Photo by jswieringa

MatadorU student Suzanne Steinert tells us how she scored some sweet gigs as a caretaker, with responsibilities like taking care of sled dogs in Alaska and overseeing the duties of a hotel in New Zealand.

What is caretaking and how does it differ from house sitting?

Caretaking is what I like to call “glorified house sitting.” As opposed to just staying over at your friend’s apartment for a week while they’re on vacation because someone has to feed their goldfish, caretaking is on another level. It’s often longer term, and more involved in the sense that your hosts trust you with greater responsibilities…like the maintenance of their business (which doubles as their home) during off-season. You often get paid because the work has greater value, and there’s more of it.

So tell us about how you got started with caretaking.

My first job was managing a wilderness lodge in Alaska last summer, located 100 miles by ski plane from Anchorage. Though a competitive position to snag, I originally sniffed out the managerial job online during a restless night in NYC, by simply Googling “Alaska wilderness lodges.” Duties included taking care of the sled dogs and the chickens, shoveling snow, and calling in hourly weather observations per the lodge’s responsibility as a national weather station.

Despite the lack of sunlight and below-freezing temps, I had the time of my life for four months. Kooky backwoodsmen? Check. Emergency supply planes and dates to bear dens? Check and check.

Photo by author.

Now, my boyfriend and I are house-sitting at a lovely little motel in the New Zealand countryside while the owners are away on vacation. For three weeks, we’re holing up at their pad overlooking the Tasman Sea, caring for the animals, checking-in occasional guests, and making sure the place doesn’t burn down or anything. And we’re getting paid!

What’s one big advantage you have over other caretaker candidates?

I love animals and having experience with horses is what solidified my current position here in New Zealand. Many people hire caretakers/house-sitters because they don’t want to pay big dollars to send Fido to a kennel. In Alaska, I was in charge of feeding (and breaking up vicious fights between) 19 crazy sled dogs. Now, I’ve got 14 horses to look after, plus a neurotic border collie and two cats. You probably won’t have an entire zoo to deal with yourself, but those with fur allergies be warned.

Can you actually make a living from caretaking?

Ideally you should have cash in the bank or a second means of income. Otherwise, prepare to live frugally. Although accommodation is obviously part of the deal (and sometimes food), even if you land a paid job the wage will be meager. Expect to make on average $1,000USD per month, which is possible to subsist on if you don’t have a lot of material wants or financial obligations. Don’t convince yourself that just because you’re out in the bush spending zero money, you don’t need to have backup resources. You do.

If you have WiFi access, this is where being a digital nomad comes in super handy! I was able to reel in a nice chunk of extra dough undertaking some freelance writing assignments that I could research on the spot.

What kind of handy skills do you need?

You don’t need prior experience, but you do need common sense. Play up your resourcefulness. Standard handyman skills (construction, repair, plumbing, etc.) are always a big plus, as is experience in a management position or customer service field.

Don't kill the plants. Photo by dickuhne

Once hired, ask questions: “Where’s the fuse box?” “How often do the plants need to be watered?” and “Who should I contact in case of an emergency?” Those are the basics, though in a remote location you’ll need to know everything from how the septic and water systems work to what tools are on hand and how to use them.

You said you take on caretaking jobs with your boyfriend. Does coming as a packaged deal mean you’re more likely to get jobs, or are you less likely?

There’s a reason superheroes have a wingman. There are loads of benefits to caretaking as a couple, from divvying up duties to having someone to stargaze with. Note: If you advertise yourself and your amigo as a joint package, make sure you each have something to offer (i.e. one of you isn’t just a useless tag-along).

So many of these jobs are remote, right? How do you deal with the isolation?

Welcome the chance to be cut off. While spending 9 months alone in the wilderness is at the extreme end of the spectrum (I know one guy who did it in Alaska…he said he meditated, a lot), most caretaking jobs require a certain amount of isolation and roughing it. You might only be able to make occasional trips into “town” at best, so if you can’t live without Delivery.com and other civilizational luxuries don’t bother. There’s nothing like using an outhouse at 20 below.

Photo by author.

It also goes without saying you need to like being alone (or really like the person you’re with), as you’ll be without company for long periods of time. You’ll have a lot of spare time. But even if you’ve got TV, WiFi, and phone access, embrace the opportunity to “tune out,” but also bring along enough hobbies and interests to ensure you don’t start wreaking havoc with an ax.

What has been one surprising perk about caretaking you never expected?

Reach out to your neighbors. On the flip side, even if you’re hundreds of miles from the nearest road, there’s probably somebody nearby that can lend a helping hand if you end up in a bind. Odds are they’ll have some interesting stories to tell, too.

So how do we find these jobs?

It can take a bit of digging, but I ultimately snagged each of my caretaking jobs online, and you can too! Try certain websites, like Caretaker-Jobs, The Caretaker Gazette, WWOOF: Willing Workers on Organic Farms, HouseCarers or Housesitters.com. And, as always, there’s Craigslist with some active postings for caretakers in Alaska.

* Feature photo: photoguyinmo

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