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Big Apple to a bite from the big wilderness

Posted: August 8, 2013 - 5:11pm

“So what’s so great about Alaska?” my college roommate asked me after I told her I had been offered a CDIP/SCA position as an environmental education intern at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The Career Discovery Internship Program, administered through the Student Conservation Association, offers opportunities to first- and second-year college students. It’s a great program that brings many benefits, as well as an opportunity to work towards an AmeriCorps award, is what I told my friends and family.

“Why do you want to go to Alaska?” “There’s nothing up there; you’re going to get eaten by a bear!” Those were the types of questions and comments I got from home when I decided to take a bold step and leave the Big Apple to live in bear-country Alaska for the summer.

Born and raised in New York City, the East Coast and metropolis-style living is all I’ve ever known. I was totally unaware to how the other side lived, but curious. So I hopped on a plane for the first time and traveled solo from New York to Florida for a week-long orientation, and then to Alaska where I began my unforgettable experience throughout the next three months.

My first impression of Alaska upon arriving in late May was an icebox. I guess coming from Florida weather made my weary self cringe at the slightest breeze. Luckily, Alaska soon became a sunny and comfortably warm state, allowing me to see her beauty. Locals tell me I chose the right summer — although the huge mosquitoes tempted me to think otherwise. It seems that everything is bigger here: the mosquitoes, the bears, the moose. Not the squirrels though; I’ve seen bigger on New York City sidewalks.

There are definitely differences between my summers in New York and here in Alaska. In the city, my typical summer would consist of going to the beach and playing Frisbee, or hanging out with friends in Central Park — the closest thing we get to nature. Us urbanites thrive on the rush of the city, but the fast lane can get tiring and irritable – especially in New York’s muggy humidity. So getting away and traveling to other places for a little while is a good break. That’s how it felt for me in Alaska this summer.

Though I was interning at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, it didn’t feel like work. I had so much fun serving the refuge, as well as just being in a totally different setting. Working with kids for the summer was a tough but rewarding experience. I had the opportunity to learn about Alaska’s environment with young campers, and got to teach them about the wonderful place they live in.

It wasn’t hard for me to see how beautiful Alaska is – if New York had restaurants with mountain views, I would think it had it all. But New York is a great place for urban living, not for connecting with the wild. Since arriving in Alaska, I have seen so much wildlife, so many beautiful landscapes that it will be impossible to not miss this place.

I love seeing the difference in how New Yorkers and Alaskans live. New York is the beautiful, big city that I believe everyone should visit for at least a month. It is home to many cultures, great food and amazing things to see; and a good experience can be expected if you’re with the right people.

But that’s how it is anywhere: It is the people you meet that make your experience – and the people here on the Kenai Peninsula are truly amazing. From making friends on the refuge, to just having a casual conversation with someone who happens to be sitting near me at the park, the welcoming spirit everyone has in town has is wonderful. My time here would not be as valuable to me if it were not for the people I’ve met during my stay.    

What is also different between Alaska and New York is the pace of life. My time in Alaska made me realize how fast I was jumping around from one thing to another in the city and how stressful it had become. In Alaska, life is slower, but I found it refreshing to not deal with so many people or city traffic. Though locals here complain about the traffic during the tourist and fishing season, I shake my head as I imagine how Alaskans would deal with the congested streets of New York.

I was worried about how I would react to a slower pace. Surprisingly, I actually like the rhythm of Alaska. Living in a place like Soldotna is a breath of fresh air – literally. I do find myself missing the convenience and cultural diversity of New York, as well as the ability to electronically communicate quicker with better connections found there. You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of her.

My eyes have been opened to a different way of living. Alaska’s environment, the pace, and food are all different, and although the people are similar, they are different nonetheless – and I love it all. So what’s so great about Alaska? Darn well everything – except for the mosquitoes.

Shanice Bailey is a college student at Boston University, majoring in Environmental Science. She aspires to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and become a dynamic advocate for conservation. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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