February 4, 1967 - December 4, 2008

Michele Marie Szepanski

The life given us by nature is short, 
but the memory of a life well spent is eternal. 

Shelly Szepanski Memorial Flight Scholarship Fund

It was Shelly's wish to create a continuing scholarship fund. The fund will provide up to $5,000 to assist a female science student at the University of Alaska (preferably with a wildlife biology and/or natural resources focus) with the flight training necessary to earn a private pilot's license and/or commercial or instruments rating towards achieving her career goals as a biologist-pilot in Alaska.

If you wish to donate to the scholarship fund, go to The Alaska Community Foundation website at http://www.alaskacf.org, then search with her name which will lead you to the 'Donate' link.

Alaska Huntress Calendar info

If you would like to purchase a calendar,  please see ordering information to the right. Thanks!

December 4th ~ Remembering Shelly

In Our Hearts

We thought of you with love today,
But that is nothing new.
We thought about you yesterday,
And days before that too.
We think of you in silence,
We often speak your name.
Now all we have is memories
And your picture in a frame.
Your memory is our keepsake,
With which we'll never part.
God has you in his keeping,
We have you in our hearts.

Missing you ~ With love, Mom and Dad

Missing memorial quilt

Note: Sadly the quilt went missing enroute from Fairbanks to Minnesota in March, 2009. It was given to Shelly in 2008; scroll down to read her comments. If anyone reading this knows of its whereabouts please contact us at lynn.bill@yahoo.com. This beautiful memorial quilt has great sentimental value to us.
Shelly's family

Shelly's Fairbanks Memorial - 21 February 2009

On Saturday, February 21st, friends will be gathering in Fairbanks, Alaska to participate in a 'celebration of life' for Shelly. This will follow a small memorial held by Shelly's family for Minnesota friends and relatives in early December. Shelly envisioned a Fairbanks event that would "give thanks to the friendship and positive force each of the guests have been in my life" (her words), specifically, an evening of sharing stories, memories, and smiles at Musher's Hall. We hope all those who knew Shelly and are able, will attend. Please contact Kalin for details or questions.

O! for a horse with wings! ~Shakespeare

Shelly fulfilled another dream this past summer (2008). With the help and encouragement of her riding therapists Janet and Shari, she learned some basic dressage movements. Her two lovely steeds, Ghost and Pete, couldn't have been more cooperative and careful with her. It was hard work for her but pure joy as well. I smile as I remember her smiles of happiness and real sense of accomplishment.

I think Shelly would be pleased to know that her English saddle has an important job... it will be used by physically-challenged children and adults benefiting from therapeutic riding sessions.

Can't help but think of some similarities between Shelly and another adventurous, six-foot tall young woman, Beryl Markham (1902-1986). She was the first person to fly the Atlantic solo east to west. She was an author (West With the Night) and also became a successful racehorse trainer in Africa. She once wrote, "A lovely horse is always an experience... It is an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words."

My horse's feet are as swift as rolling thunder,
He carries me away from all my fears.
And when the world threatens to fall asunder,
His mane is there to wipe away my tears.

~Bonnie Lewis


4 December 2008 - Shelly passes on

From The Fairbanks Newsminer:
(Written by Shelly's mom, Lynn)

Fairbanks resident Michele "Shelly" Szepanski died peacefully in Minnesota on Dec. 4, 2008, after a four-year battle with melanoma.

Shelly was born in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, 1967, and lived in Juneau, Anchorage, McGrath and Fairbanks for most of her 41 years. She graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1985 and was a member of the All-State Girls' High School basketball team her junior and senior years.

While battling cancer, Shelly continued to work on her doctorate program in moose research, got her pilot's license, and took dressage lessons. She always maintained her love for the outdoors and Alaska.

Shelly is survived by her parents, Lynn and Bill Szepanski of Anoka, Minn.; her sister and brother-in-law, Jennifer and Steve Mendive of Palmer; grandmother Lorraine of Minnesota; numerous aunts, uncles and cousins in Minnesota, Oregon and Alaska; and her good friends, Kalin Kellie, Heather Wilson, Caroline Brown of Alaska, and many others along her journey.

A celebration dinner will take place in Fairbanks at a later date. Shelly's cremains will be spread at various Alaska locations according to her wishes. Please visit http://shellyszepanski.blogspot.com/ for updates.

Shelly's parents can be reached at lynn.bill@yahoo.com. Memorials may be sent to: The Melanoma Research Foundation, 170 Township Line Road, Building B, Hillsborough, NJ 08844.

Escaping to the homeland!

I've put off posting about a recent trip to Alaska until I could find my cable to download pictures off my camera (I have a feeling it's back in my Fairbanks condo), but I don't want to wait any longer. Fortunately, the pictures I'm posting are much better than those I took - thanks to Don (a friend of Paul and Heather) and my parents.

About a month ago, I had a chance to ditch the midwest for 2 weeks and, with my folks, had a good time visiting Paul, Heather, and my sister in Anchorage and other relatives in Juneau. Spring hadn't found Alaska yet, and we had about 2 feet of snow up at Heather's hillside house. When the weather cleared, we had the opportunity to fly up the Knik Glacier valley to see some amazing scenery.

My sister and her husband recently moved to Palmer from Portage, into a nice spatious farmhouse on 10 acres of land. Plenty of room (and less rainfall) for the horses, dogs, and chickens. We dropped out to their place a couple of times during the week - Palmer has always been one of my favorite places in Alaska...

After Anchorage, we spent a week in Juneau to catch up on the old stomping grounds. It wasn't sunny, but the nice thing about Juneau is that even if you can't see much through the clouds and rain, there's still plenty to hear and smell. The coast rainforest is incredibly full of life. My longtime friend, Jim, let us tag along on a work trip to procure a remote day lodge for his company, and the boat ride and beach walk were the perfect way to spend the day.

I'm hoping to make more trips back home - it was refreshing to be back in that environment. In the meanwhile, it's nice to see the green-up and increasing bird life here in MN.

Thanks to everyone who continues to write and send best wishes! Miss you all...S

I couldn't be more amazed...

This is so overdue, but I really need to say THANKS to everyone who took time out of their day to send a card or email to say hi, to share some memories, and to send best wishes. I'm transitioning into a time period where I'm trying to respond individually to all these communications but it may take awhile. I'm so awestruck and more than a bit humbled by the responses, and thrilled to hear from some of you whom I haven't talked to in a LONG time. Thanks for weaving through the grapevine to get to me...

It's probably apparent to anyone viewing this blog site (created by my friend Heather - many bows and high-fives to you, girl) that my flying has been very important to me. It's been a lifelong dream of mine to be a pilot. You Juneau people know about the constant flow of Wings of Alaska de Havilland Beavers from the cruise ship docks to Taku Lodge every summer; well, I used to go down there and beg them for a chance to fly in an empty seat. Just to get up in the air. Sad, I know. I didn't pursue flying as a career because I really wanted to be a biologist, and I didn't think you could do both. It wasn't until I started working for ADFG in McGrath and Fairbanks that I realized that just about every biologist I knew, flew. I had the resources to train while I was an assistant area biologist in McGrath, but around the time I was ready to commit to training, I took on a PhD project at UAF. Grad student = no time for extracurricular activities. About a year or so into the project, I had my aforementioned finger-bashing experience and all priorities changed. Flying was not high on the list.

Fast forward to November 2006. I was 6 months into a stint with chemotherapy treatment in Minnesota with no end in sight. Now, Minnesota is nice, my folks are great people, but I was homesick for Alaska and wasn't feeling like I was doing much with my life other than waiting for the next round of treatment. I had heard that the FAA had implemented Sport Pilot training in 2004, and realized that it was the answer to everything. The thing that was going to give me my life back. I got my written exam out of the way after a weekend ground school and trained with an instructor at Maple Lake Municipal Airport, about 45 minutes from my folks' house, from mid-November until early January. The requirements for the sport pilot license are 15 hours dual, 5 hour solo - I would have finished faster than I did but the holidays slowed me down a bit. I trained in an Evektor Sportstar(http://www.evektor.cz/at/en/sportstar-popis-en.html), an incredibly fun Czechoslovakian-built low-wing aircraft with a stall speed of just 37 mph, and finished up with an examiner on January 8th. I got another slew of hours soon after in a taildragger to complete my tailwheel endorsement, found my perfect plane for sale at Lake Hood, bought it, and the rest is history.

I mention all this because I believe in the importance of going for the things you want to achieve, no holds barred. No waiting, no thinking there will always be time to do/get things. Risk-taking was not a big personality trait of mine in days past - I was very good at trying to plan things out based on how I thought things should proceed; the more stable the better. Needless to say, life-changing events altered that perspective, and I'm happy that they did for me (my only frustration is that I've grown to love flying so much that I'm having a hard time not doing it right now).

If you're sitting on the edge of a dream, contemplating whether you can afford to go after it, just do it. Life's too short to forego that kind of joy.

Hey, I don't have a lot going on down here - keep me posted on your dream-chasing...


Hello Everybody...

In addition to the emails, voice messages, letters, and cards; a beautiful quilt from Fairbanks friends recently arrived...inspiring me to let folks know where I'm at and how best to contact me.
Most of you already know my story, but for those of you that don't, I wanted to share my basic diagnosis, in the hopes that someone else might avoid what I've gone through. In August 2004, I accidentally slammed my right finger in a door. The injury appeared to be a typical bruise under my finger-nail, only it never seemed to heal. Seven months and several misdiagnoses later, in March 2005, I was diagnosed with subungual melanoma (aka: 'acral lentiginous'; basically melanoma under the fingernail) and advised to amputate the finger. Before amputation, I sought a second opinion, and friends and family accompanied me to the Mayo Clinic, where I have received treatment ever since. Turns out, there are an overwhelming number of cases of subungual melanoma that started as an injury to a finger or a toe. It's thought that sometimes an injury leads to chronic inflammation and triggers an abnormal healing response, termed 'pyogenic granuloma'. When this abnormal healing process goes haywire, it can become cancer. Had I, or one of the clinicians I visited, known about this possibility and biopsied the tissue early on...the progression of the melanoma cancer may have never had the opportunity to occur.

Many of you knew that I had been dealing with this progressive melanoma over the past three years, but I also realize that some of you might not have had any idea. In short, I was able to be fairly independent up until this December, but things have taken a significant turn for the worse and I'm now having to rely more and more on others. At present, I am enrolled in a hospice program
in Minnesota and don't have a lot of energy for returning phone calls and emails, but I do appreciate receiving them. My folks and friends who are down here with me, are fielding a lot of your calls and printing emails for me to read...and I'll try to get back to those I can. However, if I'm unable to do so...please know I'm thinking of you, and that your support is very much felt.

Thank you,

A quilt from my friends... Thank you!

Each square of this amazing quilt was made by a friend - most associated with my work at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Thank you everybody!

Grand Marais, Minnesota - Road Trip

At the end of January 2008, Heather came for a visit and we did a road trip to the cozy community of Grand Marais, on the north shore of Lake Superior. Amazing artwork, crashing waves, and beautiful ice covered rocks! Just what the soul needs... a little bit of ocean in the middle of the midwest!

A few days before, we rented a 172 and took my parents on a flight-seeing trip around Lake Mille Lacs. I think there might be a future in selling lattes to all those ice fisherman out of my PA-11!

Winter flying!

Galena flight

Solo caribou hunt ...success!

Su Flats Duck Hunt

My first time jump-shooting ducks!....Success!

Vancurlers Fly-in Fly-fishing

I did several trips out to Vancurlers to fly fish in summer 2007. On the weekend these pictures were taken, my friend Heather flew her Champ up from Anchorage and we took off for the day. There was a lot of casting ...but no catching. Still, it was fun to get the planes out and test our rods on this beautiful stretch of river.

Cross country wedding flight

Memorial Day Weekend 2007:

I flew my 11 from Fairbanks down to Sheep Mountain to attend Heather and Paul's fly-in wedding at Majestic Valley Lodge (i.e., Meekins Airstrip).

It rained and then snowed at the wedding, but the real weather hit me coming back into Fairbanks. Extremely gusty winds!!!

Shelly & Heather's big adventure

March 2007
Bought a set of skis, put 'em on the 11, and Heather and I flew her up to Fairbanks.

In the market for a PA-11...

It doesn't happen very often, but every now and then you find that one thing that makes you whole...

Shiny new tail-dragger endorsement!

Dozens of power-off landings later in a Piper Vagabond, I had my tailwheel endorsement from Leaders at Clearwater Lake, Minnesota. My instructor was an 87-year old ex-airline pilot, and I learned more from him in those few hours than my entire sport pilot training combined! The lack of radios and headsets made for some interesting in-flight discussions...