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Birding. For anyone familiar with the concept, it probably brings to mind stereotypical images of bespectacled young and old gripping their binoculars, scopes, and cameras for dear life as they search for the elusive bird in the tree, river, or marsh. Birders travel far and wide trying to catch that 5 second glimpse of a bird that enables them to put a check next to a name in their bird book.

That’s definitely not me. Yet ever since my second field job – for which I worked with black- and red-legged kittiwakes, thick-billed murres, and least auklets here on St. George – various friends and family members have teased or referred to me as a ‘birder.’

At first I rather resolutely refuted the label. First off, I don’t have the eyes, ears, or memory for details to differentiate amongst some species. Secondly, I don’t keep a life list: a list of all the birds I’ve seen over the years. Nor do I get excited when I see a certain bird for the first time, or what birders would call ‘lifers.’ I don’t check eBird to find out what species have been sighted at my upcoming travel destinations or where I should go to see specific birds. Until I graduated from college and asked for a pair as a graduation gift, I didn’t even have my own pair of binoculars!

If I am a birder, I’m definitely at the beginning stages. Over the years I’ve worked with field technicians who cover the range from wildlife enthusiasts to moderate/intense birders. I consider myself part of the group some co-workers have named ‘bird professionals.’ While we think birds are pretty awesome to study, we don’t necessarily choose jobs based on the study species. For me, birds are part of the bigger picture of the grand experience. Sightings and photos are all great, but a scar from a bird is worth more than a check mark in a book.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed a few things that make me acknowledge that perhaps after all these years, I’ve moved a little closer to the birding end of the scale.

  1. Just thinking about long-tailed ducks makes me smile! Their markings are adorable, and because it’s just so melodiously cute, their call is the only one I will randomly imitate. I got the Tutakoke crew to use it as a rallying cry in 2014, and a friend even woke me up with the call as a wonderful alarm clock on my final morning there last summer.
  2. The northern pintail who slept under my tent fly at Tutakoke in 2013 counts as my favorite neighbor of all time, which is why I may have slept in a 60+ year-old man’s tent a number of times in 2014. (Since the pintail didn’t pick my tent as a base, I had to go visit her new location while that tent’s occupant was out-of-state!) It’s not as weird as it sounds. Err – maybe it is.
  3. Ever since we’ve been on St. George this summer, I’ve had my eyes open for black brant. I spent 2 summers with them at Tutakoke, so they’re practically my summer family. When Laney called, “Brant!” from our room overlooking the waters of the Bering Sea, I ran to see a bird for the first time in my life. I ran for a bird of which I’ve held hundreds and seen thousands.
  4. I can sit in the least auklet colony of 100,000+ birds for hours without getting bored. Whether I’m looking for color bands on their legs or being entranced by all of the fly-bys, the antics of least auklets keep me entertained. Perhaps the best part is when a bird makes an abrupt landing on the rock “blind” and then either proceeds to chatter or jump up and fly when it realizes it has landed 2 feet from a human.

While normal life has its perks, the memories of living with birds for months make it balance out. Now pardon me while I go continue my summer-long hopeful lookout for long-tailed ducks.

*Sorry about the lack of pictures for the duration of summer. We have data-limited internet use.*

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There will be no drumroll preceding an announcement of what I’ll be doing this summer. No dramatic sigh of contentment. No champagne showers at having persevered with patience through the final at-bat. You’ll see nothing of the sort here, since I still don’t have word of my future.

Seeing as I’ve heard nothing, I’ve decided maybe it’s a sign I should just pour out the potential for people to read. Maybe once I’ve shared it, I’ll wake up to some emails of answers.

Ever since hearing about the summer seasonal work that happens on scattered islands of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, I’ve had dreams of working on a remoter-than-remote island.

In a nutshell, these positions entail about 4 months of monitoring seabirds. Sometimes that means muttering to yourself as you watch for hours to see whether birds are sitting on empty nests, eggs, or chicks. Other times that means catching birds to mark them and take various samples. Sometimes you’re awkwardly positioning yourself to peek into a crevice nest in a boulder field to see the status of a nest.

At times your schedule is based on the tides. Perhaps you’ll find yourself stripping with your boss to change into dry base layers after hiking to your work site. You’ll have days of feeling like you live in a fog bank. Once or twice the refuge ship will come by to resupply camp and let you take a “real shower.” You’ll have radio check-ins with the other camps just to see how things are going. You won’t have internet or cell access for the summer.

Those are the makings of a paid adventure!

When I worked on St. George Island – one of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea – I had applied to work for AMNWR, thinking I’d be placed in the Aleutians. A college schedule limited my dates of availability, so I ended up in the Pribs. Believe me, I have NO complaints about that one.

As such I still haven’t spent an entire summer out on a volcanic island surrounded by dramatic topography, seabirds, seals, and only 2-3 other people. I’ve talked about it for the last 5 years, and I’ve made it through the rigorous USA Jobs application process to reach an interview both last year and this year.

(a) Loving the Tutakoke River black brant camp and (b) being a good person kept me from interviewing last year, since I’d already committed to returning to Tut as a seasoned technician. When I declined an interview, I said, “You can know that the refuge is my absolute #1 choice for next summer.”

Well. Life made a liar out of me, as the refuge finds itself tied with a relative newcomer for first place this year.

Also last winter, after I’d committed to Tut, a dream posting went up on the Texas A&M Job Board:

Polar bear and waterfowl summer field technician: Manitoba

In essence, the job looked like a unique position working with snow geese and common eider In. Polar bear. Country.

In the Wildlife Biology field, you tend to gravitate toward a certain type of animal. (mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, etc…) I’d guess that many start out with interest in “charismatic megafauna” – the impressive, powerful, furry mammals – before learning that there really aren’t that many field jobs posted for mammal work, and you have to know the right people to get a foot in the door.

That’s how birds “happened” to me. I applied to a number of field jobs without even necessarily knowing what the birds were, and I was fortunate enough to be hired because of my lack of experience. Bam. One season with spectacled eider led to seabirds, kiwi, black brant, and paid birding in California.

Although some would label me a birder, I prefer the term “bird professional.” You won’t see me racing across the country to see a “lifer,” but I’ll admit birds are pretty neat and fun to handle. Watching nests change from one-eggers to full clutches throughout incubation, to the hatch of little down balls running across the tundra is entertaining. I’ll gladly take bird jobs, but I’d still love to break into the mammal world.


When I was in first grade, my Dad took our family to Churchill, Manitoba: the Polar Bear Capital of the World. The bears move through the Churchill area in October as they wait for the ice of Hudson Bay to form. We took a day-long excursion on a tundra buggy to drive around and watch wildlife.

While parked to watch some bears, my life’s interests developed. I was standing at the front door of the buggy when a polar bear put its front paws on the threshold of the door and established eye contact with me. Maybe the bear was seeing me as food, but I was seeing the bear as the coolest animal ever. For me, it was love. Polar bears have been my favorite animals ever since.polar beartundra buggy

 

Polar bear photography could be the earliest interest I ever had in photography. I saw pictures of photographers sitting in cages on snow, and I thought to myself, I want to do that!

Since my blood is American rather than Canadian, finding my way to a job out of Churchill poses more paperwork than companies would like. Regardless, the idea has been somewhere in my mind for years.


Seeing this job with waterfowl in the Churchill area with the potential to see polar bears again sounded perfect. We’d do the usual searching for nests and monitoring them throughout incubation to hatch. There would be some trapping and banding drives. We’d also end up collecting some birds for dissections and collecting plant samples. We’d set up cameras at nests to monitor polar bear foraging behavior. Some work would involve aerial helicopter surveys, and we’d always have a firearm around for bear safety. It sounded pretty spectacular.

Having given my word to Tut, that job was also out of the running for last summer. Although it seemed like a great mix of both worlds, I knew it wouldn’t happen for me.

I didn’t let the job leave me head, which is how I got to my current situation. I spent last summer working with brant at Tutakoke, and then I stayed an extra month to help with a captive brant and vegetation study in its first year. I had a number of reasons for staying, including:

  • I didn’t want to return to civilizaion
  • I didn’t want to leave the crew
  • I wanted to gain some experience with vegetation
  • I wanted to volunteer for Ryan, a grad student at Utah State – the school associated with the Manitoba study

In talking earlier in the season, I’d realized that Ryan knows the grad student in charge of that project. Ryan was of the thought that Dave had one more field season in Manitoba, meaning there was a slight chance to work on the project after all! Knowing a personal recommendation would be 100% helpful in increasing my chances, I decided helping out on Ryan’s project could have many benefits.

By contacting Dave in December and January, I put my name and credentials in the mix before the funding was approved and the job posting listed.


So that’s where things stand. Somewhat fortunately I had both interviews within days of each other, and now I’m just playing the waiting game. Earlier I turned down one job with emperor geese on the YK Delta. A third dream-like job appeared for work with common loons in New Hampshire, but I’m almost glad that one didn’t pan out. I’d have needed to ask jobs to duel to win my heart.

Both positions involve hiking on tundra, which my shins heartily dislike; I may hate myself for it in future years, but I just waive that fact aside. A physical presence in Manitoba’s bear country could get me somewhere toward finding work in Churchill. The Aleutians provide a solid 5 months of work with good pay, while Manitoba only adds up to about 2.5 months of work at research-level, NSF funding pay. If I was in this field for the money, I wouldn’t be in this field. This is about gaining incredible experiences.

In a best (or worse) case scenario, I’ll get emails from both positions and then just stare hopelessly at the hats on the table before me. It could be as close to Signing Day as I’ll ever get. But on the other hand, at this point I just want a cool summer job. No sweat, right?

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Rather early on in my years in Fairbanks, I’ll admit I wanted to list myself as being in a relationship (on Facebook). Unfortunately I wasn’t able to specify my partner’s name because Alaska didn’t have an account. I couldn’t say I was “In a Relationship with Alaska.” Little did I realize just how correct that statement would become.

Apart from Michigan, Alaska is the place where I’ve spent the most time. I have an Alaska Driver’s License, am registered to vote there, and store the majority of my belongings there. However, it’s not the place to find winter wildlife research. The birds are down south, the bears are sleeping, and most everyone else gets forgotten during the cooler months.

I’m spending this winter working for The Nature Conservancy around the Sacramento area of California. Although I enjoy my co-workers and don’t mind the work, I’m not a California girl. I feel like I’ve abandoned Alaska this winter. I’ve lived through the driest January on record, but that’s not my style. I’m wondering,

Where’s the snow?

Hearing about the big snowstorms hitting the Midwest and East Coast is breaking my spirit a little. Being able to run in shorts and a t-shirt in January and February is convenient but just feels wrong. I don’t have the pleasure of frosted eyelashes, wearing Yaktraks, and wondering how many layers to wear. The ground here is generally green, but fields and trees are dead; the snow and frost of Fairbanks would sure look a lot more pretty.

As people grow they develop certain tendencies and interests. Whether by genes, fate, or interest; I became a northern girl. The 4 seasons make life beautiful, and I don’t particularly want to live in a place where they just differ by rainfall. Fall and winter are probably my favorites, and since my eyes seem to be more sensitive to light than most people’s, Alaska’s wintry darkness is the best. I’ve also found that warmth + light put me to sleep, so the dark chill of winter actually keeps me awake.

Apparently others have noticed my northern ways, as numerous friends have commented that my recent travel to Hawaii seemed rather out of character. One friend said, “Of all places I expected you to visit in your lifetime, Hawaii wasn’t on it.”

Areas of warm weather and higher densities of people are two traits that typically don’t attract me. A co-worker from Tutakoke round #2 said he was surprised to hear I was headed to California for winter. When I commented that it wasn’t my ideal location, his response was “Yeah too many people, haha.”

thumbs down

Too many man-made structures = thumbs down

My field co-workers know I’m not one for being around many people. At the peak population this summer, we had 17 people at Tutakoke. When I saw the spread of tents on the horizon, I wanted half of them to disappear. How was I to sit in my corner and read or journal with so many people around?

I mention all of this because – as I feel like I belong in New Zealand – I can tell I don’t belong in California. I know there’s a lot more to this state than the Central Valley, but I just feel it’s a state I’m supposed to pass through as a visitor. Despite the fact I’ve only been here for about 1.5 months, I already have itchy feet.


When I lived in my dry cabin in Fairbanks, I often enjoyed late night walks home under the Northern Lights. I’m not one for singing when other people are around, but I sing along to music when I’m alone all the time. At some point I decided I can decently sing along with U2’s song “With Or Without You,” a song that I find rather beautiful. It became my go-to song to sing when spinning around with eyes turned up to the sky, on my walks back home. With brilliant colors dancing overhead and the chill warming up my spirit, I’d belt it out to the skies.

“I can’t live with or without you…”

Only now do I realize just how fitting the song title is for my perspective. I dearly miss my Northern Lights. While in Hawaii and even now here in California, I’ve found myself getting excited about wisps of cloud that look like pale green lights, only to remember I’m not in Alaska. I miss -40F and hearing everyone complain about it; I know they actually secretly love it. I miss my puffy coat. I miss skiing to cabins and then climbing into a gigantic down sleeping bag. I miss waking up to the frosty inside of a tent and having my good friend Tad greet me with a friendly “Good morning beautiful.” I miss my failed sled dog friends. I miss gatherings of plaid-clad friends enjoying a pint in the Pub or in dry cabins tucked in the snowy woods. You can’t find camaraderie like that of Fairbanks folk frozen together for the winter anywhere else.

YQ

Start of Yukon Quest 2008

white mountains

White Mountains National Rec Area

But at the same time, what am I to do in the winters up there? Permanent field tech positions are few and far between. Also, travel in and out of the state isn’t exactly cheap, making it a less-than-ideal home base.

It seems I can’t live with or without Alaska. I suppose there are worse dilemmas in life.

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If you don’t want to hear about the overnight adventures of my other life, read no further. No, I don’t mean those kinds of adventures. Geez, people, do you really think I’d write about that in my blog? Just kidding!! I’m talking about my dreaming life that makes many mornings just a little bit confusing and yet also rather entertaining.

Scientific studies show the connection between REM sleep and dreaming, and someone must have studied why certain people remember dreams more vividly than others. I have my own theory for why I have bizarre dreams and remember them so frequently: my identity came from a dream! My mom happens to be a frequent dreamer, and she dreamed up my name when my parents were discussing potential names for me. Somewhat unfortunately I don’t think she remembered anything else about the dream, so I’ll never know if I was a grand explorer or a politician. (shudder on that 2nd one)

Somehow I became one of those people who dreams regularly. A lot of the time I even remember a good chunk of the dream, meaning I can attempt to trace pieces of the dream to origins in reality. As you might imagine, sometimes making any sense of the dream is just a ridiculous idea. Regardless of a dream’s hypothesized meaning or link to daytime life, I rather enjoy sharing the tales of my subconscious frolics.

For both of my summers out at Tutakoke I took to sharing my dreams with crew first thing in the morning. This summer my practice was made even more memorable by the design of our outhouse. Since we had up to 17 people in camp at 1 point, we decided our outhouse should have a 2 man capacity with back-to-back seating.

outhouse

The Double Seater

With its location perfectly between our 2 camps (University of Nevada Reno: 3.5 months of my summer employment; Utah State University/University of Alaska Anchorage: 1 month of my summer), my UNR camp decided it would be funny to try having each of the 4 of us “use the loo” at the same time as someone from the USU camp. Ultimately the only member of the USU/UAA crew who was fortunate enough to share moments with 3/4 of our UNR crew was Martin.

Tut

Tutakoke City 2014

Apparently Martin and I were on the same schedule some mornings, making Martin my audience for hearing a couple of my dreams. Obviously we couldn’t just sit in awkward silence when sharing moments at the outhouse, so why not? I came to call these times “Mornings with Martin,” and I’m sure Martin treasures those memories. 😉

Since I’m in Fairbanks and have no outhouse to visit, I need to share last night’s dream with someone! Consider yourselves fortunate.

It all started with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but the bridge had these mesh panels hanging along its length on either side. Then I heard the voice of Marshall Eriksen – a character in How I Met Your Mother – accusing his fiancee Lily of cheating on him while out on her painting lesson on the bridge. She was telling Marshall that if she could show him the mesh on the bridge, it would prove she really had just been painting. (How? No clue, so welcome to my dream logic.)

The next thing I know I’m swimming in the waters of the San Francisco Bay side of the bridge with Lily, who suddenly has turned into Marshall, as he reaches the mesh and realizes Lily has been telling the truth. As we swim to shore, a shark grabs hold of Marshall’s leg, eliciting a worried outburst from the waiting Lily. Not wanting to be grabbed by a shark, I pick up my pace and make it to shore, followed shortly thereafter by a completely unharmed Marshall.

On shore we find hundreds and hundreds of black brant broods mixed in with family groups of seabirds. (Here’s how I know I’m not a birder: I have no clue what species were there because at the time it just slipped my mind to notice. Also, I don’t know why the brant goslings were so small during migration.) Lily and Marshall became just ordinary people helping drive birds away from the water. The goslings and small seabirds had been startled by something and were racing toward the water, but they somehow weren’t old enough to be capable of swimming in the bay. (Huh?) I helped Lily, Marshall, and other people whose faces looked familiar but remained unidentifiable, pick up birds and just herd them away from the water.

drive

Part of a brant banding drive

However, as we were doing this, I was climbing down the stairs of a multi-level combination ‘Riverboat Discovery – schooner oceangoing vessel.’ (If I could draw a picture of it, I would. I’m curious if this is an actual type of boat.) I had just finished up a day cruise from one Hawaiian island to another, and I’d been surprised at how few people were on the beaches. The principal from my elementary-middle school was descending in front of me, but as we were going down, it seems like birds (from the Golden Gate Bridge area) were being passed up.

There you have it; that’s what I dreamed about last night. While I doubt there was any real point to that dream, I can tell you my subconscious was reflecting on consciousness.

  1. I watched an episode of How I Met Your Mother shortly before going to bed, so the characters were fresh in my mind.
  2. I worked with brant all summer, and I think about good memories from fieldwork frequently.
  3. In addition, a 2nd short-tailed albatross was recently taken by a fishing vessel in the Bering Sea. I’m hoping to work as an observer who reports such findings this winter. Perhaps birds, fish, and the Bering Sea have been on my mind more than they once were.
  4. Lately I’ve noticed boats are pretty fun, and I wouldn’t mind spending more time on various kinds.
  5. *Spoiler on travel plans* I’m going to Hawaii in 2 weeks, so I’ve done a fair bit of attempted planning. I’m still trying to decide where to go, so if you have input, please share!
  6. I’ll probably be back home this December, so maybe that’s why my principal Mrs. Palka was in my dream… maybe? That one’s a wild card.

With all the business I take care of while I’m sleeping, it’s no wonder I really am in no hurry to get up in the mornings.

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While walking from the Chevak School to the community center, I formulated a blog post. Why do I come up with these things at the most inopportune times? As usual, it may be time to rewind for a moment.

My stint of volunteering with the combined Utah State/Univ of Alaska Anchorage crew has come to an end, and my feelings are bittersweet, as usual. Tomorrow I’ll be in the  metropolis of Anchorage, which is something I’m trying my hardest not to think about too much. To say I loved my extended stay at Tutakoke would be to say the least. Honestly, staying was one of my best decisions of my recent life.

When I thought about leaving in late July with the rest of my crew, I felt somewhat sick. I didn’t know where to go, what to do, or how to stay happy. Staying at Tutakoke with the other crew enabled me to retain a happy state of mind for another month. To keep it brief – it is past 02:30 – the other crew adopted me wholeheartedly. Looking back, I can’t recall a date when I suddenly felt like a part of their crew vs. being part of the UNR crew. All of the sudden the USU/UAA camp was my camp.

I fully admit that I won’t be pursuing a masters or doctorate in vegetation, but now I have some experience working with plants. Regardless of what researchers were studying, I was able to continue living in a tent and waking up first to prepare coffee for the coffee addicts of camp, so my life was fulfilling.

At 12:05 on Friday afternoon, my tent roof came floating down to the ground, making me homeless. Tonight as I walked I realized that it’s only when my field seasons end that I declare I’m “homeless.” As long as a tent is standing and I have friends around, I have a home. Is that normal? Probably not.  But I really don’t care.

 

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The 31st season of studying black brant at the Tutakoke Field Camp is over, but the 1st season of studying black brant and vegetation {or making sure floods don’t take away gear} is only 3/4 over. Yes, I’m staying for the last month: the time of year when storms start to take shape and flooding may be a potential concern. The crew has been reading past articles, and it sounds like the worst storms are generally in October. Or September. Or once in a blue moon, in August. 🙂

Being burdened with the Insta-Tear Gene by which sad events or memories can trigger tears at a moment’s notice, you may think I’d be sobbing right now. We boated the vast majority of our camp back to Chevak yesterday, leaving only Thomas’ and my tents plus the sauna standing. Thomas and I saw Kelsey and Andy off at the airport this afternoon, so the Fellowship has broken. Fortunately the gravel strip of the Chevak airport isn’t as tear-inducing as the Mavora Lakes in New Zealand where that scene was filmed. Still, a tear snuck out before I gained control.

Since we’re waiting for the tide to rise before boating back out to the Tut, Thomas and I have hours of free time. I made some comment about how I should buy ice cream to drown my sorrow, and then Thomas made it happen by getting a half gallon. We sat on the floor in the Special Ed room – does Chevak know something about us? – while eating chocolate chip ice cream, so I’m okay for now.

The end of every season is the absolute worst because I have to say bye to my friends of the last 3+ months. It’s not like we’re all going to meet up every now and then, either. We all create inside jokes, get set in our routines, and worry about what’s next together; then we jet off to our separate ways. It really is a bummer, and that’s all I have to say about that.

 

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Kelsey says, “Hi Mom!” So does Thomas, I suppose. 🙂

Right now our crew is spending a night in Chevak thanks to Obama.

Apparently since we’ve been in the field there’s been some change made to Obamacare that applies to this bio tech position, and we have to decline the coverage that’s been offered to us for whatever nonsensical reason. We couldn’t do this over the phone; it required logging into some random account through UNR… so we were forced to come to town. Honestly, is it possible to disappear to avoid this rubbish in this day and age? If someone knows the secret, please enlighten me.

On the upside, we’ve

  • showered for the first time in almost 3 months
  • deleted hundreds of e-mails
  • watched “The Magic Schoolbus” and “Reading Rainbow” while lounging on beanbag chairs in the Special Ed room of the Chevak School where we’ll be sleeping tonight

On the downside, we still haven’t managed to fight our way through the proper passwords, user names, IDs, websites, etc. to actually accomplish that which we came here for. Typical, eh? Next time you can keep your shower opportunity, Mr. President. A sauna + a jump in the river work just fine and keep us from useless hassles associated with boating the 2+ hours to town.

Without a doubt this season has flown by much faster than last summer. As we knew going in, the timing of winter’s end and spring’s beginning were drastically different this year. Last summer the Tutakoke River broke on 4 June; this year I won the early season betting with my guess of a 30 April break-up. We had floating icebergs a full month earlier! (I still need to find what I won besides bragging rights.) Last year the first brant was spotted on 18 May; this year we saw the first brant hardly a week after our arrival around 22 April. Obviously we were on a completely different schedule this year.

Fortunately the 800+ nests that our crew found were not threatened by any floods like the one that destroyed over 50% of last year’s. No, this year the majority of nests made it to hatch, and we now have hundreds of little black brant broods running around. We’ll start our banding drives this weekend after Dr. Sedinger – the project’s PI – arrives with about 4 volunteers. For these drives we use human intimidation to push brant families in a certain direction across meadows, lakes, and mudflats toward the river’s edge, where we have boats waiting to scare the birds from swimming away. Then we set up pens to hold the birds before proceeding to do all sorts of horrible scientific things like sex them, weigh them, measure them, and place colored and metal bands on their legs. To be fair, they do poop on us…

Since I don’t want to leave the field, I’m trying to hop on a crew out of Utah State and the University of Alaska Anchorage that’s been out here all summer with us. They’re studying something along the lines of brant feeding ecology and how that impacts the vegetation and nutrients released………. and how it may be linked to climate change. Clearly I have a brilliant understanding of their project. But the people are nice, and if I can volunteer with them, I’ll stay in the field until late August, thereby delaying a return to civilization! So if everything works out, you won’t be hearing from me for awhile longer.

 

 

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