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Corinth writer solo-climbs a new literary mountain

Of the 25 explorers who embarked on the Greely expedition to the Canadian Arctic in 1881, only seven returned alive to a parade in Portsmouth in 1884.

During their three years trapped north of Lady Franklin Bay, above Canada's Ellesmere Island, the men endured almost unspeakable privation. Some died of hypothermia; some starved. Army Lt. Adolphus Greely denied that any of his men resorted to cannibalism.

Even for a person as adventurous as Laura Waterman, this topic seems inhospitable. Yet the East Corinth author has spent the past decade immersed in the Greely expedition's ordeal, which is the subject of her first novel, Starvation Shore. The challenge of writing their story kept drawing her on.

"I could feel myself, as I got closer to the end, slowing down," Waterman said during a mid-March interview at her cabin just outside East Corinth village. "I didn't want to finish it. I love the mechanics of the words that are going to push the reader into the story."

The novel, released March 20, is the latest evolution of Waterman's long, productive career as a writer. A flurry of publications is bringing her work into sharper focus.

Now nearly 80, Waterman made her name co-writing nonfiction with her late husband, Guy Waterman, about wilderness and living lightly on the land. Starvation Shore follows close on the heels of the release of the 30th-anniversary edition of the Watermans' seminal Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trailblazing, and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains, and of a new edition of Yankee Rock and Ice: A History of Climbing in the Northeastern United States.

"I think Laura is an incredibly talented writer who was in the shadow of Guy when he was still alive," Christine Woodside, the Connecticut-based editor of the venerable outdoors journal Appalachia, said last week. "She's a true literary writer."

Waterman's work as a solitary writer started while she researched and wrote her 2005 memoir, Losing the Garden, about her and Guy's 30 years together, most of them on a 27-acre, off-the-grid homestead a few miles from her current home. She built Garden around the frigid morning in February 2000 on which Guy drove to Franconia Notch, hiked to the mile-high summit of Mount Lafayette and sat down to die, by choice — and with Laura's conflicted assent.

In the preceding months, they had built the cabin, closer to East Corinth village and equipped with electricity, indoor plumbing, telephone — just about every modern convenience but a television and a computer — and designed for Laura alone. After a few months of mourning, and of clearing out the homestead, which they'd named for the Scottish island of Barra, she started writing in a tiny, blond-wood-paneled nook with a north-facing window.

While she typed the later drafts on a 1960s-vintage, charcoal-gray Royal manual, she could reach behind her chair to a narrow wall of bookshelves and cubbyholes. Across the table, she could see another set of shelves, which held, in addition to books, three-ring binders brimming with the data Guy documented during their years of homesteading, from blueberries picked — not just by the container but down to the number of berries — to thrice-a-day readings of temperatures at three different locations around Barra.

"Now," she writes in chapter 13 of Losing the Garden, "it is I — the one who considered 7:00 a.m. the only sane rising hour — who is up in the predawn hours, sitting at my desk, a different desk in a different house. ... I pause. I listen. I feel what needs to be said next. I'm writing solo now, but because of half a lifetime of shared thoughts, it can still feel like collaboration."

Climbing and writing

The partnership began in 1970, when 37-year-old Guy Waterman met 29-year-old Laura Johnson in the Shawangunk mountains of eastern New York state, a longtime Mecca for rock climbers. After leaving their corporate day jobs in New York City and moving to East Corinth in 1973, they realized that they needed a source of income to buy necessities that they could not cultivate on their own, while leaving them free to hike and climb around the Northeast, particularly in the White Mountains and the Adirondacks.

"When we were trying to figure out how to make this work, we wondered whether we could turn books and magazine articles into a cash crop," Waterman recalled. "For many of those years I was Guy's apprentice. It wasn't always easy, but there were many fruitful years."

In addition to Forest and Crag and Yankee Rock and Ice, those years yielded Backwoods Ethics: A Guide to Low-Impact Camping and Hiking (the third edition of which Countryman Press published in 2016 under the new title The Green Guide to Low-Impact Hiking and Camping), Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness, and A Fine Kind of Madness: Mountain Adventures Tall and True.

Before the books, the Watermans had collaborated on monthly columns for magazine New England Outdoors about the emerging ethic of walking and camping as lightly as possible in the wilder corners of the Northeast.

"It gave us a voice," Waterman said of the column. "There wasn't much reason to think about these issues in the 1920s and 1930s, when not that many people had the leisure time. But in the late '60s and '70s, people were coming by the tens of thousands. You'd walk into the woods and find a ring of stumps around the campsite or the shelter. And on the more popular trails, especially above treeline, it wasn't just a path. It was a network of braided paths."

The columns, and the ensuing books, helped shift the narrative of outdoor adventuring toward stewardship of wild lands.

"It was really a revolution, in the best sense of the word," Waterman said. "But it's something that needs to be repeated and repeated, for every generation."

Shadows in the garden

While documenting the revolution and, by example, living it, the Watermans also were waging a private struggle against Guy's mental illness. Much of Losing the Garden tracks his mood swings, from joyful bouts of hiking, maple-sugaring and shared reading with Laura to deep funks in which he refused to talk out what troubled him.

Guy's demons worsened in the early 1980s, after one of his three sons from a previous marriage, John Waterman, disappeared on Alaska's Mount McKinley, apparently in the midst of a psychological crisis of his own. Another troubled son, Bill, had disappeared several years before and was never heard from again.

And not long after becoming estranged from his youngest son, Jim, Guy started confiding in Laura that he was considering suicide. During a solo hike in July 1998, he tried jumping off the cliffs of Cannon Mountain, high above Franconia Notch, then pulled himself back at the last second. The incident prompted the Watermans to start preparing for Laura to live on her own.

While their friends and loved ones knew that they were building the new house, Laura kept secret Guy's plan not to join her there. Holding back was hard, she recalls in Losing the Garden, but knowing that at some point she would no longer be fretting over Guy's moods, hour to hour and day to day, also brought Laura a form of relief.

"My situation seemed similar to that of a nun who's about to step out of the cloister," she wrote, "or a convict whose thirty-year jail term is coming to an end. Each is on the threshold of rejoining a world she knows has changed."

In the meantime, Laura was finding relief from those day-to-day tensions by writing short stories. She'd started exercising her imagination in the early 1990s, when, with trail-worn knees, she decided that she could join Guy on only the easiest day hikes.

"It gave me a feeling that was almost like, maybe, endorphins?" she said. "There's some kind of charge I get from it that's pretty addicting: being in your head, in another world."

'A diligent researcher'

While Guy's death and the writing of Losing the Garden interrupted that process, they also set the stage for her novel, which she built in large part on the handwritten observations in the camp journal of Army Sgt. David Brainard.

"That period was a wonderful bridge to the Starvation Shore project," she said. "I'd read through Guy's journals, all of the data he kept track of ... and Brainard's diaries were also quite detailed, to the point of obsession."

The diaries came to Waterman's attention while she was trying in vain to write a fictionalized account of the later life of opera diva Maria Callas, whose recordings she listened to throughout the memoir-writing process. With the Callas project stalled, she read about the Greely expedition in historian Clint Willis' book Ice: Stories of Survival from Polar Exploration.

Soon she learned that the original Brainard diaries were housed in the Dartmouth College library's special collections, where the Watermans often had conducted research for their books.

In the summer of 2008, Waterman started traveling once a week to Dartmouth to pore through the diaries, and soon special collections librarian Jay Satterfield was making copies of diary entries for her to take home and transcribe.

"It's probably something she didn't see herself doing, but Laura is a diligent researcher," Satterfield said recently at Rauner Library, where special collections are kept. "Brainard's handwriting is incredibly hard to read, but she worked through it."

In thanks for Satterfield's help, Waterman wrote an introduction that now goes with a digital version of the diary, with her transcription posted side-by-side with the screen shots of the originals. It is viewable at dartmouth.edu/(tilde)library/digital/collections/manuscripts/brainard-diary.

"It's not just scholarship that only scholars will read," Satterfield said. "It's helped us make this incredible diary more accessible to other communities."

Her own access, day by day, prompted Waterman to shift the direction of her own project.

"I was not going to discover anything unusual enough to warrant a nonfiction account," she recalled. "I wanted to create scenes in real time, and imagine dialogue, to try to capture the feelings they must have been going through.

"As I learned about how desperate they were," she continued, "I asked myself, 'How would you react in the same circumstances? How would you end up performing? What kind of team player would you turn out to be?' "

Adventure on the page

Laura Johnson developed her vicarious taste for adventure stories while growing up in Princeton, N.J., where her father Thomas Johnson, an expert on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, taught English at the private Lawrenceville School for boys.

In what Waterman describes in Losing the Garden as an escape from the family tensions wrought by her father's alcoholism, young Laura devoured the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe — "In bed at night, I scared myself to death!" — and novels such as Kidnapped; Treasure Island; The Count of Monte Cristo; The Wind in the Willows; and Kenneth Roberts' Revolutionary War-era historical novels, particularly Northwest Passage.

"The language in a lot of those books is where I live as a reader," Waterman said. "In many ways, I'm back in the 19th century."

On the brink of her teens, she started sampling nonfiction accounts of mountaineering expeditions, from Annapurna, in which Maurice Herzog documents the struggles of the first team to scale a 26,000-foot peak in the Himalayas in 1950, to Sir John Hunt's Conquest of Everest, about Edmund Hillary's 1953 expedition to the top of the world.

"In those days, I was not moved to pick up a pencil and write something myself," Waterman said. "It took me an extremely long time to become a writer."

While Waterman says that she's taking a bit of a breather from starting a new writing project, her friends and colleagues and admirers wouldn't put it past her to climb a few more literary mountains, at her usual, gradual pace.

"She's good at reminding us all that life's not all about having a party," Woodside said. "She enjoys every day. ... She's a real reminder that time is finite, and you have to make the best use of time that you can.

"She's going to be with us for a long time, I think."

Starvation Shore was released on March 20. Laura Waterman will read from the novel at 6:30 p.m. on April 17 at Blake Memorial Library in East Corinth and at 7 p.m. on May 29 at the Norwich Bookstore. To learn about and contribute to projects to protect and improve hiking trails in fragile areas of the mountains, visit www.watermanfund.org .

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Online: https://bit.ly/2UlWJ3b

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