Sunday, June 26, 2011

preparation, action

Juneau seems like forever ago and Sitka is about to feel the same way. We take a boat to Slocum Arm tomorrow morning and somehow we managed some down time this afternoon. The past week has been a hustle of food and equipment prep, revising the research surveys plans, developing data sheets, working on digital data management, and a hundred other tasks. Lauren’s brain is a tornado of schedules, contacts, to-do lists, and action plans. She especially is doing a remarkable job of keeping her cool despite the manic schedule.

Juneau was great for me, typified by beautiful mountains, great trail runs, and GPS units. Lauren was mostly busy meeting with Forest Service ecologists and statisticians to hammer out the kinks in her in-field research design. I ran around town checking tasks off of to-do lists: color copies of topographic maps, dropping the car we were using at the ferry for the owners, picking up .44 ammo and mechanical pencils at Walmart, etc. It was a good way to see the city outside of the tourist zone near the enormous our boat terminals.

While in Juneau we took time for some recreation each day. Lauren pointed me towards trail runs up Perseverance trail along the first mining road in Juneau, along a fabulously challenging trail at the end of our driveway terminating at a secluded beach on Gastineau Channel, and up Mount Roberts to where the gondola stops and great views of the Chilkat Mountains, Juneau, and the channel. We swung past the Mendenhall Glacier, blue and over-run with tourists but isolated and beautiful in the winter. One afternoon in the Forest Service office someone stopped by trying to unload one of nine salmon she had caught but couldn’t keep for herself, which motivated an impromptu salmon bake at our house/base with some of Lauren’s friends from the area.

Juneau down town is a surprisingly cute city, if you can ignore the bizarre mechanical behemoths mounting the waterfront, filled with tourists. Most of the 30,000 people seem to live scattered elsewhere in the glacial valley, creating a car-dependant way of life for an area that isn’t accessible by road. I read the forests around Juneau offer 250 miles of recreational trails close at hand. While that sounds fantastic, there are no other options unless you leave the by plane or boat. I suspect this sort of isolation, particularly in previous decades, created the self-reliant attitude I am beginning to sense in Alaskans.

I learned a lot from my three days with Lauren. She has involved me (and Odin and Kate too) quite a bit in her tribulations developing the field research component, for which I am grateful – the alternative is to be a field grunt. Watching her go through this phase of her PhD reveals quite a bit about the level of commitment I would need to go into a PhD program – more than I have now. Her yellow cedar research has been years in the making, if only a year or so in academia. For her, having a sense of connection to a community and ecosystem is the foundation for her research. Southeast Alaska forest is the only place she would be willing to work this hard. I think about my own thesis work in forest carbon and more generally about how I relate to where I live and the ecosystems around me, how my connection seems weak compared to Lauren’s, and how I wonder where I am and to what kind of work I dedicate myself.

The froth of activity continued into Sitka. After the gorgeous and productive four-hour ferry ride, including a humpback whale sighting, Kate and Caitlin met as at the ferry terminal and we loaded up our big duffel bags, bear boxes, backpacks, and Pelican cases for the final bout of preparation. Caitlin is our handler in Sitka. A Stanford student, Caitlin is from Sitka and provides invaluable support in town for transportation, knowing who to talk to and where to get what we need, moral support, and (with her mother Stacey) baker of fabulous cookies. Lodging at the Forest Service bunks is a notable step down in quality from the wood-and-window house overlooking the channel in Juneau, but it will get the job done. Many of the same activities continued in Sitka – wrestling with GPS equipment, developing data collection details, and data management for me, research design and myriad other details for Lauren, and food, equipment, and camp logistics for Odin and Kate. Plus some training and meetings for us all.

Odin and I, bunkhouse buddies, have spent a lot of time together over the past few days. He is about to start a Master’s degree in Siberian cultural studies, having traveled to Siberia a couple of times on research projects. Raised in Juneau, Odin provides the team with Alaska street cred. I particularly enjoy his colloquialisms – a garbage bag is the Southeast Samsonite (after the luggage company), and he regularly calls garbage bags Samonsites. XtraTuffs, rubber boots that are the footwear of any reputable Southeast Alaskan and incredibly functional in the perpetual rain and drizzle of this part of the world, are the Juneau Tennies. I now own a pair, and they are function and style sublime.

I got to spend some time at the shooting range with the .44 magnum handgun and .338-caliber rifle we will be taking into the field with us as a last resort for grizzly bear protection. Nearly all of our bear-prep efforts are going into bear avoidance and conflict mitigation – keeping a meticulously clean campsite, making noise wherever we go, and interpreting bear actions to know how to act to alleviate difficult encounters. It sounds like there will be a lot of bears where we are headed, a density of around one per square mile, and encounters are inevitable if not common. I will consider my work complete when I see a big grizzly bear scratching his back on a tree.

Tomorrow morning we begin. It was easy to lose sight of the field experience when we have all been so focused on completing preparation tasks. I think we are all excited – we are well prepared, we have a solid research plan, and we will have a breathtaking backdrop in the Chichagof Wilderness. Wish us luck!

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