My pants, socks, and boots are soaked. I'm tired and slightly embarrassed. I don't think I could scream "Cheechako" any more than I already do. I successfully got the government vehicle stuck in the snow which didn't appear nearly as deep as it was first driving into the abandoned parking lot. Can it be any more obvious this is my first Alaska winter? Luckily my coworkers come to my aid, and though their rescue was not flawless, eventually the third vehicle freed us both, and I was on my way.
You probably wonder how a Cheechako like me ends up in a place like Soldotna, Alaska. I've come here from northeast Ohio, a place that knows nasty winters and extreme weather changes in minutes (or so I thought), but this is not my first visit to Alaska. Ever since I can remember, we had been taking family summer vacations in Seward where my great-grandmother Wilma Lind and her family lived from 1926 until her death in 2006. Some of my relatives have moved away, but others still remain. At times we would pack 15 people into her little house on 3rd Avenue and call it a vacation. We'd never think to miss a Mount Marathon race on the 4th of July (a race in which I now participate) and I have many fond memories of hiking nonstop all around the peninsula. All those summers spent enjoying the unspeakable beauty that Alaska contains made a decision of where to live easy.
In 2008, I graduated from Kent State University with a degree in early childhood education and I taught environmental education at a local youth camp in Ohio for 5 years. It was the love of the outdoors and teaching our youth and communities about conservation and ecology that made me pursue a job with the park system.
Coming to Alaska to pursue this sort of employment only made sense as it was here that my eyes as a young child were opened to the endless beauty of nature. However, acquiring that type of employment was not as easy as I had envisioned. I was lucky to have come across the Student Conservation Association, or SCA. SCA is essentially the modern day Civilian Conservation Corps. High school students through recent college graduates like me protect and restore national parks, marine sanctuaries, cultural landmarks, and community green spaces in all 50 states. Many of us are searching for more experience in conservation and stewardship of our environment in order to further our careers. SCA has more internships available in Alaska than any other state, and the diversity of options is unparalleled.
Finding several positions that matched my desire was not difficult and I was lucky to be placed here in Soldotna, 5,000 miles from home, where I serve as an Environmental Education Intern with the Kenai Fish and Wildlife Field Office. My main focus is to assist with teaching students, ranging from kindergarten to grade 6, enrolled in the Adopt-A-Stream Program. This program focuses on the organisms (including humans) and environment that live in and around the Kenai River watershed.
You may have seen a class walking down to Soldotna or Slikok Creek even on cold winter days. Throughout the entire school year, my partner-in-crime Dan Pascucci, from the Kenai Watershed Forum, and I brave the elements inside and outside the classroom to teach students about fish, habitat, water quality monitoring, invasive species, and so much more. With Dan's musical creativity put to good use, we sing songs, educate with PowerPoint presentations, and make use of puppets and props, all while presenting important scientific concepts.
It's delightful to see the students excited about science and taking care of their stream. At the end of the school year, we have school-wide stream cleanups to continue fostering the nature of conservation and protection of our natural areas. One of my favorite parts is entering each classroom and seeing the students' faces light up when they know it's another day with Mr. Dan and Miss Stephanie.
Through my internship I have been able to learn so much more about the ecological diversity that constantly surrounds us. I realize why many brave the harsh winters and extreme weather changes just to call this stellar place home.
I've also learned how to get a car unstuck from 2 feet of snow, a lesson my coworkers are happy to pass along.
Stephanie Wright is a SCA Environmental Education Intern with the Kenai Fish & Wildlife Field Office 907-262-9863. Check their website at http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/fieldoffice/kenai/index.htm or follow them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/USFWS-Alaska-Fisheries-and-Habitat/180349382004304. For more information about the Student Conservation Association, visit www.thesca.org.