The Wilderness as Resource: On Residencies and Retreats

Browse By

Summer has come to “The Last Frontier” as well as the Lower 48. In Alaska, we’ve already begun the hurried rush of summer activities, sprinting against the onslaught of the coming winter, making the most of 24 hours of blessed daylight. The arriving summer solstice will be the longest span of daylight the whole year, and here it’s a cause for celebration. In the spirit of these wild things, I’d like to offer up a different idea of the word resource in terms of writing: mainly, the Wilderness as resource. It’s not a new concept. Thoreau went to the woods to live a very specific life. Bill Bryson took us on a walk in the green embrace of the Appalachians. It is ever more true across history. Even in a time of advancing technologies, we remain obsessed with our relationship to the natural world.

The Alaska Pipeline winds alongside the road through the Alaska Range.

The Alaska Pipeline winds alongside the road through the Alaska Range.

Today I’d like to point the interested writer toward some opportunities for a creative connection with the natural world, a different kind of writing experience to find yourself immersed in your earth environment. In an admittedly selfish nod to the amazing midnight sun currently soaking Alaska, I’m going to share some Alaskan opportunities (just in case you all need a push to get yourself up here). If you know of other wilderness-focused programs, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Wilderness-Focused Residencies

I love that residencies offer the writer a chance to spend an extended amount of time in an inspiring, sometimes totally different location than normal. Finally determined to place myself in one, I’ve been researching them for the past year, hoping to find one that matches my own goals and my own writing. In my search I’ve discovered two out-of-the-ordinary residencies I didn’t realize existed. The residency at Denali National Park is pretty well known in Alaska, but what I didn’t know is this isn’t something only Denali does. There are a multitude of other National Parks that invite artists and writers to submit applications for a nature residency. Similarly, the Bureau of Land Management offers residencies to interested writers and artists that at times include chances to help out in the park in addition to completing creative work. For those interested in getting off the beaten path and snagging a chance to visit Alaska, take a look at the Wrangell Mountains Center’s residency program in out-of-the-way McCarthy, which allows writers to hang out with local folks in a truly fun, authentic, wilderness experience. The Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency allows its participants the use of a remote cabin in southwest Oregon in exchange for some hours of work on the land every day. Of course, this is only a teeny tiny taste of what’s out there as far as residencies go, and I haven’t mentioned a lot of the most prestigious ones.

Writing Retreats

Residencies are amazing but they can be incredibly competitive. A good alternative with more room for writers is the ever-refreshing writing retreat. Just like residencies, it’s possible to find any setting you want. It’s not difficult to find a retreat into the wilderness where you can commune with the natural world and your fellow writing nerds. Alaska has some goodies, like the Tutka Bay Writers Retreat, which happens every summer in a truly unique location off Kachemak Bay. In about a month, Alaska’s Poet Laureate Frank Soos, musicians Michelle McAfee and Robin Child, and workshop director Nancy Cook are leading a writing retreat on the Copper River (also through the Wrangell Mountains Center). Participants will float down the rowdy river from McCarthy to Chitina and partake in writing exercises and lectures in the evenings and at stops. The Banff Centre has a Mountain and Wilderness Writing Retreat focusing specifically on the writer’s connection with the environment.

Choose Your Own Adventure

There’s one fact I know and stand by religiously: you can create all of these opportunities yourself. Some of the best experiences I have had in my writing (and other careers) have been of my own creation, and some of the best work I’ve done has come from opportunities I sought out myself and worked to put together. If anything, this particular post is my encouragement to anyone who wants to create these opportunities for themselves.

Practicing Observation: For the Homebound Wilderness Writer

You can’t always afford the time or money to travel to new wilderness locations. Sometimes you have to make do with the wilderness nearby. My favorite thing about going into the wild to write is that it gives me an opportunity to test my skills at observation, particularly my skills at noticing the tiny things going on around me. It’s easy when I am walking down the street to notice a car with blaring music, the gal walking by me on her cell phone having a conversation with her mother, the storefront displays, and other obvious things. What’s not as easy is to remember to look more closely. I get too caught up in the this-or-that of my daily life and look past the little things. This is what I practice when I go into the wilderness. The art of observation, of seeing, not just the big picture stuff, but the teeny tiny details within it. I find that my own walk in the woods, noting the different slopes of the umbrella-capped amanita or stopping for a while to peer into a clear stream and study the array of colors in pebbles, refreshes my skills in observing the tiny things in life, which then translates back into my “city life” observations.

Go into the wilderness prepared. Even if it’s only an hour’s walk in the woods. I have my own writer’s toolkit. It lives, constantly and efficiently packed, on a hook by the door where I can easily snag it on the way out. The contents can vary depending upon the season, but I take the majority of my wilderness walks in the spring, summer, or fall and so the contents usually reflect those seasons. Sometimes just the act of repacking my toolkit provides me with the push I need to get outdoors and away from my busy life.

Please take this opportunity to add your own knowledge about writing in the wilderness in your area in the comments section. With your help, we’ll have an impressive list!


Lead image: The buildings of the Kennecott Mine, 4.5 miles down a dirt road from McCarthy, Alaska. Kennecott was once a prosperous copper mine. Abandoned in 1938, it now belongs to the National Park Service.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.