Searching for a new home

My partner and I have been searching for a new house recently. It is considered a “seller’s” market here, and houses that are listed in the morning are off the market by the evening. It is frustrating how fast houses sell, but at least we are in a good place where we don’t need to move immediately. However, what about when your home has been destroyed or it has disappeared? With all of the wildfires across the country this year, this is unfortunately a question some people have to deal with.

Thinking about this made me wonder how do the birds do it?! Most seabirds are philopatric, meaning they tend to return to their nesting site year after year for breeding. Where do they go if they can’t return to that same nesting site? For instance, during the 2010-2011 winter, massive storms hit the islands in Haida Gwaii, BC. One island in particular, Reef Island, normally supports thousands of ancient murrelet breeding pairs (about half of the world’s population).

Reef Island field station signIn the summer of 2011, the field team and I packed our bags for our week trip on Reef Island. We knew about the storms during the winter that had destroyed the entire camp but we did not know the extent to which it would affect the ancient murrelet population. As the island came into sight through the fog, we could see that giant Sitka spruce and massive red cedars that once stood tall now lay every which way fallen on the forest floor. This was not a promising sight for nesting seabirds.

fallen trees on the island

View of the fallen forest on Reef Island

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A lucky intact nest box – but an unlucky nest abandoned.

Following transects that had been followed for years for population estimates lead us to find nest boxes that once supplemented the natural nests in this colony were now either crushed under the fallen brush or scattered around the forest at random. Sadly, we were only able to find one nesting ancient murrelet.

But weirdly enough, despite the loss of suitable habitat at the most popular nesting site on Reef Island, the global population of ancient murrelets was not declining. Where were these suddenly homeless breeding pairs going?

Sarah using binoculars to look for birds in the forest

Searching for a new home.

The logical answer is to assume they searched for a new home. But previous surveys in the area suggested that most nest sites were already occupied. So did they settle for nesting sites that were less desirable? Without knowing about the storm in advance (I think being able to accurately predict the weather is every field biologist’s wish), and pre-emptively equipping the birds with tracking devices, it is difficult to know where the birds went. The stable population suggests they figured something out! Perhaps some started to nest in ferries like the pigeon guillemot pair I spotted.

A similar situation happened to me with finding a job after my master’s degree. Jobs related with fieldwork were no where to be found but I thought I would try a lab job instead. When I first started as a research assistant in a lab I thought I was choosing a working site that was less desirable (how would I ever survive working without constant fresh air!?). Now I am surrounded by the beeps and hums of machines rather than the birds chirping up above and wind whistling though the trees. It turns out that I love my job but one thing is still true – I may have acquired a lab coat but I will never give up my fieldwork uniform of a plaid shirt and hiking boots.

Checking out some cool habitat in the fieldwork uniform.

A quiet night

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
I’m not sure all these people understand
It’s not like years ago
The fear of getting caught
The recklessness in water
They cannot see me naked
These things they go away

“Nightswimming”, R.E.M.

Full confession: I am not a particularly audacious person.  I invariably choose Truth over Dare, and I’m probably one of the few people over the age of 18 who can play Never Have I Ever and be virtually sober at the end.

However, on those rare occasions when I play Never Have I Ever, I usually get to have at least one drink – because there’s one question that almost always comes up: “Never have I ever gone skinny dipping”.

In one of my first posts on Dispatches, I mentioned that my first summer in the field was also the first time I ever went skinny dipping.  In fact, that is one of my favourite memories of that summer.  Skinny dipping is something of a tradition at the Queen’s Biology Station, where evening parties more often than not end with the last few party-goers relaxing on the lake shore.  Inevitably, someone will suggest that the next logical step is for everyone to strip and jump off the diving board.

The first time I went skinny-dipping was just such an evening.  I vividly remember the giggles, sidelong glances, and excitement as we all shed our clothes, and the rush to get into the water as fast as possible.  It was a perfect summer evening: the night air was soft and scented, rife with anticipation and sexual tension.  I remember lazily treading water in a circle with half a dozen others, feeling exposed but also sheltered by the dark water.

There have been many, many skinny dipping experiences since that first time, in lakes, rivers, and even in oceans.  For me, skinny dipping is now inextricably linked with fieldwork.  But over time, my feelings about the experience have evolved.

After leaving QUBS, I worked at a number of smaller field stations, some in very remote and isolated areas.  In most of these places, skinny dipping was much less of a tradition – in fact, in a couple of them, it was actively discouraged.  That didn’t mean that no one did it, of course, but it certainly changed the nature of the activity.  The excitement became more about transgression than sexual tension: the thrill of doing something you were not supposed to.  For me, a consummate ‘good girl’, that thrill was very appealing.

Of course, it turns out that some of those places discourage skinny dipping because they are just not ideal for the activity – which has led, on occasion, to a couple of rather epic skinny dipping fails.  One summer night just after the end of my first field season, I found myself on a Lake Erie beach with a couple of friends.  Emboldened by my field experience – and the fact that the beach was deserted at midnight – I managed to talk both of them into trying skinny dipping (which was definitely not permitted in this park).

The decision made, we glanced cautiously around before stripping off our shorts, tops, bras, and underwear, then tore towards the lake as fast as we could.  We flung ourselves in, feeling the bite of the cold water against our calves.  We ran farther…and still the water lapped against our calves.  We ran farther still…and now the water felt almost warm, and yet still came up no farther than our calves.  We began to glance rather desperately at one another.

In my newborn enthusiasm for skinny dipping, I had forgotten the reason that so many parents liked to bring their children to this particular beach: the extremely shallow plateau that extended for several hundred yards away from the shore.  Now, several hundred yards might not feel like a long distance when you’re wearing a bathing suit under the afternoon sun; however, it feels a good deal longer when you’re running stark naked in the dead of night.

I think about that experience every few months, when another story surfaces about tourists getting arrested for shedding their clothing in various notable, scenic, and even spiritually important places, such as Machu Picchu and Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu.  These hapless tourists are inevitably accused of being disrespectful – and I always wonder whether you could say the same thing about my nude foray into Lake Erie.

If I’m honest with myself, maybe part of it is disrespect: flouting the rules and defying authority.  Certainly, I’ve already admitted that there’s considerable appeal in the transgressive thrill of skinny dipping.  But over the last few years, that thrill has become less and less important to me.

The thing is, skinny dipping is at its best when it’s not rushed or panicked or fraught with sexual tension.  On those occasions when you can calmly slip naked into a quiet lake in the dark, and relax in water that is almost as warm as the air…on those occasions, skinny dipping is an almost spiritual experience.  It becomes about freedom and connection with the world around you, and more than anything, it becomes about being comfortable with your body, who you are, and where you are.

Now when I think of skinny dipping, I don’t picture giggling friends and stolen glances, or a headlong rush to make it to the water before being caught.  Now, I imagine a calm, dark Canadian Shield lake, the warm water lapping softly against the rocks, the stars stretching endlessly above.  Now, all these years after my first skinny dipping experience, I understand that nightswimming does deserve a quiet night.

Let’s talk field biology again

When Amanda, Sarah, and I started Dispatches from the Field almost three years ago, we wanted to inspire people to notice and love the nature around them.  Because doing field biology allows you to get to know a place intimately, we thought the best way to achieve our goal was by giving people a behind-the-scenes look at the world of fieldwork: the triumphs and the frustrations of working in nature, and the incredible places and breathtaking sights that field biologists get to experience.

Over the past three years, we’ve posted more than 150 stories about fieldwork in locations as diverse as the Canadian arctic, the wilds of Patagonia, and a deserted island in the middle of the Atlantic.  Our posts have drawn both on our own experiences and on those of our many guest posters, and they’ve been read and shared by thousands of people all around the world.  I think we’ve made great strides towards achieving our goal.

But sometimes, just writing about something isn’t enough, and there’s no better way to share the highs and lows of fieldwork than to give people the opportunity to experience the field for themselves!

A few weeks ago, Amanda wrote a post about an upcoming event that she and I were hosting as coordinators of Let’s Talk Science at Queen’s University: the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House.  When she wrote that post, we were in the final, frantic stages of planning the event.  We were excited, but also a bit apprehensive: it can be difficult to get people to drive half an hour outside the city to attend an event, even if it is free.

When I woke up the morning of April 22nd, the grey skies and cold wind did not inspire my confidence.  But when I sat up in bed and reached for my phone, I saw I a text from Amanda: “Happy event day!!”

That set the tone for the day.  The weather wasn’t ideal, we had no idea whether or not people would come, but we were going ahead anyway!  We packed our cars with piles of field gear and food, gathered our many volunteers, and headed up to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre.

It took a couple of hours of frenzied preparation to set up for the many activities we had planned, including grad-student led modules on trapping birds, identifying plants, recording frog calls, and studying lake sediments.  We also filled the Elbow Lake Pavilion with a host of activities, ranging from making a smartphone microscope to painting with maggots (yes, you can do that!).

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Learning to record frog calls

But finally, we were ready to go.  And just as we put the finishing touches on our activities, the Pavilion door opened: our first visitors had arrived!

Over the course of the day, the clouds blew away, the sun came out to warm us, and we ended up welcoming almost 100 visitors.  Some stayed for only an hour, and some stayed for the entire day.  We showed people how to catch birds using a mist net, how to record frogs using a directional microphone and hip waders, and how to learn about past climates using sediment cores from the bottom of a lake.  Visitors learned to age trees by counting rings (the science of dendrochronology), built their own popsicle stick birdfeeders, and used maggots as paintbrushes to create explosions of colour on paper.

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Maggot art created by a group of Beavers & Scouts that visited the open house

As dusk fell, we gathered around a roaring campfire to roast marshmallows and tell stories about some of our favourite funny, scary, or inspiring fieldwork experiences.  And we finished the evening standing quietly on a bridge in the dark, listening to a cacophonous duet between two barred owls.

It was a magical day: despite our anxiety beforehand, it couldn’t have unfolded better.  We hope we’re not mistaken in believing that all the visitors who attended had a great time; however, we certainly know that the almost 20 volunteers who helped us plan and execute the event enjoyed it!

“It was a really neat experience to not only tell our stories out loud but to share them around the campfire. I think it is one thing to read about a story, but to actually hear it first-hand from the one who went through it – now that is putting a face to fieldwork!” – Sarah Wallace, field biologist and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field

My favourite experience of the Open House was when we went in search of owls at dusk. The moment where the pure silence and peacefulness of that night was broken by an eruption of hoots and screeches is an unforgettable memory.” – John Serafini, field biologist and volunteer

“Having some children (and adults) really learn something new was inspiring to see. Watching people have that ‘aha’ moment while listening to our talks or going through the workshops really inspired me.” – Alastair Kierulf, Let’s Talk Science Volunteer

“I especially enjoyed both telling and listening to other people tell stories about the other amazing things that happen in the field, that might not necessarily be related to the focus of their research.  It really honed in on the unique experiences that make fieldwork what it is.  It didn’t matter if the stories were funny or frightening…people in attendance were all so interested in what we had to say, and for me that was a special moment!” – Amanda Tracey, Let’s Talk Science Coordinator and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field

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Amanda showing off a gray rat snake skin, and telling her story “from damp and dark to light and warm”

 

By the time we stumbled out into the empty, dark parking lot at the end of the day, we were exhausted in the way that only fresh air and hard work can cause – but also tiredly thrilled to know that we had been able to share the enchantment of fieldwork with so many people, both adults and children.

Maybe some of those children will go on to be field biologists.  (In fact, at least one of our visitors said that was her career plan!)  But we think the experience was important for everyone.  It’s easy for us, as field biologists, to care about the amazing diversity of flora and fauna we get to see up close and personal.  But how can you expect people to care about what they never experience?

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A keen high school student holding a bird for the first time…future field biologist? I think so!

Conservation efforts won’t work if only a few have access to what we’re trying to conserve.  If we want people to care about, respect, and preserve the natural world, they need to feel it belongs to them too.  And that, ultimately, was our goal for Let’s Talk Field Biology.  We hope we succeeded.

 

If you came out to the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House, we’d love to hear from you!  Send us an e-mail or comment on our blog to let us know what your favourite part of the day was!

 

 

Femininity and Fieldwork

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Jodie Wiggins, a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, who discusses some of the unique challenges that female field ecologists face.  For more about Jodie, read her bio at the end of the post or check out her website.

A field biologist from the start…

I started my career as an ecologist crawling through muddy drainage ditches hunting frogs, investigating rabbit warrens dug open by a plow, and studying “lighting bugs” through the glass of a mason jar. I was 5, and 6, and 10… held captive by the magic of nature. I was a really fortunate kid. I ran wild, and that is probably why I still love the wilds today.

Now, thanks to an invitation from Dispatches from the Field, I have to opportunity to consider the challenges I’ve faced as a woman navigating a culture (ecology and fieldwork, specifically) shaped by men.

 

You just drive along, find a roadside park. Set your line of traps and get up in the morning and check ‘em.”

These were the instructions from a veteran field mammologist to the first field biology course I ever took. I looked around at the other members of the class. No one seemed to think these instructions were out of the ordinary. I, however, was gripped by terror. This man wanted me to drive to the middle of nowhere, stay overnight, and sleep in my car, alone.

No doubt a lot of women have done this, successfully. No doubt countless women camp and hunt and sleep in their cars alone. A lot of women are also attacked, every single minute of every single day.

That was not something that crossed this man’s mind and I felt weak because it crossed mine. I felt like I should suck it up and just do the work. But it wasn’t about the work. It was about a risk that a woman takes anytime she is alone that a man does not, a risk that she should not be shamed for refusing to take.

…and sticking with it, despite the challenges.

This was the first time in my academic career that I felt other. I felt ignored. I felt invisible. Because I am a woman. I began to realize that the scaffolding constructed over hundreds of years, meant to guide and hold emerging scientists as they ascend, simply was not constructed to lift, hold, or guide women. The fact that it wasn’t until graduate school that I experienced this otherness reflects the privilege I experienced growing up as a middle class white child. Many people, women of color particularly, experience this otherness so much earlier than I did. They experience it as girls, and it devastates their desire to pursue their dreams.

 

But where do I pee?”

Not all of the issues we face as women field biologists are quite as dire as staying safe while sleeping in a car alone, but that is not to say that they are not equally urgent. It’s been a decade since I stood in a hallway with a group of newbie grad students and realized that being a female field biologist would be a battle. For a very long time I was cowed by this realization, feeling demeaned and less worthy than my male counterparts. But, as it should, my journey through my PhD has taught me a great deal more than just evolutionary ecology.

Studying lizards…and learning life lessons.

My need for a team of field assistants every year for the past three years has required me to learn to step up and be a supervisor. Undoubtedly, I struggled in the beginning, but now, I do a couple of things as unapologetically as I can muster in an attempt to “be the person you needed when you were younger”:

  1. I say “pee.” As in, this is where you can go pee. What on earth is wrong with us that young women don’t feel comfortable saying “Hey, where do I go pee?” This is necessary because my field site is a little like Area 51, lit up and barren with a camera pointed at it all of the time. My study species likes it open and hot, so for a mile stretch of rock dam, there is no place to hide, anywhere.
  2. I keep tampons with the group field supplies (gasp! Did she say tampons?!). Yeah, I did and if you work for me you might just pull one out with your data sheet or your lizard noosing pole and you might have to deal with it because OH MY GODS ALREADY! The need to have these supplies for the women on my team simply outweighs worrying about whether someone will feel grossed out by the possibility of touching an unused tampon.
  3. I say “Do not do xyz if you are not comfortable with doing xyz” and I mean XYX is usually something like coming out to the field site alone or riding with another member of the field team alone. Seriously, if it doesn’t feel right and makes you feel unsafe, don’t do it, period. We’ve all got to remember that our people are more important than our project.

It’s the people that matter: my field team from 2016.

Fortunately for me, my future husband was in that field mammalogy class with me all those years ago. He accompanied me on countless nights sleeping in a ridiculously uncomfortable truck bed waiting for the blessed dawn when we could check our traps. Most of the other women in that class paired up with someone as well, but some didn’t and I don’t know if they felt safe going out alone or if they felt like they needed to prove they could. Either way, the person in a position of power in this situation left half that class without an advocate.

The balance between being a leader and a learner can sometimes be precarious but what I’ve learned over the last decade in the field is this: I need to use my voice, my position, and my strengths to make sure no one on my team ever feels invisible and to encourage others to do the same. The female ecologists in my life who repeatedly tell me that I matter, that I am strong, and that my voice should be heard bolster me to do this for others.  Together, we are making each other visible.

Jodie is a fourth year (sort of; it’s complicated) PhD candidate studying the evolutionary ecology of color in collared lizards. She hails from New Mexico and Texas, but now lives in Oklahoma with her husband (also a PhD candidate, who studies spider behavior), their 11 and 3 year old sons, and a crazy dog named Fortinbras.

Tic-Tac-UXO or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest poster Joseph Drake, a PhD student from the University of Massachusetts, who tells a nerve-wracking story about his time doing fieldwork on a military base in the Sonoran Desert.

I brought the truck to a gravelly sliding stop.  A wave of dust washed past the truck and filled our open windows with fine sediment.  When the dust and coughing settled, I got out of the truck, stepped gingerly on the 2-track “road” the military had bladed through this section of desert and looked at what lay before me. Tanks to the left of me, bombs to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you. Wait, that’s not how the song goes. But it does do a fairly good job of describing our precarious situation.

Tanks to the left…

…and bombs to the right.

Some background: I worked for several years in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, working sometimes on United States Bureau of Land Management land, but mostly in the vast emptiness of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range.  This active military bombing and live munitions training ground is one of the biggest chunks of “untouched” Sonoran Desert.  Containing desert mountains, sand dunes, and many of the most interesting desert habitats in between, this parcel of land stretches for over 1.5 million acres.  It may be a toss-up, but that is about the size of the state of Delaware.  Having such a large undeveloped area means that it is home to lots of different species of wildlife, and is one of the last refuges of the endangered Sonoran Desert Pronghorn.

Surveying the site from the air to see which water sites needed to be visited on foot.

It was a surprise to me to learn that military lands often have some of the best habitat available for plant and wildlife management.  When I stopped to think about it though, it made sense.  The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has over 400 installations in the US with about 25 million acres.  Many, if not most, of these acres are undeveloped.  That means that apart from military operations, these areas go mainly untouched, and because of the country’s resource protection laws (which the military abides by), are fairly well managed.  Security and safety reasons mean that these large swaths of land have not felt the pressure of habitat-loss; some 300 U.S. endangered or threatened species make DoD lands their home, and the military helps take care of them.

Back to the story:  I was looking at a small marker bomb sitting in the road way, a new bit of UXO (unexploded ordinance).  It was only a small bomb, used in training runs to show how well the pilot hit his mark, but since the sighting towers had to be able to see where it hit, there was still enough explosive to tear the front end of the truck apart and send the diesel engine block into my chest cavity.  That may sounds like an exaggeration, but that is how the managers on the range described it to me and I didn’t want to find out if they were right.

You see all kinds of life at desert watering holes…

We had been granted access to this live-fire part of the range, a rare treat for our research team.  We were trying to reach some of the most remote desert water sites to study their water quality and biodiversity – with the ultimate goal of creating better man-made water sites for desert wildlife. We were studying the differences in construction and ecology at natural and man-made “guzzlers” to better serve not only large game species, such as bighorn sheep, but also small creatures like Sonoran Desert Toads and dragonflies.

Like I said, we wanted to get there and we only had a small window to get through this section of the desert before the range opened back up for live fire exercises.  To go off road in this section was strictly forbidden; even if it weren’t, it would be extremely dangerous. The small bomb before us had many siblings in the sand and brush around us.  Many of these siblings were much larger than the one we could see.  And just like with people, age and exposure to the elements makes bombs much more persnickety.  We had about 4 inches of clearance between the bottom of the truck and the item.   A decision had to be made: either turn around and race for the last staging area, which we could get to just within our time window, or drive over the thing to get to the end of the road and hope for the best.

Upon reflection, I made the wrong decision that day: I crept the truck along until we silently (as silent as the idle speed of a diesel can be) glided over the top of the marker bomb.  I don’t think I breathed during the entire time it took to painstakingly thread our 4WD differentials, which hung low on the less-than-even road, around the obstacle.  Finally I was able to breathe as my research partner Jordan waved an all clear from a safe distance down the road.  I got GPS coordinates so the military could remove the bomb and we were on our way!

We were eventually able to collect some great data at those water sites, but it could have gone poorly.  Fieldwork on the Air Force Range was often a trade-off between safety and results. Our supervisor probably would have had an aneurism if she had known about many of our choices, and rightfully so.  At times the temperatures were above 120 °F with 70% humidity, making it literally dangerous just to walk for longer than a mile.  Spiny plants and toothy reptiles abounded and rugged terrain was always trying to destroy our ankles.  We had encounters with military security, Border Patrol, and the infamous drug smugglers of the area.

We weren’t the only ones facing the problem of spiny plants…

Despite all of it, though, the desert became my adopted home: I really love the place. I care deeply about the people, plants, and animals. I could tell many more stories and hopefully I will down the road, but right now I have to get back to chasing some wildlife.

Chasing some desert dragonflies…

Joe Drake is a recovering field biologist. A member of several professional  scientific societies, he is interested in spatial ecology, desert  ecology, wildlife conservation, and science outreach/communication.  When he isn’t studying or working, you can find him in the woods, on  the river, or in his workshop; he loves home brewing, backpacking,  fishing, writing, and photography. Before he returned to school, Joe worked for various federal agencies and universities across the Western U.S. (living out of the back of his beat-up Ford Ranger) and  internationally in the “bio-tech circuit” for 4 years.  The West’s wilderness stole his heart before he returned to school to get his  M.S. at Texas Tech University, and he has continued on to the University of Massachusetts where he is working towards his Ph.D. in the lab of Dr. Chris Sutherland.  He is just about to embark on a new field project in the Scottish Highlands, and will be blogging and tweeting about the experience as he goes.  Keep  up to date with his work or get in touch at  https://secretlifeofafieldbiologist.wordpress.com/.

It’s the journey that matters

It’s that time of year again.  Buds decorate the trees, shoots are pushing their way up through the soil, and birds are sounding the first tentative notes of spring.  And at universities all across North America, field biologists are rushing around like headless chickens getting ready for the field season.

Each year, the advent of spring makes me think about the beginning of my first field season – specifically, my first journey out to the Queen’s University Biological Station.  I was driving my supervisor’s pride and joy: an ancient and enormous blue van, inexplicably named Pooh, which retained many aspects of its previous life as a travelling library, including solid wood bookshelves in the back.  The heat didn’t work, the radio produced only static, and the brakes were less than trustworthy.  I had never driven a vehicle that big before, and as I navigated the twists and turns of the extremely curvy road to the field station, I was both terrified and more than a little nauseous.  (Opinicon Road was, in fact, the first road to teach me that it is possible to get carsick even when you’re the one driving.)

Travelling in style: me and the very trustworthy Pooh.

Luckily, I made it safely to the station with both my breakfast and my supervisor’s precious field vehicle intact.  (Although, to be accurate, the vehicle wasn’t exactly intact, it just wasn’t any less intact than it had been at the start of the journey.)  And by the end of that summer, I had become extremely comfortable with both the road and the vehicle. In fact, perhaps too comfortable: one of the cottagers on Opinicon Road actually called QUBS to complain about the maniac driving the huge blue van.

Since that trip, I’ve done fieldwork at sites across the continent, and along the way, I’ve come to an important realization: in many cases, just getting out to a field site is more than half the battle.

Coming in for a landing on the Sable Island Beach

I’ve donned a bright orange survival suit to helicopter in to a remote tundra field station, covered my eyes in a small plane headed for a landing on an empty stretch of Sable Island beach, and convulsively gripped the passenger door on a high speed night drive along Carmel Valley Road in California – well known for its blind curves – trying not to worry about the fact that my boss did not seem terribly concerned about driving on any particular side of the road.

But if I were awarding prizes for most arduous journey to a field site, first place would go to an unexpected place: a small island in the middle of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

When I agreed to work as a field assistant for my friend, helping her to catch some of the terns nesting in the large colony on Egg Island, I didn’t think much about the journey.  After all, Manitoba was certainly not the farthest I’ve travelled for fieldwork.  I figured one short flight and I’d be ready to go.

My journey from Kingston to Egg Island started at 5:00 a.m. one hot June morning, when I boarded a tiny prop plane at the equally tiny Kingston airport.  In Toronto, I changed to a bigger plane for the flight to Winnipeg.  After arriving in Winnipeg, I jumped into my friend’s field truck, and – once we’d purchased enough groceries for a month and survived a couple of false starts (a result of my abysmal navigation skills) – we drove the 3 hours out to a ferry dock on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg.

When we arrived at the deserted dock, it seemed almost inconceivable that a ferry would ever actually show up.  Apart from a couple of apparently abandoned vehicles, the gravel lot was empty; the only sign of human presence was a trailer that had seen better days and a single man standing outside it smoking.  He seemed bemused by our presence, and gleefully informed us that, contrary to what we’d been told by our contacts, the ferry wouldn’t be coming back for at least another day.

How better to spend your time on the long ferry ride than grilling some steaks?

After a panicked conference, we decided to trust our instructions, and wait it out.  And after a mere 2 hours, a dot appeared on the lake: our ride was on its way.

There wasn’t really anywhere for passengers to stand on the tiny ferry, so we spent the hour-long ride in the car, watching curiously as one of the ferry crew lit a barbecue on deck and applied himself to cooking some steaks.

The ferry dropped us off in Princess Harbour, a tiny community of approximately 6 souls.  We parked the truck beside our cabin, tossed the groceries into the fridge, grabbed our field gear…and then climbed into yet another (smaller) boat to head out to the island itself.

The trip from Princess Harbour to Egg Island took almost another hour, but finally, after the majority of the day in transit, we approached our goal, a tiny splash of sand in the middle of the lake.

As we approached the island, the raucous screams of terns floated across the water, indicating that we were in the right place.  However, as we got closer to the island’s only safe access point, we realized there was a slight wrinkle in our plans: part of the island had flooded, leaving the small beach where the boat could land cut off from the main body of the island.

After unsuccessfully circling the island to look for other access points, we landed on the beach and clambered out to inspect the flooded area.  It turned out that the water was shallow – relatively speaking.  Before my friend even opened her mouth, I could guess what was coming.  She pulled on her waders and strode cheerfully into the lake, quickly becoming submerged to the knees.

My very determined friend dons her waders and heads straight for the tern colony.

Unfortunately, as a terrestrial bird biologist, waders are one of the few items of field clothing that I do not own.  I stared blankly after her for a few seconds, before realizing there was nothing else for it: I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and followed her cautiously into the water.

It was mid-June, and the lake was still quite cold.  I couldn’t see the bottom through the murky water, and the sand shifted under my feet with each step, making the journey quite perilous – especially considering that none of the expensive equipment in my backpack was waterproofed.

Halfway across, I slipped and nearly fell face-first into the water.  Although I managed to regain my footing just in time, my pants began to unroll themselves.  Since both my hands were occupied with field gear, there was nothing I could do about it as the cuffs unrolled towards the water.  As they hit the surface, they began absorbing water, which wicked rapidly up my pants, ensuring that by the time I reached the main part of the island, I was soaked through to my underwear.  I’ve never been so happy to step onto a beach – even if it was covered in bird guano and ringing with the screams of terns.

For the next three weeks, every day began the same way: a bumpy, windy boat ride to the island, followed by a nerve-wracking wade over to the colony.  Despite my best efforts, my pants always unrolled themselves halfway across, and every day I sloshed up onto the beach soaked and swearing.

But every day, the sunshine and light breeze dried me off quickly, and by lunchtime, I would be warm and content on the beach, munching my sandwich and relishing in the fact that we had the entire island to ourselves.  And I think that’s the real lesson here.  Field scientists get to experience places that many other people don’t, and that often involves a long, arduous, and frustrating journey.  But once you’re out there, there’s no doubt that the journey was worth it.

Things I had to learn the hard way during my first winter in Alaska

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Emily Williams, an Avian Biologist who left her warm home in Florida to work at the chilly (might be an understatement) Denali National Park and Preserve. For more about Emily, check out the end of the post!

I usually scoff when I hear stereotypes or clichés that are used to generalize people that come from a certain state or region of the country. Beyond a personal aversion to phrases such as “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” I am always quick to point out when most people break the stereotypical mold.

As a person from Florida, I am no stranger to southern sayings. I’ve heard them my entire life – and can hold my own in a discussion about the differences between being southern, country, or redneck. While I may be from Florida, I often don’t claim my latitudinal roots because I am easily captivated by topography, cool temperatures, and an absence of urban sprawl. If anyone ever attempts to call me a southern belle or a Florida girl, I am quick with a terse response, usually containing an expletive or two.

But as much as it makes me cringe to say it, I have to admit that the phrase “Florida girl” – in reference to yours truly – couldn’t ring more true than it has over the past few months while I’ve been living in Alaska.

Let’s step back a minute so I can regain some of my last remaining bits of dignity, despite what I just very publicly admitted. Over the past nine years I’ve been doing field work, I have faced a number of the trials, tribulations, and “less than ideal” conditions that characterize a typical field job, and then some. I’ve found myself in the seed tick and mosquito-infested scrub of Maryland, where not an inch of skin was not red and itchy; I’ve (very stupidly) forded chest-high rushing rivers and cascaded down landslides in Manu National Park, Peru; I’ve careened my way driving stick through 5-o’clock traffic in the heart of Brisbane on the wrong (left) side of the road; I’ve slogged through 10-foot tall grass lugging 50 lbs of trapping equipment;  I’ve bartered with capuchins over who would win the revered sheet of toilet paper; and the list goes on.

capuchin looking over the side of the roof

Capuchins were always slinking around our field station in Peru. We frequently caught them stealing our food, in addition to the toilet paper.

In each of these situations, while much of the hazardous, chaotic excitement occurred unexpectedly, I usually felt prepared for whatever might come. Most of my friends and family would use those words to describe me:  “prepared,” “organized,” “plans everything ahead.” Given these particular traits, I usually can pass as someone who knows a thing or two, or at least as someone who doesn’t act like a noob in a new, foreign environment.

Now fast forward to May 2016, when I took a position at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Being an organized, well prepared person, I had solicited the advice of countless locals, my landlords, my supervisors, coworkers, friends, people off the street, etc.

winter sleeping bag and booties

This is a -60◦F sleeping bag I bought as part of my car winter survival kit. You can see it’s huge in comparison to my hiking boot, and stands several inches from the floor. Most guides recommend stocking your car with a sleeping bag in case you get stuck somewhere and have to sleep overnight. The temperature rating should be between -40 and -60◦F to ensure you don’t freeze to death. I also bought down booties to wear for winter camping.

– anyone who knew more than I did about life in Alaska, or more specifically, how to survive the winter in Alaska. Knowing that the winter basically begins at the end of September, I figured had roughly four months to prepare (May – August). I had researched several websites and good sources of information about how to prepare a car winter survival kit – which must contain such essential items as a heat source, way to ignite said heat source, and any number of items that in effect guarantee you won’t freeze to death if you happen to plow into a snow bank/slide off the road and get stuck overnight.

Alaska, as a state and a culture, has won the hearts of many Americans and people throughout the world, as it has been popularized over the last several years by reality tv shows such as “Bush People,” “Alaska, the Last Frontier,” and “Deadliest Catch” . You also can’t understate the important role Sarah Palin played in bringing Alaska to fame. Several of these “reality” tv shows (and Sarah Palin) trivialize and form a caricature of life in Alaska. Yet, many of the shows’ aspects which highlight preparation for cold, snowy winters and long, sunlight-less days and nights are no joke.

Alaska, true to the cliché, is entirely a land of extremes. In interior Alaska where I live, winter lasts for eight to nine months of the year. Days and weeks of -40F are a regular occurrence, and wind chill can cause temperatures to feel like -55 or -65F. (The bikini and board short shots of students in front of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks sign proudly displaying -60F is really a thing.) The landscape looks like a  barren, snowy wasteland: deciduous trees and vegetation are stripped of their foliage, many species of wildlife are hibernating, and everything is blanketed in white. On the shortest day of the year in the Denali area, we receive just under four hours of sunlight. That’s also not to say we don’t experience months of low light before and after Winter Solstice. Even the light we do receive is at less than half mast; the angle of the sun is so low in many parts of interior Alaska that it doesn’t reach over mountain tops, causing valleys and anywhere at low elevation to be largely in shadow.

landscape of Denali National Park

The landscape of Denali National Park and Preserve in the winter can be a forbidding, albeit beautiful place, with subzero temperatures, chilling wind, and heaps of snow. NPS Photo/Jacob Frank

While all the research, advice, and hundreds of dollars spent on equipment could help prepare me to some extent, nothing could actually prepare me for truly experiencing winter in Alaska. Or, for that matter, conducting my first winter field season – in a subarctic ecosystem.

This year the avian ecology program at Denali is piloting a study on Gray Jays – a charismatic denizen of the boreal forest. Unlike most birds, which start breeding in April and May, Gray Jays start nest building by late February. Which means that us crazy folks who study these oversized chickadees (in my opinion) must be out there with them – come hell (frozen over) or high water (or snow).

To conduct field work in Alaska during February, March, and April, one must be prepared for all conditions – be it blowing wind and snow directly to the face, -25F temperatures (give or take another -5 to -15 degrees  with wind chill), freezing rain, or waist-high snow to post-hole in.

Emily in the deep snow

My knees are just above the surface of the snow in this photo. This was before we received an additional two feet of snow a couple of weeks later!

While I have researched and talked to many people about how to clothe myself during subzero temperatures, all the talking in the world doesn’t really help, to be honest. There’s really no way to describe what -30F feels like until you actually feel it. Each time the temperature gets lower I receive a new experience. How could you know what -40F feels like when you’ve only just felt -29F?!

The best way I have learned what to wear in such temperatures is to go outside, suffer persevere through it, and figure it out. One thing I learned while living here is that there are multiple “weights” to base layers. A summer spent working on wind farms in Wyoming, where it snowed until June and could be bitterly cold and windy, still didn’t instill this knowledge. I naively assumed that one wore long johns and that was it – little did I know that there are sometimes 2, 3, and 4 under layers to choose from!

I feel as if most everyone in the lower ’48 told me the best way to prepare for winter is to layer up. Layer, layer, layer. However, what I didn’t realize is that layering can also sink you. Dressing to stay warm for subzero temperatures while also doing strenuous activity is a constant balancing act; one must walk a tenuous tightrope between trying to be warm, but not too warm.

gray jays on top of the trap

Two Gray Jays having a discussion about whether to pursue the delicious bread inside the Potter trap. Photo by John Marzluff.

Field work at Denali during this time of year involves snowshoeing on mountainous terrain that is oftentimes more uphill than downhill – which can quickly cause you to sweat (despite the -20F surroundings!). Working with Gray Jays and trying to find their nests means that bursts of strenuous hiking are broken up by hours-long periods of standing still, making observations.

Emily bundled up with a Gray Jay in her hand

Winter trapping of Gray Jays involves much more clothing than I am generally used to wearing when capturing birds: most days only my eyes are exposed.

Wearing too many layers in such cases can swiftly cause you to become hypothermic, as all that sweat acts to cool your body down. Wearing down, which I previously had been told was the warmest jacket material, only compounds this problem. Sweat can cause down to get wet – so that all the magical insulating properties of down feathers are virtually rendered useless, and ultimately only serve to make you colder.

Another hard lesson I had to learn by living it was that cold temperatures make things freeze. Who knew?! Having never had to think about it before, I left my full Nalgene of water secured in my backpack in the field vehicle one night. The next morning, when I went to grab my bottle, I ended up grabbing just the top lid – the lid had broken cleanly off from the rest of the bottle! The water within had expanded during the freezing process and completely burst the bottle. Of course, as the structural integrity of the Nalgene had been compromised, my pack was now covered in thousands of tiny crystals of ice, which meant that I had to air out (in a heated room) all the contents of my bag. Along these same lines, after a frozen salad incident subsequently concluding in a very hangry biologist, I learned to keep field food (and water!) insulated in my pack.

This is just a small sample of the lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way during my first winter field season in Alaska.

While I have chiefly highlighted the harshness of living and working in Alaska for this blog post, I cannot emphasize enough how amazingly beautiful this place is. I count my lucky stars every day that I have been granted such an amazing opportunity to live and work in a place such as Denali. The good stories full of nights of aurora borealis gazing, cool, quiet mornings listening to birdsong, unexpected encounters with wolves, and quirky Alaska-isms far outweigh the bad.

looking up to the nest in the tree

A Gray Jay nest high up in a spruce tree. NPS Photo/Reina Galvan

While my usual, overprepared self had many growing pains and much knowledge to gain this year, I am sure there will be many more adventures to come for this Florida girl digging life in the Great White North of Alaska.

Opinions on this blog post are my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.

Emily WilliamsEmily Williams completed her MSc degree at Kansas State University and now works as an Avian Biologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s research focuses on dispersal and migration ecology of birds. While her heart still remains with the Grasshopper Sparrows of the tallgrass prairie, she is excited to work among the boreal forests chasing Gray Jays and other arctic birds.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

For more info:

Emily Williams: http://www.aliceboyle.net/BoyleLab/BoyleLab_EJWilliams.html

Denali National Park and Preserve bird page: https://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/nature/birds.htm

UAF swimsuit photo: http://www.photos.uaf.edu/keyword/temperature%20sign