I live on a boat in Juneau. As I write this, the ship’s radio is muttering the weather forecast for the next three days. Outside, a cold wind pries at the windows and whispers down the stovepipe. It is December, a few days before the winter solstice, and a thin skim of green-and-black ice covers the surface of the harbor. It has been snowing for several days, and the droning voice on the radio warns of an impending gale that will bring strong winds, warmer air, and more rain.
Reading more, and his other works, I am struck by the enormous role weather plays in Alaskan life and Schooler’s writing. Luckily, he’s eloquent. Here’s his record of winter, 2006-2007.
Winter just kept growing harder. Cold air flowing down from the glaciers pooled in the cove, and the temperature plummeted, falling so low that sawdust froze into a fist-sized knot around the spindle of the table saw, preventing me from raising or lowering the blade. Storm after storm sailed in from the gulf, until by Christmas nearly twenty feet of snow had fallen. It was the worst winter in Juneau’s recorded history, and by January the land had begun to starve. Deer, driven from the forests, died by the dozen on the beaches. A hungry wolf took my neighbor’s dog.
At that time, Schooler was struggling — building a home by hand to shelter a marriage he worried was falling apart. He caught a glimpse of himself in a shop window and wondered who the old coot looking out at him might be. To find out, he set off on a solo trip across a remote piece of the Alaskan coast. He recounts that journey — into the wilderness and the human heart — in his memoir Walking Home.
Schooler’s life became tied to Alaska when he was a teenager, when his family moved there from West Texas. His dad was chasing the oil boom. One January he put the family’s belongings in a reconfigured oil field truck and drove north. The trip to took a month and brought Schooler into a brand new world. Later, scoliosis set him apart from other teenagers. His internal retreat drew him to the woods.
In addition to chronicling his personal experiences in the wilderness, Schooler wrote a fascinating history of a nearly forgotten, Civil War battle that happened in Alaskan waters three months after the South’s official surrender. The Confederate warship Shenandoah sank two dozen New England whalers working the Pacific, and the course of history changed.
Last year Schooler published his first novel, Heartbroke Bay, set in goldrush Alaska. He is also an award-winning photographer and still sometimes works as a wilderness guide.
Have you spent any time in Alaska? Have you read any of Schooler’s work? What books about people’s interactions with the wild stick with you?