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Book Review – Wild Men, Wild Alaska

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Rocky McElveen is the kind of man, the kind of “real man,” who puts desk jockeys like myself to shame. While I spend nearly endless hours sitting at my desk in Canada’s suburban sprawl, McElveen leads parties of bedraggled hunters through the wide open spaces of untamed Alaska. Though he was trained and educated at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and is an ordained Presbyterian minister, he was drawn back to Alaska, the land of his youth and the land where his father served as a missionary. On almost a whim he began a career as an Alaskan fishing guide. “With help from some dear friends, I began my quest. I had professional-looking brochures printed, conjured up a business name, and made big plans.” That was several decades ago and today McElveen continues to guide hunters and fishermen into the Alaskan wilderness. He boasts an impressive client list, including President George Bush Sr., Chuck Yeager, Dave Dravecky, Chuck Swindoll and many others.

Wild Men, Wild Alaska is not exactly an autobiography, though in many ways it reads like one. McElveen writes well and in a down-to-earth style that is both appealing and fun. Each of the book’s chapters relates one of the adventures he has either enjoyed or suffered through during the length of his rather uncouth career. He writes about the strange difficulties inherent in serving as guide for the President (which gave him opportunity to learn that drawing a knife to cut the President’s fishing line is not a great idea) and the challenge of helping a one-armed man fire a rifle. He writes about coming face-to-face with grizzlies (and living to tell the story) and spending a couple of nights in the company of wolves. He describes the trials that faced wilderness guides like himself when the skies were closed to all manner of air travel in the days following September 11. All-in-all, it makes for a fascinating read and for a book I just didn’t want to put down.

Woven through McElveen’s adventures are spiritual lessons, dropped often subtley into the text. While he shares some interesting and important spiritual insights, these are often seem just a little bit forced. They do not detract from the tale, but neither do they add a whole lot to it. For example, at the end of a chapter in which McElveen faces down a grizzly, he writes, “When the grizzly arrived and I faced him head-on, it was he who became afraid and submissive, not I. Why? I believe it was God. He enables us to face what we greatly fear and will give us the strength to overcome that which intimidates us the most. That certainly has proven true for me.” The lessons are there and are generally sound (though I was sorry to see a brief nod in the text towards John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, even though there are few real comparisons between the books.), but they are clearly secondary to the stories he tells. While it may attempt to be something else, this is really a book of entertaining short stories and one that will likely appeal to both Christians and unbelievers (and may offer just enough opportunity for reflection that it may be a book to consider buying for a unbelieving friend or relative).

The book is written with a dry wit that offers many opportunities to chuckle. Here is a fairly typical example in which McElveen writes about Roscoe, an enormous moose he has seen and often hunted but has never been able to shoot. “I excitedly told the famous evangelist Franklin Graham, son of the even more famous evangelist Billy Graham, about Roscoe. Franklin wanted a chance to match his wit with the moose’s and win himself a trophy rack like no other. Franklin is a great friend of mine, so I told him where Roscoe was, some tips on how to hunt him, and where he could try to land. I also cautioned him that Roscoe was a hardened reprobate, had little use for preachers, and would resist any invitation to Franklin’s table.”

As much as I enjoyed Wild Men, Wild Alaska it made me realize that I am in the right line of work and live in the right part of the continent. I am content to leave the adventuring, encounters with grizzlies and plane crashes to others, though admittedly these stories make for a far more exciting book than would even the wildest tales arising from the web design business.

While not the most spiritually-edifying book I’ve read this year, Wild Men, Wild Alaska served as great entertainment for an afternoon or two and I’m glad to recommend it to others.

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