Three alumni journalists tell what it’s like to have Alaska as a beat
Loren Holmes ’03
I love the diverse Alaskan landscape and the people who call it home. I’ve traveled throughout the state on assignment, and I enjoy sharing the state’s unique stories through photography. A philosophy and environmental and technology studies major at Carleton, I previously taught photography and English in India.
Emily Schwing ’05
I learned last year that I have a longtime listener in Kaltag. A small Athabascan village that lies along the Yukon River, Kaltag is where dog teams come off the river midway through the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Hazel Olson picked me up in her orange, rumbling snow machine after a tiny Cessna, fitted with skis, had dropped me on the snowy runway in Kaltag this past winter. It was my rookie year covering the Iditarod for KUAC 89.9 FM in Fairbanks, and Olson recognized my giant microphone.
“Are you Emily Schwing?” she asked. She’d heard me on the radio before, covering the “other” thousand-mile sled dog race, the Yukon Quest. For the past three years, I’ve chased dogs and mushers back and forth between Whitehorse in the Yukon and Fairbanks.
“I was hoping you’d be on the Iditarod this year!” she said. I had hoped for exactly the same thing. “Hop on!” Olson patted the torn leather seat. Then she whisked me off to a small purple house in town, where the local basketball team was cooking burgers as a fundraiser for everyone who was there for “the last great race”—the Iditarod’s official tagline.
Since 2007, I’ve worked in some capacity for KUAC, the public radio station in Fairbanks, and the only source of news and information for many small villages in the Interior. Alaska lends itself to some of the wackiest news stories—noisy stories best told via radio. My personal audio archive includes the sounds of a super pod of killer whales in Kachemak Bay. I’ve gone with a biologist to tap birch trees for their sap in springtime. And then there was the time a biologist dragged me through a rugged, untouched part of Southeast Alaska to track down the region’s coastal brown bears. I had to help him dart a highly agitated two-year-old male grizzly. We took blood, tissue, and tooth samples. I rolled tape as the drowsy bear licked his lips and threatened to awaken. “Give him another shot!” you can hear me say on the tape, my voice shaking.
My job has taken me to Chicken, for a far-flung music festival, and to Circle, for last spring’s ice breakup. I climbed over and under house-sized icebergs that the mighty Yukon River spat at the village as the weather warmed. The ice sounds like glass as it shatters underfoot and the weight of the giant icebergs forces water to bubble up through the floodplain sediment. My listeners heard those sounds on their radios miles away, while they sipped their morning coffee.
A geology and environmental studies major at Carleton, I came to the Far North on a whim back in 2006. I had interned for the now-defunct Radio Expeditions at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., after graduating. My producer had urged me to apply for another internship in Alaska’s archipelago. I jumped on the Alaska Marine Highway in the early spring and landed in a fishing town called Petersburg four days later. The unforgiving horizontal wind stung my face and the rain pounded me, but this place had sea lions, eagles (which a friend refers to affectionately as ‘freedom pigeons’), and a seemingly endless natural food supply: moose, salmon, blueberries.
I’ve left the 49th state three times since then, and returned every time. In 2007 I came back to work on a graduate degree in natural resources management at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But I got bored and took off for Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle Radio’s English service in Bonn. The Gulf of Alaska called me back to KCAW, Sitka’s Raven Radio, in 2009.
There is always a dark, frigid day in January when living just over two degrees south of the Arctic Circle seems utterly ridiculous. That’s about the time when I think I’d rather watch paint dry than attend another public meeting. But what keeps me here is the wound-up resident who is hell-bent on testifying. I appreciate people’s commitment to their community. I also love the look on people’s faces when they recognize my voice from the radio. They always say they expected me to be much taller, lots older, or, strangely, to have “really curly hair."
Sam Friedman ’09
I filed my first story from Kodiak Island within hours of flying onto the island. It was an enormous relief to get my first byline.
The story, about New Zealanders stopping in Kodiak as they sailed around the world, was the first of what ended up being a series of stories about round-the-world trips. Since accepting the job, I’d been concerned that it would be hard for a stranger to step in as one of the three and a half editorial staffers at Kodiak’s five-day-a-week newspaper, the Kodiak Daily Mirror.
I feared I’d have a hard time getting tips from secretive fishermen, who form the main sector of the Kodiak economy and don’t want anyone encroaching on their fishing grounds, or that I’d be frozen out by the town’s Alutiiq (Native Alaskan) community, which has had ample reasons not to trust outsiders after generally poor treatment under both Russian and American occupation of the island.
I needn’t have worried. Over the next months, whenever I got stuck I simply repeated the assignment I was given on my first day. I walked along the harbor looking for boats from out of town. In my year and a half in Kodiak, I met the first people to travel the Northwest Passage in an inflatable raft, as well as the crew of a French solar-powered tugboat, who, like the New Zealanders I met the first day, were attempting to circumnavigate the world.
By hitching some rides with the Coast Guard, which has its largest base in Kodiak, I went along as they delivered pallets of salmon to an Arctic village. Another trip took me over the Arctic Ocean on a flight to project U.S. military power to our Arctic neighbors over the frozen but valuable territory. I interviewed the commanding officer through a headset while shivering in the back of a noisy Hercules C-130 cargo plane. I like to think I kept my composure even if I did lose my breakfast when the plane circled low and opened in the back to drop a probe into the ocean to measure climate conditions.
News stories can sneak up on you in a small town known for extreme weather. A rainy Friday night drive to a spaghetti feed the night before a fun-run event left me stranded out of town for a day when a muddy hillside collapsed over the island’s main highway. No problem. Friends of friends took me in for the night. In the morning they loaned me a camera and a bicycle, allowing me to get a few landslide photos for the Monday paper. I interviewed a St. Olaf graduate who had flown in to compete in the race and made the best of it by taking a long run to survey the devastation.
There are no oceangoing vessels in Fairbanks, an inland city 500 miles north of Kodiak that I’ve called home for almost three years. But, like in Kodiak, there are few slow news days. In my job as a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, my favorite assignments tend to be “end-of-the-road” stories—stories about conflicts caused by population growth in a region that’s historically been a last refuge for nonconformists who want to be left alone.
For example, there was the local militia group whose members renounced their U.S. citizenship and set up their own parallel national government, complete with a criminal court held in a back room of a Denny’s restaurant. And then there was the recreational explosives enthusiast who decided to detonate 300 pounds of dynamite in one go at a residential shooting range. The blast was felt up to 20 miles away. The district attorney filed criminal charges after about a dozen neighbors complained of broken windows and, in one case, a cabin shaken off its foundation. But in a decision that would be unthinkable in most other jurisdictions, the grand jury let him off the hook.
While I’ve only lived in Alaska for four years, it’s not difficult to sympathize with people who love the lifestyle of the Far North and resist incursions from the Lower 48. The popular, albeit cynical, expression is that Fairbanks doesn’t so much grow on you as it leaves you unfit to live anywhere else.
A Latin American studies major at Carleton, I might one day leave Alaska to chase opportunities elsewhere. But I wouldn’t relish relearning how to drive in a city or having to put on a necktie before I covered a court hearing. If I leave, though, I’ll mostly miss the wild landscapes, the resourceful people, and the types of stories I’ve gotten to tell.