My Summer Working in the Alaskan Wilds
Updated: Feb 15, 2021
As you probably already know, I was deep in the Alaskan wilds this summer... zero phone reception, limited to no wifi, nothing around except thousands of acres of untouched nature. The professional fishing lodge where I worked is plopped right in the middle of a huge maze of connecting waterways in a vast expanse of raw wilderness in southwest Alaska. To give you an idea of the scale, here are some fun facts about Wood-Tikchik State Park:
-It's over 1,600,000 acres (650,000 hectares) — about the size of Delaware
-At times only a single ranger is in charge of patrolling the entire park, usually by aircraft (the only ranger I met was a lady... "Two-Gun Allie", a TOTAL babe)
The lodge is situated on a tiny island/peninsula (depending on the glacial melt and rainfall, the coastline rises and drops throughout the summer season) right between two big lakes. Here, the water between the lakes narrows into a small, fast-moving passageway perfect for fishing. The only way in or out of the lodge is via tiny float planes that make you gasp in awe (and maybe squirm in mild terror if you don't like heights) as you fly in altitudes low enough to spot bears and moose running around below you. These iconic bush planes are called "Beavers" (single-engine high-wing propeller-driven short takeoff and landing aircraft by de Havilland Canada).
Hilariously, no one I've told quite seems to understand this but... we, the staff, could not leave our little 17-acre chunk of island/peninsula for the entirety of our stay there. Yep, you read that right! No towns, cars, shopping, phones, restaurants, bars, or even money exchanged for 3.5 months. 'Twas interesting. Of course, food obsession levels shot through the roof. Luckily, we ate three square af meals a day plus unlimited snacks - Jaz heaven. The food was great, and the chefs were so nice... if you've ever worked in a kitchen or restaurant you'll know how incredibly awesome that is!
So, a typical day there started at 6am with "Phase 1", either serving breakfast to guests or packing guest lunches and cleaning the crew room. After a short break, it's on to "Phase 2" - cleaning all twelve of the private guest cabins. A break for lunch, more cleaning, then an afternoon break (just enough time for a nap or short adventure). Then on to "Phase 3", full setup and service of a fine dining multi-course dinner to guests, followed by breakdown and cleaning. My work day usually ended by 9pm. Lodge work can be summarized best as a beautiful groundhog day of menial drudgery.
We had a relatively small crew of staff, about 35 people altogether - 6 women (3 of them over 55), and 29 men (yes, it felt like being a mermaid on a ship of dirty pirates sometimes). One of the younger women and ten of the fishing guides were at "outcamps", which means they basically lived in tents even further in the wilderness for most of the season. We hosted the guests at the lodge, and every morning our pilots loaded up the little floatplanes with guests and flew them out to various camps to fish with the outcamp fishing guides for the day. Our fishing guides, pilots, and pretty much all of our staff were exceptionally talented at what they do, and ranged in age from 21 to 67!
Staff got one day off each week, and it was pretty much the best thing ever. I shared mine with only one other person, our grounds crew extraordinaire Luigi, or Louie. He's 21, and this was his first big adventure far away from his family and home in Maryland. Louie is an individual work of art, with static principles, a lot of wisdom and old school know-how, and a sweet heart.
We went on a couple of grand adventures together! One day we took an outboard motorboat (staff are allowed to use boats which is pretty awesome!) west to a place called Mirror Bay. True to its name, the mountain ranges and hills bordering the lake were perfectly reflected on the water's surface. It was such a ridiculously beautiful hot and sunny summer day, we took deep breaths and jumped in the icy water. This was after we made a fire and cooked our salmon on the shore. Idyllic as all get out, and just a perfect day. I realized later that this is very unusual Alaska weather lol. Lucky me!
As we sat on the shore eating buttery salmon from the river, potatoes, and onions with some forks I crudely fashioned out of sticks with my pocket knife (because I forgot plates/cutlery/everything lol), an otter popped up to check us out as we ate! Then, boating our way home, we saw four moose cows (females) galloping rather magnificently along the shoreline. THEN, we saw a huge bull moose further along the coast! He stared us down for a minute, turned and crashed into the underbrush and out of sight. We could see the tops of bushes swaying (like in the cartoons) as he made his way down the coast and away from us. At what he must have deemed a suitably safe distance, he popped his head back out through the brush to check us out. Cool as heck. I also caught two beautiful shiny lake trout, whaaat...
On another day off, we took a flat-bottomed "john" boat with a jet motor (suited for shallow water) and headed towards the Northwest Passage... another narrow passageway of water connecting our lake with another lake further north. Though it's extremely shallow, the water in the Passage is incredibly fast, with a strong, heavy current as the glacial melt from higher mountain ranges up north pushes south into our lake. We carefully boated up it and into the northern lake.
There were at least 126 forest fires raging throughout Alaska that week due to the hot dry weather, some of them very close to us - as evidenced by an eerie, smoky haze that reduced visibility until the surrounding mountains looked ghostly or just disappeared. It was an incredible thing to see and feel the chills of nature's badassery, very humbling. Nothing and no one is exempt from the savage wildness of Alaska... a casual outing can easily end your life if you're not careful. And that's one of the reasons why people love it.
When Louie stopped the boat and killed the motor so we could take a quick photo/ video of the hazy beauty... the engine wouldn't start up again. We laughed nervously as we were pretty far from the lodge and Louie did his best to troubleshoot, to no avail. Then I remembered a short length of rope that I've carried around FOREVER in my backpack (and been teased for quite a bit) and a pair of warm gloves I'd brought (because I'm a wouss), and Louie was able to use them to manually pull start the motor!!! Suck it, people who tease me for my MacGyver-like packing style! :)
We breathed a sigh of relief that we wouldn't be a) paddling for hours to get to the "Allen Cabin", our destination for the night or b) spending the night and following day in the boat till someone realized we were missing (we had no way of contacting anyone so it would have been at least a 24hr wait). Anyway, the cabin was magnificent! Was it a little beat up, dirty, rough, with no electricity or running water? Absolutely! Did we have the best sleep that night, after playing card games by flashlight and eating a tasty hand-caught dinner of lake trout (Louie gutted and filleted it right in the boat like nobody's business)? You can bet your sweet ass we did! The Allen Cabin is owned by a German doctor, who is kind enough to let strangers stay there. Alaska is full of interesting characters I found, by turns fiercely rugged and generously kind.
On my first solo day off, at the raised eyebrow of many a male (the ladies here don't get out much normally I guess... I did my best to not get my eyes stuck as they rolled hard), I went fishing alone! The weather that day was 1,000% glorious, clear, 80F (!), sunny, and it felt sooo good to get away from the little rock I'd been living on 24/7. I motorboated away from the lodge, legs swinging in my captain's chair because they didn't reach the bottom of the boat, just grinning like a maniac who'd gotten away with murder. See ya, suckers!
I boated up to the Northwest Passage, and fished for 3hrs in a grid around it before I caught anything: two big fat fish, one right after the other. They both fought like fat little hell-bent wildcats, which totally caught me off guard. When I fished as a kid we caught nice calm bass out of the lake! After a five minute struggle, the first monster fish (I'm guessing a 26" colorful rainbow trout) bit the line off while I was trying to get it into the boat. I quickly realized I should have tired the fish out and let him fight a lot longer before trying to net him.
After a long moment of sitting in the boat, open-mouthed at losing my treasure so quickly, I finally understood what the hell everyone is talking about when they zealously describe their "The One That Got Away". I was determined to hook another. I carefully repeated the same actions that got me the first one, and it worked! Hooked another big one, thinking incorrectly that this one was an Arctic grayling, because I'm a nincompoop who knows nothing about fish, and it looked silvery, not rainbow-y... it was not quite as big (24" I think) but still pretty damn fat, and this time I let him tire himself out before attempting to net him.
In case you're wondering, it's very awkward for a small-framed solo newb to net a heavy two-foot long fish as they are writhing wildly on the line, but I finally got the dang thing in the boat. After taking a deep breath, I bonked him over the head multiple times while yelling "sorry sorry sorry!" until he stopped breathing. Felt bad about all the head-bashing, but I guess I'm not strong enough for a one-hit kill :( Poor guy. This is the first time I killed something on purpose to eat it. I like that some native American cultures say thank you to the animal for its life, so I did that too. It's so hard to kill an animal, but if I'm going to be a raging carnivore I have to, right? I even held him in the net over the water and ripped out his gills to bleed out, because I read that's the best way to preserve your fish. Brutal. Who am I?!
I realized much later, as I was gutting and filleting the fish back at the lodge, that I'd inadvertently killed a trophy fish - a rainbow trout - not a grayling (some fish are catch-and-release only, depending on the area). Whoops... I felt pretty bad about that but, well, it was already dead. So I brined and smoked it and sent it to my family. Lol. Waste not, want not.
After my adrenaline-fueled venture, I kicked back in the boat and read my book, jumped in the icy lake, listened to Leon Bridges, smoked a little, enjoyed not having to worry about bears or bugs because I was in the boat, looked around at absolutely nothing but 360 nature views and reveled like hell :) It's a sign of how riled up and excited I was at the time, that I forgot to take a picture of the damn fish! After about six hours of bliss I finally boated "home" through bands of bright orange pollen covering the lake, with a Georgia O'Keefe blue sky of puffy white clouds reflected perfectly on the glassy lake. Ridiculously cool, Alaska!
On other adventures both solo and/or with friends, I happily got to:
....hike up "Blueberry Mountain", a small mountain right behind the lodge. Saying there was a trail would be a huge exaggeration, we basically bush-bashed our way up to the top, through dense forests, thick patches of alder, big grassy fields, and scrambling up rocky mountainsides. Though we smelled the sour, wet-dog smell of bears quite a bit, saw a million "bear beds" (bear-sized patches of indented grass), pawprints, and piles of bear poo, we fortunately did not see any actual bears. There was a grizzly or two around for sure though. Yikes!
....hike around "Eagle Island", a 20min boat ride away from the lodge. This little island was a slice of heaven! Not a soul around for miles, we would beach our boat on the tiny isolated beach and all breathe a collective sigh of contentment. From there we'd build a little fire and cook up a fish fry, go for a "refreshing" "swim" (aka nipple-numbingly cold run into and out of the water) or follow the blueberry bush-lined trail leading up the big hill to a formation of huge boulders in the shape of a house. One of my favorite places ever.
....boat over to the "Sand Spit", a long, narrow swath of land jutting out from the coastline nearby, just far enough to be out of sight of the lodge. This is where we had several little bonfire parties, celebrated 4th of July like savages, and just snuck away on afternoon breaks when we could and, believe it or not, to sunbathe a little... this was one of the hottest summers in Alaska on record!
There are many stories from this one summer season, and maybe I'll share some more soon... it was a highly condensed time of creating all kinds of new memories that I'll always treasure. My experience was probably mildly more stressful than others, because on my breaks I had to keep up with my online editing/writing work - challenging, with the very minimal (and more often than not zero) wifi situation.
At times it seemed like I was born at Tikchik and would die there, never knowing or remembering another life - it was so all-consuming. Other times, the days seemed to fly right out the window as I made new friends while reveling in the fact that I'd found "my people" - a bunch of other weirdos who love living this unconventional life of freedom, experienced beautiful things I'd never known before, learned new skills and overcame surprise challenges.
It was certainly disconcerting but SO fun to have 20hrs of daylight for the first month or so. Between the long work days, and the sometimes even longer nights of staying up late with a revolving door of interesting characters, watching the hours-long sunsets... well, let's just say I didn't sleep much all summer. And I DEFINITELY enjoyed the heck out of being so disconnected from the normally overwhelming 2D world of internet, phone, and social media.
The last few weeks passed by in a blur. After months of hectic, beautiful fun and work in a pristine 360 views natural playground, I got super lucky to fly out on a "Beaver" the whole way to the city of Anchorage. That meant 3.5 hours of orgasmic low-altitude flying through absolute wilderness with zero civilization. We flew through Clark's Lake Pass and it's hard to describe how incredibly epic the views were. Untouched valleys, massive glaciers, tucked away glaciers, sprawling plains, gushing waterfalls, bears, and all of the foliage and tundra in autumnal golds and reds.... Hell. Yes. It really was like winning the lottery. (My kind of lottery, anyway!)
Finally, civilization came into view for the first time in months: the city of Anchorage. It was a shock after being so totally immersed in nature. We landed casually on a small lake in a maze of adorable float planes in the "float plane airport". There were "beavers", "otters", and a hundred other float plane models, all different colors, each with their own mini colorful shed. Our badass pilot, Charlie, didn't even have to radio in or let anyone know we were coming - he just did it. Very Alaska.
Naturally, my companions and I headed straight to the pub! We were definitely weirding out on the fact that we no longer "knew everyone in the room". Making eye contact with so many strangers was a little overwhelming, while fascinating to be able to stare at so many new faces and remember that there are other people in the world.
So, back to the 'real' world... Upon reentering society, I promptly:
-ate a big nasty burger
-drank ciders from a real glass
-bought a t-shirt from "The Great Alaskan Bush Company" (a local strip club, of course) -stopped at a dispensary for spliffs and gummies
-drank a double espresso from a cafe
-headed straight to a local sushi restaurant to pig out again 😁🤘🏽
Yeah, civilization has its perks!!! But I don't miss the city life or regular society at all, and I'm already planning my next adventure into the wilds.
For those wondering about seasonal work in remote locations:
At this particular lodge, room and board was provided, so while our hourly wage was low ($10 - $12), we made up for that in saved money, a lot of overtime, and tips. At the end of the season (3.5 months), I walked away with about 12k. I found this job on www.CoolWorks.com, a great source for seasonal work around the U.S.