Alaska Trip - David's Journal
David Hettlinger - Technology Support Specialist, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans
With trip arrangements and itinerary prepared by team leaders Kaj Moenck and Rachel Sawall, our team arrived in Anchorage. Coming in from the Four Corners of the Earth, or at least throughout the lower forty-eight states, we did not arrive at the same time. One couple, Steve and Ann, arrived on Saturday after having taken a cross-continent trip from Michigan. Most of us flew in on Saturday, with luggage in hand.
Rachel, Kaj, and AmeriCorp's Serena Kelsch, a national direct, drove us from the airport (or train station). We had a chance to drop by the site. Those who had been here last year were amazed by how far the houses (town homes, in this case) had come. We would have a chance to do a wide range of tasks with the homes being at different stages in the build process.
At last we made it to our gracious host, Anchorage Lutheran Church. Margaret Forbes, our Global Village coordinator, was there to greet us, along with some tasty take-and-bake pizza. Some team members took a short trip to a local department store to pick up missing supplies; others stuck around the church building or walked a nearby trail. While we did not have a chance to do formal introductions, many had a chance to mingle and share stories of past trips.
Here are the names of our team members:
Kaj Moenck, Thrivent Financial IT Operations, Minneapolis, MN
Rachel Sawall, Thrivent Financial IT Architecture & Engineering, Appleton, WI
Jennifer Isley, Massage therapist, Wrightstown, WI
Ron Swan, Thrivent Financial IT Asset Management Systems, Minneapolis, MN
David Hettlinger, Thrivent Financial IT Operations, Minneapolis, MN
Martha Shortidge, retired (communications and development), Brewster, New York
Kathy Kaddatz, Thrivent Financial Human Resources, Appleton, WI
Janet and Stanley Marohl, Thrivent Financial Services Operations and home improvement contracting, Appleton, WI
Kari Koehler, Thrivent Financial Community Services Team, St. Louis, MO
Paul Loken, Thrivent Financial IT Member Product Services, Minneapolis, MN
Steve Bolek and Ann (Suzy) Christiansen, retired police officer and tax preparation, Gladstone, Michigan
Dave Westphal, Thrivent Financial IT Field Sales Systems Appleton, WI
Greg Retzlaff, Thrivent Financial IT Field Sales Systems, Appleton, WI
Debi Brace, Thrivent Financial IT Member Product Services, Appleton, WI
Ming-Fen Wang, Thrivent Financial IT Architecture & Engineering, Minneapolis, MN
Terry Baranczyk, architecture, Green Bay, WI
The day began with our first trip over to the Alaska Club. While Anchorage Lutheran Church does not have shower facilities, the Alaska Club has generously granted us passes for the two weeks of our time here. On top of that, the attendant was kind enough to grant some of us access even though we had left our passes at the church building. We attended the 8:30 AM Sunday worship service at Anchorage Lutheran, celebrating the mystery of the Holy Trinity and bid Godspeed to the church's Nunapitchuk Mission Team.
Margaret and Serena guided our afternoon trip. We stopped first at the Iditarod Museum, where we talked with the son of the Iditarod race founder and met a team a sled dogs. After our picnic-style lunch, we toured the town of Talkeetna and had the chance to view the inspiration for the TV show "Northern Exposure."
Dave Bredin, a board member for Habitat for Humanity Alaska, invited us over to his house for an afternoon gathering and dinner. He and his wife have recently built a lakeside home in part of the woods inaccessible by any automobile. The afternoon soared by as we conversed with each other, ate burgers and bratwurst off the grill, met Dave's neighbors, fished, and cruised around the lake.
After returning to the church building, we became more acquainted with each other by finding out what we share in common with our fellow team members, besides a desire to retire to our air mattresses.
Today was our first (return) visit to the build site. For five team members, i.e, Kaj, Rachel, Kari, Dave Westphal, and Paul, this was a much anticipated trip back. The site supervisor, Jim Paulus, recognized them and welcomed them back. After providing us with safety advice, we took a tour of the town houses. Connected by second-floor decks, the four buildings consist of twelve condominiums (units). Some are three-bedroom, and some are five-bedroom; all of them are beautiful.
Our team divided up between various tasks. Some of the more experienced workers, as well as some with fewer skills, assisted in sheet rocking one of the units. Others leveled a crawl space, painted siding, and hung doors. For many, this work was a first-time experience. Writing for myself, I was deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn a new skill.
After our first day of labor, we were served dinner by three host families. The Brands, Thompsons, and Tulimasealiis provided us with barbeque, salad, and dessert. We heard the stories of these families, including a moving testimonial by Isumu Tulimaesalii. (Isumu is twenty-eight years old and is the provider for five boys. He graced us with two hymns from his native American Samoan culture.) Following this, we learned more Habitat Anchorage from Margaret then relaxed at local pubs.
"Patience" was our watchword on day four. We carried on our worksite endeavors today. Some continued to paint then caulked. Some continued to lay drywall, which was another new skill for this team member.
The full-time Habitat staff and volunteers continued to show us utmost patience. They are generally the ones with the most construction and carpentry experience, yet they are ever willing to teach us and gracefully correct our mistakes. But patience does not end there, as team members themselves show patience. Certainly, we show patience to each other. Sleeping in a church building together, working on-site together, traveling together, etc. demands at least some patience. We all have our quirks, and most of us are not expert carpenters. Still, showing patience toward ourselves may be just as important. Having met a few of the partner families and having observed how much effort goes into building houses, motivation to do one's best increases. (Mistakes seem less tolerable.) Reminding oneself that the work is unfamiliar so be patient lightens the burden.
For dinner, Kaj and Rachel took us to The Fancy Moose, a restaurant with a view of a watery runway. While no planes took off during our meal, we did enjoy feasting on seafood. Afterward, teammates took a walk through Anchorage and drove into town for supplies.
Yesterday I described the patience involved in our Thrivent Builds Worldwide trip, and I mentioned how mistakes play a part. On this third on-site day, I reflected more deeply on mistakes.
With most of us new to house construction, we make our fair share of mistakes. (Writing for myself, I know that I've missed my fair share of studs with my power drill and screws.) Despite this, the building process itself has a large amount of grace built into it. Sheet rocking doesn't need to be sliced (or screwed in) perfectly; that's what compound (mud) is for. Siding doesn't need to be cut and nailed perfectly; that's what caulking and painting is for. This is not to imply that team members do not value good results; we simply are all in need of grace. And that grace comes in many different ways and forms.
Following our work day, we prepared dinner for at the church building for ourselves and three partner families: The Mangrobangs, Martinezes, and Nosakheres. Their smiles, especially those of their many children, helped us more fully appreciate our work. We then convened as a team for reflection on our favorite activities thus far. For some, meeting partner families has made the trip special, for others it has been the chance to see what progress has been made, for others learning/teaching new skills adds the most, and finally some value the chance to simply be themselves.
Dynamics at our work site continue to impress me. Today was our fourth day at the build and our last day for this week. (Tomorrow we will travel to Kenicott in the southeastern part of Alaska.) While at our site, we encounter a wide variety of Habitat friends. As mentioned previously, Jim is our site supervisor, who gives us assignments and monitors them. Habitat also employs a worksite director, Harry, who oversees the construction. A couple of paid interns, Crystal and Alex, help us keep our bearings straight and find us equipment and tools.
In addition to these paid individuals, we are accompanied by a variety of volunteers. George, Bob, and others are retired gentlemen who spend their days with Habitat. Other locals come during the summer when their jobs/education are at a lull, or come in the afternoons. Once in a while we see construction experts, such as César, an electrician, who help with particular tasks. And while most of the partner families put in their sweat equity hours over the weekends, we did work beside one of the future home owners (on Wednesday).
I asked Jim for his thoughts about Thrivent Builds Worldwide visits like ours. While he appreciates all volunteers, he said that he particularly values groups like us. The reason for that is he is guaranteed a certain number of workers for a couple of weeks. In other words, he can train us and see the fruit of that training. Before this conversation, I had been skeptical about our involvement: Might it end up being pretentious, a bunch of outsiders dropping in for a few days to play the role of heroes? Jim's words put this fear to rest.
Before I finish this entry, I did want to mention that we had a particularly fruitful lunch. Not only did we name our stuffed/plush husky mascot “Denali,” but we also celebrated Kari's birthday. She turned a year older with us today.
Our first workweek at the Spenard and 32nd Habitat build site is done. And although there is still much to do, we, including Jim (our site supervisor) are pleased with our progress.
To celebrate (as well as to take in different scenery), we traveled to Kennicott, AK, home of the world's formerly most productive copper mine. This was nearly a full day of travel.
Our trip began with a six and a half hour drive from Anchorage east to Chitina. We are borrowing two passenger vans from Habitat Anchorage: an eight seat van and a fifteen seat van. Team members take turns driving, although some graciously give of their energy more than others. And while a few persons slept along the way, most conversed with each other; it is an excellent time to bond over talk of pop culture, job duties, and even deodorant and observe the sights (such as the active volcano Wrangell Mountain and the Alaska Pipeline).
Once in Chitina, we spent time at a local airstrip. Kaj and Rachel arranged for plane rides for our final leg of the trip. The aircraft carried five or six persons (including the pilot) at a time; they were small. The pilots were friendly, knowledgeable, and more than willing to show us around the landscape. The views of mountains and glaciers were breath-taking; to share this experience together was a blessing.
Finally, we arrived at Kennicott lodge, next to the Kennicott ghost town. We ate a family-style dinner served by the lodge staff, then toured the ghost town or watched a slide show of the activities at Kennicott. The lodge overlooks the Kennicott Glacier, and tomorrow we will journey to it.
The view today at Kennicott exceeded expectations. Most obviously, the sky was clear enough for us view Mount Blackburn, the fifth highest peak in Alaska. The weather was warm enough that one team member complained that it was too hot; I was quickly told to quiet down.
Our team split up into three groups. One took a half-day hike over Kennicott Glacier; they followed that with a tour of the copper mill (here in the ghost town). Another group hiked out to the glacier and climbed up an ice wall, without having any previous experience. (They also rapelled down the side of a moulin, a vertical hole in the glacier that rushes water down to the bottom of ice.) The final group rafted down the Kennicott and Chitina Rivers. With a view of the snow-covered Mt. Blackburn, drinking water from the glacier, and observing oneself climbing over a glacier in metal cleats or looking over the top of a glacier wall, we were blessed with wonderful views.
Having free time here in Kennicott provided with a grander view of our own team mates. Somewhat to my surprise, we have opened up to each other regarding some rather intimate parts of our lives. Beyond this structured group time, team members meet in the church fellowship hall or (for this weekend) the common area, listening to each other's stories of relationships, dreams, difficulties, and insecurities. While we may not have a chance to see each other frequently after this trip, we have expanded our network of friends and views of each other.
Our final day in Kennicott; many, it not most, of us did not want to leave. Having twin-size beds for the night and a full breakfast in the morning was our last taste of luxury for the some time. (To be honest, we still eat well during the week, but mornings do not start off as lavishly.) The morning was for our choosing. A group went out for a tour of the copper mill. Many of the original buildings still grace the landscape, and the tour provided us with a visit inside the mill unavailable otherwise. Others who had not taken the glacier hike tromped into the medial moraine, which is the gravel area separating the Root and Kennicott Glaciers.
Two of us, Rachel and this journaler, signed on for a half-day glacier hike, like the one that some took on Saturday. Not only did we observe the water falls, streams, and moulins, but also we trekked to a beautiful pool of water in the glacier surface. Bottomed out by some of the stronger ice, the pool was as blue as the feathers on a Northeastern blue bird. At the encouragement of our tour guide, all three of us took a quick swim in the pool, with Rachel diving in (cannon ball style).
All in all, our team had a blast that morning. And we followed it with a pleasant ride home, with one of our tour guides hitching a ride, and dinner in Palmer, AK at the Noisy Goose restaurant.
The weekend is over, and we'll be back to the build site tomorrow morning. Our excursion was appreciated, but we've also had a blast during our work week. I myself have thoroughly enjoyed trying new tasks; Jim has done an excellent job at varying our assignments. Others are energized by the progress we are making. And while we all take this build seriously, we don't shy away from joking around and sharing camaraderie. Working hard, playing hard...we do both at the same time.
Back at the build site...the floors for the third building were started, and the "mudders" had informed Jim that we would need to improve the screws in the drywall. So, Jim sent us back to the third building, into the second building to force in some screws, and to another unit to continue laying the trim.
Following the workday, we attended a dinner party hosted by Kathy and Terry Callie, of Anchorage Lutheran Church. Not only did we enjoy a delicious meal, but we also mingled with many members and friends of Anchorage Lutheran.
We ended our day with two groups splitting up. One group drove back into town, and many perused the local Anchorage shops. The other group drove (again) to Flattop Mountain. Today's weather was much more accommodating than last week's, and we trekked up the trail. While not all in our group made it to the top, we all enjoyed breathtaking views of the mountains and coastline around Anchorage. (Some of us were able to glimpse a moose and its two calves from a safe distance.)
This weekend's adventures and our time at the build site remind me of how much many of us have been trying new things and stepping outside our comfort zones. More specifically, I have been most impressed by a few of our less experienced team members. Prior to arriving, they had never picked up a power tool, seen a glacier, nor hiked much more than a hill. They have since cut trim, fastened cramp-ons to their shoes and traversed a glacier, and journeyed up Flattop Mountain. They'll have plenty of pictures to prove to their children what they have ventured.
In case I have not mentioned this before, I must tell you that the condominiums that we are building are beautiful. We, and Habitat Anchorage, are blessed to have a luxurious amount and assortment of building materials. Supply stores donate most of this, so the homes are equipped with the same doors, drywall, windows, cabinetry, etc., that one would find in a normal middleclass family's house. Volunteers and particularly the Habitat Anchorage staff have eyes for details. We do need to meet city building code, but beyond that, we take care to put paper down on new linoleum floors, double-coat doors and trims, caulk baseboards, and more. The pride that host families take in their homes captures the beauty of the Habitat program better than any mailing or Web site could.
After our workday, our team drove out to Jon and Jona Van Zyle's home. Jon and Jona are both sled dog mushers; they own a team a sled dogs, which have a play area to themselves in the backyard. (The dogs even have a ten-foot-tall "hamster" wheel for practice running.) Jon, a local artist nationally known for his Iditarod paintings, shared his work with us. His paintings of sun-drenched snowy landscapes, wolves gathering in the forest, and his own sled dogs (and one black cat) capture the beauty of his state better than any digital photograph could.
Serena and Margaret accompanied us, and Margaret's coworker, Cathy, came along. Cathy works with the partner families to close their houses. During the construction process, these three, and the site supervisors, come to know the partner families. They work relentlessly out of love for the host families, checking on the houses in the middle of the night or helping a Global Village team with its laundry. The lengths to which Habitat Anchorage and its staff go for partner families captures the beauty of God's love more than any words could.
Some of my teammates asked me to send a Habitat Anchorage "Hello" to loved ones back in the lower forty-eight. Not all have had a chance to view the Web site, but they tell me that their families have been keeping up with us via this Web site. I hope that my entries have helped (in some small way) you all stay in touch.
With (less than) three days left here in Alaska, and more trim work, painting and caulking, insulation, and deck construction accomplished, we have begun to think about our return to the Lower Forty-eight. All of us have family and friends somewhere there, and some have members of their household (e.g., spouse, kids, dogs and cats) awaiting them. It's been a while...
As we remember those to whom we return, we also reflect on the family that we have here. Cheering each other on at the build site or on Flattop, racing around the church building's kitchen before a work day, cramming into booths at a diner, and learning the unique tones of our snoring glued us together as a Global Village family. This helped make the work more enjoyable and the annoyances more bearable; this made us more than just a group of volunteers.
While I will miss many of my team members and being on this team, the part that I will likely miss the most will be the chance to see these homes dedicated. After a Habitat home is completed, Habitat dedicates the home with the partner family. These ceremonies most often include extended family members and friends, and the attendants generally end up in tears. At least a couple of our units are near completion, but final touches and paperwork still await; we will leave before any of the partner families move in. I remain optimistic that someday I'll attend a dedication and witness this type of homecoming.
Terry wanted to keep going. The whistle had blown, figuratively, and our final day at the build site was coming to a close. We were gathering for some final words from our Habitat Anchorage/Global Village leaders, but Terry did not want to stop laying trim until the stairway had been completed.
Terry has been one of our unofficial build site instructors. With his background in architecture, he taught many of us carpentry skills, including the process of laying trim. For that we are grateful. But he was not the only one from our group who contributed by leading. Stanley, Steve, and Kaj guided us through decking and raising walls on the newest units. (In fact, we raised the first two walls today.) Dave Westphal directed a team of insulation installers, and Ron patiently taught this journaler how to lay drywall. And Rachel and Kaj generously gave of their time and energy to ensure a positive outcome for our trip.
Following our workday, during which we raised those two walls, caulked and painted, laid down trim, and filled in gaps opening to crawl space, we heard Margaret, Crystal (an intern), Serena, and Jim speak. Jim is not planning to return as a supervisor in the foreseeable future, but he was so pleased to have us that he volunteered to join our group as a participant during a future trip. With goodbyes shared, Rachel and Kaj took us out to eat at the Orso Restaurant in downtown Anchorage.
During Margaret's farewell, she reminded our team that we are ambassadors for Habitat (and Thrivent Financial). In the short time here, I have experienced that myself. One of our pilots at Kennicott asked us about Habitat, and so did one of the attendants at The Alaska Club; our dinners with the members of Anchorage Lutheran and the Van Zyles brought us into contact with community members. Certainly, we cannot know what becomes of these encounters. But Habitat has become (more) important to each of us through this trip; as ambassadors we all now play leadership roles.
Up until today, our team had seen few wildlife. The Monday evening Flattop hikers caught a glimpse of a moose with her two calves, but they were barely visible. Today, our wishes were fulfilled.
We took two runs down to Seward, AK this morning. The earlier van spotted a moose near a river. After noticing us, it darted off into the woods. However, it soon returned, ran alongside the road's guardrail, and meandered through the lowland area (posing for us). The other van also noticed a moose calf.
Once arriving in Seward, the aquarium and local shops greeted us. Martha had visited Seward on her way up to Anchorage, so she made helpful suggestions. Lunch at Thorn's Showcase Lounge prepared us for our sea excursion. To finish our sightseeing, we boarded the Aialik Voyager and took a tour of the Kenai Fjords. Though impressive, the view of the Aialik and Holgate Glaciers, with ice cracking off with the sounds of cannon ball fire, could not compare to those of the wildlife. An otter bid us farewell as we left port, and puffins paraded their plumage. Bald eagles perched on a dead branch, sea lions sunbathed, and Dall's porpoises raced us. But the whales put on the best show. Orcas swam up beside our boat, showing off their signature black and white bodies. A mother and baby humpback whale fluked (lifted their tails as they began a dive), and the mother used her baleen to filter fish for her baby. Nature spoiled us.
Before setting back for Anchorage, and eventually the Lower Forty-eight, we celebrated a marriage anniversary (Steve and Suzy's) and a birthday (Ming-Fen's) and shared gratitude between our team leaders, Kaj and Rachel, and the team. Since we had not had the chance to play a name game ice breaker at the start of our trip, Terry offered us his own descriptions based on our names. I share them as a way to conclude my thoughts:
Rachel – remembering
Kaj – climbing king
Martha – marking (measurements)
Kathy – kind
Ming-Fen – mighty mini
Debi – dear
Dave Hettlinger – digital (camera)
Jenn – generous
Suzy – sunshine
Steve – sheet rocking
Paul – powerful
Greg – gregarious
Janet – jolly
Stanley – silent
Kari – caring
Ron – (sheet) rocking
Dave Westphal – driving
And for Terry himself (given by him team mates) – teaching
And so we bid Godspeed and safe travels to each other as we set off. I would like to thank you for taking time to read this journal and encourage you to become part of a Thrivent Builds Worldwide trip yourself. And since I am Lutheran, I hope you'll permit me to end with a benediction, taken from the lyrics of a hymn:
As you go on your way, may Christ go with you.
May He go before you to show you the way.
May He go behind you to encourage you,
Above you to watch over,
Beside you to befriend you,
Within you to give you peace.