as a greenhorn, eventually as a veteran—is appealing to begin with, but her exquisite writing is what renders Dirt Work a must-read. The book’s unique organization—each chapter set in its own time and place, featuring the tool Byl and her comrades used most there—is aesthetic and satisfying.
Her experience as a woman in a world dominated by men echoes my own, but not in such a way that it takes over her narrative: outdoorsmen who have never been told you can’t because you’re a girl will nonetheless find themselves pausing to re-read her uncanny descriptions of a life spent outside. Byl’s ability to commit those magical moments to paper had me savoring every page of Dirt Work, and I was genuinely sorry to finish it.
“Mountaineering Ranger on Mount Rainier” sounds like a dream job to a lot of dirtbags, and Bree Loewen might have told you the same thing—before her three seasons with the NPS. Loewen relates stories of her tenure on Rainier, during which she was one of only a handful of female rangers, with a balance of sincerity and self-deprecating humor. Seasonal rangers on Rainier help with everything from rescuing lost children to cleaning outhouses at Camp Muir to recovering bodies trapped in crevasses, events which provide no shortage of opportunities for Loewen’s gallows humor and, occasionally, moments of clarity.
The windblown coast of Labrador isn’t the first place most Alaskans associate with Jill Fredston and her partner, Doug Fesler: the duo is best known for their founding of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, and Fredston’s other books—Snow Sense, co-authored by Fesler and widely used in snow safety curriculum, and Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches—are about pursuits decidedly snowier than those described in Rowing to Latitude.
Fredston relates the otherworldly landscapes of their northernmost pursuits with her usual pragmatism, and while her anecdotes—mishaps, strange encounters, self-deprecating stories of near-meltdowns—are certainly amusing, the best parts of Rowing are the parts when she and Fesler aren’t rowing at all. As with any great adventure, the success of the pair’s endeavors rests largely upon the planning process, and Fredston’s descriptions of freeze-drying meals and packing boats were utterly inspiring to my anal-retentive nature.
I will never again stuff summer sausage into my pack without longing for a food dehydrator, and I’d like to take this opportunity to remind my readers that I will be getting married next summer and that you can make my dreams come true (besides the whole happily ever after thing) here.
The Last Season, Eric Blehm
The story of NPS seasonal ranger Randy Morgenson’s life—and disappearance—is part adventure narrative, part mystery novel. Morgenson, a backcountry ranger at Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks for 28 seasons, vanished on a routine patrol in the summer of 1996, and Blehm spends The Last Season piecing together his story.
And the story is compelling. Morgenson, a passionate advocate for public lands and a vehement opponent of the regulation he saw being imposed on his home park, became increasingly troubled as his backcountry seasons wore on. The Last Season is both tragic and hopeful: a stark illustration of the toll our backcountry time takes on those who love us, and also a reminder that some people need it anyway.
The Emerald Mile, Kevin Fedarko
Few writers have managed to capture the essence of the American West like Ed Abbey. I’m not saying The Emerald Mile is on par with Desert Solitaire—let’s not get ahead of ourselves—but in the canon of desert literature, I’d argue it’s up there. And unlike Abbey’s lonesome portrayal of life in canyon country, wherein the land has more character than any person he encounters, this story is teeming with colorful personalities.
In The Emerald Mile, Fedarko relates the near-legendary story of a trio of intrepid boatmen and weaves in a cast of seemingly minor players whose fates, it eventually becomes clear, are inexorably tied to that of Emerarld Mile and her crew. The 277-mile stretch of the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon offers more than just a setting for a compelling adventure narrative: Drama! Intrigue! Geology!
The plot spans a dozen season in the Grand Canyon (hundreds of millions, if you count Fedarko’s frequent lessons in geomorphology), excellent for a shoulder season read: we can be patient, as there are many seasons yet to come.
And now, a favor: I need a new adventure read. Any suggestions?