Summer in Seward

By Val Jones

Summer in Seward

Fresh off the airplane, I felt the prick of the chilled night air on my skin. I wished like mad that I wasn’t clad in a tank top and athletic shorts, but even my poor choice in travel wear couldn’t dampen my spirit. My boyfriend, on the other hand, was quite another story. Quite frankly, my first visit to Alaska was a nightmare, but as you might imagine, that had more to do with him than actual Alaska. That relationship tanked, but my fascination with the Last Frontier didn’t.

Following another more successful trip, my flirtation with Alaska blossomed into a full-blown love affair. From the breathtaking views of Mount McKinley and wildlife excursions in Denali to warm summer temps in Fairbanks and the picturesque beauty of coastal Seward, I knew I belonged on Alaskan soil. A fifth-generation Texan, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience some guilt about that. Our pride is instilled at an early age – evidenced by our freeways adorned with Texas-sized stars and the endless packages of tortilla chips in our grocery stores, shaped like the Lone Star State. Here, we boast, “Everything is bigger in Texas!” Well, Texas, meet Alaska – where everything actually IS bigger.

As a teacher, with another ten years to go before retirement, I lamented about the kink my career was throwing into my relocation plans, and with the recent remodel to my old house, even a summer trip to placate my addiction to the Last Frontier was simply out of the question. I wracked my brain. How could I get to Alaska again? In search of discount travel, I scoured the internet, and that’s when I stumbled upon my solution – Alaska job listings.

I whipped up a resume, put together a video, and sent all of it to at least 100 employers who were offering seasonal positions in my beloved home-away-from-home. Hotels, resorts, fishing retreats, gift shops, restaurants, tours and fishing charters – none of them were safe from my shameless self-promotion. It was both exciting and intimidating. Ninety percent of me longed to land a summer job, and the other ten percent secretly hoped I wouldn’t because it scared the daylights out of me. Would I really travel 4300 miles from Austin, Texas, to Alaska’s outdoor playground? Would I do it alone? Was I that adventurous? The answer was yes, yes and yes. I landed a job at Miller’s Landing – a campground, kayaking outfitter and fishing charter about 125 miles south of Anchorage.

When I got the congratulatory call, the owner confided, “I don’t know exactly what you’ll be doing, but come on, and I’ll find a place for you.” Worried that I might chicken out, I booked my flight immediately. My friends and family branded me crazy for packing up my stuff and wandering into a remote place for a job for which I may not be qualified. Petrified of deep water, I wondered if I’d have to face that fear. What if they announced upon my arrival that I was now a kayak guide? Visions of very large whales tipping my boat and extreme temperature water rescues produced an immediate anxiety attack.

I landed again in Anchorage, clad this time in something a bit warmer, but looking more like a Dallas girl in my hot pink track suit and sunglasses. I was out of place in the airport, and as I boarded the bus to Seward, I couldn’t have possibly known how my life would change in just a few short hours. Fascinated with the beauty framed by my bus window, Alaska once again captivated me, drew me into its magical beauty and promised nothing less than one heck of an adventure.

I stepped off the bus in Seward and was picked up by a Miller’s employee. As we headed out of town and down a long, rocky road, I felt a wave of uncertainty wash over me. I stared into the woods on my right and peered over a cliff into the water on my left. Sea otters frolicked in the bay. “Beautiful,” I thought, followed by, “Yikes! Scary!” No car, no bicycle – just my feet to carry me wherever I needed to go with bear, moose and other creatures on the loose. I felt myself shift in my seat, and looking down at my pink track suit I realized I wasn’t in Texas anymore.

We pulled into the campground, and I was welcomed by the most spectacular site I’d ever seen – a snowcapped mountain right outside the window of my future summer home – a bunkhouse I’d share with 10 other strangers. Captain Mike Miller, a very cool older gentleman whom I’d later dub the “James Dean” of fishing, greeted me as did many other college-aged kids. At 39, I felt a little dated, but I squashed that thought down and pushed myself to squeeze every moment from this opportunity. I rushed up to my tiny room, unpacked my bags and pinched myself. Yep, I was really in Alaska and as far out of my comfort zone as I’d ever been.

After a narrow escape from kayak duty, I managed to secure a position as a cashier in the Miller’s storefront, checking in camping guests, kayakers and fishing adventurers. I worked eight hour shifts Monday through Thursday which left Friday through Sunday open to experience Alaska on my own terms. With over twenty hours of daylight, I kept the trail hot with dog mushing, horseback riding, flight-seeing and deep sea fishing. It wasn’t long until I traded my pink tracksuit for yellow Dutch Harbor rain gear and the premier footwear of Alaska, some XTRA-Tuff waterproof boots. Mentored by Captain Bill, of the Lucky Penny, I snagged some beautiful fish, fought them when they struggled to elude me and reeled them in on my own. The pure exhilaration as I yelled, “Fish on!” remains unparalleled. Taking it a step further and learning to skillfully filet them on the dock was just another notch in my belt, but as a former fish-hater, when I found myself sampling fresh Sockeye right out of the water, I knew I’d taken a Texas-sized step away from my home state and an Alaskan-sized one toward my future home.

It’s been three years. The postcard images from Miller’s Landing are permanently etched into my mind – the fog rolling in, the constant mist, cool mornings and fresh air. Nothing can come close to the unadulterated joy of watching a brown bear salmon fish in nearby Cooper Landing or witnessing a humpback whale breach from the bay. These were once-in-a-lifetime events that most people experience only through Animal Planet or National Geographic, and there I was learning self-sufficiency and living a simpler life – in the flesh! While the complimentary excursions I earned as an employee delighted me, the life lessons I learned as a resident on Lowell Point are what will leave a lasting impression upon me for undoubtedly the rest of my life.

That final day of my Alaskan summer, my heart heavy and sad, I hugged Captain Miller goodbye, cried like a baby and boarded the train for Anchorage. When I reached the airport and began my long journey home, it was tough to say goodbye to the Land of the Midnight Sun. Like a good friend, she inspired my confidence and gifted me with true grit. I sighed heavily and opted for a “so long” instead. I knew the memories of my summer in Seward would sustain me until I could someday return home for good.

About this writer

  • Val Jones, a freelance writer from Austin, Texas, teaches middle school English and is a breast cancer survivor. Founder of Victorious Val & the Breast Cancer Crusaders – a community of encouragement and kindness – she helps women through the emotional ups and downs of cancer. Her work has appeared in Coping with Cancer, Sasee and multiple editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

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6 Responses to “Summer in Seward”

  1. Mendy Linsenmayer says:

    Love this story! I spent some time in Seward and you described it perfectly. Hope you do get to go back and spend some more time in The Land of the Midnight Sun.

  2. Linda O'Connell says:

    Oh my goodness, you took me back to the year and half that I lived 100 miles from Fairbanks in Delta Junction, at the end of the Alaska Highway. I thank you for this story.

  3. Rose Ann says:

    Kudos for taking the leap and living your dream for at least a little while. Great essay!

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