Katie Connor is, to use an old-fashioned phrase, a woman of many parts. She is or has been (deep breath here): A licensed boat captain, commercial fisherperson, research vessel crew, tall ship deckhand, gardener, floral arranger, rodeo rider, “professional dirt-bagger” (more on that later), ice-climber, wrestler, wilderness guide, and entrepreneur. Also: Sterling alum. She’s packed a lot into her 32 years.
A “really, really introverted” child from a family of “very few resources” just outside of Homer, Alaska, Katie did not take to traditional schooling. She entered grade school able to read and do math; by fourth grade she was doing neither, and her mother pulled her out. “If it doesn’t interest me, I’m not going to do it,” Katie explains. From fourth grade on she pursued an unusual course of homeschooling; a big part of her learning was helping her family build a house, logging the land, milling the wood, and building. She took correspondence courses through Brigham Young University and a local community college. She was active in Future Farmers of America, won top honors in state-wide competitions for environmental sciences, did summer stints with the Youth Conservation Corps in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, and participated in high school sports, earning a varsity letter in wrestling for all four years. She worked at a greenhouse (flowers in summer, peat production in winter –– hence her experience bagging dirt). Her self-designed course of study, as a high school senior, was to figure out how to get into college. She spent the year researching and applying, and eventually submitted applications to about 30 schools. “I didn’t think I’d get into any,” she says. But she was accepted by nearly all, including Sterling.
She chose Sterling for several reasons, one of the most compelling being that Sterling matched her Youth Conservation Corps scholarships. Another was that it is a federally designated Work College. “That aspect was really important to me,” she says. What she values most about her time in Craftsbury Common was finding people “who want to share community and to do meaningful work.” She found that Sterling engendered “acts of service,” and an accountability that she prized. “You have to get up and make brunch because of all the people who are coming and who are depending upon you to be there and do your job,” she says. The idea of work that is meaningful to her, and of giving back to her community, has motivated her in her life beyond Sterling.
She had planned to study agriculture but, reasoning that she had a fair amount of agricultural experience under her belt, pivoted to the field of outdoor education. The program allowed her to add canoeing and ice-climbing to her skills, and she spent summers leading outdoor tours for an Alaska-based company.
Although one credit shy of her diploma, Katie “walked” at spring graduation in 2012; her plan was to design a course in sailing to fulfill that last credit. She’d been on many fishing boats, canoes, and kayaks, but wanted to learn to sail. Intrigued by the tall ships, Katie found a job on a boat which CNN described as “the most famous three-masted wooden square rigger in the world:” the HMS Bounty. The ship was a replica of an 18th century British naval vessel, built in Canada for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty.” It was refurbished in the early 2000s; by the time Katie went aboard, it had been serving as a kind of floating museum and tourist attraction, with cameos in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise. She got a spot as a deckhand, and shipped aboard in Eastport, Maine. But by the time the boat made its way down the coast to a shipyard in Boothbay Harbor, Katie realized The Bounty was not seaworthy. The deck was so rotted “you could put a screwdriver right through it,” and a fuel tank was leaking, among many other problems. But the owners and captain decided the ship could make it to Florida, and wanted to get it there before hurricane season. After some repairs in Maine, the Bounty sailed…but without Katie. “I jumped ship,” she says, and arranged for a friend to bring her back to Vermont, where she began working with her advisor on an alternate way to earn that last credit. “I was second guessing myself, and wondering if I was right to break my contract,” she recalls. But not long after her return, Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast, and Katie woke up one morning to video footage of The Bounty foundering off the Outer Banks. Fourteen crew members were rescued by Coast Guard helicopter, but one crew member was found dead, and the captain has never been found. Her paper on her trip, her decision to leave the boat, and the risk assessment involved –– aided by the journal entries she had kept while on board –– sufficed to complete her Sterling education; she officially graduated in December 2012.
Katie found herself working as a parking attendant and snowshoeing guide at Stowe Mountain Resort, but eventually made it back to Alaska. In Alaska she again began guiding –– traveling between gigs in Alaska, Colorado, and Hawaii –– and took up some stints as a commercial salmon fisherperson, which allowed her to pay off her college loans in about a year and a half.
Katie also garnered experience on boats contracted to carry out research on the halibut fishery. When the pandemic struck in early 2020, she found herself in lockdown on shore, stranded with the boat’s captain, who harassed her. “There’s no HR on a fishing boat,” Katie says ruefully. But she did not let that deter her. Sexual harassment, Katie says, is “rampant” in the fishing industry, and although many women are assertive enough to battle it on their own, she feels it is important to start “using the systems already in place” in order to change the culture.
Not long after, a family friend recruited Katie to work aboard the Sally Ride, a research vessel operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Katie had multiple duties, including working as a liaison between the crew and the scientists, whose mission was to comb the ocean floor off Southern California for barrels of DDT dumped in the ocean after the pesticide was banned in the U.S. in 1972. She helped deploy dozens of ocean-going, drone-like bots outfitted with high-resolution sonar devices, which she likens to Roombas that travel the ocean floor, “collecting data instead of dust bunnies.”
The mission, described in an article in the Los Angeles Times, identified at least 27,000 “barrel-sized anomalies” and more than 100,000 “debris objects” in a 36,000-acre parcel of ocean floor.
Currently, Katie is back home in Alaska, working on a business she began last summer. Alaskan Glamping offers platform tents overlooking what she describes as “jaw-dropping Kachemak Bay” and views of the Kenai Mountains and Fox River Flats. Once the season starts, her days will begin around 3:45 a.m. when she rises to get breakfast for her guests, and then goes to the harbor, arriving around 5:30 am., to captain on a commercial fishing boat. She can be back to her guests by 3:30 p.m., ready to do the housekeeping and gardening around the tent sites.
“I really can’t do a 9-to-5” she says of what some would call a somewhat extreme work schedule. The fishing gigs pay the bills but she’s dedicated to opening her family’s land to others. Through Alaskan Glamping, she can help people learn homesteading skills and help them appreciate the natural world more fully. She will soon offer yoga retreats and fiber arts classes.
“I hope my guests can return home with a little bit of perspective about their place in the world,” she says. “It’s nice to make a living, but it has to be a meaningful living.”