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Alaska trip inspires Middlebury College travelers' powers of description

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Posted on December 30, 2015 |
By JULIA JOHN



Midd in Alaska hiking toward glacier cmyk.jpg
MIDDLEBURY STUDENTS HIKE across a moraine toward the 27-mile-long Matanuska glacier, the largest one in the country that is accessible by road, on the first afternoon of a three-day camping trip. Photo by Yuki Hu

ALASKA — Sea kayaking in Prince William Sound, falling into the serene rhythm of oar strokes cutting the gentle water as we paddle by a rookery of hundreds of chattering black-legged kittiwakes on a cliff face iced with streaks of cream-colored excrement.

Crunching over the cirques and crevasses of the Matanuska glacier with Yaktrax on our feet and ski poles in our hands, gazing in awe at the icy blue sculptures and bottomless seracs we pass. Rafting down its meandering meltwater, half capsizing in a crashing hole, and frantically pulling a friend back into the boat by her lifejacket, adrenaline in our veins even hours after we settle on land and dry off.

Watching an otter lounging on its back with its arms crossed, so inert we mistake it for a log, on a rocking ferry ride from Homer Spit to the Alaskan Center for Coastal Studies across Peterson Bay. Preparing and sharing a dinner in one of our suites at Soldotna’s Kenai Peninsula College, featuring baked sockeye salmon and Dolly Varden trout that one of my classmates and Professor Dickerson had caught the other day.

These are some of the myriad unique memories that reflecting on my month-long summer sojourn in Alaska invokes. This past July to August, I joined eight other Middlebury College students and two professors on this unforgettable experiential learning journey comprising the “Essay Writing on Nature: Alaska and Its Char” course in the college’s new summer study program.

Scrambling onto the two flights that would carry me by airplane over 3,000 miles northwest to the last frontier of the continent, I was jittery because I had little idea what to expect. The Alaska in my mind was a frigid land of perpetual day, barren tundra, craggy peaks, lumbering grizzlies, and struggling, culturally displaced natives. Although this preconception was not wholly inaccurate, I learned that the state was so much more than its harsh environment and troubled people.

STUDENTS IN MIDDLEBURY College’s “Writing on Nature” course last summer paddle sea kayaks past a black-legged kittiwake rookery in Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska on a Saturday morning.

Photo by Yuki Hu

Middlebury’s Professor of Computer Science Matthew Dickerson and his friend David O’Hara, a philosophy professor at Augustana College, are both avid fly fishermen and writers. They have published books together, and they planned and taught this class. It entailed two weeks each in Anchorage, the state capital, and Soldotna, a small city situated by the world-renowned salmon-filled turquoise waters of the Kenai River, as well as a three-day camping escapade.

Our lessons involved almost daily trips to explore, reflect on, discuss, and write about the ecology of Alaska’s trout, char, and salmon, the different river systems they inhabited, and the larger environmental and social issues surrounding these creatures. Every morning we would file into the van and set off on another adventure filled with hiking, observing, pondering and taking notes in a new location. In this way, we went around south central Alaska, from Chugach State Park, near Anchorage, to Veronica’s Coffee House, a quaint acclaimed café next to Kenai’s old Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church.

Alaska was vastly different from any place I had visited before; although I initially felt at odds with the unfamiliar landscape, I soon grew to appreciate its distinctive beauty. My eyes had never before experienced the shade of deep emerald that imbued its coniferous forests, a color that at first seemed almost ominous compared to the bright green of Vermont’s deciduous woods. Almost everywhere we went, I indulged in the slightly tart sweetness of wild blueberries, hunkering close to the earth and moving from patch to patch collecting the indigo fruit. From delicate white clusters of yarrow and purple petals of poisonous monkshood, to magenta stalks of the state flower — fireweed — I learned to identify the spectacular plethora of summer flowers that color the wilderness and urban sidewalks of Alaska.

Throughout the course of our stay, apart from the multiple species of fish we were studying, our class spotted moose, bald eagles, pica, puffins and several other fauna. Yet after a month seeing abundant piles of bear scat but not a single bear, we spent our last morning in Alaska camped out above a wildlife corridor running along a creek where sightings were supposedly frequent. Crouched by the tunnel below the road with bated breath, we waited silently for two hours, eagerly straining to catch a glimpse of dark, wet fur or a sniffing snout at the far end of the stream. When we heard splashing accompanied by a clanging sound that seemed to alternately intensify and fade as if a creature were slowly shifting toward us, we were almost certain a bear was wading our way.

“There’s more than one,” Professor Dickerson whispered as he peered through his binoculars.

Further excited by this confirmation, the rest of us sat by the sloping embankment, some edging down toward the water, craning our necks to see what he saw. All we noticed, however, were the nimble crimson bodies of a few large salmon darting though the water. After many more futile minutes of anticipation, Professor Dickerson strode over to our van and launched his drone, a college-owned device that he had packed on the trip for aerial photography and video footage. With his remote controller, he sent the gadget over the stream in the direction of the metallic splashing noises to capture some shots of the elusive “bears” in action below.

As the drone flew back, we gathered around Professor Dickerson behind the vehicle. The camera, however, showed not a single bear. As it turned out, our bears were not bears at all. They were actually salmon, lots of big powerful salmon. The fish were making those rattling splashing sounds as they came up against an unidentifiable massive steel cage that ran the width of the creek.

Despite this final disappointment, our time in Alaska left us with much to contemplate, grow from, and always cherish. At a fundamental level, four weeks in the state expanded our knowledge through the gateway of char and its environmental and social linkages. It built our awareness about everything from the ecological ramifications of the Pebble Mine and Exxon Valdez oil spill, to the indigenous Dena’ina people’s oppression, and the subsistence and recreational fishing and hunting that drive the Alaskan economy and identity.

Our Alaskan adventure also taught us the importance of patient, keen sensory observation, whether we were counting caddis fly larvae under a benthic rock or looking for a salmon-chomping bear. It gave us the rare opportunity to become inspired by and develop our writing in an extraordinary ecological and social setting that it would otherwise have been difficult to access to such an extent. Additionally, it brought the 11 of us together, connecting us with the strong bonds of not only friendship, but also family. Above all, nature writing in Alaska reminded us to check our assumptions and reformulate our preconceived notions about place, to keep our eyes and minds wide open to question and appreciate the intricacies of our environment.

Editor’s note: The writer is a Middlebury College senior majoring in Environmental Studies.

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