Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban is reminiscent of Bad Land, Raban's 1996 treatise on the settlement of the Dakotas and the Montana territory. Like all good travel narratives, Passage to Juneau combines history, geography, natural science, memoir, and poetry. It is a moving depiction of the 1,000 mile-long Inside Passage from Puget Sound to Alaska. The Inside Passage is a waterway rich with dangerous reefs and whirlpools. But this did not deter its many travelers first Native Americans, and later explorers, fur traders, settlers, missionaries, anthropologists, fisherman, and finally tourists. Each had their own designs on this beautiful and haunted locale. The author is clearly at home in these waters, his yacht outfitted as both vessel and research library. Raban instructs the reader in many facets of sailing, as well as such esoteric topics as the formation of waves, the recognition of tide patterns, and the repeating ovoid patterns in Indian arts and crafts.
Raban shares with Barry Lopez and Paul Theroux the ability to make his reader feel part of a journey of exploration and discovery. His prose is compelling and his research thorough. Allowing an entire spring and summer for his voyage, Raban embarked from Seattle's Fisherman's Terminal to go fishing for reflections other people's reflections, or so he thought at the time. He admits that he was unprepared for the catch he would eventually make.
Using the journals of Captain George Vancouver's 1792-1794 voyages along the Pacific Northwest coast as the framework for his own travels, Raban plays cat-and-mouse with the 18th century and provides exhaustive detail about the history and sociology of the region. While descriptions of coastal settlements and protected harbors punctuate the narrative, Raban's real subject is the sea itself, which he describes with such lyrical passages as, at the bottom of the whole animal hierarchy lay the ceaseless tumbling of the water in the basin, as it answered to the drag of the moon. Raban's travels are interrupted by the declining health and eventual death of his father. Rather than ignore this event, the author seamlessly weaves it into this narrative, drawing comparisons between his own love of the sea and his father's. By the end of the book, he comes to accept the words of Marcus Aurelius: Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight. Passage to Juneau is a stirring and informative tribute to the mystery of this breathtaking sea.
C. D. Sinclair is a writer and reviewer in Texas.