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Coming Into the Country

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  6,035 ratings  ·  291 reviews
This is the story of Alaska and the Alaskans. Written with a vividness and clarity which shifts scenes frequently, and yet manages to tie the work into a rewarding whole, McPhee segues from the wilderness to life in urban Alaska to the remote bush country.
Paperback, 448 pages
Published April 1st 1991 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1977)
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Average rating 4.22  · 
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 ·  6,035 ratings  ·  291 reviews

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Alaska, the early 1960s. Darkness covered the land. The latest winter storm, which by then had already lasted half a century, still showed no sign of ending. The cold and the snow were beginning to wear the proud Alaskans down. Then Russia invaded. Again. The fledgling state was unprepared for war, and so the Alaskan Militia fell back before the forces of the Dark Lord Stalin, and the Red Army of Moscow reached the walls of Juneau. For two days and nights the city was bombarded by communist ...more
May 10, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-nature
Things I learned about Alaska:

-- Merrill Field, a light-plane airfield in Anchorage, handles fifty-four thousand more flights per year than Newark International. This is so because bushplane trips are more common than taxis or driving, the roads being what they are.

-- Fried cranberries will help a sore throat.

-- That somethings are better left unchanged or not re-named:

"What would you call that mountain, Willie?"
"Denali. I'll go along with the Indians that far."
Everyone aboard was white but
Mar 25, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: salmon
Shelves: own

I was really hoping this would be about geology, along the lines of Basin and Range. It wasn't. It's divided into three sections; in the first, McPhee wanders around unpopulated Alaska with several other men in several canoes/kayaks. I think one was from the Sierra Club, one from the Bureau of Land Management, etc. They fished to supplement their food supplies, and camped along the rivers and streams. The second section was about the attempt to get Alaska's capital moved from Juneau. I now know
Graychin (D. Dalrymple)
Nov 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
A year or two out of college I was employed at a bookshop in Seattle, earning little more than minimum wage. For a change of scene, I signed up with some friends to work the salmon season at a cannery in Alaska. It was rough work, seven days a week, 8am to 11pm (or to 1am on nights when you had cleanup duty). We didnt get to see much of real Alaska, but you could feel it around you. The wilderness.

The cannery was located on an island in the southeast of the state. The town was small for
Nov 18, 2009 rated it liked it
This book has meant a lot to me as an Alaskan interested in the raggedy interplay between development and conservationism, although I had never read it in its entirety. Now I have. I would say this book at best offers a kind, sympathetic view of all sorts of Alaskans circa 1977, a period which I just barely remember from grade school. I still recall the statewide debate on whether to give "Mount McKinley" the new/old name of "Denali" as part of ANILCA, then called the D-2 Lands Bill, which was a ...more
Peter Tillman
May 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
I've read this twice, many years apart. Mostly a historic document now -- but what a history!
One of the rereads was in our camp at Flat, an old and formerly very, very rich placer camp. It was a pretty miserable job (cheap jr. company, but I needed the work), but a nice group of co-workers.,_A... Iditarod was the river port for Flat. Somewhere I have a handful of blank checks from the vault of the old Bank of Iditarod. 💰 ⚒

Tony's is the review to read:
Dec 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel
If anyone could figure out how to steal Italy, Alaska would be the place to hid it." What a vivid way to describe Alaska's immensity. 'There has been a host of excellent books on Alaska. My favorite until recently was Joe McGinnis's Going to Extremes but John McPhee's Coming Into the Country is wonderful, too.
McPhee's book is divided into three parts: first an exploration of wilderness described during the course of a canoe/kayak trip down the Salmon River. Much in the manner of the river, his
Feb 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
McPhee's Coming Into the Country is rightly considered a classic with its detailed description on life in mid-1970s Alaska. Much of the writing is stunning, packed full of river trips and anecdotes about characters the author encountered during his many months in the country. He captures well the contradictions embodied in many Alaskans: a thirst for solitude alternating with a an affinity for social gatherings, an abhorrence of government even as they live and trap on public land, and the ...more
Clif Brittain
Feb 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I love McPhee's writing. I first read this book when it was published in part in the New Yorker, and again soon after it was published as a book. So this is the third time I've read it. I've read maybe ten books three times, so I really, really like this.

First, because McPhee writes so beautifully. He could write about anything and I would read it. I've even read his geology books. Not because I like geology, (I don't), but because I just eat up his words. It is like eating chocolate, I usually
It is ten-thirty, and about time for bed. Everything burnableand more, toohas long since gone into the fire. We burn our plastic freeze-dry bags and we burn our Swiss Miss cocoa packets. If we have cansdevilled ham, Spamwe burn them, until all hint of their contents is gone.
Please, don't burn garbage while camping. Aluminum foil, plastics, styrofoam and batteries don't just disappear when burned. Burning food residue from unlined cans and packing them out is ok, though. What's Burning in Your
Feb 22, 2009 rated it it was ok
This book was a challenge for me. McPhee divided his exploration of Alaska into three sections--the first, stage-setting section on the northern tree line; the second, uses the search for an ideal site for a new state capital to explore urban Alaska; and the final section, on "the bush," really focuses on the motives and lifestyles of in-migrants to the state. I breezed through the first two parts; the relocation of the state capital (which never happened) in particular was literally a bird's ...more
Michael Finkel
Apr 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
John McPhee is one of my journalistic heroes. I read him obsessively when I was younger and yearning to become a journalist myself. This book, about Alaska, is perhaps my favorite, or at least the one I'd recommend to someone who has never read McPhee before. These days, when everyone seems to have a severely truncated attention span, perhaps McPhee can seem a touch long-winded, but I completely disagree -- I don't think he wastes a sentence. He does write in a pre-internet way, and that, in my ...more
Isaac Jensen
May 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, essays
McPhees talent for writing about the natural world is only surpassed by his eye for people, who are the beating heart of his work. In Coming Into The Country, the characters who inhabit the vast northern reaches of the United States practically seem to jump off the page, generously rendered in all their imperfect glory. The warmth of these presentations contrasts richly with the frigid setting, and forms the heart and soul of the book. ...more
Rex Fuller
Jun 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The Country lies around the upper Yukon River. The book induced aching for it. This one work teaches more about Alaska than any other source I know: Statehood demeaned Alaska, the Native Claims Settlement Act made a well-intentioned wreck, and the pipeline contorted it in good and bad ways that will prove insignificant over time. Most of all, the book made clear how painful the federal government's interference is to "whites and Indians alike" of The Country.
Jul 19, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I read this book in the mid-80's. I was encouraged to read it by a friend who had lived in Alaska in the early 80's and knew some of the people mentioned in the book. I remember I liked it and found it interesting but I don't remember too much about the details.
Lisa Vegan
Nov 30, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone going to or interested in Alaska
I know this is practically sacrilegious, but this was my second favorite book I read before I traveled to Alaska in the early 80s. My favorite book was Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss.
Eric B. Kennedy
Oct 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
A clear classic, "Coming into the Country" depicts McPhee's personal journey through Alaska and Alaskan life. The book had been recommended to me by several folks as an example of accessible non-fiction writing, although it's certainly of a distinctive genre. It doesn't, for instance, attempt to explicitly make sense of the cultural or socio-technical systems of Alaska, nor to tell the story of a particular piece of Alaskan history or environment - at least in a methodical way. Rather, it weaves ...more
Aug 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, nature
What had struck me most in the isolation of this wilderness was an abiding sense of paradox. In its raw, convincing emphasis on the irrelevance of the visitor, it was forcefully, importantly repellent. It was no less strongly attractivewith a beauty of nowhere else, composed in turning circles. If the wild land was indifferent, it gave a sense of difference. If at moments it was frightening, requiring an effort to put down the conflagrationary imagination, it also augmented the touch of life.
Andy J.
Feb 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
I really admire John McPhee for his ability to paint vivid imagery in the minds of readers through his wordsmanship. What's more, he develops a visceral connection to his subjects that is more than apparent in text.

Coming into the Country is no exception in this regard. It's doubtful that the true ethos of Alaska can be captured in three stories spread over 450 pages, but it seems that McPhee comes pretty damn close. The Encircled River is perhaps the most broad brush of the three, but still
Sep 30, 2019 rated it liked it
McPhee travels through Alaska, profiling the many, diverse people he meets along the way. Parts of it are dated, especially the extended section discussing possibly relocating the state capital from Juneau. McPhee is a little too sympathetic with some people, especially the gold miners who completely destroy the countryside for very little money, and who behave almost like terrorists. I had to grit my teeth through these long sections. Overall, like everything McPhee has written, it is smooth ...more
John Day
Sep 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The best book Ive read this year. ...more
Mar 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: alaska
This was written in 1976-77, so some of that eras hot-button issues arent as hot (maybe), but this is a fascinating in-depth look at Alaska. Id love to read a follow-up I know what lands have subsequently been protected, and I know they havent moved the capital from Juneau, but living in the lower-48, I dont really know how some of the other issues have been resolved (or if they have been). Once again, McPhee has an amazing ability to show both/all sides of an issue without allowing his ...more
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Oct 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Nature Lovers, Lovers of Americana, Those Who Enjoy Literary Journalism
Recommended to Lisa (Harmonybites) by: Ultimate Reading List - Travel
This book is about Alaska, at least circa 1976. Back then Alaska could boast a population of 400 thousand, of which 60 thousand were Native Americans. (As of 2011, Alaska's population had risen to 722,718.) Both then and now Anchorage boasted half the population. At the time Alaska became a state in 1959, the inhabitants hoped that would give them more control over their destiny--as McPhee explained, at the time only half of one percent of Alaska was in private hands--the rest was under federal ...more
Apr 03, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: awesome
This book made me afraid to read any other John McPhee -- and there's apparently a copious amount of McPhee -- because they might not be as perfect as this one. He writes right on the ridgeline between dull and transcendent (and transcendence, without contrast, without a reminder of what is transcended, gets dull again), and I fear that other books might tip off and be gone baby gone.

Also, Drop City was a really good book -- and most of what was good about it was taken pretty much directly from
Aug 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing
"'The proposals, up here, are for the future,' Kauffmann says, and he adds, after a moment, 'As Yellowstone was. Throughout the history of this country, it's been possible to go to a place where no one has camped before, and now that kind of opportunity is running out. We must protect it, even if artificially. The day will come when people will want to visit such a wildernesssaving everything they have in order to see it, at whatever cost. We're talking fifty and more years hence, when there may ...more
May 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Another wonderful book by McPhee. Introducing the reader to a side of Alaska that I doubt many people think about, at least I did not. There is more going on there than snow and salmon fishing. And yes, Sarah Palin was governor, but don't let that dissuade you from plunging in. I think it takes a while to get used to McPhee's style and this book tends to roam, but by the end it is all tied together quite nicely. The characters are as unique as the geography and geology, many of them are beyond ...more
Aug 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
Parts are fascinating, like his evocation of the Alaskan wildlands and the pioneer types who live there. Even tho it was written in the 70's I learned from this book how politically isolated Alaska is and how being independent is the prevailing attitude in its people and was therefore not too surprised at what transpired this fall during the presidential election. Everything I've ever read by John McPhee has been great.
Jo Deurbrouck
Traveling with John McPhee is always a treat, but this book is particularly dear to my heart because McPhee tries to capture a spirit and a mindset he thinks is quintessentially Alaskan. Can't fault him for that: he's from New Jersey. What he really captures is the Alaskan version of a mindset that is quintessentially Western and, because he's the kind of researcher who doesn't turn over stones without also tasting the bugs beneath, he does a gorgeously thorough, imminently readable job of it.
Margaret Moss
Oct 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
John McPhee has always been my hero and a writing mentor. He helped me form my definition of a good writer -- one who can compel a reader to continue reading something they would otherwise care nothing about.
Feb 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating book. Tather than focusing on what makes Alaska "wild", McPhee concentrates on the people that are living and working within this colossal landscape and why they've chosen to live here. This makes it a much more rounded and interesting rumination on one of the last frontiers.
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The ...more

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Well, here we all are, sheltering in place, buying canned beans, and generally trying to figure out how to stay inside and keep our minds busy....
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“George Sears, called Nessmuk, whose “Woodcraft,” published in 1884, was the first American book on forest camping, and is written with so much wisdom, wit, and insight that it makes Henry David Thoreau seem alien, humorless, and French.” 1 likes
“Reviewing our experiences, we had become more and more convinced that carrying arms was not only unnecessary in most grizzly country but was certainly no good for the desired atmosphere and proper protocol in obtaining good film records. If we were to obtain such film and fraternize successfully with the big bears, it would be better to go unarmed in most places. The mere fact of having a gun within reach, cached somewhere in a pack or a hidden holster, causes a man to act with unconscious arrogance and thus maybe to smell different or to transmit some kind of signal objectionable to bears. The armed man does not assume his proper role in association with the wild ones, a fact of which they seem instantly aware at some distance. He, being wilder than they, whether he likes to admit it or not, is instantly under even more suspicion than he would encounter if unarmed. One must follow the role of an uninvited visitor—an intruder—rather than that of an aggressive hunter, and one should go unarmed to insure this attitude.” 1 likes
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