People who have taken the road less traveled in their careers

There are careers people pursue with determination and persistence and for which colleges and training schools confer degrees and certificates.

But some of the most intriguing jobs are those that few have heard about. They are oddball occupations that seem to find certain people or that some folks just fall into. Or they are jobs that clever people create for themselves out of their singular mixture of skills and interests.

Everyone at various times fields the common query, "What do you do?" But here is a sampling of Sonoma County neighbors working well off the common career grid, whose response is likely to be greeted with, "You do WHAT?!"

For Bernie Krause, the natural noises made by bugs, birds, beasts and even the breeze all add up to the sound of music.

In 1968 and 1969, Krause and another early electronic musician, Paul Beaver, recorded the ground-breaking album "In a Wild Sanctuary." Krause has traveled the world recording natural sounds ever since.

"It was an epiphany for me. I began to record whole habitats. You can hear orchestral patterns that emerge from the natural sounds in each place on Earth," said Krause, 74.

"It can be dangerous. I've been thrown by gorillas and attacked by polar bears. But now I'm doing a lot of work in Sonoma County because the older you get, the harder it is to get in and out of tents," he explained.

Krause continues his work at his home in Glen Ellen, working for bio-acoustics research programs based at Purdue University in Indiana and Michigan State University.

His newest book, "The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places," was published last March.

You notice Laurie Osborne when she arrives on the job.

It's not the no-nonsense khaki uniform and hiking boots that draw your attention. It's the car with a sign that reads, "Caution. May have venomous snake inside."

Osborne rustles rattlesnakes and other reptilian critters from places where they don't belong or are not welcome. Armed with the tools of her trade, a set of 3-foot-long snake tongs and a bucket punched with holes and equipped with a secure, screw-top lid, she travels the Bay Area rounding up wayward reptiles.

That may include not just rattlers but all manner of snakes, from boa constrictors to Burmese pythons, not to mention turtles, 200-pound tortoises, 2-foot-long tegu lizards, iguanas and even the occasional alligator.

The 125-pound Osborne, who grew up in Marin County catching lizards, joined the Sebastopol-based Sonoma County Reptile Rescue in 2007 as a volunteer. Within a year she was working full-time with founder Al Wolfe.

The 52-year-old Sebastopol mom is an officer with the California Reptile and Invetebrate Society and the Bay Area Tarantula Society and does educational outreach for the nonprofit group Reptile Rescue.

"It's really a question of being calm and sensitive and not being freaked out about it," says Osborne, who has yet to be bitten.

She says the most rewarding part of the job is helping people overcome their fears.

"It's always great when I can have somebody tell me they were afraid of snakes and an hour later I have them touching one or holding it."

Stu Dahlquist of Stu's Chimney Sweep is tall and lanky, with a long reach and a light step that helps propel him up on the roof.

He's also quite a happy bloke, though he spends his days amid ashes and smoke so that people can safely enjoy the primal comfort of a fire in their home.

"I'm not afraid to go in there and go for it," said Dahlquist, 44, who lives in Camp Meeker. "It's a dirty job."

But somebody has to do it. And like other maintenance workers, the chimney sweep is always in demand, especially from October through March.

Dahlquist started his business three years ago at the behest of longtime West County chimney sweep Ron Agnone.

"Ron really gave me a gift," he said. "He trained me and got me going."

In his truck, Dahlquist carries an assortment of stiff, odd-shaped brushes that allow him to scrape through all kinds of creosote-lined chimneys and stovepipes.

"I use the same tools they've used for hundreds of years," he said. "It's medieval technology."

And that's just fine with this history major, who views fireplaces as an 18th-century technology.

"Think about it," he said. "You have a campfire in your living room."

During the high season, he cleans 10 or 12 chimneys a week. He likes the unpredictable nature of the job and the fact that no two setups are alike.

"You have to improvise and think on your feet," he said. "And I get to travel to every different nook in the county."

Bridget Hayes coordinated and taught in an adult education program for 10 years, before the economy forced the closure of many adult schools.

"People have to drive long distances for classes now, and there are a lot of schedule issues, so I said, 'Let's bring the school to the students.' And I thought about the popularity of the food trucks and the Bookmobile," Hayes said.

In the fall of 2011, the 37-year-old teacher decided to take her love of teaching to the streets, in a mini-bus she dubbed the Language Truck, outfitted with a whiteboard, computers and desks for 10 students.

"The truck goes to various locations and offers English as a second language, and Spanish and computer classes. I can park right outside a person's house or in their driveway, or at some commercial hub," Hayes said.

When she's not driving around in her truck, Hayes offers private tutoring in a Santa Rosa office for all ages in math, reading and test preparation. She also gives after-school classroom Spanish lessons at two local schools.

"I specialize in making learning fun and accessible," she said.

Marla Steele was nudged to be a pet psychic by her horse.

"I would have very specific dreams about my horse when I was away from him with messages such as, 'They forgot to give me my special food,' or 'I fell down and scraped my knee.' After a while his thoughts and feelings would just pop in my head when I was awake and least expected it," she said. "It was amazing. I really began to trust in these conversations, especially after being able to confirm everything he was relaying to me."

How does Steele actually help animals?

"By being their voice and tuning into their subtle body energy," said the Petaluma resident. "I can help their people hear and understand their needs and desires. Oftentimes I let them know that they need to see a vet before they display any physical symptoms."

Steele does readings by phone and appears at parties, wineries, dog-boarding facilities, barns and animal shelters. She has a radio show on KZST and says the call-in phone lines are always jammed.

She was a skeptic once, too, but now realizes she's not the only gifted one.

"Absolutely everyone is able to do this," Steele said. "It requires some trust and letting go. Give it a try. It can't hurt and will most definitely help."

Shawn Fortney, 42, of Cordelia, never planned on being an animal trainer before he started working at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo. So it's surprising he is the Senior Trainer of lions and tigers, overseeing their food preparation, cleaning, feeding, training and performances at the popular amusement park. Even more surprising is that he never worked with the ferocious beasts before he took the job.

"It's difficult to find a trainer who's experienced with big cats," he explained. "Parks will generally look for someone who works with smaller animals and then train them with the larger animals."

Following college, Fortney got a job at Marine World, the name of the park before it became Discovery Kingdom, working close to the other animal trainers. When an opening for a tiger trainer came up, Fortney threw his name in the bucket and got the job.

But even after 13 years working with lions and tigers, Fortney admits that the nerves never fully go away.

"The big cats are very well trained, but not tame," he said. "It's natural to be nervous."

Press Democrat staff writers Crissi Langwell, Meg McConahey, Peg Melnik, Diane Peterson and Dan Taylor contributed to this report.

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