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Walter R. Borneman
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How does this book differ from other books on Alaska? Everyone always asks me about James Michener's novel, Alaska. I tell them that the whole sweep of the true story is just as entertaining and frequently more profound than Michener's fiction. This is the first narrative history of Alaska from earliest inhabitants to contemporary challenges. It includes the frequently overlooked period of Alaska history between the world wars and a balanced perspective on conservation versus natural resource development issues right up to the current debate over drilling in ANWR.
How much time have you spent in Alaska? I have made 10 trips to Alaska over the last eight years. Alaska is a big state and I certainly haven't been everywhere, but among my favorite experiences were following the routes to the Klondike by backpacking the length of the Chilkoot Trail and making a two-week crossing of the Brooks Range. I also will always remember watching my son pull in his first halibut off Kodiak Island.
What are the major themes of the book? Alaska's history is filled with stories of new land, new people, new riches -- and ever-present competing views over their use. Major themes that run throughout the book include AlaskaNatives, exploration and mountaineering, mining rushes, railroads and aviation, military operations during both World War II and the Cold War, and conservation versus development conflicts, including the current debate over oil drilling in ANWR.
Who is the most interesting character you came across? That's a tough question because Alaska is filled with so many, many interesting characters. Among my favorites would have to a Norwegian woman named Inga Kolloen, who kept a diary of her exploits as a single woman crossing the Chilkoot Pass during the gold rush; an early bush pilot named Harold Gillam, who earned the rather interesting nickname "Thrill'em, Spill'em, but never Kill'em Gillam," and the early mountaineers who made attempts to climb both Denali and Mount St. Elias.
Now you just said Denali; but a lot of people still call it Mount McKinley. Which is it? Well, of course, the Athabaskans originally called it "Denali," meaning "the High One." The name of Mount McKinley National Park was changed to Denali National Park in 1980, but the U.S. Board of Geographic Names still lists the mountain officially as "Mount McKinley." Just about everyone in Alaska, however, now calls it Denali.
How many people visit Alaska each year? The Alaska Travel Industry Association estimates the 2001 visitation at 1.6 million. About one-third of that number visited via cruise ships. (Of these visitors, 94% are from the United States and Canada; 6% from overseas, with Japan, Australia, and Great Britain the top three.)
What is the biggest challenge facing Alaska today? Alaska's current challenge is the same that is has always been: What are we going to development? Whatare we going to preserve as it is? It's the same question that was first asked when Russian fur traders depleted the Aleutians of fur seals and sea otters three centuries ago. And if one reads the entire history of Alaska, I think that people on both sides of the issue will find that there are no easy answers, no black and white solutions.
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