I’m interested in people, their body language, their words, tone and gestures, how they move in and through the world—all of it. And these days, when so many of my friends (contending with bum knees, bad backs and arthritic hips) are opting to ride the elevator because they can’t face climbing the stairs, I find myself perseverating on movement and momentum. So when I meet someone whose health and physical well-being has been challenged in ways I can only imagine, and who has, time after time, pulled herself up by her bootstraps, and literally insisted on getting back on that horse for another ride, I want to know more.
Gail Slater isn’t quick to talk about herself, in fact, she’s so modest I had to do some coaxing, so I was excited when she agreed to have coffee with me and tell me a little about her history, about what she’s had to overcome, and what keeps her going.
If you happen to come across Gail walking her dog or exercising at her fitness club, you’ll never suspect that she is a survivor of colon and breast cancer, or that less than a year and a half ago she had knee replacement surgery, or that just a few months ago, she got a new hip. What you will see is an energetic woman with the physique of a race walker—sleek-muscled and slender, with hair that’s curly and light brown, clear bright eyes, and an engaging smile. She’s the picture of health, thoughtful living, and famous for showing up, day-after-day, to do the work.
About Thoughtful Living
Today Gail is a dedicated and enthusiastic exerciser, and she’s happiest when she’s been able to pursue a very physical lifestyle, but there were times in her life when staying active wasn’t easy. For years she held down a professional position for Oregon’s Department of Agriculture, a job that required long hours at a desk. She remembers a moment of sudden awareness, of noticing that some family members and friends who were very important to her were becoming less and less active; their health was declining, and they were gradually giving up doing many of the things they had always enjoyed. She hated what was happening to them and decided she didn’t want that to happen to her. So she started bringing her walking shoes to work. Every day, instead of going to lunch, she’d slip into those shoes, put on her headphones and favorite music, step out the doors of her workplace, and take off walking—forty minutes, moving fast. When she retired in 2004, she took to walking the steep streets in her neighborhood for more than an hour both morning and afternoon. She lost twenty-six pounds and felt great. Later, she joined an early morning group exercise class at a church and discovered she loved the challenge of choreographed moves to music and the pleasures of a shared workout—so much, that she expanded her fitness routine to include group exercise classes at her fitness club. She continually tries to incorporate new activities to keep her workout fresh. For Gail, fitness is a work-in-progress, and something she looks forward to each day.
Gail grew up in Great Falls, Montana. Her father was an avid outdoorsman and Gail was a tomboy. From an early age, she tagged along with her dad and he taught her to hunt and fish. She was an eager and determined student, and in the process, she developed a great love for the mountains and lakes, the rugged wildness of the place and the wild creatures that live there. On her 13th birthday, her dad gave Gail her first guns, a 20-gauge shot gun and a 303 British rifle. After that, during hunting season, she got her own hunting license, hunted and shot the deer, and dragged it out on her own.
Like hunting and fishing, her passion for horses and horseback riding came so naturally, it might have been genetic. While other preschoolers were pretending to be superman, cowboys and princesses, Gail was imagining horses, not just riding horses, but what it would be like to be a horse. And her enthusiasm for horses never waned. During her school years, she had friends who owned horses. She and one of her friends would spend evenings and weekends in the stables and pasture learning to handle and ride the horses.
Her passion for archery came later, during her twenties when she had moved to Oregon. She got a job at an archery shop in Springfield. Surrounded by all that equipment and a built-in opportunity to shoot in her spare time, it wasn’t long before Gail was accumulating prizes for marksmanship. This is a woman who can actually “Robin Hood” arrows!
Sometimes there are experiences in a person’s life that seem to bring meaning to everything that came before and shape everything that comes after; that’s the way Gail feels about the two and a half years she spent in Alaska. She made the decision to take off for Alaska at a tough time when she was feeling vulnerable and unsure about her life and what was ahead. She’d always fantasized about going to Alaska, sure that if there was a place wilder than Montana, that’s where she’d find it. Friends and relatives had moved there; they loved it and were full of stories. They raved about the scenery and kept insisting that she come—and she did. She moved to Anchorage, enrolled in a computer school, completed her studies and was hired by a temp agency to work for a private coal company. The job was okay, but she wanted something different. She took the state employment exam, passed with flying colors, and began applying for state jobs. Right away, she scored an interview with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. All it took was walking into the lobby, a vast room whose walls and spaces were crowded with trophies and taxidermied specimens, most of them immense—caribou, moose, Dall sheep, mountain goat, even a Beluga whale skull. She knew right then, this was where she belonged. It turned out that the interview team agreed. She’d found the best job of her life, a job packed with variety and leveraged on all the things she loved. Besides her main clerical duties she was awarded the opportunity to assist in conducting archery proficiency tests on hunters seeking moose permits (hunters had to demonstrate the power and the aim to kill a moose with a 70 lb. bow). She also was asked to assist in the process used to “seal” bears—helping the officer who affirms when, where, and how a bear was taken and checks, measures and takes samples from the skull of the bear before it is released to the hunter for taxidermy. She learned and did so many exciting things. She learned to “age” a moose by slicing a tooth and counting the rings, she got to ride in a small airplane Super Cub in sub-zero weather with the state biologist to count moose, she gathered applications that came in from all over the world for the coveted McNeil River Lottery, that allowed a select few photographers and enthusiasts to view sanctuary Grizzly Bears catching running salmon. She even volunteered her weekends to take duty at the Department’s Rabbit Creek Rifle Range. She loved the work and might have spent her whole life in Alaska, but she got homesick for the people she’d left behind. And that’s how she ended up coming back to Oregon and finding the love of her life—again, but that’s another story.