Tuesday, July 12, 2011

insights: the lucky duck



In a little town called Ketchikan, Alaska there is a woman who lives among yellow ducks, men in waders, and the ladies of negotiated affection. In this town there are 8,000 people, perhaps at times just a little more. There are eagles and totem poles and a street called Married Men’s Way. There are homes built high above the creek with secret trap doors and boats that bear their scars from battles with the sea.

It is here that a woman named Rene lives. In the city called Ketchikan that gets more rain than any other city in the United States.

If you find yourself on this island of Ketchikan, you will meet Rene if you take the Ketchikan Duck Tour, the only duck tour in Alaska.

Two days ago I didn't know that I was about to meet Rene. On a ship in the Pacific Ocean L. and I are enjoying some much needed R&R. Sunday night we were in our stateroom under the warm covers as we watched the 10 foot waves and the rain and the grey go by, hardly deciphering where the sea ended and the sky began. I read him passages from excursions available in the wild that is Alaska. We signed up for the Glacier Adventure & Whale Quest in Juneau and the White Pass train built into the cliffs high above Skagway but what to do in Ketchikan? The weather was awful and was going to continue being awful. A hike? It was going to be pouring sideways rain. No. We wanted something kind of funny, light. It was what we needed. We decided on the Duck Tour, where we would board an amphibious vehicle which would give us a land and sea tour of the town.

We boarded the vehicle and were given a heavy blanket to curl up under (it was after all raining so badly we were soaked walking from the ship to the dock.) It’s on this Duck Tour that we met Rene. You would think that if you live in a town where it rains or snows virtually all the time, you might expect the residents to be cranky. Not Rene. L and I have taken duck tours around the country. They’re kitschy yes, but you actually get a good overall view of the area. And all the narrators of these tours have always been corny just about to point of irritating. They blow (and hawk) their yellow plastic duck bills and make quack quack noises when they make a joke about the town ("You know you're from Alaska when you say Down South and you mean Seattle! QUACK!") Rene, our narrator was enjoying herself i.e. As our vehicle was driving down the ramp from land to water Rene started playing the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island” followed by “Ah, you know this song! QUACK! Do you know what you are getting yourselves into? QUACK!"  We were a tough group. Vacationers on a wet, cold, grey, fogged in day. Our umbrellas had turned themselves inside out on the short walk in the wind and rain to the duck stop. People were wet to the bone, noses were runny. We were shoulder to shoulder in wet parkas. Yet, Rene, well, she didn’t seem to notice this. We were the cranky ones.

I turned to L. at one point and said “She sure is happy, isn’t she?” Even me, The Happygirl, thought she was a little too happy. She would make  a joke, blow her duck bill, laugh at own joke and get nothing from her captive audience. A little tittering maybe but we had left sunny (finally) Seattle for a cruise to Alaska and it was pouring. We weren’t easily amused.



We learned that there were 26 bordellos in Ketchikan’s heyday and that Dolly was the most well known lady of affection, who bought her home for $200 in the early settler days. She charged $3 for 3 minutes of affection, 50 cents for a watered down whiskey and 50 cents if you arrived in muddy boots. Guess how long it took to pay off her house? "She paid her house off in two weeks. QUACK!"

We saw two eagles nose to nose on a log. (“Did you know that their FEATHERS weigh more than the bird itself?! QUACK!” While on the water we pulled up to a cannery on the dock where a fisherman waved at us to wait-- hold on a moment. He ran back to us holding a giant King salmon over his head like he had just won the WWE belt. We waved and gave him a thumb’s up. Good job, man.

Rene told her stories with PASSION, her energy was crazy sunshiny intense even though her audience was annoyed with the constant rain on this trip. She had the enthusiasm of a child who just discovered a puppy on her front doorstep. I even thought she really needed to cut down on the espresso. Then someone asked her if she was from Ketchikan. “No,” she said excitedly. “I am from Kansas!!!”

“Here is how I got here. I was in the army for 13 years as a computer programmer. Then I got cervical cancer. I found out I couldn’t have children. My husband and I decided to enjoy every minute of this life so we got a sailboat and sailed around the world for 5 years until we ran out of money. We wondered where we should go and I told my husband wherever we go I want to enjoy our life and enjoy what I do. I found an ad on Craig’s List for a Duck Tour narrator in Ketchikan, Alaska and here I am!!! I get to do this job every day!!!! And I have been cancer free for 5 years!!!!”

This was the first time the audience broke out in applause.

Here is what I learned from this amazing girl:

Rene took the worst that life could give her yet she decided to grab life by the duckbills, if you will. Would it have been easier to stay in Kansas surrounded by her support system? Sure. Comfort and what you know is always the safer bet. We are animals and when animals are hurt they retreat to the safety of their nest.  Rene saw the darkest of days and decided still to choose to leave the nest, to choose adventure. She gave up the relative safety net of an armed forces career where she would be taken care of and life would go on in her small town.

Lately I've come to believe that you have themes in your life, times when synchronicity comes into play, like meeting random people in different places and they're all from New Mexico or like on this trip, meeting girls who chose adventure.

On the day after meeting Rene, we met the only all girl crew of an Alaskan whale watch boat, driven there by a girl no more than 5’2’ and 90 pounds who drives buses in Juneau, Alaska because her college roommate had called her and said “Why don’t you come out to Alaska and she said 'Sure, why not?!'” She told us about her adventures in Alaska and the rumor is true. Yes, the men are plentiful in this last wilderness though as our driver told us “People are kinda kooky here. When I got here  I was told there are so many guys, more than women and that the odds are good but the goods are odd. Yup, it’s true.”



The naturalist (nature girl) on board our whale watch vessel also took the leap of faith and moved to Alaska from the continental United States. Her boyfriend is a fisherman here (one of the HARDEST jobs in the world) and he hopes to save enough to buy his own boat one day. Her job was to point out humpback whales. She said 10% of her tours may see AN Orca. And then there they were, all around our boat--40 Orca whales breeching and spy hopping (where they poke their heads above water and give you the whale eye) and hunting. We were all apoplectic. Whales closer than you could see at SeaWorld. Whales. Right. There.

I started to think. Imagine leaving your job as a paralegal or a nurse or a construction worker and living your life as an adventure. You could be face to face with a whale in Alaska or teaching English in Mumbai or making goat cheese in the hills of Sweden. What’s stopping you from inviting adventure into your life? Right now you’re thinking “There’s no way. I have a job, a home, a family here.” But really, why not? Think about what our ancestors did. They left EVERYTHING and EVERYONE they know back home for a better life, for religious freedom, for adventure. Just think about that. We have lovely neighbors and just a few weeks ago one of our neighbors accepted a job in England and his entire family is moving in two weeks. They have two kids in grammar school but they decided to take this leap of faith. Imagine. How amazing for these two kids that their parents are taking them on this adventure.

I've been thinking about these brave girls and I realized I was supposed to meet them this week. There is a lesson here.  I never would have been brave enough to leave the safety of Microsoft, even though it was an extraordinary job. I had thought of leaving for something different and mentioned it to a couple of trusted family members and friends and they all thought I would be crazy to leave a company like Microsoft and I never would have. People just don't leave a company like Microsoft. It's an incredible company full of smart, energetic people. It was a company that allowed me to do what I loved and they were very good to me. I was very lucky and I never would have had the courage to leave on my own. It was safe. Well, that is until the day my job was eliminated! Funny how when you put something out in the universe it works to make it happen, though it may not be in exactly the way you wanted. I didn't have the courage to go try something new, to live a new adventure but the universe saw otherwise. I envy these brave girls I met this week who CHOSE adventure.

Maybe the BIG adventure isn’t in your near future but what about small adventures? REALLY small. Take a different way home from work every day this week. Make your synapses fire. Think about it. Have you ever driven to work, got there and thought “I don’t even remember the drive here.”  I did that last week and I thought “OK, I need to shuffle things up a little bit here.” Register for a class this September in something you know nothing about. (Metalsmithing?) Book a surfing vacation even though you have no idea how to surf. Even a little adventure is a start.



Here I am this morning on our little deck on a ship in the middle of the ocean. This Alaska trip was supposed to be to relax and recuperate but I think my purpose here wasn’t R&R. It was to meet the girls like Rene, the bus driver and the all female whale watch crew. I was supposed to learn about adventure and taking leaps of faith. Maybe this trip was to teach me that The Happygirl Experiment is my new adventure. Whats yours? Think carefully. The universe is listening.



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