During an early February walk in the Chugach Front Range, a skier said to me while passing, “Hey, I like your writing. I’ve 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 calculations. It turns out that 40 years is exactly how long I’ve been writing Alaska stories. Four decades ago this month, in February 1982, I moved from Southern California to Alaska to become a sports reporter for the Anchorage Times.
I had first traveled to Alaska during the summer of 1974, then a geologist who’d recently received an MS degree at the University of Arizona. I quickly fell in love with Alaska while working on an exploration crew that searched for economic metal deposits in the Brooks Range wilderness. I ended up working in Alaska for parts of five years that decade, but it wasn’t the geology as much as the wilderness and wildlife that kept pulling me back.
I left Alaska for the L.A. megalopolis—a place I’d never before visited—in the late 1970s while seeking to heal some old, deep wounds (a story in itself). I never came to love Los Angeles. But it, like Alaska, turned out to be a life-altering place for me in many ways. Most pertinent to this essay, it’s where I decided to change careers, one of several shifts that I recount in my book Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness.
Instead of a geologist, I would become a journalist.
Though photography drew me into journalism, my deep and life-long love for sports nudged me in the direction of sports writing. After two years at a small California newspaper (the Simi Valley Enterprise), I learned about an opening at the Anchorage Times. I applied and got the job.
Among my first sports writing “beats” when I joined the Anchorage Times staff: sled dog racing. Competitive mushing became a new passion (as reporter, not participant). Initially I covered sprint races, but eventually I was assigned to the Iditarod and I followed the “Last Great Race” end-to-end three times, including 1985, when Libby Riddles shocked the world and became the first woman to win the Iditarod. What an amazing memory that remains.
I stayed a sports writer only three years, becoming the newspaper’s outdoors writer—a dream job for me—in 1985. There I remained, except for one brief hiatus, until the Anchorage Times went out of business in 1992. Another of my favorite beats: the world of mountaineering, particularly on Denali, the continent’s tallest mountain.
My fascination with Alaska’s mountain-climbing community inspired me to make my own attempt on Denali in 1987. Remarkably enough, during our 21 days on the peak, I regularly called in “dispatches” from The High One to the Anchorage Times, reporting life on the mountain and my team’s progress.
In a roundabout way, that experience led to my first book, To the Top of Denali: Climbing Adventures on North America’s Highest Peak, though my personal experience was only a tiny part of the book, which focused on milestone expeditions across the years and also some contemporary climbing issues and controversies. (I’ll note here that until Alaska Northwest Books staff approached me about writing an Alaska climbing book, I never imagined myself becoming an author.)
In a similar way, I suppose, my newspaper coverage of the Iditarod led to my second book, Iditarod: The Great Race to Nome, also written while I was still at the Anchorage Times.
While an outdoors writer at the Anchorage Times, I sometimes had to report on outdoor activities that didn’t particularly appeal to me and some which personally I found increasingly offensive, for instance “sport” hunting, trapping, and motor sports recreation.
On the other hand, I was given opportunities to present “green” perspectives directly opposed to the newspaper’s editorials. I sometimes jokingly referred to myself as the Anchorage Times’ voice “crying out in the wilderness,” but there was truth to that statement and a few times I got in trouble for my columns. I’m forever grateful for the support I was given by my immediate boss, the sports editor (I remained in the sports department while on the outdoors beat), particularly J.R. Baldwin, who repeatedly defended my work to upper management.
Management’s announcement in June 1992 that the Anchorage Times was ceasing publication was as much a shock to staff as to its readers. Reporters and most editors learned about that decision the same morning it was announced to the world.
With the newspaper’s demise, the question naturally arose: what now?
Upon learning of the newspaper’s closure, two thoughts immediately came to mind: I’m going to stay in Alaska; and I’m going to remain a writer.
In recent years I’d occasionally considered the possibility of becoming a freelance writer, though never seriously. It was only after a valued friend and mentor of sorts asked me, “Are you willing to do whatever it takes?” that I committed myself to giving the freelance lifestyle my best shot.
It’s not an easy thing to do while living in Alaska, but for the past three decades—yet another anniversary I’ll be celebrating later this year—I have managed to eke out a living, though I must admit that for much of the last five to 10 years my freelance income has been heavily supplemented by Social Security payments and retirement savings.
Given all the changes that have happened in the world of journalism, book publishing, and publishing generally over the past twenty years, I think it would be much more difficult now to start a freelance career, particularly while living in Alaska, so I feel fortunate, blessed, for the opportunities I’ve had.
Once self-employed, I could write about subjects and issues that mattered most to me, particularly wilderness adventure, the protection of Alaska’s wildlands (and waters) and what might be called wilderness values, along with wildlife conservation and natural history. I came to identify myself as a “nature writer”—one who writes about wild nature in all its many aspects—and increasingly I became an activist and advocate for the Wild Earth and its many life forms, both through my writings and also in public testimony and participation in rallies and other events. To me the two “roles” have in essence become one.
Since becoming a freelancer, I’ve also focused more on two creative nonfiction forms, essays and what might be called “literary journalism” (sometimes the two are the same). And I’ve had a couple of gigs as a “guest columnist,” first for the Anchorage Daily News in its outdoors section (back in the 1990s) and more recently for the Anchorage Press, as that weekly publication’s “City Wilds” columnist. Though my audience has narrowed at the Press, I greatly appreciate that editor Matt Hickman has allowed me to write about any subject I choose. And what a gift that is.
My City Wilds column is symbolic of another shift: over the past 15 to 20 years, I’ve increasingly written about what might be called “urban nature,” particularly the nature of my adopted hometown, Anchorage. And also the wildness that lies within 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 twenty-first century, wildness is all around us. And within us. Our bodies, our imaginations, our dreams and emotions and ideas are wild. But in going about our busy, modern lives, we consciously or unconsciously suppress, ignore, deny, or forget our wildness. . . .
“Still, the wild animal remains, waiting for release. And—naturally—it’s most easily set free in wild surroundings free of artifice and development. Free, largely, of the human touch. That’s why the feeling of wildness most deeply resonates within us when we enter wilderness. And for many of us, the longer we stay in the ‘wilds,’ the more connected, refreshed, invigorated, and even healed we feel. There’s a sense of being at ease, and sometimes even of being one with nature. Something shifts inside.”
That’s one reason I regularly head into wildlands. Though I don’t do as many lengthy wilderness trips as I once did, I regularly visit Anchorage’s “backyard wilderness,” Chugach State Park, a place that refreshes, enlivens, and inspires me—and my writing. The Chugach Front Range has become a place as special to me as the Central Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park, in large part because it’s my home wilderness. And a source of many of my essays and City Wilds columns.
There’s much more to say—to write—about all of this but I’ll end here with these thoughts. First, whenever I’m asked “When do you think you’re going to retire?” I respond, “A writer never retires.” But I suppose it’s fair to say that nowadays 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 spend more than ever in the close company of nature, and that’s a healthy thing.
And then there’s this: writing for me has long been more than a job or career, and something closer to a way a life, a way of being in the world; and my love for writing and for nature have long been inextricably intertwined. I can’t imagine a better “career” or lifestyle, than being a nature writer in Alaska.
Born and raised in Connecticut and an Alaska resident since 1982, Bill Sherwonit is a nature writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. He’s the author of more than a dozen books, among them Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife and Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness. Sherwonit’s work primarily focuses on Alaska’s wildlife and wildlands, but he’s passionate about wild nature in all its varied forms, including the nature of his adopted hometown, Anchorage, and the spirited wildness we carry within us.