By Design: a love for wildness

Sara Wolman Brings Art and Soul to Environmental Education on the Alaska Peninsula

📷 Jodi Mueller

Even though she grew up in Queens, New York, Sara Wolman took easily to the outdoors. An avid skier since grade school, she’d often accompany her mother, a scientist researching acid rain impacts, on trips to the Adirondack Mountains. There, wandering the lush hardwood forests of upstate New York, she forged a love for the wild that only intensified as she grew up.

After high school, Sara studied graphic design and political science at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. She distinguished herself as a highly accomplished painter; she was also a dedicated member of the university’s Students for Environmental Sustainability Club, and traveled to Costa Rica to study the impacts of eco-tourism and coffee production.

Sara and her art. Right: a finished piece (Sockeye Salmon/pen, ink and water color) 📷 Ashton Dent

Right before graduating, Sara took a position in Washington, DC as an intern for her home district Congressman. She found the work both challenging and stimulating, but Washington is a relatively big city — and Sara felt she’d had enough of big cities for a while.

“I just wanted to get out in the field,” Sara says, “so I joined AmeriCorps in 2011. I got a position with a U.S. Forest Service trail crew in the Mount Adams Wilderness in Washington State, and I loved it. Later, I worked as a program coordinator for the California Conservation Corps. By then, my career track was pretty clear — one way or the other, I wanted to work in conservation.”

Sara had visited Alaska in 2009, a trip she characterized as a life-changing event. She was captivated by the wildlife, the people and the sheer scope and grandeur of the land.

“When I returned [to the Lower 48], I was thinking one thing,” she recalls, “and that was I had to see more. I had to go back. I just needed the opportunity.”

That opportunity came in 2013, when she took a position as a youth trail crew supervisor with the Southeast Alaska Guidance Association, a nonprofit organization that operates across the state, partnering with both public land managers and private property owners.

“I’ve been here ever since,” Sara says. “The Alaska bug bit me hard. I knew this is where I belong.”

In the spring of 2014, Sara landed a seasonal Park Ranger position working for Katmai National Park at the King Salmon Inter-agency Visitor Center. There, her aptitude as an educator and artist manifested in dramatic fashion.

Sara teaching students from Meshik School in Port Heiden, AK about caribou 📷 USFWS

She has phenomenal skills, both in dealing with the public and working on exhibits,” recalls Julia Pinnix, who was serving as the center’s Visitor’s Services Manager at the time. “At one point I was trying to put together an ambitious exhibit, and I asked her to paint a mural of a specific type of dinosaur found on the Alaska Peninsula. She did a spectacular job, and as far as I know it’s still on display.

The following winter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered Sara a job as an Education Specialist at Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuges, a position she still holds. Her duties are many, but largely center on enhancing the educations of the children who live on the Alaska Peninsula.

📷 Jodi Mueller
Presenting a paleontology program to students at the Meshik and Chignik Lagoon schools 📷 USFWS/Katie Nicolato
“I’m working with my youth crew in 2013 on a remote beach cleanup in Cape Suckling, about 150 miles south of Cordova. The ice is from the Bering Glacier and we were about to hop on that boat to Cordova. (There is a much longer story about how this turned into a shipwreck but for another time 😉)” 📷 Daniel Koepp

“My main project is traveling to the remote villages along the Peninsula and teaching environmental education to the kids. That’s why I’m in the air constantly — there’s no road access to these places. Right now we’re working on a migratory bird curriculum. My kids are amazing. Though they live in remote areas, they’re completely connected — they all have smartphones and laptops, and I’m fascinated by the way they juxtapose modern technology and traditional lifestyles. They’ll be working on a project on their laptops or posting on Instagram, then one will go out and shoot a moose and everyone gets together to butcher and process it.”

Sara is a master of the digital arts herself — especially social media. Her Instagram account is replete with compelling narratives about Alaska, its people and wildlife, along with stunning aerial photos of the Alaskan landscape. Social media also is essential to her educational mission, she says.

“It’s extremely important when you’re working in remote areas. Yes, there are negatives to social media, but it can be a powerful and positive tool when you’re using it to reach specific educational goals. We did a podcast on a seabird die-off, and we also covered the impacts these kinds of events have on local village life. And it just took off on social media. We were able to take that message to the world, and we got a tremendous response in return.”

When employing social media to explain complex environmental and cultural stories, says Sara, “It’s important to be inclusive and avoid polarization. You just want to explain what’s happening, discuss the stakes, and identify areas where people can connect.”

Art remains a big part of Sara’s life, both professionally and personally. Images of her work are on her social media accounts, and she has lent her talents to various agencies and organizations around the state, including the National Park Service. She was a prime mover in the Fat Bear Week social media sensation launched by the Katmai Conservancy, and she created the label art for Fat Bear Beer, a special IPA released by Anchorage Brewery to honor the seven-day event.

2019’s “Fat Bear Week” winner Holly. Artwork by Sara Wolman.

“There are plenty of fat bears on Katmai because of the robust salmon runs, and our campaign to highlight them got a tremendous amount of attention as it propagated across social media. We were contacted by multiple newspapers and electronic media outlets. Even the London Times called. At this point, I think Fat Bear Week is more popular than Shark Week.”

In short, Sara is an invaluable asset — and not just for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Alaska as a whole benefits from her enthusiasm and commitment.

She’s an idea generator,” says Melissa Cady, a USFWS wildlife biologist at the APB Refuge. “She’s full of creativity, energy, and passion for wild places. She’s a can-do, let’s-do-this-together refuge advocate. She shines like a diamond.

Sara spends some of her scant and precious off hours pursuing outdoor sports.

On her way to ice climb on the Matanuska Glacier in August 📷 Chad Billock

“I love mountaineering and ice-climbing, and I’ve really gotten into packrafting since I moved to Alaska. I’ve made a few first descents down some of the rivers in Katmai, and I’ve paddled many of the popular routes as well.”

She’s an accomplished musician as well as a graphic artist, and has traveled around the state as one half of the duo Queen Salmon.

“I didn’t think we were that good, but people really liked us,” she laughs. “Live music is pretty much a rarity in rural Alaska — people are starved for it.”

Though she has lived in the village of King Salmon for much of tenure in Alaska, Sara has just moved to Fairbanks to rejoin her partner, Gates of the Arctic National Park Facilities Manager Chad Billock, and their young son, Balin. There she’ll be transitioning her work focus to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a Visual Information Specialist, but is excited about getting to spend a lot more quality time with Balin.

“He grew up at Katmai, so he already gets what it means to be an Alaskan,” she says. “He’s way cooler than I am.”

Sara and her son Balin when he was about 14 months old. “We are on a boat on Naknek on the way to Brooks Camp to go hang with some bears at Katmai.” 📷 Ashton Dent

When did you start working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

2014

What do you think people would find most surprising about your job?

The fact that I can live in wild places while pursuing my art and a career in education — all at the same time. No one I knew thought it was possible.

How do Alaska’s wild places sustain you?

Just the wildness itself sustains me. You become attuned with your surroundings, you become part of them. Your entire day, for example, is planned around the weather. You establish deep relationships with the land, the people and the animals — partly because you love it, but also because you have no choice if you’re going to live here.

What’s your foremost concern about Alaska’s wildlife resources?

I do worry about climate change. I see it affecting the wildlife on a tangible and daily basis. It’s happening far more quickly than the world realizes.

When I’m not at work, I’m…

…usually drawing or painting, or rafting, climbing, or being with my son. I want to show him how to do and love all the things here that we pursue and love.

What’s the greatest misconception that visitors have about Alaska?

That we keep pet moose! No, really, more that they think this is a land of perpetual snow and ice. And they don’t usually grasp how rich our cultures are. There are so many of them, and they’re so deep and textured. Also, that Alaska is geographically diverse — we’re on the Ring of Fire, and people are often amazed by the number of active volcanoes we have here.

What’s your most treasured memory of Alaska or your job?

My best memories involve the villages I visit and the kids I teach, the relationships I’ve made. When I get to those schools and the kids rush up and hug me, I’m overwhelmed.

What advice would you give people interested in working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

Get involved, and do it now. Go to volunteer.gov and apply. Pursue internships. Go to the nearest federal wildlife refuge and ask around, talk to the people who work there. They’re excited about what they do, and they’ll be more than happy to help and encourage you.

What wild animal most inspires you?

It varies depending on my mood, but lately it’s salmon for their tenacity and cultural significance. Also, ravens and wolves — they’re both deeply intelligent species, and they fascinate me.

Interview by Glen Martin, freelance writer/former San Francisco Chronicle environmental reporter.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service