This is the story of Alaska and the Alaskans.
Written with a vividness and clarity which shifts scenes frequently, and yet manages to tie the work into a rewarding whole, McPhee segues from the wilderness to life in urban Alaska to the remote bush country.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
April 01, 1991
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Excerpt from Coming into the Country by John McPhee
AT THE NORTHERN TREE LINE
THE ENCIRCLED RIVER
My bandanna is rolled on the diagonal and retains water fairly well. I keep it knotted around my head, and now and again dip it into the river. The water is forty-six degrees. Against the temples, it is refrigerant and relieving. This has done away with the headaches that the sun caused in days before. The Arctic sun -- penetrating, intense -- seems not so much to shine as to strike. Even the trickles of water that run down my T-shirt feel good. Meanwhile, the river -- the clearest, purest water I have ever seen flowing over rocks -- breaks the light into flashes and sends them upward into the eyes. The headaches have reminded me of the kind that are sometimes caused by altitude, but, for all the fact that we have come down through mountains, we have not been higher than a few hundred feet above the level of the sea. Drifting now -- a canoe, two kayaks -- and thanking God it is not my turn in either of the kayaks, I lift my fish rod from the tines of a caribou rack (lashed there in mid-canoe to the duffel) and send a line flying toward a wall of bedrock by the edge of the stream. A grayling comes up and, after some hesitation, takes the lure and runs with it for a time. I disengage the lure and let the grayling go, being mindful not to wipe my hands on my shirt. Several days in use, the shirt is approaching filthy, but here among grizzly bears I would prefer to stink of humanity than of fish.
Paddling again, we move down long pools separated by short white pitches, looking to see whatever might appear in the low hills, in the cottonwood, in the white and black spruce -- and in the river, too. Its bed is as distinct as if the water were not there. Everywhere, in fleets, are the oval shapes of salmon. They have moved the gravel and made redds, spawning craters, feet in diameter. They ignore the boats, but at times, and without apparent reason, they turn and shoot downriver, as if they have felt panic and have lost their resolve to get on with their loving and their dying. Some, already dead, lie whitening, grotesque, on the bottom, their bodies disassembling in the current. In a short time, not much will be left but the hooking jaws. Through the surface, meanwhile, the living salmon broach, freshen -- make long, dolphinesque flights through the air -- then fall to slap the water, to resume formation in the river, noses north, into the current. Looking over the side of the canoe is like staring down into a sky full of zeppelins.
A cloud, all black and silver, crosses the sun. I put on a wool shirt. In Alaska, where waters flow in many places without the questionable benefit of names, there are nineteen streams called Salmon -- thirteen Salmon Creeks, six Salmon Rivers -- of which this one, the Salmon River of the Brooks Range, is the most northern, its watershed wholly above the Arctic Circle. Rising in treeless alpine tundra, it falls south into the fringes of the boreal forest, the taiga, the upper limit of the Great North Woods. Tree lines tend to be digital here, fingering into protected valleys. Plants and animals are living on margin, in cycles that are always vulnerable to change. It is five o'clock in the afternoon. The cloud, moving on, reveals the sun again, and I take off the wool shirt. The sun has been up fourteen hours, and has hours to go before it sets. It seems to be rolling slowly down a slightly inclined plane. A tributary, the Kitlik, comes in from the northwest. It has formed with the Salmon River a raised, flat sand-and-gravel mesopotamia -- a good enough campsite, and, as a glance can tell, a fishing site to exaggerate the requirements of dinner.