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In “It Happened Like This,” a young woman finds adulthood by way of Alaska’s wild places

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: September 1, 2018
  • Published September 1, 2018

It Happened Like This: A Life in Alaska

By Adrienne Lindholm. Mountaineers Books, 2018. 208 pages. $16.95 paperback.

Many, perhaps most, Alaskans who've moved here from elsewhere by choice share a sense of having found the place they were meant to live — one that feeds their soul and spirit of adventure. Adrienne Lindholm falls into this category and has written a lovely account of her personal discoveries and epiphanies as she grew from a newly hired backcountry ranger in Denali National Park into an Alaska adulthood.

“It Happened Like This: A Life in Alaska,” By Adrienne Lindholm

After childhood and college on the East Coast, Lindholm was drawn by mountains across the country, first to Colorado and then to Alaska. What was it that made her stay? She tells us, "In the Denali Wilderness I experienced a force much greater than myself. It seeped into my psyche and began to sculpt my inner landscape, and then I had no choice. I needed to stick around and see what would happen next."

Part of what happened next was the friendships she developed and the outdoor adventures she undertook. An athlete apparently always up for a physical challenge, Lindholm took up mountain running, backpacking and wilderness camping, boating on wild rivers, glacier travel, sea kayaking and just generally getting out into some of the most remote parts of the state.

As she worked her way into a series of jobs with Alaska's national parks, primarily in planning and wilderness issues, she also explored some of our least visited public lands — the Western Arctic National Parklands, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Lake Clark National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge among them. She encountered bears, wolves, wolverines, caribou, musk ox and her own confidence and fears. The details of those journeys, and her celebrations of wilderness, will please both fellow adventurers and the armchair variety.

Lindholm, though, was not about "bagging" peaks or being the first to complete a difficult route. Her joy is of another sort. "It Happened Like This" departs from old-style adventuring ("conquest" of mountains and wild places) with a refreshing attitude that involves more contemplation of self and the values of those places that feed her spirit. Adventuring with women friends, she writes, "I look around more often. I notice the details. The result is a more harmonious experience, an exchange between the wilderness and us, rather than us going into the wilderness to conquer something."

The author held — and holds — strong opinions about wilderness and conservation. Much of her book tracks the evolution of her thinking over time. Early on, her attitudes were somewhat simplistic — even, she acknowledges, "unAlaskan." A note she wrote to herself just before arriving in Alaska includes "Killing, including hunting, is barbaric and wrong." Later, she objects to labeling wolves as "resources" and to predator control that put state and federal agencies into conflict.

Eventually, though, we find her, that "suburban East Coast girl," "pulling herself uphill through head-high grasses and belly-crawling around rocky outcrops to stalk and perhaps shoot a caribou." Deciding to take responsibility for her food, she does shoot a caribou, and she does feel conflicted. She loved that caribou even as she killed it, even as she thought of the many meals it would provide. She concludes, "That's a strange thing to reconcile."

Lindholm learns — and shares with readers — why Alaska is different than other places when it comes to hunting and fishing. She meets rural people and comes to appreciate the role of subsistence in their lives and in the larger Alaska culture. Still, she's an advocate for the protection of lands and wildlife. Often frustrated in her job, she laments that "protecting federally designated wilderness from an onslaught of threats meant that I had entered a battle I could never win. There were thousands of ways to degrade wilderness and no way to create better wilderness."

She's not blind to the contradictions in her own life. She wants oil and mining companies out of wild places even as she recognizes that her own lifestyle "munched up countless times more energy than practically everyone else in the world." Still, "The part of me that acknowledges that energy must come from somewhere won't flex to the part of me that believes these places will be worth so much more if we leave them just the way they are for another thousand years."

A major theme running through the book has to do with independence and self-sufficiency. The author, at the start, isn't sure she even wants a boyfriend. She's pretty sure she doesn't want to be encumbered by children. As readers follow her through her 20s and into her 30s, we see her temper her views, to open to different possibilities than the life she'd been so sure of establishing. This inner journey to adulthood, with all its tensions and complexities, is as absorbing as her encounters with rivers and wildlife.

In the end, "It Happened Like This" is a life-affirming story about the ways we test ourselves against our physical selves, our connections to home and wild places and our beliefs. And it's about love — of wilderness, friends, family, and an imagined future. Lindholm's generous and graceful sharing of her life should prompt readers everywhere to think about what we value and how we reconcile those values with how we live.