HoWL returns with new executive director

Much as spring is a season of new beginnings for Mother Nature, it marks a new beginning for Homer’s own HoWL Alaska, or Homer Wilderness Leaders, which is springing back to life after a year-long hiatus.

Founded in 2009 by Libby Bushell with six week-long expeditions in Kachemak Bay, HoWL grew over the years to offer more programs to more and more children. It became a nonprofit in 2010 focused on providing outdoor educational experiences for children and young adults. In 2015 the organization recorded the largest number of days in the field with kids to date, according to Susannah Webster, vice president of HoWL’s board.

When tragedy struck in 2016 with the sudden death of HoWL’s executive director, Rick MacBean, the organization lost steam and direction, Webster said. It was “on the morphine drip, as it were,” she said.

“A lot of energy went into just determining whether or not it was feasible for HoWL to move forward,” Webster said. “At the time we had no staff, no money and not a lot of institutional memory with regards to people who were still a part of the organization.”

Funding for HoWL comes from a variety of sources including grants, donations and funds raised from the programming it offers. When MacBean died, there was no one to do the long-term planning, which involved applying for grants, Webster said.

HoWL was able to finish out the already-scheduled programs for kids and teens for the 2016 season, but took 2017 off to reorganize and fundraise.

Now, it’s back with a new executive director, Mike Sturm, who was hired on in late 2017 and hit the ground running. Hiring an executive director was the main goal of 2017, Webster said.

Strum is originally from Soldotna but had been living in Hawaii as a teacher for several years. He has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in teaching. It’s been an interesting journey back home.

“I took a Tardis,” Strum joked, referring to the space and time traveling Police Box of the Dr. Who television series. “Actually, a good friend of mine sent me a link (to the job posting) just kind of randomly like, ‘I know you’re looking to move to Alaska, I know that Homer was on your list, and having just finished your degree, here’s a really cool opportunity and a really cool organization I think you’d be in to.’”

Strum said he had a day to apply and that he sent the application in “with kind of a prayer.”

“It’s kind of a dream come true,” Strum said. “I’ve wanted to do something like this. Like, if HoWL didn’t exist, I would invent HoWL. You know? … I’ve been a teacher for 10 years, and there’s like a piece missing in the sit in the classroom, stare at the teacher, listen to him talk. You know, that’s not really how you foster critical thinking in students.”

Now, HoWL is in the process of gearing up for its 2018 youth programs. Traditionally, the organization hosts a multitude of day trips and longer expeditions, including across Kachemak Bay. It also hosts the DiRtBaG Clean-Up Week.

HoWL has a raffle going on for an all inclusive trip for four to the Loonsong lodge, donated by Michael McBride, with the flight donated by Wes and Angela Head at Beluga Air. Raffle tickets can be purchased at the Homer Shores Offshore Store on Pioneer Avenue for $50, on the HoWL website or at their office which is downstairs from Cook Inletkeeper. The drawing will be held at the DiRtBaG Ball on April 21.

HoWL will also host a fundraiser this Saturday before the second night of the Telluride Mountainfilm Fest. There will be fish chowder, and it will be a good opportunity for the community to meet Strum, Webster said.

Reach Megan Pacer at

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