Alaska Writers Series: Doug Pope

The Covid 19 pandemic continues to diminish opportunities for Alaska writers to get the word out about their work,  The Alaskan Writers Series is an effort to help. Today, board member Dan Branch shares a profile of  Doug Pope. Cirque Press recently published his memoir, The Way to Gaamaak Cove. On August 25th at 6 P.M AST Cirque will launch Gaamaak Cove by featuring  a reading from the book by Doug Pope. This is Zoom event. The event is free and open to the public. Here is the link:

(Photo by John Sund)

“What Madness is this? Is love your greatest risk or is risk your greatest love?” Doug Pope scratched these words into his journal while bivouacked 18,000 feet above sea level on the highest mountain in South America. He and two friends had been hunkered down in a tent for days as one blizzard after another prevented them from summiting the mountain. Bouts of explosive diarrhea and a dream about Beth, the Ketchikan woman that he loved, had disrupted his sleep.

I read about Pope’s dark night in The Way to Gaamaak Cove, his memoir recently published by Cirque Press. When they reach this point in Gaamaak Cove, readers might feel that Doug deserved to lose Beth as well as a pinky toe to frostbite. He had chosen to fly 8,000 miles south after his love told him that she wanted to take their relationship to another level. By the end of the memoir readers will learn that because he was receptive to lessons from Beth and the wilderness, he kept her and all his toes.

(Photo of Beth by Doug Pope)

During a recent conversation, Pope described the book as a love letter to Beth. There is evidence of his love for her throughout Gaamaak Cove. But the book is more subtle than the colorful declarations of love that spice Cyrano de Bergerac’s letters to Roxanne. Each episode in Gaamaak Cove forms a ladder rung for a man moving from one who’s greatest love is risk into a husband and father who sacrifices risk for love.

Pope’s book opens with “Kennicott Crossing,” an episode describing how he met Beth in Ketchikan and took her on a backpacking trip into Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains. From the story’s title, readers might expect an adventure tale describing a risky fording of the Kennicott River. That’s how it might have read if he had written it before 2007. By that year he had racked up an impressive record of publishing adventure essays in American Alpine Journal, Cirque, and Alaskan newspapers. In 2007, he shifted his emphasis away from the adventure to the impact of it on the adventurers. He refined this in Gaamaak Cove.

Pope grew up in Fairbanks where adventures are cheap. On the way to a downtown bar in winter, drinkers often pass through air cold enough to freeze fog. In 1963 he started a six year stint at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, graduating in 1970. He worked his way through college as a union laborer in the summer and a clerk in a men’s store in the winter. He admits that at first, he didn’t take college seriously, spending more time and energy drinking in bars than studying.

One night in 1968, while partying with friends at Tommy’s Elbow Room, Pope learned that a buddy named Greg was going to go to law school. Greg earned his summer money as a smoke jumper and seemed an unlikely candidate for law school. This struck Pope like an epiphany—-if Greg could go to law school, he could too. Before that he could not imagine spending his life doing something other than construction or selling suits. He started to buckle down and take college seriously, managing by his senior year to get his grades up enough for law school.

Pope graduated from law school in 1973 and, after spending that summer in Hope, Alaska, moved back to Fairbanks.. After taking the bar exam, he worked at a construction job until freeze up in October. By then he had passed the bar. Newly licensed, he walked into the Alaska Public Defender’s Office and told the supervising attorney that he wanted to work for them for at least a month because he was short on money. Two months later Assistant Public Defender Doug Pope convinced a jury to acquit his client of vehicular homicide.

During the time span of the actions described in Gaamaak Cove, Pope worked as a legislative aid and served as a private attorney. He worked as hard for his clients as he did on construction projects. He expended a similar level of energy writing Gaamaak Cove.

In addition to rich descriptive language, Pope delivers honesty in his book. Rather than portraying himself as the brave protector of a cringing spouse, he shows that Beth is often more comfortable in the wilderness than he.

(Photo by Doug Pope)

The episode called “River of the Bears” describes a descent of the Andreafsky River by Beth and Pope during their courtship. This passage reveals Pope’s commitment to truth:

“I had talked big about seeking out rivers where there weren’t any footprints, where it is truly wild. When I got what I really asked for, I was on edge during the day and slept in fits and starts. One evening, on a long narrow gravel bar, Beth relaxed in the tent after we finished a meal of pasta and smoked salmon. A gentle breeze blew across the bar, carrying our scent into willows along a cut bank. A dark shape moved behind them and I heard a loud snort. I leaned over by the tent door.

‘Did you hear that?’

My throat was dry and my voice squeaked. No answer. I looked through the bug screen. Beth was reading a book.

‘Bear,’ I said in a loud voice.
She didn’t look up.
‘They seem to be giving us a wide berth.'”

After watching bears up close during several days of the descent, Beth told Pope, “It’s so exhilarating to be reminded every day we aren’t the dominant species.”

When six months pregnant, Beth joined Pope on a month long descent of Alaska’s Noatak River. He describes the paddle in “Strangers” and “Arctic Char.” Later they would take similar trips with their two boys. The first such trip was a canoe paddle down the Gulkana River, which Pope writes about in “Black and White.”
An hour into the trip their heavily laden canoe went aground on a rock during a lightning storm. Pope had to slip out of the canoe and into the river to free it. The following passage from the story illustrates the boy’s resiliency and trust in their parents:

“Beth and the boys paddled toward two spruce trees hanging off a dirt bank while I bellied in over the side, toes dangling in the current. When we slipped under the trees, Beth reached up and grabbed a spruce branch and I grabbed another. Gusts rocketed across the river and rocked the canoe. Hail, big as marbles, floated around my feet. Charley looked calm. Matt burst into tears.

‘Oh, Matt honey, we’re OK,’ Beth said in a soothing voice. ‘Dad’s back in the canoe and we’re all safe.’
‘Hey guys,’ I said, ‘grab the tarp.’

They pulled it over their heads and ducked under. Beth and I held the canoe in place beneath the spruce trees. Thunder cracked above our heads. Charley peaked out his side. Lightning strobed on and off, and a gravel bar across the river looked like a black and white photo appearing and reappearing from behind a curtain. Matt fell asleep…

After an hour, the lightning and thunder and hail moved on. Charley and Matt stuck their heads out. Beth and I let go of the spruce branches and paddled across the current to the gravel bar where hail had drifted three inches deep. While Beth and I brushed off a spot for the tent with canoe paddles, the boys made little snowmen and threw snowballs, shrieking whenever they hit me in the back.”

(Photo of Doug Pope by Beth Pope)

Jonathan Evison, author of All About Lulu, West of Here, and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving finds Gaamaak Cove “more than just a great adventure, it is coming-of-middle-age in which one man confronts life’s big questions, reevaluates his priorities, and discovers the biggest adventure of all—love.” Yes.


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