I arrived in Anchorage on Wednesday, May 24th, and even before the plane landed I felt a rush of excitement and peace wash over me. We were about 5 hours into our 7-hour flight from Chicago when we hit some turbulence. I was afraid that maybe the plane was going down, as is my first instinct every time the plane moves even the slightest bit. I opened the shade to see if we were falling from the sky, for the first time since we took off, and looked down to find a blanket of wildly magical peaks and snow below me. As far as the eye could see, tops of mountains and soft white snow, ice sheets, and eventually a shift to the taiga.
Even the views while walking through the airport were unbelievable. Mountains and trees and pristine beauty, and the air when I stepped outside was what really got me. The way Alaska smells is indescribable. It is fresh and comforting and crisp, laced with plants and trees and the sea.
I was picked up by a nice lady named Kate who is the CFO of the organization that I was hired by, the Alaska Conservation Foundation. She drove me the “scenic route” to the house that hosted me for my short stay in Anchorage. We drove by Lake Hood which is completely surrounded by float planes, the way animals may surround a watering hole in a drought. I’ve never seen so many planes, let alone float planes, and they are everywhere. She told me that there are more float planes than citizens in Alaska, which I did not bother to fact check her on, because it’s such a great tidbit that I decided for my purposes, it can just be true without question.
I was dropped off in the Turnagain neighborhood in West Anchorage, to stay with the lovely Tom and Peggy. Tom is a teacher at the local community college where he teaches everything from philosophy to math. Here, you are qualified to teach at community college if you have a minor in a certain area. Evidently Tom has eight minors because he teaches eight different subjects. Peggy is a voice teacher and a recording artist. She manages her own label called Arctic Sirens and she puts on a cabaret every year downtown featuring very accomplished singers performing musical theater classics.
They live in Peggy’s family house that she grew up in as a child, and it is old and comfortable. They have two beagles, Nessy and Cali, who are persistent and wild. They are fed at 9am and 9pm each day and ring a little bell at the door if they need to poop. They are very soft, and very lick-y. I have to admit, as frustrating as they were the first day or so, they grew on me, and I grew on them too. By the end of my visit they were snuggling up with me and greeting me every time I came home.
I unpacked and showered and had a whole afternoon to spend freely before my training began the next day. I decided to walk downtown!
The walk was a little over an hour long along the famous Coastal Trail. It was beautiful and low tide, so it looked out over mud pits which are much more breathtaking then the name makes them sound. The trees and plants are so different than any I’d seen in California growing up, and the birds make such different sounds.
Every person I passed on the trail smiled and waved, and as I got closer to town I passed a few “neighborhood bookstores” which are small boxes of books with the instructions to “take a book and leave a book! or just take a book! or just leave a book!”. I took a book to read later, a strange murder mystery.
What struck me the most this first day was the abundance of water. The rivers and ponds and rain and bay. Everything is so wet and green. I suppose growing up in a drought you notice the water a bit more.
I made it downtown and went first to the Anchorage Museum. It was like stepping into another world. Such a comprehensive and accessible resource for the public to visit and engage with the Native culture of the state. The archaeologist/anthropologist in me had a ball.
Next, to a coffee shop, Dark Horse Coffee Co., because that is typically one of my first stops in any new town. I like to go and try the chai, read the local paper, see the people coming in and out, and take a minute to sit and orient myself. I got some chocolate covered.. stuff.. not sure what it was exactly, and read a calendar of events, but got hungry quickly.
First meal in Alaska? Pizza. I had to! It looked so good. The place was called Fat Ptarmigan, named for the Alaska state bird, the Willow Ptarmigan. I also tried some of the local beer from Alaskan Brewing Co. which was delicious. Beer in Alaska is GOOD. Beats Chicago breweries, for sure, as much as I love Goose Island.
From there I met up with some other interns who had just arrived in town, and proceeded to get lost on the bus system. Pretty embarrassing for someone who has been navigating big-city public transit for the last few years. I ended up about 5 miles out of town and called a taxi to come rescue me, since at this point the busses had stopped running for the day.
That night I experienced my first Alaskan Summer “nighttime”. At 10:30pm it was bright out, like just after a sunrise. It made me want to be outside. I was on Chicago time and was very tired, but seeing the sun out kept me up much later than I had hoped to be the night before our training began.
I finally got to sleep, despite the beautiful sun shining outside, around 1am, when it seemed to dim down a bit.
We started orientation the next day. For those who don’t know, I am in Alaska because of the Alaska Conservation Foundation (ACF). They have an internship program called the Ted Smith Conservation Internship Program where they hire a few interns with specific specialties and then place us in non-profits with a focus on environmental conservation where we can be of service based on our skill set. My placement is with Discovery Southeast in Juneau, AK, which I will talk more about in a bit.
The purpose of our orientation was to get us familiar with the economic, social, environmental, political, and community efforts and initiatives that are taking place around Alaska. We are to be helpful citizens for the summer, so best to have us be informed.
On day 1, we started the day with an introduction from Michael Barber, the Executive Director of ACF, Polly Carr, the Executive Director of the Alaska Center for the Environment, and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins who is the Alaska State Representative from Sitka. Jonathan goes by JKT and is quite impressive. At age 20 he climbed the highest volcano in the world, Argentina’s Ojos de Salado. When he was a freshman in high school he led the Howard Dean Presidential campaign in 2003. He was elected to the Alaska House of Reps in 2012 when he was 23 and won by 32 votes against the incumbent. He sponsored pushed for the Alaska Native languages to be formally admitted as official state languages, which I think is pretty darn cool. At this point, you can probably tell, he is a badass.
Next we had Matt Rafferty lead us in a workshop. He is in charge of this super cool program called Arctic Entries which is like the Moth. He organizes people who have stories to tell about themselves and then puts them all together in a live show of storytelling. Here is a link to some archives of Arctic Entries stories: https://arcticentries.com/2016/07/12/recordings/
We all worked on telling our own “stories of self” and I talked about why I have been inspired and pushed to serve. I talked about how important it is for me to give each child an opportunity to tell their own story, to be heard, and to have access to opportunities outdoors and effective health education. I talked about some personal circumstances that led me to this desire to almost-manically wrap my arms around all the children that I encounter, and why it is so important to me to be in service of the kids around me. I won’t write about those personal stories here, but if you are curious, I’d be happy to share.
Needless to say, the workshop was great, and it felt good to share my story and think about why it is that I am doing this work.
We then got a history lesson about the evolution of conservation in Alaska from the former Executive Director of ACF, Ann Rothe. She is inspiring. She is a human encyclopedia and I would love to know timelines and names and places as well as she does. Next, we heard from Pam Miller who oversees the Alaska Community Action on Toxics. This was very fascinating to me because toxins being in low-income areas is an issue in Chicago as well, but here is it a bit different. So much of the pollution and poisoning drifts up from down south into the Arctic circle, causing Alaskans to suffer by tainting water quality, fish, and air quality. It is a huge problem in many of the Northern territories, and much of what can be done is informative work. Preventative work must come from the efforts of conservationists down south, and it is almost impossible to make undisturbed foods and water sources available to these territories that have relied on the resources from the Earth for centuries.
Finally, for day 1, we had Luc Mehl come present to us about his adventures around Alaska. This guy is a true iron man. He has completed many Alaskan Classics where a start and end are given and then it is a race to see who can finish on their own. He does mostly 300-500 mile treks across every type of terrain and has encountered almost everything in the Alaska wilderness. His pictures are so crazy, and his videos are stunning. Check out his website here: https://thingstolucat.com/
In terms of conservation, Luc has been creating this program that rewards acts of conservation with super dope stickers. If you do something for the earth, or make a phone call to a legislature, or donate to a conservation program, then you fill out an online form and he will send you a sticker as a reward. The stickers are all nice quality of locally sourced artwork in Anchorage. Here is the link to where you can find the form to fill out! https://thingstolucat.com/art-sticker-conservation-campaign/
Do something for the Earth then fill out the form and get a sticker!
After the training, I went back to Dark Horse Coffee and met a handsome young pilot who is based in Hong Kong. He was very kind and told me all about the cargo-pilot life, and after a few hours of conversation, we went our separate ways.
I followed my ears and found the weekly “live after five” music event happening downtown where I met George, a nice old Alaskan Native from Nome who was a fisherman and Dogsled Musher and then moved to Anchorage and is 37 years sober and has 3 teeth! He loves to dance and be on the local news.
I met the local news reporter and helped him with some technological challenges he was facing with his iPad.
I also met Richard who is the kindest old man. He told me his story of fighting off a bear with a frozen fish! He gave me his home phone number and wanted to meet up for tea but sadly this never happened. I got his answering machine a few times, but will try again when I return in August!
I met Karen who is a very active woman in the community, helping to pioneer art programs aimed at providing therapeutic outlets for women recovering from abuse and violence. She has been emailing me and we have kept in contact, she wants to help get me connected throughout the villages in northern Native Alaska to learn about mental, environmental, and community health and how it is affected and improved throughout the area.
Finally, at this music event, I met Tom and Lucca who are the kindest men from Germany and Austria, respectively. They were so fun and invited me out to dinner. So we went to a place called Humpys!
Then we went to Bootleggers bar and I did karaoke for them while they filmed for my parents, of course. I sang some Whitney Huston and Aretha Franklin and won the karaoke contest that I didn’t even know was happening! $50! Oh yeah!
Tom and Lucca walked me home and I hit the hay. At this point it was around 11pm and still bright as day out!
Day two started with a trip to Fire Island bakery which was pretty delicious. Definitely recommend if anyone ever ventures to Anchorage!
On my walk back I came across a large caged enclosure with a reindeer in it! Cute animal, looked old and content. I was in a rush to orientation so couldn’t spend much time with the reindeer, but it was quite odd and exciting seeing a random reindeer in the middle of the city.
First speaker of this day was Sam Snyder who is from Trout Unlimited. He is also active with the Stand for Salmon movement. He talked to us about the mining in Alaska and the conflicts that have risen surrounding the Pebble Mine and the mines along the boundary between Canada and Alaska. The effects of mining are massive and the negative consequences far outweigh the positive ones. There have been asurd efforts to keep the salmon preserved in their habitats while still moving forward with mining plans, such as collecting Salmon in trucks and moving them from one side of the dam to the other! Insane. We learned quite a bit more about the importance of salmon to the economy and culture of Alaska. Sam was a captivating speaker who is clearly so passionate about what he is working on: it was inspiring. I am excited to be as passionate and knowledgeable about the conservation efforts in Alaska.
We then heard from Gunnar Knapp, who is an incredibly accomplished Social Economist. He spoke to us about the economic situations and conflicts in Alaska today, particularly the conversation surrounding the status of the Permanent Fund stipend that Alaskan citizens get. Alaska is struggling with its budget. There needs to be some increase in revenue and income and it is unclear what the best way is to make that happen. Gunnar equipped us with questions to ask the locals that we are interacting with. It is a cool place to learn about the local economy due to the absence of income and sales tax, as well as the permanent funds. Here is a link to Gunnar Knapp explaining the budget crisis that Alaska is facing:
We next had Shannon Carroll from the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and Chris McConnell from the Renewable Energy Alaska Project to come speak about fisheries and the function of them, as well as the potential for renewable energy in Alaska. We learned what the most Alaska-positive types of fish are to buy, and how to support the fishing economy as consumers.
With these speakers, I felt equipped to take on Alaska. It was an incredible opportunity to hear from so many organizations doing such effective and visible work in Alaska. I want to work with all of them!
After orientation finished up, I headed back to my favorite coffee spot, Dark Horse, and took some quiet time to read. While sitting there, my pilot friend happened to come in and join me! We chatted for three more hours and I learned quite a bit about what life is like in Hong Kong, and basically his entire life story. Karen came through the coffee shop as well and offered both I and the Pilot some Norwegian cookies she had baked earlier in the day, they were delicious! After Karen left, we continued on and talked all about life and love and the world around us, and I was thrilled to get to share some Elizabeth Barrett-isms with him, that I am sure he will carry onward. I left and am hoping to see him one day if he ever passes through Chicago.
I walked around a bit and met a nice man named Albert, who- turns out- is the owner (or “father”) of the reindeer I mentioned before! Her name is Star. He invited me in to pet Star and give her some treats, and it was hilarious. I thoroughly enjoyed feeding Star the reindeer some frosted mini-wheats. She is old and loyal to her father and I got Albert’s number to pass along to some fellow interns with the hope that they may get to take Star on a walk some day soon! (Spoiler: They did! Other interns staying in Anchorage sent a picture a few days later with Star on a walk! Very proud of that connection that I made!)
I took the Anchorage bus to get to our big closing barbecue. It was a pretty funny scene: a few of us huddled under the tent, in the rain and 40-degree weather, and the rest them playing croquet. We all ate salmon and reindeer sausages (sorry, Star!) and it was delicious.
Next day we did a group hike, as a final hurrah all together, up above Anchorage. It was stunning… and straight up. There were zero switchbacks, and it was 34 degrees and snowing! I got my butt kicked, but it was worth it for the view.
For the remainder of my last day in Anchorage, I went on a tour of the music studio that Peggy works in, and went for a group dinner with all the interns. We had some great conversation. Talked about embarrassing dating stories, the best friends in our life, things we were looking forward to this summer. That last dinner really brought us closer as a group and I am so glad it happened. I am looking forward to seeing everyone at the end of the summer for our wrap-up and conclusion!
I took a taxi back from the dinner with an intern named Isa, who I adore, and right away the taxi driver told us that he had “just smoked crack”!! We grabbed hands and started panicking a bit as he began to ask Isa about her Mexican heritage. “If you are white and Mexican you must be RICH!” and “Are you related to any cartel members??”. He ended this lovely ride with us by driving on the wrong side of the road divider and Isa and I stopped him and hopped out. It was a ride from hell, but a funny one, and we made it home safely. I gave the beagles some final snuggles and said my goodbyes to Peggy and Tom, and got all packed and ready for bed.
The next morning I took off to the airport, courtesy of Kate, who also gave me some carrot muffins for the road, and I sat and watched the mountains for the hour before my flight to Juneau. I reflected on the beauty I had seen so far, the people I had met, and the mystery of what was to come. I couldn’t believe it had only been four days. I felt so far from home, but was immediately more at home and comfortable than ever in Alaska.