Notes from the Century Before Critical Essays

Edward Hoagland


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In the journal’s next to last entry, dated August 2, Hoagland describes a scene on the Tahltan River near Telegraph Creek. A landslide has filled the river, and salmon are blocked from their spawning grounds upriver. Though the river has blasted a passage through the slide, it is narrow and the water moves through like a fire hose, killing the trapped fish. Attempts by fisheries workers to carry the fish in barrels past the slide are ineffective as the salmon die in transport. Watching from the shore, Hoagland feels like crying as thirty thousand fish, many without noses because of the battering on rocks, slowly die.

The picture of large fish carried by instincts to unfulfilled obliteration is an apt concluding note to the journal. It serves to depict the condition Hoagland senses human beings face as the twentieth century draws to a close. His journal has held in focus a very small, rare generation of explorers who forsook the America of cities and highways to spend entire lifetimes in the wilderness. With all the wonder Hoagland feels for their lives, his journal, he realizes, is an elegy to a gone world, not an encouragement to future explorers. What is lost, Hoagland senses, is not a breed of men capable of living this life, but the open geography, wild and empty of settlements. Like the blocked salmon driven upriver, the rare man capable of living the all-consuming life of exploration is denied fulfillment simply because all the wilderness has been chartered.

The best man, Hoagland intimates again and again, the man most worthy of drawing breath, is the man who lives the Cro-Magnon dream. Leaving civilization is not enough. The ideal man leaves civilization to inhabit the wilderness permanently. An example of such a man, for Hoagland, is John Creyke, citizen of Telegraph Creek whose trapping territory alone is twice as large as the state of Delaware. His life of moving on foot or behind a dogsled across a huge area has established his identity, a presence so admirable to Hoagland that he records it as heroic: “He’s been south to the Nass . . . and north to the headwaters of the Yukon, and west to the International Boundary, and east into the Liard River system—one of the iron men, one of the princes.” Men such as Creyke are the object of Hoagland’s search. His self-appointed function as a journalist is to preserve their memory. Creyke, as it happens, can neither read nor write. Such “doers” stand above the common herd. Hoagland notes that most others have shot their dog teams, and the Indians are rarely practitioners of Creyke’s passions either. After lauding Creyke in two pages of his journal, Hoagland abruptly switches to inhabitants of Telegraph Creek...

(The entire section is 1103 words.)