SITKA, Alaska - While serving as a steward of the environment, it has been Sitka, Alaska, that has shaped the Linda Speerstra of today through its fisheries, wetlands and Russian-folk dances.
There are a few ways to meet Speerstra, project manager in the Regulatory Division at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District. She can be seen inspecting sites near or on federal wetlands, around her coastal community in Southeast Alaska or on stage performing for tourists.
“I dance on my lunch hour,” she said. “It works out really well for me.”
Speerstra belongs to the New Archangel Dancers, an all-female and volunteer Russian-folk dance group based in Sitka, a town only accessible by air or sea. Cruise ships stop every Wednesday and Thursday allowing for one performance each day for the lucky visitors to the town with 9,000 residents.
Eight women created the ensemble in 1969. The purpose was to preserve the Russian culture present in the former capital of Alaska.
“There aren’t many groups like us,” Speerstra explained.
The exclusive affiliation can be traced back to the club’s origins when males in town did not want to join. Speerstra said that nowadays it is the women’s opportunity to politely turn down men that would like to participate.
“It’s kind of like a sisterhood,” she said. “When someone has a baby, we provide meals for a month or if someone is injured, we step up and help the family.”
The repertoires include male roles, but Speerstra and other female dancers perform those pieces in full costume. These parts require a tremendous amount of leg and core strength, she said.
Speerstra joined after a coworker begged her to audition. Finally, after caving to seven years of peer pressure, she attended the eight-week process for two nights each and was immediately hooked.
“After the first week, it bit me like a bug,” Speerstra quipped.
She participated in more than 50 productions during her first year. Fifteen years later, she serves as a dance director and as the chairman of the board overseeing the ensemble’s every step.
Though the group performs primarily for tourists, they receive many invitations to showcase their repertoire around the world. The New Archangel Dancers have entertained at venues such as at festivities for the 50th anniversary of Alaskan statehood and at conferences in Japan, Russia and Mexico.
“Everybody has the passion for it,” she said. “Your heart is right there as a volunteer.”
It wasn’t until Speerstra moved to Sitka that she realized her passion for Russian-folk dancing as well as fisheries and wetlands, too.
At 20-years-old, she was forced to find employment when her father passed away and her mother sold the family dairy farm in Woodland, Wash. It was friends working in the commercial fishing industry in Sitka that convinced her to travel and stay for one summer.
The modest population size allows for its residents to easily notice someone new, she said.
A gentleman she met recognized the Dutch heritage in her last name, ancestry they both shared, and offered Speerstra a job working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“That started my career in fisheries,” Speerstra said. “He really encouraged me to continue my education and get my degree in biology.”
She worked in multiple divisions for the state for 15 years, all of which she loved. However, it was a working relationship that Speerstra had with a former Corps employee which ultimately destined her for the Alaska District.
Speerstra served as his reliable point of contact for helping to determine if wetlands were present near some of his project permitting assignments. When the district was interested in opening up field offices around the state, he referred Speerstra to his supervisors. She was excited to join the team.
“We benefit from having on-the-ground information that we use in our decision making process,” said Dave Casey, supervisor of the Juneau and Kenai field offices in the Regulatory Division. “The public in Sitka benefits from working with someone who is likely our most outgoing person on staff.”
Wetland delineation and federal regulations pertaining to waters of the United States were the greatest challenge to learn, Speerstra admitted. As the only Corps representative in Sitka, the opportunities Southeast Alaska brings to the program are what keep her motivated.
“I never know what’s going to come through the door,” she said. “I never know who is going to call me and tell me about their project.”
Helping the public understand the Corps’ role in the environment is an element of the job that she revels in.
“I believe the educational component is the exact way to reach out to our coastal communities,” she described. “Southeast Alaska is the perfect host to be able to talk about it.”
When she isn’t delineating wetlands or performing on stage, Speerstra said she likes to teach indoor cycling, run, hike, knit and sew. While helping sculpt Sitka’s culture and environment, it’s been the small town shaping her.