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Staying afloat
July 13, 2015

Rebecca Roush

COKATO, MN – Sometimes you need more than a life jacket to stay afloat. This was the case for Biz Robbins.

Biz grew up in Cloquet, with her brother, Joe Harmala, who currently lives in Cokato.*

She later attended St. Olaf University for two years, then transferred to the University of Minnesota, where she studied teaching.

After graduating with a degree in teaching, she moved to Colorado Springs, CO, to teach fifth grade.

This is also where she met her husband, Don, who was a high school teacher at the time.

Three years after getting married, Don proposed that they pack up and move to Alaska.

He gave Biz two years to “get used to the idea.”

In 1978, the couple made the move to southeast Alaska, where they both pursued teaching in logging camps, which Biz described as “little camps that were dispersed all throughout southeast Alaska, that had logging families in need of schools.”

After getting settled into their new lifestyle, they got the news that Don had cancer. Don lost his battle, and Biz was left to carry on.

After just one month, she returned to the float camps to pick up where she left off as a teacher.

She was offered a job at a small school on the Polk Inlet float camp. There, she taught grades one through 12 for five years.

Biz decided that she wanted to memorialize the float camp lifestyle, so she began to write a book about her experiences.

“I would wish for other people to be able to experience that kind of life,” she explained.

The book is titled, “Life Jacket: A Memoir of a Float Camp Teacher.”

She originally named it after the life jackets that the children would have to wear while walking through the floating camps, however the book’s title soon took on a new meaning.

While dealing with the death of her husband, the community that Biz was a member of took on the role of an “emotional life jacket” in her life, continuing to support her and keep her “afloat.”

As the book started to take shape, Biz wanted to add an inspirational element for people who are also dealing with grief.

Her mother-in-law had returned letters to her that Biz and Don had written throughout the years. These letters brought back many memories that would have otherwise been left out or forgotten while writing the book. They were so important, Robbins decided to include items from the letters in the book. She described these letters as being a “special gift.”

The book quickly turned into not only a memoir of the float camp lifestyle, but a memoir of Biz’s own life experiences.

It took a total of 10 years to write and publish. Book Publishers Network took on the book.

“I don’t expect to get rich from it, but it was on my bucket list for so long that it feels really good to have it crossed off,” Biz said.

She explained that the most difficult part of writing the book was finding the strength to lay all of her actions open for everyone to observe, but she also realized that telling her story could help others who are in situations similar to hers.

Biz currently lives in Ketchikan, AK, where she teaches as an adjunct professor in developmental English and mathematics at the University of Alaska Southeast.

She still keeps in contact with some of her former logging camp students.

“Many of them still remain in my life,” she wrote.

Biz’s book is available for purchase on Amazon Kindle, and in Ketchikan, AK and Cloquet, MN; and on the book’s Facebook page.

*This story has been updated to reflect correct information about where Joe Harmala lives.

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