"Now, I have no choice but to put the knowledge I have acquired into action."
Kristina Ahlnäs embarks on a challenging new life when she leaves Finland and Sweden to work as a marine biologist at the University of Alaska in June 1969. She previously studied at the University of Helsinki and on a Fulbright scholarship at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego. She then worked at the Finnish Institute of Marine Research, at the University of Washington in Seattle, and at the Royal Fishery Board in Sweden. Despite the promise of a five-year contract and a raise in salary in Sweden, the author is lured by her well-honed sense of adventure to Alaska, the new forty-ninth state established just a decade before despite its sale by Russia to the US in 1867.
This memoir focuses upon episodes from thirty-three of Ahlnäs' fifty years in Alaska, notably covering her personal life and wilderness adventures. She becomes dissatisfied with the rental homes she lives in, particularly the plunbing in the duplex trailer, which is quite often frozen in Alaska’s sub-zero winter temperatures. This is further complicated by the owners’ unresponsiveness to many repair issues. When she’s not grappling with survival in a home not quite up to standards for the frigid climate, she spends her time walking or skiing to her jobs at the Institute of Marine Science (IMS) and the Geophysical Institute (GI) on the West Ridge of the University of Alaska.
The author’s eventual property purchase solves the landlord issues as well as the lack of housing caused by an influx of oil pipeline workers. The construction on her property evolves into a major adventure in itself as she spends a decade completing the full project, beginning with an elevated log cache meant to store food in the Alaskan wilderness safely. The forty-nine-square foot cache becomes her home as she continues her work at university headquarters in Fairbanks while also touring Alaska periodically at a time when air or sea travel was the primary mode of long-distance travel between Alaska’s small cities and settlements and for recreational excursions into wilderness areas. She also participated in scientific expeditions at sea, sponsored by the University of Alaska.
It goes almost without saying that this is an exciting, colorful, and unconventional life for a young woman born in 1937, who originally had to serve as a “mess girl”—a waitress and kitchen help—aboard a Finnish research vessel in the summer of 1959 when she was a young student at the University of Helsinki because only service positions were open for females despite her status as a student in geophysics and oceanography. The ongoing construction of her home in the woods near Fairbanks was often a community affair, with coworkers and friends giving advice and pitching in on labor.
Ahlnäs' impressive memory and incredible devotion to detail shine throughout this memoir, whether she’s describing the construction of her cabin and cache, visiting Alaskan cultural events, or traveling on expeditions organized by her university department. The prose lapses very occasionally into some uneven writing. Yet the prose is arguably at its best in Ahlnäs’ vibrant and descriptive writing, whether she’s on the ground, in the air, or at sea in Alaska’s cold, rugged, and unforgiving environments. For example, on a trip to treeless, tundra-covered Pribilof Island in 1974, she writes, “I find a spot where I can lie on the lupine-decorated, lush blue-green carpet and stretch over the edge to gaze down on a thick-billed murre hatching a turquoise colored pear-shaped egg on a dangerously narrow cliff ledge…”
The author also writes with flair when covering Alaskan history or offering scientific data related to her job and her research papers, and her work experiences provide much educational material to accompany the adventurous aspects of her narrative. Her readers will practically feel Alaska’s year-round cold, see the Northern lights, midnight sun, and the gathering of grizzly bears, seals, seabirds, and other creatures in their respective environments near the Arctic Circle, and taste and smell the exotic dishes that both indigenous and immigrant cooks prepare from Alaska’s exotic flora and fauna. This memoir promises to be a fascinating read for those who have already experienced Alaska and a vivid experience of a life well-lived for armchair travelers seeking a safe literary expedition.
-Kate Robinson, US Review of Books