Publishers Weekly calls C.B. Bernard’s “Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now” a travel book, and one of this year’s top 10, up there with new books by Paul Theroux and Dave Eggers. National Geographic named it one of the Best Travel Books of Spring, with Amy Alipio saying “what binds these books together is a compelling tale and a great sense of place.”
Bernard, who wrote as Chris Bernard in his two years from July 2002 to July 2004 as a reporter and managing editor at the Homer News, said it could go in the “travel, memoir, nature writing, outdoors, creative nonfiction” section of a bookstore, if such a thing existed.
“Parts of it are journalism, parts of it are memoir, parts of it are historical,” Bernard said in a phone interview from his home in Portland, Ore. “That makes it hard to explain to people.”
In a way, the book is a buddy story of two Alaskans separated by a century.
That’s how author Dan Coyle thought of the book when Bernard described his work in progress to him. “Chasing Alaska” looks at the state seen over time by the author and Joe Bernard, Chris Bernard’s second-
cousin thrice removed. Joe and Peter Bernard, Chris’ great-grandfather, were first cousins. Joe Bernard came into the country exactly a century before Chris arrived in July 1999 to work at the Sitka Sentinel.
Buddy story might be how “Chasing Alaska” started, but that’s not what it became, Bernard said.
“That’s not where I landed,” he said. “This wasn’t just a book about Joe’s Alaska. I wanted to show a book about Alaska in general and Joe’s path through it. I also wanted to plot my course on the map, and also connect the dots.”
One connection came in Sitka, where Joe Bernard lived out his last years and Chris Bernard started his Alaska sojourn. Before Bernard moved north from Massachusetts, his father heard from a relative that another Bernard had gone to Alaska in the late 19th century —two Bernards, it turned out, Joe and his uncle Pierre, known as Peter.
In Sitka, Chris Bernard learned that Joe had moved to Sitka in 1970 to live at the Pioneer Home and died in 1972. Somewhere in the Pioneer Cemetery Joe Bernard had been buried. On Dec. 22, 2000, what would have been Joe’s 122nd birthday, Chris found Joe’s grave, “so near my house that from it I could read the numbers on my alarm clock through my bedroom window,” Bernard writes. “I’d put nearly 7,000 miles on my truck and parked it on top of my own family.”
The heart of “Chasing Alaska” covers much of Joe Bernard’s adventures: gold mining with Peter Bernard in Nome, and sailing and trading on the arctic coast in his ship, The Teddy Bear. Bernard got a copy of Joe Bernard’s journals, all 1,000 pages, from the historian Claus Naske.
“While I was learning to be an Alaskan, for lack of a better way to put it, I had Joe’s journals from 30 years of arctic exploration,” Bernard said. “I used to anchor up my own boat and read his journals about him anchoring up his schooner.”
In his Alaska experience Bernard used those journals to guide him, and in “Chasing Alaska” Capt. Bernard’s journals are a guide to the book for the reader. Intensely first-person, in “Chasing Alaska” Bernard said he saw himself as a stand-in for the reader.
“I wanted my story to put the reader here in Alaska,” he said. “In order to do that effectively, I needed to be a reliable narrator.”
Capt. Joe Bernard is the Alaskan many modern Alaskans aspire to be: tough, independent and able to survive being iced in for a winter in the arctic.
“He was a natural outdroorsman. He was one of those hunting and fishing types who inherently seems to live among nature in a way I do not, much as I try at it,” Bernard said. “Joe became an Alaskan the way Ted Williams became a baseball player. I did not.”
“Chasing Alaska” could be only about Capt. Joe Bernard, but Bernard resisted that. That story still needs to be told.
“I’m not the one to write it,” Bernard said. “Maybe this will start the conversation. Maybe an arctic scholar will pick up where I left off and write the scholarly book that will go on the shelf next to (Vilhjalmur) Steffanson and (Diamond) Jenness,” he said, referring to two better known arctic explorers and contemporaries of Joe Bernard.
Part of the book follows Chris Bernard’s time in Alaska, particularly in Sitka, in scenes such as hunting deer. The book took 14 years to write, Bernard said, much of it reading Joe’s journals and other accounts of him. After he got a contract in 2010 from Lyons Press, Bernard researched Joe’s life more intensely.
The book also includes a few chapters based on a more recent trip Bernard took back to Alaska. One chapter set in Homer follows Bernard on a fly-along in an air taxi with Alaska State Trooper Rich Chambers to Nanwalek, where Chambers investigates a sexual assault. In another chapter Bernard flies around with Sgt. Marc Cloward, a wildlife trooper based in Cordova.
“I spent some time with the troopers, the wildlife troopers, because I was fascinated with how you enforce the law in a place that’s geographically and demographically diverse,” Bernard said.
After his arctic years, Joe Bernard wound up in Cordova in his trusty Teddy Bear. He lived there 30 years, working as a commercial fisherman and the harbor master, until retiring to the Sitka Pioneer Home. Also in Cordova, Bernard visits with Joe Bernard’s nephews, Bill and Bob Bernard, and even finds the remnants of The Teddy Bear.
As with any book about Alaska, “Chasing Alaska” offers only a glimpse of the state.
“There are whole swaths of the state that I don’t even touch on and that I know nothing about,” Bernard said. “You could visit a different place every day of the year for years and not touch on it all.”
At its heart, “Chasing Alaska” becomes a story not only of Alaska’s land, history and wildlife. It becomes a story about its people.
“I wanted this story to be something more narrative, not just Joe’s character, but the characters I met throughout Alaska and the people he met throughout Alaska,” Bernard said.
To find that Alaska, Bernard had to leave it.
“I wanted to write about the character of Alaska itself, and I needed to be away from Alaska to know what that meant to me in the long term: a sense of scale, a sense of home.”
It’s a sense Bernard admits he didn’t find in Alaska.
“Throughout the book I struggled to find a place as strongly connected as Joe did,” he said. “Which is not to say I didn’t love it there. I loved it there. I miss it every day.”
That poignancy comes through in Bernard’s book.
“Maybe I’m not meant to live and love a place wholly, but to keep looking for new places to explore in my own way. Or maybe Alaska ruined me for anywhere else,” he writes. “Alaska makes everything ordinary impossible to bear.”