They told Mike Sica he talked too fast when he got to Alaska.
They said he had a funny accent.
Having grown up in Staten Island, New York, Sica might be expected to talk a little differently than the locals in Skagway.
But after a few decades in Alaska he almost talks like the long-time resident that he is.
“I now say daw-ter now instead of dotter,” he said, laughing and referring to the New York-accented form of daughter. When he was in the news business at the local KHNS radio, Skagway, “I literally got a letter saying, ‘get rid of that Mike Sica and his hippy accent.”
After more than 40 years in Alaska, he probably qualifies as a native. He loves Skagway, and he said it’s an easy place to be accepted, even if you’re not related to anyone in town.
“Skagway is just like one big happy dysfunctional family,” said Sica. “The good thing is people keep an eye out for you. Skagway is a melting pot. There are accents from the South, Northeast, Midwest.”
Sica was a math and biology major at St. John’s University in New York when he decided to go to Alaska, “anywhere in Alaska.” Sica explained that his native Staten Island had become a traffic-ridden, crowded place once the Varrazano Narrows Bridge opened in 1964 and linked the quiet, suburban island borough and New York City. He was tired of the crowds, the traffic, the metropolitan city life that had invaded Staten Island.
“I was born and raised in New York and I knew I wanted to get out,” he said.
Get out he did. He left for Fairbanks and wound up spending most of the rest of his life in Alaska.
“It was January 11, 1966, and the temperature when we landed was 48 below,” he recalled.
Sica spent 25 years as a print and broadcast journalist, a legislative aide and a member of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame Selection Committee. For the past 19 years he has been a conductor on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which links the port city of Skagway to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, Canada. Sica lives in Juneau during the winter and Skagway in the summer.
Sica said his old neighborhood in Staten Island “had a train running through it like a shark,” so it was only natural that he would wind up working for a railroad.
Although he sometimes misses journalism, he loves working on the railroad.
“My favorite thing about the railroad, in addition to the scenery and the history and the magic of trains, is the people on the train,” Sica said. “It’s like the university of the world comes to me. Trains are like little melting pots. You meet so many different types of people.”
Sica has met a few celebrities on his journeys between Skagway and Whitehorse. There was the time, for example, when actors Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart were traveling together in the back of the train as “Mr. and Mrs. John Doe.”
“I called him Mr. Doe, and he said, ‘well, that’s not really my name,’” Sica said. “They were actually staying overnight in Skagway and he asked me for recommendations for a place to eat. The next day someone was yelling to me from across the street that my recommendation was great. It was him.”
On the train he has also met the late inventor and Ronco owner Ron Popeil as well as a cousin he hadn’t seen in 45 years.
“You go through your cars making sure everything is ok, making sure everything is working,” Sica said. “You’re looking out for the safety of your passengers and the condition of the equipment. In the process, the thing you learn, is the people you come across always have a story.
“Basically, my job as a conductor means I’m responsible for the overall operation of the entire train,” he said. “I call it the chain of accountability. If something goes wrong, it’s on us. It’s about safety, efficiency, responsiveness and some showmanship. Safety, efficiency, showmanship and courtesy.”
Sica is the nephew of former Staten Island Republican U.S. Rep. Guy V. Molinari, whom he still talks to about the New York Yankees with every week, and is also the cousin of former Republican U.S. Rep. Susan Molinari. But Sica is devotedly non-partisan politically, although he once worked for a conservative legislator.
“Working in the Legislature made me use my brain,” Sica said. “Although I was exposed to different ideas, my commute was from ideals to reality. I call the experience ‘second-hand smoke for the soul.’”
As Sica reflects on his journalism career in Alaska, he liked the stories with a human element, much as he likes the human element of being a conductor.
“A lot of the stories you want to cover are the ones that write themselves,” Sica said. “The stories that really test you are the ones that don’t write themselves. Sometimes you publish stories that are a paragraph or two and no one reads them. I like journalistic alchemy, turning lead into gold.”
That alchemy has led Sica to some stories deeply touching the human experience, the stories he enjoyed the most. He remembered once covering a one-mile race sponsored by the local Rotary where a diaper-clad toddler finished third.
There have been many others. One especially touched him.
“There was the man who came to Alaska because he got a heart transplant from a man who lived there,” he said. “I wrote about how the man visited (the transplant donor’s) sister. She missed her brother but remembers how good she felt when she heard her brother’s heart beating in the other man’s chest. When you can connect with the reader to the people in the story, you’ve done your job. Sometimes us journalists get in the way of the stories that people are telling them. It’s great when you can connect a reader to a story and you just disappear.”
Although he is long out of journalism, he still misses it and he said his daughter wants to go into the profession. Sica carries a pen and pad wherever he goes to keep note of his experiences.
“Some people carry their phone or a camera. I will go nowhere without my pad and pen,” he said. “I feel protected, shielded when I have them.”
When it comes to being a train conductor, Sica has much the same philosophy as he did as a journalist: Let the experience speak for itself.
“You don’t want to get in the way of the breath-taking scenery,” he said. “Look at the mountains and the colors and the sky.”