On a recent walk in the Chugach Front Range with Jan and our dogs, we came across a skier who casually said to me, “Hey, I like your handwriting. I have enjoyed your articles for forty years.
I naturally thanked the skier for his appreciation of my work. But his comments also prompted me to do some mental math. It turns out that 40 years is exactly how long I write to write stories about Alaska. Four decades ago this month, in February 1982, I moved from Southern California to Alaska to become a sportswriter for the Anchorage Times.
I had first traveled to Alaska in the summer of 1974, then was a geologist and had recently completed a master’s degree at the University of Arizona. I quickly fell in love with Alaska while working on an exploration team that searched for economic metal deposits in the Brooks Range wilderness. I ended up working in Alaska for five years during that decade, but it wasn’t so much the geology as the wilderness and wildlife that set me back.
I left Alaska for the megalopolis of LA – a place I had never visited before – in the late 1970s, while seeking to heal old deep wounds (a story in itself). I never liked Los Angeles. But this, like Alaska, turned out to be a place that changed my life in so many ways. Most relevant to this column is where I decided to make a career change, one of the many changes I chronicle in my book “Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness.”
Instead of being a geologist, I would become a journalist.
Although photography drew me to journalism, my deep and long-standing love for sports led me to sports writing. After two years at a small California newspaper (the Simi Valley Enterprise), I learned of a position at the Anchorage Times. I applied and got the job.
Among my first sports writing “beats” when I joined the Times staff: sled dog racing. Competitive mushing has become a new passion (as a journalist, not a participant). Initially I covered sprint races, but eventually got assigned to the Iditarod and followed the “Last Great Race” from start to finish three times, including 1985 when Libby Riddles shocked the world and became the first woman to win the Iditarod. What an incredible memory that remains.
I only remained a sports journalist for three years, becoming the paper’s outdoor editor in 1985 – a dream job for me. I stayed there, except for a brief hiatus, until the Times went bankrupt in 1992. I was inspired by the mountaineering world, especially on Denali, the continent’s tallest mountain.
My fascination with the Alaskan mountaineering community inspired me to make my own attempt on Denali in 1987. Remarkably enough, during our 21 days at the top, I regularly called “dispatches” from The High One to the Times, reporting on life on the mountain and the progress of my team.
In a roundabout way, this experience led to my first book, “To the Top of Denali: Climbing Adventures on North America’s Highest Peak”, although my personal experience was only a tiny part of the book, which focused on milestone expeditions over the years. and also some contemporary climbing issues and controversies. (I’ll note here that until the staff at Alaska Northwest Books asked me to write a climbing book about Alaska, I never imagined myself becoming an author.)
Similarly, I suspect, my media coverage of the Iditarod led to my second book, “Iditarod: The Great Nome Race,” also written while I was still at The Times.
When I wrote about the outdoors at The Times, I sometimes had to report on outdoor activities that didn’t particularly appeal to me and that I personally found increasingly offensive, for example “sport” hunting, trapping and recreational motor sports.
On the other hand, I have had the opportunity to present “green” perspectives directly opposed to Times editorials. I sometimes jokingly referred to myself as the voice of the Times “screaming in the desert”, but there was some truth in that statement and a few times I got into trouble for my columns. I am eternally grateful for the support given to me by my immediate boss, the sportswriter (I remained in the sports department while I worked in the outdoors), especially JR Baldwin, who repeatedly defended my work to the senior management.
The management’s announcement in June 1992 that the Anchorage Times was ceasing publication came as a shock to staff and readers alike. Journalists and most editors pored over the decision the very morning it was announced to the world.
With the disappearance of the newspaper, the question naturally arose: what now?
When I learned of the newspaper’s closure, two thoughts immediately came to mind: I’m going to stay in Alaska; and I will remain a writer.
In recent years, I had sometimes considered the possibility of becoming a freelance writer, but never seriously. It was only after a valued friend and mentor asked me, “Are you ready to do whatever it takes?” that I am committed to giving my best to the independent lifestyle.
It’s not an easy thing to do living in Alaska, but over the past three decades—another anniversary I’ll be celebrating later this year—I’ve managed to make a living, although I have to admit that during most of the last 5-10 years, my freelance income has been heavily supplemented by social security contributions and retirement savings.
Given all the changes that have taken place in the world of journalism, book publishing and publishing in general over the last twenty years, I think it would be much more difficult now to start a career independent, especially living in Alaska, so I feel lucky, blessed, for the opportunities I’ve had.
Once independent, I could write about topics and issues that mattered most to me, especially wilderness adventure, protecting the wild lands (and waters) of Alaska, and what could be call out the values of wilderness, as well as wildlife conservation and natural history. I came to identify as a “nature writer” – someone who writes about wilderness in all its many aspects – and became more and more of an activist and advocate for nature. Wild land and its many forms of life, both through my writings and also in public. testifying and participating in rallies and other demonstrations. For me, the two “roles” have essentially become one.
Since becoming a freelancer, I’ve also focused more on two creative forms of non-fiction, essays and what might be called “literary journalism” (sometimes the two are the same). And I’ve had a few gigs as a “guest columnist,” first for the Anchorage Daily News in its outdoor section (in the 1990s) and more recently for the Anchorage Press as a “City Wilds” of this weekly publication. Although my audience was limited to the press, I greatly appreciate that editor Matt Hickman allowed me to write on any topic I chose. And what a gift it is.
My City Wilds column is symbolic of another shift: Over the past 15 to 20 years, I’ve written more and more about what you might call “urban nature,” especially my hometown nature. of adoption, Anchorage. And also the savagery that lies dormant in us.
As I wrote in the introduction to my book “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey”: “Even in our high-tech, polluted world of the early 21st century, wilderness is all around us. And in us. Our bodies, our imaginations, our dreams, our emotions and our ideas are wild. But in our busy modern lives, we consciously or unconsciously suppress, ignore, deny or forget our wildness. . . .
“Yet the wild animal remains, waiting to be released. And – naturally – it is easier to release it in a wild environment, without artifice or development. Free, in large part, from human touch. why the feeling of wildness resonates most deeply with us when we enter the wilderness.And for many of us, the longer we stay in the “wild”, the more we feel connected, refreshed, invigorated and even healed. You have the feeling of being at ease, and sometimes even of being one with nature. Something is moving inside.
It’s one of the reasons I regularly travel to the wilderness. Although I don’t take as many long wilderness trips as I used to, I regularly visit Anchorage’s “backyard wilderness country,” Chugach State Park, a place that refreshes me, m drives and inspires me and my writing. The Chugach Front Range has become as special a place to me as the Central Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park, largely because it is my wilderness. And a source for many of my City Wilds essays and reviews.
There is much more to say – to write – about all of this, but I will end here with these thoughts. First, every time I’m asked “When do you think you’ll retire?” I answer: “A writer never retires. But I guess it’s fair to say that today I’m semi-retired; I don’t devote the time and energy to writing that I once did. But instead of spending so much time in front of the computer, I’m spending more than ever in close company with nature, and that’s a good thing.
And then there is this: writing for me has long been more than a job or a career, and something closer to a way of life, a way of being in the world; and my love for writing and for nature have long been inextricably linked. I can’t imagine a better “career” or lifestyle than being a nature writer in Alaska.
Bill Sherwonit, an Anchorage-based nature writer and wilderness and wildlife advocate, is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and ” Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife”. Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill can do so at [email protected]