Glaciers and community farming in Alaska

Far from his family and friends, Cody McCreanor spent the semester living and working on a farm in Talkeetna, Alaska for a program called Gateway to the Arctic

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By Claire Healy, Assistant News Editor

While the semester was defined for many by a unique separation from other students and loved ones, for one student at the University of Massachusetts it was spent building relationships in an entirely new community. Far from his family and friends, Cody McCreanor spent the semester working on a farm in Talkeetna, Alaska for a program called Gateway to the Arctic.

Starting right after the onset of the pandemicin summer 2020, McCreanor moved toa small town in Alaska with 964 people — none of whom he knew when he arrived. McCreanor, a building construction technology major in the class of 2023, spent the following year at this program that focuses on providing food to the community and creating employment opportunities for people with special abilities.

At the beginning of his time in Alaska, McCreanor had to quarantine for two weeks alone in a cabinand work in the garden six feet apart from all the other employees. Afterwards, he said the small community and town became like its own COVID-19 quarantine bubble, where he got to know the communityand described it as a family.

At the end of the summer, they offered him a part time job working at the camp — an opportunity he was only able to take because his classes were remote. While the program agreed to work around his scheduled classes, one of his fall courses was at 8:30 a.m. EST, which was 4:30 a.m. in Alaska.

“The relationships I’ve been able to build really signifies a family,” McCreanor said.“It was a small community of 12 to 14 people that live together and work together. Everyone that works on the camp lives in the camp, my neighbors were in cabins besides me, you spend so much time together. You go through hardships together, but also the peaks.”

Once the crops were harvested, all the produce was brought to the local food bank, and then distributed to the community. This supply of food was especially important after the town lost tourism revenue during the pandemic.

“In the winter, you can’t grow anything. And especially with the pandemic, the town of Talkeetna took a lot of hits economically,” he added.“Because it’s a tourist town, it depends on the cruise ships coming up from Seattle and the thousands of people visiting to live. They get a lot of money in the summer and that allows them to live through the winter.”

His motivation to continue working for the program throughout the fall stemmed from his passion for sustainabilityand the ways that his studies at UMass have taught him to see sustainability as “much more than just solar panels.”

“There’s so many more aspects of sustainability, like social aspects,” McCreanor said.“The camp that I was working at over the summer really showed me that working with the special abilities population is helping them be self-sustained. That was one of my goals as a job-coach for a special needs individual, to help him build himself up to independence. So, I saw that dream that Gateway had, and I shared that with them, and I wanted to stay.”

Prior to the start of his time in Alaska, McCreanor planned on going into regional planning.  However, through the hands-on work of building a house, he discovered his passion lies in the hands-on implementation of a project, as opposed to planning it from afar, and changed his major from sustainable community development to building construction technology.

While the small-town community was in many ways a positive experience, McCreanor said that when the Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the rest of the country, he felt very separated from what was happening although he wanted to participate.

“All my friends back home were hurting and expressing their emotions, and I’m seeing all this on social media, I’m hearing about it but I’m not there with you guys, I can’t come over and talk about it,” he said.

In Alaska, which is a predominantly Republican state, McCreanor said that he had different conversations with the people around him than he would have had at home, but that he felt many were open to listening.

“At least in my experience, there was little to no discrimination based on race. Alaska’s a bit of a melting pot in a lot of ways,” McCreanor said.“For me personally,the camp I was living at is connected to the church I’m a part of, so they were very on top of making sure everyone was heard. Outside of the camp though, because Alaska’s so separate from everything really, the fact was that people were hurting a lot more in the lower 48 than in Alaska in social justice and COVID[-19].”

At the end of the fall semester, after a period of time at home, McCreanor returned to Alaska, where he is working for the spring semester.

“Alaska has my heart, it’s just extremely beautiful. Every day at the camp, we have an amazing view of Denali, the tallest peak in North America, to be able to see that almost every day was breathtaking,” he said. “The vibe is different from the typical fast paced, Northeast life, the respect for nature is so much greater than here.”