Life along the river is a tad too quiet for the land’s good

Dan O’Neill, author of the well-received The Firecracker Boys, has captured another piece of Alaskan history with his Land Gone Lonesome: An…

Dan O’Neill, author of the well-received The Firecracker Boys, has captured another piece of Alaskan history with his Land Gone Lonesome: An Inland Voyage along the Yukon River.

O’Neill revisits the same area John McPhee wrote about 30 years ago in his classic Coming Into the Country, which presented a sympathetic portrait of the young men and women drawn to the Eagle area in the 1970s.

O’Neill provides a ‘Where are they now?’ look at many of the adventuresome young people featured in McPhee’s book.

Where they are now, he finds, is not along the Yukon River.

Land Gone Lonesome differs from the earlier book in that it expands its area of focus to include the section of the river from Dawson to the Canada-US border.

On the Canadian side, O’Neill focuses on current river residents, but once he enters Alaska, he turns his attention to people who lived along the river in the 1970s.

Land Gone Lonesome opens with a lengthy and unflattering portrait of Dawson City, but after this false start, the story gets underway when the author shoves off in his canoe, headed for Circle.

He serves as a knowledgeable tour guide to the area, full of interesting anecdotes and historical trivia about the Klondike and Fortymile River gold rushes.

He stops often to explore long-abandoned homesteads and other historic sites and to talk to people he encounters along the way.

Although he sees his share of bears and eagles, O’Neill’s trip is a quiet one that allows him plenty of time to reflect on the river’s past.

Once bustling with gold seekers and later populated, if sparsely, by the back-to-the-landers of the ‘70s, the area is mostly empty now.

Quoting playwright J.M Synge’s summation of l9th-century Ireland, O’Neill calls the upper Yukon a country “gone lonesome.”

He finds that most of the idealistic young Alaskans McPhee wrote about have returned to city life or moved on to other adventures. He discovers, as well, that their departure was not always entirely voluntary.

The virtual exodus of river people in the 1970s and ‘80s, O’Neill argues, is largely the result of the establishment of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve just north of Eagle.

Official park policy places a priority on subsistence use of the park, but it appears that regulations put in place to protect that unique lifestyle have just about killed it.

Upriver, residents along the Canadian section of the river explained to the author that they feel similarly stymied by restrictive regulations regarding fishing, trapping and land-ownership rights.

O’Neill’s strength as a historian is in recording people’s stories and providing an appropriate historical context for them.

He lets the river residents speak for themselves, and their stories are interesting and often touching.

However, the passages about individual people are quite lengthy, and he has a hard time maintaining the flow of the narrative.

Land Gone Lonesome will be most interesting to readers familiar with Coming Into the Country, but McPhee fans expecting an affectionate tribute to his 1977 classic will be disappointed.

Perhaps overeager to avoid comparison with McPhee, O’Neill distances himself from the earlier work, not even mentioning it until page 60.

However, he wishes to follow in McPhee’s footsteps as a champion of the subsistence lifestyle, calling for no less than a major change in park service regulations to allow a small number of people to live within Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

Although the idea of people living in national parks may be anathema to many readers, O’Neill makes a convincing argument that this may be just what is needed to encourage local stewardship of the land.

Whether or not readers are persuaded by his message, they will be engaged by the stories of current and past river residents and inspired by their search for something increasingly rare in today’s world: a chance to live in peace and solitude in a true wilderness – a land that perhaps has always been more than a little lonesome.

Land Gone Lonesome, by Dan O’Neill, Counterpoint Press, $32.95, cloth

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Crystal Schick/Yukon News
Calvin Delwisch poses for a photo inside his DIY sauna at Marsh Lake on Feb. 18.
Yukoners turning up the heat with unique DIY sauna builds

Do-it-yourselfers say a sauna built with salvaged materials is a great winter project

d
Wyatt’s World

Wyatt’s World for March 5, 2021.

g
Yukonomist: School competition ramps up in the Yukon

It’s common to see an upstart automaker trying to grab share from… Continue reading

The Yukon government responded to a petition calling the SCAN Act “draconian” on Feb. 19. (Yukon News file)
Yukon government accuses SCAN petitioner of mischaracterizing her eviction

A response to the Jan. 7 petition was filed to court on Feb. 19

City councillor Samson Hartland in Whitehorse on Dec. 3, 2018. Hartland has announced his plans to run for mayor in the Oct. 21 municipal election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillor sets sights on mayor’s chair

Hartland declares election plans

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Public Health Nurse Angie Bartelen at the Yukon Convention Centre Clinic in Whitehorse on March 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
State of emergency extended for another 90 days

“Now we’re in a situation where we see the finish line.”

The Yukon government says it is working towards finding a solution for Dawson area miners who may be impacted by City of Dawson plans and regulations. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Miner expresses frustration over town plan

Designation of claims changed to future planning

Team Yukon athletes wave flags at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremony in Whitehorse. The 2022 event in Wood Buffalo, Alta., has been postponed indefinitely. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)
2022 Arctic Winter Games postponed indefinitely

Wood Buffalo, Alta., Host Society committed to rescheduling at a later date

Housing construction continues in the Whistle Bend subdivision in Whitehorse on Oct. 29, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Bureau of Statistics reports rising rents for Yukoners, falling revenues for businesses

The bureau has published several reports on the rental market and businesses affected by COVID-19

Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Peter Johnston at the Yukon Forum in Whitehorse on Feb. 14, 2019. Johnston and Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn announced changes to the implementation of the Yukon First Nations Procurement Policy on March 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Third phase added to procurement policy implementation

Additional time added to prep for two provisions

Crews work to clear the South Klondike Highway after an avalanche earlier this week. (Submitted)
South Klondike Highway remains closed due to avalanches

Yukon Avalanche Association recommending backcountry recreators remain vigilant

RCMP Online Crime Reporting website in Whitehorse on March 5. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Whitehorse RCMP launch online crime reporting

Both a website and Whitehorse RCMP app are now available

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

Most Read