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Kelly Willett: ‘We’re all more alike than we know; we just have to listen. Once we do that, we’re presented with new ways to connect and be excited about and for the people around us.’

Kelly Willett wears many hats: she’s a pilot, a member of Alaska’s Air National Guard, a videographer, a realtor, and an avid cyclist – all secondary, she said, to her full-time career as an environmental compliance specialist for Seattle-based NorthStar Energy (NSE).

“What’s most surprised me about what I do at NSE is the variety,” she said. “I thought I’d be reading regulations all day, every day. While my job does consist of a fair bit of that, I can expand into a lot of different areas to help develop training, identify areas of improvement, give ideas, and help out on projects as needed.”

The call of the wild

Willett grew up on a small farm in Oklahoma and was the first in her family to graduate from college. She attended the University of Central Oklahoma, majoring in biology.

“Growing up, I showed livestock and helped my parents build our house,” she said. “I worked summers at their roofing and fencing company. I wanted to be a veterinarian.”

Willett’s landed work as a veterinary technician and genetic lab assistant during college but was lured away from veterinary school by an internship with a landscape architecture firm in Alaska.

“I discovered a passion for sharing the outdoors and found that landscape architecture was a way to share that passion,” she said. “But instead of falling in love with landscape architecture, I fell in love with Alaska.”

She joined NSE in March of 2020.

“I missed the technical aspects of using my biology degree, which led me back to the world of environmental work,” she said. “I like that I’m able to help the company and site managers reach their goals, getting to know the employees through site visits and helping identify areas of improvement.”

Willett remembers an early trip to Yakutat, Alaska: “I had no cell phone service, and also no idea what the person who was picking me up looked like. Then, they called my name over the loudspeaker of the one-room airport, and it turns out I was standing right in front of the site manager,” she laughed.

Willett has lived in Alaska since 2012 and said part of why she joined NSE was the ability to work where she lived.

“The people of Alaska are my home, and I enjoy visiting the sites and getting to know everyone who is part of our companies within the state.”

A passenger films a helicopter refueling mid flight through a plane's open aft door.
Watch a video Willet shot of the ANG Search and Rescue crew in Alaska: https://www.dvidshub.net/video/618880/212th-conducts-glacier-travel-training

A military liaison

Willett’s regrets are few but center on her desire to have done more sooner.

“I’d tell myself not to worry what other people think so much and to go after all the things I didn’t think I could do,” she said. “And I would’ve tackled my pilot’s license a lot sooner.”

Willett joined Alaska’s Air National Guard in December of 2018 after meeting a few National Guardsmen while fishing on a beach.

“I felt called to serve, in part, because the people I’d met that were serving seemed like people I’d want to work beside.”

Once in the Guard, she went into public affairs, shooting video and taking photos. Since beginning her career, her products have been viewed and shared more than 10 million times on various platforms.

“I enjoy telling our stories and being a liaison between the public and the military, she said. “I capture any and every part of the mission. A photo I took of a survival expert was most recently featured on the cover of Air Force Magazine. I enjoy sharing pieces that people wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Relaxed mountaineering

Willett said she’s most proud of her decision to turn around while attempting to summit Denali during the summer of 2019.

“I just sort of had a wild hare,” she said. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. It’s the tallest mountain in North America. On a clear day, it can be seen from Anchorage and out of my window at home.”

But Willet forced herself to turn back roughly 2,000 feet from the summit.

“Quitting is a hard thing to do; standing at 18,600 feet and deciding to turn around because of altitude sickness was a difficult choice,” she explained. “I was disappointed in myself at first, but after thinking about it, I learned more about success and failure that day than I have any other day and re-defined the word for myself. Success is defined not only as what you achieve but also who you are while achieving those things. In the Alaskan mountaineering community, a Denali expedition is almost a right of passage, and I wanted to make sure I checked that box. Since then, I’ve become more relaxed about my mountaineering activities.”

As far as Willett’s hobbies, “I’m lucky enough to live in a state that allows for ample social distancing outside my back door,” she said. “Skiing, biking, ice climbing, hiking, hunting, fishing, swimming, reading, writing, painting, and flying are most of what I do for fun these days. I like puzzles too, but rarely sit still long enough to do them.”

In the coming years, Willet said she believes NorthStar will further flex its technological muscle.

“COVID has presented its challenges, but I also think it’s pushed forward much-needed use of technology throughout not just our company but the country as a whole.”

Kelly smiles for a selfie in bike helmet and rain gear.

Circumvention and connection

During the pandemic, Willett estimates she’s saved roughly 10 hours per week working from home.

“I promised myself that I’d use the time I saved for self-development and’ passion projects,’” she said. “The passion project I’ve taken on this year is publishing my biking book.”

Willett began cycling as a child, accompanying her father to “bike rodeos” in Oklahoma. After many years away from the sport, she began riding seriously again three years ago.

“I picked it back up because it was another avenue of getting outside,” she explained. “I’ve ridden 40-plus mile rides alone and not only grew my confidence but my abilities within the sport. As my experience level increased, I realized that many men and women around me were asking the same questions I used to ask myself. So I started compiling the things that I had learned and commonly asked questions. It just sort of morphed into a book as I went on. I want to share my experiences and help people discover biking, maybe circumventing some of the learning curve.”

This past summer, Willett set out on a solo ride that was up and over a pass – 28 miles and more than 2,500 ft of elevation gain, all without cell phone signal.

“That was the ride when it finally clicked for me that I was confident in my abilities as a rider,” she said. “I not only had to make trail decisions, but I also had to be bear and moose aware and be able to get myself out of any situations I might’ve gotten myself into. It’s in situations where you’re forced to reflect on your abilities and knowledge when you understand what you know.”

While researching the book, Willett said she learned a lot about listening and making assumptions – or not.

“I’d say one of the most important takeaways I’ve solidified is that we’re all more alike than we know; we just have to listen. Once we do that, we’re presented with new ways to connect and be excited about and for the people around us.”

Can’t get enough of The Frontier State? Check out our piece on TOTE Community Relations Program Manager Milena Sevigny, another member of the Saltchuk family who found her forever home in Alaska!

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.