Friday, June 28, 2019

Inside Passage: Living with Killer Whales, Bald Eagles, and Kwakiutl Indians by Michael Modzelewski

Adventures of a houseguest in paradise
I recently took an Alaskan cruise, and Michael Modzelewski was the designated naturalist on board. Through a week of travels up and down the coast of British Columbia and Alaska, I attended a few presentations that Modzelewski gave on the wildlife, ecology, and Native peoples of the region. I was very impressed with the eloquence of his speaking, and his talks were quite inspirational in their appreciation of the environment and evocations for a lifestyle more harmonious with nature. Eager for more of his insight into the lands and people of the Northwest Coast, I sought out his 1997 book Inside Passage.

Based on the lectures I had seen Modzelewski deliver, as well as the marketing copy for the book, I was expecting something along the lines of a latter-day Henry David Thoreau or John Muir. Inside Passage, however, is really more travel memoir than nature writing. I was hoping for something a little wilder and less civilized, a narrative more concerned with solitude and introspection, like a Northwestern Walden, a less intense take on Into the Wild, or perhaps something similar to Rockwell Kent’s Wilderness, in which the author and his son hunker down for the winter in a rustic cabin on an Alaskan isle. In Inside Passage, Modzelewski is a houseguest, and sometimes housesitter, in the home of Will Malloff on Swanson Island, near Vancouver Island. Other than a wood-burning stove that needs to be fed, nothing about these well-furnished digs sounds particularly primitive or untamed. Modzelewski and friends can watch the Canadian wilds through big picture windows while listening to opera and sipping gourmet coffee.

When Modzelewski does write about the natural environment, his prose is often beautifully poetic and quite inspirational. Though sometimes he succumbs to grandiose New Age excesses, one wishes there were more of such passages in this book. There is a chapter about all the tourists who frequent Malloff’s estate, a chapter about the salmon fishing industry, and a chapter about cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. I had seen Modzelewski speak on the First Nations people of the region, and he seemed very knowledgeable about their customs and philosophy. Therefore I had hoped for more on the Kwakiutl Indians mentioned in the subtitle, but most of what he writes on that subject fits into a single chapter here. The best parts of the book are when Modzelewski gets away from Malloff’s homestead and ventures off in a kayak. In these excursions, he meets with enough near disasters to keep adventure sports fans happy. His tales of killer whale encounters are both interesting and enviable, and constitute the best of his wildlife writing in this book.

This is not so much a book about getting back to nature in the wilds of the North as it is about the modern lifestyle of those who migrate to the region. I liked Inside Passage well enough to consider it a fine read, but I wasn’t as impressed by it as I thought I would be. At times it brought back fond memories of my own travels to the region, but it also took my romantic notions of the Canadian wilderness down a couple notches from the mythic toward the mundane. I envy Modzelewski’s adventures in the North, but I don’t think this book really captures them in full.
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