By: Maggie Scannell
About Me & WWOOF
During two summers as an undergrad at Western Michigan University (which as you’ll see later, is important to note), I worked at camps in Utah and Washington. Knowing that I was heading into my last full summer break as a student before entering the “real world”, I was itching to get back to camp for one last hurrah.
I made the difficult -but ultimately wise- decision to steer away from camp (until I’m 60) and focus on an opportunity that would be a “better fit for my current educational endeavors”. I accepted and was very excited about a full-time internship from June through August with the Stewardship Division of a Big Ten University’s Foundation. Still, I was badly craving the feeling of working outdoors and being somewhere new for the first time.
After realizing my entire month of May was free, a gift beckoning me to the open roads, I started scheming.
I remembered hearing about WWOOF–Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms–from mutual friends who were extremely hardworking, carefree people. WWOOF is an organization that facilitates homestays for volunteers. Suddenly, WWOOFing and the month of May became the perfect combination.
A month gave me more freedom than a ‘quick weekend getaway’ or routine road trip to push limits and go somewhere I’ve always dreamt about. Somewhere with hype, grandeur, and epic mystery. Somewhere….in Alaska.
The Last Frontier
On March 17, I created a WWOOF account and sent about ten general inquiries to farms in Alaska. That afternoon, I heard back from Beth at Scenic Place Peonies. She gave me her phone number and told me to text her so we could schedule a phone call.
On March 18, we talked on the phone for half an hour, mainly about wool socks.
On March 20, I bought my round-trip ticket from campus to Homer, AK.
On March 21, WWOOF changed the status of my request to ACCEPTED. And, as they say, the rest is history.
On Friday, April 30, (the last day of final exam week back at GV) at 6:15 p.m. local time, I stepped off the plane in Homer and walked into the tiniest airport I have ever seen. Beth and the other WWOOFer, Kate, casually walked up to me and started chatting like they knew me for years. We hopped in the farm’s Astro Van and headed to the marina at the end of ‘The Spit’- a famous 4.5-mile long strip of land that juts out into the Kachemak Bay. That meant I had two minutes to dig through my luggage and shove everything I needed for the next 48 hours into my backpack, pay attention through the window to all the points of attraction flying by that they were shouting out, all while befriending a big, scary-looking dog named Loki (Spoiler alert: Loki and I became the best of pals).
As the three of us were unloading the van, Beth’s husband, Captain Kurt, came up the ramp. The first thing he said to me was, “Maggie, you are the one in charge here, okay?” I took that to be an appropriate introduction in a town where everyone seemed to know everyone. After three different planes that day, sitting on a cooler rattling in the back of their Boston Whaler for 40 minutes was a major relief.
Capt. Kurt came to Alaska immediately after graduating from Central Michigan University in the early eighties (as a proud Bronco Alum…this is where I am obligated to say “boo!”) with big plans to become a famous commercial fisherman. The original plan didn’t work out, but he did stay in Alaska permanently and does work on a boat….so if you ask me, the plan turned into something better because he also met his wife here and together they run a very successful peony flower business.…but we’ll save that conversation for another day.
Back at the cabin they are still in the process of finishing, we were staring out the big window exchanging stories. Deep into the night, I was asking this man I’d only known for a few hours a long list of questions about what it was really like out at sea. Every chance he got he would say “this is the land of opportunity.” Nestled inside a cabin heated by a wood stove in remote Alaska, it was a whirlwind unlike anything I had experienced.
Over and over again, I kept hearing “this is the land of opportunity.” Confused and captivated at the same time, I wondered what that even meant. Well…like all mysteriously profound characters, he wasn’t going to give me the answer or an easy way out. I guess that meant I had to do some investigating of my own.
The next morning was slow and restorative. Right before lunch Kate and I ventured off in the tandem kayak to find sea lions, sea otters, and puffins. Thanks to the sheer beauty in the area, it wasn’t long before we were looking at wildlife. After lunch, Kate and I took the expedition to the land. Depending on who you talk to, the Cook Inlet boasts the second or fourth highest tides in the world. Either way, these tides were gnarly, so Beth cautiously warned us about checking the time of day to make sure we had access to the shore. If we went at the wrong time, we would have gotten stranded for a few hours up on a ridge somewhere with no path back to the porch.
In the late afternoon, I skipped rocks for what felt like hours. It was glorious. I hadn’t skipped that many rocks since I was a child on the shore of Lake Superior. Loki joined me and we played fetch until Beth called us in for dinner.
After dinner Captain Kurt put all of us to shame in several rounds of Clue. We ate dessert, and us ladies lost hope of ever winning, so we called it a night relatively early.
On Sunday evening, we read a little longer and walked a little further. In the late afternoon when it was sadly time to leave, we boated back to Homer.
At 9 a.m. on Monday, I followed Kate around for the morning routine from the propagation room, to the greenhouse, then to the high tunnel. Because of the colder temperatures in May, peonies cannot grow outside in Alaska, but there was plenty of work to do to get ready for peak season. I did not know anything about peonies beforehand, and I still don’t know much, but it didn’t slow me down from completing the tasks. My hosts and the crew were always happy to answer questions and explain fun facts; it was a learning farm, after all.
We worked Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. with one hour for lunch. The work was great, I was just happy to be outside and working with my hands. Halfway through my stay, two paid interns contracted until September arrived. Our “crew” was now four strong and ready to weed for a week straight. Sounds miserable, but between the 360-degree views, the 18 hours of sunlight, and the sledding technique with the 5-gallon buckets in tow, it was ergonomically-friendly and a surprisingly fun way to spend the first half of the day. No complaints.
Other tasks included harvesting tulips from the high tunnel and delivering them to a farm stand downtown, herding the chickens when they would escape the coop, and planting more vegetables for us to enjoy with fresh fish for almost every meal.
Free time was spent strolling through the Carl Wynn Nature Center looking for moose, going on hikes in the area, reading ‘for fun!’ in my hammock, or driving into town to connect with the locals.
As I mentioned, my summer internship in the stewardship department of a Big Ten University’s Foundation was coming up, and even though I was recently introduced to the word ‘stewardship’ as a popular idea in the nonprofit world, I first heard it in the context of land and crop. So, when Kurt got me hooked on the ‘land of opportunity’, I thought there might be a connection between the two.
On the flight from Denver to Anchorage, the proud Alaskan mom I sat next to informed me that her state has the most nonprofits per capita. Naturally, when I travel I always try to submerge into the local community, but her pitch made me even more intrigued.
One of the three local nonprofit legends I was able to connect with was the Executive Director of the Homer Community Foundation, Mike Miller. When I think of a true Alaskan local…. full of hospitality, wisdom, and soft humility, I see Mr. Miller. He set that bar high! (Disclaimer: he was born in Wisconsin – but they got it going on there too, eh.) Coming out of retirement once already, Mike was clearly at home in Homer.
I asked him what he thought “good stewardship” looked like. Without skipping a beat—in his brown Xtratuf boots (an iconic AK staple), flannel shirt, glasses, and gray-haired low ponytail—he held up his strong hands as if he was showing me an imaginary bowl or piece of art. He said, “You see this? I do not own it. It’s not mine. It was given to me, and it is my responsibility to maintain it while making it better, so when the time comes for me to pass it along to the next person, they will carry it even further.”
A textbook couldn’t have said it any better.
The Latin root of ‘sustain’ (sustinere) loosely means ‘held up from below.’ I forgot that I learned this definition years previously until I realized that when Mike was describing his vision of ‘good stewardship’ using words, he was using actions to demonstrate what it meant to be ‘sustainable’.
Captain Kurt was right: Alaska is the Land of Opportunity….at least, for himself, as it was for me during May. Through actions and behaviors, everyone I interacted with seemed to be thoughtful, responsible, and extraordinary stewards of their community at large. They are deeply committed to each other and the land…along with the available opportunities to grow, rest, and learn.
Without a doubt, taking one month to WWOOF in Homer held me up from below. I was welcomed there, humbled there, and given plenty of space to grow and explore. Homer showed me how to be a good steward in personal and professional pursuits…. and it inspired me to ponder crafting a lifestyle that maybe just maybe doesn’t need such distinct boundaries between the two.
Graduate school ends in a few months for me, and before then, my biggest priority is to answer the question: how do I use my experience WWOOFing in Homer for one month as an example to mimic the type of lifestyle I want to have every month after this…repeating forever *that enables me to maximize my degree and serve my community? Hear me out, I am not saying I am moving to Alaska- at least not for the winter, and I would never make it as a florist. I know I don’t have all the answers, but the ongoing task to patchwork them together is fun.
Whenever I get stumped or need to refocus on the vision, I play The Marfa Tapes album from start to finish, light a candle, and if friends are around we break out a deck of cards. I do this because it replicates the best nights in Homer. That album had just come out, and the candle was brand new (by the time I left it was an empty glass jar). Those moments support the findings from my very formal, very exhausting ‘Land of Opportunity’ investigation, and are the kind of moments I think would make Mark and Captain Kurt proud.
Now I’d like to challenge you, the reader, to determine what your own ‘land of opportunity’ looks like. Is it in your head or somewhere on a physical map? If you get stuck refining your answer, play The Marfa Tapes. If you learn that unpolished country music with the sound of the desert in the background isn’t your thing, that is alright. You are still a step closer to discovering what is.
I encourage you, if you’re able, to keep chasing down or building up your answer –especially as a student when our capacity to dream and try new things is still developing.
If you’re as lucky as I was, that pursuit will ‘hold you up’ and ‘sustain you’.
To read the article on GVSU Sustains, click here.