Campaign wishes and salmon roe dreams

Story by Libby Casey
People photos by Sanjay Suchak

Composite image of Washington Monument (© Nadig) and Mount McKinley by UAF.
Composite image of Washington Monument (© Nadig) and Mount McKinley by UAF.

It’s happy hour in Washington, D.C., and hip 9-to-5’ers spill out onto the sidewalk in the warm evening air.

I’m at a crowded table celebrating the Alaska Public Radio Network’s new D.C. correspondent. It’s a job I held for three years after living in Fairbanks for more than a decade, but now I’m passing the torch to a guy who’s never even been to the 49th State. He’s never experienced square tires at 40 below or the crisp chill of Prince William Sound from a kayak. As the new guy’s friends congratulate him, I hear how impressed they are with the adventure in store, and suddenly I feel a pang of jealousy.

I’ve just switched to a new job in D.C. with a national network, and while I have spent the last few years living in Washington, working for Alaska Public Radio meant Alaska was still a huge part of my life. My job was to send stories home from the nation’s capital, the place that decides the federal dollars and policies affecting communities big and small. Alaska may be dependent on Washington but it’s also mistrustful, and some of my Alaska radio colleagues acted like I’d volunteered to serve a life sentence in Gomorrah.

At the same time I was trying to dispel myths of D.C. through my dispatches home, my job became interpreting Alaska for Washington. One month into my move Gov. Sarah Palin was a national sensation, and suddenly I was trying to explain Palin — and Alaska — to cable networks in 15-second sound bites. I discovered that many Washingtonians had less interest in really knowing Alaska than finding ammunition for another political battle.

Even though I was overwhelmed, years of covering the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race for public radio in Fairbanks had already taught me everything a journalist needs to know. I learned compassion from experiences like interviewing a musher whose fight with cancer has left him too tired to finish his dream. I learned not to be intimidated by a stinky grump who hasn’t slept in three days — an attitude similar to a congressman embarrassed about earmarks. I knew not to give up when your plane strands you on the frozen Yukon. Above all, file the story, even if the small town’s Internet dies and you find yourself banging on the hotel room door of drunk Japanese businessmen who look on astounded — in their underwear — as you file over their phone.

And I learned to find my people, namely, Alaskans.