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Into the Woods: Giving Walking Tours at Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary

My least favorite subject has always been science. No matter which grade level you look at, I was never remotely interested in meiosis, mitosis, dissecting a fetal pig, the Periodic Table, or anything in that realm. Science just never made sense to me. I was also what you might call “indoorsy” as a child; while I was very involved in extracurriculars, they were almost all in the world of theatre, which, of course, takes place indoors.

Imagine my surprise to now be waking up every day to do my outdoor job of educating vacationers about natural science here in the rainforest of Alaska. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? But what I’ve learned through this job and the last one (teaching kids about science in the mountains) is that if you’re determined, you can find something interesting about everything in the world, even the things you least like. For me, that’s science. And finding the things about science, nature, and the outdoors that not only entertain and engage me, but every group I’ve had out here, has been a challenge and a joy.

So enough introduction, what is it that a Trail Guide at the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary does? Well, I wake up every morning, put on my storm-cloud-colored uniform, and walk up the hill to Trailhead.

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Where we start our day!

We usually do two to three tours a day, with the occasional four-tour day (which is doable, but exhauuusting). The three different types we offer are Combos, Full Walks, and Bear Tours. A combo is a quick, basically hour-long walk through the woods, talking a little bit about this and a little bit about that. We don’t delve too deeply into the rainforest, but we spend a little time looking for wildlife and show everyone the mini-features. Combos are always done in conjunction with something else, like going to George Inlet for a crab feast, or going to town to see the Lumberjack Show. Full Walks are a bit longer, with more time in the rainforest and way more information about the ecology of the area. And finally, there are Bear Tours. Imagine that the satisfaction of your customers is based almost entirely on the behavior of wild animals. That is the stress of a Bear Tour. But they are cool in their own way, in that you have the freedom to go pretty much wherever you want and make the tour different every time.

As different as these tours are, they have some similar elements. Most of the time, there’s a walk in the woods, with at least a little bit of talk about the ecology of the area (what makes a rainforest, plants, trees, flowers, berries, how all these things relate to each other and the wildlife).

After this, every tour heads out to the estuary boardwalk, where we try and spot some wildlife!

We then explore the mini-features, starting with the Alaska Raptor Center. A non-profit that we partner with, the ARC is the only full-service avian hospital in the state, and has their educational extension here in Ketchikan. We get to introduce every group to three of their permanent residents, one of whom is always a big hit: Sitka, the female adult bald eagle.

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Sitka with Leah, one of her handlers.

The girls at Alaska Raptor Center always do a great job with a presentation and answering questions, which I commend them for doing on constant repeat all day long! After stopping by to visit our two reindeer, Fiona and Coco, we visit Wayne and Toni’s totem pole workshop. Wayne is a master totem pole carver from the Tsimshian tribe working on his 42nd story pole, the process of which is truly remarkable to witness.

We end by exploring the historic sawmill, visiting Luci, the juvenile bald eagle, and showing everyone where to find the totem pole park (the only Tsimshian totem pole park in the country), the blacksmith shop, and, of course, the gift shop! At this point, we walk around, mingle, and if the turn-around is really quick, go sprinting off to our next tour. Rinse and repeat!

And that’s a day in the life of a trail guide here at ARS! Some days we go out and wildlife spot, trying to track down bears for Bear Tours, some days we do extra projects, and once a week we get a paid Study Hour, in which we update and upgrade our knowledge about the Tongass. We learn more every day, not just from studying, but from the questions we’re asked and the information we gather from guests. I’m making up for all the science that flew out of my head as a teenager and replacing it with real-life, in-person knowledge and experience, and it has truly been the best way to learn.

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