It’s not that McKenna Peterson doesn’t find herself in unanticipated situations. As a professional big mountain skier in the winter, and the captain of a commercial fishing vessel in the summer, on the contrary, unanticipated situations happen to Peterson maybe more often than the average human. It’s that they do happen, either on the seas of Southeast Alaska, or big mountains around the world, she knows she can handle them.
“I have developed a confidence that I can figure out any challenge,” Peterson explained. “It was an important lesson my dad taught me growing up. He showed me that in practice, throughout my entire life. I know I can handle anything.”
Nearly every summer growing up, McKenna would join her father, Christopher Peterson, on his 58-foot commercial fishing vessel named Atlantis. At 18 she took a full-time job as a crew member on his boat, which put her through college and funded her skiing. Like her dad, fishing in the summer fed her skiing addiction in the winter.
“I was really focusing on skiing because it was what made me happy,” Peterson said of her love for the mountains. “I was making a living off of fishing so in the winter I was working a little once I finished my education, bar tending or waitressing, kind of odd jobs. Then sponsors started to approach me and people started to offer me paid contracts and I ran with it from there.”
She ran all over the world chasing the best powder and the biggest challenges on snow. In 2014 she and five other women set sail from Iceland to pioneer new ski descents in “Shifting Ice – Changing Tides,” in 2015 she joined fellow Girls Who Rip, Lexi duPont, in “Chasing Shadows,” as they “explore the edge of possibility.” Finding her edge, for Peterson, is equivalent with being her best self.
“By pushing through sport, I find the most joy and confidence in myself, and I feel like that’s what gives me my drive,” said Peterson. “I push, I challenge. I fail, I learn, I succeed and I keep pushing. That’s what gives me purpose.”
Of all the things she’s had to push through, none have been harder than pushing through the loss of her father when he died in an avalanche while skiing in Montana.
“It was shocking, it rocked my world.”
Even as Peterson and her family processed the grief, she was surprised by her ability to lean into the lesson he had instilled in her all those summers; that she could, in fact, handle anything. Including, what came next for her father’s commercial fishing business.
“I surprised myself in my quick, immediate and very strong decision to take over his operation,” Peterson said. “I didn’t have any doubt in my mind, even though it’s something I hadn’t really considered previously. It just came up and it was like, ‘ok, I’m doing it. No one can tell me, no. I’m doing it.’
“That was a big part of taking over the fishing operation. It was, ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing here, but I know I can figure it out, so let’s get to work.’
Seven summers in, Peterson says she’s still figuring it out.
“I’m still challenged every day, I’m still learning something every day and I’m still getting into situations where my eyes get big and it’s like, ‘okay, let’s figure this out.’
It’s in those moments where her eyes get big, and the world narrows to the immediate situation she’s facing, she feels the whisper of the dad who equipped his little girl to face exactly this.
“Sometimes memories come back, even subconsciously I go to how I’ve seen my dad react in similar situations and I take that on,” Peterson said of her thought process in those moments. “That’s what gets me started in overcoming the challenge and then I almost find a flow state in it.”
“The fear goes away, the insecurities go away, and you just act, you do, you think, and you keep moving.”
Peterson says these moments have their differences whether she’s on sea or on land.
“On the ocean, I have so much more responsibility because I’m in charge of my crew, my boat and all of my gear. There’s just a lot more weight on my shoulders. When I’m in the mountains I’m only worried about myself.”
But even when it’s just her and her two skis facing downhill, the evaluation process remains the same.
“When I have that feeling it really comes down to trying to decipher if the feeling is fear-based or based on reason. So when I have that feeling [in the mountains] I really need to step back and take a second to assess if I’m just scared of what I’m doing, or if the fear is rational, based on conditions and safety. So it’s a lot easier to come to the conclusion of, ‘okay I can manage this fear, I can manage this risk,’ and I can go, or, on the contrary, end up deciding not to.”
Being comfortable on the edge, but knowing she doesn’t always have to go over it.
It’s the legacy Chris left with his daughter, and the one she hopes people who see her in ski films, like “Land of Giants,” which is touring this winter, will be left with as well.
“Nothing in life is easy. There's always going to be a setback, there's always going to be a few brick walls that you run into. It's okay. Learn from it. be resilient. And if it's what you love, keep going.”Find theatres hosting The Land Of Giants Ski Film Tour or follow McKenna on Social Media to keep up with her.