This week on Voices of the Tongass, Margot O’Connell gives us a look into the unique set of skills she has developed by growing up in the Tongass. To hear Margot’s story, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
When we ask Margot O’Connell about her plans for the future, she tells us something we already know – something everyone who knows Margot knows about her: she loves books. “Growing up, books were sort of my entire universe,” she says, “and that’s still a big part of my life. I want to be a librarian. I’m going to go to grad school in a few years, I want to work in a library.” Honestly, we are inspired by her sense of direction and her long term goals. But when we ask Margot about what she’s doing now, she laughs out loud. “Well, growing up in Sitka you develop a weird skill set, so since 2008 I’ve been organizing and developing marine debris clean up on the outer coasts around Sitka. So kind of on accident I’ve become the marine debris coordinator for Sitka.”
So library school is waiting because after graduation Margot felt “a compulsion to come home.“ And although Margot is humble, it’s no accident that she has found herself involved with marine debris. She’s been helping with the program for the last six years, and is now in charge of everything from organizing clean-ups and estimating fuel costs to partnering with community art programs and applying for grants. Not to mention the actual business of going out on the F/V Cherokee for a week at time to record what they can find on the beach. “We can only get on the beach June – September because of the weather. We’ll take the Cherokee in, then a skiff, then a zodiac. We’ll see what’s there. We’ve expanded our mission to include tsunami tracking. So we’ll record what we find, including invasive species. And then we’ll actually remove all of the debris that we find on the beach.”
Margot has never thought of herself as a scientist, but part of marine debris involves picking up shifts at the Sitka Sound Science Center, and teaching visitors about the local aquarium. She’s surprised by how much she does know, even if it didn’t come to her out of a book. Margot says she’s learned through osmosis simply from growing up in Southeast. “The touch tanks we have [at the aquarium], they look like the tide pools we grew up playing in,” she says. “Growing up here you just have this deep ingrained, inherited knowledge about the landscape and the environment.” It’s knowledge that she has put to use through her position with the marine debris program. Since she started in 2008, the program has cleaned more than 70,000 pounds of refuse off the beaches of Southeast Alaska.
The program will miss her when she follows her passion for history and books to librarian school, but Margot is pretty sure she’ll be back. “I guess I always had two separate worlds,” she says. “I loved where I was living, loved my school, but I really like to be in this environment. I love to come home.”
It’s a 2,185 mile drive from Green Bay, Wisconsin to Sitka, Alaska and Lily Herwald knows it better than most. To hear Lily’s stories about coming to Alaska, scroll down and click the link at the bottom of the page. To read about the life Lily has made after that one fateful pick-up ride, read on!
In 1984, Lily Herwald paid one hundred dollars and caught a ride in a pick-up truck from Wisconsin to Alaska. Her friends thought she was crazy, but she said she knew she was moving for good. “I was excited to see what I could do, the kinds of opportunities I would have [here],” she says about her decision. She certainly proved her friends wrong – and proved that a positive attitude can bring positive results. She describes what happened when she first got to Sitka: “We camped in a visqueen tent behind the trooper academy,” she says. “I lived in a tent for a month, and got a job waiting tables. I had graduated with a communications degree, and there was a job open at Raven Radio. I was offered the job. Within three months of arriving, I got my dream job.” She smiles. “At least, it would become my dream job.”
Lily’s success in both her professional life and her personal life in Sitka all stems from throwing herself into something new and different from anything she’d ever known. Born and raised in Green Bay, she had no way to know what would happen when left. “Many of my friends from high school really didn’t leave Wisconsin,” she says. It’s a theme which runs through many people’s stories about moving to Alaska: taking the risk to move to the last frontier means leaving a lot of what’s familiar behind. “In the first few years, we moved seven times,” she says, “Living on fish scows, house sitting, not paying a lot of rent. I couldn’t get over how many people in their twenties were here from Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota. We were all pretty creative about how we were doing housing.”
It is clear when listening to Lily’s story that her success and happiness has not only come from her willingness to take chances, but from the chances that others decided to take on her. “I started at Raven Radio in public broadcasting. People kept giving me offers of more important jobs and I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But they kept saying, No, you can do this! You have the skills. People were so nice about giving me their time, and mentoring me. And that had not at all been my experience before. It had been so hard to get a job.”
Seeing Lily now, sitting on her porch, in the summer sunshine with a view of the ocean and her vegetable garden, it is hard to imagine her living in Green Bay. It is hard to imagine that people thought she was crazy for taking a chance to live in the place that she has considered her home for almost thirty years now. What happened after she hopped in that pick-up in 1984 might have been a risk, but Lily’s willingness to seize the opportunity has proved to be a solid foundation for more opportunities than she could have imagined in Green Bay, and to her credit, they’re made up much more by hard work and commitment than by chance. Her level of commitment to the life she chose is tangibly visible from her successful career to her family to the zucchinis in her garden, which are notoriously hard to grow in soggy Sitka. “I love that I have to build the soil that I put my seeds in to grow vegetables for dinner in the summer,” she says. “Being outside and building my soil – getting dirt from under alder trees, bringing sand from the beach, mixing in herring and seaweed – I love that. I like to come out here and meditate and look out over that and feel fortunate and grateful for everything I’ve been given.”
She has a point. When she pops a zucchini off its stem and hands it to us before we drive off in our own pick-up, it’s hard not to feel that we too have been given something special.
To hear Lily’s story, click here: 16_LWL_LILY_HERWALD
For many Alaskans, the West Coast and the East Coast seem worlds apart. But Hannah Hamberg, who splits her time between rainy Southeast Alaska and upstate New York, has learned that you don’t have to choose between coasts – you just have to be able to find the connections between them. To hear Hannah’s story in her own words, click the link at the bottom of the page. To read more, just scroll down.
Hannah Hamberg is wearing red lipstick and a very crisp white eyelet jacket. She looks as if she could have just popped in from a New York City street, the place where she likes to spend weekends with her friends when she’s at school upstate, where she studies graphic design. As she’s talking to us, her dad comes downstairs and laughs. “It doesn’t look like you could be the person who you’re talking about,” he says and Hannah laughs.
Because of course, we’re not in New York. We’re sitting at her dining room table, in her large and spacious kitchen, looking out the big windows at the towering forest of Southeast Alaska. And even if Hannah can navigate city streets like a native, the story she’s telling us is about running from a grizzly bear. “We were just across the way from my house, clam digging. We got out on the beach, and walked down about ten feet. We were about to start digging clams. And then we looked up – and saw a sow with two cubs. And she got up on her hind legs and started growling at us. We ran back to the boat. You’re not supposed to run, but the boat seemed so close.” She laughs. “We left the shovel behind.”
Hannah is a refreshing change from some of the frustrating stereotypes of what it means to grow up in Alaska, and the vague pressure to “seem outdoorsy.” Hannah can put on xtratufs and carrying a gun up a mountain, but she also sees her childhood in the wilderness as a resource in a more subtle way. “I’m not conscious of the way it affects me, but it has to in some way. It gives me a different perspective because I didn’t grow up in New York City. I have a point of view that isn’t as influenced. I feel like it kind of helped me create my own point of view rather than being influenced by outside perspectives.”
And they are some fairly towering perspectives. “I’ve spent a lot of time on float planes,” she says. “We have a cabin in Prince of Wales and we always used to take the float plane down. It’s a surreal experience to be flying in between peaks and look down and see a mountain goat. Or feel the downdraft coming between the mountains, and getting physically pushed down by the wind.” So what does Hannah plan to do with the unique perspective she is cultivating, whether that’s by hunting with her dad or taking classes at the Rhode Island School of Design?
“There’s this magnetizing effect that Sitka has,” she says. “I always want to come back. For my job, I’ll probably have to start in the city – NYC, or San Fran. But my goal is to come back to Sitka, and to do design out of Sitka, for this area. It’s home, you know. It’s home.”
Kevin McGowan has made some friends you need a snorkel to find. “Swimming and seeing a sea lion can be pretty terrifying. Usually they’re just curious… but they’re pretty terrifying looking creatures, so it can be unnerving. You see their huge brown bodies and their vicious looking faces. it’s usually just a dark spot swimming under you, and then they pop up and you know they’re there. And hopefully they don’t do too much damage to you.”
Born and raised in Southeast Alaska, at age 21, Kevin knows that the experiences he had (and marine mammals he met) growing up have uniquely shaped him. “My interests are environment based,” he says. “My whole life has revolved around water.” And when he moved away from Sitka for college, he found it very difficult to translate those interests into a different environment. “My friends didn’t get to see that side of me,” he says. He’s certainly not the only one – while leaving home for college is difficult for all kinds of reasons, for the kids of Southeast Alaska, it is often harder to leave the wilderness environment behind more than their houses and neighborhoods. When the environment is a major component of your activities and interests, it also factors into your relationships with the people around you. In a new geographic environment, kids from Southeast not only have to deal with the usual homesickness, but they have to find a new way to make friends and navigate relationships without access to the things they usually do with their friends. “It would be hard [for my school friends] to see all my real interests, because a lot of them are really location based, the snorkeling and the mountain climbing and boating and kayaking,” Kevin says. “That’s all dependent on things I have here, and going to school I don’t have access to all these things. The way I relate to people from Sitka is a deeper connection. [I] don’t necessarily have that with people at school.”
But luckily, growing up outdoors doesn’t just serve to hinder the social experiences of Southeast Alaskan kids who are trying to make it in more urban and academic environments: Kevin also gives it credit for some of his success. For a guy who admits his high school years were spent dreaming about being outdoors, Kevin says his attitude towards school has shifted. “I definitely have focused academically,” he says. After a hard first year at OSU, he transferred to UAF, and took classes which he needed to catapult him to engineering school in California. Three schools in three years would wear out even the most dedicated student: so how did the shift from dreaming about getting out of the classroom to doggedly trying to stay in it occur? He sees his motivation linked to his experiences growing up in Alaska. “There’s a lot of curiosity that I’ve developed growing up here, adventures and finding new things,” he says. “So with school, I want to learn a lot of new things. It’s helped myself apply myself to schoolwork. Because there’s new things to learn. New people to meet, more foods to try. You don’t necessarily need to be snorkeling to experience somewhere cool and new.” And even though there will be challenges to surmount, it’s hard not to have faith in his ability to succeed. If he can make a good impression underwater on a sea lion underwater, it’s hard to imagine him feeling out of his depth.
Want to listen to Kevin’s stories about spearfishing in his own words?