For this iteration of Bookshelf, we sat down with author, photographer, and sailor-adventurer Elsie Hulsizer. Hulsizer is a Ballard resident who has written two books Voyages to Windward: Sailing Adventures on Vancouver Island’s West Coast and Sailing in Search of the Real Southeast Alaska Glaciers, Bear, and Totems, and is a contributing writer to Northwest Yachting magazine. We had the pleasure of working with her for a cruising to Alaska feature in our May, 2016 issue Alaska or Bust.
Describe your background a bit for me. How did your career as an oceanographer lead to a path of an adventurer-writer-photographer?
My love for the ocean led to both my careers. I grew up on Three Tree Point, on Puget Sound. I loved being out on the water and was fascinated by it and by the creatures that live in it. That led me to study oceanography in college, which in turn led me to a career working in a variety of environmental programs. I did research on plankton at the University of Rhode Island, wrote Environmental Impact Statements for nuclear and coal-fired power plants for an engineering firm in Philadelphia. In Seattle I did shoreline planning for the City of Seattle, water-quality planning for the (now defunct) state agency the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, and industrial waste management for Metro and King County.
When I was working we spent our summer vacations (two-to-three weeks per year) sailing, primarily on the west coast of Vancouver Island. My interest in oceanography drove me to learn more about the places we visited, but I didn’t confine that to just oceanography. I also became fascinated with the history of the places we cruised. Voyages to Windward was written and published while I was still working full-time.
What compels you North? What is it about B.C. and Alaska that draws you?
In the first place, they’re beautiful. I love seeing the natural beauty of the places we go to. It’s a wild beauty. But they also have a hidden history that we can’t see; you can anchor in places that look pristine but were once major industrial settings: major fish processing plants or industrial whaling centers. And of course, the Native history is always there. I remember when I was growing up my mother bringing home the books of Emily Carr from the library and reading them to us. Both the stories and the illustrations intrigued me, especially her paintings of old totem poles. I wanted to go to the places she painted and wrote about.
What inspired your first book, Voyages to Windward?
Every time I attended a slide show or talk about the west coast of Vancouver Island, I felt there was something missing; that the speaker hadn’t captured what I saw when we were there. I took up photography seriously because I wanted to show people what the coast was like. I enrolled in the Photographic Center Northwest’s fine art photography program and had to do a thesis. My instructor saw the photos I had taken of the west coast of Vancouver Island and encouraged me to do a book of photographs for my thesis. But I had to do some writing as part of the thesis. I took a class on photography and writing and [I] liked it. My book of photographs with some writing became a book of writing with lots of photographs. I learned so much more about the coast from writing about it than I did from just cruising there.
Glaciers, Bears, and Totems is full of useful cruising information. Is it intended as a guide?
No. It’s intended to complement the guides that others have written. It doesn’t include information like where to anchor or where the hazards are. It’s more about why you should go there and what’s unique about the places. I like to think that taking my books on a cruise enhances the cruising experience. I get more out of visiting a place when I understand its history—human and natural. I hope someone reading my books gets some of the same satisfaction.
That said, I have met a lot of cruisers who use both books as guides to tell them where to cruise to. I have even met people who
visited anchorages on the west coast of Vancouver Island in exactly the order I wrote about them. But of course, they all had at least one other cruising guide with them.
Do you have any cruising adventures planned for the near future?
This summer’s plans are to go northwest up the west coast of Vancouver Island, then across Queen Charlotte Sound to the BC central coast. One thing about writing books is you have to give talks to sell them, which means you need to keep returning to the area to keep current.
Are you working on any manuscripts now?
I’m working on two manuscripts: a children’s “chapter book” about a cat sailing to Alaska and a book of photographs of native pictographs (ochre drawings on rocks).
What do you think of the Northwest as a cruising ground?
What B.C. and Alaska both offer is cruising in beautiful scenery to interesting places with the potential for a safe and different anchorage every night, in fact an almost unlimited number of anchorages. I’ve done bluewater cruising; my husband and I sailed here from Philadelphia by way of the Panama Canal and Hawaii. I’m glad I did it, but the best part of it for me was coming into a new anchorage and getting to know a place. I prefer anchoring every night.
Any words of advice to would-be adventurers and writers?
Writing can be challenging. No matter how much you want to write there’s also a natural resistance to just sitting down and writing. So write about what interests you. And realize you probably won’t make a living doing it; for most of us it’s supplemental income only.
You can find out more about Elsie Hulsizer’s books at bit.ly/1V9Yd9u.