Becca Wolfe and John Wolfe Jr. Honor a Legacy

Half a century after Helen Nienhueser published the popular guidebook 55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska, her son and granddaughter have released a revamped and expanded trail guide to hiking, biking, paddling, skiing, and skating in the mountains and rivers around Anchorage, from the Kenai Peninsula to Mat-Su valley to the Copper River basin. In their new book, Alaska Adventure 55 Ways, authors John Wolfe Jr. and Rebecca Wolfe celebrate Alaska’s wilderness and their family tradition of being out in it.

It’s so cool that this book now spans three generations of your family. How did it first come about?

Becca: My grandmother found herself and found the love of her life in these mountains. She wrote the book with the intention of getting more people out to fall in love with the wilderness. It’s sort of endemic to our family. 

John: I remember when my mom wrote the first version in 1972; she had little kids and she used to drag us along on all these hikes. One time we went to the Crescent Lake Trail with friends, and we got to ride around in a rowboat by ourselves, without a parent. We also took a trip to Lost Lake. I remember playing in the campfire with a stick, and then getting the wrong end of the stick near my mouth. That was memorable.

What was it like co-authoring a book as a father-daughter team? 

John: This book is something our family has cycled around for my whole life, and Becca’s whole life. It’s given a certain structure to our lives. It’s really neat when you get to work on a professional project with your kid. I imagine it was like that for my mom too. 

Becca: I give credit to Papa. I came in and said, ‘Here are some things that are important to me.’ And he was open to it. We had this whole idea that we were going to write parts of the book separately and try to meld our tones. I think it worked.

John Wolfe Jr. and Rebecca Wolfe in Belanger Pass.

How does the revamped book compare to the original?

Becca: It’s a little bit more angled toward multimodal travel, not just hiking but skiing, biking, and wild skating too. We have more traverse and loop trips rather than day hikes. 

John: When my mom wrote the original version, she focused on how you physically find your way out there, because there weren’t many trailheads established yet. Chugach State Park was brand new. That has changed now, and I think the focus has shifted to, how do you make sure what is out there is available to the most people? Not just the white outdoor community, but people who don’t normally get out of town very much.

That’s a great point. How do you incorporate equity into an outdoor guide?

Becca: I have a certain idea of what being outdoors means, sometimes it’s solo backpacking, sometimes it’s going out with friends for exercise. But there are so many different ways to be outdoors, so many valid ways to be outdoors. 

John: We cover a lot of urban hiking, peripheral to Anchorage. We made a conscious decision not to have fly-in trips, where you have to shell out a lot of cash just to get to the trailhead. Our book has always been focused on what’s accessible to the road system, in addition to water taxis and railroad.

Looking back at the original guidebook, what changes have you noticed in how we recreate outdoors?

John: The gear has changed over time to create more crazy ways to be outside. Fat bikes didn’t exist back then. Now we have a 90-mile beach bike from Homer to Kenai. There are fun things you can do if you have a fat-tire bike, skate skis, and Nordic blades. But you don’t have to have those things. You can rent them, or ultimately you can just walk!

Becca: Wild skating is another newer trend, which refers to skating on creeks or lakes in the backcountry. We included trips that are normally canoe portage trips in the summer, where you can also skate in the winter.

If you had to pick one favorite trip from the book, summer or winter, which would it be?

John: I default to Kesugi Ridge in Denali State Park. When they finish adding on the Curry Ridge portion, you’ll have 48 miles of dedicated hiking trail with a beautiful view of the Alaska Range.

Becca: The Homer to Kenai beach bike is one of the coolest adventures I’ve been on. I did it with a bunch of acquaintances who turned into friends. Normally you see the Kenai Peninsula from the Sterling Highway, but it’s a really different experience being down on the beach versus up the bluff. The fishing and sea life and birds and architecture on the bluff just blow my mind. When you’re driving right next to it, you don’t even know it’s there.

What’s Helen up to these days?

John: My mom turned 86 recently and is still passionate about getting outdoors. She walks or hikes, slowly but virtually every day, in the greenbelt park near her house in Anchorage. In recent years, she has strived to spend a week or two at her remote cabin in March, late May, and maybe August. In winter, she cross-country skis and hikes. She has started using the new book to revisit old trails and try out new ones—recently a portion of the Johnson Pass Trail, hikes at either end of the Hope Coastal Walk, and a trip to Manitoba Cabin.


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