Story

Living in Alaska…playing the long game.

My story begins in the middle of America – Sun Prairie, WI. Our family moved to this small but growing community in the late 70s when my father was relocated to start a Baptist church. My sister was born a year after the move and my brother would be born a decade later. Having met at a small church camp in northern Wisconsin as teenagers, my parents were continually drawn north. Our family trips to the Northwoods were retreats which fostered a love for each other and spending time together in nature.

We experienced the magic of paddling small craft on rivers and lakes throughout our childhood. As a family in ministry, we never had the most technical equipment, but our station wagon and “pop-up” camper (with the family canoe loaded on top) was an adventure rig which took us to magical places. I remember my father’s meticulous planning in the months leading up to our adventures.  The atlas would be laid out on the table and he would plan the route, the places we would see and the best destinations we could experience. It was on those canoe trips, and family vacations to the Rocky Mountains, that a fire was lit. The fire would grow as I experienced hiking in Colorado and extended canoe trips through the Canadian wilderness as a teen. As I wandered through the forest and paddled down rushing rivers, I became more aware of my place in the natural world and more awe-struck of its Creator. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them” (Psalms 8:3,4). The wilderness became a cathedral where in my smallness I felt the most connected and alive.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” – John Muir

I went to college with the outdoors in mind and began my undergraduate studies to become an educator. During my years at Western Illinois University, I discovered both my calling and the love of my life. The school had a fantastic outdoor leadership program and my professors inspired me to be more involved in outdoor education and wilderness leadership. Gaining experience in remote winter expeditions and whitewater paddling trips, I started guiding trips around North America. In August of 1997, I returned from a summer of guiding and life would change forever. On the morning of Sunday, August 31 I laid eyes on Harmony Kirchhoff.

Harmony is the most lovely person you will meet. Kind and caring, her best friend lovingly refers to her as “Snow White” and she won the heart of my family with ease. Our romance took off quickly and I discovered a woman who was up for any challenge. Paddling canoes through rushing waters, running Class II-III whitewater, hiking mountain trails and plowing through powder. We connected on a level I hadn’t known before and even when our paths separated, they found their way back to each other. Four years after we met, we married and started our lives together near family in northern Illinois.

After completing my undergraduate education, I sought to expand my professional outdoor leadership opportunities. I was introduced to sea kayaking and became an instructor with the American Canoe Association. Growing up in the Midwest (USA) my sole exposure to the ocean had been spring vacations to Florida. As a youth, the ocean equated to the beach. In a sea kayak, the ocean became much more. I kayaked both coastal and inland seas, exploring wild coastlines on Lake Superior, Alaska, and the southeast US.  The wild and ever-changing nature of the sea intrigued 

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever. – Jacque Yves Cousteau

Our life b, I started and co-owned a Kayak Center and Outdoor School for 10 years. During that period of life, I expanded my personal training and qualifications. I furthered my training with the ACA, becoming a Level 5 Open Water Kayak Sea Kayak Instructor and eventually an L5 Instructor Trainer. I also trained in the BCU, traveling to North Wales to paddle and become one of North America’s youngest BCU 5* Sea Leaders. As my experience and certifications grew, I was able to draw clients looking to kayak in remote and dynamic waters, guiding them on fantastic coastlines around the world.

While guiding and teaching had become a passion of mine, I was spending more time away from my wife and young children and made the decision to pursue a career path that would keep me closer to home. For almost five years I worked in real estate development and construction, guiding and teaching part-time. Being around my family is a choice that I’m happy with every day, but there was a part of me that felt called to go back to something that I loved. We began to look for a new direction that was mutually beneficial to all of us. That new direction was west, to Alaska.

Our story continues in the “Last Frontier”. Follow our story and adventures on the Open Coast Blog

Ryan Rushton

Explorer, Coach & Trainer

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