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Belgrade man indulges lifelong love of Alaska

Craig McCollim swears this is true.

While sitting on a runway in St. Mary’s, Alaska, a few years ago, waiting to fly to a village even deeper in the roadless portion of the largest state, his pilot told him they had to get going because the wind was picking up.

The Belgrade resident looked out the window at the runway’s windsock.

The wind, the one the pilot said was “picking up,” was already holding the windsock out stiff, so stiff that — here’s the kicker — a rather large raven perched on the end of the sock without disturbing it.

That, said McCollim, is Alaska for you

That magical extraordinariness is also one of the reasons the 64-year-old has been in love with Alaska since he was a boy.

“Craig and Alaska have had a long love affair,” he said, noting his early passion for frontier poetry and Jack London novels. “I may have been born a century too late.”

These days, the semi-retired McCollim indulges his love of Alaska by working part of the year in remote northern villages, serving as a roving speech therapist for tiny Alaskan schools.

The organization he works for, SERRC, provides educational services such as speech and physical therapy for remote school districts, where keeping a specialist on staff is impractical.

He works with students of all ages on issues like articulation, syntax and stuttering. And he trains teachers on how to work with the students on a daily basis.

Before retiring, McCollim worked for 25 years as a traveling speech therapist for rural Montana schools. Now he visits three school districts in Alaska — Bristol Bay, Yakutat and Yukon Flats.

The schools McCollim visits all have fewer than 100 students; most have fewer than a dozen.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s one or 100,” he said. “Where there’s a student in need, the services follow.”

He counts himself lucky to have been placed at schools all over Alaska. Of course, getting “all over” a state where roads are rare and seldom lead to your destination is no easy task.

McCollim relies on bush planes to get him from airstrip to airstrip. From there: “The adventure is how you get from airstrip to school,” he said.

His methods of travel over the past six years have included bush planes, ATVs, snowmobiles and the tailgate of a pickup. “No dogsleds yet,” he said. “I’m missing that one.”

McCollim is often gone a week or two at a time and makes the trip north several times each school year, packing a pair of 50-pound bags, a backpack and a carry-on containing all the food, clothing and supplies he needs to face temperatures as low as 60 below zero.

“It’s what he loves to do,” said his wife, Terri. “You have to do these things while you can, if they’re doable. Otherwise, you’ll have regrets and ‘should haves.'”

McCollim isn’t sure how much longer he’ll keep up the work trips to Alaska, but his eventual retirement from this job certainly won’t mean retiring from Alaska, he said.

The call of the wild is too strong to let that happen.

Do you or someone you know do something, have something or enjoy something that’s weird or just a little off the beaten path? Send your story ideas to Michael Becker at [email protected] or call 582-2657.