Monday, 24 January 2011

Living the dream in Alaska

Over the last few years Bruce Parry has become one of my favourite television presenters. I was introduced to his work through the documentary series 'Tribe' in which he spent time living with a variety of indigenous peoples around the world. The aspect of 'Tribe' which I found most interesting was his participation in rituals, including the consumption of psychotropic plants. Often these substances were administered using unconventional methods. One image that sticks in my mind was when a shaman used a blowpipe to fire some form of powdered plant material - like a snuff - directly up Bruce's nose. Another involved taking a highly concentrated tobacco enema. The most memorable was when a shaman ejected a foul object from his nose - it may have been a grub, or simply a foul plug of shamanic mucus - and got Bruce to scoff it down.

I don't have any suitable images to accompany this post so here's an entirely unrelated holiday snap taken in Arches NP, Utah last April. 
I've been enjoying Parry's latest series about the Arctic. One of the defining features of Bruce's film making is that he always engages with the locals and makes an effort to see issues from all sides. For example in a previous series  about the Amazon he did a day's work chopping down trees in an illegal logging camp and another working in an illegal gold mine. Neither of those looked particularly appealing but in last night's episode was about Alaska and featured not one but two unorthodox career choices that seemed to present an attractive alternative to the 9 to 5 corporate lifestyle that so many of us pursue nowadays. 

He spent a few days with a salmon fishing family who use the purse seine  technique to harvest enormous quantities of salmon. They maintained that their fishery was highly regulated and entirely sustainable and if this is indeed the case it looked like an idyllic lifestyle. I have always been under the impression that fishing is very much like farming; lots of hard work for a modest financial reward. This was different. In three months of fishing they would make literally millions of dollars, leaving the rest of the year free for a long break in Hawaii followed by a winter of powder days at their home in an Alaskan ski resort. 

Next up was an eccentric community of gold miners who spent the Alaskan summer  living in beach cabins, panning for gold on an industrial scale. They had enormous hoovers mounted on makeshift rafts. One miner would man the raft while the other donned a wetsuit and guided the inlet pipe over the sea floor, sucking up a mixture of gravel and gold. The work looked hard but the rewards were high; one or two troy ounces of gold - each worth US$1300 USD - per day. To prove the point Bruce donned a wetsuit and bagged himself US$200 worth of gold in an hour.

This programme provided a refreshing jolt to my world view. I was slow to enlist in the world of organised work, my primary focus during my early twenties being travel and adventure. All that interested me was seeing as much of this fantastic planet as possible. Many people pursue this lifestyle full time, drifting round the world, working no more than is absolutely necessary. I came to the realisation during my last long trip that the poverty and insecurity that goes hand in hand with such dedicated avoidance of structured work can become every bit as stressful and dissatisfying as the rat race. 

I'm not about to sign up as a fisherman or a miner anytime soon, but watching these modern day frontiersmen has opened my eyes to the possibility of a different mode of living, that of funding a lifestyle of affluent leisure through concentrated periods of satisfying, non-corporate work in the great outdoors.  That truly would be living the dream.

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