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

Arctic Winds on the Alaskan Railroad

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The tracks guided us through a desolate forest no man could call home. Perched between cars, I stuck my head out the window to feel the force of the train explode against the rushing winter winds. My heart began to thump at the speed of the engine and the frozen air made my eyes tear.

It was already mid May, but I grabbed my thick jacket, hat, and gloves, which were buried deep within the forgotten corners of my backpack. Up to this point in Alaska, I’d only witnessed temperate sunny days of spring, but to expect any sort of norm here is to be fooled by the violent, fickle weather of the Far North. Yesterday I strolled along hot rocks on the banks of Talkeetna, letting the sun kissed river run its fingers through my toes. Now every spruce tree and mountain top made way for ominous grey clouds and the frostbitten air they unleashed. A violent snow storm was forming and I was far from ready.

I had just awoken on the train, which was leaving the mountain climbing town of Talkeetna and speeding towards Denali National Park. But for a brief moment I had forgotten where I was heading. Nothing was familiar except lying down on the leather skin of a steel monster driving 100 mph into the great unknown. In front of me was a young petite girl who reeked of Walmart perfume and quarter life crisis. Behind me was a guy who seemed to be taking a refreshing weed nap, the poster boy for Alaska’s legal marijuana. The most interesting of all was a bigger woman sitting in front, who introduced herself as a professional “Adele impersonator.” She handed me her card, “in case you need my services”. I had no clue why me or any other God Forsaken soul would need such services. I boarded the Alaskan Railroad to watch the rolling winter landscape, but like always, my greatest entertainment was my fellow passengers.

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“So why’d you come to Alaska?” I asked everyone, while asking myself the same question.

The petite girl said how bored she was with life after months of working in customer service for AT&T. Thank God, she’d now be working in customer service for a Denali gift store. Letting out a loud snore, the guy in the back jolted awake and said how he was here to work as a raft guide, making some quick cash before his next semester at college. The Adele impersonator, whose eyes were caked with eyeliner and lips dripping with lipstick, said she was paid by one of the hotels to “entertain guests”. More than anything it was that she too quit her job for another season in Denali.

That’s what happens here. Adventurous 20-somethings, jaded by the relentless routine of every day life, start reading Jack London stories, and screaming the words of Christopher McCandles from Into the Wild, “No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees!” They dream of Alaska as the last place in America where the youth can find true freedom. Then they sporadically book a one way ticket to Anchorage in May as if the midnight sun will thaw the frozen Earth and their problems with it. Some like the train conductor with a white beard and a questioning eye never left and the youthful summers turned to decades of aging winters.

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He told me, “people come here looking to escape. Hell I know I did years ago. I don’t know what it is, but something definitely happens to those who move to Alaska for the summer.”

What’s immediately noticeable is how hair thrives in areas it normally didn’t and everything about their appearance seems wild. However, the true changes are more deep rooted. There’s an unblinking, courageous look in their eye after months of walking amongst grizzly bears taught them that fear will only make you prey.

Packing up everything they needed to survive in a backpack made them prefer the simplicity of a tent to the luxury of a Hilton suite. More than anything, it’s the dual respect and appreciation for the Earth after one of it’s most extreme environments has continually brought them to the peak of life and grips of death.

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Now the other passengers and I were getting the first taste of it. It began as just a day of clouds , but it turned into something else. Much of the weather of the Alaskan Interior comes from the frigid Bering Sea of Russia and a few of us stood in the corridor to feel the brunt of the snow coming down. It wasn’t a blizzard, but instead a vengeful wind whipping pin needles of ice into the train and onto our faces. Feeling brave, I stuck my head out the window and my cheeks pushed into my eyelids that had begun to go completely numb. I wiped the frost off my face to see that the landscape had changed and changed again.

The train brought us past rushing rivers of salmon runs, over long valleys and seas of green, near black bear cubs climbing trees, and now we were now pushing on through the mind blowing Broad Pass, a valley within the Alaskan Range where herds of caribou migrate in the spring.

 

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That was what made trains the optimal way to travel. They brought you remote places cars and buses could not. They rode at a comfortable speed where you could appreciate the land, as opposed to the lightning-fast-delusion of planes. One of the most euphoric feelings I’ve ever known was finding a seat on some foreign train, where you can watch as you drift into the dripping horizon.

I sat around with the other passengers, drinking a few beers and making mild plans to hangout once the season begun. But once June rolled around, we’d all be too engulfed in the madness of the Denali summer and most of us would never see each other again.

It was still snowing when I arrived in Denali National Park. Denali is relatively close to the Arctic Circle so blizzards could happen in the middle of July and I was getting the dreadful feeling that winter would follow me all season long. I got a ride from a girl from Wisconsin with blue hair and the same tattoo as me. She saw the dreariness of winter in my eyes so she gave me a hazy promise that summer was on its way.xR1-00580-0013

Article by Spencer R. Morrison

 

 

 

Hitchhiking the Alaskan Highway (Anchorage)

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I noticed that rough, hardened look of Alaskans the moment I landed in Anchorage. It’s what happened to the local’s faces after years of braving winters of sometimes -60 F and almost total darkness. As it is by the sea, Anchorage has a more temperate winter, but its a gruesome one none the less.

These faces would only worsen when I headed deeper into the desolate Alaskan interior. It’s when your nose had just gotten frostbite and you lost all feeling in your lips, cheeks, ears, and you begin to whimper out of self pity, but even your tears begin to freeze. All while your eyes long for a sun that seems to have abandoned you. Finally you become the dreadful face of the Alaskan winter itself.

This won’t happen to me or so I hope. I came here to work as a photographer for what I heard was a euphoric summer of 24 hour daylight and a break from the sauna-like-heat of the rest of America. The Far North’s summer is the world’s way of rewarding Alaskans for surviving through another temporary Ice Age.

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I wasn’t the only non local walking out of Anchorage airport. The roads outside were crawling with slick skinned oil workers and whiskey drenched fishermen, all soon to work grueling 16 hour days for three straight weeks, making thirty grand a summer to blow it all in Mexico or Thailand by the fall. Just like the old gold rush days, the Last Frontier is where men go to make quick, hard cash and blow it even quicker.

Confused and delirious from an exhausting day of travel, I asked a few fishermen where to catch the 7PM bus to Base Camp Anchorage, the hostel I booked near Spenard St.

“Man it’s 10:30. The busses stopped running hours ago,” he said.

It was only early May and the sun was already still up at 10:30, so much so that it completely distorted my sense of time. It’s what the midnight sun does to you. First couple nights you get confused, then you begin staying up later and later with this unbound energy until Solstice comes, when both sleep and the concept of time become irrelevant.

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I began walking towards the road to see crowds of people hitchhiking, a sight I saw on every road I traveled in Alaska. It wasn’t only legal to catch rides, it was encouraged. I would soon discover that hitchhiking wasn’t about catching free rides as it was the great mystery of who will pick you up and the stories that you’ll both share.

Within minutes of walking out of the airport, I met an overly jolly bus driver and his lightning lipped Colombian girlfriend. I told him who I worked for in Healy, which was 250 miles away. He slapped his leg and said, “I know the owner Bill! Alaska…it’s a big state in a small world.”

I jumped in his back seat as the truck thudded into dusty, downtown Anchorage. It was a slow, strange town more than a city, which was exactly what I wanted after flying out of New York. Anchorage is watched over by the snow crusted Alaskan Range instead of tall buildings and you’re more likely to get run over by a moose then a car.

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Somehow half of the state’s population of 500,000 lived here. A state that encompasses a third of the size of America and half of its people live in this little ghost town of a city.

The man let me out and gave me his number “in case you need any help, which will happen here.” That was the thing about the people here. Alaskans are tough bastards, but they are kind.

They had this sense of community and wanting to help that made you feel safe even in a vicious land. Every one of them needed to rely on one another more times then they’d like to admit and they were forever paying it forward. He picked me up just like the stranger with a snowmobile, who saved his life when he got stuck in a harrowing blizzard hours from civilization. He spoke to me just like the uplifting conversation he had with an old friend after he hadn’t seen daylight in months.

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I checked into my hostel and watched the sun dip down low and smooth over the mountains around 11. When twilight hit, the air grew brisk and the seedy sidewalks cracked from strange characters of the night. Curious about the type of people who grew up here, I went out for a beer.

I’ve always been fascinated by Native Alaskan culture and I heard there was many natives throughout Anchorage. There was something intriguing about a people who grew up in some of the world’s harshest conditions for thousands of years, killing polar bears for fur and spearing whales for food. But every native I saw in Anchorage was harrowingly drunk and begging for spare change in their land filled with gold and oil. It was a tragic sight I knew all too well like the Aboriginals of Australia or the Maoris of New Zealand. Before I leave here, I hope to one day meet one that still holds true to the values of their ancestry. Today many of the languages and practices of Native Alaskans have drowned out, the last remnants swirling like broken cork at the bottom of a cheap wine bottle.

What can be said when entire civilizations thrived for millennia, but were ravaged in decades by the fickle hands of imperialism?

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I noticed a white man heckling one. He pushed the drunk native into a bench, yelling “sit down!” He took his cigarette, screaming about how the end of days is due to sinful men like him. I walked over to say something, but he stopped when he saw me. The man had a belligerent passion for violence and religion. He was undoubtedly a Trump supporter.

“This man does not walk the righteous path of God! He must and will pay for his sins!”

“Oh are you a Christian?” I asked

He laughed and smiled devilishly, “You fool… I am God!”

I left to go back to the hostel, I was exhausted from a day of travel and the moment when I met God in Anchorage.

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The next day I made friends with people on vacation from California and Las Vegas. It was a beautiful spring day and we sped off into the mountains. When we made it to the stretching white land of Hatcher Pass, we chilled our wine in the fresh snow and had a snow ball fight at dusk. Back in the Lower 48, many states had soaring temperatures of 80F, but the Far North had just begun to thaw.

Before we got there, we cracked a few beers at the magnificent Eklutna Lake, where a couple friendly locals brought their huskies and children to play. The month of May meant rising temperatures and longer days, but more than anything it meant the death of winter and the rising of summer. There was this radiance upon the face of all Alaskans, an adoration for the sun that I would never know.

But I too was at an ecstatic peace, it was the moment I finally realized where I was. For months upon months, I typed out emails in my cubicle until my fingers went numb, while daydreaming of my great escape to the Last Frontier. Finally I was here, jaw dropped in the Alaskan Range with the verdant forests spanned the horizon, my first ride of many on the infinite Alaskan Highway.

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At night, we had a few beers at Chilcoot Charlie’s, a wild factory-sized bar on Spenard where the clientele ranged from the Mayor to a man with a tattoo of a cheeseburger on his neck.

In the morning, some of my new friends would head off to cruise through glaciers in the fishing town of Seward, one would soon go to live on an island off the Kenai Pinnensula, and in a few days I would hitch a ride north to Talkeetna, making my way towards my summer home of Denali National Park. We walked off into the night like the original Alaskan pioneers, there was a sparkle in our eyes of men in search of gold and we laughed gloriously from journeying into a land that few others new existed.

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Article by Spencer R. Morrison