by Christina Whiting
Colleen Carroll was introduced to Alaska as a teenager through the weekly television show Northern Exposure. From there, a dream of life in Alaska began.
“I remember one episode, where Janine Turner’s character opened a cinema in an old building, “she said. “I thought that was neat.”
When she was 22, Carroll joined her mother on an Alaska cruise, traveling between Whittier and Vancouver.
“I thought the landscape was spectacular,” she said.
Born in Hartford, Conn. and raised near Stafford in a small, rural community of about 8,000 people, Carroll’s family moved from Connecticut to California when she was twelve.
“I came from a little New England town and was plunked down in the middle of the southern California suburbs, wearing my corduroy pants, my plaid shirts and my short hair,” Carroll shared.
At the age of 16, Carroll got her driver’s license and her first job at a local movie theater.
“As soon as I could drive, I’d go to the movies,” she said. “I’d go alone or with other people, anytime I could.”
Carroll studied anthropology and Native American studies at San Diego State University and enjoyed a semester internship at the San Diego Museum of Man, cataloguing and piecing together bone fragments from Mission Indians found at a construction site. She volunteered with San Diego Youth and Community Services, providing food, clothing, shelter referrals and mental health and substance abuse counseling referrals. Carroll was later hired by the organization where she assisted homeless and low-income families and worked in the transitional housing program.
In the summer of 1992, Carroll and her friend Lori flew to Anchorage, rented a red Pontiac Firebird and drove to Denali, staying at a cabin at the McKinley Wilderness Lodge.
“I told the lodge owners that I wanted to work for them the next summer,” Carroll said. “They told me to go home, wait two weeks and then call them if I was still interested.”
The girls made their way down to Homer, where they stayed at Kiana Bed and Breakfast and with the sister of a college friend of Lori’s. They fished, ventured across the Bay and shopped the Homer Spit.
“When we got to Homer, I thought, wow, this is like heaven,” Carroll shared.
Two weeks to the day after her conversation with the McKinley lodge owners, Carroll called them from San Diego and told them she was moving to Alaska. She secured her job for the next summer and in the summer of 1993, packed her belongings and drove the Alaska Highway.
When this seasonal job ended, Carroll looked for work in the remote communities.
“I applied for a job in Dillingham,” she said. “I got a call back from a woman who said she wasn’t going to hire me because I was a single woman from California who hadn’t done an Alaskan winter yet.”
Carroll moved to Anchorage and over the next years worked as a caseworker at the Brother Francis Shelter and as a case manager with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Wanting a change, she moved to Anchor Point in 1997 where she lived in a small, rustic cabin. She worked as the office manager for State Parks in the summers and at the Anchor River store, among other jobs, in the off season.
After nearly five years of seasonal employment, Carroll sought more steady work and finding it in the office of Doug Stuart’s Homer fish processing business. After a year, she became restless.
“I wasn’t taking full advantage of living in Alaska,” she said. “I wanted to try fishing.”
Stuart suggested she talk to AlRay Carroll, a local cod fisherman. As it would turn out, AlRay was also a friend and neighbor of the woman that Colleen and Lori had stayed with during their visit in 1992. Colleen and AlRay didn’t meet during this visit, but eight years later they met to discuss fishing.
“Here it was, the end of the salmon season, and I was just now looking for work on a boat,” Carroll laughed. “He wasn’t going to hire a greenhorn to cod fish in the winter.”
She found work as a “yard ape” and general laborer at Northern Enterprises Boat Yard. During this time, Colleen and AlRay began dating and she moved to Homer and rented a room in a cabin, taking CNA classes and working at the Homer Senior Center. On Sept. 10, 2001, she and AlRay were married in Kauai, Hawaii spending their honeymoon with family and friends who were held over for a week, due to flight cancelations after 9/11.
In the fall of 2004, the new owners of the Homer Theatre were preparing for their first Documentary Film Festival. They needed a manager and Carroll jumped at the opportunity to apply.
“I was so excited when they hired me,” Carroll shared. “Jamie and Lynnette brought such enthusiasm to the theater. It was wonderful to join the theater family.”
In 2007, Carroll and AlRay were given a “later-in-life-blessing” when they found out she was pregnant. When she gave birth to their daughter Cassidy, Carroll left the theatre to be a stay-at-home mom.
“I love being a Mom. I didn’t think it was going to happen for me, so when it did, it was a wonderful surprise.”
When Cassidy entered pre-school in 2011, Carroll returned to manage the theatre, enjoying the expanded programming opportunities available with the theatre’s new digital projector. In addition to her work, Carroll is also active on the leadership council of Big Brothers Big Sisters.
After living in Homer for the past 20 years, Colleen Carroll’s family and friends have finally stopped asking her if she’s ever going to move back to California. She’s home to stay and now they know it.
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