Circling the globe at 60 degrees north, sampling the people and places

By Nancy Lord - February 6, 2017

Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home

By Malachy Tallack; Pegasus Books; 2016; 230 pages; $26.95

Latitude 60 in Alaska runs across the Kenai Peninsula, just south of Ninilchik and a little more south of Seward. Latitude 60 also runs through the middle of Scotland’s Shetland Islands, the author’s home, lying northeast of Great Britain. It crosses the southern tip of Greenland; forms the boundary between Canada’s Alberta Province and its Northwest Territories; circles just north of Magadan, Russia (Anchorage’s Sister City); comes very close to St. Petersburg, Russia; crosses the southern reach of Finland; and passes just north of Uppsala, Sweden, before reaching Oslo and Stolmen, Norway.

In his introduction, Malachy Tallack recalls a sick day at the age of 17 when he looked out his window and imagined the world turning — and himself turning with it, along the same parallel, through other northern countries, eventually returning home again. That fevered dream never left him, and years later he made the actual journey along the line to each of the countries it passes through. He set out to find what those places had in common, beyond a shared latitude. He wanted to know what it meant to live in a particular place, especially the one he called home.

Admittedly, his plan was contrived — gimmicky even. It was an excuse to travel with an agenda and to write about where he went and what he found there. He headed west and circled with the seasons, although the reader quickly figures out that it was not a continuous year-long journey; it appears he made a series of stops, none of them for very long.

Attractions and tensions

Nevertheless, readers drawn northward — to that part of the world Tallack calls “a kind of border, where the almost-north and the north come together” — will enjoy traveling with him. He takes us to places he characterizes as challenged by climate, landscape and remoteness. It’s the relationships between the places and the people who live in them that fascinate Tallack, and he explores them for both their attractions and tensions.

The author comes across as being a shy person who goes it alone a lot of the time and doesn’t easily make friends or even interact with many people in his travels. His modus operandi seems mainly to find “the line” and take long, solo walks through nearby territory. He describes what he sees and does and then fills in with historical and cultural information about the places.

For example, in St. Petersburg he walked all over the city, “nervous of the hustle and din,” examining the buildings, the parks, the water in the Neva River. He visited galleries and museums, including The Hermitage and one dedicated to Pushkin, but we don’t learn much about his reactions to them. The only person he seemed to interact with was a tour guide. He took a train to a nearby village, intending to visit a museum dedicated to the artist Ilya Repin, but once there wandered around without finding the building and without making much effort to engage with locals or fellow travelers. This chapter instead includes a lot of information about the founding and history of St. Petersburg, some of the artists associated with the city and the role of dachas he saw from the train window.

On to Alaska

Alaska readers will be curious to learn of his adventures on and impressions of our Kenai Peninsula. Unfortunately, they aren’t much different from what we’ve heard and read from visitors before Tallack.

First, he spent a few days in Seward but, curiously, never ventured out onto the water. He was torn, he tells us, by his desire to see the wilderness world he might find there and what he considered a tourist’s effort “to go back in time.” “What troubled me most, I think was the idea — advertised incessantly — that out there somewhere was the real Alaska, and what was here was something else, quite different. Those well-waterproofed tourists had been promised a journey into another world, and yet it seemed to me that that world was made impossible by their very presence within it.”

After Seward, Tallack met up with an old school friend then living in Anchorage to fish the Kenai River. Fishing is something he clearly loves, and here he contemplates not just the “surreal and unsettling” sight of so many fishermen crowding the river but the meaning of nostalgia. He later hikes alone to Grayling Lake near Seward for successful fishing and the requisite clutching of bear spray. He ends in the town of Ninilchik, watching eagles.

From place to place, what stands out are the cultural and political histories that shaped them in such different directions. St. Petersburg as a city of 5 million built in a swamp to look like an old European capital. Alaska has its Russian heritage and all those “no trespassing signs” the author laments. In the Nordic nations, the “right to roam” allows anyone to walk, ski, camp, fish and gather foods on private land. In Greenland, Inuit traditions, and in Canada the Dene culture and its spiritual relationship with the land.

For an Alaska reader, one of Tallack’s most interesting encounters came in Finland. There he met two women, researchers who quizzed him about this travels. When he mentioned visiting Ninilchik, they got very excited. According to them, many Finns had been among the “Russians” during that colonial period, and one — a Jacob Johan Knagg — had settled in Ninilchik with his family after Alaska’s transfer to America.  (A little internet research confirms this — and that the name was Russified to Knagin.)

In the end, Tallack returns to Shetland, still questioning the relationship between people and place. Some, like his friend in Alaska, he’d found committed to the places they’d chosen as home. With others, he’d sensed an estrangement. He had his own sorting out to do, to find not just a line but its intersection with heart.

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include “Fishcamp,” “Beluga Days” and “Early Warming.”