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Thinking Outside

Bill Sherwonit ’71 has climbed Denali, North America’s tallest mountain. He’s authored nine books on topics like the Iditarod, Denali National Park, bears, and Alaska’s state parks system. A columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, he’s a well-known advocate for the state’s wilderness, especially the surprising amount in and around Anchorage itself, where Sherwonit lives with his wife, Dulcy Boehle.

Yet when Sherwonit graduated from Bates with a geology major, his fascination with the outdoors was still two careers away.

After Bates, he earned a master’s and headed to Alaska to be a geologist. “Some part of me knew that I was going home,” recalls the Connecticut native. And the state, heavily reliant on mining and oil exploration, should’ve been geologist heaven — but Sherwonit didn’t feel it. On a minerals exploration crew, he worked with people who loved geology far more than he did. “I had my first midlife crisis in my late 20s,” he says. So he left Alaska determined to “find something that I could love as much as those guys loved geology.”

Retreating to the Los Angeles area, he enrolled in a photojournalism program that included a newswriting course. The science-minded Sherwonit embraced the logic of newswriting, “the whole inverted-pyramid thing.” After a few years, it was back to Alaska as a reporter for the now-defunct Anchorage Times, first covering sports, then the outdoors.

In Alaska, the outdoors beat goes on and on. Sherwonit covered the Iditarod, the Masters of sled-dog racing. He spent time with mountain climbers trying to scale Denali, which led to his own 1987 ascent of the 20,320-foot peak as part of a guided group. Just happy to be on the mountain, Sherwonit recalls other climbers for whom not making the top meant failure. “There’s always talk of conquering a mountain,” Sherwonit says. “I don’t buy that notion, because factors beyond your control, like the weather, often determine success or ‘failure.’”

While bagging peaks isn’t his goal, Sherwonit admits that Denali has “an incredible allure, a special magic.” And it’s a great subject for writers. Sherwonit’s Denali books include To the Top of Denali: Climbing Adventures on North America’s Highest Peak, which he calls “a consistent seller” for more than a decade. There’s also Denali: A Literary Anthology. “I feel it’s a wonderful collection, but putting ‘literary’ in the title was a kiss of death. Sales have been horrible.” A recent project is Denali: The Complete Guide, which gives the big picture of the Denali experience.

Then there’s Iditarod: The Great Race to Nome. “The Iditarod is not necessarily mushers against mushers,” he explains, “but mushers and their dogs taking on the challenge of Alaska. Just as Denali captures the public’s imagination, so does the Iditarod. Alaskans might disagree vehemently on other issues, but they agree that the Iditarod is amazing.”

An ingrained fascination with confronting nature might also reflect the state’s alive-and-well frontier mentality, says Sherwonit (whose Web site is www.billsherwonit.alaskawriters.com). A prevailing Alaskan notion, he says, is that natural resources are both boundless and available “for us to use, subdue, conquer. Things get measured in terms of their importance to our species.

“But that’s not the only measuring stick — a lot of things, wildlife or whatever, are inherently valuable for themselves.”

As for life in Anchorage, Sherwonit worries how development “nibbles away” at the city’s beloved public parks, bike trails, and other green spaces. “I don’t think we’re going to lose all what makes Anchorage special, but it’s still worth fighting for.”


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