Jonathan Waterman has traveled with camera and pencil from the top of Denali to the coastline of the Canadian Arctic chronicling more than three decades of adventures. His latest book, Northern Exposures is out from the University of Alaska Press. It’s a compilation of some of his previously published stories and many never before-seen photographs.
Jon Waterman has traveled across the far-north since the mid-1970s, but he says first and foremost, he is a writer. “It’s not enough to be a good story teller," he says. "Writing is all about craftsmanship and putting words together that not only tell a story but stand alone as pieces of art and this is what I have been doing for the last 30 years along with going on many expeditions often to the north.”
Waterman first visited the state in 1976. He was in Denali National Park to climb Mount McKinley. In the introduction to his newest book, Northern Exposures: An Adventuring Career in Stories and Images, he expresses disappointment “about travelling all the way to Alaska only to join the crowds.” He was among many who wanted to celebrate America’s bicentennial at the summit of the continent’s tallest peak. So two years later, Waterman headed for the unclimbed west ridge of Mount Logan in the Yukon. He spent the next three decades travelling across the region with a camera and a journal. “Generally, what makes me happy and motivates me and compels me to keep going on trips is I just feel more alive when I’m outside,” he says.
Northern Exposures includes never before seen photos and a number of previously published stories about kayaking Alaska’s shorelines and traversing some of the North’s more arduous ridgelines and mountaintops. Waterman says there are still two trips that stick with him. “One was climbing Denali by the Cassin Ridge in the middle of winter," he recalls. "The other was crossing the arctic mostly alone. Those trips to me were real watersheds. The first trip on Denali in winter was the most dangerous thing that I ever did that was all about luck surviving that trip. The trip across the arctic was something entirely different and it’s allowed me to rely on my instincts in a way that I never had before or since.” He says some of his most unique experiences took place along what he describes as the “surreal” coastlines of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “One of my favorite stories is running into polar bear tracks and I had always wanted to see a polar bear," he says. "Sometime later I saw some Inuit hunters. I told them I had seen some tracks and the hunter said well, he is following you. That became somewhat of a grail to me, which I describe in several of the stories in the book - just wanting to see a polar bear. I wanted to see the creature the polar Inuit from Greenland literally call “one who gives power.”
Another of Waterman’s stories was published in 1983 in Alpenglow, the Denali National Park’s newspaper. It was a letter he wrote to his mother. The headline read 'Rare and Remarkable.' “All of my friends gave me a lot of grief because they thought the headline was referring to me being rare and remarkable, when it fact it was that climbing experience that was rare and remarkable,” he remembers. The letter was Waterman’s attempt to explain why he’d taken such an interest in the wilderness.
Northern Exposures also includes a story about how Waterman “found religion” while climbing the treacherous Mt. Saint Elias on the Alaskan-Canadian border. In another story, he discovers Southeast Alaska’s Mount Fairweather may not be the ideal place to take a girlfriend. There’s also an essay that addresses the state’s aerial wolf hunts. Waterman says his time in the north also turned him into a conservationist. “We can never let down our guard," he says, "because there are these places that deserve to be sacrosanct and protected forever and are forever open to people who would exploit these resources and destroy them for future generations.”
Waterman’s travels have also taken him elsewhere. He’s completed a source to sea descent of the Colorado River and he’s crossed the Pacific Ocean. At he still has a long list of trips he’d like to tackle.
“I’d love to go paddle around Banks Island," he says. "Id’ love to go travel on a long horseback journey and retrace the route of the Franciscan padres trying to find a route from Santa Fe to California. I’d love to cross Greenland.” He says his journal and his camera will surely be along for those trips. Waterman now lives in Colorado. He’s written 12 books. He says his next project is likely to focus on the sense of place.