OPINION: Looking back on 40 years of writing in Alaska

During a February walk in the Chugach Front Range, I crossed paths with a skier who said to me while passing, “Hey, I like your writing. I’ve enjoyed your articles for 40 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: In February 1982, I moved from 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, I quickly fell in love with the landscape while roaming the Brooks Range wilderness. I worked 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 in the late 1970s, a story in itself. Most pertinent to this column, that’s where I decided to change careers, one of several shifts I recounted in my book “Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness.”

Instead of a geologist, I would become a journalist.

After two years at a small California newspaper (the Simi Valley Enterprise), in early 1982 I applied for a sports-writing position at The Anchorage Times and got the job.

Among my first sportswriting “beats” when I joined the Times: sled dog racing. It quickly became a new passion (as reporter, not participant). Initially I covered sprint races, but eventually was assigned to the Iditarod. I followed the “Last Great Race” end-to-end three times, including 1985, when Libby Riddles shocked the world. What an amazing memory that remains.


I stayed a sports writer only three years, becoming the newspaper’s outdoor writer — a dream job for me — in 1985. Another favorite beat: the world of mountaineering.

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” to the Times, reporting life on the mountain.

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. (Until Alaska Northwest Books staff approached me about writing an Alaska climbing book, I never imagined myself becoming an author.)

While the Times’ outdoor writer, I had opportunities to present “green” perspectives directly opposed to the Times’ editorials and sometimes jokingly referred to myself as the newspaper’s “voice crying out in the wilderness,” but there was truth to that statement, and a few times I got in trouble for my columns.

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? Two thoughts immediately flashed through my mind: I’m going to stay in Alaska; and I’m going to remain a writer.

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’ll admit that in recent years my freelance income has been heavily supplemented by Social Security payments and retirement savings.

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 became an advocate for the Wild Earth and its many lifeforms, during a time when our species poses unprecedented threats to the planet, none bigger than the climate crisis.

Since becoming a freelancer, I’ve also focused more on creative nonfiction, particularly essays and what might be called “literary journalism.” And I’ve had a couple of gigs as a “guest columnist,” first for the Anchorage Daily News outdoors section (back in the 1990s) and more recently for the Anchorage Press, as its “City Wilds” columnist.

My City Wilds column is symbolic of another shift: During 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 21st 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 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 as special to me as the Central Brooks Range; I love both places deeply.

There’s much more to share about all of this, but I’ll end with these thoughts. First, whenever I’m asked “When do you think you’re going to retire?” I respond, “A writer never retires.” Still, instead of devoting as much time and energy to writing, 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.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit 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.”

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Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."