If you’ve followed the career of outdoor writer Heather Hansman ’05, you’ll recognize her gasping for air after dumping her raft-load of customers into a Class V rapid on the Gauley River, avoiding avalanches in deep backcountry powder in the Rockies and Cascades, or dodging toxic algae and scary big koi swimming in an urban lake in Seattle.
It’s been a winding stretch of river getting Hansman from Cambridge, Mass., to Colby, to raft guide and ski bum, to freelance writing, to a graduate degree in environmental journalism, to recruited book author.
A veteran of writing and editing gigs at top skiing and outdoor magazines, she arrives in 2019 as an author with Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West, out from the University of Chicago Press in April. And there’s another book under contract, that one on the past and future of ski bums in the era of climate change.
Embracing the outdoors with an intense focus on the environment and climate change goes back to her time on Mayflower Hill, where Hansman was an English major with a concentration in creative writing and an environmental studies minor. She had an academic path, but no specific career aspirations. “I wasn’t one of those kids who came in with a plan,” she said from her home base in Seattle. “I was kind of like, ‘I like to read and write. I like to be outside.’”
The spring after her first year, her mother dropped her off at a rafting company in Caratunk, Maine, where her years in outdoor adventure got launched in the Kennebec River gorge. Skiing, too, was a big part of her life, so after one last summer on Maine rivers following graduation, she headed west. “Two of my best friends from Colby and I moved out and did the ski bum thing.”
They landed in Beaver Creek, Colo., and for the next several years she guided rafts and skied. “And then I ended up blowing out my shoulder kayaking and I was like, ‘OK. Maybe this season off.’”
By then she’d been doing some writing for the local newspaper and was attracted to a program at the University of Colorado in Boulder that combined a master’s in journalism with an environmental policy certificate.
Internships during grad school led to a job when her boss at Skiing magazine hired Hansman to be online editor. It was a good fit. She wrote and edited stories and ran the Skiing website and social media until the online editor position opened at Powder magazine in Southern California, where she won an award for best use of social media.
She returned to freelance writing about five years ago, and her clips are impressive—Outside, Smithsonian, National Geographic, the Guardian, Atlantic—and they span a breadth of subjects to make a liberal arts college proud: skiing and whitewater, yes, but also the effects of climate change on residents of the Arctic, public land policy and Congress, a rise in wildland firefighters’ suicides, undocumented children in the Southwest, a mobile slaughterhouse that makes small farms sustainable in the Pacific Northwest.
An enterprising literary agent liked that last feature, published in California Sunday, so well that she cold-called Hansman to inquire if she would be interested in writing a book. Together they figured out that combining Hansman’s river adventures and her journalism and analytic skills would mesh well. So she set off to paddle the entire Green River, traversing more than 600 miles, exploring water rights and shortages along the way. “Climate change is central to the whole book and the whole water battle,” she said.
Writing about complex topics like climate science and environmental issues is easier, Hansman said, with the broad liberal arts background. “The breadth of the education allows people to understand a wider range of stories and synthesize information better,” she said. “The hard part of journalism often is drawing connections instead of just reporting ‘this happened and then this happened.’ Why do we care? There is that liberal arts way of looking at the world.”
Ultimately the reward is being able to tell stories that people desperately need to understand, relate to, and retain.
“Climate change can feel so big and overwhelming. Where do you even start?” Hansman asked. “How do you make these big slow moving environmental problems concrete and interesting to people.”
So the reading, writing, and being outdoors worked out for Hansman. “It’s funny,” she said. “When the book came together my mom was like, ‘Hey! This stuff is all paying off. It all makes sense!’
“It’s like I had a plan all along.”
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