In June I traveled to Alaska, expecting to only build houses, but I got much more than that. From atop mountains I relished in magnificent views of the Gulf of Alaska, ate delicious red salmon caught just two hours past, and glimpsed into the diverse Native American culture contributing to the identity of modern-day Alaska.
The founder of the Global Village Alaska Program explained it best – she didn’t care why we went to Alaska, as long as we were there to help construct homes: “Maybe you wanted to volunteer, maybe you were forced to come, maybe you wanted to mix goodwill with travel… or maybe you just thought Alaska is sexy.” My experience did everything to prove that last statement, in the sense that it was appealing and exciting. Every day invited a new, long adventure; the weeks before the summer solstice guaranteed daylight 24/7, ensuring mild weather and a perpetual hunger for activity. Abundant daytime also meant more activities at the locations I visited: Anchorage, Seward, and Homer.
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My team was stationed in Anchorage for the majority of my two-week stay, and the community there was so gracious as to offer free showers at every Alaska Club in the area, a place to stay at the First Congregational Church, and meals prepared by host families from Anchorage. Emphasizing the kindness of local entrepreneurs, a bike shop owner allowed the entire team to borrow 24 bikes to tour Anchorage and the curves of the Coastal Trail. Local artists invited us into their homes, including that of internationally-acclaimed painter Jon Van Zyle, designer of the Iditarod posters for over 36 years. And every day at the Habitat Re-Store, a place similar to a thrift/hardware store, big businesses such as Lowe’s and Home Depot donated truckloads of material to be sold for a profit by Habitat for Humanity. Of all the places I’ve ever traveled, never has an entire community been so giving and willing to share its culture.
Seward was a fishing town where water-tours were offered by Kenai Fjords. Humpback whales, puffins, orcas, dall dolphins, and sea lions were just a few of the animals we observed along with Aialik Glacier, which brought customarily mild temperatures down to a frigid 34 degrees. The six-hour cruise came with lunch and the promise of amazing photo-opportunities.
In Homer we viewed more wildlife thanks to the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, a research group that provided yurts (elevated tents) to sleep in and the chance to go tide-pooling for starfish, anemones, and other sea-life at a low tide that dropped an unheard of 25 feet from high tide. The only way to get to the Center was by boat from Homer Spit, where a boardwalk of gift shops and local eateries were set up, much to our delight. Located near the spit in Halibut Cove there resided an artist’s colony where local galleries showcased various works including octopus-ink paintings and handcrafted jewelry, and where the uniquely-built Saltry restaurant served delectable platters of seafood and chowder.
While my time in Alaska was highlighted by the recreation I experienced, an equally rewarding part of my trip was building homes with Habitat for Humanity. My build-mates were some of the funniest, quirkiest characters I’ve ever met; each day I worked with locals and the people actually buying the houses, learning their back-stories and really forming relationships through hard work. And when the workdays ended it was a pleasure to stay up past midnight chatting with new friends, hiking figurative and literal mountains. The summer sun never set in sexy Alaska.
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