Among the many things back-to-school season brings is an occasion to swap stories.
Doug Wright was ready for that required task last week. The Germantown Hills native returned to Southern Illinois University with an arsenal of tall tales few friends could match.
'Well, I had one buddy who laid carpet all summer. Another one landscaped,' Wright said, chuckling at the comparison. Still another friend worked for Caterpillar, Inc.
No offense guys, but those anecdotes can't compare. Not after Wright enjoyed a paid internship that counted for college credit and also gave him a chance to savor seven months outdoors in Alaska. Seven months of hunting, fishing and sightseeing. Seven months of living amongst our country's most amazing scenery.
'It's God's country up there. It's beautiful, pristine wilderness,' said Wright, 21, who returned Aug. 10 in time to start his senior year in Carbondale. 'You're really kind of awestruck when you see those mountains. It kind of puts things into perspective.'
Wright, who was based out of Palmer, Alaska, didn't spend all his time sightseeing. He also managed to shoot his first black bear, arrowed two bull caribou with one shot, caught a 33-pound king salmon, hooked into halibut and sampled the finest northern pike fishing in Alaska.
The chance to do all that is one main reason Wright opted for a co-op internship with Granite Construction. A mechanical engineering major, Wright had spent the previous summer as a design intern with Caterpillar. The job in Alaska gave Wright a chance to work as a field engineer and get his hands dirty. Not to mention allowing him to hunt, fish and generally run himself ragged thanks to the endless summer daylight in Alaska.
He was joined for much of the summer by another Metamora native, Matt Evans, who also interned with Granite Construction.
'We might leave work Saturday and hunt bear all night and then drive back to the valley to fish in the morning,' Wright said. 'There was a lot of midnight hunting and driving all night. It was amazing.'
For Wright, this immersion in all things outdoors is a fairly recent development. At Metamora High School he wrestled and kicked for the always competitive football team.
One year he also worked for Caterpillar and took classes at Bradley University, so time was in short supply. The same was true at the University of Illinois, where he spent a season as a football walk-on before transferring to SIU.
But he's been spending more and more time outdoors in recent years. And Wright made up for lost time in Alaska. His adventure started with a successful black bear hunt last May 31, during which he shot a bear at 12 yards.
'That was the first bear I'd ever seen in the wild,' he said. 'When you've got a bear 12 yards away on the ground, that will get your blood pumping.'
So will a 400-yard belly crawl up to bedded caribou, which Wright hunted on the wide-open arctic tundra. After crawling close enough to a pair of bulls, he whistled, hoping they would stand. When the caribou did not move, Wright let fly an arrow with unexpected results. His arrow passed through one bull and killed the second, as well.
'It was a two-for-one special,' Wright said. Fortunately, hunters are allowed two bulls.
From there, he rounded out his Alaska experience with some excellent fishing trips. On one outing into the Little Susitna River he caught a 33-pound king salmon. Another trip required a bush plane to fly Wright and Evans to Alexander Lake. There they experienced firsthand the overpopulation of non-native northern pike that have taken over the lake and hurt the area's once-strong salmon fishing.
'We'd be reeling as fast as we could trying not to catch the little ones, and we couldn't keep them off,' he said.
Beyond the hunting and fishing was the simple enjoyment of witnessing the wildlife and scenery of Alaska.
'You take a drive out of town and you can see glaciers and rivers and mountains and big brown bears catching salmon out of the river,' Wright said. 'It's a beautiful country.'
Needless to say, savoring that scenery sure beats laying carpet all summer.
JEFF LAMPE is Journal Star outdoors columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 686-3212.