Notes from the Field

Summer 2022

By Anne Beaudreau, Catalina Burch, Ellie Mason, & Emma Scalisi

Preface. The past two years have been filled with loss, change, and transition for so many people. Yet, everyone has had their own unique experience with the ways that COVID-19 has changed the world. For my family and I, leaving Juneau in late 2020 – our home for nearly a decade – became part of our pandemic story and struggles. When my graduate students and I traveled to Juneau in June 2022, it was my first visit back after moving to Seattle and I knew it would be an emotional one. The trip was filled with meaning, purpose, learning, and a lot of laughter. We shared results of our research with Juneau community members, interviewed fishermen and managers for a new phase of our work, and connected with colleagues and friends. Beyond our work goals, we each found personal fulfillment in unexpected ways. For me, it felt like a defiant recapturing of joy and connection that had been hard to grasp for so long. It was a reminder that for all the disconnection that the pandemic has wrought, it has also shown us countless examples of resilience and community. My students and I wanted to share our reflections on what this trip to “the field” meant for each of us and – more broadly – the ways that fieldwork itself can be challenging and healing. – Anne, 8/3/2022

Sensing our place in the story – Ellie Mason

June 13– the world is so vast and lush, growing and responsive. I want to yell with hope and joy, lie flat on my back flush against the barnacles and mussels, let saltwater drench every surface.

In a field, we stand against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It’s evening and yet daylight still hits sharp across our faces as we walk along the shoreline where the river starts to meet the sea. I wrote about this place before I even knew it. Months ago, I wrote a piece where I imagined myself here now: in Juneau on the docks, in a field, in the woods, letting rain pour over my body. I imagined myself crying. I had been imagining myself here for months. Like a book with no ending, I couldn’t understand the story until I was the story. Now, here in this field, I begin to write my own ending– one where I tell my mother on the phone about the way the eagles sound, how I brush my hand out as I run alongside the road each morning imagining the blue of the forget-me-nots as a stain on my skin, the scent of low tide pungent and familiar.

The Field. Photo by Ellie Mason.

June 17– the world is set up to fail you. The world doesn’t want you to succeed or find peace. Entropy drives it all. I was mad at the stories he told and confused about my place in all of this… I think about a version of myself that moves away from the noise of others. If I live alone, am I doing anything beautiful? Am I making my way into the places of hope? How is it possible to hold the fear with the serene? I swim and swim, just to have to touch shore again. I can not escape the thoughts of my mind. I do not think I can abandon them either.

It is hot here which I have been told is unusual. After a long morning, Emma and I go swimming in Auke Bay to cool off in the afternoon lull between interviews. The water is cold in a familiar way and after, we lie out on the rocky beach to let the sun warm our backs. Here, the ocean is so fresh–from glacier melt and rushing rivers–that when my skin finally dries I barely notice the salt left behind. I think about how quiet it is, how on the car ride home to change into swimsuits I was unsure about my place in all this research. I think about Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese:whoever you are, no matter how lonely/the world offers itself to your imagination/calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things.” I think a lot about Wild Geese.

June 21– What does it all matter? The world continues on a slow march and I ask to stand still but it doesn’t work that way…whatever the fear, I want to indulge, soak up kindness, breathe in love. One more day here- I will keep my eyes wide open.

When the rain comes back it is okay. We spend the day inside poring over old regulation books in the Fish and Game office and I feel the weight of each decision on the lives of the people we have spoken to already these past eight days. I’ve picked up five mussel shells from the beach where Sheep Creek meets the Gastineau Channel and I think about packing all of them in my bag to bring home. It’s different. It’s the same. I keep thinking about all the versions of the field that I know and how Juneau is like an echo I’m hearing of my own voice across a big hollow valley. I have this memory from years ago–my first time in the field–of eating peanut butter and jelly in a skiff 20 miles from shore as a flock of gannets rained down around me in a feeding frenzy. The memory stops there, but I think I must have had the largest grin plastered on my face, caught in the midst of it all. This is what I mean by eyes wide open: around every corner another discovery, another sensation.

Sheep Creek Meets Gastineau. Photo by Ellie Mason.

June 23– the terns dove, chirped, dove again, hovering above the water in preparation. From the stern of the boat: the Chilkat mountains, the Mendenhall glacier, stony shoreline, miles of ocean, Lynn Canal. Is the meaning found in these names? Or in the colors of stone against purple fireweed, beach peas, and lupines? There is coastline I have not touched, but I’m not sure I’m meant to… From the plane I watch the mountains, the rivers and river deltas, small icebergs chipped off of expansive glaciers. What does it ask of us? How can I listen?

Whose story is it to tell? The wound of this place is that it is changing–no–it is changed and I have too. I want to hold onto seventeen-year-old me, the first time I went into the field, and tell her that she’ll never walk away unchanged and maybe that’s the point. There is kinship found through loss and all of us who work with the ocean know this story too well. Whatever the result, I have been here. I have watched the ocean swing in across the intertidal, sat crouched on a salmon gillnetter’s boat as the sun disappears, let questions and uncertainties swirl around in my mouth. This place allows one secret to become my own and I hold it close knowing that when I choose to share it, I might be letting go of a piece of myself.

Weaving knowledge and practice – Emma Scalisi

I came to grad school after spending the past several years working in outdoor education. My days revolved around convincing middle schoolers that it’s good luck to kiss a sea cucumber, trying to reassure eight-year-olds that no, we weren’t going to get eaten by a shark when we jumped in the ocean, and several nights a week, letting students draw all over my face with squid ink. (If you haven’t worked in outdoor ed, I promise this is actually pretty normal.) It was silly and challenging and rewarding, and I loved everything about it. But as almost anyone who has worked in outdoor ed will tell you, the seasonal, nomadic lifestyle often doesn’t lend itself to staying in that world indefinitely. So, knowing that I was passionate about supporting positive, sustainable connections between people and the oceans, I made my way to the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.

During my first year of school, I had many moments where I was so excited to be back in the classroom – classes spent re-imagining some of the complex management structures we’d learned about, and turning in papers on topics that 10 weeks earlier I could barely have written a few sentences about. There were also moments that felt less exciting too (or, you know, sometimes just bad) like sitting down to take a test for the first time in 5 years, or having a list of readings that somehow never got any shorter.

However, mixed in with the readings, the papers, the lectures, and the occasional existential crisis that comes with being in grad school, there was always the lingering question of why does this matter? Is reading this law brief from the 1800s, or wading through this ridiculously long fisheries management plan really going to help me in the long run? The entire point of outdoor education, the world I had just left, is to provide hands-on experiences; to help students see how they can learn just as much from being in nature as they can in a classroom. It felt counterintuitive to be limited to the classroom (and for a time, limited to just a Zoom screen). With so much theoretical, hands-off work, I was having trouble imagining how all of these disparate ideas were going to be relevant to the “real world.”

Finding (and picking up) as many starfish as possible felt like the perfect remedy to all of the months spent behind a computer screen. Photo by Ellie Mason.

As it turns out, our fieldwork in Juneau, in addition to providing an opportunity to learn an amazing amount from all the people who we talked with, really answered this question for me. After so many months wondering what I had learned so far in grad school, it quickly became clear that the answer was a lot. From concrete things like “who is responsible for managing these species and how is that decided?” to more existential questions like “why do people stay in a struggling fishery?” I could feel the puzzle pieces of all of the classes, readings, and discussions of the past school year slowly start to fit together.

Over the course of 9 months, slowly but surely, knowledge about the murky, difficult to define, field of “marine affairs” has solidified in my brain. Before going to Juneau I wouldn’t have been able to predict this shift, or even to identify it as something I was hoping for. But, the time spent in the field, where our days were surprising and exhausting and (amazingly!) spent mostly outside, showed me that my time in the classroom has been well spent. It has left me more prepared than I thought, and excited to see what is to come during my second year. Even if I know that my reading list is just going to keep growing.

Finding adventure through stillness – Catalina Burch

I normally experience the world through movement. Although lately, I have been learning how to be still and sit with my thoughts more. During the first lockdown you could find me reading books or wandering through the woods of Western Washington, watching the spring fiddleheads emerge and the spruce tips grow. When the lockdown dragged on from days to months I used physical projects to help me stay sane, like building a greenhouse and then a surfboard. Getting back on my feet literally involved staying on my feet, and as the pandemic dragged on I took a very physical job doing stream restoration in Oregon. My days were packed with constant movement, felling trees, dragging logs, weaving beaver dams, planting willows, eating, sleeping, repeat. I think of movement as an essential component to adventure, which helped me to cope with the stress and grief of living through a global pandemic.

Two years later, we are entering the late stages of the pandemic. Vaccines are available, there are better treatments for fighting the virus, schools have returned to in person teaching, and restrictions have progressively lifted. I am currently a graduate student at the University of Washington studying groundfish diets in the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab. Our program has phased back into a new normal, which allowed our lab team to finally plan a trip to Alaska to conduct thesis research. Although, for me, this spring was anything but “back to normal.”

At the start of April I dislocated and broke my ankle requiring surgery and some serious new hardware. I missed two weeks of school where I could barely get out of bed, and returning to class involved navigating Seattle public transit in a wheelchair. My life became limited to paved surfaces, which often required help from others. I couldn’t drive and I needed assistance getting the wheelchair up and down the stairs to my house. Cooking was generally hazardous, and cleaning involved a bit of one-legged acrobatics. Switching to crutches after a month helped create some independence as I could crutch up to a mile at a time with the help of some anti-chafing lube (thanks REI). Three months post-surgery, I had survived the quarter and was preparing to embark on our trip to Alaska. This trip marked my last week on crutches and my first time leaving the continental US since the start of the pandemic.

When I boarded the flight from Seattle to Juneau, I knew that I was embarking on a unique adventure, for once not driven by constant movement. Anticipating the trip, I felt very aware of the things I could not do, like hiking up a mountain or wading through the intertidal. What I didn’t expect was how much stillness could bring me joy. When I arrived we went straight to the docks, where we spent hours listening to fishermen talk about their experiences at sea and with fisheries management. This imparted knowledge is invaluable to me as a student, who has learned about these issues in the classroom but can now connect real experiences of people working in the industry.

In the summer in Juneau the sun sets after 10pm, but it’s worth the wait. Photo by Anne Beaudreau.

Exploring the coast and waters of Juneau helped me to understand the wealth of beauty and wildlife that the fishermen described. Crutching my way onto a boat was a challenge, but I was rewarded by the playful display of a juvenile humpback breaching countless times. I also made the journey up to the famous Mendenhall glacier, maxing out my 1 mile crutching abilities. Normally, I would run around and get all the possible views from the less touristy angles, but I found I was satisfied with taking the classic shot from Panorama Point which I used to make a pastel drawing. Being still allowed me to connect with people, and I shared meaningful conversations with local NOAA scientists and school teachers, as well as my lab team.

It has been a month since our trip to Alaska and I am now off the crutches and working on getting back to normal activities. As I reflect on these past two years I am beginning to rethink the criteria of what makes an experience adventurous. I’m starting to understand that adventure doesn’t require constant movement of your physical body, but rather movement in the form of changing and growing relationships. Alaska strengthened my relationship with my lab team and the scientists, fishermen, and teachers that I met in Juneau. The challenges of the last two years have also deepened my relationship with myself. I am learning to be more compassionate and I am in the process of developing a sense of self-worth that is innate and not only tied to my accomplishments. I will always value independence, but I am also working on asking for help and finding support in others. I can’t wait to run and climb and be physically stronger than I was before, but until then I know that I am worth more than just what my body is capable of.

Pastel drawing of the Mendenhall Glacier from Panorama Point. Drawing by Catalina Burch.

Connecting in the here and now – Anne Beaudreau

What is the field? Is it a place, or a state of being? I have been fortunate to experience many versions of “the field,” from a fishing vessel on the open ocean to the muck and mud of a glacial river delta to the kitchen of a 90 year old fisherman. Far beyond finding answers to questions we formulate from the limited vantage point of an office or classroom, fieldwork is about letting the answers to questions yet unspoken reveal themselves to our more attuned senses. When I am in the field – even a place I know as well as Juneau – all my senses are heightened: I listen more intently, observe more closely, and am more present in my interactions with people and our surroundings.

Most of our time on this trip was spent in conversation with fishermen and managers, to learn about the challenges they face and what gives them hope for the future of their fisheries. Every interview was a master class in Southeast Alaska fisheries, every person we spoke with expanded our thinking, challenged our assumptions, and shared a new perspective we hadn’t considered. Our team would spend hours at the end of each day talking about what we learned and beginning to piece together broader narratives about leadership, stewardship, and change in fisheries from the collective expertise of the people we interviewed.

There is both freedom and uncertainty that comes from being in the field, because we are not always operating on our own schedules. Fieldwork is about making a plan and then letting the plan reshape itself in the moment, as tides and fishery openers dictate. The days are full—sometimes sleep is short—but each moment is drawn out, slower, and with no place to be but in communion together. I have found this to be true whether I’m walking along the docks talking with fishermen or picking fish from a net. When you have a really great field crew (as we did on this trip), you quickly fall into a rhythm of work where everyone seamlessly takes up tasks as they’re most needed. But the work itself does not alone define success; instead, it is the camaraderie, the shared sense of adventure and discovery, and the inevitable moments of joy and sleep-deprived silliness that make the experience. When the work is going well, the team is happy; when the team is happy, the work is going well.

Can you find the researchers? Photo by Catalina Burch.

Fieldwork has always been a transformative element of my work as a researcher and teacher. It expands what we think we know into a living, breathing, evolving space of learning, allowing a deep and, at times, vulnerable connection to people and place. The most meaningful connections are made through reciprocity—the mutual sharing of knowledge, time, care, work, meals, and laughter.

As we reached the “sleep-deprived silly” stage of our fieldwork, we began riffing on the idea of making a parody promo video for our lab that lightly pokes fun at some of our most often-used academic jargon. Credit goes to Catalina for the brilliant editing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s