Outdoors/Adventure

Behind the reimagined ‘55 Ways’ guidebook, a family legacy and shared passion for the Alaska outdoors

A lot has changed in the 50 years since Anchorage resident Helen Nienhueser coauthored the quintessential Alaska outdoors guidebook “55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska.”

What hasn’t changed is Alaskans’ enthusiasm for the placid and picturesque areas in the Chugach Mountains and beyond that she and coauthor Nancy Simmerman encouraged people to explore.

The book has been updated over the years through various new editions. Now, Nienhueser’s son John Wolfe, 59, and her granddaughter Rebecca Wolfe, 29, are carrying on the family legacy with an eye toward the modern Alaska outdoors experience.

“Alaska Adventure 55 Ways: Southcentral Wilderness Explorations” was released this month, and the Wolfes said a big reason they wanted to reimagine the book was to continue to promote Nienhueser’s enthusiasm for being outside.

“That’s a big part of why I said yes to coming on board the project,” said Rebecca Wolfe, who goes by Becca. “I knew it was really important to Grandma. I mean, she didn’t say, ‘This has to be continued,’ but I know that it’s important to her that the book and the idea of helping people get outdoors and getting exercise and enjoying Alaska (continues).”

The book includes favorite excursions from the Kenai Peninsula (such as the Resurrection Pass trail system and Harding Icefield) and the Mat-Su (K’esugi Ridge and Lazy Mountain Loop). There are also plenty of trips in and near Anchorage (like McHugh Peak, Williwaw Lakes and California Creek).

The idea for launching a new book came when John Wolfe, who founded the nonprofit Alaska Huts Association, had some extra time on his hands in spring 2020. He had assisted his mother with updating newer editions of the original book and had plenty of familiarity with both the text and the Alaska outdoors scene.

“It was probably related to me retiring,” he said. “I’ve been thinking for a long time we needed to update the book. It was getting to be badly outdated even though it was on shelves and I had time.”

At that point, in her mid-80s, Nienhueser wasn’t able to lead the work on the revamped version, although she did write the foreword. So, the father-daughter team had to decide what the new book would look like.

The original work included challenging options for experienced outdoorspeople but was also incredibly approachable, with routes and tips for novices. It also featured different modes of getting around in the backcountry, including hikes, skis and paddling adventures. Those are all traits the Wolfes tried to carry over into the new book.

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“It’s about many different kinds of ways to be outside in Alaska but also tries not to make it unusually difficult to do that,” Becca Wolfe said. “We want to make it an every person’s guidebook that anyone can pick up and find themselves a new adventure and maybe try something they haven’t done before. And that’s really important in the outdoors and in general, that there aren’t barriers for people to do that.”

Modern technology has changed the way people experience the outdoors, from apps to online message boards. At first, there was some discussion about turning the original book into an app. But the decision to maintain the original book format fits with the communal attitude Nienhueser favored.

“Honestly, I’m really glad that we made it a book,” Becca Wolfe said. “There’s something really nice about having a physical thing. It’s a beautiful book. ... I think it’s really great to be able to sit down and flip through and look for your next adventure and pore over it with people. There’s a lot of utility and all the apps and websites and Strava, but it’s a really different experience.”

John Wolfe said that when he grew up, his outdoor experiences often mirrored the type of accessible adventures that are featured in the book.

“I think my mom did a pretty good job of trying to make it fun when we were going out,” he said. “Taking friends along or going with another family or whatever, that kind of thing. That was probably the biggest thing, but just not overdoing it too. And that’s, again, just part of her nature. She was never a 20-mile-a-day person and neither am I. When we were kids, we did small stuff and it worked.”

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The Wolfes’ book features an emphasis on traverses and loops and includes all sorts of new adventures, from skates to skis to fat-bike rides and backpacking trips. Despite the influx of technology available to outdoors enthusiasts, John Wolfe said there is plenty of utility in the book. It includes thoughtfully curated trips injected with firsthand knowledge along with reliably sourced information on routes and best practices.

The original book “had water trips and ski trips and hiking trips, and that’s part of its strength. And we wanted to build on that,” he said. “Crust skate skiing and fat-tire biking and even mountain bikes didn’t exist in 1972, and so they’re not in there.”

The original book was intended to reach people with a wide range of skill levels. In the new book, the Wolfes hope to expand on that sense of inclusivity — “being intentional with our language around inclusivity, and being intentional with our language around land acknowledgement and Indigenous people being on this land for time immemorial,” Rebecca Wolfe said.

“Those were two things that I think we kind of set ourselves up with at the beginning,” Becca Wolfe said. “These are important things to be conscious of as we write the entire book, and I think that really helped shift our language.”

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Nienhueser, now 86, was a true trailblazer in Alaska in the early 1970s. Outside of her work as an author, she also helped establish the Alaska Center for the Environment and helped organize a movement that led to a reform of Alaska’s abortion law.

“My grandma is definitely one of my heroes for that reason,” Becca Wolfe said. “She gets a conviction and she does what she thinks is right. She is absolutely in love with the mountains, which is why she came to Alaska in the first place and then wrote the book. It’s an incredible legacy to have and (she’s) an incredible role model to have.

“I can’t say that I’m being quite as groundbreaking, but I appreciate being able to follow in her footsteps.”

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.

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