Spring Time = Fun Time

We officially have more than twelve hours of daylight every day here and spring is showing in Sitka! It’s currently pouring rain and looks a bit like October, but the rain has only returned after a week and a half of beautiful sunny days! The herring fisherman have yet to have an opening, but they have been on two-hour notice since Monday at 8a.m. (meaning that Alaska Department of Fish and Game could open the fishery at any time, so be by the boat and be ready!). The herring fishing season is about 40% of all of Sitka’s fishing income for the season–around $12 million last year– and only lasts a couple weeks. Herring is . . . kind of a big deal here, to put it mildly. Selected boats are currently catching samples of herring, which are then tested to examine the maturity of the roe. Apparently the eggs aren’t at peak maturity yet, which is when they are most valuable and are caught. People here are beginning to get anxious for an opener, even people in town who have no claim to any of the fish, but who just want to see the action! My supervisor has promised me that as soon as there is an opening, even during the work day, we will hop in the car and run to the shore to watch the chaos of the competitive opening unfold.

Last week I had the privilege of hosting my life-long, best friend, Annie and her friend, Amy here in Sitka.

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Annie and me in Totem Park, Yay!

Up for a little vacation, Annie and Amy headed up to experience Baranof Island. I enjoyed a bit of a “staycation” myself as we had the chance to housesit.  Lounging in the hot tub on the porch in the sun is not too shabby for March in Alaska! And, for the first time in many months, I experienced what it felt like to be too hot. A rather unique experience that we all got to enjoy, was the carving of a new totem pole that is being raised on April 9th at Sitka National Historical Park. The totem is specifically designed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Park here in town. The artist/designer is carving it himself along with a couple others and it is visible for everyone to learn about, watch, and even to participate! For our “community night” last week as a house, we headed down to the park to check it out!

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If you want to see more pictures, they’re right here!

The design of the totem beautifully weaves together symbols of both the Native and the Russian history here with particular distinction. The raising of a totem pole is a special event, surrounded with ritual and ceremony, and I will not be missing this unique event on April 9th!

Annie, Amy, and I also meandered to the lookout on Gavan Hill and visited  Baranof Island Brewing, where Annie learned that she still doesn’t like beer, but she does like cute, local breweries. Other activities with my lovely visitors included a picnic at John Brown’s Beach with a very scared little dog (Dipper, who I was housesitting for), building a fort in my living room, eating delicious bagels at Highliner Coffee Co. and fabulous sushi at Little Tokyo. It was a great visit of catching up with each other and exploring around the area. Any more visitors are always welcome!!

This past weekend, I also hiked Mt. Verstovia with my friend, Chris and ate fresh crab that was delivered to our door! Not too bad for a Saturday in Alaska! 

Me Rocking the Windswept Look, Officer Bonner Squinty Eyes!

I even managed to fit in a little sunbathing!

Alaskan Sunbathing

Gina scoops out the fiesty crab with a ladel. Always something eventful at the JV house!

The Crab Fights Back!

And Nick goes to work killing it in our kitchen sink.

Nick the Crab Killer!

Life has picked up a bit since the sun is out more, the daylight hours are longer, and friends are coming to visit!! Many more adventures to come.

Thoughts on JVC

At JVC orientation last August, the staff of JVC Northwest and many former JVs (FJVs) attempted to prepare us for the year ahead with stories, advice, and reflections for five straight days. One of the things I heard repeatedly throughout the week at Camp Adams was, “This will be one of the hardest years of your life.” My initial reaction was one of cynicism to such an audacious statement. How could this year really be that hard? I’ve already had experience living in community, I’ve moved around to different places many times, I’ve volunteered in the past . . . What’s so different about signing up for JVC that it’s going to be the hardest year of my life?

During one of our first weekends in Sitka, while we were still being treated to our weekly boat ride from generous people in town, I found myself laying in an old fishing net, now used as a hammock. On that sunny Sunday afternoon I said to my housemates who surrounded me as they too lounged, “Oh yeah, this is definitely the hardest year of my life.”

While I will refrain from making any blanket statements until the end of the year (if at all), I will admit that, despite some of my mockery of the reflections I heard seven months ago, I am, in fact, finding myself in the midst of a very difficult year. I know I fill my blog with stories of fun times with friends and beautiful pictures, but life as a JV has proven challenging. Yes, I had lived in an intentional community and volunteered prior to this year, but my time in Sitka with JVC has brought insight into facets of communal life and social work that were otherwise unknown.

This year I have been confronted with what it means to walk in the door of a social service agency and spend 40 hours a week working within the confines of a system that feels poorly organized and anything but user-friendly (as a whole, not necessarily my specific agency). Suddenly comments about the “burn-out” rate of social service workers and the idea of “secondary trauma” are no longer foreign concepts, but are instead ideas that I relate to on a daily basis. I’m told I need to focus on “self-care,” but am given few instructions on what that actually looks like, and, instead, it becomes a regularly used justification for (occasionally) going over my monthly stipend: “It’s ok to have this chai . . .  it’s self care!” I come home thinking of the bigger questions, about how the laws and regulations need exceptions, and that the details and emotions involved in the work I do rarely fit within the context of government implemented structures that attempt to assist those I serve. I also have gained insight into various aspects of non-profit work (organization, funding, philosophy, etc.) and understand teamwork in a whole new way as I collaborate with the other advocates at the shelter.

JVC is a great program in that it allows me to jump right into the work of a social service agency without a lot of prior experience or training. JVC is also a terribly challenging program because it allows me to jump right into the work of a social service agency without a lot of prior experience or training. I think you get the point: it’s a mixed blessing and each person’s experience can vary drastically depending on the agency, training received, and work expected. Even my housemate, Jackie, and I know all of the same people from our jobs and have had pretty different experiences at our placement.

So with all of our varying experiences at work, my housemates and I are then expected to come together and have an intentional community. While I love the theory of this idea, I’ve found it very challenging this year. Six girls, six different jobs, six various day-to-day experiences, six-very different personalities, and we all belong to the same intentional community house. Did I mention this program is only a year? We only have about four full months left here before my housemates and I head different directions and pursue future endeavors. And this is right about the time we’ve finally figured out a grocery shopping and chore system!

When we recently hosted a dinner for a group of students from University of Portland on a spring break trip to Sitka and Juneau to learn about Native Alaskan culture, I began to realize, in answering their questions (which were great), how much I have learned here and how grateful I am to know the realities of what was discussed months ago at orientation. The ideas of community and social justice that JVC encourages us to explore and wrestle with throughout the year have left me pondering questions, crying on the phone to my mom, laughing with housemates, and ranting  to those who I know will still love me after I’m finished. But, ultimately, it has left me willing to keep learning as much as I can and serving as best as I can, how ever that may look (with some rest and “self-care” mixed in there somewhere!).

As it turns out, the FJVs at orientation did, in fact, have some rather poignant ideas. And I’m grateful to those older and wiser who have been willing to give feedback and offer insight into the various struggles of the year. Thank you for the support. I only hope that I might be able to offer the same some time.

Juneau? Alaska!

Juneau what happened last month? Well, let me tell you! (I’m sorry, totally cheesey and completely irresistible. Had to take advantage of the word play).

After hearing about Juneau every day since arriving in Sitka (it is, after all, only 90 miles away and the “metropolis” of Southeast), I finally got the chance to travel there for our second retreat with the Alaska JVC community houses (Sitka, Juneau, Anchorage, and Bethel) over President’s Day weekend. With only two flights out of Sitka each day (6 a.m. and 6 p.m.), all six of us stumbled out of the house shortly after 5 a.m. Friday morning and loaded our packs into Hank’s Cab bound for the airport. Prior to leaving for retreat, I realized we would be getting to Juneau rather early in the morning and that retreat didn’t start until 2 p.m., so I began plotting!

Conveniently, my friend Chris from Sitka was in Juneau on a little ski vacation and was looking for a ski buddy for Friday! So, despite thinking that I may not ski at all this year, after our arrival in Juneau and a brief time at the airport, Chris picked up me, my friend, Ian,  from Gonzaga (a JV in Juneau this year), and his housemate, Conor. We headed out to Eagle Crest ski area just 20 minutes down the road under perfect blue skies. The word “excited” drastically understates my feelings as we headed to the ski hill. I think I bounced up and down in the passenger seat on the way there, and I was so enthusiastic, in fact, that I lost my ability to think, and I left my ski boots at Ian and Conor’s house. Naturally, this became obvious when we got to Eagle Crest and began getting ready. . . Well done, Liz! So, we piled back in the car (Ian with one ski boot already on).  I endured relentless teasing from the boys, and we made a quick trip back to the JV house. Upon our second arrival at Eagle Crest, we had a more successful start! I believe a direct quote from me to Ian while on the chairlift was, “I feel like I’m reconnecting with my soul!” Needless to say, it felt amazing to be up on the mountain again, 14 months (not that I’m counting) after I made my last turns in Alta, Utah. I do not, however, have ski legs this season, so the half day we skied before retreat was plenty for me!

After heading down from the mountain, we managed to fit in a quick trip to Alaskan Brewery! The other JVs had arrived while we were skiing, so we quickly picked up Braden downtown (yay!) and headed out to get some local samples. You have to have a beer after skiing anyway, right? Alaskan Brewery was actually much smaller than I thought and even felt a bit similar to Baranof Island Brewing Co. here in Sitka. With the popularity of Alaskan, I had imagined the venue on a slightly larger scale. The samples were, of course, fabulous and then we headed on to retreat, since that was in fact what we came for!

Our retreat was held at The Shrine north of Juneau surrounded by water and snow-capped mountains. I had heard nothing but incredible things about it, and the setting did live up to expectations. Pictures to follow later when I have them available. Our weekend was facilitated by Father Thomas, a former parish priest in Juneau who has recently been moved to Wrangell/Petersburg. He led several hours of reflection and prayer throughout the weekend, and we were even treated to his lovely spinach/broccoli/almond blended delight in the mornings (not something I have continued to consume since!). The weekend went by quickly, we shared many stories of our jobs with one another, and, just like retreat in October, it felt wonderful to come together with the other JVs.

Though the retreat ended on Monday, I extended my time in Juneau for a couple of days, as did Braden and six people from the Bethel house. On the way back from retreat, we stopped by Mendenhall Glacier, which I thought would be cool, but it was significantly more impressive than I even imagined. Due to the cold temperatures and the storm that had blown through that weekend, Mendehall Lake was completely frozen and had about two feet of snow on top. On a perfectly sunny Monday afternoon, we all trekked out on the lake walking across the frozen and snowy surface to the base of the glacier. It was sunny. It was quiet. And it was BIG. I felt very little next to even a “small” piece of ice that had broken off and was stuck frozen in the lake. This was obviously a unique time to experience Mendenhall since most people have to kayak to the base during summer.

Throughout the rest of the time in Juneau we went to the Alaska State History Museum (which was actually way more interesting than I thought it would be), we hiked through the snowy meadow part way up Mt. Jumbo, toured around downtown Juneau, wandered through the ruins of old mines around Douglas, and went to the local rock climbing gym where they love JVs and let us climb for free! I also got the chance to visit the AWARE domestic violence shelter where Ian and his JV housemate work, which gave me a nice opportunity to see another shelter in action. It was much different than the SAFV shelter in Sitka and left me with plenty of thoughts about my work as an advocate. I can’t forget to mention, of course, the Island Pub in Douglas (across the channel from Juneau, where the JVs actually live) where I indulged in the greatest steak sandwich of my life. The weather was cold and sunny during our days of touring around town, and it was a nice change of scenery. Though Sitka and Juneau are often compared to each other, I came to the important conclusion that in Sitka the water is dominant, while the mountains are secondary, but in Juneau the mountains are dominant, while the water is secondary. I felt much more surrounded by mountains during my time in Juneau, whereas here in Sitka, I feel much more surrounded by water (perhaps because I’m on an island?). This might not sound like much of a revelation to someone who hasn’t been to either of these places, but for as similar as they are, they offered a much different feel, at least to me!

So, that is a bit of a report of the weekend/retreat events in Juneau. It was a wonderful time to be with other JVs, to see a new place, and to take a break from work. Back in Sitka, spring is on the horizon. The snow is melting, but what most makes it feel like spring here is the return of fishermen to town. Herring season begins in just a couple weeks and the docks are filling with people as many preparations for the opener take place! My life-long friend, Annie, is also coming to visit in just 12 days with her friend Amy and I very much look forward to showing them around and sharing my life in Sitka with them. I will post pictures as soon as they are available. Until the next report, I hope spring is beginning to reach you wherever you are!