At the beginning of this year, I made a pact with a dear friend who had been a roommate in Oakland, California. She’s a therapist, and the center where she was working closed down. I had decided I wanted to work in nature with kids, and I was looking at farm-based educational programs when I came across “Wilderness Therapy Jobs.” I had never heard of such a thing, and I forwarded it over to Kathryn, thinking it might be just the thing to cure her stuck-in-a-rut blues. It didn’t even occur to me that I should apply, until I was dared to do it – “I’ll apply if you do” – and two weeks later, we were on our way to The Last Frontier.

On a cold evening at the end of January, earlier this year, Kathryn and I landed hard in Wrangell, a small island in Southeast Alaska. It was snowing, the runway was icy, and the pilot burnt the rubber of the tires so hard that the cabin of the plane filled with smoke. The whole plane let out nervous laughter – welcome to Wrangell! some folks shouted. I’d made friends with a loud and gregarious woman who spent a full hour telling me all about what a great town we were headed to – she’d moved there with nothing a few years back, and people had been kind and generous from day one. She assured us we’d have no problem finding her in the bar in the future, and offered to watch my dog for me if I needed it.

We were picked up, along with a few other co-workers-to-be, and taken on a quick 4-minute tour of the town – that’s about all it takes. There’s the post office, 2 grocery stores, 3 bars, the museum, and 7 churches, plus however many houses. About 1,800 people live on the island, all told.

That night we ended up at a small gathering, where everyone welcomed us, gave us food, beer, and sang songs while playing guitar. It was a fitting introduction to a town that prides itself on its friendly and hospitable demeanor.

I was there with about 45 other people for staff training, to be field guides in a wilderness therapy program. For seven weeks we’re gone from the world, immersed in the Alaskan (and Canadian) wild lands. We work with kids from all over Alaska, some that have never seen trees before, because they’ve been in the near-Arctic tundra their whole lives, in villages that depend on hunting whales, seals, wolves, caribou, or other animals for survival.

In my experience with kids, I knew that getting them away from their iPods, video games, and families would give them time to think. I knew that the wilderness gives people space – it makes some people nuts for a while – to really consider themselves in the context of a world that is vast and rich beyond our ability to understand it. When I was being interviewed for the job, I was asked if I was familiar with their program and curriculum. “To be honest, I’m excited to get to know it,” I replied, “I think it’s great that you have a program, but I think that the wilderness is the therapy.”

I didn’t really have an understanding of just what it is like to grow up in Alaska – the wilderness is a part of the people there, I believe. It is impossible to pass by the drama of the light – for many months, the only light is that of twilight, as it hovers between dusk and dawn – and to not be affected by the constant variations that are exposed where mountains meet the ocean. I thought that I was going up to teach kids how to be in nature, but in reality, I was going there to teach them how to come back into society.

Over the next six months, I got to know the town quite well. I spent a lot of time with folks that were there to work in the same program, and also got to know many of the locals. I worked a handful of shifts bartending at the Totem Bar over the Fourth of July weekend, the town’s biggest party each year. I got to run my own radio show a few times, playing records and songs from my laptop on dreary rainy Sunday nights. Knowing that we were the only station available on the island was a cool feeling – “you’re stuck with me!” I could imagine folks driving along in their cars, or in lonely cabins out on the winding road that snaked along the perimeter of the island, only to meet its end 20 miles away from town, forcing you to turn around and head right back where you came from.

I had heard elsewhere of the seclusion that comes from living on an island. I learned recently that the words “island” and “isolation” share the same root, and those words played a significant role in my thinking over this year.

I met a man who has spent the past 15 years paddling a rowboat around the islands that dot the ocean waterways of the Southeast. He approached a table where I was drinking beer with a couple of guides – we’d just gotten back from the field, and were full of the nervous energy that must be decompressed by adult company and beverages. He came straight up to the table, wearing his homemade paddling gear – tons of pockets, nothing cotton, many layers, all function and no nod to style – and looked at us each in the eyes in turn quickly, saying, “You men look like a wiiiiillllllld bunch of fellows out for trouble tonight!”

We all had a good laugh, and he told us a couple of crazy tales that I wish I could remember. Up there, the abnormal is completely just a way of life – each visit to the bar or the library (my two main haunts, aside from the houses of friends) offers interactions with people who live on the complete fringes of what I once considered to be American society.

It left me thinking about the nebulous nature of society – we are whatever we think ourselves to be, really. When I would talk to kids who grew up in villages of a couple hundred people that proudly proclaim themselves to be Bloods or Crypts, it would make me nuts. I’ve worked with gang members in Chicago and Oakland. How dare you assume these cultures as if they were your own – you don’t know what they represent to me, or to the people who have lost their loved ones to the insanity and uselessness of gang violence. In a way, it’s the same feeling that I got here in Portland, when I saw a little woodcutting that was hanging for sale in a hippie coffee shop here. It showed a tribal-gear-wearing hippie chick with dreadlocks, tattoos, and piercings facing a generic Native American wearing a blanket, feathers, and with braided hair. The title of the piece was, “The Struggle is the Same.”

No, it’s not.

In February, we were brought to the Chief Shakes Tribal House – an amazing structure that was built in the ancestral ways, without nails, levels, screws – anything but joinery and outstanding craftsmanship. The totem pole that stands in the Smithsonian as the example of the Northwest style was carved in Wrangell. The petroglyphs on the beach near my house were thousands of years old… this island has major history.

Marge Byrd and her niece Norma are Tlinkit, of the Raven Clan, I believe. They wore regalia that they had made, they sang us songs of welcome, and they told us how they had lost their land, their language, and their stories. Marge talked about the impact that it had on her grandchildren to be brought back to Wrangell as adults and finally given names, with a ceremony, to become part of the tribe. It’s something that would normally have happened as children, but they had moved to Seattle and had lost touch with the old ways.

I cried when they thanked us for working with their children. Many of my dreams have totemic symbols and imagery in them, and I felt really connected to this place through my dreams. I told Marge that, and there were tears in her eyes as I hugged her.

On a greater level, I realize, the struggle is the same. My ancestors swept through Europe, conquering tribes and converting people to Christianity. In many ways, my people are responsible for eliminating untold languages, stories, customs, and religions.

Part of the work that I came up to Alaska to do was to understand these forces up close and personal. Some of the places that the kids come from have had their first missionary contact within the past 50 years. Others, like Wrangell, were bought and sold by various colonizing forces. Wrangell proudly states that it is the only town in Alaska to have flown 4 flags – Tlinkit, British, Russian, and American.

There were elements in Wrangell that made me sad. Most of the buildings there are built from imported materials, and (I’m guessing here) less than 1% of the food sold in the grocery store is from local sources. Everything is shipped in, and people leave their trucks running during the summer months out of habit – for 20 minutes while they chat with people. People buy large boats, large trucks, and large houses – it reminds me of the values of suburban America, with a strong Southern flair.

The people of Wrangell are some of the nicest, most kind human beings I have ever met. I was told repeatedly that, “No one will ever starve here. All you have to do is knock on a door around dinner time, they’ll feed you.” Our neighbors would give us freshly caught fish, home-grown vegetables, and other goodies. When asked why they were so generous, they would simply say, “you work with the kids,” and leave it at that. I could never walk the mile down the road to or from town carrying any kind of bag without being offered a ride.

Unfortunately, I’m not going back next year. I came up this year with the promise of work, and I’m still struggling to catch up on my bills. I didn’t work for most of March or April, and I made do on $45 during March. Without the generosity of the people around me, I never could have done it.

There is an organizational mindset that runs through the place that I worked, seeming to devalue their employees. Maybe it’s because they’re the largest employer and source of income for the entire island – there is no one to hold them accountable. The people of that island are some of the kindest, heartiest folks that will band together in a pinch to help each other out – I find it entirely plausible that those people simply don’t look for the dark side in the same way that my city-bred cynicism seeks it.

I talked to a lady who has worked for them for years – she told me that the state passed a Medicaid provider cost-of-living increase a while ago onto the organization, and she’s still waiting for it. She said she went to the head honcho, and he told her that he was “looking into whether or not we have to pass that money along.”

I talked to a guy who got fired after working for them for years. The general consensus in the rumor mill was that he had pushed back, questioning the practices of the company in the ways that they managed risks, logistics, and employees. He was apologetic, and complimented his bosses and co-workers. He said that what made him saddest was the way that the people he had long considered friends had immediately shunned him, and no longer spoke to him any more. I witnessed it, as I sat next to him on the barstool and saw most of the people who worked with us carefully avoid coming close to where we were.

Next year, they want us to pay them to train us on how to do the job we’ve already done. It’s not a lot of money, just $150, but when you add up the other expenses, it becomes a lot. They’re willing to pay us for the classroom time – $10 an hour for 8 hours each day – but once we go into the field for “field training”, we’re supposed to reimburse them for the cost of our food.

Most of the guides don’t live in Wrangell – during the winter, the already suffering economy seems to practically shut down. The fishermen and loggers aren’t working, no construction gets done, and there aren’t any tourists. The few viable service jobs are already taken by locals, and so the nomadic field guides normally go home to spend some time with loved ones in the off-season.

I made the decision to come to Portland. It’s got the west-coast food scene that I missed, plus I figured I could score a cheap room and a tolerable job. It’s worked out well. It’s about as cheap as it gets to fly to Wrangell from here – cheaper than Anchorage, even, although I couldn’t tell you why.

All told, when you combine the extra cost of food, lodging, and airfare, it’ll cost me about $850 to go to training. When you add in the $150 that they’d like me to pay them, it would’ve cost $1,000. In my mind, there’s a great reason why I can’t afford to pay that: I only made $10,000 this year. That even sounds like more than it is – it cost me about $4,000 in airfare, gear, and the Wilderness First Responder training that I was required to get. That means that after netting $6,000 in annual income, I’m supposed to shell out to come back and get trained on how to do the job I’ve already proven I can do?

They also made the decision to cut the pay of their top people who have been their the longest, and to add additional responsibilities to an already-obscene list of things that the Head Guide on each program takes on.

I can definitely understand the reasons behind all of this – organizations need to save money, and it’s good to cut costs. Salaries and pay need to be reviewed, and where things should be adjusted, they should be.

According to my calculations, there are exactly 3 people who were impacted by the cut from the top. Does that really make sense not to grandfather in the salaries of those people in that have demonstrated their ability to implement a really challenging program?

Let’s take a look at the expectations of the employer in this circumstance:

– Work 55 days straight with no breaks (49 days in field, plus 3 days prepping & 3 days closing down)
– Work 16 hour days, more if the kids don’t go to sleep when they’re told (which they certainly don’t always)
– Maintain constant, 24/7 responsibility for the lives of 11 other people in what the Coast Guard considers to
be the harshest climate on the continent
– Write approximately 900-1,500 words of paperwork each day on each kid (amounts to well over a novel for
each guide on each program)
– Implement therapeutic goals in absence of outside involvement, transforming lives of children & setting them
on path to success
– Manage logistics of 49-day wilderness expedition that may include (but is not limited to) hiking in a
rainforest absent trails, canoeing in high-traffic oceanic waterways (about 150 miles from where a lot of
“Deadliest Catch” is filmed), paddling down one of the world’s largest rivers, and climbing a 10,000 foot old
volcano with a glacier on the top of it.

It’s not an easy job, although it is by far and away the most rewarding experience I have ever undertaken. I am so amazed to be a witness to the incredible people who take this on – I would never want to be a head guide for this company. Every time something life-threatening happens, or a kid has “behavior”, it means more paperwork for the head guide – in addition to what has to be already done. All that means is that the guide team gets less sleep. Sleep deprivation is considered to be one of the best forms of torture, but it is assumed that you will sacrifice sleep for paperwork.

During my time doing this, I was being paid $120 a day. That sounds good, except for the 16 hour days… it works out to $7.50 an hour, less than minimum wage in Portland. Let me be very clear – I was thrilled. I was not there for the money, nor was I going to go back for the money – it was all about the experience.

Knowing that they were trying to cut costs, I would certainly be happy to help out, if I could. While I was working for them, I got to see a lot of wasted money – knee-jerk reactions to situations that resulted in thousands of dollars spent on jet boats, float planes, and airfare across Alaska. I personally escorted a kid back home, flying from Wrangell to Anchorage, staying overnight, and coming back – it cost the company $1,400 in airfare and hotel, plus another $200 to pay me – and I wasn’t needed (although that could be debated).

There were so many situations where transportation and administrative costs were pissed down the drain – and it’s really hard to see your employer wasting money and simultaneously telling you that they can’t pay you. It’s even worse to hear that the training is mandatory, and you’ve got to pay for it.

I told them I couldn’t, because of the financial situation I was in, and that I didn’t think it was fair to ask… and they thanked me for the feedback and wished me luck in the future.

I’m sad, because I wish that I could relive that experience. All the excitement of my Alaskan experience – the first time seeing the unending range of mountains that are simply nothing like anything in the lower 48, the experience of getting 9 adolescent boys to sing the Golden Girls theme song together (“Thank you for being a friend, travel down the road and back again”), watching 6 humpback whales fully breach 100 yards from our canoes – scared shitless that they would pop up under our tiny vessels but thrilled with every second of it, making it to the top of the mountain and falling through the glacier, catching myself on the lip of the ice.

There are so many more stories in my head. I know I’ll be back, someday – that town, and that place are forever carved into my mind. I want to paddle on the ocean there again, looking for glacial streams to drink from, eating berries from the bushes while scouting the bear tracks all around, seeing wolves, watching seals, whales, eagles, and ravens playing…

Wrangell, you have given me the monumental, life-changing experience that I sought, in more ways than I could possibly have expected. I learned about community, survival, peace of mind, the benefits of a slow pace, laughter, music, and much more.

I’m sad that I won’t be there this year to share all of that with you. I know that good will come of this, because I’m going to work to take these lessons of the wilderness with me. Thank you for what you’ve taught me – they will stay cherished jewels in my heart forever.

Kathryn and I shared a great experience, coming up to Alaska, and we are heartier people for it. We pushed the limits of what we thought we could endure, and took on greater challenges than we knew we could face. Wrangell became my home in the wilderness, a small town that I looked forward to being in, where she and I were once dubbed the King and Queen of Wrangell karaoke.

As silly as it all is, those songs still play on in my heart.

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