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Life dances with light, rhythm ensues

Passion versus community: choosing your fight

Three seals breaching the waters with the snowy mountains in the background.
Three seals watching the sun set on the Chillkat Range in Alaska. (Photo by Kayla Heidenreich)
By Kayla Heidenreich CDN Contributor

NEAR JUNEAU, Alaska — I’m driving home from a moonlit ski tour when I see it. A faint, constricted, green light peering out of the sky. My shoulders slump: I had anticipated that my first time seeing the Northern Lights would alter my brain chemistry, not that I would be questioning if the shy light above me is really the aurora. 

As I continue down the pothole-infested mountain road, my surroundings start to glow. I glance up and the green light has now stretched her arms wide, reaching out toward both ends of the sky, pulsating like a beating heart. I make a left turn rather than my usual right and head out to the beach, for a clearer view — and, it turns out, for an important choice I have needed to make about my future.

Juneau has filled my soul with adventure and curiosity. Whether it’s navigating pow turns in the dark, the 10 eagles that line the streetlights like a marching band on my drive to work every morning, or the way the tangerine light mingles with pink, painting the sleepy mountains in their alpenglow, every day I am drawn deeper into this place.  

A light pink glow paints the Mendenhall Glacier peak.
Alpenglow paints the Mendenhall Glacier pink near Juneau, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Kayla Heidenreich)

As spring starts to creep up, so do thoughts: “What’s next?” The snow will melt into the muskeg, blueberries will pop up, grizzlies will crawl out of their dens, and I will be out of a paycheck. Seasonal work has many perks, but also an ensuing panic at each season’s end.

A “ding” pops into my email inbox one morning, “One unread message from: Northwest Outward Bound School.”  

Northwest Outward Bound School (NWOBS) is an outdoor expedition and education school where I worked last summer in Oregon. It was the most fulfilling job I have ever had, and I think about those experiences every day. I traded four months away from my little Bellingham family for taking kiddos on 22-day expeditions backpacking, rafting and climbing. 

The email contained a work contract, from late April until September, and asked for my signature. I had anticipated this email’s arrival, as I had already verbally committed to a second season in Oregon, but I had been trying not to think of the looming decision as Juneau continued to grow flowers in my mind. 

Seasonal work has given me communities throughout Colorado, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and now Alaska. Through the work, I’ve learned how quickly you grow close with people in these high-intensity, life-or-death, vulnerable spaces. 

But at the end of every season, one thing rings true: Everyone always leaves. I watch as those I have grown to trust my life with walk out of it, leaving me wondering when, if ever, I will see them again. It truly is a heartbreaking experience. 

The highs of these jobs are high but the lows are low. I always feel empty and alone after a season comes to a screeching end. The thought of having to start over every time I finally feel comfortable in a job, or trying to fit into a new community while I am still mourning the loss of my previous one, can be exhausting.

This life cycle has begun to affect the ways I interact with people. Subconsciously, I assume everyone will leave or my environment will change, leaving me treading lightly in my relationships. I have started to crave a consistent community again. I want to be in a place for longer than four months, to not have to say goodbye to my partner and animals for a whole summer, to have friends that will always be there, and to learn about a place on a deep level. 

The decision nibbles at my mind; to give up my dream job, or to give up Juneau and any sort of work-life balance?

I ignore that email for three weeks. There is little seasonal work in Juneau that would even compare to the work of NWOBS. I compare the feelings of missing out and taking steps back in my professional life, with leaving this new home and foregoing the opportunity to be part of the community. I am stuck between my passion and longing for community. 

I continue to drive down the slick Juneau road until I break out of the trees. About 50 cars line the side of the road and I make it 51, as my friends from the late-night ski tour follow suit. As I step out of the car, the aroura is dancing across the whole sky. We walk down to the shore of the beach and lie on our backs. Every new person who arrives is welcomed by excited hoots and hollers.

Then it happens: The sky breaks loose. Hues of purple and white bolt into the green sky, intermixing like a choregraphed dance, twisting, crackling, flickering. I honestly can’t even explain it. But I can explain the butterflies racing through my stomach, the feeling of not being able to open my eyes wide enough to absorb all the beauty, and the sounds of giggles erupting from every direction. 

A smoke-like photo of the northern lights in the dark sky.
Outdoors columnist Kayla Heidenreich witnessed the northern lights on a bitter winter night near Juneau, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Kayla Heidenreich)

I drive home feeling different. I didn’t know such a cold and wet place could feel so warm. I didn’t know such a welcoming community existed. I didn’t know the sky could rain magical colors down into my eyes. 

The clock reads 12:30 a.m. when I walk through my front door. I start the process of removing the five warm layers that protected me from the bone-chilling 15-degree air. The tattoo I have etched into my thigh looks up at me. “To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever,” it says.

I feel the weight immediately lift off my shoulders as I crawl into bed, completely at peace with the decision I know I need to make. I hear you can still see the Northern Lights here in the summer.

Author’s note: I acknowledge that I am living, working, and playing on Tlingit land. I will continue to learn from those who have been stewarding this land since time immemorial and do my own part in giving back to this community. Gunalchéech (thank you).

CDN Outdoors lifestyle columnist Kayla Heidenreich writes monthly, of late from Juneau; 

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