Life-long Alaskan Colleen Burgh died peacefully in her sleep at her Anchorage home surrounded by family on February 2, 2014 after a 17 month battle with cancer. She was 57.
Colleen, the daughter of Rodney and Sheila Burgh (who preceded her in death), was born in Ketchikan back in Territorial days on March 12, 1956. The family moved to Anchorage in 1960 and she remembered well riding out the 1964 earthquake in their home in Turnagain. Ballet was a big attraction to young Colleen until she convinced her father that she was ready for her first horse, Irish Mist, beginning a life-long love affair with horses. She and her friends would ride through what is now Earthquake Park for hours.
Graduating from West High School in 1974, she was student body president and homecoming queen. Her involvement in the school choir led to a year with Up With People before heading to Washington State University intent on becoming a veterinarian. But a class on sustainable foods changed her life. She became a vegetarian (not a veterinarian) and decided on a career to make the planet a cleaner and safer place. That desire took her to the University of Oregon where she graduated with a degree in Biology and met Jim ‘Stratto’ Stratton, who eventually became her husband.
Colleen scored her first job with the Department of Environmental Conservation in Juneau in 1981 and quickly acquired a reputation for being the Department’s conscience. DEC transferred her to Anchorage in 1984 where she could be closer to her family and where the weather is better for horses. Her experience cleaning up oil spills in Southeast landed her in the middle of the Exxon Valdez prioritizing beach clean-up in the initial response and serving two years as the Deputy On-Scene Coordinator, essentially directing the day-to-day clean-up through 1991.
She got her next horse, Irish Rose, in 1989 and had horses in her backyard paddock until earlier this year. Most recently Casey, a large Irish Sport Horse she bought in Ireland, was her equine partner. Colleen volunteered both her and Casey’s time with Rainbow Connection, the therapeutic horse riding program for people with special needs. She was so proud when Casey was named Therapeutic Horse of the Year in 2013. Casey continues to serve as a therapeutic horse at Swiftsure Ranch in Idaho.
Ireland played a huge part in Colleen’s life. Her mother emigrated from County Cork and Colleen traveled with family back to Ireland many times, visiting relatives, taking every opportunity to ride horses in the Irish countryside and relishing pints of Guinness.
Her professional career took Colleen to work for CH2M Hill in 1991, where she coordinated clean-ups of military sites around the state. A return to state employment with the natural gas pipeline office during the Knowles Administration and time with EPA in 2003 led her to work for BP in the Health, Safety and Environment section.
In addition to her love of animals – her four-legged companions included golden retrievers and cats – she and Stratto loved to travel and explore the world. They have spent months paddling around Southeast Alaska and hiking through the Brooks Range. A desire to see wild tigers took them to India and the cats of Africa took them to that continent numerous times. She swam with turtles in the Galapagos, trekked through the ruins of Angkor Wat, rode horses at the great pyramids and hiked her way into Machu Picchu. Her last big adventure was taking the train across Canada from Vancouver to Halifax last summer.
Colleen never fully realized the number of lives she touched. Her humor, warm heart and generosity will be missed by her family, colleagues and countless friends. She is survived by her husband Stratto, her siblings Don Burgh, Bill Burgh and Patti Eachon, their spouses and 15 nieces and nephews.
Gifts in memory can be made to Alaska Equine Rescue (www.alaskaequinerescue.com) or to the Colleen Burgh Fund for Science and the Law at Trustees for Alaska (www.trustees.org), where she served as a Board Member.
An Irish Wake will be held on Sunday, followed by a Funeral Mass on Monday, February 10, at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Muldoon at 1 pm.