The Tests for Love – Alaska Style.
KODIAK ISLAND, ALASKA: How do you find the one person who gets you, elevates you, challenges you, and with whom you want to make a life? My person was a guy from New Jersey who I met in Florida after abandoning Ohio. I found work at the local newspaper, which turned into a forty-year career in three states. I’ve been married to the guy from Jersey for 47 years. So when I found out a former classmate was living in Alaska, I had to find out how he got from a small, rural town in Ohio to Alaska.
Mike Sirofchuck lives with his wife, Stacy Studebaker, on Kodiak Island, Alaska. He explains it is a twelve-hour ferry ride on the Tustumena Ferry to the mainland. The Ferry is named after the Tustumena Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula.
COLLEGE-BOUND TO OHIO UNIVERSITY:
“I majored in education with a minor in English and got into the English Tutorial Program, which was two years of a small group of students working with one professor for the entire year. After graduation in 1976, I couldn’t find a teaching job. By August, a professor who had been a mentor said apply for graduate school. We always have some people who don’t show up. I got in as a graduate associate, which meant they paid my tuition and a stipend. I had to teach one freshman-level English class. It was a two-year program, and I learned how to be a teacher in a non-threatening environment.”
“In 1978, I was contacted by Mount Vernon, Ohio city schools. They needed an assistant football coach. I interviewed with the director of instruction and with the head football coach. Even though I only played eighth and ninth-grade football, it was enough to convince him that I could coach ninth-grade football. Because the head football coach gave me his blessing, I got a job at Mount Vernon High School. One coach and I were partners coaching the freshman team, and we were scouts. Our job on Friday nights was to go to other football games and scout the team we would be playing the next week. We had to scout the band for the band director. He wanted to know what the bands were doing. One accomplishment while I was there in 1978 was to coach the boys’ tennis team. They were good players and dying to be coached. We ended up winning their first-ever conference championship.”
DRIVING TO ALASKA:
Mike got an internship at Bowling State University and met a woman from Maryland. “She had signed up for VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, and she had requested the Pacific Northwest, and they sent her to Anchorage. After a month or so up there, she said I don’t want to come back to Ohio. Why don’t you come to Alaska? I said okay and loaded up two peach crates of records and my cat. I bought a little four-wheel-drive Chevy Luv and loaded that up and started off across country. She flew to Portland, Oregon, where we met and drove up the Alaska Highway. It was great fun and the first time I’d been anywhere like that.”
Marin Ridge is a popular summer hike; not many of us go up there in the winter. Photo courtesy of Mike Sirofchuck.
“It’s incredibly beautiful. We saw wildlife, black bears mostly and moose. The cat disappeared at Radium Hot Springs in Canada, and we had to spend an extra two days looking for him. We couldn’t find him and had to go, and as we were packing up, he came walking out of the weeds into the campsite. A few hundred miles north of Anchorage, we had stopped at a lodge, there was a guy there who had a Volkswagen bus that had broken down, and he asked us if we could give him a ride back to Anchorage. We said okay. And so we put his dogs in the back of the truck. We put the cat in the front seat with the three of us crowded in the front. His name was Ted Trueblood, and bless his heart, we said we had no jobs and no place to stay, and he said I have an apartment in my basement. Why don’t you stay there until you get yourselves situated for free for helping me out? We really lucked out.”
Kodiak brown bear prints taken in the Upper Buskin River Canyon where we cross-country ski when the river is frozen. Photo courtesy of Mike Sirofchuck.
Eventually, their relationship ended, and Mike began work as an electrician’s apprentice. I asked him if he knew anything about electricity.
“Not a thing. I did learn that my aptitudes are not in the building trades. But September comes, and I don’t have a teaching job, and I’m doing this job that I’m not very good at. The Anchorage Daily News ran a headline that said the Anchorage District was going to hire twenty teachers district-wide. I sat down and spent that weekend typing cover letters to every principal in the district. I got up Monday morning and went to every school to get an interview. Most of the schools weren’t hiring English teachers. The last school I went to was Clark Middle School in downtown Anchorage, and the secretary said we’re hiring a Social Studies teacher, but my husband is the principal at Eagle River High School. Can I take your stuff home to him? I said sure. That night I got a phone call from George Penrose, middle school principal at Chugiak Junior/Senior High School, and he said be in my office at 7:30 tomorrow morning. Eagle River is a town north of Anchorage up the Glenn Highway. I had no idea where the high school was, and this was before GPS and Internet. I had some maps and was able to figure out where it was and left at 6:00 in the morning, even though it’s only about twelve miles away. A week later, I was teaching seventh or eighth-grade English. I loved that job and was there until 1987.”
“I was planning for a Denali climb in 1986. In December 1985, I headed from Anchorage to Valdez, which is a pretty long drive to go to a four-day avalanche evaluation class studying snow and learning how avalanches occur and how to predict them. I had gotten into mountaineering and was doing a lot of mountain climbing, on glaciers and in the snow, and knowing avalanche hazards was a good thing to know. My friend and I were driving up the Glenn Highway with a couple of hundred miles to go, and my friend’s truck started making a funny noise in the right-front wheel. We pulled over, it’s dark and decided to hitchhike up to the nearest lodge, which was the Sheep Mountain Lodge. Here’s where fate intervened. We got a ride to the lodge and asked to use the phone, and there was a young woman waitressing named Stacy, and she brought us beer and got to talking. We played Scrabble. We got the truck running and went to Valdez for the long weekend, and on the way back, we stopped at the Sheep Mountain Lodge to see Stacy. We exchanged addresses, and she suggested we write letters back and forth, which we did for a couple of months. I went down to see her at spring break. The weather was beautiful. The cross-country skiing was great. We hit it off. We decided to do a long wilderness trip in the summer and see how that goes. It would be a test of how well we got along. There’s an island called Shuyak Island which is the northernmost island of the Kodiak archipelago, and she had kayaked up there quite a bit. We flew up on a float plane and spent a month kayaking around Shuyak Island. It was a good trip. We decided to get married in the summer of 1987 and rented out the Sheep Mountain Lodge, where we met and invited everybody we knew.”
“She’s originally from La Jolla, California, and started coming to Alaska in the 1970s. She was a seasonal ranger at Glacier Bay National Park and decided she wanted to live in Alaska permanently. She had a degree in environmental studies teaching science and got a job at Kodiak.”
Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Public Domain Photo of Rearticulated Gray Whale Skeleton hanging in the Visitor Center.
STACY STUDEBAKER AND THE GRAY WHALE:
Skeleton articulation is something I had to look up and found it to be, according to theboneman.com, “the process of converting a dead animal into a completely cleaned and articulated skeleton.” Stacy retired from teaching high school biology in 2001.
“In May, a gray whale washed up on a beach about 40 miles up a road, and she decided for her retirement project, she thought I can articulate this whale skeleton. According to Stacy’s YouTube video, The Kodiak Gray Whale Project, “Nobody had ever tried to preserve a whale in Alaska this way.”
Mike continues, “She did this amazing organization job with all the permissions. [She got] a construction guy we knew to come in and bury this whale. Five years later, they dug it up, and most of the flesh had rotted off. She spent another two years cleaning it and putting it together, and she had an expert from Homer (bone re-articulation expert, Lee Post) helping her out, and now it hangs in the visitors center in Kodiak.”
I urge you to look at the YouTube video of the seven-year process it took to make this amazing story. She talks about the human story and the over 100 volunteers who helped make the story come true. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hF7zb2OmA-s
Buskin Lake with Bear Mountain in the background. There are some tundra swans on the lake. Photo courtesy of Mike Sirofchuck.
DENALI PROVIDES THE TEST FOR MARRIAGE SUCCESS:
Alaska’s Denali, part of the Alaska Range, is North America’s tallest mountain, standing at 20,310 feet. Mike Sirofchuck has climbed it two times. Formerly known as Mt McKinley, the name change came as a request in 1975 by the Koyukon, a people of Alaskan Athabaskans that settled north of the mountain. However, it wasn’t until 2015 that President Barack Obama announced the renaming.
Mike talked about how he made it to the top of Denali once in 1983 and then again in 1984. A third try was with Stacy in 1987, before their wedding. “We didn’t make it to the top. We had bad weather and spent a week at the high camp, and it wasn’t going to clear up.” They determined, “We were able to be in a tent in a storm for weeks and would be able to be married.” Denali’s high camp is at 17,200′ and is described as a “cold and harsh place,” and commonly has winds over 70 mph, and “temperatures are often -30F and colder.”