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Really, Rosemary

  • Author: Heather Lende
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 22, 2015

HAINES -- Lifelong Alaskan Rosemary McGuire, 38, who grew up in a home here without electricity or running water, has commercially fished out of Cordova, paddled miles of wild Alaskan rivers (many of them with her dad, Tom), and now -- to no one's surprise -- published a book of Alaska short stories. "Creatures at the Absolute Bottom of the Sea" comes out this month from the University of Alaska Press. "Everything I've ever written has been about Alaska in some way or another. It's the place I know," McGuire says.

McGuire, who looks like she could play Peter Pan on Broadway, is shy when it comes to talking about herself. Friends describe her as curious, stubborn, capable, strong, smart and a bit of a dreamer. Her book may be surprisingly dark for some readers, but she thinks sad is a better description. "There's a sad undertow, and some are somewhat violent in a fishing-tragedy way," she says.

"The stories are all set in rural Alaska, and almost all in the fishing industry. I've been working on them off and on for about 10 years. I started fishing when I was 23, and it's been my bread and butter ever since. I was in a very unhappy marriage for most of my 20s, which might explain some of the darkness in this book, but we did have some good years, and most of our good times were on a boat we owned together, the Tommyknocker.

"We gillnetted the Copper River Flats before it was the money-making fishery it is now. When we split up, he kept the boat and permit. I got my own boat, the Solitaire, two years later, but by then the fishery had changed so much I just could not get a permit without more capital than I had. I leased a permit for a season and a half, and had a wonderful time. But in the end, the permit leases became too expensive, too.

"I've worked on boats as crew ever since," McGuire says. "Most have been commercial fishing boats, but I've also done quite a few stints on research vessels -- in Prince William Sound and in the Aleutians. In the winter, I work in Antarctica (more than 9,000 miles south). At the moment, I am running the boathouse at Palmer Station, on the Antarctic Peninsula. Work here includes just about everything from whale tagging to drilling rock for landing pins (to secure boats)."

It's her third season in Antarctica, and she's become something of a Ms. Fix-It, one day patching the Zodiac's rubber skin, the next maintaining motors and electronics, the next piloting scientists to locations where they're studying penguins and whales out to collect data. Few scientists know much about driving the boats, so she's particularly valuable.

"I've also tended weirs, collected fish otoliths (of the inner ear) and caught alevin as a research tech, done stream surveys for Fish and Game, worked in marine salvage, tended bar in rural Alaska, shoveled snow and laid concrete, banged nails, tried to weld, painted boats, mended nets, taught English to Pakistani immigrants and done just about anything else that seemed educational and mildly lucrative."

Then there's the story about McGuire using a rural veterinary exam table for a bed, because the office was a free place to spend the night.

"How in the world did you hear that story?" she asked. "It's true. ... But yes, that is very much in character for me. I don't have a settled home, but I have been to more than 40 countries, and have slept in many, many strange places."

Not all have been as secure at the vet's office in the Aleutians.

"Years ago, a friend and I were traveling in Haiti. We were volunteering at a clinic for the handicapped there, and overall, we had a great experience. But there was one night we were on a bus that broke down, and we were caught out after dark on the road. At that time, there was a lot of violence in the area, and foreigners in particular were being kidnapped for ransom. We were pretty scared, in part because everyone on the bus (all locals except for us) was palpably frightened."

So, does anything scare her?

"I'm going to paraphrase Edward Abbey. I'm terrified that someday I may outlive the wilderness, and there will be no unspoiled places left on Earth."

Lutak upbringing

Rosemary (or Rosie, as she's called, in addition to Rosebud) McGuire was born at Tom and Sally McGuire's cabin on a mining claim outside of Fairbanks. Tom came to Alaska after graduating from Yale with a degree in history to work as a laborer on the North Slope. Sally's family has University of Alaska connections, and she is a regular letters-to-the-editor writer to the Haines newspaper.

When McGuire was 8, her parents settled on the beach at Lutak, 9 miles from Haines' Main Street and on a dirt road well off the grid. It has since been paved and electrified, becoming a popular tourist destination thanks to the bears feeding in the Chilkoot River. According to the latest U.S. census, 39 people live there.

The family built a storybook-style, multiporched and steeply gabled home by hand in a grove of spruce trees where the river meets the sea.

"Lutak was a wonderful place to be a kid. We were lonely sometimes, but there was so much to do outdoors. I had the kind of free-running childhood that very few people get to have in this day and age. I remember when we first moved to Lutak we lived in a tent by the creek while my parents were working on the cabin. Memories from that time … hauling water from the spring (we didn't get running water until I was a teenager, and I was long gone from home before they had electricity or a phone). Messing around in boats with my sister, and hauling firewood with my dad. We had a big garden, and my mom kept goats. We had chickens for pets, which I didn't know was strange. My sister and I spent a ton of time reading old Nancy Drew (books) in the front seat of the pickup, too, because it was always quiet in there," McGuire says.

McGuire and her three siblings, who are still close, were home schooled and came to town for church and piano lessons. Piano teacher Nancy Nash remembers young Rosie as very independent, and "always marching to her own beat." She says there was a funny moment when she realized that McGuire didn't know what a telephone was.

'Light-years ahead'

McGuire chose to attend Haines High her senior year and was befriended by Nash's daughter Amelia, who says, "Rosie was the smartest girl in the class -- she was always reading, she was very imaginative. It was obvious that she was light-years ahead of the rest of the class."

McGuire, who spoke over a high-tech telephone relay system from Antarctica, had no idea she gave that impression.

"I was pretty shy back then, and not a part of any of the social life at school. I do remember though, that for my 17th birthday Amelia and some of her friends threw me a surprise party. I didn't know them very well, but I never forgot that. It was one of the sweetest things anyone's ever done for me."

From Haines, McGuire was an exchange student in Kirkenes, Norway, and then went on to Shimer College, which is a Great Books school in Chicago, Illinois. As a college student, she spent a semester in Oxford, England, received a bachelor's in philosophy in 1999, and later earned a master's in creative nonfiction from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She also did graduate work in literary journalism at the University of Oregon, and spent time as a resident writer at Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the MacDowell Colony.

"By far the greatest influence on me, though," McGuire says, "has been the books I read growing up as an isolated kid, before I ever started formal schooling. The book that I go back to is 'Out of Africa.' I read that book over and over again. You could call the main character a place, which is also true of my stories."

When asked where her home is these days, she says, "I'm more or less homeless," though Cordova has been home base for much of her adult life, and she keeps a boat in the harbor there that she bunks on when she's in town. She'll be in Cordova for about a week between the Antarctica work and a spring job in Barrow, collecting data on migrating king eiders.

Outdoors dynamo

Sue Libenson of Haines worked with McGuire for a season at a research station on Togiak Lake in 2012 and since then has also fished in Cordova and hung out with McGuire during the gillnet season. It seems logical that the women would be friends, but Libenson says aside from the Haines connection, she was not impressed when they first met at camp.

"We were counting fish for Fish and Game. It was a 24-hour project, and we'd sit in this tower and count fish," Libenson said. It is cold, wet, lonely work. "This was an intense physical deal, and I see Rosie, and she is like this little blonde Guess Jeans model, with the little squeaky voice. I see her there, and I'm like, 'oh no.' Well, she's the toughest, strongest woman I've ever met. When we ordered supplies, I'd be 'tea,' and she'd say, 'sand bags and rebar' so she could rebuild the cabin stairs."

But it's what McGuire does in her free time that really slays Libenson, an avid outdoorswoman herself. McGuire grew up camping with her family, and later spent a lot of time traveling northern rivers. She did a solo trip down the Colville River and another solo trip to Bathurst Inlet in northern Canada, as well as many other trips within Alaska.

"Maybe the best one ever was one I did with my dad in the summer of 2008," McGuire said. "We flew into Kaktovik on the Beaufort Sea and paddled along the coast to the mouth of the Kongakut. Then we lined up the Kongakut, portaged our canoe over the Brooks Range, and came down the Sheenjek River to the Porcupine. We flew home from Fort Yukon just before freeze-up. It was a great trip, though kind of hair-raising at times."

"Did she tell you she went up the Kongakut?" Libenson said. "When she tells you this stuff, she is just so very matter-of-fact, and she's not being flip at all. She's humble and totally old school. I just treasure her. She's done these epic adventures in an aluminum canoe. She quietly goes out and interacts with the Alaska landscape in way that's respectful and almost out of time."

When does McGuire find time to write?

"That's highly problematic. Those stories took close to 10 years -- I've worked on them in all kinds of weird places," she says. Libenson says McGuire typed on a laptop (the camp had solar power) at odd hours while at the Togiak research station. To polish the book, McGuire rented a small apartment in Cordova for a few months, which she said seemed luxurious compared to boats and tents.

Writing compulsion

Mostly, she rises early and tries to write for an hour or two before work, whatever that may be. Writing has been a compulsion since she was very young.

"I started writing when I was 6 or 7, stories entitled -- if I remember right -- 'The Amazing Adventures of Irene.' Irene was a 'pocket person,' an extremely small blonde girl who lived in a tree and traveled the world in her boat. I used to look at the atlas to pick out places for her to go. I haven't seen those stories for more than 20 years, but I still remember that she visited Christmas Island in the South Seas, and I still plan to go there."

"You just never could tell what Rosebud is going to do next," says brother Rafe McGuire, a Haines fisherman and farmer. "I know she'd love to make a living as a writer."

As her first book of stories is about to hit bookstores, is McGuire proud, scared or happy about their publication?

A little bit of all three, with a heavy does of humility. "It's hard for me to explain. I almost don't feel like I wrote those stories. I spent a lot of time working on them, but the times when they came together it felt that something came into me from somewhere else."

But former Alaska Writer Laureate Nancy Lord (and a We Alaskans book critic) says McGuire's intuition and hard work paid off in "Creatures at the Absolute Bottom of the Sea."

"It's beautifully written and authentic to Alaskan experience. I look forward to seeing more of her work, both fiction and nonfiction," Lord said. "She is a terrific writer."

Haines author Heather Lende's third book, "Find the Good," will be published this spring.