Vagabond ventures: Monika Fleming

women wanderers

Anchorage is the largest city UAA geology major Monika Fleming has ever lived in. She grew up in Chewelah, Washington where only 2,607 people reside in three square miles. Monika has climbed mountains rising, in feet, more than six times her hometown’s population. Additionally, she traveled out of the country on her own and worked in numerous national parks. Her journey through life hasn’t always been clear, but her love of the outdoors and for adventure has driven her to new and unexpected places.

Fleming grew up hiking and skiing with her family; yet it wasn’t until college that she fell in love with the outdoors. After suspension from BYU Idaho for smoking cigarettes, she started working at Yellowstone National Park in a fast food joint in Mammoth Hot Springs. There she developed a love of geology and began spending her days in the mountains around the park and, by the end of summer, was doing twenty-mile mountain summits. The free spirited culture of working in a national park took hold of Monika and gave her a “go get em” attitude for adventure.

When summer came to a close, Fleming went back to BYU Idaho for the fall trimester. Then, during winter trimester, she returned home and became a snowboard instructor at her hometown mountain, 49˚ North Resort. Another instructor and fellow BYU student, Drover, suggested Monika take a course called Spring Summit when she returned to school in the spring.

Upon spring enrollment, Monika joined Spring Summit – an 18 credit six-week outdoor management course. It was another chance for Monika to live her life to the fullest. The course included ropes courses, desert survival, backpacking, mountain biking, rafting and canyoneering. One of the most stand out experiences for Monika during the course was rafting a 46-mile portion of the Colorado River known as Cataract Canyon.

“Cataract Canyon, that’s the canyon, that has a series of 29 rapids that scarred me for life, but now I’m trying to be a raft guide because I want to not be scared. Water just freaks me out. It’s always freaked me out because it’s so powerful.”

Monika’s raft was flipped by a hole and everyone on the boat had to cling to the raft as they went through class 3 and 4 rapids before flipping it back over. Monika decided to spend the rest of the trip on the pontoon boat to avoid flipping. However, danger was not behind her.

Monika sat next to a 4 to 5-month pregnant classmate at the front of the pontoon raft. The girl wasn’t hanging on tight enough as they came over a huge rapid and was bucked off in an area called Devil’s Gut – where getting sucked in means death. Monika alone was attempting to retrieve her, screaming for help, when a guide cut the motor, pulled her in, started the motor again, and avoided imminent danger in about two seconds.

Despite the danger she and the rest of her classmates had faced Monika wasn’t willing to back down from conquering the outdoors. Following the class Monika traveled back to Yellowstone for the summer before returning to BYU Idaho for the fall semester. Her love of the outdoors shortly overcame her desire to finish school though.

“I decided that I basically had my associates degree minus four credits, but I just didn’t really want to be at BYU anymore. I had some friends from Yellowstone who were going to go work in Colorado for the winter so I just finished my semester and went down to Colorado and became a ski instructor.”

At the end of the ski season Monika decided to make her way to Glacier National Park. She worked as an employee dining room chef in Swift Current cooking meals for all her co-workers with almost no experience in a kitchen. The decision to go to Glacier was Monika’s first big leap of faith for the outdoors.

“This was the first thing I’d really done totally on my own. The school thing I did on my own, but that was with a school program. I just drove up to Montana and I was totally by myself. I’ve had friends and connections and stuff like that, but this was totally just kind of on my own.”

During her summer in Glacier National Park Monika did a lot of hikes and solo summits. She also met a guy named Samurai, who every year visits Nepal. Samurai invited Monika and two others (Shannon and Hayden) to Nepal to work in an orphanage with him at the end of the summer.

“I saved up money, I bought a plane ticket, saved up more money to live off of and then I flew to Nepal… We stayed in an orphanage for a month just on the border of India… That was like a really eye opening experience that was the pinnacle of this kind of wild crazy traveling kind of like freedom thing going on. That kind of grounded me. It put a lot of things in perspective, I’ll tell you that much. Nepal – they have nothing. They have tourism, they don’t manufacture anything, they make rice and millet and it’s sandwiched right between India and China and that’s how most of the world lives.”

Seeing poverty first hand Monika gained a greater appreciation for what she had and fueled her desire to experience more of the world. During Hayden, Shannon and Monika’s stay in Nepal they planned a trek in the Himalayas. Just one day into the trip Shannon and Hayden turned around, but Monika continued with their Nepali guide.

“We went to this place called Machapuchare base camp and it’s in the Annapurna region. That’s where most people go trekking if they go to Nepal because they have Everest base camp and Langtang National Park which is right north of Katmandu.”

Machapuchare Mountain, standing at 22,793 feet with two peaks has never once been summited. Since summiting is illegal, many climbers don’t want to climb any portions of Machapuchare. Monika is one of the few who has hiked parts of the mountain.

“There’s all this mysticism around it. No one’s summited it because there’s a god that lives up there, no one’s summited it because the mountain itself is a god, all this different stuff.”

While Monika didn’t summit the mountain she took a Feldspar heart shaped rock home with her as well as important life lessons.

“I actually broke on that trip because I was just out in the middle of the Himalayas with this guide. We were not near any tourists anymore. We were just in the Himalayas. There was people on the side of the mountain, like families, chopping wood and it was just really freaking real. The water wasn’t clean where I was at. They were boiling it, but it had chunks in it. It was really hard. It made me realize what a prissy – I mean how lucky we are.”

Spending time in Nepal brought things into perspective for Monika. Going first hand into the outdoors brought Monika back to her beginnings. In a journey with many detours she decided that pursuing geology was the path she needed to take.

“Maybe you could call it an existential crisis, but it was something, it was good. That’s what brought me here. I ended up here after that. I wanted to go back to college and I knew what I wanted to study. I wanted to go to Western Washington University, but my credits wouldn’t transfer there and I’ve always wanted to live in Alaska… I just kind of took a gamble coming here.”

Monika since Nepal, moved to Alaska in 2014 and has been attending UAA ever since as a geology major. This summer Monika plans to do some sort of guiding job, most likely rafting despite her previous experiences in Cataract Canyon. Until then Monika has been shredding the slopes of Alyeska and sneaking in outdoor recreation classes at UAA including a sea kayaking class this April.

Monika Stats

White Rim bike trail in Canyonlands National Park. Monika biked 100 miles on the trail with her Spring Summit course. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
White Rim bike trail in Canyonlands National Park. Monika biked 100 miles on the trail with her Spring Summit course. Photo courtesy of Canyonlands National Park.
Monika's Spring Summit class in Little Wildhorse Canyon near Moab, Utah. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika’s Spring Summit class in Little Wildhorse Canyon near Moab, Utah. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika canyoneering in Moab, Utah during her Spring Summit course from BYU Idaho. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika canyoneering in Moab, Utah during her Spring Summit course from BYU Idaho. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Emily Panky Arapaho Basin Colorado
Monika and Emily Panky at Arapaho Basin in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika and Liz Laderback doing some side country snowboarding at Steamboat Springs in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika and Liz Laderback doing some side country snowboarding at Steamboat Springs in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika hiking in Zion National Park on a road trip with friends from Colorado. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika hiking on Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park on a road trip with friends from Colorado. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika and Natalie Chaddock in Zion National Park. Photo courtesy of National Park.
Monika and Natalie Chaddock in Zion National Park. Photo courtesy of National Park.
Monika on Ridgewalk Trail on Mount Allen in Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika on Ridgewalk Trail on Mount Allen in Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika in Many Glacier Valley in Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika in Many Glacier Valley in Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Hope Berntsen, Shannon Giles and Monika on the Pitamakan Pass to Dawson Pass trail in Glacier National Park. The trail is a 20 mile loop. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Hope Berntsen, Shannon Giles and Monika on the Pitamakan Pass to Dawson Pass trail in Glacier National Park. The trail is a 20 mile loop. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Grand Tetons camping on shadow mountain with jackson lake lodge employees
Monika camping on Shadow Mountain in Grand Tetons with Jackson Lake Lodge employees. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika Fleming at Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika Fleming at Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika at Lake Louise in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika at Lake Louise in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika in Nepal. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika in Nepal. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Samurai in Nepal. Samurai inspired Monika and two others from Glacier National Park, Shannon and Hayden, to come to Nepal with him after the summer was over working at Glacier. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Samurai in Nepal. Samurai inspired Monika and two others from Glacier National Park, Shannon and Hayden, to come to Nepal with him after the summer was over working at Glacier. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Samurai and some of the kids he works with in Nepal. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Samurai and some of the kids he works with in Nepal. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika in Nepal with Jaminah, one of the orphaned children that Monika spent time with in Nepal. Here they are walking to the new school that the group Monika was in Nepal with raised money to pay for the kids to go to. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika in Nepal with Jaminah, one of the orphaned children that Monika spent time with in Nepal. Here they are walking to the new school that the group Monika was in Nepal with raised money to pay for the kids to go to. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
High Camp in the Annapurna Region of Nepal. Machupuchara sits in the distance. Monika trekked with a Nepali guide all the way from the village of Nayapul then made her way to High Camp and then to Machupuchara. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
High Camp in the Annapurna Region of Nepal. Machupuchare sits in the distance. Monika trekked with a Nepali guide all the way from the village of Nayapul then made her way to High Camp and then to Machupuchare. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Katie Wasko and Monika fishing on the Kenai River in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Katie Wasko and Monika fishing on the Kenai River in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika fishing on the Kenai River on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika fishing on the Kenai River on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika hiking up the North Face trail at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
Monika hiking up the North Face trail at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Monika Fleming.
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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.