Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban


This 1999 book came onto my radar around the time of our trip to Alaska in August. As fine a book as it is, it's just as well I didn't rush to read it before the trip as it only glances upon Alaska. It is about the boats, the water, the 1792 exploration of the area, the death of a parent, the end of a relationship, and very little of that occurs in Alaska. Raban says

I had a boat, most of a spring and summer, a cargo of books, and the kind of dream of self-enrichment that spurs everyone who sails north from Seattle. Forget the herring and the salmon: I meant to go fishing for reflections, and come back with a glittering haul. Other people's reflections, as I thought then. I wasn't prepared for the catch I eventually made.

One of his reflections I liked came shortly after leaving Ballard Locks in Seattle. It turns out that the bottom falls away dramatically, so he was quickly in 600 hundred feet of water. To reach that depth from the New York harbor, you would have to travel 100 miles of ocean. The implication is that the suburban life is lived on the edge of the abyss. Here, he says,

The giant octopus searchs the silt for prey with arms fifteen feet long. It has huge bedroom eyes, the great domed brainpan of a comicbook Martian, and a pert little parrot beak with a poisonous bite; an unfussy carnivore, it would polish off a human cadaver in no time at all….If I lived in that Richmond Beach bungalow, I'd keep a close eye on the dog.

As he notes, seeing a hunk of bloated tentacle washed up might make you less dismissive of a Tlingit story of an octopus that destroyed a fishing village near Wrangell, Alaska.

He also reminds us that areas where trees have been replanted are not "wilderness." 

Having come from a country logged out completely by the mid-sixteenth century, I realized I'd been living under a considerable misapprehension myself. By the new standards I was trying to master, England had no nature at all….The countryside I had mistaken for nature was in fact so managed and cultived as to amount to nothing more than a sprawling allotment or pea-patch.

In Ketchikan he heads, unwisely, as it turns out, for the Potlatch Bar. While waiting to order, he listened to the man next to him telling a friend about buying a truck. 

Swapping the word "truck" for "fuck," and vice versa, the story went roughly as follows: He'd got the trucking fuck from a truck way the truck up a trucking mountain; but the trucking transmission was trucked–he'd put the trucker in trucking third trucking gear, and truck!…he'd trucking gone back to trucking kill that mothertrucker for trucking with him. Etcetera.

Later he says the bartender finally noticed him: "I got a trucking beer out of her, drank the trucker, and got the truck out of the trucking place. This was, after all, trucking Alaska."

I could go on plucking out interesting quotes, but I should stop now. This gives you a taste of the book and will serve to remind me of a few of the bits I especially liked. I must say that at a few points I wearied of the boat business, as there occasionally were paragraphs with few words I could define. But my advice is to soldier on; the whole is truly worth it. I read his 2003 novel Waxwings and was favorably impressed.

Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau, Vintage, 1999, 448 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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