Sunday, October 13, 2013

Windblown in Aialik Bay

            For boats equipped with sails, wind on the ocean can be a wonderful thing.   For boats that do not have sails, wind (especially a lot of it at once) can be one of the most tricky things we deal with.   This was brought home to me on a trip I guided at the Iceberg Lodge this past June, which was the first of many interesting (and occasionally terrifying) scenarios that Alaska handed out to the Iceberg Lodge this summer.

A lone kayak on Aialik Bay

            It was a few days past the summer solstice, and I was out with another guide I’ll call Jay and ten guests.   We’d been scheduled to do a trip across Aialik Bay to a cove on the far shore, but the guides who went out to the beach to scout conditions and set up the kayaks reported wind at our launch point.   We decided that we’d be better off sticking to a route that kept us closer to shore, and informed our clients of the change in plan.   By the time we actually left the point with guests, the wind had died down to almost nothing.   Heading north along the shores of the bay, we actually had pretty idyllic paddling conditions.   After about a mile, the group came to the southern tip of a small island, and we began working our way up its western side, paddling in a wide, protected channel  between the island and the mainland.   Mostly, the island drops down to the water as a series of 30-50 foot cliffs, which are covered with wildflowers and are very scenic to look at, but useless if you're looking for someplace to land.   We checked out some puffins, watched a few murrelets popping up and down.   About forty minutes later, we reached the north tip of the island, and spent a few minutes photographing the glacier at the head of the bay.   Then we started paddling back south, continuing our loop around the island by paddling back along the eastern, more exposed side of the island.   

            After about ten minutes, this began to look like a bad call.   Almost immediately after we started south, the wind began picking up.   Halfway down the island, we reached a sort of marginal landing beach.  This beach is easy to land on in calm conditions, but with any sort of swell or waves, it becomes very tricky to land there safely.   I’d hoped to be able to make a pit stop here, but the swell was picking up enough that I didn’t think we’d be able to land there without courting problems.    We kept paddling south.    And the wind kept blowing, and the swell kept growing larger.   At one point, the waves began coming in so rapidly that my first thought was that we were dealing with a particularly weird boat wake.   Of course, it wasn’t a boat wake; there wasn’t a boat anywhere in the area that could have created it. What we did have was the wind, and lots of it.   I have never in four years of paddling in the bay seen the weather turn that much that quickly.   When we passed middle beach, the conditions were mildly choppy, and by the time we got to the south end, we were paddling in whitecaps and gusts, and I was pretty thoroughly alarmed.   After leaving the marginal beach, I was thinking that it was just going to be a slog getting back to the launch point because we were going to be paddling in a headwind the entire way.   A few minutes later, I was thinking that we needed to get back on the protected side of the island (where there was a protected beach we could land on), and re-evaluate.   A few minutes after that, I was thinking that we weren’t even going to make it that far.   

            We went from marginal paddling conditions straight into hazardous paddling conditions in the space of about eight minutes.   Fortunately, there was one good thing about our current position.   There was a potential landing beach on the south tip of the island, and we were very, very close to it.   The bad thing about this beach was that it faced south, which meant that it was getting pummeled by the incoming waves.   Also, we were paddling south, which meant that to get to the beach, we were going to have to turn broadside to the waves.    Basically this meant that instead paddling directly into the waves, and letting the bow cut through the wave, we were going to have to turn so that the waves were hitting the entire length of the kayak.   If you haven’t spend much time in a kayak, here’s a quick fact: kayaks are not very stable when broadsides to waves. 

            As soon as we got within sight of the beach, I started yelling to the other boats that we were making a landing on the south end of the island, told them to follow my boat, and warned them that as we made our turn, the boats would feel less stable until we got the waves back at our stern.   (This sounded more comforting than what I was thinking, which was that as we made the turn, there was a good chance that one or more of the boats might capsize.)   The wind was loud enough at this point that I really did have to yell just to try and be heard over it.   Apparently that wasn’t even enough, because Jay, faithfully tailing the back of the group, went into loudspeaker mode and started repeating everything I just said for the people at the back of the group.   (He later told me that from the back, I was barely audible even when I was shouting.) And then we were making our turn, and the waves were slapping the side of my boat, pushing the left-hand side up into the air as the wave crested beneath me, and then immediately sucking the left side into the water as the wave passed on.   There was perhaps a minute when I didn’t dare turn around to look behind me because it was taking all of my balance and attention to keep my own boat under control, never mind trying to  keep track of anyone else.   One good thing that the group had going for us was that the clients were all in double kayaks, which are wider, heavier and more stable than the single kayaks that Jay and I were paddling, which meant that Jay and I were getting the rockiest ride. I still thought that one of the client boats was going to biff it when they rounded the corner.   

            Another stroke with the paddle, and my bow was finally pointed towards the beach.   I could still hear Jay behind me hollering instructions to the clients, which mostly consisted of trying to keep the boats from bumping into each other as they made the turn.   The doubles have wide turning radiuses under the best of circumstances, and the waves weren’t making it any easier for the clients to control their boats.   Once I felt that the waves were behind me, I paddled hard towards the beach.   I hit the shore and jumped out of my kayak.    As I stood up, the wind picked up my heavy-duty, vinyl spray skirt and blew it straight out in front of me.   I pulled my kayak far enough out of the water that the waves wouldn’t suck it back out to sea, and immediately started landing boats.   It was not a textbook landing; I basically just grabbed the nearest bow and pulled it far enough up the beach that the kayak grounded out, and then went right for the next boat.   Jay was doing his best to try and stagger the clients coming in so that they weren’t all paddling in on top of each other, but it was still quite a train wreck.   The good thing was that no one had flipped their kayak; I had been fully expecting that Jay was going to have to pick up a couple of swimmers before he’d be able to land.

            As soon as everyone was on shore, Jay became my  hero and immediately jumped into client care mode – making sure that everyone had some granola bars or a couple of fruit strips, passing out my bag of extra gloves and hats to anyone who was cold.  The wind was still howling at this point, and the wind chill, combined with the fact that the guests were no longer creating their own heat by paddling, had made the apparent temperature feel significantly colder than when we were on the water.   I got on the radio, passing on the information about what had happened and where we were, talking at various points to the Iceberg Lodge, to an area water taxi, and to another Lodge guide who had run into the same weather event while paddling on the more protected side of the island.

            While I was managing the logistics of all this, Jay got all the clients huddled in a corner of the beach that was slightly protected from the wind, and started leading everyone in a rousing chorus of the Gilligan’s Island theme song – which seemed appropriate since our three-hour tour had turned into the whole group getting stranded on an island.    He also led a discussion on what the concept of wilderness meant to the individual guests, lead everyone in some staying-warm calisthenics, cleaned up some trash off the beach, and started collecting driftwood to make some wilderness beach art.   In other words, he was a rock star, and kept the clients busy enough that they didn’t have time to get bored, or worried, or cold.

            After about an hour, we were picked up from the beach by our trusty local water taxi, the Weather or Knot, and thanked the captain and crew profusely, especially since he’d never actually landed on that beach before.   We loaded up our kayaks and clients, and then immediately went over to another beach on the mainland, to pick up the other Lodge guide and his clients.   Since this group had been paddling along the western side of the island, they were much more protected from the swell than we were, but they were paddling into a headwind so strong that the group was having difficulty making any forward progress.   We loaded everyone back up in the water taxi, and were dropped off at the landing beach, somewhat windblown but otherwise in good shape.    We thanked the captain again, sent the clients off to the Lodge to eat and warm up, and started unloading and putting away our boats.

Grey weather in the Gulf of Alaska

            The retrospective on this one is that, basically, we were very lucky that we were so close to a landing beach – any landing beach – when the weather turned.    We were also very lucky that the guides who had scouted the beach early in the morning had seen wind and made the call to change our route.   Again, the conditions when we launched were good, and there was nothing in the weather forecast that would indicate we were in for rough weather.   Had the guides not noticed the wind – or had Jay and I decided to paddle our original open-water route when we launched in glassy conditions – the outcome of our adventure could have been very different.   Had the wind caught us while we were out in the middle of the bay, our only feasible option would have been to pull all the kayaks together in a big raft (which is more stable) and hope that the wind blew us good places (like the landing beach on the north end of the bay, or into the protected side of the island) and not bad places (straight into an iceberg, or into a sea cliff, or straight into the face of Aialik Glacier).   We decided on a conservative route, and stuck with that decision even when it looked like we could have changed it.   This was good.

            Another thing this has confirmed is my tendency to be somewhat of a packrat when it comes to guiding trips.      In this case, we had food and extra gloves and hats on hand to give to people who were cold.   Had we been on the island for any significant length of time (if the water taxi hadn’t been able to pick us up, for example), or if any of the clients had actually capsized, having stuff at hand would have been even more critical.   (On a typical trip when I am out with clients, I have with me six pairs of extra hats and gloves, an extra fleece top, an extra pair of socks, two bivvy sacks, two sets of XL shirts and pants, two emergency blankets, half a dozen granola bars, extra water and water purification tablets, a client care kit with sunscreen, bug spray, hand cream, and feminine hygiene essentials, two first aid kits (my own and my company’s) and my personal survival kit.   And this is just for a day trip.)   This is why transporting gear on kayaks is so much nicer than transporting gear by backpack - you can fit a ****ton of gear into a kayak hatch.   

            So that was another good thing.   One thing that didn’t go so well was actually getting the kayaks onto the beach.   Once the kayaks made their turn and felt the waves behind their boats, many of the clients just stopped paddling, counting on the waves to get the kayak the rest of the way into shore.    The clients were right to assume that the waves would do this; they were wrong to assume that the waves would do this in a way they’d appreciate.   

            If you’re riding a wave but not paddling, you’re basically just letting the water do whatever it wants with the boat.   If the wave is pushing your boat at a good angle, you get a free ride in whatever direction the wave is taking you.   If the wave is pushing at a bad angle, it can spin the boat sideways and cause all sorts of nastiness, from a fairly straightforward drenching to the sort of landing where you get slammed head-first into the beach with the boat on top of you.   Fortunately, none of our clients got surfed by the waves, and even our train wreck of a landing was enough to get everyone on shore in one piece.   However, if even one boat had turned sideways and rolled onto the beach, it could have gone very differently – for one thing, as closely as everyone was bunched up trying to land, if one boat had rolled or turned sideways, the other kayaks might not have been able to stop before running over the boat ahead of them.  

            We did a few things right, we did a few things wrong.   The depressing take-away message is that I can’t really pinpoint a fatal flaw – some one little thing that we ignored, or didn’t do, that would have prevented us from getting caught in this weather event entirely.   Kind of hard to predict when even the National Weather Service gets caught off guard.   Not only did the NWS not see this coming, but it also took the local tour boat fleet by surprise as well.   On the water, we customarily monitor the local whale-watching chatter channel on our marine radios, and the entire morning we were hearing snatches of transmissions from some of the tour boats further out in the Gulf of Alaska.   None of what I was able to hear sounded good.   In retrospect, that broken radio chatter turned out to be out best indication that the weather was about to get epic, and is something I will definitely be paying more attention to in the future.

            As it turned out, most of those boats Jay and I heard ended up going back to the harbor due to the conditions.   Even the lodge’s own boat was forced to go back to town without dropping off any of their guests.   For a while, it was looking like the water taxi  crew who’d rescued us were going to be stuck in the bay overnight.   Fortunately, the weather settled down late in the day, and the water taxi was able to get back to town, bringing all of its own day-trip guests, as well as a few of our guests who were trying to get back to town.    During all of the ensuing chaos, several of the guests from the morning tour made a point of thanking Jay and I  for taking such good care of them, and for being so careful of their safety.   (I think they were mostly impressed that Jay and I got first a landing beach and then a water taxi to seemingly materialize out of nowhere.)   I am not really sure whether the clients actually realized that we had crossed the line between perceived risk and actual risk, but we were paddling in conditions on the wrong side of that line for a lot longer than I would have liked.   Everyone was able to control their boat, no one capsized, and no one freaked out, but had we continued paddling in those conditions,  I think it would only have been a matter of time before one or more of the above situations became a reality.

            Once I got back to the Lodge and was able to check the marine weather, the forecast up for the following day was the information we should have gotten for the day we’d just survived - wind calm becoming south twenty knots, seas building to four feet.   Given that the weather out in the Gulf had been bad that morning, I think that what we got caught up in wasn’t so much a change in the wind speed as a change in the wind’s direction.   If a strong wind changed direction in such a way that it was able to suddenly blow unimpeded down the whole twenty-mile length of Aialik Bay, it could possibly bring about the rapid change of conditions that Jay and I experienced.   There are some narrow lakes that are famous for this, and these events are considered very dangerous precisely because there is little to no warning that the wind is increasing.   First, it’s calm.   And then out of nowhere, the wind goes haywire.   I’ve never seen or heard of this happening in Aialik, but its my best guess for what was going on that day.   Either that, or someone at the celestial weather control board found the suck knob, and turned it up to eleven.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Best of the Guest Comment Cards

            Like many places, the Iceberg Lodge solicits comments from our guests concerning how they enjoyed their stay, and whether they have any suggestions for how we can improve in the future.   Generally, these cards are filled with lots of thank yous to the staff, and recollections of fond memories of their stay.   Very occasionally, we get some interesting suggestions, often from guests who take exception to some of our safety regulations.   Here are a few of the more memorable ones.  

  • We would've liked was a little more independence. For example, checking out a kayak and exploring on our own.    Even if you make people do an extra safety briefing before checking out equipment, it would be worth it.

            Even the staff that work here go through several training sessions in the kayaks before they are EVER allowed to take a kayak out by themselves.   The main reason for this is the water temperature - it's pretty cold.   You might have figured that out because of all the glaciers and snow and icebergs.   So, unless you happened to pack your own orange survival suit like the Coast Guard wear, if you capsize your boat, hypothermia is pretty much a guarantee.   Do you want a safety briefing for that?   Here goes.    

"Here’s your kayak.   Don’t flip it over.   If you do flip it over, make sure you’re really close to shore, since you’ll only have about ten minutes before your muscles get so cold that they stop working and you can’t swim.  As long as you are wearing your life jacket, you won’t actually drown.   Instead, you’ll slowly succumb to hypothermia over the next 30-60 minutes.   If you DO get to shore, be prepared to yell and wave your arms a lot.   Not only will this increase your chances of someone hearing you and coming to your rescue, but it will also help to keep the bears from bothering you in the meantime."

  • … have the guides sit with the guests at dinner when they are not working.

When guides aren’t working, I generally refrain from trying to tell them what to do.   Just like your boss probably doesn’t call you up at home to tell you where you ought to eat dinner.   We could ask the staff to interact with guests during their time off, but then we’d have to call it work. 

  • …I would appreciate more honesty in your advertising.   Your brochures all show close up pictures of bears, whales, seals, and glaciers, but national park rules prohibit getting closer than 1/4 mile to glaciers or seals, or 300 yards from bears.   So, unless I come with a 500-600 mm lens, most visitors cannot get those pictures…

            You’re absolutely right.   Every year, the National Park Service tries to explain the rules and regulations governing proper viewing distances between people and wildlife, but the bears and whales almost never attend these meetings.   
            Seriously, though, it is the goal of all land management agencies and all reputable guide services to manage encounters with wildlife in a way that is (a) safe for the humans and (b) not disruptive to the wildlife.   What distance this translates into varies pretty considerably – most parks and guided outfits have their own best practices.    And FYI, 300 yards is, as best I know, the recommended safe viewing distance for grizzly bears in Denali – it is usually possible to safely view black bears in the Iceberg Lodge's operating area at a much closer range.   Since it's three days into the government shutdown as I'm writing this, it's a bad time to try and look up specifics.
            However, let's assume that you're right, and that the regulations of the park you're visiting prohibit approaching within 300 yards of a bear.   Even if we go out with the firm intention of abiding by this rule, the bears have no problem getting closer – sometimes MUCH closer – to us.    I’ve had guests take amazing full-screen action shots of bears by patiently scoping the animals with their tripods from a few hundred yards away.   I’ve also had guests take amazing full-screen action shots of bears without even using the zoom feature on their point and shoot (generally while simultaneously yelling hey bear and frantically backing away).    

What kind of encounter you get (if you are lucky enough to get an encounter at all) is mostly a matter of luck, and timing.   Time is really the key element here.    The more time you spend out looking for wildlife, the better your chances of finding it.   The more trips you sign up for, the more before-breakfast-walks you drag yourself out of bed for, the longer you spend scanning the shores of the lagoon with your binoculars, the better your chances of being there for the once-in-a-lifetime moment when Mom Bear brings Junior down to the lagoon for his first fishing lesson.    And the better your chances of getting the moment on film.   

 Generally, the best way to get great photos during a visit to Alaska is to bring a lot of patience.   (A decent SLR and a tripod wouldn’t go amiss, either.)   The people who leave the lodge most dissatisfied with their photo opportunities are the ones who brought too much camera gear, and not enough patience.   Finally, just in case you're wondering, all of the pictures on our website were taken on site, and many of the wildlife shots used a lot less zoom than you might think.  

  • …Expand your trip options to include hiking up to the face of the glacier and walking on the glacier.

            As you might have noticed, none of our glacier trips actually go right up to the face of the glacier.   This is because we feel that the need to bring all of our clients back to the lodge alive supersedes the need to take pictures of you straddling a crevasse or licking an iceberg.   (Though admittedly those would look really cool on Facebook.)   No matter how much they might look like it – glaciers are not actually big blue rocks.   They are made of ice.   They are not easy to walk on.   They’re slippery.    They have crevasses.   They melt, and bits fall off.   Sometimes the bits are beach-ball sized.   Sometimes the bits are the size of an office building.   

Tidewater glaciers, like the ones we have near the Iceberg Lodge, are even more unstable than other types of glaciers because the water undercuts the glacier's face.    Walking on top of something that is that unstable (even if it doesn’t look it) requires a huge amount of specialized expertise and climbing gear.   There are a number of companies in Alaska that offer commercial glacier trekking or ice climbing –Exit Glacier Guides and MICA Guides are two that I can recommend – but I know of no commercial companies, either in Alaska or out of it, that offer guided trekking on tidewater glaciers.   There is probably a reason for that.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Alaskan Signs of Spring

Spring in Alaska is...
  • The day of the vernal equinox.    
  • The day the first rock sandpiper arrives in town.     
  • The day that your favorite restaurant opens for the season.     
  • The day the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, instead of whatever weird alternate schedule it’s been following since November.    
  • The first day when you can actually see grass in your yard.    
  • The first day that the grass actually looks green. 
  • The day you drain the antifreeze out of the water system on your boat/RV/vacation home.   
  •  The day the humpback whales return from Hawaii.    
  • The day your neighbor returns from Hawaii.    
  • The day you can smell the dog poop melting out of snow on the waterfront.   
  •  The day you take the studded tires off of the car.    
  • The day when ice is no longer filling in all the potholes on the road to the dump.    
  • The day you can see the yellow parking lines in the Safeway parking lot.   
  •  The day a motorhome camps at the campground.    
  • The day a tent camper camps at the campground.    
  • The first day that the bears raid trash cans on Dora Way.     
  • The day the first cruise ship arrives in port. 
  • The first day of salmon-fishing season.  
  •  The day you realize its been a week since you had to scrape ice off of your car.   
  •  The day you walk outside without a coat and don’t regret the decision.   
  • The day you want to eat ice cream.    
  • The day you run into a seasonal worker who’s gotten back into town.    
  • The day you spot your first group of tourists.    
  • The day you see a leaf sprouting on a cottonwood tree.    
  • The day you decide that the skis should probably go back in the garage.    
  • The day you grill outside. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Turn Left for Reality Bypass

Here in Seward, we've had six or eight inches of new snow today, right after the guy across the street spent all day snowplowing his yard.   No, not his driveway - his entire yard.   There is a man who is fed up with winter.   

I overheard a very interesting conversation today at a local coffee shop, touching on everything from General Allenby’s military tactics in the Middle East during WWI , to the Illuminati – who apparently have an ambiguously nefarious plan to reduce the world’s population by 8% by 2022.   (Apparently, the Illuminati are less effective in their nefariousness than they are popularly portrayed, since the US Census Bureau estimates that the world population will add another billion by 2030.)   Also, I learned that under the affordable care act, by 2017 we are all going to have microchips injected into the backs of our necks, apparently part of some sort of nefarious plan to revisit the highlights of the 6th season of the X-Files.   Or perhaps to drum up some extra business for America's veterinarians.

I love political conversations in rural areas – nowhere outside of a ComicCon convention can you spend an hour having a conversation that bypasses reality on so many different levels.   Like an evening on a farm in rural Scotland where a drunk goat farmer spent an hour telling me about how George Bush (senior) was actually an alien reptile who came from deep inside the Earth – which is hollow, apparently – with these little UFOs that flew in and out through a giant hole in the North Pole.   Which wouldn’t make him an alien reptile, come to think of it, just a regular ol’ Earth-based saucer-flying reptile.   What the farmer was still trying to figure out was whether that made George W. Bush (the president at the time) some sort of hybrid half-reptile alien.  He seemed to think that W’s paternity had some bearing on him being a legitimate president; I kept having to remind him that the US presidency wasn’t an inherited title.      But we were both drunk at the time, so I might be misremembering some of the details.

It makes me want to go back in time and see what the conspiracy theorists back in the 1980s and 1990s were predicting would have happened by 2013, and see how those predictions have worked out.   My guess is, not very accurately...

Friday, March 1, 2013

So You Want To Work in Alaska?

            So, for whatever reason, you’ve decided that you want to spend a summer working in Alaska.   Maybe it’s for the adventure, for the wildlife, or for the fact that a job up here fits in really well with your school’s academic calendar.   Good for you.   Working up here can be both a one-off summer adventure, or a first step into full-time job, or a brand-new career completely different from anything you ever thought you'd realistically be doing with your life.   (If that sounds like an enticement, great.   If that sounds like a warning, that’s because it is.)   Alaska is an amazing place, although if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve already figured that out.   And the summer is the best time of the year (some people would say the only good time of year) to visit the state.   Now here’s the reality check –the jobs up here are about as competitive as anywhere else these days.   Probably even more competitive since the Lower 48 reality-TV film industry has discovered the state, and has set to work chronicling everything from the fishing industry to the highway patrol to the efforts of Alaska-grown amateur gold prospectors, cattle ranchers, and survivalists.

            The folks who come up to Alaska to work tend to fall into one of two broad categories – the wilderness people, and the wildlife people.

            Wilderness people get an REI dividend check that is larger than some people’s weekly pay. You have a home ski mountain, and have climbed all of the major 5.10 routes in a three state area.   Most of your clothing wicks.   You need a roof rack or small trailer to  fit all of their outdoor gear in their car.   You leave your house at 4AM on a Saturday in order to start your backpacking trip as soon as the sun comes up.   You can talk knowledgably about varying models of camp stoves, and have strong opinions about the advisability of bringing down sleeping bags into the backcountry.    

            The other large contingent of Alaskan seasonal workers are the wildlife people.   If your first reaction when you see an animal is to make high-pitched cooing sounds, you are probably a wildlife person.   Other signs of a potential wildlife person include ownership of high-grade camera equipment, a library containing an inordinate number of natural history books, and framed pictures of penguins hanging on your wall.   If you have ever purchased a field guide to a region you have no immediate intention of visiting, just to learn more about the indigenous animals, you are a wildlife person.   You’ll be in good company up here – many Alaskan tourists, to one degree or another, are wildlife people – and the bigger, cuter, and furrier the wildlife is, the better.

            So once you get up here, you’ll have plenty of company.    But first, you need to get a job, or at the very least, come up here with enough skills, experience, and determination to be able to find a job after you arrive.   To that end, here are a few suggestions for what not to put in your cover letter.   

            Don’t tell us about how you want to come up here to experience Nature.  Trust us, we already know.    If you are applying from Ohio to work as a housekeeper for the Middle-of-Nowhere Lodge, or at a gift shop at the Denali National Park entrance area, we already know that the only reason you’re interested in the job is because of its proximity to an iconic Alaskan National Park.    But you’d look like a better employment prospect if you keep this knowledge to yourself.   Because it’s pretty clear that no one comes to Alaska because of the appealing climate, or the cultural opportunities, or really, any reason other than better access to giant wilderness areas, and really cool wildlife.

            Second, don’t necessarily be so keen to talk about how you spend all your free time hiking or mountain biking or extreme zorbing or whatever it is you like to do outside.   Is it relevant to the job you’re applying for?   Are you coming to Alaska to be a zorb guide?   If not, perhaps leave that out.   If you have legitimate outdoor or sports credentials – a wilderness first aid course, or a summer working at a climbing wall, or you earned your Eagle Scout award by building a handicap-accessible nature trail for your local city park, and you can make these accomplishments vaguely relevant to the job you are applying for, then by all means mention them.   But don’t talk about how you want to come to Alaska to hike and fish and take pictures of wildlife from unsafe distances.   That’s why the tourists come to Alaska.   Instead, tell us what you can do that will facilitate the tourists having those experiences.    Once you get up here, you, too will have the opportunity to hike, fish, and piss off (excuse me, photograph) the local wildlife.   But before you can do all that, first you have to convince someone in Alaska to actually give you a job.   

            Also, it’s probably not a great idea to talk about how bad-ass of an outdoor person you are, unless it’s relevant to the job you’re applying for, and you have the experience or certifications to back it up.   Because the person who is reading your cover letter is very probably a long-term resident, or sourdough, Alaskan.   They shoot their own meat, go skijoring with their dogs at minus twenty degrees, and club salmon on the head with sticks.   This person has been in the state long enough to get a year-round position with the company that’s hiring you, and could very well be the manger or owner.   This person is probably more of an outdoor guru than you are, and probably has a number of highly skilled outdoor guides working for them already.   These are the folks who watch the Discovery Channel, and talk about how Bear Grylls is doing it all wrong.   Don’t try to out-outdoors them, because it probably won’t work.
            So what are Alaskan employers looking for?   Generally the same things as employers everywhere – experience, reliability, and a good attitude.   That being said, here are a few suggestions for prospective Alaskan summer workers.   This is especially tailored to anyone who is looking to get a job as a guide or outdoor instructor.   (I’d like to point out that these are my own personal opinions, not those of any company I work for, nor am I involved in hiring decisions for any company I work for.   And if you ask me about how to get a summer job in Alaska, I will tell you what I tell everybody – look on 
            If you are interested in working as a guide, have you taken a wilderness first aid course?   If the outdoor recreation field has anything like an industry-standard basic qualification, the wilderness first responder, or WFR, is definitely it.   In some ways, it is more valuable to a prospective guide than a college degree.   (I’ve worked with guides that have masters’ degrees in wildlife management, and with others that dropped out of college in their second semester.)   Some veteran guides have a list of outdoor certifications as long as your arm, but generally for a guide starting out, the single most helpful credential you can have would be a WFR.   It’s a ten-day course, offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School as well as a number of other regional outdoor training or recreation companies.   Expect to pay around $700-800 for the course, and if you want to stay certified you’ll need to take a 3-day refresher course every two years.   

            Even for people who have no intention of ever working as a guide, or ever setting foot in the wilderness, I’d recommend taking this course simply for the life skills it imparts.   It’s sort of like the Red Cross first aid course as taught by MacGuyver.   Plus, even if you never mean to put yourself in a wilderness situation, a wilderness situation could show up nonetheless – such as a friend who came very close to delivering his wife’s baby in their living room when she went into labor during a blizzard that had shut down most of the roads in their county.   I am not the kind of person that tends to throw around the word ‘empowering’ very often, but in this instance I think the term applies.   

            Aside from wilderness medical skills, the other two most important qualities we’re looking for are both hard to put in a resume – people skills, and good judgment, or what I’d like to call advanced common sense.    By and large, beginning guides don’t need to be wildlife experts, or botanists, or know the latin name for sphagnum moss.   However, beginning guides do need to be able to learn basic information about the local plants and animals, and also find a way to convey that information to guests in an engaging manner – all the while cracking jokes, being friendly, and putting clients at ease in what is for most people a very unfamiliar environment.   That’s where the people skills come in.

            Generally speaking, tourists to Alaska don’t need the Verna Pratt Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers thrown at them on their first day in the state.   Pointing out the really bright and colorful flowers, such as lupine, fireweed, and monkeyflower, will be enough to satisfy most non-plant people.   People who are seeing a bear in the wild for the first time do not actually care about the flowers growing next to the bear.    But the tourists both need and appreciate having someone with them in the field who acts as a host – sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm, lending someone bug spray when they forgot theirs back at their cabin, or asking how their pictures of that bear turned out when you see them at the bar that evening.
            People skills are also very relevant to group safety.   As a guide, you will at times be the sole person in charge of a group of people who may never have been in a backcountry area before this trip.   You need to be able to constantly assess both the clients and the environment around you for possible hazards.   You need to know not only your own abilities, but you need to be able to accurately assess the abilities and comfort level of your clients, some of whom you will have known for less than a day.    This requires both leadership skills as well as tactful group management – advanced people skills, so to speak.

            If you are reasonably outdoorsy person applying to work as a kayak guide, your company can and will teach you how to be a good sea kayaker.   They will teach you things like how to rescue clients that have flipped their kayak, or how to tow an exhausted paddler back to shore.   They will teach you skills.   They will teach you technical expertise.   The thing to keep in mind is that technical expertise is NOT the same thing as good judgment.   Good judgment is about when and how to use those skills – and more importantly, it is about being able to run your trips conservatively enough so that you DO NOT HAVE TO CALL UPON your awesome rescue skills.   That is something that’s harder to teach, if it can be taught at all.   Mostly I think it’s equal parts common sense and experience.   For most beginning guides, myself included, it’s a happy combination of common sense and plain luck that carries us (and our clients) through our first few months on the job.

            Even after you’ve gained some experience, not every trip you lead will go according to plan.  In fact, I can just about guarantee that something will go spectacularly wrong on at least one or two trips a season, and you will be the person who will, for better or worse, be dealing with it.   Your choices will decide whether the trip ends badly, or ends as a story that everybody has a good laugh about later that night at the bar.   

            One of the best ways to learn from trip catastrophes is to talk about them with other guides.   Be prepared to share mistakes or near-misses, or things that just didn’t go as well as they might have.   Be prepared to listen to other guides’ mistakes – we all have a few, trust me – and try to learn from them.   Your mistakes are going to teach you more than you could ever learn from anyone else – however, it will speed up your learning curve (and would probably be a lot better for your clients) if you tried to learn as much as you can from other guides’ mistakes as well.   

            For example, after leading canoe trips in Pedersen Lagoon for three years, I now know where all of the sandbars and barely-submerged rocks in the lagoon are.   I did not learn this from studying a map, or scouring the coastline with binoculars at a low tide.   Mostly, I learned where all the rocks are by smacking into them with my canoe.   Once you’ve hit a submerged rock with a canoe full of guests (and their usual reaction when the boat hits a submerged object is to peer at the water like they suspect that crocodiles are going to pluck them from the boat at any moment), you’ll remember the location of that particular rock for the rest of your natural life.   And you’ll swear that you’re never again going to do anything so stupid as get a canoe full of guests hung up on a sandbar, in full view of some guy with a tripod taking pictures from the dock.   Which will be true until you find another sandbar at the other side of the lagoon next week...

Still interested in working up here?   Then I wish you the best of luck.   (And if you're still looking for a job in Alaska, be sure to check out - they have a pretty comprehensive list of seasonal Alaskan employers...)