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A Land Gone Lonesome: An Inland Voyage Along the Yukon River

Reviewed: October 24, 2007
By: Dan O’Neill
Publisher: Counterpoint Perseus Books Group
256 pages, $19.50

Dan O’Neill’s basic thesis in this book is that there is room for a culture of wilderness river dwellers along the banks of the Yukon River and that it has been destroyed by over-regulation and the misguided conservation efforts of the American parks service in Alaska.

To tell us this story, O’Neill uses the frame of a river journey by canoe. There was a particular journey which he took in 2001, but the events he narrates in the book also take in several other trips that he had taken over the years since 1975, when he first became interested in this northern subculture.

While most of his journey takes place in Alaska, it begins in Dawson City, and relates stories about a number of Dawsonites who used to live along the river but have since moved to town.

This is a book which can be read on several levels. It begins as one man’s journey down the river, and was written, so the author says, partly to counter the plethora of feeble minded northern journey books that have appeared over the years. Woven into his journey we find tales of river dwellers he has known or read about over his years of looking into this subculture. This gives us a look at what used to be and what is there now, spread over a number of decades.

The book is also a study. There seem to have been several phases of river settlement by non-indigenous people over the last century, dating from the period of the gold rush and ending, largely due to what O’Neill sees as a deliberate and needless policy of government repression, after the 1970s. In O’Neill’s eyes the sparse homesteads of the Yukon River wilderness were never likely to be a threat to the environment. Most were not lifelong endeavors, and the few that were enhanced the area rather than damaging it, keeping alive a frontier tradition that seemed to be passed down through the generations, even when the successors were not related to the original settlers.

It is one of the great ironies of the north that those in charge of a national park initially created to commemorate a way of life should have ended up chasing nearly all the inhabitants away and discouraging their replacements from taking up the lifestyle, but that seems to be just what has happened, hence the title of O’Neill’s moving and entertaining memoir.

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