No walk in the park

by Michael Engelhard

Walking Home: A Traveler in the Alaskan Wilderness, a Journey into the Human Heart
Lynn Schooler
272 pages, hardcover: $25.
Bloomsbury, 2010.

Hoping to gain perspective on his troubled marriage, the deaths of friends, and the vagaries of male middle age, Lynn Schooler (author of The Blue Bear) embarks on a walkabout along one of the wildest stretches of coastline in Southeast Alaska. What starts as a journey of introspection turns into a grueling march -- through pelting rain, thick brush and knee-busting boulder fields -- that climaxes in a protracted face-off with a rogue bear and the terrifying crossing of a meltwater torrent. Just getting to this trail-less wilderness in Glacier Bay National Park tests Schooler's perseverance; waves pound his small vessel, and notorious boat-eating currents threaten his entry into Lituya Bay.

Choice bits of Southeast Alaska history complement Schooler's adventures: tales of castaways and frontier justice, explorers and hermit settlers, earthquakes and monstrous tsunamis and the recently discovered 500-year-old body of a hunter encased in ice. Deftly interweaving personal and natural disaster with nature observation, Schooler never succumbs to self-pity or self-aggrandizement.

In one of the book's key scenes, he gets caught up in the northward migration of thousands of shorebirds, which move "like a boneless creature or a gossamer curtain blowing loose on the wind." Acknowledging that nature can be "medieval" in its disregard for individual human and animal lives, he ultimately finds consolation in community and in acceptance of life's overriding agenda -- the continuity of species. "What matters is the effect we have on those around us and those who come after us." Simply the fact of our existence declares us winners in evolution's gamble, the heirs of ancestors who survived long enough to procreate. And the best tool for human survival, Schooler shows, is simply our brain, our inventiveness.

A beautifully paced, compassionate and understated memoir, Walking Home will please fans of Seth Kantner and Richard Nelson. If the book has one shortcoming, it lies in its portrayal of Schooler's wife, who remains a blur -- as if Schooler still ached too much at the time of writing to closely scrutinize one of the reasons he set out on this adventure in the first place.

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