Volume 8
An Online Literary Magazine
December 16, 2013


Introduction to Northern Exposures


Jonathan Waterman



or thirty years, I have traveled north with a journal and camera. I went to these cold places so that I could climb, paddle, ski, dogsled, walk, and sail. To lose myself in the natural world. Often in subzero conditions, sometimes dog-tired or scared, I exposed photos with single-lens-reflex cameras. I wrote with stubby pencils about these adventures in journals stained with tea, squashed mosquitoes, and blood—exposing naked emotions, my fears, and the beauty of the wilds. Back at home, while studying these two different types of exposures, I wove them into a tapestry of words built with pictures.


My northern exposures gave me bliss, a writing and photography career, and a lifetime of indelible memories. Now, in lecture halls or at my kids’ bedsides, I also tell these stories about bear encounters, climbing mountains, or remote kayaking trips. And my stories became books—twelve (seven about the North), counting the one you’re now holding.


The books define me as a writer, but I’m also a lifelong photographer. Capturing images has always given me joy and a sense of accomplishment; writing in my journal, let alone turning these entries into cohesive stories, has always seemed unending work. The best stories can always be improved, but the best photographs remain complete. Taking pictures can also be a lot of fun.


I exposed thousands of color slide photographs and then, as my recent panoramic-gigabyte-scale photography consumed one hard drive after another, more than twenty thousand digital images. Still, quantity doesn’t equal quality. Early in my career, but long after I started publishing my stories, I, like most dilettante shutterbugs, rarely published my images. Occasionally, they were pulled out of Kodak carousels (for lecture tours) to illustrate articles; scores of these images eventually graced book, magazine, or journal covers. Even when they appeared as ghosted-out, black-and-white chapter openings or shared space with glossy color advertisements in magazines, I took consolation that my images were more than just research tools for injecting imagery into my prose. Among the competitive and poorly remunerated ranks of struggling freelancers, I sometimes doubted the power of my words or images, but I had an advantage that kept me going: my northern journeys rewarded me more than any paycheck.


It’s no coincidence that most of my stories involve cold places and risk-taking—a small price to pay for the pleasure of reaching high ridges, isolated shores, untraveled glaciers, or remote rivers in order to witness natural beauty. As the French airman Antoine de Saint-Exupéry told his mother, “At times like these one risks one’s life with a great deal of generosity.”


It became part of the risk-taking to write stories to explain the hungry worm gnawing from within. I’ve also done it, like a short-story writer warming up for a novel, because I can experiment with form (“A Near Miss on Mount Fairweather in Winter” was an opportunity to employ a second-person narration). Or while crossing the Northwest Passage (“Arctic Solitaire”) I was stretched, both physically and spiritually, during the most strenuous and lonely journey of my life.


As the doubts and memories of suffering fade, I’m drawn back North anew. The names of places still unvisited roll from my tongue like mantras: Back River, Ellesmere Island, Repulse Bay, the Juneau Ice Cap, the Kamchatka Peninsula, Banks Island, the Coppermine River, and Greenland.


Before I figured out that I could support myself (and later a family) with pencil and camera or while telling stories from a podium, I dreamed my life from one expedition to the next. Thirty-six years later, I still can’t help myself. The trips I took north of latitude 58—where population densities thin out and the rivers roar in direct proportion to the size of the mountains above—offered me an expedition template that empowered me to pull off expeditions anywhere in the world. Once you’ve kayaked twenty-two hundred miles across the Arctic, paddling from source to sea on the Colorado River (the research trip for my most recent two books, Running Dry and The Colorado River) doesn’t seem terribly daunting.


Herein, my confession: on these comfortable larks—where nothing can eat you, cellphone towers are usually in range, and a night caught out in the open merely means that you lose a little sleep instead of your big toes—I often come home comparing my Lower Forty-eight adventuring to my northern exposures. Until I die, it is these northern journeys that will define me, give me a sense of completion, and enrich my imagination.


My writing was inspired through ice climbing in the early 1970s. I was frustrated about communicating the beauty and joy of clambering up frozen mountains. To account for myself, I wrote poetry. I strove for the form of the great northern balladeer Robert Service. One February, after hitchhiking north on Interstate 93 to a peak in the White Mountains of New Hampshire as a sixteen-year-old high-school truant, I scribbled and stashed away this poem:


Working hard to reach the peak


I realize that summits are not all that I seek


Being surrounded by nature comes a feeling called ‘free’


Excluded from the modern world of technology


My father expressed contempt for exposing oneself to the freezer but had composed piano music to Robert Service’s The Spell of the Yukon. Inadvertently my dad helped lure me to adventuring in the North by giving me that book of verse. I had already been inspired by such high-latitude books as Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, One Man’s Wilderness, The Hall of the Mountain King, Call of the Wild, Minus 148 Degrees, and The Mountain of My Fear. I visualized the northern lights blazing in the black canvas of sky, hundreds of glaciated mountains and icy rivers brimming over with mystery, and air so crisp and frigid that you could spit then hear your saliva freeze like a zapped bug before it hit the permafrost beneath your mukluks.


In 1976, at nineteen years old, my dreams came true. I went to Denali with my Explorer Scout troop and hundreds of other climbers celebrating the bicentennial year by trying to stand atop the continent. Slogging up the easy West Buttress route—never really scared or hungry or deeply moved—showed me how to realize my northern ambitions. The story I published in the scouting magazine exposed my disappointments about traveling all the way to Alaska only to join the crowds. The first animals we saw upon landing at the Anchorage airport were a colony of gulls, swarming like the species I knew from New England landfills, rather than the hoped-for convocation of bald eagles. I chafed at being a member of a naive and large team that carried backbreaking loads (we didn’t pull sleds) “up the Butt” (as the guides call that route).


Fortunately, at this time, with respect to accomplished poets, I got a camera and substituted photography for poetry. By 1978, having learned about the crowds on Denali, along with other tricks of efficient glacier travel, I packed twenty-four rolls of film and a camera to Mount Logan’s unclimbed West Ridge in the Yukon Territories. The route was a watershed for a budding mountaineer, allowing me to apply principles of self-sufficiency and safety on a dangerous route. We supplemented the freeze-dried food with high-fat margarine for calories. We dragged (rather than shouldered) our loads while traversing glaciers. And we learned patience—making crossword puzzles for one another out of our cardboard cereal boxes—during the pervasive Gulf of Alaska storms.


Most of my photographs are more landscape than action scenes, deliberately exposing how nature dwarfs humankind. I took close-ups of peach-lit seracs, freighter-size crevasses, and mountains filling the field of view. When climbers appear within these images, they’re distant insects below hungry cornices, or silhouetted as dark Lilliputians in front of serenely lit giants. Inspired by Eric Newby’s book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, I wrote a similarly self-deprecating and whimsical apologia of our new route in the Yukon. Climbing magazine published “A Walk across Mount Logan.”



Storm clearing above Mt. Foraker, from 15,500-foot camp on Denali.


t first, I did not delude myself into thinking that I could make it as an adventure writer. I worked at a climbing store because I got wholesale discounts on expensive equipment. I cleaned swimming pools in Massachusetts, worked as a guard-dog agitator in Arizona, and borrowed money from my wealthier partners all over the world (the Logan story earned me $175 or 14 cents per word). My photographs from these early expeditions earned less than the cost of camera, lenses, and film. A quarter of a century later, such unclimbed routes can be tilled into profitable excursions—through numerous outdoor equipment sponsors, grants, and magazine contracts that now pay up to several dollars per word and several hundred dollars per page for images.


Back in the day, however, to support my photography, writing, and adventuring habits, I became an Outward Bound instructor, a climbing and wilderness guide, and a park ranger. For eight years, most of my stories or book manuscripts were rejected (in one year, I garnered twenty-one rejection letters on an unpublished novel). But I was blithely following my adventuring passions in the North, initially around Denali. I would eventually publish three books (and expose countless rolls of film) in an attempt to define that mountain.


In winter of 1982, I climbed the Cassin Ridge in wind chill temperatures dropping to one hundred below. The camera lens of my Rollei froze shut early on, after we climbed over the bergschrund at dawn. For the next ten days, the climb was one continuous calculated risk. My two partners and I knew that one storm would have blown us from our tenuous position on the south face of Denali—our bodies, invariably, would have disappeared where they landed, buried beneath the snows. I swore I’d never take these kind of chances again, and although I’ve since been on longer and more extended expeditions, I never again trusted so completely to luck as I did during that climb. From 1982 to 2004, I also tilled this near demise into work: rewriting the story and publishing different versions in the Denver Post, Anchorage Daily News, Appalachia, Climbing, Ascent, and Rock and Ice. In the latter “book” (as editors proudly refer to their magazines), I candidly admitted how far we had hung it out and why we may have failed as teammates (see “Cavemen”). One photograph—of two hooded men hunched over and digging for shelter in a subzero blizzard—got published a lot during a quarter century, and may have told the story of our suffering as well as the written narrative. Out of context, the photo simply looked like desperate conditions you might encounter on a bad winter weekend, but alongside the story, the photo shows how small we all felt during a monthlong ascent into a cold, inverted hell.


In terms of making my living as a writer or photographer, I couldn’t afford rent and I briefly reduced myself by collecting unemployment. I rescued myself by conceding to my own mistakes during the winter climb and published my first book, Surviving Denali: A Study of Accidents on Mount McKinley. I broke the book into chapters on history, frostbite, falls, and altitude illness, then identified the patterns of death, disaster, and mishaps among hundreds of climbers. To date, it’s my most successful work in terms of identifying exactly who my reader is (the aspiring Denali climber), providing a service to that readership, saving a few lives, and reducing taxpayer-financed rescues. The photographs—contorted limbs on climbers’ corpses, incoming lenticular clouds, and iced-over beards—say it all.


In these years, I queried the Random House editor, Joe Fox, with book proposals that would have potentially financed more expeditions. Fox, in my mind, was the gatekeeper to New York publishing. He held many luminary authors—including Peter Matthiessen, James Michener, Truman Capote, and John Irving—in his stable. He wrote:


Dear Mr. Waterman:


Good luck on the climb; when I’m shivering in New York at 20-degrees above I’ll be thinking of you on that mountain at high altitude and 50-degrees below and will pray for you.


Mr. Fox—given names are shied away from until you gain entry into the inner sanctum of a New York editor’s stable—rejected my novel, Wolves, with kind advice about the weakness of the characters:


Dear Mr. Waterman:


Don’t be discouraged by this; it would be miraculous if you’d sat down and written a publishable novel your first time out—just as miraculous as my climbing the Cassin without any previous climbing experience.


This happened again twenty years later, when another legendary Random House editor, Gary Fisketjon—who bankrolled my Arctic Crossing project and the nonfiction book by the same title—rejected my fiction manuscript, analogizing the workings of a good novel to a racecar that needs endless tuning, parts, and a powerful engine.


Once, in the mid-1980s, sweating in a cheap sport coat against the New York humidity, I rode the elevator up to Mr. Fox’s office on the seventeenth floor at 201 East Fiftieth Street. He looked cool in his stylish jacket and tie, and I felt daunted by the pile of learned and literary manuscripts, wondering if my pages would ever be graced by touching his desk. I couldn’t help staring out the huge windows at his view of the river and seascape that is Manhattan’s best-kept secret. The implications of this exposure—a vertical village utterly removed from nature—and what it might mean to the future of our race, perturbed me. In distraction, I could scarcely speak as he finished a fascinating story about Siberian eagles trained to kill wolves. I became even more anxious when he shook my hand good-bye because he felt how sweaty my palms were from wiping my forehead; fortunately, he couldn’t see that my shirt was drenched with sweat beneath the wool sport coat.


I thanked him for his time, but he had already turned back to his mountain of manuscripts. He was a dedicated soul, and I never forgot his thoughtful correspondence, or the time he took to visit with me—a veritable stranger—amid the demands of his work. Several years later, Mr. Fox sank back on his leather couch and with the din of downtown blaring seventeen floors, below died of a heart attack. It was a calculated risk of this high-stress business for such a respected editor, perched above New York, happily obsessed with the endless pitches above him: manuscripts to be uncoiled and protected as books that would have the lasting eternity of mountains.


Concerned about succumbing to a similar fate, and to stay true to his dreams, Mr. Waterman kept returning to the North. And, mostly, I stuck to nonfiction. To better understand wolf poaching for the novel that Mr. Fox had rejected, I investigated an aerial hunter and wrote “Sheep’s Clothing” for Outside magazine—my photos of the poacher posing beside his dead trophies haven’t been published until now, but this controversial wolf “sport” still continues.



Denali breaching like a roseate whale, four vertical miles above Talkeetna in a January dawn.


n the late 1980s, I began writing stories on the most symbolic environmental issue in America: drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Although this is the acronym that the uninitiated still use-“Ann-Wahr” resonates like another oil-rich Arab emirate that Big Oil would like to exploit-I learned to call it “the Arctic Refuge” instead. The salvation of its 1.5-million-acre coastal plain would become a consuming passion for me during the next two decades—defining me, and the role that I believe all adventurers should play, in defending untrammeled wilderness. On these trips, I shot many rolls of film. I filed the pictures, then took them out again and again as handy reference materials and scene “painters” as I wrote my stories.


I had already taken dozens of kayaking and rafting trips as an adjunct to mountaineering expeditions. Eventually, I started paddling as a means to an end because kayaking—along with skiing, backpacking, and dogsledding—gave me the same joy as mountaineering. Kayaking trips to the North, in fact, demand the same level of mastery implicit in a cold-weather mountaineering expedition. Air temperatures aren’t subzero, but sitting atop or capsizing in the glacial rivers or in the Beaufort Sea demands a winter mountaineer’s sensibilities. Bears and mosquitoes and ice-bound surf replace crevasses and avalanches and wind. Storms, at least north of the Arctic Circle, are the equal of anything I experienced on high mountains. The only ingredient in northern kayaking happily absent is high-altitude illness—my Achilles’ heel. And the soft light, impossibly bent through the northern sky, was a photographer’s heaven—if you could find a windy spot without a cloud of mosquitoes blurring the scene.


On my second assignment to arctic Alaska I received several dozen rolls of film and a generous cash advance from one of many now-defunct magazines to bring back photographs of the international Porcupine Caribou Herd migrating through the mountains or calving on the coast. But all 178,000 caribou stayed in Canada that year.


Two decades later, I wrote a first-person narrative about that two-week-long expedition from the headwaters of the Kongakut River and then another sixty miles along the Beaufort Sea to Barter Island (see the title story, “Northern Exposures”—a story that also cribbed from a college-accredited course I guided in 1989). Mostly I exposed images of long-tailed ducks, geese, and gulls raiding eider eggs. Or a set of velveteen antlers left by a hunter atop an oil barrel. And a dead seal on a section of beach that reeked of spilled oil—the same fossil fuel they hoped to drill from beneath the tundra.


Like climbing Denali’s easy route in 1976, these arctic kayaking trips gave me invaluable experience and would allow me to conceive the ultimate expedition. I had met several Inuit, and these cultural interactions—along with the breathtaking splendor of a land and sea where the sun doesn’t set for two months—would eventually allow me to shift into a higher spiritual gear as a an adventurer.


After the trip down the Kongakut River to Barter Island—twice having to rescue my capsize-prone partner—I realized that being alone would free me from the onerous responsibilities of caring for a less-experienced partner (or competing with a tougher one). Furthermore, the land and the sea spoke of ancient unseen beauties, and there was enough curious wildlife that it would be difficult for an imaginative person to ever feel truly alone. So I decided to solo the Northwest Passage.


It took me a decade to find the courage to go. During the ten-month trip, taken during three summers from 1997 to 1999, I closed a circle on my earlier expeditions, which often left me with an indefinable sense of pathos and anticlimax. On this journey, by virtue of traveling in the mythical vessel invented by the Inuit, whenever I paddled into their camps, I unwittingly drew their attention. (The villages I visited had stopped using kayaks a long time ago.) Uncharacteristically for a culture disinclined to ask questions or talk to strangers, they shared their lives with me. In turn, I told stories. This included my experiences with truculent bears; beluga whale sightings (the blubber, or muktuk, is a sought-after delicacy); and discussions on the mysteries of the landscape: no one knew what causes the strange humming noise heard along much of the arctic coast—the inexplicable sound was maddening. A few elders, however, understood the different meanings of the many forms of ancient rock cairns, or inuksuit—literally, “in the form of a man”—I saw piled as eerie stone markers along the coast. So, as I passed the muktuk, they too held forth with their time-honored stories.


To bring back something relevant for my own culture, I needed to capture a photo that unveiled the wonders of the North. So before leaving my home in Marble, Colorado, I practiced mounting a camera atop a kayak mast in my front yard. After exposing two rolls with a handheld remote, I found the perfect position for a fish-eye lens to show how the aspen forest (which I would later reshoot and replace with the Arctic Ocean) dominated my flimsy craft, with the lens unnaturally bending the horizon as if I were on top of the world. The photograph that I shot while rounding Whitebear Point in Nunavut, Canada—exposed on twenty-nine different frames on a single roll—was a natural choice for a book cover and the lead for my National Geographic Adventure magazine article, the cover of my book Arctic Crossing, and a score of other newspaper and magazine articles. While publicizing these stories, I clung to perspective and avoided the hero mantle that the public is conditioned to attach to conquering adventurers. After all, “conquering” nature—summits, rivers, the poles, or ocean/continent crossings—will leave an adventurer stung by the aforementioned anticlimax. Escaping on athletic journeys through the wilds to attain mastery or chalk up another first ascent is merely narcissistic sport. It may have worked, for instance, in Hermann Buhl’s more innocent times, during his record-shattering solo climb of Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat in 1953. But not for his more accomplished disciple, Reinhold Messner (see “All 14 Eight-Thousanders”), who first soloed Everest in 1980. Messner, the greatest alpinist of the twentieth century, often wrote (albeit in psychobabble at worst, or poorly translated German at best) about his feelings of pathos and anticlimax. Shortly thereafter, he took a stand by proposing that trashed-out mountain ranges be protected as “White Wilderness.”


Herein are more shining examples of adventurers who speak out for the environment and avoid beating their chests: the wildlife biologist George Schaller (see “Sacred Place”), for daring to cross over the boundary of neutral science into politics; the dogsledder Will Steger (see “What Price Adventure?”), a spokesperson about global warming; and the Japanese mountaineer Masatoshi Kuriaki (see “Divine Wind”), who prizes mountain reverence over conquest.


My discoveries—detailed in twenty-three stories within the sixteen chapters herein—are about environment (and cultures) at risk. To wit: landlocked polar bears; invasive cruise ships; the commercialization of adventure; climbers lacking self-sufficiency; endangered wolves; musk oxen on the verge of depletion; rogue grizzlies; Big Oil run amok; and places still untouched by the hand of man. Anyone paying attention and taking notes or pictures can begin to show us what’s really going on out there.


It amazes me that most adventure writers (that is, passionate expeditioners, not the weekenders, editors, or staff journalists given an assignment about the wilds) stick to their narratives of adventure mastery and leave the politics to the nature writers and environmentalists. Piss off half your readership, as my friend and literary agent Susan Golomb once wisely counseled in the 1990s, and you’ll lose half your sales. But times are changing.


If we fail to report on the health of wild places, the next adventure-seeking, wilderness-loving generation will be forced to live vicariously through our old narratives of the bygone days when the caribou herds still ran prodigious across international boundaries and the northern coast of Alaska was not one continuous oil field (at press time, only 10 percent of that six-hundred-mile shore is free from oil derricks, but that could change by the time you read this).


The publishing world, too, has changed and become much more competitive than when I first started submitting manuscripts in the late 1970s. Internet technology and recession have revamped the industry: a half dozen stories in this collection were published by three different magazines that folded and collapsed shortly after my pieces were published.


My experience with editors might serve as helpful advice. Magazine, newspaper, or journal editing is a thankless task: consuming deadlines, endless rewrites, ungodly work hours, and advertising hypocrisy that sandwiches an organic story of wilderness between full-page ads for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Few editors sought me out. I badgered most of them to accept and print my work. The overworked editorial soul rarely returns phone calls or correspondence in a timely fashion and is often disconnected from the ecology-oriented adventure that is my beat. So if you choose to follow this path as a freelance photographer or writer, pack plenty of humility, be prepared for accepting the burden of compromise—let alone the sting of rejection—and consider working as a guide, naturalist, ranger, or any number of other great outdoor jobs. If you’re a writer at heart and you must enter the servitude of a magazine or newspaper editor career, quit editing and start writing again as soon as you’ve learned the basics of the trade. There’s no quicker route to crafted prose than a brief editorial internship.


Still, someone—preferably one with a steel-rat-trap mind and a universal intolerance of cliché—has to take these trying jobs. I am grateful for the professionalism of those editors who fine-tuned my rough manuscripts and images for these stories. The pieces originally appeared in Alpenglow, the American Alpine Club Journal Backpacker, Climbing, Envoy, Hooked on the Outdoors, Mountain, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Patagonia, Rock and Ice, and the Washington Post.


My ideal writing destination is in book-length narratives, where editors are more sympathetic to artists, where you are allowed to espouse your ideals and Photoshop your pictures—even if most book editors can’t match the magazine paychecks. In this regard, I remain indebted to my literary agent, Susan Golomb, who boosted my book-publishing career more than anyone else. Books can promote wilderness instead of SUVs. And in a book such as the one you now hold in your hands, the volume will outlive you in a way that has already failed the original glossy magazine pages.


I would have stopped freelancing if not for the rewards: autonomy, plenty of fresh air, and ceaseless travel to wild and colorful landscapes where shaggy creatures, avalanches, or storms might someday allow my family to collect the proverbial life insurance policy. In the face of all this, I still consider it a privilege to publish my work—the research for which can be more like play—in magazines or books.


In some of the expedition stories that follow, I deliberately sought refuge from the madding world and focused solely on the challenges of the mountain above, occasionally deluding myself into thinking that these adventures were a separate reality from the world I was escaping. But the more I traveled, particularly in a kayak, the more it became apparent that wild places are part of one world that is desperate for a defending voice. So I won’t be able to return to the remote Boothia Bay and paddle eastward without contemplating shipping lanes in the soon-to-be-ice-free Northwest Passage. Nor could I return to Denali without considering, let alone publicizing, how that mountain’s principal drainage, the Susitna River, is now threatened by a dam. And I would never write about Mount Fairweather or Mount St. Elias again without noting the cruise ships, extensive logging in the virgin forests, and the surrounding marine world and ice fields at risk.


We live in a world that is rapidly changing. As we turn toward one global market, cultures are being assimilated and natural resources depleted; the availability of fossil fuel and fresh water determines the wealth of whole nations; economies are stuttering. Amid this change, can we find it in our hearts to save rather than exploit the last wild places of the North?


Many cultures, including those villagers I visited in the Arctic, have long found answers to similar conundrums through storytelling. Through our age-old stories, we try to make the world a better place, share beauty, and revere life—just like in those Inuit camps, as I passed the muktuk, the caribou meat, and the coffeepot.


This is my life’s work.


Jonathan Waterman has worked as a wilderness guide, magazine editor, park ranger, and guard dog agitator; but more than anything else, he is a writer and photographer. He teaches Nature and Adventure Writing and nonfiction writing classes for The Writer's Workshop. He's renowned for unprecedented mountaineering ascents, long river descents, and arduous wilderness traverses—such as his solo of the Northwest Passage, winter ascent of Denali’s Cassin Ridge, or source to sea descent of the Colorado River. The National Geographic Society has frequently supported his journeys. His twelve books include Northern Exposures: An Adventuring Career In Stories and Images (Snowy Owl Books, 2013), from which this is excerpted, Arctic Crossing, and In the Shadow of Denali. The recognition for his work—a hybrid of adventure, environmentalism, and nature writing—runs the gamut from magazine awards, to a Special Achievement Award from the National Park Service, to a literary fellowship from the National Endowment for the arts, to an Emmy. Jon’s newest book, Northern Exposures features an anthology of story telling and images (published over the last three decades in various journals, including Outside, The Washington Post, Climbing, or Adventure) about challenging journeys and conservation issues. To buy a copy of the book, go to www.alaska.edu/uapress/browse/detail/index.xml?id=482 or www.jonathanwaterman.com.


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