Thursday, November 22, 2012

49 Writers Essay: Writer as Wilderness Ranger

Marybeth Holleman wrote this essay after completing her 2011 residency in Tracy Arm-Ford's Terror.  Photos are by 2011 TAFT resident Irene Owsley.


Writer as Wilderness Ranger: Guest Post by Marybeth Holleman

I’ve always had a secret desire to be a forest ranger. Maybe it was reading about Edward Abbey out there in his fire tower; maybe it was listening to fireside chats on family camping trips in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it seems like such a divine life, spending your days out on the trails and mountains and waterways, doing for work what I do for fun. So when I learned about theVoices of the Wilderness artist residency in the Tongass National Forest, I nearly swooned.

I’ve been to enough residencies to know the drill: you get yourself there, and they put you up in a quiet, often remote space where you’re left alone to do your art. But this residency, said the announcement, had a twist. Rather than holing up in some cabin, the artist is in full immersion. Paired with a wilderness ranger, she spends a week kayaking, camping, assisting in ranger duties, soaking up the place and (oh, yes) creating. In return, the artist donates one piece of art, which they’ll use in an exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

What could be more perfect? And so in mid-July I found myself in the Tracy Arm Fords Terror Wilderness (TAFT for short), midway between Juneau and Petersburg, shadowing wilderness rangers. As an added bonus, another artist joined me, Washington, D.C.-based photographer Irene Owsley

The residency started with a frenetic day of assigning field work duties to six rangers, reviewing safety regulations, pulling together gear, and coordinating a marathon grocery trip. Then we piled everything into a small boat and motored to their base camp on Little Harbor Island in Holkham Bay.

Arriving in the slant light of evening, I was struck by contrast: four hours earlier I’d been standing in the parking lot of Fred Meyer’s, and now I was standing on a white shell beach, surrounded by waters that mirrored rocky spires and islands, and were punctuated by the brilliant sculptures from calving glaciers. The noise of traffic was replaced with a chorus of whale spouts coming from every direction, echoing off steep mountainsides.

As if they could read our minds, the rangers gave Irene and me our first instructions: you go do your art, we’ll unload the boats. Irene set up her tripod and I walked the beaches and wrote in my journal until all our gear was on the beach and dinner was served. Then one of the rangers and I took an evening paddle around Round Island.

So the week began, a week full of such wilderness adventure and wildlife encounters that, even though I’ve camped and kayaked many places along Alaska’s astonishing coastline, I’m left fumbling for words to describe it all.

Don’t worry, I won’t duck and cover under the writer cop-out of “indescribable.” Suffice to say, my essay will take some time. I’ll just keep in mind how to get there: slowly, as if by kayak, one stroke at a time.
That’s how rangers patrol this wilderness: by kayak. But since both Tracy and Endicott Arms, the two narrow and deep fjords at the heart of this wilderness, are over 30 miles long each, there’s also a bit of hitchhiking involved.

We spent a few days in Holkham, paddling around islands and along iceberg-studded Tracy Bar, all the time serenaded by whale song. Then, early one morning, as soft rain stippled the water, we paddled out to meet the M.V. Sikumi. They lifted our kayaks onto their boat and invited us inside, where we were met by a group of warm, dry, clean tourists.

While the Sikumi motored slowly up Tracy Arm between increasingly towering walls of granite, rangers Sean Rielly and Solan Jensen gave something like that fireside chat—a fjord-side chat. And they fielded questions, everything from “How is climate change affecting this wilderness?” to “What do you eat when you’re out here?”

After a few hours onboard, we were deposited once more in our kayaks, and paddled off to our campsite, which, when Sean told me that’s where we’d camp, I laughed, thinking he was joking: the mound of rock looked no different than the rest of the steep-sided fjord, except it was a little less steep. I soon learned how to go from sitting in my kayak among an ice floe directly to rock climbing.

Throughout the week, the focus was on the wilderness itself, on what wilderness means and why we humans need it. Sitting on glacier-scoured rock, the roar of freshwater tumbling to the sea, I watched a harbor seal twirl and dive beneath teal-blue water, fishing at the waterfall’s plunge. The answers were apparent.

As with any adventure, there are treasures you don’t expect. I now have the potential fulfillment of another desire: to collaborate with a visual artist. By day three, Irene and I were conspiring on several collaborations.
Back in Juneau, after his son Atagan had generously given us a tour of his treasure cave along AukBay beach, Wilderness Crew Leader Kevin Hood asked how the week had gone for me.

“You know those scratches in the rock, the ones you say were left by retreating glaciers?” I asked. “Well, I think they were left by people who didn’t want to leave.”

Photos, from top:  The author hard at work at Tracy Bar; South Sawyer Glacier; Solan Jensen and the author paddling to Tracy Bar; Room with a View; Round Island in Holkham Bay.

 Marybeth Holleman is author of The Heart of the Sound and co-author of Crosscurrents North. New work is forthcoming in AQR, ActionLine, Ice Floe 11, and now online at Literary Mama.  She'll be reading her piece from the fall issue of AQR at the November 4 First Friday at Jitters.  More at

Irene Owsley specializes in the outdoors and travel, particularly northern regions.  Her work has appeared in such magazines as Canoe & Kayak, Sierra, National Parks, Earthwatch, and Natural History and in publications of The National Forest Foundation, Wilderness Society, Potomac Conservancy and Natural Resources Defense Council.  Currently, she is shooting the wild areas of metropolitanWashingtonDC, particularly along the Potomac River Owsley has exhibited her work throughout metro Washington, DC and has been profiled in Rangefinder, Photographer’s Forum, and Nikon World magazine.


Nancy Lord said...
Fabulous post--and great photos from Irene. I look forward to seeing more collaboration from the two of you.
Carol Hult said...
Patrolling the wilderness by kayak. There must be a downside to that job but i can't think of what it might be. What a terrific collaboration - the Forest Service, a writer, and a photographer. Thanks for a wonderful post, Marybeth!
Anonymous said...
I've looked at applying for this, too. Great to hear an inside view of it. Thanks!
Andromeda Romano-Lax said...
Amazing. Thanks for sharing that, Marybeth.
John Owsley said...
Thank you Marybeth, it sounds as though you and Irene had a great time. I have always been envious of her adventures, now even more so. Lookinh forward to more.


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