By Clark Fair
Local writer Dave Atcheson already has a solid résumé of authorship — his own book, “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” and freelance contributions to Alaska Magazine, Outdoor Life and Boys Life¸ among others — but early next year Atcheson’s list of writing accomplishments will take on a little more cachet with the publication of the National Geographic book “Hidden Alaska: Bristol Bay and Beyond.”
Atcheson, who works for Kenai Peninsula College and is a consultant to the Renewable Resources Foundation, has teamed with veteran National Geographic Society photographer Michael Melford for this 160-page photo book that examines the vast and endangered Bristol Bay region.
The book will appear only about two months after National Geographic magazine publishes a 26-page article on the controversy concerning Bristol Bay and the proposed Pebble Mine. The photography of Melford, who has been working with National Geographic Books since 1993 and whose work has appeared widely in National Geographic periodicals, will also be featured in that article.
“Hidden Alaska” began as the brainchild of Melford, who Atcheson said shot about 20,000 photographs in Bristol Bay while on assignment there and then became interested in using his images for another product.
“He came to us (the Renewable Resources Coalition) and said, ‘I want to do a book on this — on Bristol Bay, and on Pebble, and on the threat to it,’” Atcheson said.
Melford sought the backing of the Renewable Resources Foundation before going to pitch his idea to National Geographic, and he also sought a writer who could craft the text for his project.
Atcheson volunteered that he was a published writer, and the team was formed. That was about a year ago.
With writing clips from Atcheson in hand, Melford then proposed his idea to National Geographic, and it was accepted, with the understanding that it would be funded jointly by the Renewable Resources Foundation, the National Geographic Society and National Geographic Books.
What followed was a series of back-and-forth discussions over what, exactly, the book would entail.
Melford and Atcheson initially envisioned a book solely about Bristol Bay, but the editors at National Geographic had other ideas. They wanted the book to be wider in scope — to cover four or five places in Alaska. Atcheson protested this idea.
“I said, ‘Do you realize that the Bristol Bay basin is the size of Ohio?’” Atcheson said. “It’s 40,000 square miles. It’s huge. I said, ‘This could be a book on its own.’”
The parties finally agreed that the book would have two main sections — a general section on all of Alaska, followed a section specifically about Bristol Bay.
The Alaska section, he said, is more about the people than the place.
“A lot of it’s trying to capture the spirit of the weirdness up here, and how strange it is living here, and the weird dichotomy of political views, and all that,” he said.
The Bristol Bay section, on the other hand, focuses more on the place than the people in it.
“Bristol Bay is this ‘hidden part’ of Alaska that people haven’t seen, and it kind of epitomizes what’s great about Alaska because it’s so wild, because it’s been cut off from the rest of the state,” he said. “And there is no other fishery like it anywhere on the planet.”
After a litany of verbal and e-mail volleys concerning the writing outline, Atcheson set to work on the text. To gather a wider view, he interviewed, among others, Soldotna homesteader Marge Mullen, hunting and fishing guide Paul Tornow, and Bristol Bay set-netter Melanie Brown.
Originally, he was given an October deadline, but then National Geographic pushed that deadline up to August in order to bring the book’s release date closer to the time of the magazine article’s publication. The quicker deadline meant that Atcheson had to work throughout his favorite playtime of the year.
“Yeah, I’ve been busting my ass all summer,” he said. “It would have been different if I was writing during the winter because that’s when I usually write. But it was very tough because summer — we all know what summer’s like here. It’s short, and we want to be out doing things. And I had planned on being out and doing a whole bunch of the usual stuff, along with the chores — out fishing and all that kind of stuff.”
He started writing early each morning and worked in shifts of two to three hours throughout the day. He sought the critical opinions of writer friends and he fretted especially over the Alaska section. However, once the editorial team accepted that work, he felt reassured as he moved on to craft the Bristol Bay section. In the end, he was pleased with the 10,000 words he produced, and is proud of the entire book.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “I really think it strings together the way it’s supposed to. There was a whole team of really great people working on it, and in the end let me have free reign to do it the way I wanted.”
Next up will be publicity for the book, which Atcheson said he is looking forward to. He is also excited by the prospects of how good a National Geographic credit will look on his writing résumé.
“If I want to do another book, I can say I now have two books that have been published by big publishers, and that’s going to help,” he said.
“Hidden Alaska: Bristol Bay and Beyond” is slated for a Feb. 15 release. It is available now for pre-order through online booksellers, and should be available at local book dealers in mid-February.