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A picturesque place, or a reality check?

As a university student, it is easy to get caught up in the life of writing papers, studying for exams, preparing for grad school and juggling all the other little things that consistently appear from thin air; the doctor’s appointment, that online quiz you forgot about, the rent money, a broken printer, a flat tire. The list never seems to end, and time tends to slip through the cracks of your fingers when you become so wrapped up in just making it through the semester. We survive on to-go coffees and breakfast sandwiches from the nearest fast food joint, we forget that exercise is a necessary aspect of life, and sometimes we even forget that peeling yourself away from the computer screen for a moment can lead to more productive work. As students, we truly do forget how to live outside the realm of school, and we tend to push other things aside as our minds become this tunnel solely dedicated to our life in the classroom. It’s unfathomable really, that I did not realize how crucial it was to both my mental health and education, that I dedicate some of my time to the things I enjoy; a walk in the park, spending time with friends, or baking cookies with my mom. By the end of it all, things tend to blend into the next and before you know it the same day you write your last exam, you’re also on a plane headed for Sitka, Alaska to start a new adventure.  

Warm Springs Bay on an early morning in late April 2017

I went from looking at freshwater benthic invertebrates through the lens of a microscope to studying humpback whales off a 20-foot inflatable Zodiac. I used to slowly crack open my bedroom drapes and peer out the window to the snow piling up on my front lawn before heading off to class. Now, I stand at my window with a cup of tea at 6:30 in the morning and gaze out at the glistening peaks of the mountains, emanating a radiant crystalized layer of fresh snow. I pull on a wool sweater and wrap myself up in a cottage blanket as I sit at my desk facing a wall covered in topographical maps of Southeastern Alaska. Maps that could entrance you in knowledge about land cover, estuarine ecosystems, aquatic environments and the surrounding elevation properties of the place you are calling home for the next three and a half months. There is an onslaught of books of all possible categories, reads that tell you about the birds who inhabit Alaska, encyclopedias of marine mammals, coastal fishes, invertebrates, and books on the history of Southeast Alaska. This small, cozy center is a library representing the complete ecology of this small slice of heaven. A knowledge bank of anything you can think of. An opportunity to learn how diverse the world is in its environmental and ecological properties. However, the biggest thing of all, is the very evident difference between the life I lead back home attending to an education compared to the life occurring at the station where research is at the forefront of my mind. 

A river otter appeared on the WSB dock to clean and take a quick nap.

Sure, you notice this beautiful pristine environment surrounded by mountains and wildlife, and for a while you become engulfed by the raw beauty emanating from this part of the world. It is quite the difference from the usual bustling of vehicles along a busy highway and scenery of sky scraping buildings reflecting the clouds passing by in the sky above. That’s pointing out the obvious. However, what’s not so obvious are the things you catch along the way as your stay in Warm Springs Bay begins to lengthen. Think of that reusable mug you now use every day because there’s no access to the ease of a coffee shop, what about that eco-friendly shampoo you bought because your bath water is going straight into the bay 20 feet from your house; the same water the Harlequin Ducks swim in every morning, or perhaps the limited number of electronics you have plugged into the wall because electricity is precious here? Maybe now, you’re spending even more time outside just watching the environment, watching the birds, staring at the ebb and flow of the ocean water against the boulders trailing along the shore, becoming fascinated as the earth slowly swallows up the footprint you left behind in the mossy bog, or maybe even trying to figure out what that eccentric plant was you saw under a rock nudged beneath your foot. When we’re given the chance to fully immerse ourselves in the natural world, we begin to realize how large of an impact humans have on the environment through their daily lives. Why do such simple things like a coffee mug become such an obvious issue? Perhaps it’s because we don’t have the easy access to have such a choice, or could it be because we’re so caught up in our day-to-day lives that we forget about what we’re doing to the place we call home?

A pair of harlequin ducks that frequently visit the bay (male-right; female-left).

It is easy to get caught up in the forward motions of life, taking in all the new technology, new clothes, and new cars. It is the way our lives now function that cause us to push the issues of the surrounding environment at bay. The increase in natural disasters, the pressing dilemma of a warming climate, increasing droughts, declining fish stocks, species disappearing at an unprecedented rate, and the fog we place over our eyes to avoid the crushing truth. Maybe if we just stop and think for a moment each day about the decisions we are making, then the decisions we make today may evolve to better, more conscious ones tomorrow. 

Baranof Lake, a few kilometers up the trail from our field station, while the ice was still thawing in early spring.

And I know, it’s easier said than done, but actions speak louder than words and small notions on a daily basis can make a big difference in the long run. Start small, maybe a reusable bag with groceries, or a bike to work instead of driving, and eventually the impossible things become possible. So today, try to take a step outside and look at your surrounding environment. Take a minute to look at a full-grown tree for instance, and understand how long it took to grow that big, how many species call it home, the work it puts in every day to survive the constant fluctuations of the environment, and the many resources it provides to people without us even acknowledging them. The actions we make in the moment may not been seen or felt by us, but trust that they are doing something somewhere. Whether it’s the plastic you threw out that a bird just ate because it thought it was food, or the decision to pick up the garbage littering the sidewalk so that maybe the environment can be just a little bit cleaner. Realize how lucky we are to have such a place to call home, and realize why it’s so important to protect. 


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