By Bill Sherwonit
My recent advocacy on behalf of Chugach State Park’s black bears and other wild causes has at times roiled my innards. You see, I’m not by nature a political animal. Neither am I naturally drawn to the public arena. On the personality spectrum, I’m what you’d call an introvert, with tendencies to be a shy guy. For much of my adolescence and early adulthood I was painfully shy, timid around women, and largely kept to myself.
Among my strongest memories from college are these: in my sophomore year, a roommate berated me for being apathetic, when he unsuccessfully urged me to attend a rally against America’s involvement in the Vietnam war (though by my senior year, I was among those marching in protest); and I dreaded speech class, a required course at my liberal arts school. Standing before my freshmen classmates to give a talk was among the hardest things I had to do in those days; about the only thing more agonizing was asking a woman to go on a date.
And here’s a powerful memory from grad school, where I got an MS degree in geosciences: while descending a staircase one day, I was stopped in my tracks when a PhD candidate, going up the stairs, nodded “hi,” then paused and observed, “You’re a loner, aren’t you?” I think I shrugged, not sure how to respond, but knowing he was right.
I’m no longer such a loner, but I do treasure solitude. And I can still be shy in social settings, especially when I don’t know many people. I can now comfortably talk and do readings in front of crowds, sometimes with heartfelt enthusiasm. (I like to joke that I’ve learned to embrace my inner ham.) And I’ve turned myself into something of an activist, a person who not only attends rallies and submits written comments for causes important to me, but also speaks—and yes, writes—passionately on behalf of wildlands and wildlife and occasionally environmental- and social-justice issues.
I like to credit my training as a journalist, my work as outdoors and nature writer, and my becoming an author for this evolution from shy-guy loner to socially and politically engaged citizen, though years of personal- and spiritual-growth work have also played a crucially important part in that transformation.
My role as nature writer/author has been especially critical in giving me the reason—and the passion—to speak and write on behalf of the wild Earth and “all our relations,” by which I mean all the spirited life forms with whom we share our beautiful, bountiful, life-giving planet.
How can a guy not be an advocate for creatures and landforms that are so often regarded as mere “resources” by our capitalistic, consumer-oriented culture? Or in some cases, treated badly as undesirable pests or vermin or wastelands.
There are so many causes and issues that nowadays demand the attention and activism of those who love wild nature. None is greater than the climate crisis that threatens life as we know it, around the world. But here in Alaska there are also ongoing efforts to defend the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain from the new rush for oil and gas development; protect Bristol Bay’s world-class fisheries—and the people whose lives revolve around them—and also McNeil River’s unmatched gathering of brown bears from the proposed Pebble Mine Project, which would be destructive in so many ways; and stop the ill-conceived and irresponsible push for the Ambler Mining Road, which would disrupt subsistence culture and harm wildlands and wildlife along the southern edge of the Brooks Range. Just to name a few of the “battles” that have held my attention in recent years and months.
And then there’s Chugach State Park, Anchorage’s beloved “backyard wilderness.”
My relationship with the park goes back to the early 1980s. Over the years I have spent thousands of days exploring its peaks and valleys, its forested lowlands and high alpine ridges. I have written about the park in essays and books, have served on its citizen advisory board, and joined the group Friends of Chugach State Park. And from time to time I have been a fierce advocate for the park’s wildlife and wilderness.
Though it’s been special to me for more than three decades, it seems the park has become even more central to my life over the past five to ten years. I think that’s partly—perhaps largely—because I’ve become more of a “home body.”
Though I’ve never been an avid “world traveler,” since the 1980s I have visited many of the state’s wildest and most remote places. I still do occasional trips to distant Alaska locales—this month, for instance, I’ll be visiting the village of Kaktovik and the Arctic coast to spend a few days in the company of polar bears—and sometimes travel Outside to visit family, but I’m more likely to stay close to home. It’s where I love to be.
Two dogs who love to roam wild landscapes have also influenced my behavior, first Coya and now Denali. I quickly found it hard to leave such marvelous companions behind when I travel to faraway places, so I’ve tended to seek adventure where I can include them, which usually means on local municipal and state park lands.
There’s also the fact that I’ve come to better understand the costs of jet and plane travel to our planet, which gives me a “green” reason to stay closer to home. I’ve taken that to heart, though my commitment to an Earth-friendlier lifestyle clearly is imperfect.
Despite the recent deepening of my connection to Chugach State Park and my increased appreciation of its place in my life, several years had passed since I’d been a staunch and vocal advocate for its wild values and character, as other causes and crises took precedence in my life.
That quickly changed this summer and fall, as I found myself pulled to take a stand on a series of park issues that alarmed me, beginning with the so-called “concert in the park,” followed soon after by the controversial rerouting and reshaping of the popular South Fork Rim Trail, and finally the new black bear hunts proposed in a couple of the park’s most popular recreational areas. (I’ve written about all three in City Wilds columns; here’s a link to the most recent and outrageous: https://www.anchoragepress.com/sports_and_outdoors/state-parks-director-behaves-shamefully-in-approving-new-black-bear/article_d6621464-e4b5-11e9-91a0-87eea3ee53aa.html)
In a matter of months, I’ve become more fully engaged with the park’s politics—and its staff and citizen advisory board—than I’ve been in many years. All of this is good. But while energizing at times, I can also become worn down by the conflicts and the politics, which can be both maddening and heart wrenching (and yes, sometimes cause for celebration).
Reflecting on all of this, I’m reminded of a favorite poem written by the accomplished literary artist and nature advocate Nancy Wood, which begins:
My help is in the mountain
where I take myself to heal
the earthly wounds
that people give to me.
So it is with me and Chugach State Park’s Front Range: a place of healing, release, rejuvenation, connection, joy.
Not long after learning about the “experimental” black bear hunt proposed for McHugh Creek Valley, I did a hill climb of McHugh Peak with my girlfriend, Jan, and our two dogs, Denali and Guido. Crossing a high bench below the summit ridge, we decided to veer off to the east, rather than follow our usual route toward the tower that marks the mountain’s top.
The afternoon had become raw and windy, chilling but invigorating too. After walking another mile or so, we stopped at a place where we could get out of the wind, to savor some snacks and hot tea. But first Jan, the dogs and I stepped onto a rocky ledge that presented us a panorama of the upper McHugh Creek valley, with its series of aquamarine lakes and sweep of autumn-tinted tundra, and the mountains that rise above it, stark and sheer.
Breathtaking in its rugged beauty, the landscape captured my full attention. Though we’d talked some about the black bear hunt earlier in our hike and I would return my focus to it in the days that followed, in those moments on McHugh Peak we came under the spell of the high and wild country that surrounded us and the wilderness beyond, stretching forever it seemed. And everything else washed away, our spirits restored and lifted by wildness.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife” and “Chugach State Park: Alaska’s Backyard Wilderness,” a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall. Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.