Out of the Office: Finding Home in Alaska

“The story is it’s dark, it’s cold, it’s unfriendly and there are wild animals that’ll eat you.”

That is the story of Alaska, or so I was told by a group of women, most of whom have lived in Alaska longer than I’ve been alive. While they laughed about the inside joke that just about every Alaskan knows, I sat in awe of the natural beauty we were surrounded by at Kachemak Bay State Park. I couldn’t believe something as spectacular as the view we were looking at over the bay existed anywhere, but especially where I now live.

That day I was with six women, the youngest 51 and the oldest 66, clearing South Eldred Trail for National Trails Day. It was my first trip across the bay from Homer, and I couldn’t have asked for a better set of companions as I embarked on my first real adventure since arriving in Alaska.

See, I grew up in West Tennessee and just recently moved to Alaska after accepting a job with the Homer News. I had never planned on staying in Tennessee, but I think somewhere as far away as Alaska was a shock even for me. I’ve been here for two months now and still have to remind myself that I actually live here. For me, there is a beautiful rawness in seeing the mountains and water every day, and every time I see them, it’s like I’m experiencing it for the first time all over again. I hope I never lose that sense of fresh, awe-inspired joy when I see the bay.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect of my new life in Alaska when I first moved here to be with my long-distance partner. I definitely was not prepared for the cold, and while I’m aware it is spring here now, it is still too cold. Honestly, I’m still not sure what I think of it now other than I am thankful to be given the chance to share this community’s story, as well as the opportunity to learn more about myself and who I can become in the most beautiful place I could have ever hoped to live.

The lessons I’ve learned have been small so far, but spending the day with this group of women showed me one vital piece of information we should all know: Alaska women are a breed in and of themselves and are capable of anything. You cannot stand in their way.

I’ve spent my life surrounded by fiercely strong women. From my mom, grandmother, great-grandmother and aunts to the professors and mentors who influenced my being, I have learned from some of the best. But that one Saturday spent at Kachemak Bay State Park with Kathy Sarns, Kris Holderied, Amy Holman, Kristine Moerlein, Ruth Dickerson and Lyn Maslow proved that there are no limitations to what you can achieve as long as you have confidence in yourself, and, in their case, a strong group of women to help you along the way.

These women are scientists and artists, run mountain trails, serve in search and rescue missions in the mountains, dedicated their lives to educating the youth of Homer, built families, play hockey and even spend their Saturdays clearing trails so others can enjoy them just as much as they do. Not once did they think they were unable to accomplish their goals that day because they were a group of women past middle age.

With more joy and laughter than I ever expected to hear while conducting manual labor, these women were able to clear half a mile of South Eldred Trail, which is no easy hike in my opinion and ability, and finished the day with a swim in the bay. These women are fearless and limitless.

Dickerson, the oldest in the group, moved to Alaska from New Zealand in 1983 for her husband to work on the pipeline. Of all of the women who shared their stories while we ate lunch, I could relate to the beginning of Dickerson’s the most. I hope I have a similar outcome.

“When I first came to Alaska, I was actually homesick for New Zealand. It was dark and cold, and I didn’t have friends for a while. We were isolated,” Dickerson said. “But now, I have so many awesome, awesome friends.”

When asked what kept her in Alaska when she missed her home so much, she said Alaska just kept getting better. “I was told to bloom where you’re planted … so here I am,” she said. “I have become way more confident as a result of not having died yet.”

This may be my new life motto.

Moerlein’s family moved to Alaska from Southern California when she was 6, and she has always considered Alaska her home. Growing up in Anchorage, Moerlein knew the lower peninsula would be a better fit for her family and currently resides an hour away from Homer. She never lets the distance keep her from spending time with her family or volunteering outdoors with Sarns.

Maslow moved to Alaska in 1980 to teach in villages in the Bering Strait near Nome. She moved to Homer to raise her family in the late ’80s, and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

“Once I left the villages, the only place in Alaska that I wanted to live was Homer just because I love the community,” Maslow said. “It offers lots of outdoor activities and arts and a lot of science. It was a fabulous place to teach because you could take the kids outdoors all of the time.”

Holdereid found her way to Alaska in 2005 for a job as an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and University of Alaska Fairbanks Kasitsna Bay Laboratory. She is now the director.

“I think it’s one of these things when you come up here that some of us totally fall in love, and this is home. I think it took me about a week, literally,” Holderied said.

Holderied said it was the people and community in Homer that helped her fall in love, but the “amazing grandeur” and “wildness” of Homer made her stay.

“We can go out our back door and be in wilderness, and that is amazing. There aren’t many places in the Lower 48 that are like most of the state. That’s such a precious thing!”

Holman, the youngest, came to Alaska in 2007 from Ohio for a job and currently serves as the Anchorage regional coordinator for the National Ocean Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She originally only planned to stay two weeks, but once those two weeks were up, she knew she couldn’t leave. Thankfully she didn’t return home as she later met Holderied, and the pair have been married since 2013.

All of these women were brought together on Saturday by Sarns, the president of the Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park, who organized the trail cleanup. As a passionate outdoorswoman, Sarns says she finds her peace and strength in nature. Sarns originally signed up for Trails Day as a volunteer, but quickly found herself asking questions and learning how to use the equipment in order to run her own crew one day. Because of Sarns’ efforts with the nonprofit organization, numerous miles of trails have been cleared and are now passable for hikers to enjoy.

When Sarns moved to Alaska in the ’80s, someone asked her why she would move here.

“I said, it’s the people, and I feel like I can do anything I can set my mind to. There is no limit,” she said. “I just felt that limitlessness. You can say the darnedest thing, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to write a book about underwater basket weaving with Bigfoot,’ and everybody gathers around and starts giving you information about it. It was just that feeling that anything you set your mind to, you’ll find like-minded people that are supportive of you.”

“In Alaska, you can do whatever you want, no matter what sex you are, no matter who you are,” Sarns continued. “It seems like the strongest, most amazing women I know live here because there are no limits. Nobody holds you back and tells you you can’t because you’re a woman.”

That sense of limitlessness is what inspired the group to accomplish so much when clearing the trails and in their everyday activities.

For me, it was encouraging to see all of these women, who moved to Alaska for many of the same reasons that I did, create a home here and find the compassion of an open community. While I may not have made Alaska my home yet, my partner, Michael, and I are looking forward to many more adventures while exploring all this amazing state has to offer. We will definitely be making a trip across the bay again soon. I am hopeful that it will become home soon, especially if I continue to surround myself with women like these.

What I have learned about Alaska so far is this: Alaska is beautiful. Alaska is bright and full of opportunities. Alaska is all of the adventures that I cannot wait to have and cannot believe I will get to experience in my lifetime. But, just as I promised the women last week to keep the secret of all those who call Alaska home, the story of Alaska is it’s dark, it’s cold, it’s unfriendly and there are wild animals that’ll eat you.

Reach Sarah Knapp at sarah.knapp@homernews.com.

Sarah Knapp stands on South Eldred Trail looking over the Kachemak Bay on National Trails Day. (Photo by Michael Singer)

Sarah Knapp stands on South Eldred Trail looking over the Kachemak Bay on National Trails Day. (Photo by Michael Singer)