Dan O'Neill is an adventurer, a historian, a "floater" (as Yukon River canoe campers are called), and an advocate for a people whose names may be last seen in these pages. This book is ostensibly a story about a float trip O'Neill makes from Dawson, in Canada's Yukon Territory, to Circle, in Alaska, through the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve, administered by the National Parks Service. Actually, it is seven trips condensed into one. O'Neill is the spiritual descendant of John McPhee, whom he quotes extensively as the base-line Yukon River interpreter. The reader may be forgiven if he believes that he will be treated to a combination of float trip travelogue and history of the places and people who make the country what it is. Little by little we learn that O'Neill wants to do more than report; he intends to make a statement and to leave an impact.
O'Neill makes (and re-makes) a compelling case that the National Parks Service is egregiously mismanaging the wilderness it is supposed to be protecting. The NPS faces the same conflict in the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve that it has in other national parks. How do you preserve a natural area for people to enjoy in perpetuity when each person who visits incrementally damages the area? O'Neill argues that the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve differs so radically from the nation's other parks that it requires fresh thinking and a more tailored conservation regime. The lament implicit in the title is that this dramatically attractive land, inhospitable as it is, once was home to scores of rugged, subsistence pioneers, and could safely be so again under a more creative land use policy.
The enduring legacy of Dan O'Neill's book will not be his administrative prescriptions, though, but his deft, economical, and often sardonic descriptions of the land and its people. We learn a great deal about the geologic history of the region, including the fact that prior to the last ice age, the river ran southward, opposite its current direction. We learn where the gold-bearing strata are located and how they were exploited during the gold rush. We trap martin and lynx, and catch king salmon to feed ourselves and chum salmon to feed our dogs, We meet characters that couldn't conceivably be made up, like Dick Cook, whom we admire for his resourcefulness and indomitable spirit, and whose body we last see face down in the river that supported him. We poke through trash middens in a sort of contemporary archaeology, and learn how to handle irascible settlers and even more irascible grizzlies.
O'Neill treats us to a world which few of us are likely ever to see. "Moose, wolf, and bear have signed the mud registry in recent weeks, and I make my own prints, climb the bank, and look for a trail..." He faithfully reports and interprets his observations and gently constructs his arguments. Regrettably, however, he is not a gifted writer, and this deficiency occasionally shows, as in his purple descriptions of scenery. "The river is molten gold...the sky is a dazzling, luminous yellow where fiery clouds flash gilded edges...then I remember that the whole spinning world is a miracle, and that sometimes reality dawns more golden than dreams." And then there is the occasional error that an editor should have caught, "Sudden death killed forty-four of the fifty-five Alaskans who died in boating accidents between 2001 and 2003..." The reader may well wonder how death can be the cause of death.
I recommend "A Land Gone Lonesome" to armchair "floaters" and all who are curious about the forced depopulation of the upper Yukon watershed. You will meet the colorful denizens of a world just recently past, and the remarkable stage they have exited. And if you become motivated to visit the Yukon for yourself, you can thank McPhee and O'Neill for their contrasting depictions of the Yukon River and its fatal attraction.