|LIFE IN THE LAST FRONTIER|
|September 19, 2001 12:00 am|
When the high school went fishing for a science teacher last July, they hauled in a surprise catch.
Megan McCarthy had just moved from Alaska, where she and her husband lived on a boat in the rugged wilderness of Baranof Island.
She walked to work at a nearby schoolhouse, often braving pounding, horizontal rain in head-to-toe rain gear. Her resume includes shrimp fishing for a living in The Last Frontier not exactly what most people would think of as an average school teacher.
Megans Alaskan influence graces her Brookings classroom: swirling, colorful Native American art on the file cabinet; a yellow and black sticker reads: Raven Radio, Sitka.
Her ties to the 49th state go back a long way. Her husband, Milt Ludington, was born there.
Alaska is in his blood, McCarthy said. His father was mauled by a bear; he was featured in Outdoor Life and a book about bear encounters called Bear Tales.
In the 1980s, Megan and Milt lived aboard a boat in a city float working as commercial fishermen on Ketchikan Bay. Salmon licenses were so costly, they decided to fish for shrimp.
Even though theres a massive salmon industry there, its really hard for families who are supported by fishing, Megan said. Its a hard lifestyle. And we had our two girls living on the boat.
Its funny, one day my husband was down in the engine room working on the bilge pump. Theres always a little bit of water down there, and he said there were little Fisher Price toys bobbing around the engine room.
The couple decided there was more opportunity in the lower 48 and moved south. Milt got his civil engineering degree, and Megan got a degree in teaching. Over the years, the couple lived in Montana, New Mexico and Kingston, Wash. But deep down they yearned to return to the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Wed fallen in love with Southeast Alaska, and had a dream of going back and living there, Megan said.
Suddenly there was a lucky break. Milt caught wind of a civil engineering job on an island town situated on Alaskas right leg outside of the Alexander Archipelago. The timing was perfect; the family moved to Baranof Island and Milt became the engineer for the city of Sitka.
Sitka has a very interesting history, Megan said. The natives are the Tlingits (pronounced klink-it) and theyve lived there for thousands of years.
When the Russians came, they were heavily involved in the fur trade and set up their base of operations in the southeast in 1867. It was actually Alaskas first seat when the U.S. bought the state from Russia.
Megan said that the Russian influence in Sitka is still strong. The town has a Russian Orthodox church and many of the natives are Russian-American.
Sitka is a rustic little town and its very isolated. However, the Alaskans have managed to develop a really strong cultural sense, and are determined to include everything in their lives, Megan said. Theres a fabulous music festival in the summer, where musicians come from all over the world.
The town is the people, Megan said. The community-based radio is run by volunteers.
Megan landed a job at Pacific High School, Sitkas answer to an alternative school, where she worked for two years.
Its a program for students with parents who have jobs, or maybe they just want something different, Megan said. Perhaps the high school schedule and environment isnt the best for them.
But the relationship you have with the students is much different. I made a connection with those kids, which is unique in the educational system. You just seem to be in situations where you help the kids through things and forge a relationship you dont normally have in high schools.
The family lived in a house for two years, but were soon back on the water, settling in Thomsen Harbor on a 50-foot Uniflite called the X-ta-sea.
Megan laughs at the recollection. That was the boats name when we bought it we didnt name it that.
Continuing to reminisce about Sitka, she said, It was a great place to raise kids. Its on an island; some people said they never took their car keys out of their car, that way theyd never lose them.
A lot of cruise ships dock near the harbor, and people often say Sitka was their favorite stop. People who know the town say Why did you leave?
But after five years, Milt became restless and wanted a change from his municipal engineering job. On top of that, school enrollment had experienced a sudden drop by about 100 students and Megan was uncertain about her future.
She remembered that On the M*A*S*H TV series, when they had to move from one camp to the other, they called it bug-out time. Milt and I decided it was bug-out time for us.
Milt found employment in Northern California as the Yurok Tribal Engineer, where he was hired to manage construction projects and initiate the tribes first operations and maintenance department. He moved to Crescent City and sent Megan pictures of prospective houses, while Megan dealt with the logistics of selling the boat and sending their belongings to California.
When we moved on the boat, we put a lot of stuff in storage. So everything had to be packed in crates and sent by barge to Eureka. Then we had to U-haul everything back to Crescent City.
Megan herself packed one suitcase, her 18-year-old cat, Ralph, and four plants I just couldnt part with, hopped in her two-door Saturn, took the ferry from Sitka to Bellingham, Wash., then drove down to Crescent City.
When it came time to look for a teaching position, Crescent City wasnt hiring, but Brookings had an opening for a science teacher.
When I got to the school, they told me (Brookings-Harbor High School principal) Dr. Strandberg wanted to talk to me, said Megan. I thought, Oh God, an interview! I wasnt even dressed for it, I was just going to pick up the job description and go home. I was sweating! But Floyd was really nice; we just talked about my background.
Obviously, Megans unusual past made an impression on Strandberg. She got the job.
Megan said she was pleasantly surprised by the back-to-school breakfast in August and the welcome the new teachers received from the community.
Ive never been welcomed as a teacher like that. It made me see that the commitment this community makes to education is admirable. It made me believe that I had made the right decision to work here.
Megan loves Brookings and notes many similarities with Sitka.
Like Alaska, the people here have a strong connection to the ocean, and a strong native cultural history. Like Sitka, Brookings has one main drag that runs through the city. And like the fishing industry (with the depletion of natural resources) theyve had to rethink their future.
For the moment, Megan doesnt feel a longing to return to Alaska. Like many, whose lives become separate chapters in one big book, Megan said, This is just another adventure. Im happy if Im by the ocean; it gets in your blood. You develop a visceral connection with the sea, whether you live on a boat, or just close enough to get your fix. People who share that know what Im talking about.