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While Nick Jans spent his first 15 years in Alaska with "a rifle in one hand and a rod in the other," during the past decade, he has slowly lost his desire to kill wildlife. These days, he prefers to capture it in words and on film.
Author Nick Jans discusses writing, life in Alaska 042110 NEWS 1 For the Capital City Weekly While Nick Jans spent his first 15 years in Alaska with "a rifle in one hand and a rod in the other," during the past decade, he has slowly lost his desire to kill wildlife. These days, he prefers to capture it in words and on film.

Photo Courtesy Of Nick Jans

Nick Jans, shown here in the author photo from his latest book, "The Glacier Wolf," is this year's featured writer for Tidal Echoes, the literary journal produced by the University of Alaska Southeast.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Story last updated at 4/21/2010 - 12:46 pm

Author Nick Jans discusses writing, life in Alaska

While Nick Jans spent his first 15 years in Alaska with "a rifle in one hand and a rod in the other," during the past decade, he has slowly lost his desire to kill wildlife. These days, he prefers to capture it in words and on film.

"Writing and photography give me an excuse to get out there," Jans, 55, said the other day over a small latte at Heritage Coffee in Mendenhall Valley. He was on a break from remodeling his bathroom, tell-tale construction goop caking his fingers.

"Plus, it forces closeness. You can shoot an animal from 300 yards, but to really observe wildlife, let alone take a great picture, you've got to be within 50 feet."

Jans, well-known for his essays about Alaska - and, recently, his activism on behalf of wolves - is this year's featured writer for Tidal Echoes, the literary journal produced by University of Alaska Southeast. On average, he writes more than 20 Alaska-themed magazine articles a year. His books include "Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears," "A Place Beyond: Finding Home in Arctic Alaska" and "The Last Light Breaking: Living Among Alaska's Inupiat Eskimos." He is also currently writing his first novel, set in contemporary bush Alaska.

"Well, I'm writing it and I'm not writing it, if you know what I mean," Jans said, and indeed I do (that's pretty much where I am with my own first novel). "After a while it becomes a challenge - how many new ways can you describe a snow-covered mountain range?"

Above all else, Jans is a careful writer, prone to nearly endless revision. He will often spend entire days writing one paragraph, seeking an elusive "simple transparency that people can understand." His stories aren't about himself as much they as are about the larger world, filtered through his lens, from his point of view. Simply the prelude to "The Glacier Wolf," his most recent collection, is enough to give the reader a sense of the effort Jans applies.

"A lot of it is understanding how to look at things," Jans said. "And that takes time."

In some ways, it's taken him years. As he puts it: "Nothing in my past would have predicted where I am now." Born in New Hampshire the son of a career diplomat, Nick Jans grew up mostly overseas, in cities ranging from Vienna to Bangkok. But when the family did return stateside, they would stay at his grandfather's cabin in rustic northern Michigan - this is where he first became enthralled with nature.

In 1979, armed with only a BA in English from Colby College, in Maine, and a trunk full of "crappy Sears outdoor gear, and I mean crappy," Nick Jans headed north in an old Plymouth. Ditching the Plymouth in Canada, he kept going. Eventually, he wound up in Ambler, a town of about 300 near the confluence of the Ambler and Kobuk Rivers, 45 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

"It was unlike anywhere I'd ever been, and I was drawn to it immediately," Jans recounted of the area he lived and documented for nearly 20 years. "It's the only place I've ever felt was home."

Jans spent the next decade learning how to do all sorts of Arctic necessities: hunting, trapping, skinning, playing guitar. Eventually, he began writing. And it snowballed - during the last two decades, Nick Jans has evolved into one of Alaska's most noted documentarians of landscapes and wildlife, specializing in remote locations.

In 1998, at the tender age of 42, Nick Jans met his wife, Sherrie, a union he describes as a "collision of opposites." For one, she was from Southeast Alaska, born and raised. For another, she was a card-carrying member of PETA at a time when Jans was still "killing everything [he] saw." Less than a year later, they married and moved to Juneau.

"Also, after twenty years, hauling water and chopping wood in 60-below started to get old," he said of his decision to relocate to relatively warmer climes.

Though Jans thinks highly of Southeast Alaska - "half-an-hour from the governor's mansion, and I'd have a 140-lb. wolf in my yard waiting to go skiing with me and my dogs" - his home will always be in the Arctic, where he returns each year.

"What drives my work? Doing what I want to do - getting out into the country."

Of course, Jans also pointed out that success is relative.

"Here I am, one of Alaska's best-known writers, and look at the beater mini-van I drive."

Nick Jans will be appearing at the Tidal Echoes launch party, a free event starting at 7 p.m. on April 24 at Egan Lecture Hall, UAS. He plans to read from the novel fragment that appears in the journal, even though he admits to having revised it several times since submitting it.