Bellingham wetlands scientist shares adventures of the job

My colleague calmly told me to get up and look behind me. I had my head in a soil pit that we dug in order to classify and describe the different layers in the soil. When I turned around, a large, black wolf was trotting directly toward us. Normally the wolves I see run in the opposite direction when I come upon them. This behavior seemed a bit unusual, so I pulled my gun from its holster and kept it at the ready. When the wolf was 30 feet away it stopped and stared. It was an unseasonably hot day on Alaska's North Slope, so the wolf was panting and his nice set of teeth were on full display. We literally stared eye to eye for about 30 seconds, and then he slowly circled around us and trotted away. After savoring the experience for a minute, we returned to our work on the soil pit. In an hour the helicopter would pick us up and take us to a remote field station where would spend the night.

During the summer months, I travel to Alaska four or five times for two-week stints to conduct wetland evaluations, environmental baseline studies and other consulting work on large proposed projects such as gold mines, pipelines and roads. I have been doing this in Alaska for 30 years, and every day seems like a new adventure. Sometimes I m amazed that I have survived this long. We use helicopters to get to our sites and there have been a number of close calls over the years including nearly ditching into the Bering Sea.

We carry heavy packs, battle insects and impenetrable alders, and climb up and over rough terrain. When we are out of the field each day, we begin our evening work of data analysis and plant species identification. We work until 11 p.m. and only take a break for dinner. This summer our crews would often compare bear encounter stories because it seemed that we were being overrun by them. My colleague Greta called to me from an alder patch one day saying she had a bear staring at her from 20 feet away. I had just left the shrub stand and now my heart was racing. She remained calm and I was juggling my can of pepper spray, gun and radio. I made a fruitless, panicked call on the radio to see if the helicopter was nearby. I didn't want to rush back into the alders because I could not see the situation. Greta talked to the bear in an aggressive voice, packed up the gear and backed out of the shrubs. In this encounter and in others this past summer, Greta gets an A+ and I get a C-.

When back in Bellingham, the work involves computerized mapping, report writing and data analysis. I do this at my home, which is great since I am around my wife and two children. When I get bored doing the office work, I think about the field adventures: flying over bowhead whales suspended in the crystal water, coming face to face with a wolverine at the entrance to her den, watching a herd of caribou split around my tent, or landing on a glacier for a lunch break away from the mosquitoes.

When I was in high school and college, this was the type of work I dreamed about. I was very fortunate to land such a job a week or so after college. In just the first few years I sloshed through the Everglades, baked in the Great Basin Desert, climbed up and down the Adirondacks, walked the shores of the Great Lakes, and sometimes even collected environmental data in the concrete-lined rivers of Los Angeles.

I am looking forward to next field season for more hard work, fun and adventure!


Window On My World is an occasional essay in Take Five that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to julie.shirley@bellinghamherald.com. All submissions become the property of The Bellingham Herald.