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Tracking the Real Alaska
Nick Jans '77 finds the rights words –and photographs–for Alaska's beauty
   
 

A Stepping Stone of a Film
Brent Katz '98 makes his film dream happen

   
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Tracks of the Unseen by Nick JansTracking the Real Alaska: Nick Jans finds words for a place and its people

By Alicia Nemiccolo MacLeay '97

Tracks of the Unseen, Nick Jans '77's third collection of essays on Alaska wildlife, landscape and photography, is a compilation of honest and thoughtful reflections that produce a broad sense of place–a place of mountains, valleys and tundra. But from the start Jans breaks down our stereotypical images of the Alaskan bush and replaces them with an unsentimental reality, one of bears and trash dumps, snowmobiles and rusting bed frames, basketball courts and numbing darkness. The result is 27 insightful essays that reflect both the reality of Alaska today and the county's raw beauty.

These Small Lives
Tundra is one of those small words that spans an entire state of mind. There's a high, lonesome sound to it, something that summons longings half-forgotten, a vision of limitless space, silence, wind, and cold. An austere world where life wrestles with its alternative. A world our ancestors, ice-age hunter-gatherers, must have known intimately. The almost-archetypal image that we carry is, for once, accurate.

The River Within
My experience in Alaska began with water, and the tie remains. As I write, I look out over the river that brought me into this country, and feel a surge of emotion: quiet familiarity, gratitude, passion, a sense of shared time and history. Love would be another name for it. After living along a river, as so many thousands of Alaskans do, it's almost impossible for me to imagine a life not connected intimately with its clear, cold substance. The valley this river has carved defines my home ground, both actual and spiritual; its channels and many tributaries are, summer and winter, my pathways. From it and along its banks I draw much of my food. In a real sense, part of the river flows inside me.

Tracks of the Unseen by Nick Jans, Fulcrum Publishing (2000)

Jans's essays cover photography, wildlife behavior, landscape, environmental change, Eskimo culture, relationships and the logistics of living north of the Arctic Circle. By refraining from nostalgic musings or attempting to vividly describe the country's grandeur, Jans instead gives the reader a far deeper appreciation for his setting. Not only does the reader learn about the real Alaska in each essay, one not found in a coffee table book, but the reader also learns about Jans himself.

"Most outsiders just don't get it," he writes. "Pictures help a little, but they're never big enough, and there are things no snapshot can capture–the bite of fifty below zero, for example, or what it feels like to stand alone in a tundra valley, a hundred miles from anyone."

However, each of Jans's thoughtful and well-crafted essays is complemented by one of his own intriguing color photographs of the land. The book itself is dedicated to Jans's friend, the late wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino. As in his essays, Jans's photography focuses on a single object or moment–caribou running, a sole grayling, tundra plants–to elicit a broader understanding.

Any of Jans's essays can be read individually, but together the narratives build upon each other to create an interwoven and complex picture of the Alaska he has come to know and love over 20 years.

In 1979 Jans arrived in Alaska ready for a year of adventuring. "I wanted a point-blank grizzly, a pack of wolves, or a double rainbow each time out–or better yet, all three at once," the author admits. But through time and the patience necessitated by photography he came to appreciate the more subtly sublime moments, a lone owl in a tree, fresh wolverine tracks or the golden frailty of autumn.

In each essay Jans describes a singular tie to the place, its history and its people. His examples–mammoth bones, snowmobilers gone missing or the slow shifting of treelines–are evocative of a setting that he admits is hard to describe.

Jans's voice is spare and direct, whether he is explaining the large-scale shifts of a white spruce forest or describing being charged by a bull musk ox, and he straightforwardly tackles issues like life and death. "And so we turn to nature, maybe to find what we once knew: Nothing is ever lost or forgotten," he writes. "It's the land–the stone and rivers, snow and mountains–that is alive. Death and rebirth are no more than its breathing, the process of life itself."

But whatever the subject, Jans's wit, good humor and common sense remain evident, even when fishing for mudsharks at 40 below. "Over all these years of living up here, I've found flashes of illumination in unexpected moments, been overtaken by insight when I least expected," he writes. "But if there's some subtle lesson here, it escapes me. All I feel is cold."

Like Jans, readers of Tracks of the Unseen will lose preconceptions along the way and end this journey with a clearer perspective of Alaska and deeper regard for the place and its people. "True respect seldom grows out of ignorance," Jans writes, and his essays are an education.

 

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