While discussing her three books, which range from a short story collection, to a personal memoir, to her new volume of nonfiction essays, Rosemary McGuire said the constant themes in all of her works are the Earth, its ecosystems and how they impact its inhabitants. “That gets put in my books whether I want it there or not. Because it’s just how I see the world.”
“I really do see the land and water as having an independent spirit that exists and has a right to exist apart from human interactions with it,” she explained. “So to me, the ocean is a character just as much as the young dude and his boat on the ocean. And working in remote areas and writing nonfiction about it, I still felt that same way. That what we are doing as people, traveling across or working on or studying the land, it has an inner spirit apart from us.”
She paused, and then quickly added with her characteristic sense of humor, “To get kind of woo-woo.”
McGuire, whose latest book, “Cold Latitudes,” has just been published, came by her outlook through an unusual childhood. Born in a small cabin near Ester Dome, she was one of four children of parents she described as back-to-the-Earth types. When she was young they relocated to Haines, but continued to live without water or electricity, and because they were a ways out of town, the kids were homeschooled.
It wasn’t until her senior year that she entered the public high school. She said she felt like an outsider, disconnected from the popular culture her classmates were immersed in. But she now knows this contributed to her approach to writing.
“I had no shared background with them. I think that taught me to be observant and to feel comfortable in situations where I was very different from anyone else around me.”
McGuire acquired a sense of adventure from her parents, and following graduation she pursued it. After a year in Norway on an exchange program, she attended Shimer College, a small liberal arts college outside of Chicago with a great books program, where she earned a humanities degree.
Next she returned to Fairbanks and took a bartending job at the Golden Eagle in Ester. “One night in February, a show about crab fishing came on the overhead TV,” she remembered. She decided right then to quit bartending, telling herself, “I’m going fishing!”
McGuire hitchhiked to Homer and walked the docks until she hired on with a cod boat. She made no money, but undaunted, headed to Cordova, where she spent the summer working on a tender. “I found out later that the guys at the bar had bets on how long I’d last on deck,” she said. “I was kind of pleased to find out that I’d outlasted all of them.”
McGuire spent 15 years fishing, part of that time as co-owner of a boat she bought with her then-husband. The marriage didn’t work out, and she subsequently headed off to Palmer Station in Antarctica, where she did seasonal work helping on scientific projects, and spent the offseason traveling through Africa, Asia, South America and New Zealand. She also earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Alaska.
McGuire’s Antarctic experience helped her obtain work in Alaska’s Arctic, first volunteering on an eider count in Utqiagvik, then as a research technician there and elsewhere along the state’s northern rim. “I got to work with things like polar bears, bowheads, and ringed seals. It was a lovely opportunity. But in the course of it, I’d been keeping a journal all along, and I started realizing that I wanted to shape it into a book.”
It would be her third. Her first published book was “The Creatures at the Absolute Bottom of the Sea,” a short story collection published in 2015. Filled with tales of Alaskans struggling with themselves, with each other, and with Alaska itself, she said, “that’s a very dark book. I tend to tell people not to read it in midwinter.”
She had written her memoir about fishing a decade earlier, but struggled to find a publisher because most wanted a macho fisherwoman tale. “That wasn’t the story I was selling,” she said. “Because what I had experienced was a bunch of rather sad ragged people doing the best they could for themselves and their families in a super difficult environment. It’s an interesting story, but in the end, the weather and the water always win. I couldn’t tell that kind of cowboy story because it wasn’t true to me.”
The memoir was finally published in 2017 as “Rough Crossing.” McGuire, meanwhile, was spending increasing time in the Arctic, where she was drawn to the traditional knowledge of the Inupiat people. She was particularly fascinated by their cultural mastery of sea ice, drawn from surviving atop it for countless generations.
In Antarctica, she had recognized that scientific understanding of ice comes from measurements and instruments, while in the Arctic, Inupiat people have an intuitive knowledge of it rooted in ancient history. She described the scientific means of understanding ice as a “snapshot,” and the Inupiat pathway to knowledge as a “process.” Exploring the gap between these methods of knowing, and seeking ways to bring more of that deep historical knowledge into our modern understanding is one of the themes of “Cold Latitudes.”
McGuire said she doesn’t view Alaska as the fabled “Last Frontier.” She knows it as country with a human history extending back millennia. Without ancient cities and buildings and obvious ecosystem changes, she said, it’s easy to think there was no one here long ago. But if you look closer, “you can see their presence but not their destruction, and I do respect that.”
“Alaska’s not a wilderness,” she said, summarizing her view of the place she explores both on the page and in life. “It’s a homeland to some very skilled groups of people.”
Rosemary McGuire can be found on the web at rosemarymcguire.com.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Creating Alaska is an ongoing series documenting the lives of artists and creators in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.