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

The Coldest Summit (Climbing Denali)

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In Alaska’s old mining town of Talkeetna, I had somehow found myself eating breakfast with some of the first climbers to independently summit Denali this year. When measured from base to summit, Denali is the tallest land-based mountain in the world and climbing it has already claimed several lives this year. In between sips of their coffee, they casually laughed when they spoke of each death-defying moment, “man on the last crevasse you almost slipped in and dragged us to Hell with you!”

With the frost still melting in their air, they were already tossing around names of the next mountain to climb. In America, the adventurous spirit is stunted by lack of vacation days, surmounting debt, and a work orientated culture. I began to wonder how they were all able to leave their jobs to go on so many month-long climbing expeditions. One told me, “It has nothing to do with what I do for work. It’s that I care about this more than anything else.” A feeling I knew all too well.

It was only the night before when they finished climbing the mountain previously known as Mt. McKinley and their small plane buzzed them back into Talkeetna. Their expedition became the talk of the hostel and when they arrived the logs of the cabin hammered with excitement.

When the beaten down men walked in the door, the owner asked, “How does it feel?!”

One replied, “Feels like I want a beer.”

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Photo by climber Matt Lloyd (IG:mlloyd8)

The next morning the overly curious traveler in me woke them up with my usual thousand questions so they invited me to breakfast of non stop coffee, buttered sourdough bread, and reindeer sausage at The Roadhouse.

On the way there, I marveled at the strange place I was now in. Talkeetna is famed for being an old frontiersman town that’s preserved that early 20th century Alaskan look. It’s Main St. is filled with log cabin buildings, bearded men drinking themselves into a coma, and stoops adorned with graveyards of moose and caribou antlers. A walk through town makes you wonder if the harsh weather of Alaska’s interior had frozen time itself.

Like most quaint Alaskan villages, Talkeetna knew it was bizarre and the residents wore it like a crown. So much so that the mayor for the last twenty years has been a cat named Stubbs. I kid you not, an actual cat runs the town. However, this isn’t as crazy as the neighboring town of Wasilla, whose old mayor was the notorious ‘pit-bull’ named Sarah Palin.

More than anything Talkeetna is known as the base camp for climbers taking off to conquer or be conquered by the mountain that Natives Athabascans deemed “The Great One”. In the months of May through July, over a thousand climbers pack the tiny town and the dirt becomes moist from glasses clanking for victory or drinks poured for the souls that perished.

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Photo by climber Matt Lloyd (IG:mlloyd8)

From the rocky banks of the rampant Talkeetna River, you can only see the 20,320 ft. mountain on an average of one in three days as it is so massive that it creates its own weather system, constantly surrounding it in a sea of clouds. When The Great One does poke its head above the Heavens, the alpinists grow white with fear or bow in respect like pitiful worshippers of a merciless god.

For no one knows the limitless power of a mountain except those who climb it.

After climbing Denali, it’s a ritual to eat at The Roadhouse, an old log cabin bakery built around 1917. Before we ordered, I shared with the climbers how I spent the day hiking upon Matanuska Glacier and they nodded with respect as they were interested in all things climbing. I then browsed The Roadhouse’s menu, but my curious eyes gazed upon them, skinny white Americans in their 30s. Nothing out of the ordinary. Not the type that you’d expect to defy the ability of man. But when travel turns your life into a non-stop series of strange encounters you learn that appearances are only meant to deceive.

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Through a mist of coffee steam, Matt, the most talkative one, sighed a breath of relief as he began to share his experience. As he spoke, my mind drifted with the wind of his words and brought my mind onto the mountain itself.

When on an expedition up Denali, you and your team of three or four climbers get dropped off on Eldridge Glacier by an air taxi. They are a talented group of climbers, some of which may be strangers, but people who will trust their lives with you and yours with them. They may drive you insane as for the next two to four weeks you are tied to them, literally with a harness roped from waist to waist. That way, if you fall into one of the many crevasses, they will hopefully catch you. If not, the harness will not only make you share life, but death as well.

The route is probably the notorious “West Buttress”. First, you pack your sled with the heavy load of over a hundred pounds, which is enough food and gear for an entire month. Although the load gets lighter each day, the carrying of it all for step upon grudging step slowly wears on your body like an untreated infection. You curse each godforsaken item in your pack and want to throw it all off the cliff, but you continue onwards knowing that everything you carry is essential for your survival.

Before you can move forward, you pull out a hiking poll and stab through the ice six-to-eight feet down, making sure there are no crevasses. A crevasse is a deep open crack in a glacier, usually a hundred feet deep. It is one of the leading causes of fatalities on Denali and all along the mountain lay frozen corpses of those that fell to their end.

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Climbing Matanuska Glacier

Then it is time to set up camp, where the fragile layers of only a sleeping bag and tent are all that can protect you from a wind chill that has reached -148 F. Due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle and elevation, Denali has one of the world’s most extreme climates. According to the Talkeetna Ranger Station, they aren’t even able to fully analyze the mountain’s weather as its all-powerful winds always blow away the recording equipment. Freezing to death is one of the most common fatalities of mountaineering, but it is a gentle one as the arctic air closes your eyes and lulls you to sleep.

When you actually climb, you pack half of your load on a sled and head towards the next point in elevation. Then you leave your load up higher, head back down to the last camp, and then climb back up with the rest of your gear. Essentially you end up climbing the mountain twice. This is to properly acclimate yourself to the elevation and to therefor avoid altitude sickness, the most dreadful death of mountaineers.

There are three aspects of Altitude Sickness, which is caused by the lack of oxygen from high altitudes. One is of the brain, where it swells until you become dizzy, begin to vomit and diarrhea, before your organs finally shut down. The other is of the eyes, where the retina burns and causes snow blindness. But the final and most dangerous is when fluid builds up in your lungs until you drown.

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Denali Summit. Photo by climber Nathan Hadley (IG:brothernathan_)

What brings you to the summit through all these factors is the driving force, the “why” you are climbing the mountain. Some to go where few have gone before. Some in the memory of a loved one. Others for the love of the sport itself.

The “why” may not even hit you until the summit, where it all makes sense, even if just for a moment. The mighty Alaskan Range and rising sun fall below your feet. You’re at a height untouched by life, where even eagles dare not fly. However it is not the sight, but the feeling of a success that few men have ever known and could even understand. Feet dangling off the edge, heart racing from a constant taste of death, resulting in the greatest euphoria of life.

When Matt finished his story, he told of how he got the first stages of altitude sickness at the summit. Then he immediately began to spit out other mountains on his mind, “Mt. Foraker,  Everest if it wasn’t so damn expensive… I finish a climb and then think of what’s next.”

At first, it baffled me to why anyone would take up the passion of mountaineering when it came with such risk and to wake up the next day thinking of nothing, but to do it all over again. Then I thought of my own experiences through travel, constantly putting my own life in the care of strangers or the road itself, only to head towards the next horizon.

We all walk towards the peak only to see another just ahead.

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Denali Summit. Photo by climber Matt Lloyd (IG:mlloyd8)

Article by Spencer R. Morrison

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted. Article fact checked with the Talkeetna Ranger Station.