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