BookcoverA former ranger in the Tongass National Forest has published her first novel, and the story is set on her old turf.

Mary Emerick was based in the Sitka Ranger District for seven years, from 2002 to 2009, as a wilderness manager. She says her new novel The Geography of Water sprang from the beaches, coves, and bays of Southeast Alaska.

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Mary Emerick’s novel The Geography of Water is available in paperback at Old Harbor Books in Sitka. Emerick plans to tour the region, and visit old friends in the Forest Service, next year.

Mary Emerick had a dream job — for an introvert. All summer she would cruise the island coastlines of the Tongass in a kayak.

“I would go out for about five days at a time, often with volunteers from the community, and we would patrol the coasts of Baranof and Chichagof islands. And we would check out guide permits, look for weeds and invasive plants, historical sites, inventorying campsites. It was a great job. I really enjoyed it.”

Emerick still works for the Forest Service, but from her log cabin in Enterprise, Oregon. She’s part of an integrated resources management team that plans projects around the country.

It was a pretty quiet life, until the University of Alaska Press released The Geography of Water earlier this year. Now she’s seeing the business side of being an author that she knew about, but wasn’t quite prepared for.

“And everybody tells you that, but you don’t believe it until it actually happens, and you’re like deer in the headlights. That’s what it feels like. I think most writers are on the more introverted side of the scale. Then when you get book clubs, and people calling you — it’s a little overwhelming.”

Mary Emerick, hiking on Lucky Chance Mt. near Sitka. (Facebook photo)

Mary Emerick, hiking on Lucky Chance Mt. near Sitka. (Facebook photo)

Emerick wrote the first chapter of The Geography of Water in 2009 and finished it just last year. But she didn’t spend five years staring at a computer screen. At the same time, Emerick also wrote non-fiction pieces, including the story of her life fighting wildfires, which is being shopped to publishers right now.

Emerick says it was a relief to shift between genres.

“It’s a memoir, so it’s about my life, and it’s very personal. So you’re writing about things that make you vulnerable out there. In a way that’s harder for me, and sometimes I just needed a break from it.”

At only 186 pages, The Geography of Water is a quick read. The story revolves around a young woman who grows up at a remote hunting lodge, leaves, and then must eventually return to search for her mother. Like another notable Southeastern novelist, John Straley, Emerick populates her story with archetypes — the hunting guide, the deck hand, and so on — but who aren’t people we’ll recognize. The book is 100-percent fictional, except for its description of the wilderness — the areas just inland from the beaches, where it feels like no one may have ever walked.

“Seeing how different people relate to the land. It’s really different than it is in the lower 48. I just wanted to write a kind of love story to it. So Southeast Alaska really is a character in my book.”

And of course, you can’t make up everything out of whole cloth.

“Even though I don’t name the town, and it’s not necessarily Sitka, there’s a bar that could be the P-Bar, but it’s left up to the imagination, just like the different bays. I do have a bay in there named Floathouse Bay, but it’s not the Floathouse Bay near Sitka. I just liked the name, so I stole it.”

Emerick says she already has a second novel in the works. This one is set in Hell’s Canyon, though it likely won’t be about people from northeastern Oregon. Her neighbors in Enterprise won’t have to worry about seeing themselves cast in fiction, Emerick says.