Saint Michael's College Magazine

In Alaska, a Connection Deeper Than Place

Chris Bernard drove nearly 7,000 miles to Alaska, only to discover an unexpected ancestral connection to the Last Frontier. - by Chris Bernard '93

My family is a knot tied loosely around the Merrimack River in Massachusetts, five generations living within driving distance of Sunday dinner. I'm the exception, a continent between me and my nearest relative. I've always lived away. Since college I've moved more than 20 times, five of them cross-country, and I've lived in eight states. I've loved many of the places I've lived, but none ever felt like home.

In July 1999, I lashed my canoe to the roof of my truck and pointed the bow upstream, north and west, toward Sitka, Alaska, an Inside Passage afterthought where the Tongass National Forest collides with the Pacific. Sitka is geographic hyperbole. Mountains rise like the island's spine from an ice field along its back. Granite ledges point to the sky, sharpened by time, peaks snowbound above a temperate rainforest so lush it appears carpeted. Rocky beaches hem the shore, and relentless rainfall gives everything the blurry focus of watercolor on paper.

A few weeks after I arrived, my dad ran into a shirttail cousin back east who told him a French Canadian relation of ours, Captain Joe Bernard, had gone to Alaska a century earlier. It was the first we'd heard of him, and no one in the family seemed to know anything more.

Researching his life, I learned he'd gone to Nome to join his uncle Peter Bernard in 1901; Pete had left Prince Edward Island when the Yukon Territory coughed up gold four years earlier, and then chased the next gold rush west. Failing as prospectors, they'd turned to the sea to seek an entirely different kind of treasure as explorers and traders in the still-unmapped Arctic.

Pete died tragically in 1916. Joe sailed the north for another decade in his schooner Teddy Bear, repeatedly shipwrecked, frozen in, and presumed lost at sea; I even found notices of his death in the New York Times archives, premature by half a century.

One man devoted his life to exploring the Arctic, the other gave his—and yet history had all but forgotten them. I began to find areas where Joe's life intersected with my own. I'd ended up in Sitka by chance when the local newspaper made the better of two job offers—the other in Nome. I learned that Joe had moved there in 1970. When he died two years later, the state buried him in a cemetery reserved for "pioneers," sprawling, neglected acres stretched like a sleeping dog at the heels of a forested mountain. That cemetery abutted the house I'd rented.

After work each night I walked the rows of flat, granite grave markers with a flashlight, scraping away moss and mud until I found him. It was December 23, 2000, what would have been his 122nd birthday, his grave so near my house that from it I could read the numbers on my alarm clock through my bedroom window.

I'd put nearly 7,000 miles on my truck driving to Alaska and parked it on top of my own family.

Joe kept detailed journals of his voyages, and once I got hold of them, they became the guide for my own explorations of the woods and waters of Southeast Alaska. I bought an old boat, and anchored it beneath the northern lights—like Joe a century before me—to read his accounts of crisscrossing the hostile winter landscape by ship and by dog sled, living off his rifle and traps.

Though I was accumulating adventures of my own, they paled beside the ones Joe wrote about. Just months into his maiden voyage, his schooner locked in ice, Joe's only crewmate froze to death, stranding him alone in the Arctic. During a brutally lean period on his second expedition, frozen for 25 months in a distant bay, he ate his way to the bottom of two hundred-gallon barrels of rotten seal meat—and ate things far worse, too. He performed emergency medical surgeries on ailing Inuit, survived bouts with tuberculosis, scurvy, and starvation, and raised polar bears as pets.

In the Teddy Bear, he covered more water miles in the Arctic than anyone before him, and amassed an enormous and valuable collection of native artifacts—and then gave them all away.

As a young writer, I wanted to leave my mark on the world. I discovered that Joe had done literally just that—a number of landmarks across the Arctic were named for him, along with a now-extinct species of wolf.

How could I compete with that?

What does it mean to love the land so thoroughly that it informs every aspect of your life, yielding not just the food you eat but the furs and hides you wear, the wood to build your boat and cabin and to burn for warmth? What does it mean to be so dependent upon the weather and seasons, the animal migrations, the ice pack and tides, to be so connected to a place that you give your life to it?

Time and again, Joe returned to the Arctic, his connection to the land and its people growing stronger with each visit.

Long after leaving Alaska, I continued my research, which involved a lot of triangulation— tracking Joe through the diaries, books, and correspondence of his contemporaries—but when it came time to write about his life, I wanted context. As breathtaking as Alaska is, the most interesting part of any place is its people.

Over three decades in the Arctic, my ancestor Joe endured extreme weather and horrific conditions. He made everyday tasks of extraordinary acts of survival.

And so, seven years after moving away, I went back. I flew into a remote Native village with an Alaska State Trooper, and flew over the wilderness with an Alaska Wildlife Trooper to learn about enforcing the law in a state so geographically and demographically diverse. I worked with oyster farmers in Kachemak Bay, dined with charter fishing guides and clients, visited a cruise ship full of the state's chief import— tourists—and stayed on a World War II-era wooden tugboat being lovingly restored into a liveaboard by a man who sees romance where others see only logistics.

I spent time with dozens of remarkable people who call that remarkable place home, and who both love and rely upon the land - people who, like Joe, have made the connection I've failed to make.

Over three decades in the Arctic, Joe endured extreme weather and horrific conditions. He trapped, hunted, gathered, and preserved all his food, and repaired his schooner using whatever materials were available to him - including patching a punctured hull with whale bones and an old mattress. He made everyday tasks of extraordinary acts of survival.

Despite his legion of accomplishments, his letters reveal his one regret: failing at his lifelong effort to publish an account of his voyages.

Last summer, I published Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now, which tells the parallel stories of Joe's explorations and my own, and how Alaska changed over the century between them. It's no canonical or definitive portrait of Alaska - there can be no such thing. You can no more compare life in Kaktovik, on the North Slope, with Ketchikan, just north of British Columbia, than you can listen to the weather forecast in Portland, Maine, and expect it to apply to Portland, Oregon.

But it is a portrait of the Alaska I knew and loved, and the one Joe knew before me - a love letter to the landscape and people of the north, and my attempt to tell his story before it is lost forever. When I went back, I also visited Joe's grave more than a decade after I first found it. Neglected for so long, it had been completely overgrown with grass and moss, sunken from sight beneath the surface of the earth - a metaphor for how history had forgotten him, but also one for his connection to Alaska. He'd given himself to the land and the land had embraced him, his connection complete.

And me? Of all the places I've lived, I loved Alaska most, though I never felt the connection Joe did. And still I'm restless, looking for some place where I might - less like Joe than the Teddy Bear, going anywhere the wind blows. But through him - and through Chasing Alaska - I made a connection to something else entirely, one that holds no matter where I live: family. 


Chris Bernard is the author of Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now (Lyons Press, May 2013), a finalist for an Oregon Book Award, and has written for Gray's Sporting Journal, Huffington Post, and other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Kim and a temperamental Springer named Shakespeare.

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