JUNEAU -- The first thing you notice when you get to Rick Bellagh's place on Shelter Island is a large creepy weather-beaten stuffed Big Bird figure with a pipe in its beak. Next to it stands a sign that reads, "Welcome to Shelter Skelter Wilderness Farm," followed by rules such as "be kind and compassionate to everyone" and "be mindful as you work."
No, the first thing you notice is that Rick might not fit the profile for someone who lives on a remote island six months out of the year and says he left a full-time teaching position for "political reasons." He looks young, is sociable and enthusiastic, and speaks about pragmatic solutions to complex tribulations.
Leading a tour up the path to his farm, Rick explained the Big Bird was a gift from some neighbors on the island.
"They thought I was out and they were going to put it in my bed," he said. "I wasn't out."
Rick, now 43, moved to Juneau almost two decades ago as a Jesuit volunteer. He taught Spanish full time at UAS for six years, but gave it up in reaction to what he saw as a tumultuous national political climate on the rise. He decided it was time to live in a more modest way. He pared down his life, sold his car and started spending half the year out on his seven-acre plot on Shelter Island.
"It's been absolutely wonderful," he said. "That's one good thing that came out of the Iraq war."
Rick still works part time teaching at the school, and said that in his classes he stresses the importance of creating a community of learners.
"Spanish is kind of the vehicle, but what I'm really doing is teaching a group how to learn together and work together, and become a cohesive unit," he said.
To help create a vibrant community at his place on Shelter Island, Rick connected up with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an international organization that connects farmers and volunteers. Rick traveled as a WWOOFer in New Zealand, and afterwards decided to start up something similar in Juneau.
The unique issues of living in a place like Southeast produce potential hazards to its communities, Rick said, and in part his farm is in reaction to that.
"We're in a very vulnerable place," he said. "I think a lot of people in Alaska have this kind of the doomsday idea that you have to pack stuff away because you never know when the next barge is not going to come."
The farm is not exactly isolated. Besides the regular WWOOFers who work for him, Rick has several neighbors on the island, some of them year-round residents, and an annual solstice party that draws in dozens of people.
"It's already a real community here," he said.
Rick cut the tour off to continue work on his project, a new building with a frame of roughly hewn timber, and said the WWOOFers were the ones to talk to anyway.
"The focus should be on them, on the community here," he said. "They are the ones that make this all happen."
Virginian poet Robert Mulloy said he came to Juneau so he could work with his hands.
"I guess you could do that just about anywhere," he said, "but there are less limitations here. What I like about working with my hands is that the results are there, they're direct. There's no middleman. What I put in comes out."
Robert said that Rick has helped to facilitate his desire to create.
"He sees the gold in everybody," he said. "You don't meet a lot of people like that."
Scott and Gracy Carpenter were on their honeymoon. They were married in June, and wanted to do something affordable and exciting. It was their first trip to Alaska.
Scott said his diet had radically changed after his sojourn. Fresh organic radishes and beets straight from the garden are a far cry than what he was used to growing up in Ohio, he said.
Gracy said that it was much more gratifying than a conventional holiday.
"For me, it's like we're on vacation, but at the same time we're not just sitting around all day," she said. "It's fulfilling to do the work that we do here, and then we get time to play."
It's easy to see how it could seem like a vacation to people who enjoy farming. The WWOOFers work for five hours a day, choosing which jobs fit their skills and preferences, and then gather in the al fresco kitchen when the lunch bell rings. Bears aren't a concern on the island, so their mess hall doesn't need to be hanged from a tree at the end of the meal. Their sleeping quarters are tented spots with a peaceful seascape.
Rick's dwelling is made almost entirely out of recycled materials. The floor was once part of a high school gymnasium. It has one electrical outlet, generated by solar power, used to recharge cell phones and camera batteries. The only things that run on imported fuel sources are the full stove in the outdoor kitchen and the chainsaw.
"One of my mottos is 'community, not machinery,'" he said. "Everybody says, 'You should get a generator,' but that brings noise, necessitates fuel ... you just don't need those things."
The volunteers can go on hikes, kayak, jump in the hot tub or sauna or take in the view from the rope swing.
The WWOOFers' real passion, however, shows itself in the enormous organic garden, lush and precisely organized. Everywhere you look there are vigorous cabbages, zucchinis, carrots, basils. There are also greenhouses for starter plants and things that need a little extra attention for growing on the island.
Muskeg is not the ideal place for growing, and the garden is placed in raised beds. The soil is a mixture of peat, kelp, seashells and other ingredients, including the specially prepared manure, or "humanure," as volunteer Sarah Douglass called it. Waste is collected in the composting latrine, or "Inspiration Box," as it's known on the island, and can later be used to fertilize the plants.
The garden ends up producing so much produce, Rick provides some of what he doesn't eat to friends, and also goes to the farmers market in Juneau and gives it away for free.
"People are always a little astounded," he said. "But three dollars is insignificant for a head of broccoli."
Beth Weigel, executive director of the natural education organization Discovery Southeast, was visiting the island. A friend of Rick's for several years, she said she is still amazed when she comes the farm.
"I'm always in awe of Rick's vision and certitude that things will just work out, and then watching them all come to fruition," she said.
The crew worked together on the new building throughout the afternoon, and finally got two of the rough-hewn logs connected. Covered in woodchips, Rick got down on his knees and examined the joint, poking at it with a chisel and nitpicking his own work.
"Well, it's a start," he said finally, nodding his head. "It's a start."
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