About the Author
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1950, Bill Sherwonit grew up along the edges of rural New England, where he got his first taste of wild nature in the woods behind his family’s yard and along the edges of the neighborhood swamp. After becoming a “rock hound” in his teens, Bill went on to get a BS and MS in geology (from Bates College and the University of Arizona, respectively) and traveled to Alaska in 1974 to work as an exploration geologist. Between 1974 and 1979 he spent parts of four summers traveling through the Brooks Range and other remote parts of the state; and along the way, he fell in love with Alaska. During the late 1970s Sherwonit discovered a new passion: writing. He changed careers from geology to journalism in 1978 while living in California and in 1980 began work at the Simi Valley Enterprise newspaper. In February 1982 he became a sports writer for The Anchorage Times, which brought Bill back to Alaska. He worked at The Times for 10 years, the last seven as the newspaper’s outdoors writer/editor.
Sherwonit has been a freelance nature writer since 1992. In recent years he has increasingly focused on literary journalism and creative non-fiction writing, especially the personal essay/narrative form. For more than three decades, Bill has written extensively about wild lands and wildlife. Though he continues to journey into the wilderness each year, he has also paid increasing attention to the wild nature of his home landscape: Anchorage. His primary interests are wilderness, the natural history of animals and plants, wildlife management, connection to place, conservation issues, and notions of wildness. He’s contributed stories and photos to a wide variety of national publications, including Orion, National Wildlife, National Parks, Sierra, Backpacker, Alaska, Outside, and Wilderness and his essays have appeared in several anthologies, including Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007, Best Travel Writing 2005, American Nature Writing 2001, Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony, and The Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present. He is the author of 13 books about Alaska, including three books about Denali, two about the Iditarod, and others about the Brooks Range and the necessity of wilderness, his evolving relationship with wild nature, Alaska’s bears and state parks. His most recent books are Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey, Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness, and Chugach State Park: Alaska's Accessible Wilderness, the latter a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall.
Besides his writing, since 1993 Sherwonit has taught creative nonfiction writing classes , first at the University of Alaska Anchorage (through both the Alaska Outdoor and Experiential Education Department and Creative Writing and Literary Arts Departument) and now on his own. His primary emphasis is nature and travel writing. Bill has visited several primary and secondary schools within the Anchorage area, to discuss the writing process, keeping a journal, and nature writing. Other public appearances around Alaska have included Earth Day readings; weekend workshops; panel discussions; and natural history presentations. In 2004 and 2009 he was a presenter at the nationally acclaimed Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference and in 2008 he participated in the Alaska Book Festival. Bill has also organized an evening of readings by several Alaskans to celebrate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and he shared an essay at a special program following Sept. 11, 2001. And in fall 2005, he was one of the chairs of the "Conservation Writing" program associated with the 8th World Wilderness Congress, which met in Anchorage.
Outside Alaska he has done readings and book signings at Third Place Books and Elliot Bay Bookstore in the Seattle area and he's joined the circle of Pacific Northwest and Alaska nature writers who since 2006 have met every other year at the Blue River Writers' Gathering In Oregon.
After more than a dozen years on Anchorage's forested Hillside, Bill now lives and works in the city's Turnagain area, where he is learning more about the wild side of Alaska’s largest city, the source of many of his stories.
“Thinking Outside,” by Joe Gromelski, ©2004 Bates College [revised & updated, 2011]
Bill Sherwonit has climbed Denali, North America’s tallest mountain. He’s authored 13 books on topics like the Iditarod, Denali National Park, bears, and Alaska’s state parks system. A former columnist for The Anchorage Times and later the Anchorage Daily News, this long-time freelancer is a well-known advocate for the state’s wild landscapes and wildlife, especially the surprising amount in and around his adopted home, Anchorage.
Yet when Sherwonit graduated from Bates in 1971 with a geology major, his renewed fascination with the outdoors -- a passion during his boyhood -- 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” since its initial release in 1990. 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 [initially were] horrible.” A more 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, which he first wrote in 1991 and then updated and largely reworked for a second publisher in 2002. “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. 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. My belief is that every bit of nature -- or creation, if you prefer -- is inherently valuable, regardless of whether it is ‘useful’ to humans.”
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.”
The original profile appeared in Bates Magazine, fall/winter 2004 and is reprinted here (with some revisions/updated information) courtesy of the magazine and Bates College.