Peabody native Roxanne VanGundy did not believe after her boss asked, more than four years ago, “What are your career goals,” that in a short time she would be living them.
VanGundy, who was an emergency dispatcher in Emporia, and her husband, Brett, a corrections officer, visited Alaska before 2010 to see Amanda Wedel and Calvin Carr, both of Peabody, who were stationed in Alaska.
“When we got back home from that trip, we knew we had to go back and live there. Watching episodes of ‘Alaska State Troopers’ did not help,” she said. “I had thrown around the idea for a while, but I never thought it would happen.
“It was an awesome dream come true. I want people to see you can be from a small town and go off and see the world and make your dreams happen.”
Over the next year, VanGundy would interview with the Alaskan Troopers, receive a job offer, and follow her goal to the northernmost portion of the United States. Once there she learned life was entirely different where it snows 8 months out of the year.
Now 4½ years later, they are moving back to Emporia to be closer to home.
“We’re going back to our old jobs but hope to visit friends in Alaska often,” VanGundy said. “It’s like we have two homes now.”
She said coming home will be an adjustment, like living in Alaska was.
“Mandy Wedel was instrumental in helping us get started and through those first few months,” she said. “I like the cold so that didn’t really bother me.”
They settled down 12 miles outside of Fairbanks in a town called North Pole.
“The kids in my life thought that was very cool,” VanGundy said. “There was a huge Santa statue in town.”
Adjusting to the cold was not as big of a hassle as adjusting to the 22 to 23 hours per day of light in the summer, and 22 to 23 hours of dark per day in the winter.
“When you try and live life in a place that’s -45 degrees, it makes simple things more difficult, but people there help you because they know it’s a harsh lifestyle,” she said. “What I found the most difficult was dealing with the constant daytime. I didn’t mind it when it was dark, but at 1 a.m. and it’s still light outside it’s hard to adjust and sleep because it doesn’t feel like night.”
Another big adjustment was the wildlife, she said.
“In Alaska animals are open to roam, so it’s not uncommon to wake up and have a moose standing in your front yard,” she said. “It was always easy as a dispatcher to tell when people were newcomers because they would always call about moose being in their yards. They’re pretty docile if you give them space, but they can be pretty mean especially if you mess with their babies.”
Moose were an everyday common occurrence to VanGundy, in fact her strangest dispatch call involved a moose.
“About three years ago we had a call of a moose that was walking on the icy river,” she said. “The moose eventually fell in a soft spot and went into the water. Onlookers tried to lasso the moose and pull it ashore. This was a bad idea because moose get severe anxiety when they are in high stress situations and it often kills them. This time though they rescued the moose and pulled it to safety.”
After the moose was ashore, onlookers could not get close enough to the moose to get the lasso off.
“We continued to get calls about the moose for years still with the lasso around her neck,” Van Gundy said. “The last call I got about her was around Christmas so it’s nice to know she’s still out there.”
She said it was more common to get strange calls in Alaska than in Emporia.
“When people do something up there they go all out, a lot of calls are just different because it’s a different environment,” she said.
Dispatch in Alaska was also different in other ways. VanGundy was in charge of dispatch for around 50 troopers and other law enforcement officers at her post. She would receive around 100 calls per 8-hour shift.
“Our dispatch was the base for all of northern Alaska and the Kodiak Islands,” she said. “A lot of the time I would dispatch for places I’ve never seen. You just have to learn and remember and rely on maps.”
That was the most difficult part of dispatch in Alaska, VanGundy said.
“A lot of the area was unpopulated,” she said. “We covered a large space with not so many people. It’s just like the show ‘Alaska State Troopers.’”
VanGundy got to know the show very well after arriving in Alaska because a producer and cameraman was assigned to their post at all times to film the show.
“Other crews would go out with the officers, but they would be there when calls came in,” she said.
Coming home, the couple is looking forward most to good food and fresh produce, after having the majority of their food trucked into their area from Anchorage.
“Food shipments would come into Anchorage and grocery stores would go through and pick out what they wanted then truck the rest across the state,” VanGundy said. “By the time things reached us they weren’t the freshest and often went bad very quickly.”