Monday, April 15, 2013

North of the sun: a memoir of the Alaskan wilderness by Fred Hatfield

This is a straightforward book with not much introspection, but told with enough detail so you can easily visualize his adventures.  Hatfield wrote this book some years back, in 1990.  (He was in his 80’s then.)  He tells how he left his home state of Maine as a young man in 1933 and took the bus out to Seattle, then went by ship up to the Alaskan wilderness, to Seward.  He settled in right away, with a storekeeper giving him a place to stay and some groceries before he had even found work. 

He had learned how to hunt and fish from growing up in Maine, and eventually makes his way from the town out to the wilderness.  The lake he lives on, Togiak Lake, is now part of a national park, but in those days the only way to get there was by bush plane.  Hatfield is matter of fact and resourceful, but in his adventures of panning for gold and fur trapping, he gets in some unexpected tight spots.  He does make it through these challenges - sometimes on his own, sometimes with the help of settlers or native people.  Hatfield gives us an interesting picture of how the settlers mingled with the natives.  Some settlers treated them badly and refused them service in stores and restaurants, but others made friends with them and respected their way of life. 

Hatfield doesn’t say much about how he was feeling in those many days spent alone in a cabin built by himself, with no one for company.  He breaks up his time by spending summers  in the small town of Dillingham, and works on the salmon boats there.  He meets a young nurse while getting his appendix removed.  They get married and she goes with him back to the wilderness, where they have three children.  Finally when the children start getting older, Fred moves his family back to civilization – in this case, the town of Homer, Alaska, where he ends up working for the power company.

What keeps your interest is that this is essentially a firsthand account of what real survival is.  It’s wonderful how he figures out what to do and also keeps learning through experience. The first winter he hurts his leg and has to try walking back to civilization. One night in his journey, he just tunnels into the snow and sleeps, hearing the wolves hunting caribou in the night. Hatfield’s relationship with his wife is also worth noting.  When he tells her that it’s time to move to town, she just smiles and says that she knew when the time was right he would decide.  Not many couples have that kind of trust, or know how to wait out each other’s decisions. 

In the end, he does open up more about what his life meant to him, and what he found out there.  What was the most precious is the time he spent with his wife - when they were appreciating the stars, the quiet, and the wonder of the wildlife there together.  There are a lot of good things to contemplate from this book, and I recommend it not only to the nature enthusiast, but also for those interested in learning what others have found in their search for peace and fulfillment. 

To see the catalog entry click here.

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