Here we are at Glennallen and what I call the third phase of our full timing experience is now beginning. Since we don’t have investments or pensions to rely on, we always knew we would have to continue working. Initially, I kept my corporate job and our travels and choices revolved around that. Then I was offered a buy-out and for a pretty terrific five month period I had paychecks coming in without needing to work. OK, that was awesome! Now we start a new phase in which we work seasonal jobs, hopefully in beautiful places, and see if we can make enough money to support our budget. What better place to start this phase than in Alaska??? When we were looking for a position many of them were geared toward retired couples who were looking to supplement their retirement,and the schedules were setup to maximize downtime. That makes perfect sense really, and our friends Kelly and Bill have a position they are sharing with another work kamper couple that is 7 days on and 7 days off. This will give them lots of time to explore, and was perfect for their situation. Ours though was different. In order to make the finances work we wanted to have a gig working 40 hours a week, and luckily Marc and Darlene, the owners of Northern Nights Campground and RV Park, were able to make that work. More importantly, they were very interested in us as people with unique skill sets. I spoke to many potential employers when looking for a summer position who in my estimation were looking for “warm bodies.” There’s nothing wrong with that as they have a business to run, but not something we were particularly interested in. Marc and Darlene were the only people I talked to who truly seemed interested in what we had to bring as individuals and definitely were the only folks who expressed an interest in hearing our ideas for improvement. Since I spent years building a career revolving around process improvement, this was the deciding factor for me.
So I was so pleased that on Monday morning (during our two hour introduction/orientation meeting) their philosophy of continuous improvement was evident in everything they said. This may be a small, family-owned campground, but they are committed to making it the best it can be, and were excited about new ideas we brought to the table. They also “inventoried” our skill sets during that meeting and started to build a summer plan around them. For me, the most interesting part of the meeting was when we started to talk about what we had to offer. Lee rattled off his very long list of skills and they got more and more excited. He can work on almost anything, from electric and plumbing to painting and light carpentry, and his years of production experience give him a unique way of solving problems and looking at everything with an eye towards theater. His “MacGyver” skill set will be very valuable here. I, on the other hand, had to dig a little deeper. Certainly my Lean Six Sigma experience and process improvement experience will come in handy, but I had to think back to jobs I had very early in my career. I left the meeting feeling great about our prospects for the summer but also mildly unsettled about where I fit in. I didn’t have time to ponder on it too much though because we spent the rest of Monday moving into the brand new site they had created for us and spending time with Kelly and Bill before they moved on to their summer jobs in Seward.
As the next few days passed, my feelings of being unsettled grew. Darlene was extremely patient with me as I struggled to grasp some of the basic elements of the job. Let’s face it, some of my skills were a bit rusty (I haven’t been responsible for a cash drawer since I was 19, for example) and the campground business isn’t nearly as simple as it looks from the outside. Quite a bit goes into just deciding what site to put people into. As with most older campgrounds, the site sizes are not all the same and larger vehicles with multiple slide-outs can’t fit just anywhere. We have plenty of sites to fit those rigs and love to have them, but it isn’t one size fits all. Darlene knows the campground inside and out, and makes those decisions easily and quickly. I needed to learn quite a bit before I even started feeling comfortable, and it involved many questions and some walking around the sites and acclimating myself. As frustrated as I was getting with myself about the slow learning curve, Darlene seemed to take it in stride. She knows how hard this is, and had no expectation I would learn it over night. And for me it wasn’t just the office elements of the job. I love getting outside and working also, which Marc and Darlene are happy to accommodate, but again, in this area I find my skills are sorely lacking. I am able bodied and willing, just don’t have a ton of experience. It wasn’t until Lee taught me how to use the weed trimmer and I spent a happy hour trimming weeds that I really started to feel better. It turns out I like doing it (although my upper body definitely felt the workout) and I seemed to pick that up pretty quickly. That boosted my confidence and more importantly gave me something I could do to contribute during the slow periods between guest arrivals. I also spent some time organizing the back room of the office and definitely felt in my element as this was work I had done in the more recent past.
While I was getting acclimated, Lee jumped right in with his usual gusto. He spent three happy days cleaning out and organizing the huge workshop tucked away in the back of the campground, and when he put in electrical outlets and lights for them, Marc and Darlene were thrilled. He also repaired some token operated showers (because water must be trucked in, the showers are 7 minutes long per token, but nice and hot, and the water is good), hung some signs, and fixed several small things. You probably know enough about Lee by this point to get that he was perfectly content. Marc and Darlene were smart enough to give him a prioritized list, say “GO!”, and largely stay out of his way, and he had a huge impact immediately. I was so happy that it was going so well for him, but to be honest this did heighten my feelings of insecurity. Once again, Lee seemed made for this lifestyle, and I was struggling to find my way. Thankfully, Darlene is a very easy person to talk to and I was able to share with her a little about how I was feeling. She definitely got it because Marc is going through the same thing. Until two months ago Marc held a high level job in an oil corporation about two hours away and had just retired. Prior to this year Darlene managed the campground and Marc came out on every other weekend. Now he was finding his place as well in the day-to-day operations and we were all kind of figuring out where we fit together. This all could have been a recipe for disaster, but Darlene stepped in and brought us all together for a meeting near the end of our first week. We finalized our rough schedules (they will change by necessity as the season gets busier) and our various areas of responsibility. It was a really good meeting not only because it was collaborative, but also because at the very beginning of it Marc and Darlene gave us both raises. Based upon what they had seen from us so far, they adjusted our hourly wage and wow, did that mean a lot to both of us. We had made a commitment for a certain dollar amount, which we were going to make it work financially, it would just be tight. Marc and Darlene didn’t have to pay us more, and the fact that they did says a lot about them as people. And for me personally, it immediately showed that they value what I had to offer. Very, very cool.
The other really great thing that happened this week was they sent us to the local Copper River Valley Chamber of Commerce dinner. This was a huge expression of faith in us and I took that responsibility very seriously. Darlene wanted us to attend so that we could meet people and local folks would know who we were, but she also sent me with a list of questions she wanted answered. The event was great. It was held at Tosina River lodge that is Russian owned, and the food was wonderful, and we got to meet so many people from the local school principal to the director of the visitors center. It was different though. Lee and I have both spent a fair amount of time in very small towns, we raised our kids in small towns, and Lee has attended many, many chamber of commerce meetings. But as we soon learned, there are small towns in the lower 48 (25,000 or less) and small towns up here (1,500 or less). Big, big difference!! The topics were interesting. You could have heard a pin drop during the “Summer Highway Repair” report, for instance, which makes sense, since tourism is huge factor up here, but it was also very informal because everyone knows everyone. As the new shiny faces in the group, people were very interested in talking to us, and I am so glad we had an opportunity to go. I loved it, and definitely hope we get to go again.
Oh, and did I mention the views? The constant daylight made the 30 minute trip to the venue a joy and we stopped on the way back to take a couple of pictures. After seeing this I am really looking forward to Sunday and Monday (our first days off) to get out and explore the area. Can’t wait to see what happens next.
Oh and I forgot to mention my absolute favorite part of the job. Rock is the puppy owner of the place and the one really in charge. He is completely awesome, but a little bossy 🙂
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