Four age-defying workers,
four extreme jobs.
A visual journey by
photographer Andy Anderson
xhaustion. Exhilaration. Courage. Pain. For men and women over 50 with extreme jobs, it’s all in a day’s daring work. Retirement? Not for these determined pros. They sweat, strain, push and thrive, using their muscles and their wits, excelling in jobs meant (supposedly) for the young—from timber cutter to oil worker. They endure extreme heat. They fight treacherous cold. They’ve escaped danger. They’ve seen death.
The face of the American worker is increasingly changing. By 2024, the number of workers ages 65 to 74 will grow by 55 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those 75 and older, the growth rate will be 86 percent. Most septuagenarian laborers won’t become stunt drivers or skydiving instructors, but these savvy workers will have the experience and drive to redefine how and where they want to work in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
Each of these older Americans has a story to tell. That’s why I teamed with AARP The Magazine to profile four workers who test themselves daily in dangerous, demanding jobs. I was drawn by their faces, their on-the-job challenges, and the intimidating environments where they work. Their motivation, I found, involves more than a paycheck. Despite the risks, they love their jobs. They are as gritty and tough as the work they do. And it keeps them strong.
—Andy Anderson, with reporting by Ken Budd
The wild, desolate Tongass National Forest covers most of southeast Alaska.
ABOUT 20 YEARS AGO I was in a helicopter crash. Our camp was at Hobart Bay, about 90 miles southeast of Juneau, and we’d fly to our timber sites. The helicopter hit the ground at 140 miles per hour. Six men died. One of them was impaled with a branch like a harpoon. I had internal bleeding and a cracked skull, two broken bones in my foot, a dislocated knee, a compound fracture in my femur, a broken arm and three broken ribs. My back and pelvis were broken in two places.
The emotional pain was almost worse because of the friends that I lost. For six months, I lay in a hospital bed, asking myself, “Why? Why did I live and others die?”
I’ve lived in southeast Alaska since 1996, and 40 timber cutters have been killed on the job. The day of the crash, I hiked through sleet and rain, with snow drifts up to my arms. When I was flown to a hospital in Juneau, my body temperature was 87 degrees. If anybody doubts how difficult this is, just follow me up a mountain, on a 100-foot cliff, carrying almost 100 pounds of gear. I also carry a shotgun for protection—sometimes brown bears are nearby.
I’ve cut timber for 35 years, and I cut 25 to 75 trees a day: Spruce, hemlocks, cedars, pine. The best part of the job is the forest. I’ve walked where no man has ever stepped foot. One time I returned from a forest fire and I was black from the charcoal. I went to a store in town, and a customer said, “Wow, you’re dirty!”
“The city is dirty,” I said. “The forest is clean.”
Timber cutters often carry up to 100 pounds of equipment, including this “fuel hug” for the chainsaw. “This is one of the hardest physical jobs that I know of,” Stuart says.
During the work day, Stuart cuts anywhere from 25 to 75 trees, depending on their size.
Stuart strolls across a slash heap (which is the debris from the logging process).
“I’ve walked where no man has ever stepped foot.”
Lumber trivia: Typically only one man works in the timber cutting area, and he's called a "single jack."
Workers move the logs from the ground to the truck.
Slash logs, as seen from above. This leftover material is often burned, buried, or chipped.
Another exhausting day, another truck full of logs. “If I continue to eat well and take my vitamins,” says Stuart, “I might be able to do this until I’m 75.”
Jose Muñez has been working in the oil fields since 1990.
WE START WORKING at 6 in the morning because of the heat. The foremen monitor the weather: If it goes above 100, we stop. The temperatures reach 110, but the rig engines can push it to 125.
I got overheated one time. The next day, I worked 12 hours. By the third day, I passed out at the doctor’s office. I spent three days in the hospital. My kidneys were failing. I didn’t go back to work for two months.
You gotta trust the people you work with. If something happens, I wanna know you can help me, not leave me there to die. There’s a poison gas called H2S [hydrogen sulfide]. One breath and you die. We have monitors, so we know where the danger is. There’s more caution now, which is good. The foreman checks on you every hour and says, “Are you OK? When’s the last time you took a break?”
I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I tell everybody to get an education because this is a job nobody wants, you know what I mean? It pays good, but it’s dangerous. We work with 50-foot pipes that can come loose and kill you. You can get cancer from the chemicals. I’ve seen people get killed.
You need to be in good shape to do this. Everybody says, “Wow, you don’t look 57.” It’s the physical work. We’re lifting pipes that weigh 300 pounds. If you have a job in an office, not doing nothing, just sitting down—you die quick.
It’s a hard job, but I love it. I want to do this until I’m 60 or 65. I love what I do.
New Cuyama, California
“There’s no way you’re gonna be clean,” Muñez says. “The oil’s going to be there no matter what.”
California has produced 1.3 million barrels of crude oil since 2010. This field is near Bakersfield.
Oil workers don’t need gyms. “I’m constantly moving,” he says. “You keep in shape that way.”
“You gotta trust the people you work with. If something happens, I wanna know you can help, not leave me there to die.”
“We’re dealing with 30, sometimes 50 feet of pipe,” says Muñez.
Get a grip: Workers sometimes use their hands to loosen and tighten pipes.
Pipes, people—it doesn’t matter. Everything gets covered with oil.
Muñez works on a pump jack, which extracts crude oil when there’s not enough force in the well.
Jim McGrath flies his seven-seat plane over Katmai National Park.
I WORK AT A LODGE: I fly passengers and guides to fishing spots. All my takeoffs and landings are on the water. When you’re landing, you need to come in low to the trees so you don’t run out of lake.
The plane is a single-engine De Havilland Beaver, built in 1958. They’re good for this type of work—they lift a lot of weight. Everything in our lodge is flown in—groceries, fuel—so I’ll pick up 1,000 pounds of freight in town and unload it myself.
I have GPS and an altimeter, but there’s no instrument flight control. It’s entirely hands-on flying. No copilot, no air traffic control. Winds are a challenge, and so are low ceilings—where the cloud base is—and visibility. That’s what gets a lot of people. Suddenly they can’t see and they fly into stuff. One time the visibility was so bad I had no choice but to land on a windy lake where the waves were kicking around. If a wave is too big, it’ll flip over your airplane. I landed and taxied for four or five miles because of the fog.
I saw an expression that made an impression on me: “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of those experiences are bad.” These airplanes have one engine, and if it stops, you’re going down. The airplane will glide, but not far. I know experienced pilots who have gotten killed.
I’d love to do this for another 10 years, but the medical requirements can end the careers of older pilots. But some pilots are still doing this in their 70s. I hope I am too.
Katmai National Park, Alaska
“We’ve all had close calls or banged-up airplanes, but most of us learn from it and move on,” says McGrath.
In such a remote area, pilots like McGrath don't rely much on instrumentation: “You make your own decisions.”
Inside the cockpit of McGrath’s single-engine De Havilland Beaver plane, built in 1958.
McGrath takes off from Battle Lake. “With floats, the plane’s got more drag, so it’ll fly a little slower,” he says. “But on the water, it’s really a boat.”
A pilot’s perks include the views, such as this panoramic look at Battle Lake’s headwaters.
About 2,200 brown bears live in Katmai—which is larger than the human population on the Alaska Peninsula.
“When you’re flying in this environment,
there’s nobody to ask for help.”
A clear day is a good day: Pilots deal with everything from strong winds to poor visibility.
The job can be physical, as McGrath shows by tailing his plane onto the beach at Brooks Falls in Katmai.
Lisa Walker needed to support her three kids—so she learned how to weld.
I WORK FOR THE PORT of San Francisco. We build piers. I guess it fits my personality: As a kid, I used to tinker in the garage with my dad. He loved cars and he even invented some stuff for General Motors. When my husband and I divorced, I had to support my three children. I heard about a four-year apprenticeship program on welding, and I said, “I can do this.”
I’m the first woman they hired, and the first black woman. It's been hell sometimes. The guys weren't ready for me. Attitudes are changing, but it's difficult. I deal with it through therapy and prayer. Sometimes the men confide in me and call me the “mother hen.” It's like I have eight, nine husbands, you know? But when you get them together, they change. I just continue to be me, because if I let them change me, I would be an ugly person.
The job is demanding. You're going, going, going all day. And it's dangerous. When I was an apprentice, a crane operator dropped his hook, and it hit me in the head. Knocked me out. I also tore my meniscus. I’ve been on jobs where people died. But I love what I do. I like seeing the finished product.
When I got hurt, it scared my kids. One of my daughters said, "Mom, you don't need to be out there any longer." But this keeps me young. I’ve seen people that I went to school with, and they don't look like me. I’d wanted to be a psychiatrist, but this is where I landed, and I’ve been doing this work for 25 years. I’m proud. I like who I am.
Being the only woman on the job isn’t easy, says Walker—but the work is gratifying.
“Things are heavy,” she says. “Very, very heavy. You're full bore all day. No stopping.”
Walker and her coworkers install 15-20 piles a day. This particular project requires 300.
Walker inspects a diesel hammer, which drives piles into the ground for a pier.
“I’ve been doing this work for 25 years. I’m proud. I like who I am.”
“Accidents can happen any day, any time,” says Walker, using a welding torch.