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Help Spills Out in Alaska

Posted on Thursday, February 28th, 2013.

After weeks of anticipation and excitement, Luis and I arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska in early October. KUAC, Alaska’s public radio station, was celebrating its 50th anniversary and invited participants to come and share their Alaskan stories.

After hours and hours of travel, we made it to the Denali Center, a local nursing home that would be our recording location for the week. Much to our delight, we found that we would be setting up our paperwork and greeting station in the barber shop. For the next five days, we had a steady stream of participants come into the barber shop (along with a few people looking for haircuts!), each with a unique story. Participants remembered growing up in extremely isolated towns in the outback: life without phones or running water; the hunting and building skills that were passed down to them from older family members; and using planes to get to towns with no roads.

Suzanne Evans and LJ Roberts

Suzanne Bishop and LJ Evans

One afternoon, Suzanne Bishop and LJ Evans came in to talk with each other about their roles as volunteers in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil. LJ was a volunteer in the clean-up process and Suzanne became the public information officer, giving daily press conferences.

LJ had recently moved to Alaska, and was one of the first volunteers to arrive at the scene of the spill. The morning after the tanker crashed she heard the news on the radio and went straight to the animal rescue center that had been set up and waited for the first bird to be brought in. As she remembered what it was like to clean the oil off of the animals that had been caught in the spill, she and Suzanne acknowledged that it is still difficult to talk about their memories. Suzanne, who worked to communicate the situation to press from around the world, recalled crying every night.

As volunteers continued to work to clean up the oil, letters of support poured in from around the world. LJ opened a P.O. box to receive the letters to the volunteers and decided to see what would happen if she put out a call for emails. It was the very beginning days of email, but thousands of messages came to them, thanking them for their work. Over time, Suzanne and LJ became close friends. Towards the end of their interview, LJ mentioned participating in a release of guillemot and cormorant birds that had been rescued and rehabilitated. It turned out that Suzanne had never been to one of the releases, so LJ described “the one joyous day” that she had had as a volunteer, watching the birds swarm out of their cages and fly out to the water. Nearly all of our participants talked about their deep love of the Alaskan landscape, and for these two women, that love had changed the course of their lives.

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