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...) 

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