Simpson documents her inner journey as an Alaska explorer

Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2008

Can a middle-aged woman be an explorer? Author Sherry Simpson asked herself this question for her new book "The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska."

Courtesy Of Sherry Simpson
Courtesy Of Sherry Simpson

"I learned that I was capable of more than I knew and less than I hoped," Simpson said, quoting a line from her own book.

A veteran reporter whose experience includes stints with the Juneau Empire and KTOO, Simpson returns to Juneau for a pair of book signings on Saturday, May 31, and Monday, June 2, at Hearthside Books.

"We are really happy that she is coming back to Juneau to do an event," said Katrina Pearson, the manager of Hearthside Books. "Her writing is honest, intelligent writing about Alaska and the wilderness. It (has) already become one of my favorite Alaska books."

"The Accidental Explorer" is composed of 10 nonfiction essays about her adventures in Alaska's back wilderness. Each chapter is its own adventure with settings that include Denali, Glacier Bay, the Copper River and even the Breakwater Bar in Juneau.

In the book, Simpson said she sought what lies beneath the journey, what motivates people to travel in the wilderness, and what truths people discover about themselves along the way.

Some of her trips for the book were attempts to trace the footsteps of famous explorers. For instance, Simpson and a group of friends attempted to recreate a trip made by territorial Judge James Wickersham in 1903 from Fairbanks to the base of Denali.

Simpson traveled into the backcountry by river and then bushwacked through 30 miles of wilderness with no trail to follow. While Wickersham, in writing about his trip, focused mainly on the logistics, Simpson wanted to focus on the internal journey she took while making the trek.

"I'm interested in what lies behind the myths and the icons," she said. "Everyone has these ideas about Alaska and what it means and what it should mean. I'm interested in what it really is."

Simpson's journey as a writer began with a 12-year career as a reporter. During that time she wrote feature articles about tagging bears and trapping wolves.

"At a certain point I just realized that I wasn't going to get any better as a writer, writing on deadline. So then I decided to go to graduate school," Simpson said about her decision to pursue a master's degree in fine arts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. While pursuing her degree, Simpson said she was able to write without being restricted by deadlines.

"What is the effect of touching a bear? Or what is it like when someone snares a wolf? I had all those notes about what happens. I wanted to think about what it meant," Simpson said.

She earned her master's in creative writing and turned her thesis into her first book, "The Way Winter Comes." The title of the book came from an experience she had as a reporter in Barrow.

Simpson describes herself as a slow writer, and she likes to carry a notebook with her when she travels.

When asked what advice she would offer to aspiring writers, Simpson said, "I think it's hard for new writers to learn how to fail. Don't be afraid to fail. You will never be the writer that you want to be, but the more you write the better you will become. You really have to learn to love being bad at writing. You have to understand that is just part of it."

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