The best books about the Far North

Alastair Scott Author Of Tracks Across Alaska
By Alastair Scott

Who am I?

For five years I hitchhiked round the world, for the most part in a kilt. I cycled 5000 miles behind the Iron Curtain before it fell and took a dog team across Alaska. I’ve sailed solo round Ireland and endured storms off Greenland. Currently, I’m cycling in stages from North Cape to Cape Town.  Unconventional travel has been a part of my life for forty years.  As a writer I try to inform and entertain, and my eye is drawn to quirky detail and humour.  I’m inspired by wild places and the people who live in them:  their customs and intrinsic wisdom.  In particular I’m fascinated by the Far North and have travelled extensively throughout this region.

I wrote...

Tracks Across Alaska

By Alastair Scott,

Book cover of Tracks Across Alaska

What is my book about?

‘He arrived in Manley from Scotland with no dogs, no sled, and no experience. As a matter of fact, he’s so green that he calls a sled a sledge.’ This is how a local paper greeted Alastair Scott’s arrival in Alaska. Its cynicism was shared by nearly everyone to whom he announced his intentions: to acquire a dog team, learn the techniques on which his life and that of the dogs would depend, and then travel 800 miles in mid-winter along the line of the Arctic circle. Five months later he defied the cynics and Tracks Across Alaska is his extraordinary account.

Related with great humour and penetrating insight, at its heart, this is an evocation of wilderness Alaska, its history, the plight of its native peoples, and conversations with the state’s diverse inhabitants today: beaver trappers, F15 pilots, Iditarod winners, and recluses from all walks of life. And threaded throughout is the heartfelt bond that holds one man and eight dogs together in a beautiful yet unforgiving environment.

The books I picked & why

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Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape

By Barry Lopez,

Book cover of Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape

Why this book?

If you read one book about the Far North, this should be it. Lopez is a scientist who examines every facet of this northern ‘wasteland’ and man’s relationship with it, and turns conventional thinking upside-down. His revelations amaze and enchant, his perceptions will double your thinking and, if this wasn’t enough, his writing is so beautifully crafted it scintillates with all the magic of ice. Few can match his ability to represent an unloved place and people with such passion and understanding. A breath-taking classic.

The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole, 1818-1909

By Pierre Berton,

Book cover of The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole, 1818-1909

Why this book?

In the 19th century, it was believed that if a way could be found through North America’s ice barrier, beyond lay an open sea offering ships a shortcut to the Pacific.  The quest to find it became a litany of disaster, suffering, human spirit stretched to breaking point and heroic survival. Canada’s greatest historian, Pierre Burton, turns factual accounts into a riveting read, ‘a cliff-hanger with colorful characters’ as Newsweek described it. This is another book I hate to lend for fear I’ll never get it back.

Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot

By Ken McGoogan,

Book cover of Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot

Why this book?

Scotsman John Rae was the greatest explorer of the Canadian Arctic that ever lived. Yet he was vilified in the press, his reputation sullied. For ten years he was denied the £10,000 reward that was rightfully his for discovering the fate of the Franklin expedition and the knighthood awarded to lesser achievers was cruelly withheld. Why?  Because he ‘went native’ and adopted Inuit survival techniques considered ‘uncivilised’ in Victorian Britain - but above all because he discovered, and had the temerity to announce, that the Franklin survivors had resorted to cannibalism. This book is an enthralling account of Rae’s life. I had actually set out to write a biography myself, unable to believe that such a story had not been written up, when McGoogan’s book appeared. I have nothing but reverence for his work, and imagine ‘Sir’ John Rae as I believe he will one day be, would be equally delighted.


By Roland Huntford,

Book cover of Nansen

Why this book?

Nansen, ‘the father of polar exploration’ (and a great fan of Rae) was not just the first man to cross Greenland, to endure an intentional two-year drift towards the North Pole in an ice-locked ship and to turn skiing into a popular sport, but he was also a heartthrob diplomat, a founder of independent Norway, the first to introduce a tractor to Russia and a mediator in the enforced mass migrations of millions of displaced people. Did you know, for example, that while Robert Falcon Scott was discovering he’d been beaten to the Pole, his wife Kathleen was sharing a bed with Nansen in a Berlin hotel? The span of this book is immense and the fascination of its subject - an early sex symbol and media superstar - won’t disappoint.

Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings

By Jonathan Raban,

Book cover of Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings

Why this book?

To my mind, Raban is among the greatest of travel writers whose words so truly mirror the instability of the waters and lives through which he navigates. Here he travels from Seattle to Juneau, focusing his penetrating gaze on the Inside Passage and its inhabitants with the same brutal honesty he turns on himself as his marriage unravels. Alaska and the human condition are portrayed with panache, wit, and the clarity of a photograph. He carries you there with him round every eddy and over every fall. How can anyone write so well, so consistently?

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