Working Through Outdoor Fears (Sandy McDermott, natural science illustrator, instructor)

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Working through outdoor fears humans outside podcast

How do you work through fear of outdoor unknowns? How do you get comfortable with nature-based risks like wildlife or finding danger when you’re all alone? What do you do about all of the outdoor “what ifs?”

Those are questions natural science illustrator and art instructor Sandy McDermott found herself grappling with after an unexpected move from the northeast U.S. to Anchorage, Alaska. And as she looked for ways to move through her fears, she turned to a familiar comfort — creating the art that pushed her to head outside to start with.

In this episode Sandy talks about her ongoing journey towards getting comfortable with the uncomfortable and how you can overcome your own fears of the unknown in wild spaces. Listen now.

Connect with this episode:

Visit Sandy McDermott’s website

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Some of the good stuff:

[3:03] Sandy McDermott’s favorite outdoor space

[5:24] What does a nature illustrator actually do?

[7:24] The outdoor fears that surprised her in Alaska

[9:48] Did the fear surprise her?

[10:31] Normalizing the fear response

[13:45] Did she ever consider just staying inside?

[16:00] How all the problems add up

[21:58] How art has helped her work through the fears

[28:07] Is she surprised by where the journey has brought her?

[28:05] It’s called “bearanoid”

[33:21] What the combination of nature and art mean to her

[35:42] Tips for getting over nature fears

[45:38] Sandy’s favorite outdoor moment

Some of the good stuff:

[3:03] Sandy McDermott’s favorite outdoor space

[5:24] What does a nature illustrator actually do?

[7:24] The outdoor fears that surprised her in Alaska

[9:48] Did the fear surprise her?

[10:31] Normalizing the fear response

[13:45] Did she ever consider just staying inside?

[16:00] How all the problems add up

[21:58] How art has helped her work through the fears

[28:07] Is she surprised by where the journey has brought her?

[28:05] It’s called “bearanoid”

[33:21] What the combination of nature and art mean to her

[35:42] Tips for getting over nature fears

[45:38] Sandy’s favorite outdoor moment

Connect with this episode:

Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Humans Outside.

Amy Bushatz: No matter who you are or where you go, heading outside even for a few minutes is always worth it. I’m your host, Amy Bushatz, and here at Humans Outside, we’re using the Humans Outside 365 Challenge to build a life around spending time in nature while hearing from fascinating outdoor minded. As a journalist for 19 years, I’ve let curiosity be my guide. After my husband’s injuries from military service, we started looking for a better way to live. That’s why we moved sight unseen to Alaska to see if an outdoor focused life was the answer. Since September, 2017, I’ve personally spent at least 20 consecutive minutes outside every single day, no matter what to explore, how nature can change my life. Ready to hear from experts and outdoor lovers who make heading into nature just a part of who they are while we work to do the same? Let’s go.

How do you get used to an entirely new outdoor space? To a world full of outdoor risks that feel big and scary to the great? You can find that unknown in all sorts of ways. If you’ve never really been someone who likes to go outside, you could feel those risks are behind every corner and every tree. I remember when I first went camping with my little family in Tennessee and Kentucky, the idea of being out in a storm, encountering spiders and snakes, having to go to the bathroom outside and simply not being able to sleep at night in a tent all felt insurmountable.

I was paralyzed by the what ifs. Then when I got used to those things and we moved to Alaska, I found new what ifs in the form of wildlife and weather, mountains and adventures, and I learned that one avenue to helping me feel safe was by taking my fears for a run. Literally running was something that felt accessible to me, and tackling the unknowns over a run made them feel somehow safer.

How we each tackle the unknowns or make ourselves feel safe, differs person to person. And today’s guest has her own unique perspective on those steps, and it’s something that might help you get out there too.

Sandy McDermott is a natural science illustrator and watercolorist with work spanning a 30 year career. But when she relocated to Anchorage, Alaska in May, 2021, she found herself literally paralyzed with fear of the Alaska unknown. That’s so relatable for many of us who are trying to tackle big outdoor challenges that are far away from our comfort zones. And because she’s an artist, Sandy turned to what she knows best to give her that gentle on-ramp back into.

Today Sandy’s gonna share her journey in the simple ways we can use the creative outlet of art to get ourselves outside. Sandy, welcome to Humans Outside.

Sandy McDermot: Thank you, Amy. I feel quite honored to, to be here and have this opportunity to share my story with you and with your audience.

Amy Bushatz: Well, I’m really excited that you’re here. You know that we start all of our episodes imagining ourselves in our guest’s favorite outdoor space. So were that true? Where are we with you hanging out?

Sandy McDermot: That’s actually pretty easy to answer. There are two spots back home in New Hampshire that became my place. I would call them my sit spot, which is a place I could go to outside feeling quite comfortable sitting alone and observing the happenings in that space. They both happen to be wetland areas. They both happen to be in mixed deciduous type forests, mixed conifer into deciduous, I should say.

And filled with all kinds of wonder. One of these places is along a rail trail in New Hampshire, and it’s a place where I spent an entire summer watching the parenting and growth and fledging and even after fledging of nest of Osprey. That was an incredible experience to be able to watch that entire process unfold, and and much, much more that I’ve been able to watch there over the years. And then the other place is in the mountains of New Hampshire where I did not get to see Osprey, but I got to see so many other animals using that space, surviving in that space seasonally, seeing what changes throughout the years. It’s, it was just a place I could be really quiet by myself with my sketchbook and just learn.

Amy Bushatz: And I imagine as an illustrator, you are spending this time just absorbing what you see so that you can translate it into what you’re putting on paper.

Sandy McDermot: Yeah. Um, you know, My tagline on my website is Interpreting nature through art. And that’s exactly a fitting description from my field observations and field journal the, the things that I initially see happening right in front of me and then turning those into, or letting that inform my teaching and, my finished works as a fine artist or watercolorist. And um, and more recently the writing that I’ve been doing.

Amy Bushatz: So tell us first a little bit about your work. What is, I said you’re a nature illustrator natural science illustrator, and you teach. So talk to us. What do you do? What do you do day to day?

Sandy McDermot: Well, day-to-day, it can vary ultimately I am, I’m an observer of the natural world. I use that to learn primarily. And the way that I learn about natural history, of course, one obvious way would be reading, but the skill and the path that I chose is to be able to draw it from life. And that requires a great focus on observation skills as well as quick drawing skills for a lot of the things that I’m observing.

They’re moving pretty fast. And and then formal training in art, in drawing and painting as well to help me out with the slower process as a natural science illustrator that can be applied to publications. So I think the first thing that people might think about is books, and that’s true. Being able to illustrate plants and animals for publication, could be technical books, could be academic, it could be children’s books. I illustrated a book of prose once a few years back that was a story about a woman and her struggle with making art that pleased her. And in it there was a lot of reference to natural history. So, that was a fitting project for me.

T-shirt designs, logos, murals the biggest thing these days that, that natural science or scientific illustrators are devoting their time to or the need is there is information graphics. But my work specifically I’ve sort of taken a step away from that hardcore type of illustration, and I’ve become the kind of artist that wants to work more loosely with my painting and to some extent my drawing.

A lot of it is starts, most of it starts in my sketchbook, and then from there I’ll move to drawing paper or watercolor paper to, to produce something more of the fine art with my own style on it that’s what I call abstract realism or representational art where I’m trying to represent the flora or fauna that I’m focused on but not with the really tight rendering skills that are required of scientific illustration.

Amy Bushatz: So you like to go outside and draw? We know that How did you find yourself in Alaska and what challenges did your love for nature encounter once you got here?

Sandy McDermot: Well, my husband and I moved here for a job opportunity for him and he works for the National Marine Fishery Service and on the East Coast he was involved with hydropower projects and the protection of migratory fish and the move to Alaska meant a promotion. But within that same area of expertise, so that’s what brought us here. And I knew when we decided to do this I was going to face my own challenges, and that most of those related to the outdoors for sure, because there is a lot of unknown things here, unknown to me. I’m aware of the bear and the moose, and that’s primarily, that was probably at the front of my anxieties. but it extends to plants as well. I had to learn what kinds of plants to stay away from or be aware of that could be potentially dangerous. The environment itself, like, the mountains here are so different from the mountains back home. So I had to gain some understanding and skill and there certainly was a healthy amount of respect already in place for how to move about this area , this whole world this, this place that seems so wild and foreign to me on arrival.

Amy Bushatz: I think expecting or knowing that you’re going to be challenged is one thing. And then seeing how you actually, the extent to which that’s true and actually react to that is another. In my own personal experience, that was true. Right. I knew that I would be challenged. I didn’t understand that I would be paralyzed. Did your fear surprise you?

Sandy McDermot: I think that the fears, the, I wasn’t surprised by the fact that there were fears in place even before I moved here. I was definitely surprised by the intensity of the fears. And you’re right, they, for me, they were paralyzing. I’ve, I really felt like, almost everything had an element of potential danger to it. And and I couldn’t move about freely as I did at home. I couldn’t, I didn’t feel safe anywhere by myself. And by its very nature, my work requires me to be by myself. So that was , that was was I think the intensity of the fear and anxiety is what surprised me.

Amy Bushatz: I appreciate you talking about that because I think it is important to normalize the experience of feeling nervous or feeling fear or feeling anything that we would characterize as being not positive, not, not the thing that we wanted. Right? I think there can be a lot of shame around those things, that we stand here and be like, oh, you shouldn’t be afraid. But honestly, and we talk about this a lot here, that fear, that nervousness is a normal human reaction to risk. It is a reaction, a completely, not just normal, but protective. It is your body and nervous system protecting you to risk and to things that feel unsafe and whether those reactions are outsized to reality is not really relevant. What is relevant is talking about how it’s true. Because feelings are not something that’s right or wrong. They just are. And so when we say, Hey, this is like a real thing, I feel this way. Well now we can try to find. a gentle on-ramp or a series of steps or a way to overcome those things and not let them to control us.

But if you’re gonna do that, the very first thing you have to do is acknowledge that they exist, because how could you possibly get over them if you don’t care that they’re there or if you don’t name it and claim it. You know what I mean? Right.

Sandy McDermot: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And I had no I had no problem um, acknowledging that they were there. I can sometimes be that person that wears their emotions on their sleeve, and if I feel really overwhelmed with a specific emotion I need to share that. I need to get it out. And you’re right, there is, there really was a level of self-consciousness, of feeling kind of in a way putting myself down because I’m generally a brave person.

I got on a bike and rode across the country with my husband and that had its own sets of challenges and fears involved, but we did it. I’m not terribly risk averse. I love the outdoors and I love being in the mountains, and I love the challenges that involves. But it was just a whole nother level here figuring out how am I gonna do my work in a place that requires me to be the work itself requires me to be alone much of the time outdoors.

But a place that’s totally freaking me out on how I can do that while being bear and moose aware at all times. And even in the, even being in the city, you can encounter those those situations.

Amy Bushatz: That’s true. In fact, I think I’ve encountered more risky moose encounters in the city than I ever have outside the city because I’m not looking for them. Right. Yeah. Was there a time, that you were maybe, feeling tempted to give into that fear and just say, forget it. I can sketch couches, not plants, or, you know, like, I can change what it is I do and do that instead so that I can stay safe and not go outside.

Sandy McDermot: That’s an emphatic hard No. I never gave into that, that those fears and anxieties that I was having, I let myself move through them.

It was really tough because day-to-day life can move so slowly when you’re under those kinds of constraints. I was fortunate in that the move here and even before moving here, I was able to do my work full-time, which was not always the case in my career. And moving here I had the space and the time to focus on what it is I want to do, and somehow have the time to figure out how am I going to execute that? How am I going to make it okay to do what I need to be doing and what I want to be doing in this place. And you know, I wanna preface some of this by sharing that the couple of years before moving here were really tough. So there was Covid of course, and we moved during I guess it would be the first full year of COVID and maybe four or five months before we moved here, my dog of 14 years passed away. And prior to that, just shortly prior to that, my daughter had moved across the country as well. So I, in a sense there was some loss there and then there was covid and then the transition from moving across like 5,500 miles, which is a great distance and all that involved, letting go of the place where we were living and much of the things that we had kept in that house, like we, we gave up a lot to make this transition. And on arrival,

Amy Bushatz: But you’re saying something really important right now. Which is, you’re kind of enumerating the stresses, right, like it’s you Covid daughter, dog, move, Alaska.

So all of these things add up, right? So I want people who are listening to think about the fact, like when you are feeling afraid of something or feeling nervous about going outside into a situation, you’re not real keen on whether that’s trying new sport or being a new place, or going out in different weather or doing something that feels risky, like I don’t know, jumping off a cliff into some water or some, you know, anything. Don’t look at the situation in the vacuum of that one moment. Think about all of the things, other things that are going on in your life. Because one of the things we’ve heard this season on humans outside from Sarah Histand is that you have to be nice to your nervous system, . And it’s not about what’s happening right now, it’s about what’s happened before right now that got you to this place where you’re feeling a little tattered, feeling a little on edge. And your body doesn’t know about, like you, you know, woke up and it’s a new day, your body says, whoa hey, COVID, dog, daughter, move, Alaska .

Sandy McDermot: Yeah. Yeah. It’s accumulation of things. And then all added, like you said, it all added up and upon arriving here, I think the first two weeks I just had to stop. Like it was the first time I had the opportunity to just stop moving , just drop everything into this apartment we’re in and just stop moving for a little while to, to sort of, I don’t know, regain some ability to rest for one thing to then think about what the next steps were gonna be. But yeah, so it w there was a lot going on before we moved here. And then, you know, the great big adventure of moving here, which we were terribly excited for. It just was tempered by the other things that were going on.

Amy Bushatz: Absolutely, man. I think that this is, so I, this is very relatable for me in my own life and our move here up here to Alaska. I think all of the things that you’re talking about are relatable for people who have other challenges going on.

When we think about starting a new outdoor habit as some sort of a cure or some sort of a healing process or some sort of a wellness experie nce. We have to think about also, I mean, it’s great. Start your habit, do your thing, go outside every day. Absolutely. But temper your expectations for yourself. Based off of why it is that you got to this point where you want to do this, how it is that you got to the moment that you want to be somebody who goes outside every day, and then look at how you are feeling moment by moment and change your expectations of yourself every day. It doesn’t have to be a one year chunk. If you think about it in bite size pieces of 20 minutes or whatever amount of time you have chosen , now you’re tackling it according to how you feel right now. So for you, if one day you’re feeling more energized and less exhausted by all of this other stuff, maybe you go somewhere or go on a walk that feels a little bit more risky, then you’re willing to take on a day that you’re particularly tired. This is like all very normal.

Sandy McDermot: I’m glad to hear you say that. And I know c ognitively, I know that it is, but you know, when you’re in a new place that it really is so different on many levels from what I was accustomed to. You know, I look around and I see all these people that are out running or walking or doing whatever, skiing after dark in places where you could find a moose or a bear. I, see people running alone in on the trails. Everyone around me seemed so relaxed to be doing what they’re doing and not feeling like any of this was risky. And I totally get that. I imagine that most of those people I’ve observed were or are locals that have lived here, born here perhaps, but even those who came to Alaska specifically for those kinds of adventures that their level of risk I think is way different than mine. And and so just, observing these people doing things that to me seemed so scary to do.

Made me feel, and of course this is my own reaction. I understand that, but it made me feel less in some way. You know, why can’t I get my head around this? Why can’t I get myself to take that walk down the power line by myself? Why can’t I get myself to ride my bike from Kincaid Park back to the downtown area of Anchorage by myself?

For a long time. I really struggled with that. Why do I not feel comfortable? Why am I having such a hard time feeling safe, being alone here? Yeah. So that was something I think I’m, some ways I’m still grappling with a little bit cuz I’ve come to a place of feeling somewhat comfortable on some things, but there’s still a healthy level fear and anxiety that I’m still navigating.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. Hey humans, just a quick break to remind you that if you wanna build your own outdoor habit, the humans Outside 365 Challenge is a great way to get started. Cool and exclusive Challenge swag, including a finisher, metal, and decal is waiting for you. All you need to do is visit Don’t get left out. Go to to learn more now. Okay, back to the show.

So I’d love to hear how art helped you work through some of that to get to that more comfortable place that you’re talking about and taking those incremental risks. So first tell us about how art helped you, and then I’d love to hear what steps you took to just getting out the door and getting back out there.

Sandy McDermot: Okay. I got to a point where I just decided that I need to, I’m here for a reason. Primarily that reason is my husband’s work, which this was something really great for him. So I was a hundred percent on board. Now I’m here. What am I gonna do with my time? How am I going to execute some ideas I have? How am I going to get myself comfortable being in this place? And I have to say too, part of my anxieties, relate to city living, which I grew up in a city. I was always outside. I had, some uncomfortable encounters with that, but I basically grew up on the streets of Cambridge and Boston and on leaving the city at some point in my life and wanting to be somewhere else, I always said I’d never go back to this city and not so much for bad things that could happen, but, city noise and congestion and things like that that I just didn’t really wanna ever be around again. But here I am back in a city in Anchorage and that fed the anxieties just a little bit too.

But what I decided um, you know, you come to a point where you just have to have a discussion with yourself about how are you going to do this? How are you going to make living here work for you.

And I turned to my sketchbook. It was a natural step for me because I use that as I have always used it to understand the natural world, to learn about the natural world. And it just seemed like a natural extension to finding my way in a space that I just didn’t feel like I was going to fit into. That works for me because of the element of mindfulness that this practice has, which is when I’m out in the field using my sketchbook it doesn’t matter what I’m looking at or what I’m writing about or what I’m drawing about, just the fact that I’m in a space outside where I get to learn something new, or maybe go visit something that I, I know about like the Osprey and I get to watch more of what’s happening throughout a season.

There’s a quality of mindfulness that kicks in where you become, to some extent unaware of what’s going on around you except what you’re focused on. There’s a sense of joy that brings to me a sense of calmness to my spirit that I can’t get anywhere else. And so part of my process in transitioning into this place here was out of a deep need to keep doing something that I get such great benefit from. And it meant that I could be outside and learn about the plants and animals here, mostly on my own terms. So I can decide I think I’m comfortable going to this place. Like for a while I spent time going to parking lots around town. There’s a lot of parks here, beautiful parks. And I wouldn’t be brave enough to go walk into the woods by myself.

But I’m okay sitting outside my car, and or sometimes even lifting the back of the car the Outback and sketching right out of the back of my car, which is something I’ve done for a long time anyway, even back home, just out of convenience. But that was the beginning of the process for me is knowing that I could be okay. I, you know, at any point in the summer or the warm season, a bear or a moose might show up in that park. I know that, but I’m near my car. And it was, it gave me the comfort I needed. But really the driver was a, a basic need to be doing what I’m doing, to be outside and to be drawing outside and it introducing myself to the flora and fauna that I came across. And there’s obviously so much more than the bear and the moose. There’s, you know, all these wonderful plants and ecological communities and habitats that, that provide life sustaining resource for so many things. And I want to, I wanna learn about it. So that was the main driver for taking that first step to being able to sit somewhere outside by myself and focus, and start the process. And as you said, it was very incremental.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. Yeah. What I hear you saying is your art is for you a safe space and, it provided sort of a safety blanket, if you will, for taking those steps to getting out there. And it’s almost like it, well, for me, this is running right? Like running gives to me all sorts of benefits. I feel better. I have good ideas. All of these sort of um, exercise related things, right? And running outside, because running itself is something that I feel safe doing, just the activity, because that activity makes me feel safe running outside in unknown spots feels better in a way that may not feel good if I was just on a hike or walking or backpacking or doing anything except the one activity that I have talked about. But for whatever reason it’s running is a container for me to go into those spaces. And now that I’ve done it, sure I can go there later it was fine. But I ran there first, so and the art is the same. It’s the same way.

So you teach, you teach an art course, you’ve got a year long course people are doing right now. And you teach drawing of plants and animals. It’s a big step to go from no thanks Alaska this is unsafe to I’m not only gonna sketch brown bears, but I’m gonna teach a workshop on it. So, are you surprised that this is where the journey has brought you and, and why or why not?

Sandy McDermot: Actually, yes. I, that’s an emphatic yes. I am surprised that the journey, that’s where the journey has brought me. I wanna caveat this by saying, I, I love all animals and plants. I love bear. I love moose. I think they are incredible animals. And the fear really lies in startling one, surprising one. And not trusting that my own instincts that I know, what, or that I will do the right thing if that happens.

I, I could be the deer in the headlights that just totally freezes. Or I could be that person that turns around and runs away, which is, I don’t know. And I think right now, my bigger fears lie with that rather than, you know, the bear or the moose itself. But having said that, I

Amy Bushatz: We call that being “baranoid.” Baranoid.

Sandy McDermot: I haven’t heard that term. I might use it.

Amy Bushatz: It’s like paranoid, but with a bear

Sandy McDermot: Baranoid yes. It’d, that’s great. I, that might be the title of my next newsletter . I so there are lots of things that I knew I wanted to do, and one of them was I wanna see bear, but I wanna see them at a safe distance and I wanna see them in a situation where I could spend my time or some time drawing them, sketching them from life because Wow, what, what an honor what, what an incredible experience that could be. Same with the moose. We have bear and Moose back home, just not in the numbers. We don’t see them the way we do here. And so, um, one of the things that my husband and I decided to do was to go on in the first couple years we’ve been doing a lot of touristy things as ways to just get ourselves out into the state of Alaska and learn some things.

And last year one of those things was going on a, a guided Brown Bear tour. You know what an opportunity to be able to fit those criteria that I had. Having a guide, who knew what to do, having the, hopefully the ability to find the bear cuz you’re not always guaranteed to see them. But we did.

And then with those guides getting within a safe distance to most people were photographing, I was the only one sketching on that that trip. But being able to have that experience in a way that made me feel so safe and and comfortable. And so I wrote about that in one of my newsletters and a colleague of mine caught wind of it. He read it and he’d been following my journey for a little while. And this is John Muir Laws, who is an incredible individual in what he’s accomplished in his life with with this field of nature illustration and sketching and bringing it in a way to large masses of people that that allows those individuals who are not professionals, but have an interest to feel comfortable in having some skills to also practice on their own exploring nature with a sketchbook. And so he invited me to co-teach a workshop with him on drawing brown bears. And for me that was an absolute highlight of my career, being able to virtually sit side by side with someone who I hold it with high regard and teach something to his audience that I experienced. So that was really fantastic. And I never, first of all, my husband and I never imagined Alaska would be a place we’d live. We, you know, we were fully aware of what, Alaska, the mountain ranges and all the habitats and the animals and everything about Alaska, but from a far away place. We really didn’t know what it was like to live here. Although we had a little bit of, we did have a little bit of experience with a five month job that my husband did a few years back. But yeah just being in Alaska, living here was much less well, I should say being a tourist much less a resident was never on our radar.

So that was a surprise that we found ourselves here. And then yeah, at, from a professional standpoint not only having the opportunity to draw wild brown bears, but then being able to being asked to co-teach a workshop with someone of such high regard, I never would’ve imagined that would be part of my story.

Amy Bushatz: What does this combination of nature and art mean to you?

Sandy McDermot: You know, in a word, everything, it really does mean everything to me. It speaks to my soul. It feeds my soul. It allows me to combine two interests that when I was growing up, never imagined that the two things could be put together and, you know, I grew up in a household that didn’t have a whole lot of guidance in it.

So much of my path is self self-guided with I wrote an article about this for one of the for a professional organization, and there was a lot of things I had to figure out on my own and this whole experience of trying to find my place here in Alaska and how I was going to fit into it, taking those first steps, being brave enough to figure out that my sketchbook is the way to do this, and getting myself out to do this, was much like my young experience getting brave and taking the first step towards finding a path. And I always knew that animals growing up, animals were always of great interest to me and I fed that. I fed myself information about that through encyclopedias, through wildlife shows on tv and I, growing up in the city, I thought that was how I was gonna learn. That was the way I was gonna connect with that stuff. But I also very much loved art of any kind, so, I had paint by numbers. I had different ways to feed that part of me as well. But eventually I kind of let go of that stuff like a lot of people do when they grow up and then things get serious and you have to figure out what you’re gonna do with your life and all that.

And I just never realized for quite a while that I could make the two things happen. Eventually after high school, I took five years off and during that period was really informative for me and it was during that time where I felt like I, I need, no one’s making a path for me. I need to establish that.

I need to figure out what my path is gonna be cuz it’s not gonna be here. And so I, my first art class that I ever took was probably a couple of years after high school, but it was, I distinctly remember that feeling of being really nervous about signing up for an art class and, the what ifs, what is it gonna be like, am I gonna be able to do this?

It was, it turned out to be the best experience and it was that first step of leading me down the eventual path to becoming the artist that I am. And those feelings were very much the same thing on figuring out my place in Alaska.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. If listeners are struggling with getting over a fear or hesitation about getting outside whether it’s what we are describing today or something else completely. What are three or four steps that you can share for overcoming it that you’ve learned from your own journey on this?

Sandy McDermot: I think the first step would be to connect with others, to connect with other people who are doing something, being outside in a way that you want to be outside. That connection.

Amy Bushatz: Love it.

Sandy McDermot: Yeah. That connection meant everything to me. And I started preparing myself before we moved by using social media to connect with other nature journalers here in Alaska. People that paint outside here at Alaska. And from a natural history perspective, birding is a, a big deal for me. I’m, I’m not a master birder. I’m not one that is so intent on counting how many species I see every year, but I’m deeply interested in learning as much as I can about birds and um, the phenomenon of migration. So I don’t wanna know, I don’t wanna tick off a list of, Hey, I saw this and this and this today. I wanna find out where that bird came from. Where is it going? What is it doing here? When is it gonna leave? How does it live? What kind of challenges did it have on getting here? Things like that. And so, for me, bird, the connecting with a bird community here was also instrumental in having some kind of connection, some people to, to be with or talk with when I got here.

And that was extremely helpful. So I think that first step has to be just connecting with some people, and it could be in the form of classes or workshops, it could be meetup groups that are doing something that you’re interested in. We definitely tapped into that. And one of those meetup groups right here in Anchorage goes out two afternoons or evenings every week without fail.

And it’s a great way to, to get yourself out there, to be with people so you don’t feel alone and talk to people and learn about um whatever the skill is that you might wanna gain about being outside. So connect.

Amy Bushatz: I, it’s so important that you are highlighting this because asking for help is, which is what connecting is, right? It’s saying, show me the way other human is, such an important and in its own way, brave step.

Sandy McDermot: Yeah.

Amy Bushatz: Because it takes admitting that you cannot do this by yourself or you do not want to do this by yourself. Or perhaps a combination of the two things. Exactly. And it is always in my experience that just that taking that step of asking for help and making that connection is huge.

And it leads to un, it unlocks all sorts of doors, not just for friendships that enrich your whole life, but also to help you accomplish the goal that you’re trying to do. So if you’re thinking about, oh gosh, I, it’s suddenly I’m in a place with a very different climate and I wanna go outside, but I don’t even know what to wear gosh, but somebody who’s done it a lot sure can help you with some ideas of what works for them. It’s the basic things like that. It’s showing you where to go. It’s telling you how to dress for it. It’s giving you advice on wearing, non-slip footwear. Just little things that you would never think of on your own.

It’s reminding you that you can use hand warmers in your mittens. Amy . It’s stuff like that, right? And it makes such a huge difference. It’s makes such a huge difference. Okay. What else? What are your other tips?

Sandy McDermot: Well, so I just, one last thing about that. First tip is uh, something I have found could be really useful is connecting with organizations that offer virtual workshops. So right off the bat, REI, the company REI, is one of them who offers all sorts of virtual workshops on, on how to, how to be outside, how to dress, how to prepare, how to be bare aware, all these different things that that are really basic, but can be so incredibly helpful to getting a start. So I just wanna give that I just wanna add that to the list of possibilities.

The second step I would say is to just breathe, give yourself the gift of self-reflection. and just a little bit of meditative breathing to just be able to say, I wanna do this. I need to do this, and I’m gonna find a way to do this. And I think here is where the incremental steps came into play for me. So one of those first steps was um, after connecting with people and after going out with some birders and one of those birders happened to be a plain air painter as well. So she, she was deeply embedded in the community and I got multiple invitations to join her and the birding community and that was my entry into finding spaces around here that potentially are felt safe for me to be around by myself. And so after having that kind of experience over a period of time, it really was a matter of taking some breaths and deciding, I could go to the parking lot of McHugh Peak and I could paint some things and just, and draw some things right there by myself.

But my car is right there. I could sit in it, I could sit outside of it, but not far from it. That was an incremental step in feeling putting my brave pants on essentially and then, I’m still in a place where I’ll only hike with groups. So all of these incremental steps in that phase number two of being able to feel like I can do this, I can, I think I can live here. I can find a way to make this work were, were really important to my growth, but, and important to my art. But I still won’t hike alone. Like I found some barriers or some places where I’ve accepted what I’m comfortable with and I’ve let go of that self pressure of being able to become, the adventurous Alaskan outdoors person, which was never a goal of mine anyway. So why should it suddenly become a goal just because I’m here? So, you know, finding that balance of where I need to continue pushing myself and where I need to, where it’s not need to, but where it’s okay to say I’m good with this. I, if I don’t ever camp here in a tent, I think I’ll be okay with that.

Amy Bushatz: I wonder though if by removing that pressure and not overthinking it that you open the door to without even realizing it, getting okay with it later. Like, I think we’re gonna have another call in a year and a half and you’re gonna be a camping fool, or maybe not but yeah.

Sandy McDermot: It can happen.

Amy Bushatz: Because now you’re not over now you’re not, when we put pressure on ourselves to be something suddenly and leap from point A to point W overnight we sometimes just rag on that nervous system more. This is what Sarah’s talking about in this episode that we did.

We’re putting all, we’re just asking ourselves to stretch further than we can. And by putting that slack back into that rubber band she talks about, we give ourselves the bandwidth to stretch incrementally all the time without over time, rather without snapping. And so I think we’re gonna have, like, I’m gonna look you up in two years. You’re gonna find that you’re like backpacking Denali or something. I don’t know. It’s gonna be crazy. That’s my prediction.

Sandy McDermot: I mean, I’m actually thinking to myself it is possible that next summer, it’s not gonna happen this summer. I still need a little more time, but it could happen next summer. It, I might develop an, a desire to, I mean, a lot of these desires that I talk about are really deeply embedded things that, that my brain and my body and my soul wanna do. I mean, back home we were hiking all the time. We were canoeing, we were not just ca car camping and tent camping, but we were on the tops of mountains sleeping in our sleeping bags. And I always had, I actually, I always had a healthy fear of bears back home. And these nights where we would spend exposed on a ridge or something or, just below the ridge or whatever there was always running through my mind, what if a bear walks through? Like, the what ifs.

But living here in Alaska and dealing with what I had to deal with in my own head has really given me the freedom I think I’ll appreciate more back home. I’ll go hike by myself. I’ll, I don’t know if I’ll camp by myself because that’s not really in my nature. I enjoy it better with people, but um, you know, there’s a lot more that I think I’m gonna be able to do back home that being here has allowed me to consider. But yeah I think, you know, my intention with this whole experience using my sketchbook to get comfortable here and as a way to learn about the flora and fauna introduce myself to the flora and fauna. And in some corny way, let them get to know me. I’m going to be writing a book about this experience because I think it is relatable and I think it’s really important for others to, hear others’ stories and find some inspiration from that to bushwhack their own path, to feeling brave about um, whatever outdoor. Experience that is causing them some anxiety.

Yeah, so incremental steps that number two here is breathe, meditate a little bit and put your brave pants on and take that first little tiny step that will then, expand and expand until you’re doing things that you just didn’t imagine you would do in the beginning.

Amy Bushatz: As a final thing for us, Sandy, can you describe a favorite outdoor I mean, we’ve talked a lot about you spending on time outside today, so I think you probably have an outdoor moment that you can share with us, something that, you know, is just one of those things that sticks in the memory that you could just go back to.

If you would be so willing, share one of those and tell us where you are and what are you. .

Sandy McDermot: So, I immediately am brought back to the cross-country cycle trip that my husband and I did. And our daughter and our family dog joined us as well. They acted as our Sherpa our you know, supply van and all of that.

But, riding that distance through a variety of habitats and lands and places that we hadn’t been, was an incredible experience filled with more challenges than than pure joys. But I can remember one specific day that was absolutely pure joy and it was riding, we were in Montana. And we were riding from a little bit North Montana down.

We were heading, heading south after spending weeks and weeks going from Washington state pretty much straight up in an easterly direction. And now we’re starting to drop south a little bit. And this was on the I had to look it up, but I knew it was one of the America’s byways. It’s a Big Sky Backcountry Byway.

And this road encompasses badlands and buttes and road rolling prairies. And it was when we were cycling over or through the rolling prairies. And what I remember about that day was it was a gorgeous day. It was a road that wasn’t heavily trafficked, so that allowed for feeling much more freedom about riding on the road.

And it was, this beautiful warm color of green on the prairies themselves. These just giant rolling prairie. And, big sky Montana, just this giant endless blue sky filled with those wonderful puffy white clouds. And the joy, I mean, that alone brought a lot of joy and just being outside all day, every day doing this cycle trip.

But that particular day just released me from so much stress of riding through bear country in Washington and Idaho and parts of Montana trying to get over like eight or nine massive uh, summit. Through those states, and then you’re kind of out onto the flatland of Montana and we hit these rolling prairies and it was literally about a 55 mile day that we had to cover with about one hill big hill, about every mile.

So it was just this long up and then this great big down, and then you go back up again and then down again. And the whole day was spent doing that. That is just a super memory that I hope I hang onto forever.

Amy Bushatz: Sandy, thank you so much for joining us on Humans Outside today, helping us normalize some of these fear responses and um, giving us some ideas of ways to step through them. Thank you so much.

Sandy McDermot: My pleasure and thank you, Amy, for inviting me to be on your show. It really is, truly honor to be to be here. Thank you.

Amy Bushatz: Thanks so much for listening to this week’s episode of Humans Outside. Help me out by leading a five star rating or review wherever you get your podcasts. It really does help other listeners find the podcast too. Now go get outside. Until next time, we’ll see you out there.

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