Q&A: Ned Rozell, science writer and Alaskan adventurer

June 25, 2010|Michelle Theriault
  • Q&A: Ned Rozell, science writer and Alaskan adventurer
Q&A: Ned Rozell, science writer and Alaskan adventurer

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Science writer Ned Rozell has an enviable job.

He writes a weekly column for the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute about all thing nature, science, history and the north. In the 15-odd years he's been doing the job, he's covered everything from secretive nesting seabirds to angry polar bears, the tectonics of the Yukon River to "snow fleas" on the Gulkana Glacier.

His work has taken him far and wide around the state, a place he's called home since the 1980s, and has exposed him to many of Alaska's most interesting scientists, explorers and characters. We asked Rozell about his lifetime exploring the north, his job bridging science and storytelling and his love for Alaska.

GoToAK: What brought you to Alaska originally? At what point did you know you were going to be here for the long haul?  

NR: The Air Force brought me here in 1982, to Eielson Air Force Base south of Fairbanks. I saw people living simply, in cabins heated with wood, and thought it was a good fit for me. I returned to Fairbanks after I got out of the Air Force in the mid 1980s.


GoToAK: Tell us about your first book "Walking my Dog, Jane: From Prudhoe Bay to Valdez Along the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline." How did you conceive of the idea of walking the length of the pipeline? What did you learn about Alaska in the process?

NR: My friend Harlow Robinson worked along the pipeline testing for corrosion. He's an adventurer, and used his time off to run on the pipeline pad, the gravel road that parallels the pipe. I wanted to walk across Alaska with my dog, and thought that would be the ideal path. It was — no traffic and lots of quiet. I learned a lot about Alaska during those 120 days of walking, mostly that everyone here has a good story.

GoToAK: Now tell me about your latest book. What's it about?  What inspired you to write it?

NR: My latest book, "Alaska Tracks," is a sequel to "Walking my Dog, Jane: From Prudhoe Bay to Valdez Along the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline" that includes essays of traveling around the state with friends, with scientists, or by myself and discovering things that make Alaska unique. I'm just touching up a manuscript on a book about Kenji Yoshikawa, who came to Alaska from Japan by sailboat that he allowed to freeze into the ice north of Barrow. He spent the winter in it, and now travels the state and the world studying permafrost. He is an inspiring character to me, because he dreams big and adapts on the fly. That book, with the working title Finding Mars, will come out next spring from the University of Alaska Press.

GoToAK: How has Alaska changed since you began writing about it? How has it not changed?  

NR: More consistent fire smoke in the summertime, more people, more places to buy sheetrock. Alaska hasn't changed in that you can still find all the silence you want, even close to town.

GoToAK: What is your favorite place to escape to?

NR: The Wrangell St. Elias is hard to beat in the springtime. Pueblo, Colorado, where my in-laws live, has a nice warm sun on winter solstice.

GoToAK: What in the natural world do you find most fascinating, as a science writer?

NR: Life, from the wood frogs that freeze solid for months and then hop away in springtime, to the giant white bears that somehow make a living on ice.

GoToAK: Which one of Alaska's varied landscapes inspires you the most?

NR: The great thing about AK is the variety of landscapes. You want a brand-new world of mud and ash, go to Kasatochi in the Aleutians. You want jagged peaks and silence, go to the Brooks Range. You want drama, float next to the face of Hubbard Glacier as it calves apartment buildings into Disenchantment Bay.

GoToAK: Do you have a favorite column of all time?  

NR: I've had fun writing most of them, but the one that got the most response was one I wrote about my dog Jane after she died.

GoToAK: What continues to surprise most you about our state?

NR: That I can get pineapples from Honduras and eat them on a gravel bar on the Yukon.

GoToAK: What are some of the most surprising scientific revelations you've written about? What groundbreaking scientific research is happening in Alaska right now?

NR: When Bob Gill of the USGS in Anchorage found that bar-tailed godwits stayed in the air for a week and 7,200 miles on their fall migration to New Zealand, I thought that was cool. Scientists are finding out all sorts of stuff about Alaska right now, from easy-to-understand stuff like birds with crazy migrations to deeper stuff like how magma bubbles formed during ancient volcanic eruptions.

GoToAK: After more than 15 years, where do you get new ideas to write about?  

NR: Divine intervention, the law of attraction, pure miracle. Sometimes I come in on a Monday and don't know what the column will be on a Wednesday. But scientists are doing so much here there's always something that drifts in. Articles