Alaskan upbringing

Sep 16, 2005

The Land of the Midnight Sun taught Kettering student Lee Williams to respect nature AND the machines that ensure survival in the wilderness.

There is no road leading to the remote wilderness lodge. No rail line or bus route through the thick spruce forests sprinkled with icy lakes and streams. The only way to bring supplies to the lodge is via floatplanes during the spring and summer months, and by snowmobile across the frozen lake in the winter.

The nearest neighbors are more than 15 miles away through the dense Alaskan wilderness. The nearest road: 40 miles. Sometimes it's not uncommon to encounter an eight-foot grizzly lumbering on the trail. The land is a living paradox of beauty and mystery, unrelenting to those who are weak and vulnerable.

Kettering Mechanical Engineering Sophomore Lee A. Williams understands this paradox better than anyone else. He was born and raised in Alaska, and more than 10 years ago his family-mother, father, a retired career military man, twin brothers and older sister-moved to a wilderness lodge and opened it for guests. It's located about 40 miles north of Anchorage. His high school education consisted primarily of home schooling through the state's Alyeska Central School, Alaska's state-run correspondence program.

"During the summers I spent much of my time guiding guests from around the world for fly fishing and searching for trout and salmon in the mountain streams around my home," he explained. "In the winter, I divided my time between school and hauling freight and supplies overland by snowmobile the 40 miles from the road system to our lodge. And I've come across grizzlies several times a year-they're shy creatures, unless you accidentally come upon them and spook them, or if they are already on their food," he added nonchalantly.

This kind of life seems like the dream of most young boys who grow up around the woods and wilderness, except for the bear issue. Living in the wilderness has taught Williams respect of those mechanisms he and his family, as well as lodge guests, must depend on to survive in this environment, such as snowmobiles, the generators that provide electricity to the lodge and the outbuildings, and other devices. This is why his love of the Alaskan wilderness goes well beyond childhood dreams and memories.

Because his home is so far from neighbors and civilization, his family must also rely on cellular phones with power boosters to receive signals, which makes dial-up Internet connections very slow and cumbersome. These issues, combined with Alaska's natural wonders, give Williams a strong respect for the tools used in city life each day without worry.

"Where I come from, if something breaks down, we can't ship it off to have it fixed, or go into town to have someone look at it," he said. "We need to do it ourselves if we want it to work as soon as possible."

When it came time to check on colleges to attend, he considered schools located in Michigan. His mother hails from the Grand Rapids area and Williams thought attending school in a state where he has family would be helpful, since he would be so far from home.

Once he started reviewing websites of schools, he also checked into the Society of Automotive Engineers college racing teams through publications like "Road & Track." This is when he came across Kettering University and was immediately impressed by the engineering programs and professional cooperative education opportunities available.

He applied to both Lawrence Tech and Kettering, and received acceptance to each, but decided professional cooperative education would suit him best, since he is a student who likes to see theories put to use in the real world and have the opportunity to earn an income to support his college career.

Today, he co-ops at Polaris Industries in Spirit Lake, Iowa, a maker of off-road quad runners. "Kettering has been really fun and I'm glad I chose this as my college," he said. He expects to graduate in 2009 and would like to obtain an engineering position at Polaris. One day he might consider returning to his home state and inquire about an engineering position on the state natural gas pipeline project, which will begin soon.

Written by Gary Erwin