Many people dream of quitting their jobs and traveling, but for some Alaska professionals, flying around the state is just one of the job perks. The people we connected with—a videographer, a health educator, an engineer and a nurse practitioner—aren't the only Alaskans who rack up frequent flier miles on the job, but their stories will take you on a mini tour of Alaska's far-flung cities and villages. Between the four of them, they've seen it all. By dogsled, hopper flight, boat, four-wheeler and snowmachine, these pros can quite literally say, "I've been everywhere."
Jonathan Butzke can count the number of Alaska villages he hasn't been to on his fingers.
Thirty-two years as a videographer have given him the opportunity to travel extensively. He owns his own company, Talking Circle Media, and estimates he travels nearly three months of every year.
"I'm not sure how many communities I've gone to now," Butzke said. "I stopped counting after 100."
Over the years he's worked with everyone: Alaska Native corporations, banks, oil companies and major news outlets, like NBC Nightly News, the Today Show, Oprah and the Discovery Channel. He's filmed everything from whale hunts and interviews with Alaska Native elders to political speeches and educational programs.
When asked what his favorite locations have been, he says two immediately come to mind.
The first is King Island. He made two separate two-week trips there to film a documentary about the landscape and plants indigenous to the island that was abandoned by its human occupants nearly 50 years ago.
The documentary, funded by the National Science Foundation, also took a handful of people who grew up on the island back to share their stories of growing up there and to see how the land had changed since they left.
Butzke and the other documentary participants camped or stayed in the few homes that had survived the elements.
"The second year we all had to stay in the houses because it was so windy," Butzke said. "We all hunkered down in these little houses that were 300 square feet or less. There were six of us guys in the house I was in and three of us were sleeping in the entryway. It was actually a really cool experience."
The other trip that stands out took him to the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. The 15-day project involved collaborative efforts between Russian and U.S. scientists conducting research on volcanoes and climate change.
"This was back in 1994, before climate change was as commonly talked about," Butzke said. "We were with this guru who talked about the permafrost and how things have already been changing."
While it was an interesting job from an educational standpoint, Butzke said it was notable for him because it was part of his heritage. Butzke is Inupiat.
"One of the old nomadic villages we went to was Ikpek and that was where my grandmother was born," Butzke said. "It was interesting to get to see the ground dwellings where she might have lived."
How do you prep for a creative career in Alaska?
Are you a storyteller? Whether you work in film, photography or the written word, your creative skills are needed in the Last Frontier. Arguably, field experience is as important as studying writing, photography and film technique in college, so summer internships can be key to landing your dream job as a creative professional. Film editors and writers can earn approximately $60,000 per year.*
*U.S. Department of Labor median salary data, 2014
THE HEALTH EDUCATOR
When Liz Driscoll moved to Anchorage in 2008 she never imagined her daily commute could involve a dogsled. And until three years ago, she hadn't been off the road system.
Her positions as a nurse practitioner and an adjunct professor in the graduate program at the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Nursing kept her fairly busy within Anchorage.
Now she frequently travels to remote villages all over the state as part of her job with UAA.
"Some of the villages don't have roads really, so we'll travel by snowmachine or four-wheeler," Driscoll said.
The most memorable, she said, involved being pulled behind a snow machine on a dog sled.
Driscoll's travels let her check in with students around the state doing their nursing rotations. In addition to mentoring and monitoring nursing students, she also gets to take part in patient care. Through an ongoing partnership with Head Start, a handful of UAA faculty members and students have traveled to eight villages—Tok, Grayling, Fort Yukon, Nunapitchuk, Pilot Station, Kwethluk, Venetie, Hooper Bay—to do well child visits. Destinations change each year.
Over the course of several days, Driscoll and her students administer medical care and provide education in the communities they're serving through the collaboration, Partnership for Alaska Kids.
"It's a great program, because by taking these students into these rural communities, it really sparks an interest," Driscoll said. "One of my former students is now in Dutch Harbor working as a provider."
Next on her travel itinerary are Fort Yukon and Alitak in the fall. They usually do two trips in the fall and two in the spring as part of Partnership for Alaska Kids.
Driscoll explained the communities that are chosen are the ones with the greatest need. Some communities have limited access to preventive health resources with no full-time health care providers in residence. Others lack running water.
"When we go into these communities, we try to develop good relationships," Driscoll said. "We try to help out in any way we can, whether that's with check-ups, education or even putting fluoride on kids' teeth."
For her, the people she meets keep her inspired to travel.
"My favorite one was Nunapitchuk, because of the local kids," Driscoll said. "They just swept us up and wanted to show us all over town. They were so welcoming and so proud of everything they had. It's a nice feeling to get to be a part of that."
How do you become a health educator in Alaska?
Teaching Alaskans about disease prevention and public health can be rewarding. There are several avenues for people interested in health education—traditional medical field training (think nurses and doctors), public or environmental health policy and practice training or field specialty training. Health educators in Alaska can earn $80,000 per year.*
*U.S. Department of Labor median salary data, 2014
THE NURSE PRACTITIONER
If you were to ask Ann Marie Mayer about her numerous travels while working as a nurse practitioner for the Alaska Native Medical Center Diabetes Program, you'd be rewarded with some good stories.
She'd probably tell you about hijacking a refrigerator from a laundromat so she could store blood samples (her getaway vehicle was a dogsled). Or she'd tell you about pretending to be a veterinarian with some local kids whose cat met an unfortunate end; to spare some tears, she swapped their cat for a stray tabby she'd been fostering. She may even tell you about the time she was chased by a walrus when she went somewhere she wasn't supposed to go.
"I'm not going to tell you about any of my wild romances, though," she said, laughing.
Most of Mayer's travels have been while working with ANMC's statewide diabetes program and have taken place exclusively in the winter.
"Nobody will come in to get checked in the summer, because they're all out subsistence gathering," Mayer said.
Each year, she and her teammates go to 10 hub communities around Alaska to treat people with diabetes, as well as coordinating other medical exams like dental, eye and mammograms. She'll also occasionally travel with the prevention outreach coordinator for community events.
During those travels, she inevitably adds more stories to her repertoire, but she also makes it a point to gain knowledge from area elders.
They taught her how to cook food on a fire, how to preserve animal skins, how to prepare muktuk, what their traditional dances meant and how to do things "the old way."
"I was so lucky to have them still with us when I first started 30 years ago," Mayer said. "So that I was able to hear their stories."
Now, because she's worked within the same program for so long, she's treating the kids and grandkids of the elders she admired.
"It's helpful to stay with a program a while, because people feel safe coming to you," Mayer said. "You've built a rapport over the years and that's important."
How do you get into the nursing field in alaska?
Alaska needs nurses and nurse practitioners. If nursing sounds like the field for you, plan to spend 2-4 years in college as an undergraduate and an additional 2-3 years in graduate school if you'd like to become a nurse practitioner. Median salaries in Alaska range from $36,400 (nursing assistant) to $107,700 (nurse practitioner).*
*U.S. Department of Labor salary data, 2014
Over the years, Mike Nabers has seen some creative MacGyvering of broken equipment to keep machinery moving in rural communities. Sometimes it's whittled sticks acting as replacement levers, other times it's a duct tape patch. Whatever gets the job done until a more permanent solution can be found and replacement parts arrive.
"Because these communities can't go to a Home Depot or a Lowe's for repairs, they end up inventing some remarkably ingenious fixes," Nabers said. "There have been plenty of times where repair parts are more similar to a bandaid. Some of these guys have put enough bandaids on to stop what would have been an artery bleed on a person."
Nabers is an operations engineer for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium with intimate knowledge of rural community water plants. Much of his focus on getting clean drinking water to the community as efficiently as possible and making sure waste water is properly treated and disposed. That means a lot of facility visits.
In the last two years he has made 56 intrastate trips for work, most of which were to the same 16 or so communities.
"There are definitely places where they know who I am even though I don't live there," Nabers said. "Though it might be more difficult now. I used to have long hair and a beard, so some people don't recognize me now."
Some of those trips are brief—particularly if it's a new water plant and they know exactly what they're going in to fix. Other trips—where they're troubleshooting an undiagnosed problem—can be several days. In the case of the latter, Nabers and his crew will sleep in a school or, if there are spare beds, a clinic. Sometimes they'll simply sleep at the water plant.
While Nabers said he appreciates that the trips give him the opportunity to fish new territory in his downtime, what he enjoys most is getting insight into different Alaska Native cultures.
"I always learn something new in each of these communities," Nabers said. "It's neat to see the similarities between them and the differences between them. The habits they have. The food they eat."
Not everything is disparate for him though.
"It's nice to go into those communities because I hear Inupiaq words being spoken and I grew up hearing those words at home," Nabers said. "I don't really speak it anymore. But even though they're different communities, they feel really homey."
How do you become an engineer in Alaska?
As a relatively young state, Alaska is still investing in infrastructure improvement. If you're planning on a career in engineering, you'll need to head to college for an undergraduate degree. Elite engineering jobs require a graduate degree. Alaska engineers—civil, mechanical and electrical—can earn more than $100,000 a year.*
*U.S. Department of Labor median salary data, 2014