Former Ketchikan resident Ward Serrill owes a lot to his dog Woody.

The dog, a spritely yellow Labrador, stayed with Serrill — a former Lower 48 accountant who first came to Ketchikan in the mid-80s — through thick and thin, providing unwavering emotional support as Serrill sought (and found) the isolation and introspection he was looking for when he left behind a corporate lifestyle in Seattle.

Serrill recounts his misadventures, accomplishments and revelations —in his career, family life and in forming relationships — with Woody in "To Crack the World Open: Solitude, Alaska and a Dog Named Woody," a raw, first-person account of how he worked to heal from childhood trauma and find his identity.

The nearly-300 page book is published by the Seattle-based Girl Friday Books and hit shelves on Tuesday.

Throughout his 14 years in Ketchikan, Serrill found himself living in a cozy cabin on the north side of town (called "The Little Red Cabin" in his book), a trailer (nicknamed "Hooverville") and a waterfall-adjacent dwelling (known as "Shakri-La"). It was in these places, where he lived in the company of Woody, that Serrill came to terms with his past, his family struggles, and what he wanted from his future against the backdrop of Ketchikan's outdoors, in which he and Woody spent much of their time.

As Serrill worked through his feelings and continued to enjoy life in Ketchikan through solitude, he also found himself dealing with a variety of personal and professional relationships that at times caused strife and emotional struggle, which he recounts with unflinching terms in "To Crack the World Open."

Some individuals' names, characteristics or descriptions were changed for privacy, according to the author's note at the front of the book.

Serrill participated in a phone interview with the Daily News late last month, speaking from Port Townsend, Washington, as he discussed his inspiration for the book, how the project came together and his feelings now that it's finished.

Coming to Alaska

In his early 20s, Serrill was working as an accountant in Seattle — a city he refers to as "Boxtown" in the book — and accepted an assignment that involved a relocation to Alaska: the job of auditing Cape Fox Corp. Serrill signed on as the corporation's controller and took the job eagerly, seeing it as a chance to get away from a stifling lifestyle.

"It was one of those mystical things, I just kind of knew or had it in the back of my mind," Serrill said about his desire to come to Alaska. "I mean, my instinct was 'Yes, I want to go there.' I knew nothing of it. I had no idea where Ketchikan was or what Southeast Alaska was like."

At the end of his book's opening chapter, Serrill writes: "This Alaska land held darkness, adventure, and danger; and something in me needed it. My days in Boxtown were tolling to an end."

Serrill said in the interview that even before his arrival in Ketchikan, he knew something "important" was there waiting for him.

"And so that's when I traveled into the country and started to feel — as I describe it — gourmet air and the water of Alaska," Serrill said. "That didn't let up for the 14 years I was up there."

While in Ketchikan, Serrill worked closely with Cape Fox. While he worked as the corporation's controller, he also had a hand in developing tourist programming in Saxman, including Cape Fox Tours. In the fall of 1989, Serrill stepped back from his work with Cape Fox and in Saxman — a portion of the book filled with fraying relationships and emotion.

During his time in Ketchikan, Serrill took up photography, theater directing and continued to host radio shows on KRBD, including "Chew the Bone with Dr. Woody," feauring advice to listeners from his beloved four-legged friend. At one point, Serrill asked for moeny from his father, requiring him to heal through several childhood traumas to repair the relationship.


At the heart of his book is Woody, "this remarkable dog who shared time with me during the most transformative years of my life," Serrill explained.

"The idea that intimacy with, and love of an animal, or in this case, a dog, can be equal to the intimacy and love that one has with a human; we're not supposed to say that or even believe that, but I think that's really people's experience — that there is a love that is equal of an animal that can be equal with that one has with a human," Serrill said.

Without Woody, it's possible that Serrill wouldn't have come to Alaska, or stayed here to accomplish his goal of finding himself through adventure and solitude.

"I wouldn't have made it," the author stated. "I wouldn't have done it. I wouldn't have had the courage to do it. I mean, I didn't realize at the time how much I relied on having that creature with me, because I was kind of hellbent on stepping away from society and culture and finding an abandoned cabin — and you know, no telephone, no running water— and then I was heading in a certain direction and naively, as a young person would do. But I couldn't have done it without a dog there, to give me basically courage."

His fascination with Southeast Alaska — "that landscape that deeply forms me" — also served as inspiration for writing "To Crack the World Open," he noted.

"And I guess the last (reason) would be really to heal and resolve from lifelong trauma, childhood trauma," Serrill explained. "That was something in me that needed to do that in order to come into the present and understand who I am today. By writing about the past."

He also hopes that the book sheds light on the need for isolation to discover what is important to a person.

"I would say, you know, that being alone for a period of time is essential to learning or knowing oneself," Serrill said. "That solitude is not stepping into the loneliness, but it's a movement towards finding oneself."

Serrill said he hopes that his own journey with solitude inspires people to understand that it "can be part of a larger spiritual arc."

 In the epilogue of his book, Serrill's life looks much different than what the reader learned of his days spent fishing, learning about Native culture in Saxman, or dwelling in his cabin on long winter nights. Those changes, too, are in Serrill's eyes attributed to Woody.

"I found that in my search for solitude, I had gone too far out and found myself isolated and realized I had to work on myself slowly back into culture, really, or society, through loving and accepting myself and other people," he said about how he changed by the end of his memoir. "And I think that was the long road back, really."

The process

The writing process for "To Crack the World Open" required Serrill to walk back through time, imagining himself as he were while he was a young man living solo — except for one constant companion — in Alaska.

"One of the things that I've learned is that, especially in writing memoir, it's not about retelling of events," Serrill said. "You really have to re-embody the emotional experience of what you went through. So I literally had to feel all of that again, all that discomfort and fear, pain, and somehow be able to write from that."

It wasn't always easy.

"I would start to feel all that in my body," he said. "Again, a lot of times I didn't want to write it, but ... I made a promise to the dog, Woody, that I would write this story someday."

He started work on his book about 20 years ago, periodically picking up his pen and putting the paper away again when writer's block struck. His other creative pursuits also took up time in the past few years.

He began a documentary filmmaking career in the 1990s.

"So like there wasn't anybody to learn from," Serrill said. "So I had to learn how to do all that myself. So, you know, shooting and editing and all that stuff."

His first documentary was 1994's "The Bear Stands Up," about Tlingit elder Esther Shea, the namesake of Esther Shea Field at Fawn Mountain Elementary School.

Since then, Serrill has written and directed a handful of other documentary movies, including "The Heart of the Game" and "The Bowmakers," as well as more than 90 short films.

Robert Redford featured in his short film "Building One House" while Sissy Spacek was in "Wild America."

But he attributed his introduction to creativity in Alaska to his first exposure to community radio, KRBD.

"Like, that was an absolute revelation to me that I can walk in off the street and take a little class and then do a radio show," Serrill commented. "I'd never heard of such a thing. And so that was really the beginning of the transition from being an accountant to an artist, was finding this outlet through community radio and Alaska."


The book is a deeply personal account of Serrill's childhood and journey to finding himself through isolation and doesn't shy away from describing difficult aspects of his career, relationships and family life.

Serrill said that his memoir holds vulnerability, which is a little nerve-wracking for the author.

"That younger part of me was freaked out about coming out and doing that," he said. "So I guess people ask me, 'How does it feel?' And I say, 'It feels thrilling and terrifying at the same time.' Because of the vulnerability — I mean, a memoir (that) isn't dealing with vulnerability, it's not much of a memoir."

Local events

Serrill is set to speak via Zoom at a virtual event hosted by the Ketchikan Public Library at 3 p.m. Nov. 13. Interested individuals can call the library for registration information.

Serrill also will make another Zoom appearance at 5 p.m. on Nov. 30 during the last day of the Ketchikan NaNoWriMo challenge, presented by the Ketchikan Public Library, University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan Campus Library and the Main Street Gallery.