Letters from past participants describing the impact of the project on their lives

My name is Anne Kellogg Reed and what follows is my personal story of leadership development.

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As a teenager I often found myself in leadership positions. I did not, however, give much consideration to how or why I was in a position of leadership time after time. Participating twice in the Alaska Great Lakes Project allowed me the unique opportunity to consciously discover and develop my strength as a leader.

The first time I traveled to Alaska with the AGLP (as a junior leader), I was able to explore my strength as a leader within the context of group leadership. This was my first opportunity to take a focused and extended look at the unique qualities I had to offer as a leader. I found that I have a natural ability for conflict resolution and for being someone that others turn to for support and advice. I learned that although I know how and when to step in and assert myself, I am satisfied taking a less direct approach to ‘being in charge.’ I learned that even though I don’t often command the spotlight, others respect what I have to say and how I make decisions. I learned to trust my instincts.

After this first trip I more actively and confidently pursued leadership opportunities as a university student. I co-founded a student organization called DoRAK (Do-Random Acts of Kindness); our main mission was to promote and carry out acts of genuine kindness. Our group brought together over 100 members in our first year and the group is still active and self-sufficiently growing today, 6 years later.

My second experience with the AGLP was what I sometimes consider to be a gateway into my adult life. I was 24 and in my last year of college; Dale essentially gave me and a veteran AGLP leader, Melissa, absolute trust and freedom to create a new aspect of leadership training for the trip’s less experienced youth leaders. With this empowered invitation, the Beader Leader training was born. As I look back at it today, I was fully in my element as I spent countless hours brainstorming and making plans for what we could incorporate into our three-week training program; the best part for me was that I got to facilitate the program and see our vision to life. The entirety of this experience – the visioning, the planning, the leading, and the learning – changed me.

After this second trip to Alaska, the time came for me to define a new career path for myself. As I started, there was no question – I needed to find a career that would allow me to further explore the passion for leadership development that I had discovered through the AGLP. As I researched and interviewed leadership training and development professionals, I discovered life coaching and its way of incorporating everything I love about working with leaders. Today, as a life coach, I help others discover their unique gifts and talents and pursue their greatest passions. Looking back, I can’t help but realize how for me, the AGLP was my coach as it gave me the opportunity to develop and explore my potential as a leader.


Britta Seifert Leadership

4 trips. 14 weeks. Thousands of miles. Hundreds of peanut butter sandwiches. 6 mountains. 5 races. 57 renditions of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” 30 bears. 2 wolves. 23 showers. 320 friends. Too many hugs to count.

When you add it all up, it still falls short of what Alaska is to me. Stepping off an airplane three years ago to my first view of Alaskan mountains, I had little idea what Alaska would come to mean to me. Yet, it drew me back three more times, and made me a better person for it.

I’ve stood on a boat balanced on a glassy turquoise sea, while the sun bounced off white mountains all around me, and yelled “I love this!” into the wind. I’ve watched a grey wolf raise its head and howl into an Alaskan night. I’ve lain in my sleeping bag and watched the moon drop behind the purple mountains over Kachemak Bay.

And at these moments I’ve seen so translucently, so perfectly, what AGLP is all about, what Alaska has come to mean to so many people. Alaska is finding the best in yourself, and seeing that “best” in other people. Mossy Kilcher, a member of our Alaska family, once said that Alaska brings out the good in people – their strength, their beauty, their desire to live fully and richly. I could not agree with this more. Over my four trips I’ve seen so many people – including myself – changed in broad and beautiful ways because of Alaska.

Alaska has given me an incredible appreciation of the natural world, and impressed on me how important it is to preserve it. It’s all connected – me, the mountains, the animals, that bottle I could either throw away or recycle. Alaska has changed the way I think of myself, the way I act. I’ve pushed myself mentally and physically, I’ve striven to be a good leader, to be a role model. And I’ve experienced joy. Wonder. Peace. Triumph.

But, most of all, the people make my Alaska. It is so exciting to me to see a participant reach the top of a mountain, and even more exciting to see them turn around and help another climber to the top. It’s those wide eyes as we pass a particularly spectacular view, or the big smile at the sight of a sea otter, that bring me back to Alaska. It’s seeing a “rude” kid help carry someone’s bag, or a “shy” kid singing at a talent show – and knowing that, perhaps, in some way, I’ve helped prompt this transformation – that makes me want to come back for four years.

My fourth trip to Alaska is almost over, and for the first time I’m not sure when I’ll be back. I know that this will not be the end of my relationship with Alaska, but I also know that there is a lot of this big, beautiful world left for me to explore.



Erin Gilbert 2007

Alaska Is:

Alaska is…a film reel stuck on fast-forward, always moving, always playing., even if the theater is dark and empty. It plays on for no one and everyone, offering its message and artistry quietly and simply. It is not rated; there is no charge and no tickets. It is a series of scenes and images, flashing one after another, in no particular order and yet sequenced in such a way that makes perfect sense. After a while, they overlap and run together into a long blur of color and sound, a blur that flows into every pore of your soul. Certain vivid moments blaze alone in a quick succession: the midnight sun, setting over the cheering crowds at the 25th anniversary sun run; a lone wolf, raising its head in a mournful howl; the white brightness and majesty of Denali; the stillness of the morning air and the freshness of the breeze. If one turns away for a brief instant, precious moments are missed—a sound, a taste, a feeling. It is our job, as visitors, to sit in the dark theater of Alaska with our eyes and ears wide open. Listen. Look. Feel.

Final Reflection:

Alaska has meant the world to me since we touched down in Alaska on my first day as a timid eighth grader. It has been a huge part of my life since then and always will be, for the three trips I've been fortunate enough to go on have given me endless gifts--priceless gifts that I have eternal gratefulness for.

My first year I was given a family. People reached out to me, and for the first time in a long time I felt like part of something. I was given my best friend back, and more new ones than I had ever thought possible. I was given a thousand hugs and a thousand lessons. That first year I was embraced and swept up wholeheartedly into the magic that is Alaska .

My second year I was given the most priceless gift of all: confidence. Confidence in myself as a leader, confidence in myself as a friend, and most importantly, confidence in myself as an individual. It was on this trip, my first as a leader, that I broke down my defenses and allowed myself to be me. I owe endless gratitude to my friends and to the trip for helping me become someone I am proud of.

My third year I was given one final opportunity to build and strengthen relationships with people who will be a part of my life for years to come--my second family. It sounds cliche, but there is no better word to describe what the AGLP clan is. We know the good and bad quirks of each other--we share everything. It has meant the world to me to have had the support and encouragement of the participants, leaders, and adults. I am a different person because of it.

When I think back on the many hours I've spent preparing, training, packing, worrying...they were worth it, a thousand times over. This trip has given me a lifetime of lessons and firsts--those firsts that are the topic of many final reflections, such as a first mountain climb, a first taste of halibut, a first whale watch. Yes, these are so very valuable, but for me these tangible achievements pale in comparison to the people I shared them with, the relationships I have been granted, the memories that will forever light up my heart. For all of this I have but two words to express my gratitude: thank you.

Erin Gilbert 2006

Alaska Is:

Alaska is…a recipe for magic created by a huge unique family. It is stirred with diversity, whipped with beauty, kneaded with care, carved with love, spread with laughter, spiced with smiles, and sprinkled with magic. The family members of this land gather together to make this creation—each member is essential for the recipe to be exactly right. The quiet mountains stand back and watch with a fatherly pride. The ocean sparkles under the sun, lending encouragement with a mother’s warmth. Two bear cubs spar happily nearby like playful siblings. The pine trees bunch together closely like squat little aunts, while the graceful bald eagle soars overhead, a wise old grandfather making certain that the characteristic peace of Alaska is still hovering over the land. And then there’s us—a caravan of twelve vans, each filled with many awed eyes and open mouths. We are the visitors, here for just a taste of the magic recipe. We tread softly and lightly. We are here for a short time, a time filled with every emotion and sight and sound we could ever imagine. As visitors, we eventually have to leave this place behind. But we will always remember the magic recipe of Alaska . It will never leave our hearts.

Final Reflection:

My reflection used to be blurred with confusion, jagged with uneven edges, and shadowed with negativity. When I looked inside myself, I couldn’t draw out the true personality of who I truly was from all of the other bits and pieces floating around. Many of these bits were unnecessarily controlling my life—I was concerned about what other people thought of me, what I had to do in order to please people that didn’t even care about me, what my future was going to be like, and what I would be like myself if I stayed quiet and boring forever.

So there I was, boarding a plane to Alaska with a distorted reflection, the bar set low, and 78 strangers surrounding me. After six long hours of worrying, the announcement came that we were preparing to land, and I finally glanced out the window. I looked first at the gracefully carved mountains that still drew my breath away the second time around; then I glanced at the eager faces of the participants on either side of me, taut with anticipation, and from that moment on I never looked back. From that first breath of air, from the first sight of our familiar snug church, I only looked forward. I looked forward and I saw so many beautiful things.

I saw the beauty of skies painted with a deep red and brilliant gold at a midnight sunset, and the relieved smiles of victory at the race finish line; there were the white waters of the Nenana and the eerie mist at Hatcher’s Pass, the trickling streams on the mountains and the dance in full swing. I saw the beauty of a crackling campfire against a backdrop of pink-capped mountains, and the wonder and amazement in the eyes of everyone around me. I watched their eyes widen, and as I did my own eyes cleared of doubt and worry. One part of my reflection had become visible to me.

The sheer presence of Alaska around me had kicked open a door inside my heart, but it stuck easily—I was still cautious, still withdrawn. And without even asking, without even speaking a word, the members of the trip reached out to me. And they turned out to be just what I needed.

I learned a lot about relationships, a lot about connections, a lot about myself and my personality on this second trip to Alaska . I learned about the true happiness that comes when you’re content with yourself. The kind of happiness that sank over me as I sat by the campfire, surrounded by family, someone asleep on my shoulder. The kind that came when I was sitting knee to knee in the van, singing my heart out along with my van members; when I posed in the middle of a group picture on top of the mountain, glancing around at everyone’s ecstatic faces; when someone came up to give me an extra hug “just because”, and I felt loved. The kind that sneaked in as we all danced in the parking lot after the talent show, waving and jumping and laughing. My heart was opened, and I could finally see what was inside.

I looked in a mirror the other day, and for once, I didn’t cringe at what I saw. I still am not sure of the future, but I now know that it doesn’t matter, because there are people who love me and who will be behind me all the way. I know who I am now. I know what I am capable of and who I can be if I try. Thank you to Gabi, to Annette, to Suzy and Jill. Thank you to my committee, my van, my tent. Thank you to every single person on the trip, because each of you changed me—for the better. Without Alaska , without the mountains and the moose, without the participants and the leaders and the adults, I would still be staring at a clouded image in the mirror. But now, I am proud of what we did together on this trip to the Last Frontier. And I am finally proud of that reflection in the mirror.

Erin Gilbert 2005

Final Reflection:

Alaska . Whenever that word reached my ears before this trip, I imagined a harsh unforgiving environment where little town struggled to survive nestled in the deep snow. Even after I applied for the trip and was well-informed about it by AGLP alumni, I still didn't picture Alaska as a beautiful place. I worried and worried as I packed my bag about surviving for three weeks 3,000 miles away from home with a bunch of people I hardly knew.

Alaska . It was still light in the Last Frontier as we touched down in the early hours of the morning. From that moment on, with the rugged mountains in the distance and the midnight sun proudly shining overhead, my energy never stopped flowing. With that first cleansing breath of fresh air, the barriers dropped within me and my eyes were opened to the true beauty of the land I had first imagined as ugly and barren.

Alaska . Under that outlet of radiating power and energy, I was being exposed to opportunities and experiences that I'd never dreamed of ever having. This trip was the first time I've ever climbed a mountain, the first time I've ever run a 10K race, the first time I've seen two whales jump completely out of the water together. I had my first sip of root beer n Alaska , and also my first taste of salmon and halibut. This trip has been the first time I've gone six days without a shower and the first place I haven't cared about my hair, Alaska has also been the first and only place I've witnessed amazing beauty with every turn of my head.

Alaska . The sheer magnificence of the mountains so perfectly carved and chiseled, touched my soul and revived my spirit each time I glimpsed them. I think that the Alaskan beauty touched everyone on the trip, and we were all united because of that. Even people who had nothing in common made a connection by talking simply about Alaska . The group was always together, experiencing the good and bad and the indescribable. We leaned on each other, kids and adults alike. We also snapped at one another, argued with each other, swiped each other's forks, and cut in the food line…but in the end, none of that mattered because we slowly became a family under the watchful mountains and the midnight sun.

Alaska . The beauty of this state is breathtaking. Some of it is obvious and massive like the sky and the mountains. But some of it is hidden and seemingly insignificant, and you have to look for it, I've found beauty in the most unexpected places on this trip. I've found beauty in the glorious bald eagle soaring in the wind, and in the smallest wildflower tucked away among the grasses. I've seen beauty in the smile on someone's face as the watched the whales surface on the sparkling water. I've watched pure magic take place at hug time at night, and I've seen it from standing on top of a mountain. Beauty is the rain that never stopped on the night of our Midnight Sun Run, and it is an octopus moving along the bottom of a tidepool. Beauty can be seen in anything and everything. I now see it in myself thanks to his amazing trip to the land of the midnight sun, I only hope that I will always continue to look for and find beauty in the most unexpected places.




Experiencing the Alaska Great Lakes Project

A personal reflection by Ian D. Stewart

My involvement with the Alaska Great Lakes Project first began as an eighth grader in 1998. While I had considered the trip early on in my eighth grade year I was not convinced as to whether or not I wanted to apply. I was a homebody then, comfortable with my surroundings and my pace of life in the little town of Marshall, MI. Thankfully, my apprehension was soon wiped away by a good friend, Tyler Candelaria. It is because of Tyler I decided to apply to go to Alaska, and had I not put that application in I would not be who or where I am today.

After my first year with the trip I decided to return as a Junior Leader, and after having been given yet another priceless experience, I sought to devote even more of myself to the organization. The subsequent three years I was fortunate to serve as the head leader of the Junior Leaders, and my responsibilities continued to grow throughout my involvement. Since my five trips to Alaska I have remained a part of the group, helping with Junior Leader training sessions and the creation of the project’s new leadership training program, each experience offering new challenges and awards.

My reflection on the Alaska Great Lakes Project will begin with a personal account on one of the most profound events I encountered as an eighth grade participant. The story takes place outside of Seward, AK on the Kenai Peninsula:

Racing Dall’s porpoises across the fruitful fjord waters of Resurrection Bay, learning about science and an ecosystem previously unknown to me was now more fun ever. The playfulness and curiosity of these creatures along with so many others like sea otters, Stellar sea lions, marine birds, and even the microscopic phytoplankton and zooplankton, inspired my curiosity to learn how they were all able to survive in such a polar environment. As the story unfolded I soon realized how diverse and unique this ecosystem was, and how I impact it both near and far.

As the day progressed on we made our way out into the vast Gulf of Alaska, and I remember vividly the captain of the boat directing our attention to the east. In the distance, he explained, was Prince William Sound, a place of equal diversity and beauty as the bay we had been touring all day. While I was glad to learn that the splendor of Resurrection Bay and its inhabitants continued along the coast of Alaska, it was his next comment that really struck home to me, and does to this day. He went on to explain that it was off in the distance where the Exxon Valdez oil tanker had spilled millions of gallons of crude oil, killing tens to hundreds of thousands of marine organisms, and almost eliminating the fishing industry vital to coastal towns. While I had known of the devastating effects of this oil spill, it had never hit a nerve quite like it did that day out on the bay and in the gulf. Reflecting back on the Dall’s porpoises we had raced, the sea otters that floated on their backs next to our ship, the Stellar sea lions bathing in the sun on the warm rocks of the coast, the marine birds nesting in rock faces of stone cliffs, and the phytoplankton and zooplankton that help to support the many species that compose this estuarine ecosystem, I was saddened as I am to this day.

My reflection on the catastrophic Exxon Valdez Oil Spill made me begin to wonder what the root of this problem was, as is for nearly all environmental issues. After many conversations with friends, junior leaders, and the group leaders on the ship, I came to the conclusion that it was not one person who was at the root of this problem (such as the captain of the Exxon Valdez), it was all of us, whether we liked to believe it or not. Our consumption is what fueled the devastation that is now regard as one of the worst man-made disasters in history, as it is our consumption that is in part fueled by oil. In the end, it is only ourselves we have to blame.

Every year that I was part of the AGLP and present with it in Alaska, this point was driven home to me time and time again, and it was part of the reason I chose to return as a Junior Leader as many years as I did. After reflecting back on my first experience in Resurrection Bay, I asked myself a simple question, what can I do to help? The Alaska Great Lakes Project was one of the best answers I came up with. If the trip could open my eyes as it did to the importance of our environment, and how it continues to be threatened, then maybe I could help do the same for future participants and those I meet along the way. To this day I share my stories and learning’s with friends, family, fellow students and faculty, and continue to incorporate it into every avenue of life I encounter.

The environmentally conscious outlook I carry with me today is not the only thing I was able to gain from my experience with the AGLP. Among many traits my independence and inquisitiveness are directly tied to my experiences in Alaska, as is my confidence as a leader and friend. One lesson in particular that I carry with me today is that climbing a mountain is not always about reaching the peak. Reaching the summit of a mountain is a goal that merely skims the surface of the benefits obtainable from a hike, whereas the lessons learned throughout the journey and the comradery associated with working as a team is where the true substance lays. Individual’s goals often vary, and it is because of these differences that a compromise often has to be made among the group. With compromise comes sacrifice, an unsettling feeling at times but one that often yields unexpected benifits. I always enjoyed racing to the top of the mountains we climbed, but by doing so I missed out on a lot more than I ever could have imagined.

Sacrificing my goal of making it to the summit as fast as possible provided me an opportunity to help other individuals accomplish their goals of simply setting foot on a mountain, and making it to the top. I soon found that by helping these students I was more worn out at the end of the day than I ever had been before, for the emotions tied to helping each eighth grader make it to the top were simply exhaustive. Many wanted to quit, many said they could never do it so why even try, but every student in the end made it to the top, accomplishing their goal and a feat the trip had never done before. Knowing I played a part in many of those successes filled me with a sense of accomplishment unlike any I had previously known, and taught me that in the end it is not always about what you can do for yourself, but what you can do for others that truly matters.

The last trip I made to Alaska was a personal trip. While up there, I had the opportunity to meet up with the AGLP and share many of my experiences with the group. Fortunate for me, one of the locations I met the group at was in Seward where we climb Exit Glacier. Remembering my many experiences with the hike and the most valuable lessons I had taken from it, I decided to encourage one of the participants to develop a different outlook on the hike and stick towards the back to help out other non-experienced hikers. I let the student know that by staying towards the back of the pack he would have less time up at the snow field to sled and have snowball fights, but I also assured him that a completely different sense of joy would find him at the end of the day. That participant decided to stick to the back, and by doing so he was challenged in so many more ways he ever thought possible. He was forced to suppress his urge to break away and attack with mountain with speed, and he quickly had to learn how to cope with hearing the words “I can’t” and figure out a ways to convince his fellow hikers that in fact, they can.

At the end of the day’s meeting, each student was able to reflect their feelings of the day’s activity and voice them to the entire group. With tears welling up in his eyes, one participant in particular spoke of how he never thought he would climb a mountain, and if he were presented the opportunity, he never thought he could. He had proved himself wrong, and by doing so he took one step closer to eliminating the phrase “I can’t “ from his life, instilling in him a new and profound sense of confidence. That day will remain a crowning achievement for that young man, and by giving a simple thank you to the student that helped him, the one who sacrificed his personal goal, he helped that student realize his sacrifice was indeed no sacrifice at all, but a similar crowning achievement in its own right.

Lessons such as the preceding are not everyday occurrences in real life, and when they are encountered it is all too often the opportunity is passed to reap the visible benefits that merely skim the surface. Given the structure and spectacular setting of the AGLP, it is unique in that it produces such opportunities on a daily occurrence. The leadership offered furthermore provides students the chance to walk away with a new perspective such as the student who decided to stick towards to back for a day, and experience a different pace of life.

Since my time with the AGLP I have moved on to undergraduate studies at Michigan State University and I am currently pursuing a dual degree in Packaging Science and Environmental Science and Management. I have been fortunate to travel the globe to places such as Antarctica, Argentina, and India. In each location the many lessons I learned as a participant and leader with the AGLP were carried with me along the way, supporting me and encouraging me to make the most my experience. From my confidence to interacting with individuals of different backgrounds such as I did with the Inuits I encountered in Alaska fighting to preserve their culture or hikers from around the world in Talketna, ,fresh off their ascent of Mt. McKinley, to my ability to support myself as I did as an eighth grader in Alaska, my first time away from home alone, the list is vast and rich in lessons learned.

The Alaska Great Lakes Project [AGLP] has found a way to tap into Alaska’s finest resource, its ability to inspire. This resource is worth far more than any amount of gold mined from the Hatcher Pass Gold Mine or any amount of oil pumped through the 800 mile Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. I am living proof of this project’s ability to inspire, and I know that the memories and lessons taken by the hundreds of participants of the past would cast a similar shinning light on its influence.

To close I would like to reflect on the many sights, sounds, and feelings I still hold close to my heart when I think about Alaska and the AGLP.

* Gently feeling the warmth trapped in the moss beds of Hatcher Pass and exploring the gold mine ruins that now litter its slopes, providing a flash back into Alaska’s rich yet young history.
* Admiring the epic beauty of North America’s tallest mountain, Denali, from over 100 miles away, as the midnight sun slowly sets on it, warming its frozen mass with the colors of dusk.
* Watching two grizzly bear cubs nurse off their mother in the middle of the Alaskan tundra, only 30 yards away, close enough to feel closer to nature than ever, but far enough not to impose on its many amazing moments.
* Staying up with friends (now family) into the early hours of the morning, and not ever really knowing if the sun has finished setting or is beginning to rise.
* Sipping on a warm mocha after a hike, sharing the sweet feeling of success with other Junior Leaders for having taken 56 eighth graders up and down a mountain safely, a task many thought they would never be presented with.
* Walking up a tight staircase in an old church turned coffee shop, arriving at the balcony that overlooks the captivating mountains and waters of Resurrection Bay, and sipping on the next round of mochas with a loving crew.
* Grabbing all the sleeping bags within arm’s reach, throwing them into a field overlooking Katchemak Bay, and taking a nap with friends under the warm Alaskan sun.
* Working together as a team to pile 60 people onto an inflatable raft at a local Palmer High School.
* Playing a game of ultimate Frisbee in field surrounded by mountains.
* Singing songs around a bonfire, cooking food on a bonfire, sharing stories around a bonfire, drying clothes on a bonfire, building a bonfire, becoming one around a bonfire, missing that bonfire.
* Falling asleep in Alaska after having received more hugs than you ever thought possible, and waking up the next day to another new adventure.