As the past 13 years flash before my eyes, the foregrounds of the best images have one thing in common: backs.
I have a habit, it seems, of bringing up the rear, and it has served me well. I’ve forged important friendships while looking at the back of a head from the stern of a canoe, a tattooed calf during a 93-mile hike and (most disturbing of all) spandexed backsides during 100-mile bike rides.
Today, once again, I find myself at the end of the line. As this publication continues to adapt for the future, it is saying goodbye to a position with a rich history that spans 125 years.
So, Tuesday morning I called some of the people lucky enough to have this job. They all described it the way I would. “The best job I ever had.”
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We swapped stories about climbing Mount Rainier, braving alligators and poisonous snakes to fish in Costa Rica, hunting pheasants in South Dakota, flying gliders, and coming face to face with cougars, bears and bighorn sheep. We discussed covering wrong doings, tragedies and dramatic rescues.
We each added our own touches to the job, but it’s fair to say none of us had an impact that approaches that of the South Sound’s first outdoor journalist.
In 1890, Fay Fuller was the first known woman to reach the summit of Mount Rainier. She wore wool bloomers, a full-skirted coat and straw hat. She used a shovel handle as an alpenstock and coal dust as sunscreen.
After her historic climb, she was given a column called “Mountain Murmurs” that ran Sundays in the Tacoma Ledger, a publication that eventually merged with others to become what is now The News Tribune.
I always thought it was something of value. I felt like my job was to help protect our resources by helping people understand how they work and what they needed to flourish. I felt like I had a mission more important than myself.
Bob Mottram, News Tribune outdoor writer, 1979-2003
Fuller’s legacy includes helping found the Mazamas, an outdoor group influential in the establishment of Mount Rainier National Park and, later, steering National Park Service policies toward conservation instead of development.
By the time we got our turns at the job, its value was obvious.
In 1979, Bob Mottram took over for John Winkelmann, who in a 1975 edition of the Port Angeles Daily News was referred to as “one of the area’s top outdoor writers.” Soon, Mottram would be too.
Mottram was a 39-year-old seasoned journalist who’d aspired to become an outdoor writer since he was a student at South Dakota State University. But once he got the job, he wondered if it would be as fulfilling as covering crime and politics. He figured he’d try it for a year. He stayed for 24.
“I always thought it was something of value,” said Mottram, retired and living in Anacortes. “I felt like my job was to help protect our resources by helping people understand how they work and what they needed to flourish. I felt like I had a mission more important than myself.”
Government agencies sometimes issued orders for employees to stop talking to Mottram. He was too well connected for this plan to work.
Mottram’s popular weekly column told behind-the-scenes stories about his adventures across the Western Hemisphere. Most notable was a caribou hunting trip in Western Alaska during the attacks of September 11, 2001.
“I turned out to be among the handful of people on the planet who didn’t hear about it,” Mottram said. When a message was finally dropped from a plane, Mottram and his three hunting partners thought it was a bad joke.
The men with him were architects, one with the company that designed the World Trade Center. As they waited to be retrieved, the architects pondered with alarming accuracy the devastation that would be caused by planes hitting the towers.
In the late 1990s, Skip Card, The News Tribune’s Lakewood City Hall reporter, offered to supplement Mottram’s work with stories about hiking, kayaking and mountaineering.
It was getting people to share their wisdom as much as anything else. They did it freely … and we got to learn the things they had to share.
Skip Card, on his time as the News Tribune’s outdoor writer
He often researched the articles in his personal time, happy to collect a mileage check for his work. He had no idea the work would forever change his life.
In 1999, he was one of the lead writers on a colossal yearlong project about Mount Rainier National Park, which was celebrating its centennial.
After the success of the project, then-executive editor David Zeeck asked Card if he wanted to be a full-time outdoors writer.
“I thought he was joking,” Card said. “It was the best news ever.”
Card, who now owns a New York-based smoked salmon company, says his most memorable stories include his final trip with his father to gather oysters on Hood Canal and following a disabled climber’s attempt to summit Mount Rainier.
With deep connections to search-and-rescue teams, Card was picked by editors to go to New York to cover the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. A year later, they sent him back to cover the anniversary.
It was on this second trip he met the woman who would become his wife.
After becoming the first woman to climb Mount Rainier, Fay Fuller was given a column called “Mountain Murmurs” that ran Sundays in the Tacoma Ledger, a publication that eventually merged with others to become what is now The News Tribune.
In 2003, The News Tribune decided to launch its first dedicated outdoor section, “Adventure.” But this was also the year Mottram retired and Card decided to move to New York to be closer to his future wife.
Suddenly, The News Tribune had big plans but no team to execute them. One summer day, the solution walked through the front door.
Jeff Mayor, a journalist from Reno, was in Tacoma visiting family and dropped by The News Tribune before taking a family trip to Mount Rainier. He had been a finalist for the news editor job and was asked to stay in touch.
His quick visit turned into a 3-hour conversation.
“You want me to design, edit and write an outdoors section?” Mayor said. “Where do I sign up?”
By the end of the year, Mayor was hired, launched the new section and was looking to hire an outdoor writer.
I was a decade into a sports writing career, but couldn’t shake the idea of being paid to hike, bike, kayak and ski. I was covering the 2004 Final Four in San Antonio when I received word that I would start shortly after I returned.
For all the adventures crammed into the past 13 years, and all those enjoyed by others who’ve had this job, we all share one highlight: The people we met along the way.
“Every good story I wrote had an interesting person at the forefront,” Mayor said.
Card recalled a phone conversation we had shortly after I took over his job.
“You told me that you’d met more nice (and interesting) people in the past two weeks than you had in all your years in professional locker rooms,” Card said. “That was something I hadn’t really realized. There are so many very nice, very experienced people that we met with that job.
“It was getting people to share their wisdom as much as anything else. They did it freely … and we got to learn the things they had to share.”
There, too, is the solace in this moment.
The job might be going away, but the people will always be here.