Of course, it’s not truly the end. But, for me, a chapter is closing and a new one is about to begin.
The work I’ve done over the past many years as Outdoors Editor of the Juneau Empire was the most challenging and most rewarding work I’ve ever done. Think about the monumental task I faced: How does one tell the stories of a town with roots like granite in our outdoor world?
I learned this: You tell them thoughtfully, passionately, deeply, carefully and with enthusiasm.
Because that’s the only way to get it right.
Those I’ve interviewed care deeply about what they do — whether it’s discovering new species of dragonflies, or preserving beaver habitat. Those who shared their adventures, exude only enthusiasm. Remember the snowbikers and their ear-to-ear grins? Or what about the group A Trip South, who for months shared their kayak/bike adventure to South America? Don’t forget about our trail and cabin crews ... they are passionate about their hobbies and their work in our outdoor world — they care.
And to do it right, I had to care, too.
I cared so much there were nights I worked far longer than I should. There were too-long days spent on stories, not wanting to stop asking questions or taking pictures, because I knew my quiet time spent writing and editing would pale in comparison.
The long hours were worth it, because I learned this: In caring, a writer becomes one with not only the subjects of the story, but also with the readers.
Speaking of the readers: Thank you. A writer is nothing without readers.
OK. Enough of this mushy stuff. Let’s move on to my favorite memories, my favorite stories. And, there’s some fun “rest of the story ...” times to share, too.
I’ll never forget the time my head hit the ceiling of a Ward Air floatplane multiple times (before I tightened my seatbelt) as I flew with a U.S. Forest Service crew to cover two cabins nestled on Turner Lake. The Taku winds were blowing with light fury that day, and their bluster was more than enough to keep the 30-minute flight interesting. From the cockpit, Randy Kiesel smiled back at his passengers — three gruff trail-building dudes and me — his goofy grin told me we’d all be fine. But inside, my stomach was in knots. I tried to hide my white knuckles, gripping my camera.
We sailed down into the mountain-walled lake like a heron coming in for a landing — smooth and graceful.
I had forgotten the turbulence and sent my shutter snapping through the thick-walled windows of the Beaver. The views were more than enough to make a person gasp. Snow-covered peaks shot up in jagged contrast to the mirror-like surface of Turner Lake. We motored to the first cabin, the West Turner Lake cabin, then took off again and flew quickly to the East Turner Lake cabin. At both sites, the crews buttoned up the historic structures, effectively putting them to bed for the winter.
I listened to stories told by the crew members (ones I knew I could never include in the article), of bears that had tried to break into one of the cabins, of old charcoal etchings on the boat house that dated back to fabled fishing tournaments, of the secret location of trophy cutthroat trout that lurk in less water than one would expect.
I loved my job.
One day in May, I got an invitation to go fly fishing for dolly varden. Being a former fly fishing guide, I jumped at the offer.
At sea level, Juneau was in full green-up, with snow still hanging heavy on the mountain slopes. Clear blue skies and sunshine dominated; that day, our little town was undoubtedly the most beautiful place on Earth. I shot photos, tramped from sea to salt chuck through brush with my guide, loafed on the banks of a woefully low stream and wet a line, plying the waters with my fly rod. In the end, I didn’t really want to catch anything. During our time standing on the streambank, my interviewee shared with me how few anadromous fish came up this stream, and how damaging even one catch-and-release could be to the population. He cared, and I knew I should care, too.
So I never wrote about that stream, or of the fish that swim in it.
As I headed back into town, back to cell service and a busy newsroom, my phone starting pinging with text messages and voicemails. It was my manager, and I was in trouble for taking too long.
I could only smile. I loved my job.
Finally, there was the time I went deep — deep into the belly of Mount Juneau, following an abandoned adit dug during Juneau’s mining heyday. It was the darkest, wetest, most claustrophobic and inhospitable place I’ve ever walked. But my heart was racing and I loved every second.
I remember telling my friend and guide, “You better make sure I get out of here alive — I have a baby at home!”
He laughed. I would, of course, be fine.
What I never wrote in that final piece was how much geology I learned in just a few short hours, how the water filtering down into the tunnel was a good thing (it meant there was “good” air coming in), and how bold and brave the miners must’ve been. Because every time I thought about how much hulking mountain sat on top of this tunnel, which was short enough to make my guide slouch, and wide enough for only two, I wanted to sprint for the entrance.
After that day, I cared a little more in ways I never thought I would.
So what’s next? Well, it’s a little too soon for me to say. However, I haven’t strayed far from the world of wilderness, wildlife and our outdoors world. In fact, I may be closer to it than ever before.
Like my time writing and editing the Outdoors section, I have a feeling I’m going to love this new work, too.
What a bittersweet goodbye.
So thank you, everyone — for letting me into your lives, for telling me your stories (and your secrets), for trusting me to retell them in perpetuity.
And thank you for reading.
• Abby Lowell was the Outdoors Editor from 2009 to 2015, as well as the Director of Audience and Digital. She began working at the Juneau Empire in 2007.