Great Travel Books: Alaska Challenge by Bill and Ruth Albee

Alaska Challenge might be the oddest of all the books on my shelf.  Over seventy years old, it sits wedged in between more conventional books.  Its binding is coming apart a little, but other than that it is in pretty good shape.  It was written by Bill and Ruth Albee, copyrighted in 1940, and purchased by myself from a used book shop in Evanston in 2002.  Corey and Noel share a few similarities with Bill and Ruth Albee in that both couples have Illinois roots and traveled to Alaska shortly after getting hitched.  Bill and Ruth walked, Corey and I drove (Bill and Ruth were also cousins but Corey and I have no such blood link).  Like Corey and I, Bill and Ruth made a lot of fascinating friends and the journey definitely drew them closer together.

What I like best about the book:  It is through and through a truly awesome yarn.  Per Bill and Ruth, they poach moose to survive (and aggravate Canadian/ U.S. relations in doing so), get lost while following a bogus map sold to them by an old-timer, teach among First Nations people in the arctic, give birth, and witness the very end of the Hudson Bay Company’s trading post era.  Is it a completely factual book?  I doubt it; at the very least I am sure much of it is embellished.  The thing that truly captivates me is how little I know about Bill and Ruth Albee.  Believe me, I have tried and tried to get more information about them but the best I can come up with is that they toured some with the Chautauqua Circuit (a traveling tent show that featured an assortment of vaudeville and self-improvement/ religious type gurus).  I also found an article written by Bill that ran November, 1938 in Popular Mechanics magazine (http://blog.modernmechanix.com/dont-pity-the-poor-eskimo-part-i/).  That same article posting has several people commenting on how they found Alaska Challenge (almost always in a state of disrepair) and how they always wondered what became of Bill and Ruth Albee.  One person commenting on that article claims Bill as his great-uncle and stated that he passed away in 2010 at the age of 102.  I like to think that Ruth also lived to a grand old age and that the two of them and their children had lots and lots of adventures in all types of far away and exotic places.  Until told otherwise, that is the story I am going to stick with.

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14 thoughts on “Great Travel Books: Alaska Challenge by Bill and Ruth Albee

  1. Contact me via Facebook and we can chat about Bill and Ruth. AMAZING people and there’s a lot to talk about. They were my great aunt and uncle. Ruth didn’t live nearly as long as Bill – but was very active up until her death. I visited her shortly b4 she was having her heart ‘reset’ (she had an irregular heart beat). I have pics and some of my own stories to tell. My brother, Jeff Albee had been very, very close to Uncle Bill up to his passing. You are very smart to recognize the significance of that book. One thing it helped me realize is – I am a TOTAL wimp! Man, they did SO much on that treck… Warm regards, Marty Wilson

  2. My father, Wally Falkenstein, was first cousins with Bill and Ruth Albee. They were very amazing people! When they were in Alaska, Bill invented a large, balloon-like tire that would have been useful for an all weather terrain vehicle.
    Apparently it could run over someone and not injure them. The Albee’s lived in Oahu where he worked for the Chamber of Commerce as the war was ending. My
    father said their home was located up the Pali Pass and no other homes could be
    seen from there to the ocean. They lived in Carmel, CA., and built a home out of
    clay and bricks. I met them when I was about 10 and they had a cabin near Carmel in the forest. I cearly remember them, as they offered us bear stew, and I
    was so scared I’d have to eat it!. After Bill and Ruth parted ways, Ruth lived in a
    fire watchtower for 6 months out of the year where she wove baskets out of pine
    needles. I would have loved to have spent more time with them. What an inspiring
    couple. Aloha, best wishes, Kathy Munsen, Maui

    • Thank you so much for writing us. It makes me a little sad to think that Ruth and Bill parted ways. Have you read their book? If there was one question I could ask Ruth of Bill, it would be how factual is the book (I don’t think anyone lied, just maybe exagerated a little). Did Bill live into his 90s? Thank you again for the response. Noel

  3. Since I read this book written in the voice of my Great Uncle Bill about the adventure’s that he and Great Aunt Ruth undertook in the 1930’s, about 18 months ago, it is developing a kind of cult following for lack of better terminology. I am sorry to say that I don’t recall ever meeting Marty, but from her photo she looks like a beautiful combination of her father and mother. I did meet her brother, my cousin Jeff a few times when we were children.

    As for your wondering about the authenticity of this adventure, I can tell you Uncle Bill and Aunt Ruth always maintained it was all true. They had two children while in Alaska, but then you knew that from reading the book. They also had another child Robert Sutton Albee, born in North Carolina. Uncle Bill, was an engineer by trade and had multiple patents, but the main one was for the huge ‘off road’ tire of which Marty referred. It was called a Rolligon if my memory servers me right. He was also called to the White House to speak to President Truman on numerous occasions regarding his knowledge of the terrain of Alaska and Western Canada and he helped resolve a number of issues in the building of the Trans Continental Highway. Uncle Bill was also very good at marketing and business development. He was able to get multiple articles over the years on his Rolligon’s, but his two best from my point of view were the Article and movie he was able to get the National Geographic Society to do on the family as it was at the time; Bill, Ruth, Skeeker and Jo. They retraced their steps of their first trek into the wilds of Canada for the first few hundred miles, skirting the actual construction of the highway. The article is in the May 1942 issue and the article is called Family Afoot. I have a copy which was/is available via Amazon. I am going to purchase a few more to share, as whenever I tell anyone about the book and article they ask if they can read it. I want to make sure that I always have one of each that is to be kept for our family, just in case when I loan out the two items that if an ‘accident’ occurs and either one or both are damaged I have copies for the family. As for the movie; it is archived with a company in England and they refuse to copy it. I had hoped they had digitized it and it would be available. I have asked several times and finally I was told, it is not going to happen, please stop contacting us. As one person told me, the word NO, just means; not now, so maybe it is time to try again. I think this is a great American stories that we need right now. It is history and yet so much more. It shows that with inner strength and using the tools at hand you can over come adversity. I think it is a great teaching tool for our youth today. One of the books and magazines I purchased is going to a friend that teaches 4th and 5th grade. He is a big man of over 6’6″ and is a ‘mountain man of sorts’. He has a great speaking voice and reads often to his classes, so that they develop listening skills. This book, magazine and film have so many teaching opportunities that the story and projects could start at the beginning of the year and finish up at the end of the school year. It could become an underlying theme for his classroom. ‘Press On Regardless for You Are More than You Think You Could Ever Be; or something like that Maybe with his help or that of the large school district he teaches in, we can nudge this firm in England to take my request more seriously and digitize the film.
    If you have specific questions, I will be glad to answer them if I can, either here on the blog or via my private email. I do not do social networks. I am not on facebook or twitter or any other type of ‘here I am’ medium. I am even surprised at myself for writing to you and as much as I did, but it looks like Uncle Bill and Aunt Ruth are having a second run with another generation that wonders how on earth those that went before us did the things they did. I am enjoying the fact that others are finding their story compelling. My mom will be thrilled.

    • Thank you so much for replying. For me the book really came to me at the right time. My wife and I had just come back from our own Alaska adventure and I was having trouble readjusting to the quieter day to day life of Chicago. On a lunch break I wandered into a used book store and the book sort of fell into my hands. I read it in about a day and then every once in a while re-read the book. After countless google searches I wrote a post about the book and have had a few relatives contact me. Your great uncle and aunt really left an impression on me and I wish you and your family all the luck in bringing this story to the masses. Noel

      • Noel,
        Thank you for writing back. I do know that Uncle Bill and Aunt Ruth according to my mother did have the same type of issues in adjusting to the day in and day out of a more normal life. I think that is why they traveled a lot, but nothing like what they went through on ‘their honeymoon’. I think it is part of being an adventurer, I really do. You long for what is coming next and how to meet it head on. You were obviously meant to own this book. I am so glad that it has spoken to you and in its own way may have helped you as well. My best to you.
        Mrs. C

  4. I just finished Alaska Challenge. I picked it up at our library after a whim to learn more about Alaska. After finishing I came to the internet to see what more I could learn of them. I’m a bit sad they parted ways, they seemed kindred spirits. I’m also glad to find this article and read the comments. Thank you all,.

    • It took me over ten years of serious research (every once in awhile I would google their names) before getting any information. Their relatives paint a portrait of them being very caring and adventuresome people. Bill also lived well into old age and I think he invented some type of sleigh that was once featured in Popular Mechanic. Just curious, how much of the book do you think was fact? I think most of it was based on something but some of it was probably embellished. Thanks for commenting.

      • I thought it was well written and believable. Although I’m sure some of the dialogue was embellished as perhaps were some of the people. It was weaved together very well.
        I did some research on maps around that time period and I’m amazed that some of the places mentioned were not accessible by road until the 80’s. The second part concerning the Eskimos was of little less interest to me since my motivation for reading the book was more so adventure.
        One of the principal reasons I read it was because it was written in the 30’s and for some reason that appealed to me.

      • My wife and I drove the Alaskan Highway and met a person whose father (an indigineous hunter) saw the highway being built. While driving the highway we had a chance to go up in a small plane. Looking down you can see the road for what it is (a two lane road cutting through complete and absolute wilderness).

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