By Doug Pope, Cirque Press, 138 pages, 2020. $15
What do you do when you’re a 40-year-old river rat and mountain climber, and you need to find a new adventure? If you’re Doug Pope, you get married.
Pope is a lifelong Alaskan who grew up to be an attorney, but who really wanted to maximize his time outdoors. I suspect he had no shortage of adventures in his decades of bachelorhood, but in his new essay collection, “The Way to Gaamaak Cove,” we first catch him right when middle age and cynicism are setting in. That’s when he meets his wife-to-be, Beth, and the cynicism mostly recedes. The adventures don’t however. She proved to be every bit his match and more in the outdoors, running rivers while six months pregnant.
The marriage took place in the early ’80s, so it’s safe to say that Pope is an old man now. But where many his age would take to reminiscing about — and gleefully embellishing — their youthful exploits, this is a book about the adventures of maturity. Pope takes readers to numerous Alaska locales scattered from the Southeast Panhandle to the Arctic, usually with Beth and their two kids in tow, experiencing Alaska’s wildernesses from the perspective of someone who is done trying to conquer the land and is ready to simply walk upon it or canoe through it.
It’s a challenge, of course, since rainfall, not infrequently at full deluge level, is a recurring constant. Finding adequate warmth can be challenging. Getting charged by bears, or standing on the precipice while the bear decides what it’s going to do, is another periodic event. There are also requisite Bush flights to those remote corners of the state, fellow Alaskans who can be flakes, and a somewhat habitual problem of packing insufficient food rations.
But all of this is beside the point when one of those moments of sheer magic transpire. Such as encountering a herd of caribou on the Noatak River, an experience Pope conveys in just a few short sentences.
“A bull with an enormous rack peered down over the edge of the bank. A variegated shovel on his antlers pointed right at my head, and we were so close I could see moisture around the edges of his black nose. I sucked in my breath and ducked down. The bull snorted and jumped back. Other caribou behind him kept moving, spilt into two streams on each side of us, and plunged into the river. The clack, clack, clack sound of their hooves and the click, click, click sound of their joints mingled with splash, splash, splashing into the river. They brushed by only feet and, sometimes, just inches, away. I caught whiffs of a pungent smell and marveled at how they managed to avoid us in the chaos.”
Pope is generally disinclined as a writer towards rhapsodic flourishes and hyperbole. He just tells us what he saw. And yet that’s often enough. He concludes the passage quoted from above by telling us, “We shoved off and drifted while bands of caribou, some in the hundreds, continued to stream down hills to the north of the river and up hills to the south. It felt like we were in a lavish dream where the sky and hills and caribou and river were painted with the bold use of blue and gold and brown and grey by the likes of a van Gogh.”
And then it’s on down the river. And on we travel with Pope, watching his two sons grow up in this wilderness.
Pope grew up in Fairbanks before the pipeline days, and it’s important to have his voice for more reasons than just his memories of family outings on a par most families never approach. He recalls the days when Alaskans were more generous with each other, and when wastefulness was not an affordable extravagance. In the same essay quoted previously, he quietly rages over wealthy trophy hunters who have proliferated in Alaska, coming to hunt for the animal’s head, not the meat that feeds a family.
He can also evoke times that are better left behind us. Early in the book, as he ponders whether or not to marry Beth, he bolts off to Argentina with a pair of friends to scale Aconcagua, South America’s — and indeed the Western Hemisphere’s — tallest peak. While the bulk of the essay examines the travails of high altitude climbing, there’s a telling moment in it that reminds of difficult days gone by.
It was the early ’80s, during a particularly dark stretch of the Cold War. Pope and his companions encounter a group of Polish alpinists retracing a route some of their fellow countrymen had pioneered precisely a half century earlier. “As long as they were on the route,” Pope writes, “they didn’t have to go back to martial law, so they’d been there for weeks living on supplies abandoned by other expeditions, as well as a prodigious store of sausages, garlic, and root vegetables.”
Though certainly unintended when written, it’s a reminder, in this seemingly unending year of 2020, when a global pandemic is only the most prominent of the hardships suddenly hurled upon us, that humans have endured far worse and still found ways to not simply get by, but discover joy wherever it might be briefly located.
And in a sense that’s what this book as an entirety accomplishes. It reminds Alaskans that we are surrounded by opportunities that the world envies. Whatever else assails us, we can always get outdoors. It’s what Pope has done throughout his life. It’s an option that certainly carries its own risks — broken toes, treacherous water crossings, the foulest of foul weather and more — but it pays off and leads to remarkable adventures and good memories that will outlast the bad. If we’re to be stuck in place for the indeterminate future, we have the good fortune to be stuck in this place. Through his plainspoken writing, Doug Pope helps us explore it.
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