Two new memoirs raise bar for Alaska writing
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct a mix up between the title of Ralph Galeano's book and his former boat. The book is "Alaska Challenge" and the boat was named "American Eagle."
Good Alaska memoirs distinguish themselves in several ways: they capture a time and place in our state’s culture, they tell the truth of that culture as experienced by the author, and the prose sings with good description, vivid dialogue and a strong narrative voice.
In that respect, two recent memoirs, Ralph Galeano’s “Alaska Challenge” and Jean Aspen’s “Trusting the River” stand out in the genre. Galeano, a former Homer fisherman now living in Morriston, Fla., covers the story of Homer from 1966-1994, while Aspen’s book circles back to the Alaska Arctic, the land she’s loved since childhood, but also relates her life outside Alaska as well as in Homer, her current home.
Aspen signs her latest book, as well as her previous works, including “Arctic Daughter” and “Arctic Son,” at a book signing from 1-3 p.m. Saturday at the Homer Bookstore. Galeano does not plan a trip to Homer for a book signing, but his memoir also is available at the Homer Bookstore and at his website, www.horsemanspress.com.
Galeano, 75, started “Alaska Challenge” in 2011 while recovering from a near-fatal heart attack. Born in Miami, Fla., he first came to Alaska in 1961 after graduating from Miami Senior High School and driving up with some high school friends for an adventure. He washed cars in Anchorage, worked for a sawmill, trained to fight wildfires and tried to get into smoke jumper school. When that didn’t work out, and with winter coming, he hitchhiked back to Florida.
But the Alaska bug had caught. After serving in the U.S. Air Force and marrying his wife Sandy, in 1966 Galeano drove back with Sandy in a 1966 Ford station wagon — now buried in alders on their Fritz Creek property. He put electronic repair skills he learned in the Air Force to good use and got a job in Kenai with the Trans Alaska Telephone Company. They sent him to Homer to work at the office here.
“It was an interesting place and was smack dab in the kind of country I loved,” Galeano writes. “It was wild and wooly and had the atmosphere of being a frontier town of the old west.”
At its heart, “Alaska Challenge” could be a love song to Homer in the years when it grew from the post-earthquake town finding its feet to the modern little city it has become.
“Living in Homer was probably the best and most exciting thing in my life. It was a big thing to me,” Galeano said in a phone interview from his ranch in central Florida near the Ocala National Forest. “The reason I wrote it was mainly the bond I have with all those people in the book, the fishermen and the town people. I’d like other people to know what it used to be like.”
Galeano’s book reads like he talks, a smooth, folksy voice that feels like sitting in the cabin of a Kachemak Bay fishing boat and swapping yarns over a mug of coffee. The author of several Westerns, including “Comanche Compassion,” a novel he retitled to market as a romance, Galeano also knows how to tell a good story. The prologue is a gripper, and the first chapter stands out as the ultimate fishing thriller.
Working for a rural phone company, Galeano erased his Florida Cheechako sheen by doing good work, like the time he repaired the phone connection between Homer and Seldovia.
“I fixed the thing and Seldovia had phones again for the first time in months,” he said. “I was the absolute town hero.”
With his technical skills, Galeano began working on boat radios and radar. Pretty soon that turned into a full-time business, Sunshine Radio and Radar, and he quit the phone company. Hanging out with all those fishermen lured him into another career, commercial fishing. He started out on the Mar-Jac and moved up to the American Eagle. Galeano also pulled off the ultimate Alaska trifecta, adding bush pilot to his skills as well as cowboy.
The fishing and flying stories make up the bulk of “Alaska Challenge,” but really the focus is on the people. If you fished in Homer in the 1960s or flew small aircraft, odds are you’re in “Alaska Challenge.” Those years fishing and keeping meticulous logs helped Galeano keep track of the stories.
“Every word in there actually happened,” he said. “The really raunchy stories I couldn’t tell … I remember most of those stories like it was yesterday.”
“Trusting the River”
Aspen’s latest book fills in the background of her previous memoirs, “Arctic Daughter: A Wilderness Journey” and “Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream.” Aspen, 67, spent the first two years of her life living in a remote cabin with her parents, Constance and Harmon “Bud” Helmericks. The Helmericks individually and together wrote a bookshelf of Alaskana, including “We Live in Alaska” and Constance Helmericks’ “Down the Wild River North.”
Aspen followed that adventure on her own, when she built a cabin on the Chandalar River, Kernwood, with her husband, Tom Irons, their friend, Laurie Schacht, and their son, Luke. Out of those years on the river she wrote her own books and also made the documentary, “Arctic Son.”
“Trusting the River” came out of letters Aspen wrote to Luke after he’d grown up and was going to school. Those letters became essays that she’d also share with friends.
“In the summer I began playing around with it. It called me to put this together as a book,” Aspen said.
While readers of Arctic literature will love the Chandalar River sections, the book expands to take in Aspen’s larger life. She and Irons continue to visit Kernwood every summer, but have built a life of their own in Homer, where Aspen also works as a nurse at South Peninsula Hospital.
“It’s a crossover because it’s about my life,” she said. “In some ways, ‘Trusting the River’ follows the movie ‘Arctic Daughter,’ not in layout, but across the spectrum of my lifetime, which is what the movie is about.”
“Trusting the River” also covers another chapter in Aspen’s life: returning Kernwood to nature. Recognizing that as they age, she and Irons won’t be able to sustain a wilderness life, even for summers. For the past few years they have been unbuilding the cabins and caches on the river. They have been removing every bit of metal and other objects that won’t rot into the ground. That project also has been prompted by growth in the area, with more hunters and wilderness adventurers visiting the Chandalar.
“We know old cabins become an anathema,” she said. “They open a portal to indiscriminate use of that land that doesn’t serve the wilderness. We believe in putting the toys back when you’re done.”
1-3 p.m. Saturday, May 20
“Trusting the River”
(Epicenter Press, 2017, paperback, $24.95)
by Ralph Galeano
(America Star Books, Frederick, Md., 2017, paperback, $27.95)