What the River Knows: Essays from the Heart of Alaska
By: Michael Engelhard
ISBN: 978-0-88839-778-2 [Trade Paperback]
ISBN: 978-0-88839-779-9 [eBook]
Binding: Trade Paper
Size: 6" X 9"
Publication Date: 2024
Edward Abbey, who never much liked Alaska, called it “our biggest, buggiest, boggiest state.” To others, it has been a cure for despair. When Michael Engelhard moved to Fairbanks more than three decades ago, he was a cheechako, a subarctic tenderfoot. Gathering skills and experiences the hard way, he attained “Sourdough” status while realizing there would always be more to learn, see, and do in the land of midnight sun and auroras.
En route, Engelhard suffered frostbite, stubborn yaks, grizzly charges, trophy hunters, cold-water immersion, heartbreak, incontinent raptors, one pesky squirrel, and honeymooners from abroad. He tried to rescue a raven and explored Arctic dunes and a glacier’s blue heart, and his own as he mingled with caribou on their epic journeys.
Michael Engelhard worked for 25 years as an outdoor instructor and wilderness guide in Alaska and the Canyon Country. He received a Master’s degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where he also taught very briefly—indoor classrooms just weren’t his thing.
He is the recipient of a Rasmuson Individual Artist Award, a Foreword INDIES and Independent Publisher Book Award, and three Alaska Press Club Awards. His books include Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon; his account of a solo trip from the Canada border to the Bering Sea, Arctic Traverse: A Thousand-Mile Summer of Trekking the Brooks Range; and No Walk in the Park: Maunderings and Meanderings of a Canyon Guide.
A Luddite fence sitter and migrant by training and inclination, he moves wherever his needs are met best, just like the people and critters he so admires.
“Engelhard not only heeds the call of the wild, but also provides eloquent descriptions of its ever-diminishing decibel level."
— Lawrence Millman, author of The Last Speaker of Bear
“A compelling account of life on the frozen edge, serving as a literary conduit between North and South."
— Gloria Dickie, author of Eight Bears
“Engelhard’s self-deprecating northern odyssey takes him from the slopes of Denali, to the pages of a magazine peddling lonely Alaskan men. He guides snobby bear hunters on Kodiak Island, negotiates class IV rapids, goes head to head with thieving squirrels—and loses. Along the way he pokes holes in the myth of the stoic Alaska Man with humor and authenticity."
— Andy Hall, author of Denali’s Howl
“Bound to become a new classic of the outdoors. Sure to be cherished by all who love Alaska and who long for wilderness.”
— Bill Streever, bestselling author of Cold
“Engelhard runs rapids and ascends Arctic peaks not in pursuit of accomplishment, but, rather, perspective—on human folly, amid nature’s majesty in the Great North.”
— Ben McGrath, author of Riverman
“The verve, humor, sympathy, and passion of Engelhard’s writing help us annihilate the distance separating us from the Alaskan wild.”
— Christopher Norment, author of Return to Warden’s Grove
“Evocative, erudite, and immersive.”
— Nancy Campbell, author of The Library of Ice
“Takes the reader through adventures in the wild and of the heart with an engaging combination of wit and expertise.”
— Lara Messersmith-Glavin, author of Spirit Things
“Engelhard manages something rarely even attempted in outdoor literature: stories focused not on the death-defying prowess of the adventurer, but on the wild glory of place.”
— Erin McKittrick, author of A Long Trek Home
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All writers are guides, in a way, but few professional wilderness guides also happen to be gifted writers. Michael Engelhard guided for decades in both Alaska and the Grand Canyon country. WHAT THE RIVER KNOWS: ESSAYS FROM THE HEART OF ALASKA pulls together pieces originally published in a dozen different journals and offers new work as well. An “autobiographical volume of essays covering three decades,” the book serves as a retrospective. In the first chapter we learn how Engelhard became a guide and why he stayed with it. We soon get a sense of Engelhard’s personality quirks and his preoccupations, his prickly honesty and humor. In short, WHAT THE RIVER KNOWS makes an excellent introduction to Michael Engelhard’s considerable body of writing.
In “Tough Times on Denali,” one of the book’s memorable essays, we vicariously climb Denali with our guide—I assure you it’s a thrill—but we also get a fascinating look into the subculture of Denali climbers. You may be a falconry fan or a winter bicycling nut or a natural hot springs connoisseur, but in any case you’ll find a favorite in this wide-ranging collection. Engelhard weaves together natural history and human history, nature and culture, biology and anthropology, and shares with us his discoveries, his eureka moments, and his caring for the places and people he’s known.
In “Marginalia,” an essay on maps, we hear not only about Engelhard’s “cartographic obsession” and his solo, two-month trek through the Brooks Range, but also how Indigenous travelers and hunters navigated without paper maps. In “Berry-Pickers and Earthmovers,” Engelhard progresses from the pleasures and etiquette of picking wild berries with his wife, Melissa, to a consideration of the insanity of madcap mining development and reckless militarization. In “The Bounty of the Bone Pile,” we learn about polar bears and the impact of climate change on their habitat while also getting a glimpse of polar bear tourism and its impact on Inupiaq culture. Engelhard’s characteristic mode, in all of these essays, is to move outward from the personal to the social and to approach his subject from different cultural and scientific angles.
Engelhard is a natural essayist. Fittingly, as a former river guide, he compares the essay, “a purling, fluid, highly excursive form,” to a river. His thoughts tumble forth and divide and merge again. Occasionally the sentences jar and dislocate the reader, and you feel like tapping your guide on the shoulder and asking him to slow down or repeat what he just said. The excitement reflects Engelhard’s mind as it relentlessly moves on. Thought itself becomes the exploration, and the capturing of thought in words the adventure.
The real adventure here—the ascent of Denali, the run-in with a grizzly bear, the excursions to fascinating places that most of us will never get to—the adventure makes for marvelous reading, but it never comes at the expense of an equally real tenderness. In “Tibet in the Talkeetnas,” the yaks are more than pack animals, they are the worthy subject of Engelhard’s close and respectful observation, the heart of his essay. His writing about nature, about landscape and wildlife, is always convincing, rooted in the senses, and this is what I like most about it. Engelhard’s love for Alaska beams from the pages.