When New Zealander Michael Slade decided that it was time to take a break from city life, the Global Volunteer Network’s Alaska program seemed like the perfect opportunity. The Alaskan culture and wilderness fulfilled his expectations and more, despite any apprehensions.
“People think `why are you going out to help work on an environmental project in America? It’s a powerful country with plenty of resources, and it should be able to be helping itself out” says Michael, and what he discovered was quite different to other expectations.
“Alaska is a completely different kettle of fish,” he says. “They are a different breed up there. There are a lot of pioneers who literally just cut themselves a homestead out of the forest, and laid their claim. Then you’ve got the Native American populations as well, and the Eskimo population. They’re struggling to survive, and the government is trying to take care of them as best they can, so there’s a completely different mindset up there. They look at the rest of the States quite differently, and Alaska attracts free thinking, free willed people, who love the outdoors.”
Prior to his trip, Michael worked with African refugees and their families, assisting them with immigration in London, England. “I needed to take a bit of time out, so instead of the main focus being on people all the time, it was to shift that focus and do something that was more towards the environment.” Alaska gave Michael the adventure he was looking for, as well as the opportunity to make a real difference to the community and the landscape.
Michael took part in an environmental program, studying the Water Sheds in Sodoltna, the hub of the Kenai Peninsula which is located just south of Anchorage, Alaska. His trip was facilitated by the Global Volunteer Network, an organization that helps connect international volunteers with communities in need.
Michael was involved in research work for the Kenai water shed forum, a non-for-profit organization that is working to protect the water shed. The team investigates its fragile eco-system, how it works, what benefit it gives to the Kenai Peninsula, and the impact of man on the area.
“I was taking water flow measurements and surveying water flow sites, and that was to contribute to understanding how all the tributaries around the area contributed to the water flow volumes in the Kenai river,” explains Michael. He was also involved with a fresh water invertebrate nutrients study, to aid a professor at the University of Alaska.
“I was one of the key contributors to the marine nutrients study…which helps, because when you are out in the field, that river is mighty cold and you are just picking up rock, after rock, after rock, till your hands go numb, collecting these specimens. It’s pretty tough work, but it was rewarding. You’ve got something to show at the end of it.”
The Kenai Peninsula is about 90% Wilderness containing many beautiful mountains, streams and lakes. It borders the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and neighbors many other state parks. “I’d always had a fascination with Alaska,”says Michael. “It’s a last frontier kind of wilderness.”
It was in this unique wilderness, home to a large amount of wildlife, including moose, caribou, wolves, bald eagles, and the infamous brown and black bears, that really opened up the eyes of New Zealand born Michael. “The hardest thing was being comfortable in the natural environment, because you were constantly aware of the natural predators within the surrounding areas. When I was there three people had been mauled by bears, and one of the maulings had happened in a built up area. It was something that was always in the back of your mind.”
One experience of Michael’s that was particularly eye-opening, not to mention terrifying, took place on a wildlife trail.
“After work one night, I went for a hike up a skyline trail. I was stationed in Soldotna, and this was about an hour and a half’s drive to get there. I got to the trail and walked up it and by the time I got to the top, which was a huge hike, the sun was starting to come down, and was starting to set. Although it was quite bright up on the top of the hill, by the time I started to come back through the forest, it was dark, and I couldn’t really see. There had been a mauling on this trail; it’s a bear trail. You could see the droppings when you are going up, and the paw-prints. Coming down, I’d never been that scared in my life; I was seriously freaked out. I was just squeezing (a water) bottle to make clicking sounds, making as much noise as I could to warn them (the bears) I was coming down the trail. I kept loosing my foot grip, because I couldn’t really see the roots…I eventually got to the bottom to the road, and I was just literally sweating so profusely. It was almost as if I’d just jumped in a swimming pool fully clothed, not only because it was physically hard, but because the adrenaline was pumping.’
Despite his scare, Michael remains grateful the time he had amidst the Alaskan wilderness. “The work that I was doing meant that I was wading in a river, canoeing down a river, or going through a forest. Sitting on the bank of a stream taking measurements, I was so focused on being out there in nature. It was such a contrast to what I was normally doing, that it kind of re-alined something inside that probably hasn’t been stimulated for a while. I think that is probably the greatest thing, that re-invigoration, reminding me what was important, and what kind of work that we need to do back here in New Zealand. Gaining the experiences I got there, it gave me some skills that I could use to benefit my home country as well.”
Michael particularly enjoyed the company of the other volunteers.
“The people (involved in the program) came from all different backgrounds, and were just really dedicated to one cause. It’s quite neat to be in that kind of environment, where everyone is focused, and passionate about something, and where the end goal is ultimately beneficial to everybody in the surrounding community. It’s pretty exciting.”
He also saw the benefits of volunteering to work in the community, as opposed to doing the tourist thing, and he is keen to encourage others to volunteer.
“You get to integrate within that environment that you are living in, amongst that society. You get to make friends and develop relationships with the people, learn about how they live, and learn about how they work as well. You basically get a view of every key aspect of society through volunteering. Not to mention the actual skills that you take on as well. There is also the feel-good factor of having spent some time somewhere, and given something back to a place you’ve been to, rather than just coming through and paying money for tourism merchandise, which doesn’t go into the pockets of those who really need it or benefit the community.”
The only thing you may need to prepare for on your Alaska volunteering adventure are some personal grooming adjustments. “If you are a guy, you have to grow a beard,” laughs Michael. “All the guys over there have got beards, so it’s what you’ve got to do.”