This past summer I spent nearly 2 weeks in Southeast Alaska on a ConservationVIP volunteer trip. I am left in awe. Seriously, I will make a feeble attempt to put into words what seems like such a mystery to me. How do such good things happen to someone as ordinary as me?
Let’s start with a little background. SE Alaska has some of the most pristine wilderness on the planet. From water, it is visible via the world renowned Inside Passage. From land, well, the 500-mile long Tongass National Forest isn’t visible. What I mean is that only portions are accessible via road. There is no “highway 1” of sorts running the length of the shoreline because the terrain is just too wild and pristine. Six years ago, I had taken the Inside Passage on a vehicle ferry, and it was a form of prison to me (and I must think the cruise ships would leave me with a similar feeling). Everywhere I looked was unspeakable beauty and all I could do was look, but I could do virtually nothing. I thought to myself what it must have been like to be part of the Klondike Gold Rush where they got off the ships and made their way up the steep coastal mountains towards the interior of hopes, dreams, and adventure.
Six years later I find myself liberated in SE Alaska. Gone is the feeling of being imprisoned with such beauty all around me. Replaced with a feeling of becoming part of this pristine wilderness. This gift I owe to ConservationVIP, the other volunteers, and the organizations we worked with who all became family.
The first half of the trip we stayed in the quiet University of Alaska Southeast dormitory, far away from all the tourists, yet overlooking the Mendenhall Glacier and Auke Lake. We got to work with the US Forest Service on the West and East Mendenhall Glacier Trails. On the final day we worked at my favorite, the Auke Bay Recreational Area. All the time we worked, we got to learn from the Forest Service personnel not only about the work we were doing, but also about daily life in the area with all its history, joys, and struggles.
Then we transitioned from the Juneau area to the Skagway area. Yes, this was via a vehicle ferry because we needed to get our vans to Skagway, but it was only a half-day ferry ride which seemed enjoyable after the past days of physical labor amidst the pristine wilderness. Our new home was far away from the tourists again at the Chilkoot Trail Outpost. It was very nice staying in cabins yet being able to gather right there for breakfast and dinner.
We got to work with the National Park Service doing projects on the Chilkoot Trail (the main trail used during the gold rush), the campground, the Dyea Historic townsite, and along a salmon stream on the edge of Skagway. Again, we got to become part of the local culture sharing stories throughout the day. Yet, we got even more individual learning from not just the trail personnel, but from experts like Archeologists, Biologist, and Rangers.
To finish up, we took a catamaran back to Auke Bay and then a bus to the airport. As we were coming into the bay, one of the volunteers made the comment that it seemed like she was returning home, meaning that our time spent there the previous week was so meaningful that it felt like home. Another volunteer commented that he couldn’t believe that it had only been a couple of weeks in Alaska. He said that was the sign of a really good vacation, when it felt like you had been living there for months. The thing I noticed was how at peace individually and collectively our team had been throughout the trip. How grateful, caring, and servant-hearted everyone had been. It is said that service is a natural outpouring of a loving heart. That the service brings completeness to one’s faith. As a leader, I can only say it is immensely gratifying to be part of something so wonderful. To paraphrase, one of the volunteers said she was overwhelmingly amazed at the beauty of Alaska and the beauty of the people we were surrounded by on the trip. Praise of that nature leaves one looking up in awe.