When I first moved to Anchorage, arriving on the hind-end of 2003’s disheveled breakup season, it took a while to warm up to the place. My girlfriend and I had moved up sight unseen. We’d spent time in Southeast, but never Southcentral. Neither of us had cell phones. We rolled in as the last snow melted. The same windstorm earlier that winter that flipped planes at Lake Hood spread extra trash all over the city. The trash was melting out but wouldn’t get cleaned up for a while. We started learning Anchorage driving around with newspaper classifieds, a pen, a phone book city map, and piles of quarters for the payphones we used to make rental viewing appointments.
We hurried to find something before our jobs started. Given our meager budget, we got acquainted first with some of Anchorage’s most unspectacular neighborhoods, but eventually found a place. (We only heard gunfire once from that apartment… somebody firing into a moving car on nearby Reka, we learned from the paper, striking the driver in the leg.) The first time I’d harvest highbush cranberries would be in the nearby Russian Jack woods.
After days of apartment hunting, we were ready to get out of town, even if just for the day. We drove down Turnagain Arm, picking the Falls Creek trailhead arbitrarily (or maybe because no other cars were parked there) for our first Chugach hike. That short drive down the Arm and the steep-ish climb up out of the trees, even with the constricted views allowed by that narrow drainage, was perhaps the first inkling that we had not done ourselves a disservice by moving to Anchorage. It might have been an odd choice for a first hike, in retrospect, but it was a great day, followed with more hikes out of Glen Alps and elsewhere. It didn’t take long to start figuring things out and feeling glad to be here.
One thing that helped was a tip from a new work friend, who told me to buy “55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska”. That book, coupled with the Imus Geographics Chugach State Park map, improved our mental map. We logged mile after mile hiking and backpacking whenever we could, often on trails that might have taken us longer to suss out without “55 Ways”.
Fourteen years (and three worn-out copies of that Imus Geo map later) I’m struck by the importance of certain field guides and guidebooks among Alaskans. “55 Ways” is a classic among even vaguely outdoorsy Anchorage and Mat-Su folks. I got to thinking about it a few weeks ago when my friend Mollie Foster called about the launch of her new statewide hiking guidebook, “Hiking Alaska”, a Falcon Guide. I’ve been out here in McCarthy, so I missed the celebration hike and launch down at Anchorage Brewing Company, but shared in the excitement of this collaborative project’s culmination. Another friend out here, Greg Fensterman, wrote a different Falcon Guide about a decade ago, “Hiking Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve”. Maybe a few grumbled a bit when the book came out, saying it blew the cover of once-known-just-to-locals special places, but it’s the definitive, undeniably useful resource read by guides, independent visitors, and locals alike—the real deal.
While guide books help one figure out where to go, field guides help us to see what is there. Before I relocated to Southcentral, I spent a summer sailing a 24-foot sailboat up into southern Southeast Alaska and back from Bellingham. We had Pojar and MacKinnon’s “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast” on board, a comprehensive tome, and the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest”, broader in scope, but thinner in depth. Somewhere, I straightened out my anenomes from my anemones.
Anchorage-based Verna Pratt’s excellent self-published book, “Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers Commonly Seen Along Highways and Byways” (1989) sold 25,000 copies within two years (and tons since, no doubt), and quickly became a regional staple for many Southcentral Alaskans. Organized by plants’ colors rather than taxonomy and full of photos, the book is an indispensable classic written by a self-educated “amateur” who paid the kind of attention characteristic of old-school naturalists. She died at the beginning of this year, but thankfully, her botanical smarts live on in that book. If ever a grave deserved flowers, it would be hers.
I remember a twinge of embarrassment a couple years ago when two biologist friends camping out on my land in McCarthy had occasion to turn to my Sibley’s bird book. It was nowhere to be found—left in Anchorage. The oversight felt like getting caught at sea without charts or compass. Every spring I return to it, brushing up on songbirds, pining after owls, and reminiscing about previous eras when I lived amongst sea birds, back when I would never have believed someone if they told me I’d end up spending so much time inland, at 1,500 feet. “Cabin” used to mean the living quarters in boats.
Maybe field guides are to nature what dictionaries are to language, almost. Just as words’ meanings mainly matter only as far as they’re used to communicate or to think with, to “identify” plants, animals, rocks, and the rest is not the point—it’s not a game of name tagging. It’s what we learn when we pay enough attention to glean a name that matters. The kind of attention that field guides nurture, or that call for field guides in the first place, is not that of a collector, not even for hellbent life-listers, I don’t think. These books are not a membrane between experience and knowing, but an entry point.
Some people make the mistake of dismissing photography outright—why would I want to view the world through a lens? They might say. Why would I want to come home with photos instead of memories? Photography at its best, though, actually hones sight, first for the photographer, and possibly the viewer. Guidebooks—whether they help us reach new terrain under our own human power or interpret something of the world we’re in—likewise focus our vision in useful ways, begetting the kind of differentiation and attention that makes the natural world anything but background, anything but static, anything but boring, and anything but disposable. They evince care and engagement with the land.
I’ve grown fond of one local field guide about the Kennicott Valley here in McCarthy, published years ago by the Wrangell Mountains Center with help from the NPS. “Community & Copper in a Wild Land” by Ben Shaine and Shawn Olson is a useful primer on both the human and natural history of a very specific place. It serves as a pretty useful reference, one I often suggest friends read before they spend much time here. Not all shortcuts are lazy.
One of the best guides to crop up in the last few years is “The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North”. Who knew there’s hours’ worth of stories to learn just about the plants I pass on the trail between my cabin and outhouse? Like many great cookbooks (and this guidebook does include plenty of recipes), Yukon author Beverley Gray doesn’t just list the details, but offers up narratives and anecdotes that make it not just a practical reference, but a good read.
Here in Alaska, we’re fortunate to have troves of field guides and guide books at our fingertips of widely variable subject matter (entire books for mushrooms, seaweed, insects, hummingbirds, butterflies, edible plants, roadside geology, rivers, animal tracks, scat, you name it). While no amount of book learning can replace getting out and seeing for oneself, books can, in fact, help remedy certain kinds of ignorance.
I feel most lucky when field guides remind me what friends or mentors have taught, but sometimes books, curiosity, and observation themselves are teachers. Some teachers are authors, naturalists or adventurers who managed to metamorphose their brain and eyes into something rectangular, lightweight, and oddly suited to both backpacks and nearby shelves. We’re richer for them.
Originally published in the Anchorage Press.