A Summer in Southeast Alaska

Greetings from Colorado! My name is Amber, and I am ecstatic to be part of the acoustic ecology research team in Alaska this summer! To introduce myself, I will start by listing three things I am passionate about: chocolate, wildlife conservation, and chasing my wildest dreams wherever they may lead. I am originally from North Carolina, but have spent the last several years traveling North America working as a wildlife technician. From the windswept prairies of Kansas, to the arid desert southwest, and to the parklands of southern Manitoba, I have participated in many research projects and have gained some incredible experience. I have learned a great deal about not only wildlife and natural resource management, but also about myself and about people in general.

I am also passionate about sharing my love of nature with others, as I believe this is one way we can conjure interest in and devotion to our natural world. I enjoy accomplishing this through nature photography, and wish I currently had more time to dedicate to this cause. It is relatively easy to grab peoples’ attention through photos, and it is my goal to capture images that will increase awareness and instill concern for nature within their hearts. Below is a photo I took several years ago on the plains of North Dakota. It isn’t the greatest quality, but still one of my all time favorites.North Dakota sunrise

My past fieldwork endeavors have been primarily avian focused, so I am excited to be working with marine mammals during the upcoming season. I have always dreamed of working with such incredible animals. I feel as though I have much to learn from Miche and others on the crew, and am eager to conduct my own independent research project. I have not decided exactly what this will entail yet, but I am determined to produce results that will be of value and will increase our understanding of humpback whale ecology and associated management implications.

Camping in the rain for an entire summer will be a new experience for me, but I am certainly looking forward to spending a few months “off the grid.” I try to accomplish this as often as possible, but taking online courses requires me to remain somewhat close to an internet source (and the hordes of human beings associated with such places). Alaska is new to me as well, and I hope to take some photos that I can share with the rest of the world once the season is over. I am also eager to gain experience in the world of acoustic ecology. I look forward to acquiring a deeper understanding about the knowledge we are able to gain from such technology, and the insights it will provide into these animal’s lives.

Well, I guess that is me in a nutshell. I look forward to meeting some incredible people this summer, exploring a beautiful part of the world, and conducting valuable research with some amazing animals.  Here’s to the best field season yet!

-Amber

 

Sometimes words may fail…

The field season is over and pangs of sadness ensue for the end yet I find excitement in pondering what happens next. This has been an epic time in my life comprised of good company, beautiful surroundings, lessons from the wilderness, purpose and meaning for the work and long days pursued as well as growth through challenge. Lying in my tent grasping at words to describe my time here on Strawberry Island I’m somewhat hesitant… I feel they cannot adequately represent what I’ve seen and felt during these two-months in Southeast Alaska. I have truly been living a dream and how to communicate this dream through words?

Alaska Sunset

The winds crash waves against the shore of our temporary island residence as a pair of black oyster catchers call in ritual from the beach in the distance, not much seems to bother them. It’s been an honor to share the shoreline with the charismatic birds watching the brooding, hatching and rearing of their two chicks in such an intimate setting. We’ve all grown fond and accustomed to their presence as we’ve watched and observed the family of birds. It seems they’ve adjusted to us as well with chatterings of defense directed less at the field team and more toward encroaching eagles, falcons and gulls. The goofy little black birds found their way into my heart along with many of the people and places I’ve been blessed to encounter up here.

Time spent with the oyster catchers is just a sliver of novel experiences and first timers that my words could not due justice. I feel frustration at the attempt to illuminate my thoughts however take comfort in knowing that my team mates feel the same bewilderment. We ate, slept and wept together as a team, working through challenges and coming out stronger on the other side and for that I dearly extend my gratitude. My thanks also spans to encompass the many people who befriended and helped us along the way including but not limited to Todd our gracious escort to and from Strawberry, Chris providing warm and insightful conversation along with the most delicious kale I’ve ever tasted from her garden, Becky from the visitors center volunteering transportation for our thirty bear barrels (ughhh), Christopher and Jen for the most unusually entertaining bear safety lecture and farewell party.

I feel a deep satisfaction that Miche and our team were able to collect far more data than she had envisioned, however in truth I came to understand that this was only half of the mission. What drew me to Michelle and this project is a shared perspective that the human element and experience is equally important in the grand scheme of things. As the technological age progresses it seems society grows further removed from natural resources and our interconnectedness with nature, a trend that I hope to resist in my own life. Many researchers may never look with their own eyes on their species of study but examine from afar with the aid of field equipment, a fact that weighs at my heart considering the great joy and enrichment that I feel spending time outdoors and observing nature.  Living on Strawberry Island and playing a working component in the Acoustic Spyglass project has been monumental to say the least…

ExtraTuf

Heart

Beyond Words

**This is a guest post by Lucas Williams, Acoustic Spyglass researcher, senior thesis student, and dear friend**

There are moments when words fail. When neither the sharpest writers nor the most eloquent orators are able to capture the impact, the emotion, of an event or experience. I have experienced those moments several times while living on Strawberry island. I’m sitting here again in the four wall tent. It’s 10:30 in the evening and I’m struggling to write down something that will describe what my life has been like these past two months in a way that I feel satisfies my desire to do it justice.

I am finding that this is impossible, or at least beyond my current scope as a writer. Instead, I will simply release a disclaimer. I don’t believe what I am about to write will do what I have seen and done any justice. The best I can do will be little more than show and tell.

Before coming to Glacier Bay I could count the number of times I had seen a whale on one hand. I had never even seen a humpback before. I figured I would get to see some whales from a distance, make out the black smooth surfaces that hinted at the leviathan under the waves. I never imagined that I would be a few yards from a thirty five ton whale, anchored in my kayak. I couldn’t have expected standing ankle deep in the water a mere stone’s throw away from a feeding whale. Whales breach as close as fifty yards from our shore, shaking the water and air around us as their weight comes crashing down. As we bed down for the night, the sound of breathing whales and splashing sea lions lulls us to sleep. Or, more likely, springs us out of our tents like small children on the first day of summer, rushing to the beach to see more of the animals we spend nearly every waking moment of our lives observing.

The world out here is truly pristine, nearly untouched by people. I can feel myself tapping into that primal buzz that seems to accompany extended stints in wild lands. It’s easy to feel a connection and kinship with the life we share this space with. We live comfortably and without conflict with at least two bears, one of which I have come face to face with. The territorial oyster catchers now tolerate our presence, and have allowed us to observe them closely as we survey from the tower and beach. Seal and otter mothers can be seen swimming with their young. Pods of killer whales will travel through our survey area, sometimes swimming right past our shore. Birds fly in unison like a school of fish in the sky. The majesty of the wildlife is complemented equally by our surroundings. When the clouds are right, and the sun is peaking out over the mountains, the whole bay will erupt into a canvas of oranges and reds, purples and pinks. Winds will come howling off the glaciers in the North, shaking the trees and churning the waters to a white froth. Other days, the fog can be seen spilling over the sides of the mountains like dry ice in a punch bowl. On one lucky night, we caught the Northern lights dancing in a clear night sky.

I have erased all doubts in my mind about my desire to pursue a life that involves studying the natural world. I finally feel ready to dive into my field of study head first, no more trepidation or hesitation. Several new seeds of personal growth and change have been planted, and I’m feeling a giddy anxiousness to nurture them and watch them grow. My mind has been exposed to so many new ideas, perspectives and lifestyles.

I have lived with people that started off as strangers, who I now consider colleagues, mentors and friends. People from different places, cultures and perspectives brought together by the unifying force of a shared goal and passion. The enthusiasm never dies. We may go through trying periods of morose wetness, piercing cold and humorous bouts of sleep deprivation, but we never stop feeling grateful to be out here. We joke that our field team is    ruined, it can never get any better than this. We may be right.

And that would be okay.

“Wonder what poor people are doing right now”

Halfway through the 1st stint on Strawberry Island I am woken up by the sounds of surfacing and trumpeting Humpback whales. These sound are like none other I have ever heard. I normally have a knack for explaining things and using analogies to help anyone to understand what I’m experiencing. This experience so far have left me unable to do this. The only thing I can say is, if you get a chance to participate in a project like this one in a place like Glacier Bay then do it and then let me know how you would explain it.

During our time here I have experienced sounds both above and under water, and I’ve heard not only whales, but also seals, sea lions, and otters. There is something about being in a remote location that allows a person to turn off the filters we use in everyday soundscapes and just enjoy the symphony produced by mother nature. We have been here for a week now today I have the morning shift off and this is my first opportunity to sit by myself with a cup of coffee and reflect and enjoy the scenery.

I am sitting here on a rock with a cup of coffee, a month old unshaved beard, a week worth of grim and crud buildup on me and still a week away before I see my biweekly shower. I look out toward the Beardslee island entrance and see a cruise ship passing by. Anecdotally, I have noticed every time the cruise ships pass by the wildlife seem to decrease their activates. I have no idea if this is indeed the case but I can’t help but chuckle. There are hundreds of people who have paid a lot of money for a place on the floating 5-star resort to see “Wild Alaska”; yet the “Wild Alaska” seems to be hiding. For the local economy I hope they see and experience all that they hope for. My chuckle soon turns to out load laughter as I see the ship sail out of sight and not more than 5 minuets later I see a humpback whale surface followed by an awe inspiring fluke dive. Seconds later a group of 3 sea lions swim by, one with a fresh caught salmon hanging out of his mouth. I was not on the floating hotel nor was I on a sightseeing day trip boat. I’m just sitting trying to wake up and drink a cup of coffee before work.

I am quickly (and daily) reminded of a statement a retired wildlife biologist told me during my field season last year with a big grin, one that Chester cat would be envious of, “I wonder what poor people are doing right now”. I asked him what he meant by it after the first couple times he told me that. He explained to me that even though the pay is normally low or non-existent, how can you consider yourself poor when everyday for work you get to enjoy the wonders of nature. He explained that if we’re doing our job right we get to see the species who call this place home interact without outside influence, giving us a glimpse into their past present and future.

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