Alaska: The Last Frontier
Ask me 6 months ago what I would be doing this summer & I would have had no idea. Maybe I would have told you about wanting to work & ski in Australia or New Zealand. Maybe I would have guessed I’d stay in the American Midwest to work any job I could find to get through the summer & make some money. Maybe I’d say something about working on-board a cruise ship to see the world. Absolutely nowhere on my list would have been travelling to Alaska to live & work on a glacier. It would have been beyond my wildest imagination to guess I would be living in a tiny remote camp surrounded by 280 dogs & 20 coworkers whom I had never met but would quickly become some of my closest friends. Even as I sit here now in the lounge hut midway through the summer I am still bewildered by the remarkable situation I find myself in.
How Did I End Up Here?
A little over a year ago when I first started seasonal work I stumbled upon a small online job board called coolworks.com. Coolworks is unique in that it sorts jobs into categories such as seasons, states, & unique categories such as; camp jobs, National Park jobs, guide jobs, environmental jobs, jobs on the water, ski resort jobs, & others. These sorting features make it perfect for seasonaires & travelers alike (Seasonaire: A person who lives in multiple locations during different seasons of the year). A majority of jobs on here are fairly standard (i.e. hospitality, guest services, food industry, etc.), but to their credit are generally located in pretty awesome destinations. Anyways, as my ski season was coming to a close & I began thinking about the rapidly approaching summer months, I decided to check out the openings on Coolworks. Here I found a job posting that seemed too good to be true. Tour Attendant / Dog Handler for Alaskan Icefield Expeditions. I was absolutely blown away by the job description & had submitted my application by the end of the day.
What Was the Job Interview Like?
After submitting my application I was contacted in about 6 days time to arrange a phone interview with Matt Hayashida, General Manager. The interview was one of the longest phone calls I have ever been on in my life with Matt spending nearly an hour, if not more, attempting to scare me away, or otherwise talk me out of coming to work for him. Simpy put, a glacier is an extreme environment to call home & the job itself is no cakewalk. They only wanted committed, well prepared employees. After realizing that I would not be deterred by the lack of running water, the lack of electricity, & the near constant cold & rain; the interview was fairly straight forward. We discussed qualifications (most of mine revolved around previous customer service work, focusing on the tour attendant aspect of the position), background (my time in the boy scouts helped to prepare me), & other typical work interview talking points. Matt was incredibly thorough & even contacted all 3 references that were submitted with my application. In my opinion he did a fantastic job of describing the day to day life I would be experiencing here by not providing an overly romantic depiction.
Speaking of, What Was Day-to-Day Life Like?
First let me clarify that our camp was located in a temperate rain forest (no we were not surrounded by trees like your typical rain forest, but yes it rained a lot). Also, our camp was only accessible by helicopter. This combination meant we had a lot of weather days where we could not run tours, so I will give you 2 examples of average days on the glacier. The first will be a good weather day where we ran tours & the second will be a bad weather day. We had quiet a bit of days that would be bad weather in the morning, but clear up in the afternoon, meaning a mix of these two examples.
A good weather day (with a full schedule) went a little something like this: 5:50am Alarm clock goes off, after muttering a few unpleasantries about how early it was between tent mates we would slip on coveralls & boots to hit the dog yard at 6am sharp for morning chores. We would first scoop all the dog shit from the night before into 5 gallon buckets to be consolidated into 50 gallon drums at the edge of camp (these would eventually be flown out by helicopter to be pumped down in Juneau). Then we would fill dog bowls with food & water. We would then apply zinc sunscreen to dog’s bellies, noses, & chins as needed; check their eyes for redness which we remedied with Visine eye drops. After this we would do a final round of poop scooping. At peak efficiency morning chores took about 45 minutes after which we took an hour break for breakfast & coffee. By 8:15am to 7:45pm we had helicopters landing every half hour without break. As the last helicopter departed everybody would grab a bucket & shovel to hike the mile and a half trail to scoop dog poop that accumulated throughout the day. Next we would do evening chores (think morning chores minus sunscreen). Finally, when all the yards were done we would crack a beer & inhale the delicious dinner our cook had prepared for us. After dinner most of us crashed pretty quickly into a slumber well earned.
A bad weather day still started with a 5:50am wake-up & morning chores. After that we would get a weather cancellation, or wixel call as we knew it, for a set amount of time. Normally they (being the helicopter company) would cancel about 2 hours at a time giving it a chance to clear up throughout the day. During these days our camp largely looked like the inside of a ping pong ball with the clouds sitting right on-top of the ice. We were largely left up to our own devices during wixel days with many people breaking into the large box of board games, or hooking up the DVD player in the lounge tent. Others kept to themselves opting to read or write, listen to podcasts, learn a new skill, practice an old hobby, or catch up on sleep by napping on & off throughout the day. Often times the morning would be wixeled but the weather would clear up enough for us to run tours in the afternoon, many other times we would have the entire day called in the early afternoon. Wixel days in one aspect or another were extremely common making up atleast half of most months. While these days were great for catching up on some rest, we were paid by the tour so these also meant a day with no pay 🙁
Other Than Wixel Days Did You Get Time Off?
Yeah, we got 36 hours each week where we were flown down into Juneau. Here our company had a bunk house in a repurposed gas station. We made good use of our time off squeezing in a hot shower or 3, laundry & about 10+ beers in downtown Juneau hopping from bar to bar. Also, as a perk of our affiliation with Temsco Helicopters we were treated to various comp tours around Juneau when there was space available. These could include things such as zip-lining on Douglas Island, whale watching, sea kayaking, glacier tours, & more. When our off days lined up with good weather (which was rare), we generally took in the incredible scenery Juneau had to offer by hiking one or more of the trails around town.
What Was Your Favorite Part About the Job?
Wow, it’s hard to name just one thing here because the entire experience was so phenomenal! I mean the weekly commute to & from the glacier on a helicopter was always breathtaking. The views from my front porch & office were absolutely spectacular. The dogs, while at times were definitely a handful, were a majority of the time adorable & affectionate; plus the puppies were always great for a pick me up. The people, however put my experience over the top. The camp atmosphere was one of the best I have ever been apart of. For a majority of the time we all got along splendidly. Sure there were occasional bickering & attitudes but overall I feel very blessed to have been surrounded by such a great group of people. If you can’t tell yet I loved nearly everything about this gig, so I would have to say my favorite thing was the entire experience as a whole.
What Was Your Least Favorite Part of the Job?
Nobody likes scooping up 280 dogs worth of shit. I fear my last answer may be over romanticizing it just a bit so let me be a little more real with you. It rained, a lot. When it rained the dogs still needed to be cared for. Keep in mind we lived on a giant ice-cube so it got cold at times too… Rain + Cold = Poor Combination. The days were lonnngggg. I never got used to that 6am start to the morning & working till 9 at night, or later, with no breaks is flat out exhausting. We shit in a 5-gallon bucket that we had to empty twice daily into a larger container of shit. We did not have showers or running water at all for that matter. We didn’t have electricity with the exception of 1 generator for our lounge and communications tents. I had no cell phone signal, despite us having a cell phone booster in camp, wrong provider… We did have propane heaters in our tents, but could not run them overnight for safety reasons. We had roommates, or shall I say tent-mates (although I am happy to say that I got along with mine splendidly), meaning little privacy or true alone time. There was little escape from the sun on clear days making for some pretty striking tan lines. My least favorite part of the job, however, was making small talk with 200-300+ tourists a day, which was the bulk of the work in my position as a tour attendant. Being largely introverted this was definitely tough for me at times, but I do believe it led to a fair amount of personal growth overall.
You Said You Were a Tour Attendant, What All Did That Entail?
Great question! So I unloaded guests off the helicopters in a safe, orderly manor. Then after a brief intro & safety speech given by our camp manager I would walk the guests through camp answering questions & telling them a little about life on a glacier, before introducing them to their dog mushers. Immediately after dropping a group off I would pick a group up from mushers that ran on the opposing interval. I would walk them to the front of camp where I would attempt to sell some photos our professional photographer took of them on the trail with their dog teams. After finishing up with photo sales I would show them to our puppy pen where we would wait for the helicopters making small talk & admiring puppies. Generally we were here about 15 minutes, after which I would load them back on the helicopters starting the cycle back over again.
What Other Positions Were Available?
Well obviously we needed dog mushers as this was a dog sled tour operation. We also had several dog handlers which aided the mushers (this was another no experience required job for anybody interested). We had two main photographers, but sometimes tour attendants would do this as well. Technically, tour attendants, photographers, & handlers were all hired under the same position (TAPH’s) & were interchangeable but we largely stayed where we were happiest & worked best. We had a full time cook on staff, huge shoutout to him, absolutely phenomenal job this summer. We also had a camp manager & an assistant manager. Outside of camp there were a couple people on ground crew working as expediters, this position requires at-least a year experience in the company though.
Well That’s Pretty Much All the Questions I Have For You, Any Final Comments?
Sure, I would first like to just say thanks for your interest, I have enjoyed sharing my experience with you. I would also like to strongly encourage all the readers out there to get out of your comfort zone & have experiences like this for yourself. This world is full of amazing opportunities in incredible places. Whether it be living on an Alaskan glacier in a remote dog sledding camp, working on a boat in the Caribbean, teaching English in a foreign country, working in a hostel, or whatever it may be for you, get out there & do it. Experience life! Live it Up!
Until next time,
Peace, Love, Pow
See ya when it snows…