Field sick

The morning of August 3rd 2015 had been exhausting. Three months of supplies – our shelters, our remaining food, our scientific gear, everything that we brought to feel at home – was to leave for good. And it wasn’t clear demobilization would even happen. Small craft advisory the night before, but the winds were dying, the sea was calming to 6 foot — within the margin of doable. The boat showed and the skiff carried camp away, bit by bit. And on that final day of the last field season for my Masters research, I didn’t say goodbye to the massive volcanic island that had sheltered me for three months. I didn’t say goodbye to my auklet companions. Instead, I found myself promising that I would find a way back north. Somehow. Eventually.

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A peaceful sunrise at the Gareloi camp bight, with a delightful view of our impressive neighbor, Tanaga

A return to the Aleutians, what a thing to promise. Even then, I knew it was a promise I might not be able to keep. I mean, I had plans: wrap up this masters, find a PhD program … start a normal-ish life. And to my luck, no PhD programs advertised were to involve field research in the Aleutians. Yet earlier this year, a tantalizing email landed in my inbox: Field trip to the Aleutians?


Navigating along the (comparatively) calm waters of the strait between Adak and Kagalaska

1,398 days since my last moments on Gareloi, I found myself back in the Aleutians for a new project. I had joined a talented team through Island Conservation to do 10(ish)-year post-rat-eradication monitoring at the island formerly known as Rat Island. While many rats became stranded across the Aleutian Islands during WWII, some had appeared on these remote sites centuries before; the rodent ancestors here had arrived as early as the late 1700s during a Japanese shipwreck. Left alone for over 200 years, the predatory rats did what they do best: they thrived in a world where they had no competition for prey (and prey was anything their hearts could fancy) and very little threat from potential predators. While it was no fault of their own, the rats couldn’t stay. They decimate bird populations, alter terrestrial communities, and indirectly drive changes in intertidal systems. In 2009, rats were successfully removed from the island, warranting a new name: Hawadax. Welcome.

And what a welcome back to the north. We were the only four people on the island (my kind of place), the wind carrying the melancholy song of the Lapland Longspur, the world surrounded in fog. Mornings started while we could still see our own breaths, and the day ended before the lazy sun set. Yet this island was different — it lacked the familiarities of Gareloi. I didn’t wake to the opinions of Least Auklets. The giggles of storm-petrels didn’t keep me up at night. Only the citrusy sweet scent of the Crested Auklet haunted the shoreline, though the wind had to blow just right.

The island wasn’t Gareloi, the massive seabird colony that had stolen my heart in 2014. There were no mesmerizing murmurations of auklets returning to the dense nesting colony at night. There was no actively venting caldera tucked just behind the clouds. There was no showering of bird ticks when passing underneath the vegetation. I don’t think there had been a single earthquake while we were on site, and I never heard the tsunami pager ring with news of a faraway rumble. It was an island entirely different, and I longed for the dangers and triumphs I had experienced on Gareloi. #Sorrynotsorry former and current safety-conscientious advisors (I know you’ve had your own adventures).

It was unfair. I wasn’t giving the island the respect it truly deserved. Sure, I completed our daily assigned tasks and birded ’til I was crosseyed. But I desperately hoped beyond hope that, beyond each ravine, there would be an auklet colony nestled deep into the veg for my own selfish reasons. Recovery happens at its own pace. The puffins only began returning during the last visit in 2013, and I knew from my own PhD research that recovery can take decades. Gareloi was the cloud of nostalgia I just couldn’t escape.

So I drowned myself in all things Hawadax. As I marched across the strange Aleutiany tundra each day, I made a point to stop and take in the views. I literally stopped to smell the chocolate lilies. I marveled at a new suite of birds and their daily routines. I slowed down to have a beachside walk with a curious seaotter that swam along some 100+ meters offshore. I wanted to try to find a way to appreciate every ounce of life on the island. After all, it had made this beautiful recovering island its home and would certainly persist long after our departure.

Fifteen days flew by. Soon enough, the boat scheduled a pick-up date. And ever unlike Gareloi, camp demobilization was entirely different. We had a bright, sunny day to pack up. And with limited gear (two weeks!), bringing it to the beach had barely taken half the day. Pick-up itself couldn’t have taken more than an hour before we were off and back at sea.

After a quick trip west to Buldir, we set our sights back to Adak to end the field trip. Late one morning, we crept quietly by Gareloi along the Bering side. There were no auklets to greet me. I saw no glimpse of the mighty caldera. In fact, it had seemed smaller than my memory wanted to recall. Possibly because we only saw a sliver of it in the dense fog. This time, I said my goodbyes to the island that had so terrified, awed, and insipred me. I said goodbye to the colony of auklets that foraged in the passes just south of us.


Gareloi, on a rare sunny day

I can’t say that I didn’t make a promise to find a way back north again, somehow, eventually. But this time, there was an equally important promise: welcome every moment on those new islands, which can be done without feeling like the islands that have built me are being forgotten.


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