Young, Broke, and Well-Traveled: The Migrant Life of Seasonal Workers

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At first glance, it seemed like a terrible experience.

But I’m not sure what I expected when working at a white water rafting company in Alaska. My new home was a broken down 70’s trailer crusted with fake gold and dressed with orange velvet curtains. The only running water were the leaks in my roof and the intruders in my backyard were monstrous moose or gigantic grizzlies. By far the worst part was that it was communal living, where almost 30 people shared one permanently smoking kitchen and two decrepit bathrooms.

Living with so many travelers came with a number of factors, one of which was the callused look we first gave each other, knowing how hard it is to get close to people you may never see again. I was greeted with a lifeless handshake from an ex-undertaker, argumentative eyes from a law student, and miscommunication from a Bulgarian first arriving in America. And it wasn’t until now, the last weeks grinding down and flights booked out, that I realized the only reason I survived in an environment so hostile was that I dropped my guard and learned to call these strange people my friends.

But they remained strangers for some time as the lukewarm welcome was all I felt when my train rolled into Denali National Park on that snowy May afternoon. I walked into the Minty, the communal kitchen, where my coworkers from all walks of life sat drinking glasses of camaraderie, while I felt like I was drinking alone.

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Things warmed up as the summer finally came and it all began to settle on one sleepless stretch when darkness never came on June 21, the summer solstice. Healy, Alaska is close to the Arctic Circle that for weeks the sun never fully sets, it only dips behind the horizon. You’re trapped in the confusing state between sunlight and twilight, but never darkness.

During the entirety of the night before, the sun left its path in the sky and we chased it’s rays from late night festivals at the 49th State Brewery to later rows on the lake. If what shuts your tired eyes is the shifting of day into night then if the sun doesn’t sleep why should you?

So we didn’t for weeks on end. And when my alarm screeched at 5:45 AM for work, my brain rattled into a frenzy after only two hours of sleepless shut eye. When you don’t catch R.E.M sleep, your mind begins to miss dreaming so much that it does so when you’re awake. Whatever happened before my eyes did not feel like my own as if I watching someone else’s vision from a static TV. My dragging feet guided my body through camp, a row of dilapidated trailers and tents enclosed by acres upon acres of untouched spruce forests, vast tundra, and colossal mountains.

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The same, tired faces shuffled into the kitchen. None of us slept, not even those that stayed indoors. Burning sunlight meet your eyes every time you closed them and the effect was temporary madness from those that were already crazed. A quirky school teacher was eating Ellio’s Pizza for breakfast before going to work as a bus driver where he wore a life jacket and helmet because, “safety is my #1 priority!” I wondered what a life jacket and helmet could do when insomniac eyes caused the dotted lines of the highway to disappear.

I noticed one of my coworkers drinking black coffee to washout the aftertaste of last night’s bad decisions. You never know what will happen when strong whiskey mixes with the bitter loneliness of a starless night. The type of relationships that come out of seasonal work are different from your normal work flings.

Imagine the struggle of a relationship gone complicated. Picture that person being there when you work, eat, and socialize, while they live 10 feet from your door. But anything is better than braving these cold nights alone, or so they say.

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The overly joyful bus driver drove the dead eyed group of us into the Canyon. Healy itself is most known for being the entrance to Denali National Park and also for where Chris McCandles walked “Into the Wild”. The small town picturesquely sits in a valley cradled on both sides by the Alaskan Range and sitting along the rushing Nenana, a glacially fed river.

Our drive everyday was along one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever seen. On that winding two lane road, we rode between crashing forests in a sea of mountains, surfing restless waves of green. In my sleepless state, rushing 60 mph through the wilderness on a school bus filled with wide eyed workers, all laughing crazily about the night that never ended, seemed like the climax of some dream just before I was shaken awake.

We arrived in the Canyon, the tourism strip for Healy and Denali. Winter blows through in late September, instantly freezing a multi-million dollar tourist industry into a boarded up ghost town. Today and throughout all the summer, hundreds-of-thousands of tourists rush in and out of the mile-long strip of shops, restaurants, and hotels. The wide bellied and narrow sighted tourists toss out thousands of dollars a day just to be here, our mouths wide open to catch the change from their pockets.

And that’s why we all came here. To live and work in a wild, grandeur land, to hopefully make enough cash to travel when the season ends, and do so in a way unrestricted by the confines of a career path. We were the poor migrant workers off the past, but instead of chasing seasons for crops we chased them for tourism.

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This was my first time working as a photographer and doing seasonal work in general, but some of the guides have been doing this for over a decade. Josh, a blonde 6 ft. 6 in. guide, eagerly ran off the bus to greet the day like a massive golden retriever. He’s been working as a raft guide for sixteen years, running rivers all over the country, and the quick cash has taken him across the world.

In between trips, he entertained us all with stories of his travels. When he was in his mid-twenties, he hitchhiked across Europe, ending up on a ship in a Portugal where he crossed the world by sea twice in one year. “Man being two hours from a grocery story is nothing, you know how many nights I went hungry traveling? So many times I’ve had to knock on restaurant doors in Germany begging to wash dishes for a meal.”

Now he dates a renowned Mammalogist for the Smithsonian and he’s saving up to buy a ship of his own to sail all over the world. Her research has brought her everywhere from masticating the last White Rhino’s in Kenya to studying wildlife in the tiger-filled jungles of Burma.

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It was a gamble coming up for him as it was for all of us. He bought his equipment with a credit card and came here with pennies to his name. Typically there’s no set schedule in tourism jobs, not even a guarantee of work. When he first came here, he was scraping for side jobs here and there, while other weeks he worked constant 12 hour days. That’s the adventure of seasonal work, the great mystery of coming to some far off land, with hopes of coming off on top and the anxious risk of ending up with just enough gas money to make it home.

Even so, if September rolls up leaving you broke and defeated, the wealth of daily adventure is what no normal job can provide. On that rainy June day, the stressful trips ran in and out, the hordes of tourists strained our minds with the same monotonous questions, but once we all finished, we set off to explore the vast wilderness of Denali sitting at our doorstep. And at the end of it all, after a long day of work and a longer adventure, we met up to trade stories at the dock on the lake.

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That night the greying clouds of doubt dispersed as the omniscient midnight sun streaked a smile upon all our faces. The people I originally judged to be cold were just weary of befriending someone to then say goodbye. That had frightened me too. But a place like Alaska teaches you that the only way to make it out alive is to never go alone.

I opened up to these characters that I now called my friends. I talked about legal weed with a Malaysian who could be put to death for marijuana, discussed the fallacy of law and order with a law student from Idaho, debated religion with former Mormons from Utah, and talked politics with gun-toting Southerners.

Detached from the rest of the world, we were stuck in a raft camp for four months, learning from people of all different walks of life. The greatest lesson was that accents, upbringings, and pasts aside, we all shared many of the same view of life and happiness, more so than people we knew for decades.

These people and this place were strange, but even if just for a summer, I had found a home.

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Article by Spencer R. Morrison

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