Book Review: Arctic Traverse

Arctic Traverse, by Michael Engelhard; Mountaineers Books, Seattle, 2024


What makes a travelogue a great read? In my opinion, it uses the trip’s events as a springboard for reflection and exploration and asks important questions about our impact on the landscape and what we can do to minimize it. The basic story of writer Michael Engelhard’s book, Arctic Traverse, is a summer backpacking and paddling trip across the Brooks Range in Alaska. He recounts the details of his daily hikes or paddles while following Thoreau’s advice to “ruminate while walking.”  Each day’s events trigger explorations of subjects that arise from his reflections along the way, and in the process of detailing his trek, he often goes off on a delightful tangent.

As expected, the area’s human history is colorful, and the author introduces us to many of these important individuals. We learn about Olaus and Mardy Murie, Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold, and other well-known and lesser-known people who came into the region and worked to preserve it, both Indigenous and white Americans. Engelhard’s knowledge of the natural history of the range is extensive. We learn about climate and its change, geology, botany, zoology, entomology, and how the human presence in the area has impacted them all.

Engelhard concludes his book with reflections on the future of the area and the effects humans have had on it. “If we can’t save the land, it cannot save us. But apart from our requirements, wild landscapes and creatures exist with autonomy and their own right to thrive. We need an ethic reflective of this reality.”  He takes comfort in noting that “in the long, geological view, our affluence and profligacy, our trials and technocrats’ triumphs shall count for nothing.”  Although harsh (yet consoling), these final words and the stories and knowledge the author has shared remain with us long after finishing the book.

Cathy Grinstead was born and raised in northern California, where she spent her summers backpacking in the Sierra. In 2018 she retired from veterinary practice, and moved to Bellingham, WA to explore a different part of the world. She enjoys hiking, outrigger paddling, and snow sports, and loves all that Bellingham has to offer!

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