By Emily Stone
Ned Rozell came to Alaska the first time by chance.
The upstate New York native was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base for a year and a half in the early 80s. While there, he noticed the way Alaskans accept people who choose to live simply in small, wood-heated cabins tucked away from big cities.
“It was the way a lot of people lived up here and didn’t live in a lot of other places. There’s a real sense of freedom,” he said. Plus, “there’s a lot of opportunities job-wise and adventure-wise.” These impressions intrigued Rozell enough to lure him back in 1986 after the Air Force to attend college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Twenty-four years later, he’s still there and has found an ideal combination of job and adventure as the science writer for the university’s Geophysical Institute. In addition to spending time in the field with scientists trekking atop glaciers or snowmobiling frozen rivers, he combines writing with his own trips into the wilderness, such as in the book he wrote about his 800-mile hike along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline with his dog, Jane.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Rozell, now 47, worked seasonal jobs, including stints as a firefighter and National Park ranger. In 1994 he noticed a job posting for the science writer position. He was familiar with it because the writer is responsible for weekly newspaper columns about research conducted by the institute’s 70 scientists, columns Rozell frequently read.
In the 700-plus columns he’s written, Rozell has covered everything from volcanic eruptions to dinosaur teeth. The engaging and accessible stories titled “Alaska Science Forum” run in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the Anchorage Daily News and smaller papers around the state. He likes biology columns the best, he said, and they’re also the ones that draw the most reader response. Any time he writes about black-capped chickadees, which weigh as much as a handful of paperclips, or ravens that swoop and play in the wind, he hears from readers who like that neither species abandons Alaska for warmer climes during the long, cold months.
“People see them as partners toughing out the winter,” he said.
For his part, Rozell likes that winter scares off most people, too.
“I like the cold,” he said. “Maybe it’s because most people don’t like it; it’s that frontier feel you get in extremely cold places.”
Ecologist Knut Kielland has been the subject of five of Rozell’s columns over the years. He describes Rozell as a low-key, quiet observer in the field who always has his notebook out and eyes and ears open. He quickly grasps the big picture questions being addressed in the research as well as getting the nit-picky details right, Kielland said.
Scientists are eager to have good stories about their research distributed to the general public, Kielland said. Rozell makes the process easy.
“We just do our regular research and he comes around and chats with us in the field and writes his cool synopsis,” Kielland said.
Rozell’s friend John Arntz, who has known Rozell since college, said his friend’s two loves — science and getting out into nature — come from the same place. “He likes time outside, and knowing what’s going on around him adds to his interest,” Arntz said.
Arntz joined Rozell for 200 miles of his pipeline hike in 1997 and helped shuttle supplies at other points during the four-month trip. On the trail, Rozell was his normal quiet, contemplative self, said Arntz, who is now the director of elections in San Francisco. Rozell would often note things of scientific interest along the route, pointing out species of trees that fare well in the far north or mentioning the migration habits of white crowned sparrows as they flew overhead.
“He lived that part, the science as well as the adventure,” Arntz said.
Rozell, who was prepared to quit his job to take the trip if his bosses didn’t want him away so long, ended up filing columns during the hike, timing them to coincide with his location. He figured if he got enough good fodder en route, he could turn the trip into a book, which he did in “Walking My Dog, Jane.” It focuses more on the interesting people he met along the way, including pipeline workers, fellow hikers, and readers who were tracking his progress and set out to meet him, as well as incorporating the natural history of the places he passed through.
His other epic adventure was a 27-day, 700-mile cross-country ski trip he did in 2001 with his friend Andy Sterns. Sterns came up with the route. It followed the path of a 1925 serum run when Alaskans teamed up to shuttle diphtheria medicine from the closest train depot to Nome, which was experiencing a deadly epidemic.
Sterns describes his friend as a steady presence in the wilderness, who remains even-keeled no matter how hard the trail or bad the weather.
“It’s good to be out on a trip with someone you know you can count on no matter what,” he said from his home in Fairbanks.
In addition to his weekly columns, Rozell is finishing up a biography of University of Alaska scientist Kenji Yoshikawa. Rozell said he was drawn to the permafrost researcher because he’s both a scientist and an adventurer, having skied to the South Pole, hiked across the Sahara, and sailed from his native Japan to Alaska.
“He’s kind of a kindred soul,” he said.
Rozell’s next big outdoor trip is a week-long canoeing and camping trip he and his wife are taking with their 3-year-old daughter. They’re eager to see how she does sleeping along the banks of the Yukon River, battling Alaska’s notorious mosquitoes.
“It’ll be a different speed,” he said, but no doubt an adventure.