Rain pattered the windshield. I was parked at a rest stop: a gravel parking lot with an outhouse pushed up against the forest. Nobody had stopped or even driven by for a few hours. The highway that brought me to my survey location was also gravel, and there were no towns in the hundred mile radius that surrounded me.
I was hired on for the summer as a research aide for the Natural Resource Management Department at the University of Alaska -Fairbanks. We were partnered with BLM, trying to find out what activities recreationalists were using BLM land for, and where money should be allocated for future projects. It was my job to drive to these isolated locations where people try to get away from it all and give them a three page survey with questions about what areas of the highway they were using and what activities they would be participating in.
In the back of my car I had a tent and enough food and supplies for the week. I sat up front with a clipboard on my lap, looking at the completed surveys, drawing conclusions from the results. While my job was to merely collect the data I took more interest in figuring out what it meant. I took more interest in taking notes and observing than I did in surveying. While waiting for someone to stop at my location, I took notes on extrapolating factors like weather and traffic volume. While they weren’t able to be used in the survey, they gave me greater insight into what we as a research group were studying. For example, there is much more traffic on sunny days, implying that people are deterred by weather from recreating. Many of the recreationalists were driving motor homes, and truck drivers never stopped for the survey.
That summer I realized that I wanted a career in research. I had had no previous experience or interest in Natural Resource Management. Even now, I’m not interested in NRM. What made the experience so wonderful for me was the process of finding an unknown. We started out with a question and we were able to devise a procedure for finding the answer. The process of learning and discovering was what made me want to become a researcher.
I remember at the end of the summer thinking to myself, I could study anything, and I would be satisfied. By the end, my summer job was not a job. I didn’t care about being paid; the money wasn’t important. It was the experience that was so satisfying.
This was written recently by one of my research assistants, Nicole, from the summer of 2007. Our lives have all gone different directions since that summer. But, like Nicole, there are things that happened to me that summer that impressed my life and still bring a smile to my face. Despite some obstacles, Alaska was good to me.
Nicole could have been writing about many of our survey locations, but here's a shot along the Denali Highway, where I sent her regularly:
A couple of times since that summer, Nicole has sent me things she's written or thought about, and they always bring a smile to my face. How could I forget the Blonde Hoss?