From the bookshelf: Women's wilderness experiences make a lively read

Posted: Thursday, February 10, 2005


  "Going Alone: Womens Adventures in the Wild," edited by Susan Fox Rogers

"Going Alone: Womens Adventures in the Wild," edited by Susan Fox Rogers

Going Alone: Women's Adventures in the wild

Edited by Susan Fox Rogers

Seal Press

$14.95 (softcover)

Gone, thank goodness, are the days when girls were expected to fear bugs and avoid skinning their knees. The relationship between women and wilderness has inspired a modern movement combining introspection and action. Many outdoorswomen have found that the solitude of wild places offer treasures and challenges well worth writing about.

One writer who focuses on the topic is Susan Fox Rogers, who teaches at Bard College in upstate New York. She has edited several anthologies featuring women's writings about wilderness and outdoor adventures. Her latest, "Going Alone," is a standalone sequel to the successful "Solo: On Her Own Adventure," published in 1996.

The new book features essays by 20 women.

When the topic is wilderness, Alaska looms large. Three of the authors are Alaskans, two more are former residents and a sixth describes traveling in Southeast. Others cite Alaska role models such as Mardy Murie and Celia Hunter as inspirations.

"In Alaska, we live surrounded by natural forces — sometimes dangerous, but never malevolent — that keep us humble in our lives," writes Nancy Allyn Cook, who lives in McCarthy and studied writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The women describe ventures ranging from a little girl's first attempt to spend a night alone in the woods behind her house to mature women grappling with time's toll on their physical abilities.

Anchorage's Marybeth Holleman says, "As I've turned older I've become more interested in being strong than in looking good. Not that I ever spent much time trying to look attractive — I never caught on to the routines of wearing makeup or fixing my hair or even keeping up with fashion. The idea of being strong, however, has been gaining momentum. On a run last summer, I was suddenly aware of my beating heart."

From Nepal to New England, these writers hike, bike, row, paddle, climb, ski, fish and even crawl through a subterranean cavern.

Elsewhere, outdoor stories often emphasize close calls and adrenaline-pumping surprises. Perhaps reflecting their so-called gentler gender, these authors only serve up one near-death experience among them. Instead, they emphasize that women carry into the wild mental baggage in addition to the weight in their packs. They talk about fears and expectations, as when former-Alaskan Gretchen Legler writes about hiking in Antarctica:

"Perhaps I wanted to come face to face with myself and see what I saw; see what the landscape of ice and stone could reveal to me about who I was, what earth I stood upon, what made me, and what fixed me to the places, people and ideas I held most dear. A more profound adventure I could never imagine."

This introspection in no way diminishes the sheer physicality of their experiences. These are women who are not afraid to sweat, curse, hunger and venture beyond conventional safety. Yet they mingle their discomforts with philosophy and even humor, as when Sherry Simpson sets off on a hike near Fairbanks:

"Mosquitoes hummed in a thick fog at the trail head. I grunted as I struggled into the pack and buckled myself to it. Scott attached a tinny bell to Jenny's collar, not to alert bears but to help me keep track of her. He sprayed me front and back with bug dope. He photographed us standing by the sign that said 'Circle-Fairbanks Historical Trail,' and the traitorous part of my brain wondered if that would be the picture they'd put in the paper once the search started."

Besides the urge to heed the call of the wild, the featured women share a gift for storytelling. Their writing is taut and thoughtful, with every entry a well penned page-turner.

One drawback is that although the women describe diverse experiences, they seem to be on the same wavelength. They go into the wilderness willingly, carry journals and can afford good equipment. In the mind's eye, they seem a sisterhood of white, middle-class, highly educated environmentalists.

Only one diverges from the flowing journalistic style that dominates contemporary creative nonfiction. Annie Getchell, who writes about kayaking up the Inside Passage, pushes her prose toward poetry:

"Each person I talk with turns out to be Tlingit; our conversations seem loaded with odd portent, but I don't know why," she writes. "I take messages from their tongues like shells and pocket them for later examination. I sense their clannish connectedness to the landscape and am vaguely envious and slightly embarrassed: Still burning for my own place I tiptoe into theirs like a timorous houseguest."

Despite that limitation, "Going Alone" has a lot to offer. It hones in on the reasons people, and especially women, seek solitude and wilderness. With elegance and eloquence, its writers describe setting aside egotism, distraction and stress to reconnect with their senses, the real world and the divine.

It is a perfect read to inspire Alaska women to plan for the outdoor seasons ahead.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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