The following is an Observational Essay Written by Rachel Laurie about her experience as a seasonal worker in Seward.
The sun was barely rising as we pulled up to Billings Airport’s front doors. The three of us piling out of the old 1996 Ford pickup truck, along with a ridiculous amount of luggage. There were people lined up at the check-in counter rushing to catch their flights. Soft classical music was playing in the background. In the lounge and terminals were a curious mixture of bored and eager people. Some looked as if they were waiting for the bus at the bus stop and others looked as if waiting to see Santa himself. As we boarded our plane, my heart was beating fast, I couldn’t tell if I was excited for my adventure to come or nervous traveling far away from home with only the slightest idea of what’s going to happen this summer. Little did I know, within the first week of working in Seward, Alaska, this summer was going to be something I’ve never experienced before and would change my perception on life forever.
“Cabin crew, prepare for landing”, the captain announced over the intercom. As I looked out of the window in anticipation, I saw a different world. The sky was bright, the blinding sun shooting sparkles off of the endless snowcaps piercing through the clouds under us. The landscape became clearer as we began to descend. Mountain peaks rose straight from the ice filled water until they seemed to touch the sky. Adjacent to them were equally majestic peaks as far as the eye can see. The Last Frontier that I’d get the opportunity to explore is in the near
distance, and I couldn’t wait another second for my new adventure to begin.
The drive from Anchorage to the seaside community of Seward began with a two hour bus ride full of locals coming back home from their winter vacations. Words can’t even describe the spectacular views as we winded down Old Seward Highway passing between the dramatic shorelines of Turnagain Arm and the jutting peaks of the Chugach Mountains. Mile markers slowly counted down as we approached the little town that will be my home for the next five months, which is nestled right between the Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Mountains. After living in the rolling hills of Ohio my whole life, it was almost as if we were on a different planet. I was surrounded by pure bliss from the beautiful sights of endlessly high mountains to moose roaming through the streets.
The bus driver dropped us right in the middle of the small boat harbor to wait for our ride to take us to our housing. Directly in front of us a cluster of docks filled with boats of all sizes.
A strong scent of fish filled the air. Snow capped mountains reflected in blueish green water with a sea otter just hanging out and swimming on it’s back with a half eaten salmon on it’s belly, while bald eagles sit on a post nearby. Men walked around the harbor in rubber overalls pushing wheelbarrows filled with halibut, salmon, cod, and rockfish. Every man, woman, and child had a pair of XtraTuf rubber boots on. A white Ford F150 pickup truck pulled up and a woman climbed out reeking of marijuana and cigarettes. She told us were are heading to what she called “the bunk house”, this would be our housing, along with the rest of the J1’s that will work with us for the summer. J1’s were non-immigrant visa students that work in the United State to promote cultural exchange. We drove across the three mile long town and pulled up to a four unit two story old rickety wood-sided house. The front porch had dirty white paint peeling off everywhere and crooked shutters by each window. Inside the apartment the floors were creaky and it looked as if it had been vacant for years, even though people lived there year round. There was very little to no furniture, and it appeared as if a blind man picked it out from a rummage sale, leaving a stale smell in the room. Six of us would be living in this unit sharing only one rancid bathroom, two dorm-sized bedrooms that had two twin sized beds inside and a pullout couch in the living area. Say goodbye to anyone’s privacy! I thought to myself that I couldn’t possibly ever live like this. However, after meeting people later on in the summer and hearing stories of fisherman living in their small boats all year long, or people living in tiny shacks and sheds that look like they were on their last limb with no heat, running water, or electricity. Some lived in tents along the beachside or in backyards of friends houses. Some even lived in closets or rooms with up to fourteen people bunking up together. I knew housing was very limited and expensive up there, but I thought these people had to be crazy. Even in these harsh conditions they are the happiest people and you would never question their lifestyle. Comparing my situation at the time with everybody else, I felt we were living pretty good. The things that I once needed back home, were not as important as I thought. This move had already taught me acceptance and to appreciate all that I have.
The small town of Seward has a population of around 1,800 people with another 1,000 or more migrating to work over the summer. If you weren’t on the job, you were most likely sitting on a barstool at one of the five bars in the downtown area, or out exploring the wilderness. This may not seem like a large number of bars until you’ve considered that entire downtown is a single street spanning three blocks and consisting of roughly fifteen businesses in total. “Seward is known as a small drinking town, with a big fishing problem,” the locals all say. So after getting everything settled in at the bunkhouse, we had walked a street over to The Yukon, the most popular dive bar in town. Which would be one of the places I worked and spent a lot of quality time during the summer. As soon as you step foot in the door, your eyes go straight to the ceiling filled with thousands of dollar bills hung up by visitors from all over the world. A very distinct smell of old spilt beer and cigarettes filled the air. The Yukon is almost always packed with locals, seasonal workers, and a few confused out of place tourists that have stumbled in and are easily identified by their startled expressions. One of the easiest tasks there was to find someone to consume a drink with you and talk the night away. I have never met people in my life that are more kind and giving than the locals of Seward. Each and every person treats you like family when you work in town. It is also amazing to me that so many people come there to work and vacation from everywhere in the world. The stories you hear about the travels the people embark on and how most of the people up there move to where the seasonal work takes them. Meeting all these people opened my eyes to so many opportunities. Once I have those opportunities, it’s up to me to accept it or not, and keep moving forward. This path lead to my own enlightenment and drastically changed my outlook on my future.
After a long night of spilling drinks and making new friends, it was time to explore mother nature’s backyard. Early in the morning, a few of us set off on a tour of the Kenai Fjord. It was impossible to take my eyes off of the unbelievable scenery. Cameras stay glued to everyone’s hand. Row after row of glacier-carved mountains stretch to the horizon. Some are reflected in the water that is dyed a bluish hue by the silt of melting ice and snow. The air became noticeably colder as our boat would approach a glacier. Huge pieces of ice surrounded us floating in the sea. The glaciers were like a storm, a crack of the ice was the lightning, and as it broke off and landed in the water, the rumble of thunder could be heard. It was whale migration season in Alaska. The humpbacks and orcas often came close to the boats and seemed to be in no hurry to leave. According to the captain, normal humpback behavior is to arch their backs and show their tails when diving, bubble feeding, and fin flipping. Rolling and full breeching are less common but can be very spectacular when it occurs. I was witnessing something that nobody ever gets to view in a lifetime. Visitors and locals that prefer to engage in sports and other activities have a bountiful amount of options. Popular warm-weather pastimes range from hiking the famous Mount Marathon, to fishing, rafting down the rapid rivers of the Kenai, sea kayaking, dog sledding, ice climbing on the world known Harding Ice Field, animal watching, hunting, and taking helicopter rides. The possibilities are endless. Being away from all the hussle and bussle of the busy city life helped me take a step back and have a clearer view of what my future could hold.
The beautiful thing about being there is that you can surround yourself with all of the people in the towns, or you can surround yourself with nothing but nature. The most profound impact on me was to surround myself with both. Spending a whole summer in some of the most remote terrain on earth opened my mind to so many discoveries that I could never forget. While Alaska may not be the only place that will change my life, it certainly provided opportunities that no other place has the power to.