Over the past week, your faithful book critic has paddled through more than 500 pages of words about journeys along the inland waters of the Northern Pacific coast.
Erin McKittrick’s book, “Mud Flats and Fish Camps,” details a trek she and her young family undertook by pack raft and on foot around 800 miles of Alaska’s Cook Inlet.
In another book, “Paddling with Spirits,” Irene Skyriver marks her 40th birthday by launching on a solo kayak journey that follows the water routes her coastal ancestors plied from Alaska to the San Juan Islands.
Let’s begin with McKittrick. This is not the first time the Seattle-born transplant to Alaska has tackled epic journeys and written about them. But in this age of push-button convenience and screen-mediated lifestyles, how remarkable it is to follow her young family’s four-month immersive trek along the saltwater fringes of big wilderness.
McKittrick, her husband and their 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter take to this life like otters to mudslides — and is there ever a lot of mud! At one point her son gleefully yells, “Our goal is to get more muddy!” He and his sister take “immersive adventure” literally.
The author’s ability to describe mud in a hundred different ways is noteworthy, but where she really excels is in examining the interface between human activity and Alaskan geography. The state’s biggest city, Anchorage, is situated on Cook Inlet. So are seasonal fish camps, offshore oil platforms and a whole lot of wilderness.
McKittrick combines present-day observations with reflections on the records of earlier explorers and settlers who came to this cold saltwater coastline of seemingly endless bays and estuaries and inlets. She asks of everyone they meet along the way what they think the future holds for this place.
At the beginning of the 21st century, McKittrick’s family is still able to pursue an adventurous life away from highways and shopping plazas, if not entirely off the grid. But readers will detect the author’s underlying concern that Alaska’s wilderness is as vulnerable as it is vast.
In “Paddling with Spirits,” Irene Skyriver may adopt a similar mode of travel, but her journey is more about connecting spiritually with the places her forebears came from than about what will become of those places in the future.
In contrast to McKittrick’s careful preparations, Skyriver approaches her quest by mailing her itinerary to a psychic for guidance. This free-spirited, “fringe of the fringe” style — the author never wears her lifejacket — guarantees that surprises will crop up along the way.
Her travel agenda may seem disconcertingly spontaneous, but Skyriver’s intentionality becomes clear in the way she weaves the stories of her ancestors into the landscapes and waterways she passes through. Anecdotes passed down through the generations in her family, richly recreated, take up the bulk of the book and are bracketed by the author’s breezy contemporary travelogue.
“Paddling with Spirits” is set to be published Friday, Nov. 10.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.