Life in Alaska is paradise for Bobbie Jo (Skibo) Kolodziejski
As a little girl living in Fayette City, Bobbie Jo (Skibo) Kolodziejski would gaze across the river at the Allenport plant of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel.
“I actually thought clouds (in the sky) were made from the smoke and steam coming out of the mill,” she said. “I just remember how dirty it was, how dirty the Mon River was.”
Kolodziejski, 36, has no such environmental issues now. She lives with her husband Kyle, and 2½-year-old son Fischer, in the pristine town of Moose Pass, Alaska – population 218. Her backyard overlooks a glacial lake which mirrors snow-covered mountains.
Surrounded by the Chugach National Forest, Moose Pass is located 100 miles south of Anchorage, and 30 miles north of the port of Seward on Alaska's southern coastline, which borders the Pacific Ocean.
“It's a paradise,” she said. “We have a school, a bar, a post office and a tiny convenience store, but no groceries, no gas stations. We're two hours from the nearest (traffic) light.
“We are in a considerably remote area compared to Pennsylvania standards, but to most people in Alaska, it's society,” she added. “People just drive through our town and think ‘What the heck was that?'”
Kolodziejski grew up in Fayette City until fourth grade, moving with her mother, Carol Houser, to Elizabeth after her parents divorced.
Her father Bob Skibo still resides in Fayette City and numerous relatives are scattered about the Mid-Mon Valley.
Kolodziejski graduated from Elizabeth Forward High School in 1995 and attended California University of Pennsylvania for two years. That's when her dog, Pippy – a Rottweiler mix – sparked what she feels was a destiny to live in the Great White North.
“I'm at Cal U and my dog goes and bites a mountain biker one day on the trail,” she said, laughing. “I went the next day and apologized to the guy at his dorm and he said he wasn't going to sue me.”
That's when Kolodziejski met the biker's roommate who talked her into making a 32-day drive to Alaska for the summer. Her mother loaned her $500 for the journey.
“My mom told me to go live an adventure and to find a cool life because she didn't want me to get stuck in Pennsylvania,” Kolodziejski said. “She told me, ‘As long as Pippy is with you, I know you'll be safe.' ... So, if it wasn't for Pippy, I wouldn't be here.”
Kolodziejski spent her first time in Alaska as a laborer – filleting salmon for 12 to 14 hours a day and staying in tents to save money.
“The first summer, our shower was actually a waterfall and the water was freezing cold,” she said. “When I went back to northern California (for national exchange classes), I'm thinking, ‘Why would I want to go back to Pa. now that I've seen Alaska? I'll just go back north.' And I never left.”
Kolodziejski earned a bachelors degree in ecological psychology and started working in the bear conservation field. Through that, she met her husband, a fly fisherman, who was operating down the river. The two eventually married and Kolodziejski earned a master's degree in natural resource management.
The couple now owns and operates Keen Eye Anglers, a play on words with the Kenai River. The river begins in Moose Pass and is renowned for its salmon and rainbow trout. The company offers customized fishing tours of the prolific streams, rivers and lakes around Moose Pass.
“We have a lot of fish in our refrigerator,” she quipped.
Keen Eye Anglers promotes ethical angling and stewardship of Alaska's resources, which is no surprise considering Kolodziejski's full-time job as the Russian River interagency coordinator through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
The Russian River sees 150,000 fishermen invade its banks within a three-month time frame. Known as “combat fishing”, the anglers line up arm-to-arm, some up to their hips in water, and cast their lines.
One of Kolodziejski's most vital duties is regulating fish wastes.
“It's a real sexy job,” she jokes. “Some anglers come into the area and catch three salmon a day, take the meat home, but throw the fish waste back into the river – and that's like fast food for bears. The bears come in and scavenge for fish waste and that teaches them bad habits to approach people for food.
“Some of the big things I do involve managing human-bear conflicts when both are trying to catch fish,” she added. “We hold people accountable to living and acting safely in bear country so bears don't come and approach people closely.”
When her family visits Moose Pass, there's instant culture shock, Kolodziejski said. Unlike most towns where people can stop at multiple stores if they need an item, those staying in Moose Pass have to stock up for months on end. The nearest big chain store, Costco, is two hours away in Anchorage.
“We usually go shopping every two months, so you always think ahead. It's not like if you forget to pick something up, you can stop the next day,” Kolodziejski said. “We're pretty self-reliant and self-contained. ... We have six to eight huge gas cans at our house and if we're in the nearest town, we never forget to fill up.”
While Kolodziejski said this summer has been unusually hot, reaching temperatures in the 80s, she has adjusted to the severe tilt in daylight between the summer and winter solstices.
“Dec. 21, that's the darkest day of the year; it will be 20 to 22 hours of darkness. We get about 22 hours of light on June 21,” she said. “We're manic in the summer and generally hibernate in the winter, doing lots of home cooking, movies and dinner parties. We're still active outdoors in the winter, we ice skate and play hockey on the lake here by my house and ride ‘snow machines'.”
Kolodziejski admits missing some small comforts of life back in the Mon Valley such as homegrown tomatoes, corn on the cob, thin-crust pizza (notably the former Stringhill's pizza) and access to live music and entertainment.
Thinking back to the brownish river and smokestacks of her youth, she said, “I'm looking out a window right now at a 360-degree view of the mountains.”
“It can be tough to live up here – the weather at times, the darkness in the winter – but when I call back to Pa. in the winter, it's usually colder and nastier.
“Clean air, clean water, wildlife, it's a pristine place. Coming here has been very rewarding for me. I get to work doing what I love and get to see this view everyday of my life.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.