Elegiac is the title. Its more prosaic subtitle, "An Inland Voyage Along the Yukon River," describes the author's tour into some of the thousands of years of its history of human habitation.
Alaska writer Dan O'Neill brings to light the past century after thousands of members of this continent's civilized world came to the Klondike for furs and for fish, and then for gold. Well past the Gold Rush days of the late 1800's, after the last of the mines pretty much played out and the storied "sourdough" lifestyle of panning for gold vanished, people kept on coming. Up until the late 1970's to early 1980's came a constant trickle of still-hopeful prospectors, sportsmen, professional and non-professional wildlife experts, drifters, artists, writers, hippies, loners, people escaping from something or looking for something other than what they thought they had in the "Lower 48." But this hardscrabble, fragile population is dying out, to O'Neill's dismay.
These late-comers survived by trapping marten for furs, catching wild salmon and smoking it for winter, gathering wild cranberries and growing what they could in beds raised above permafrost. They supplemented these meager incomes with stints in the commercial mines or lumber camps, hauled coal or eggs or the mail, spent a season at a job in town or with one of the government agencies. Their dog teams were companions, pack animals and transport. Their canoes and kayaks plied the tributaries, the dogs running alongside the banks to lighten the weight of the watercraft.
Standing witness to this raggedy edge of Alaskan life are the scattered tiny cabins and remnants of gardens, rusted machinery and rotting wooden storage caches high on poles to keep out the grizzly bears. Dan O'Neill guides us through these once-alive places, going downriver from Dawson City now gussied up as a tourist town that attempts to show what the Gold Rush life was like.
O'Neill's tour, however, is the real thing. He knows his Arctic flora/fauna and geology. He describes how the glaciers sluice their ice down into the rivers, how the mountains were formed and how and when the salmon run. Pieced in are the stories of the movement of economies from town to town and the stories of the people who stayed awhile, fought the floods and the grifters and the trapline poachers and the bears, and then moved on, leaving their names behind. "Cameron's Cabin," "Miller's Camp," "Old Man and Old Woman Rocks," "Slaven's Roadhouse."
O'Neill updates the famous book on the Yukon by John McPhee, "Coming Into the Country." He re-interviews some of McPhee's subjects, puncturing some of the romanticism in that 30-year old work. He also quotes a much earlier history, "The Klondike Fever," in which author Pierre Berton said the pre-Dawson City town of "Forty Mile" operated under a "curious mixture of communism and anarchy." Apply this code generically to the settlers of the Yukon, who did not own their land and did not care to, who left cabin doors open for any strangers who needed shelter, who paid the entire shopping bills of whoever was in the store, and you'll get the sense of how to live with this harsh frontier.
O'Neill has kindly words for these newest Alaskans, who might have been cast as naive "back to the land" hippies from the 1960's. But he points out they had much the same motives as those who had come before, for fortune or recluse or adventure or art, for reasons no different from why anyone makes any life-altering decision.
Enter the government.
It all started in the 1970's, on parallel tracks of state and federal legislation. Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) attempted to restore Native American rights to territories and resources, and O'Neill wisely skirts this sorry litany of pre- and post-statehood takings, which runs on its own separate course of history. His main culprit is the establishment of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve by the National Park Service.
The Park Service essentially told everyone they could go on living their accustomed "subsistence lifestyle," as it was a "cultural value" worthy of protection. But the deep changes NPS brought pulled the future out from under the people, for their rights didn't extend to the next generation and their present lives now operated under an incomprehensible permit system and new regulations. When NPS limited the fish catch, one local man who depended on a regular supply of king salmon for himself and for sale, and on fall-run chums for his dogs, was caught in the perilous downward spiral "Insufficient human food meant more cash required for store-bought grub. Insufficient dog food could mean he'd have to shoot some of his dogs. A smaller dog team would mean he couldn't range as far on his trapline, and that would mean less cash income." And without "wage work" nearby, with the steamboats and roadhouses long gone, "it is pretty hard for anyone to survive out in the country."
O'Neill understands that a blazed and worn trail signifies history, as much as any collapsed building or rotted boat hull. And he honors those who keep the pathways open and the cabins maintained, in the face of bureaucrats with titles like "cultural resource specialist." He speaks of commonly used accesses cut off, and the old cabins burned, only to see them rebuilt by the NPS as historic reconstructions. A deeper loss still is the death of stories, the tall tales and the true tales of Alaskan life, "as people are eliminated from Alaska's parks, new stories cease to be created and the tradition dies."
A few curious things about the book, though. Despite one eloquent objection from one resident to the term "subsistence lifestyle," O'Neill continues to use those words to describe the people he genuinely respects. And he goes gently on NPS employees, hailing many of them as doing exemplary work. As it turns out, he admits to being paid by that federal agency.
O'Neill's book implies that the policies for Yukon-Charley were applied from above, from somewhere in faraway Washington D.C. That isn't a very satisfactory answer. What we really need to know is how to defeat it at its source. But the valuable lesson to be taken from "A Land Gone Lonesome" is how to recognize the danger when it comes home to where we live, and it serves as a case study in what happens when that peril is ignored.