Shortly after C.B. Bernard took a job in Alaska in 1999, he found out that a distant relative had gone to explore the Arctic frontier a century earlier. It turned out that explorer, Captain Joe Bernard, was buried in a sprawling cemetery so close to Bernard's rented home that, when he found the grave, he could look back through his window and clearly read the numbers on his alarm clock.
From there, he followed the legacy of Uncle Joe — who, Bernard says, "connected with the Arctic when he was young and never let go" — through the "geographic hyperbole" of Alaska's forests, islands and waters.
Bernard says that he knew he wanted to write the story as soon as he found out about the family connection, but it took years of hunting down Arctic research spread out across the continent before the framework came together. Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now was published last May.
It's easy to draw a crowd for a book reading in, say, New England, where Bernard's family is from — "I just say things like 'Bears! Whales!' and they all applaud," he says — but Bernard was apprehensive at first about how the book would be received in the state it's about. He knew that Alaskans can bristle if outsiders over-romanticize their state, so he tried to choose angles that would resonate with both those who consider Alaska exotic and those who consider it home.
"Alaska's such a big place," Bernard says. "You could write a different book about that place each day and never cover it."
Bernard, who wanted to be a writer since he was a child who loved books, considers himself fortunate to have been able to write for a living ever since college. (He's leading a Get Lit! workshop on how to make a career as a working writer.) He has more nonfiction in the works, but his next book will be a novel.
Bernard chased the life of Uncle Joe, but didn't find for himself such an intense devotion to the Arctic. From the remains he found in Alaska of Uncle Joe's schooner, Bernard built a boat in Portland, where he now lives, and now gets out on the water — the Willamette, the Columbia, the coastal bays — as much as he can. It's his third time living among the Northwest's diverse, varied landscape, and here he's found a deep connection to place.
"It feels like home," he says. "I think I'm here for the long haul." ♦
C.B. Bernard and Buddy Levy • Sat, April 12, from 2-3 pm • Free • Spokane Convention Center, Conference Theater, Main Floor • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.
Writing for a Living with C.B. Bernard • Sat, April 12, from 3:30-5:30 pm • $30/$20 with student ID • Spokane Convention Center, Room 202B • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.