Solitude seeker: Molly Liston

women wanderers

Molly Liston grew up in Homer, Alaska, where the forest came down into her backyard, and Roseburg, Oregon, where the Pacific Crest Trail meandered only about two hours from her home. She spent hours playing and hiding out in the woods and fell in love with the outdoors.

“My parents just would say ‘Go outside and play!’”

Her parents also inoculated in her the skills to get outside by taking Molly and her siblings skiing as early as three-years-old. For Molly, the outdoors is not just a hobby. She pursued a physical education degree with an outdoor adventure emphasis at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.  In school, she began working with the current health, physical education and recreation director and associate professor, TJ Miller, running an outdoor program for student living on campus.

Molly now works at Pacific Northern Academy, an independent and non-sectarian private school in Anchorage, as the physical education teacher. It is Molly’s first steady job, but her desire for adventure cannot be tamed. In the summers she guides for Ascending Path or Chugach Adventures based out of Girdwood, Alaska. Molly also helps teach a few outdoor classes at UAA, including a beginning canoeing class that will be offered this summer. In her teaching Molly teaches her students that they can do anything.

“One of my major goals while teaching is to really empower students (both male and female) to try their best no matter where they begin physically or athletically… I encourage them to practice the things that they want to get better at and remind them that to be good at something it requires practice and repetition.”

Molly tries to be an inspiration to her students. She wants no one to ever feel as if they can’t do something for any reason.

“Another thing that I try to do is to simply be a positive role model. Most Physical Education teachers are the stereotypical athletic male and by being a strong athletic and female leader I hope to encourage those female students to break barriers in their own lives. It’s a very exciting and gratifying position to be in!”

Molly also works with college aged students at UAA. Molly’s experience landed her the job as an assistant professor for a 26-day expedition in the Brooks Range with UAA’s outdoor leadership program in 2014. The trip included hiking over 100 miles into the Brooks Range and rafting back out. There were nine students in the class, two were female.

Molly was the only female instructor so was left in a tent by herself, whereas everyone else had a tent mate, including the two other instructors who tented together.

“Yes, I felt very free because you are, you are really smelly and you just want your alone time so that was really nice, but I had to tear down my tent and set it up by myself every single day and cook all my own food. They all got to switch back and forth, so that was a little bit challenging.”

Molly is no stranger to working alone though. In 2012 she hiked the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. The journey started out as a trip between her brother Matt and her, but a week into the trip Matt couldn’t go any further due to injury. Molly, a capable outdoorswoman who is self reliant, wouldn’t let the idea of going alone stop her. She hiked about a month and over 500 miles by herself.

Molly and Matt had planned for such an occurrence knowing that he always gets hurt. He was nervous, but excited for Molly to continue. The two knew that she could make phone calls on her cell periodically when she had service and were confident in Molly’s abilities in the woods.

“We knew that it was going to be interesting, I mean, it’s tough, these things are still nerve wracking, but I’m not the first person to do that. There’s other women who hiked the whole thing by themselves.”

Despite the obvious dangers of being in the woods by yourself and of being a woman alone in the woods Molly found herself struggling with something much different than fears related to those dangers. Molly’s experience on the Pacific Crest Trail was a time of solitude and self reflection.

“You know it was really tough because there’s no route finding. When you have to route find you’re always thinking, you’re always like ‘okay I’m here,’ you’re looking at where you are on the map, but when you’re on the Pacific Crest Trail and you literally don’t have anything to think about other than yourself. It was very challenging – physically and mentally. I was really proud of myself. There was a lot of times I wanted to stop because of blisters or I don’t know maybe even being a little bit bored with myself because I’m such a social person. It was definitely very mentally challenging.”

While Molly battled with the isolation of the trail she finds the alone time to be one of the best parts of being outdoors.

“I just love how quiet it is when I’m by myself and just the freedom to be quiet by yourself, but then in the other aspect I love sharing the experiences with people.”

Matt and Molly starting their journey on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Matt and Molly starting their journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly's brother Matt takes a quick break on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly’s brother Matt takes a quick break on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
One of the last camps that Molly and Matt set up together in the first portion of Molly's journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. This camp was made on their seventh night of the trip near Red Lake Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
This camp was made on Molly and Matt’s seventh night of the trip near Red Lake Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly Liston sits above Crater Lake on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly Liston sits above Crater Lake on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Scout, Molly wears Chacos to help alleviate blisters while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Scout, Molly wears Chacos to help alleviate blisters while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Scout overlook the Sky Lakes Wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Scout overlook the Sky Lakes Wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Matt celebrate their completion of Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Matt celebrate Molly’s completion of the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Liston looks out towards Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Liston looks out towards Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Fireweed above Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Fireweed above Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly climbs through the grasses on the Spencer Bench Hike. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly climbs through the grasses on the Spencer Bench Trail. The trail takes hikers to the Spencer Bench Cabin on a 3 mile trail that climbs 1,800 feet.   Photo by Kevan Dee.
Wandering through the woods of Spencer Bench Trail. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Wandering through the woods of Spencer Bench Trail. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie above Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie above Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie explore Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie explore Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie kayaking on Spencer Lake. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie kayaking on Spencer Lake. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly fishing on the BLANK river. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly fishing on the BLANK river. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly backpacking on the South Fork Trail in Eagle River, Alaska. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly backpacking on the South Fork Trail in Eagle River, Alaska. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly above Winner Creek Gorge in Girdwood, Alaska in the handtram. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly in the handtram on the Grewink Glacier Trail across the bay from Homer, Alaska. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly with her fish on BLANK RIVER. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly with her fish on the Talkeetna River near Decision Creek. Photo by Kevan Dee.
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Alaska outdoor culture: Fostering women in the outdoors

women wanderers

Alaska boasted as the largest state in the union, with the largest mountain in North America and the greatest abundance of wildlife is truly a wild place. The inherent nature of Alaska inspires people to get outside. One look at Denali and it’s plain to see that getting outside is one of the best parts about visiting or living in Alaska. Alaska is an incredibly unique place that invites those who live here to go play outside.

With so much to offer in ways of outdoor activities there is a definite outdoor culture in the state of Alaska. Women who are often underrepresented in outdoor spheres are active members of the outdoor community in Alaska. No one is pushed away from being an adventurer in Alaska, where adventure still runs rampant and solitude can actually be found.

Monika Fleming, a University of Alaska Anchorage student originally from Chewelah, Washington came to Alaska after a slew of adventures that took her all the way to Nepal. Fleming found her home in the last frontier where there is a strong community of outdoorsy people.

“Pretty much every Alaskan I’ve met has done some stuff, like every single one of them, and some crazy stuff too. Even if they don’t do it all the time, the stuff they have done has been really kind of advanced,” said Fleming of Alaska’s outdoor culture. “I’m just like ‘Oh!’ …In the classes I’ve taken there’s this one girl Courtney, she’s the head of the sororities or something like that. She’s really hardy and outdoorsy, but she just looks like you know, just Alaskans always surprise you.”

However, Alaskans who’ve been here their whole lives don’t feel like they are doing anything out of the ordinary. Lifetime Alaskan Kendyl Murakami, who currently studies biology at UAA, is inspired by how there’s so much to do. Despite the cold she feels like it’s impossible to stay indoors living in Alaska.

“I feel like most of us when we grow up in Alaska we grow up with all this expertise surviving outside so I don’t feel like we [women] have any crazy limitations. We all know how to make a fire. We could chop down some wood or cut it in half or whatever, so there’s not a lot of restraints,” Murakami said of Alaskan women.

Not only is Alaska accepting of women getting outside it actually provides a community for it.

“If women, or men, doesn’t matter, if they really want to do something in the outdoors I think Alaska has a phenomenal community to foster that,” said Molly Liston a P.E. teacher at Pacific Northern Academy, a private non-sectarian school in Anchorage.

Pacific Northern Academy is just another example of Alaskan’s self reliant and adventurous way of life. The school’s mission is to “educate students to be exceptional learners and independent thinkers of vision, courage, and integrity.” Students at PNA are encouraged to play and be creative in their learning.

This self reliant attitude about education doesn’t end in the elementary and middle school of Pacific Northern Academy though. At UAA, an outdoor leadership program is offered to students via the health, physical education and recreation program. T.J. Miller the director of the program was Liston’s mentor when she went to college. Miller has lived in both Alaska and Colorado, working as a guide or outdoor instructor for the entirety of his life.

“You know I think up here, gosh, I see more mountain guides on Denali that are women than I saw in Colorado. I guess I would have to say it seems that Alaska has incorporated and embraced women a little more than other areas and I’m kind of comparing Alaska to Colorado, those are my two main states. And again maybe it’s social media, but I have seen more women in the industry doing well and excelling up here than other places.”

Regardless of what it is that makes Alaska such an outdoorsy place, one thing is for sure, there is no end to the possibilities of what one can explore. Undoubtedly there are thousands maybe even millions of untouched acres in the state just waiting to be explored and maybe a woman will be the next to conquer some astounding untouched outdoor feat in Alaska.