What A Summer In Alaska Taught Me, Against My Will

They say all good things must come to an end*, and last week, just as the summer weather was making a final retreat, my time living and working in the seaside town of Seward on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula did exactly that - it became a good thing that ended. 

(*I'm unclear on the profundity of this saying though, because bad and mediocre things must also come to an end. Literally everything ends.)

As I waited reluctantly at the Anchorage airport to board my red-eye flight to Los Angeles, I reflected upon my initial expectations for this adventure. Back in June, I felt confident that I was going to spend my weekends solo traveling throughout Alaska and that I would write every day and laugh smugly at small-town living. I wondered if I would cope earning minimum wage. I was terrified that I'd be sleeping in a bunk bed in dingy employee housing, sharing with 8 other, weird people. I worried that I hadn't packed enough warm clothes.

In hindsight it's obvious, as always, that I have no idea what I'm talking about. Ever.

Firstly, I should've packed more shorts. Or even just a single pair. Because it turns out there is a significant amount of heat and sunshine involved in an Alaskan summer. And secondly, the producers of Cheers must've known me before I knew myself because yes, I do want to go where everyone knows my name. In fact, I took to the small-town lifestyle immediately, aided by a disconnect with the 'real world' that occurred due to no television, limited cell reception and Internet speeds that rivalled those of dial-up circa 1998.

Mt Alice
I had no idea that I wouldn't see or hear an airplane, aside from flight-seeing bush planes, for the duration of my time. Or that I wouldn't set foot in a department store or fast food joint of any kind for a whole season. Or that the local movie theatre would show only one movie a week and that the train came into town just once a day. I didn't realize I would be living in a place that was almost wiped out by an earthquake and ensuing tsunami in 1964, and that as a result, a tsunami test warning would echo throughout the entire town every second Thursday at noon, and each time scare me just a tiny bit. But had I known these things, I may have avoided taking this journey, never knowing how happy all of it was going to make me. And I would've missed waking up each morning to the epic sight of glaciers and surrounding mountains whose colours changed over the weeks from snow-covered white, to charcoal grey, to moss green and then autumn reds.

I completely failed to anticipate the fascinating people I would meet. Like the locals, who not only have to endure a sudden invasion of tourists and seasonal workers, but then have to stick around for the horrible winter (which consumes 85% of the year). And who, despite this, are welcoming and willing to share their town with anyone who demonstrates a sincere interest and appreciation for their home. (By mid September though, they kind of do want you to get out...)

And then there were my fellow seasonal residents or 'Fair-weather Alaskans', if you will. They arrive with the warmth, looking for work, adventure, escape, clarity, peace, a challenge. And whether they're aware of it or not, they all have in common a trait that I greatly respect - an inherent desire to experience life outside of their comfort zone and the courage to then do it.

The characters I met over the summer are forever burned into my memory, at times against my will. I shall miss the incoherent ramblings of Buddy, the omnipresence of high-waisted-pants wearing Champ (whom I now suspect is a potential serial killer), and the mutant-sized Ravens that lurked on the streets and could certainly take a child if they chose to. I will miss the Yukon bar and being driven home by a cab driver who is potentially less sober than I am. I'll miss the foolish comments made by tourists ('No, ma'am. That is our radar, not a tiny propeller. This boat cannot fly') and I may eventually yearn for the knot of fear I would experience every time I came upon a why-are-they-never-seen-in-daylight employee of the fisheries. Most of all though, I will miss the random, awesome, awkward encounters that would occur every day as an inevitable result of shared employee housing and life in a small, isolated community. It was an avalanche of good times.

Harding Ice Field
Some of my new friends may be reading this now and wondering why they haven't been specifically mentioned. And frankly, it's because the people of the Internet don't know who you are and thus don't give a crap about you. But rest assured that I do give a crap about you. Every single person I met formed an essential part of the glorious, varied mosaic that has made up my summer.

For 3 months, we hiked, biked, worked, walked, ran, danced, explored, drank and breathed Alaska. But unlike the fjords and glaciers that encompassed us, our existence in this part of the world was brief and insignificant. By next summer, our footprints will be gone. There will be no trace that we were ever there. Yet the same cannot be said for the reverse. In my perhaps romanticized view, I believe that Alaska, and all that it embodies, leaves a permanent footprint on the psyche and heart of anyone that visits.

This is a place that unassumingly and without agenda, reveals the vastness and resilience of nature and the extreme fragility of human life. You have no real control here and any that you think you have is an illusion. You and your livelihood are at the mercy of the environment around you; the animals, the cold, the wind, the water, the sun. And rather than depress or scare you, this realization fills you with an overwhelming desire to get out and see more, explore more, do more. And that is a perspective we all need every once in a while.

With luck, there will be a handful of experiences in your life that are going to positively change who you are, or perhaps equally as importantly, change who you thought you were and what you are capable of doing. For me, Alaska was one of those experiences. And if for no other reason than that one, I implore everyone to go. 

Of course, there is an excellent chance that I have no idea what I'm talking about.

Comments

  1. Howdy,

    Thanks for sharing. I came across by searching for summer job experiences, as I am looking to go summer of 2014. Can you recommend how to get a job set up before arriving in Alaska?

    Thanks so much!
    Liz

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    Replies
    1. Hi Liz,
      The general rule just seems to be to get in early (although I got lucky - I applied in May and was working by June). A couple of websites that I found helpful were www.ciritourism.com/alaska-jobs.html, www.coolworks.com and www.alaskatourjobs.com. That last one is the HollandAmerica/Princess website - they are always looking for tons of people, but I've heard mixed reviews about job satisfaction with them. Good luck! Hope you get there :)

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    2. I just had another thought - if you know which town you want to work in, another option is to contact local businesses directly eg. bed & breakfasts, coffee shops, restaurants, family-run tour companies. They are often looking for help over the summer, but many of them are too small to bother advertising outside of town, plus they generally prefer personal contact over the internet application process.

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  2. Beautiful, thanks Candice! Hoping this works out, and glad you enjoyed your time there.

    Thank you for taking the time to get back to me.

    Liz

    ReplyDelete

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