I push my head into my neck pillow, squeeze my eyes closed, and groan. I open them, and the woman next to me passes a look of sympathy. My headache makes it difficult to look at my phone, but I check anyway – it was 11:30 pm, somehow still June 3rd despite having been traveled for ten hours. I shift my gaze to the plane window as we land. That first view - the view of the midnight sun lazily hovering over the sparkling ocean, divided by patches of wetlands and mountains somehow still snow-capped – assured me that the flight was worth it.
I pushed my jetlag aside and got dressed for my first day – a simple flannel and shirt with hiking boots. Kurt, my supervisor, arrived at the hotel, and we introduced each other and chatted about the job. As we turned the first corner, I stopped talking out of complete shock – the largest mountain I had ever seen, easily dwarfing those of New Jersey and Pennsylvania – was in direct view from the car’s windshield. We arrived at the office, where I was greeted by happy faces, warm welcomes, stories, and of course, lots of names to remember. I was handed a walrus tusk, about the length of my forearm – apparently “medium size”.
My assignment for the summer is to contribute to the Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Law Enforcement as we investigate the unlawful harassment of walruses. Harassment of any species is defined as human activity that causes the animal to behave differently than it would in its natural environment. Due to changing climate resulting in less sea ice, migrating walruses rely more on terrestrial haulouts. These herds can number in the thousands and these land haulouts are closer to the activities of humans. After being disturbed, the walruses can stampede as they return to the safety of the ocean. This may result in the death of young or weak individuals. My primary work will occur in a remote area where I will be monitoring and streamlining wildlife cameras. While in Anchorage, I have had the pleasure of reading the inner workings of an ongoing case from 2018 and participating in a meeting about public outreach.
On Saturday, I took a “People Mover,” an affordable and easy-to-use bus that promotes sustainability by reducing car traffic in Anchorage. The bus dropped me off downtown near Delaney park – a quaint clearing where kite flyers, dog owners, and picnic-goers enjoyed themselves while the mountain watched overhead. I explored the shops downtown and ended my night at a rooftop restaurant, where I ate a crab grilled cheese as cargo ships floated by.
The next day I was set for “Beluga Point”, a scenic stop along the Seward Highway. I drove closer and closer to the mountains I saw yesterday, and after ten minutes Anchorage was behind me. As I approached Beluga Point, my jaw dropped. One side was lush, green, and covered with mountains that sloped down as mud flats into the sea. Each side of the highway looked like a different country.
I then took the scenic highway to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to familiarize myself with creatures I may meet in the field. My favorite exhibit was the porcupine, who I observed feeding and climbing up close. Fun fact: no matter how big you think a moose is, I promise that they are larger than that.
What fascinates me the most about Alaska is its residents' intense bond to nature. Restaurants thrive off mountain and lake views. My hotel is overflowing with brochures for outdoor excursions.Conversations with shopkeepers always concluded with a discussion of our favorite hiking spots. When entering a gift shop, it’s clear – bear t-shirts, moose mugs, a plethora of stuffed animals (I bought the walrus, of course), and seasonings for game – people come here for the wildlife. I have never been in a community so intertwined with its ecosystem services.
I will have to say goodbye to Anchorage for now – come Thursday I am off to King Salmon, a sleepy fishing town on where walruses outnumber people.
Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP
Location: Alaska Office of Law Enforcement