Growing up in Anchorage, I thought of myself as a city girl. I didn’t spend my weekends camping out off the road system, or on a boat catching salmon. I had no interest in mountain biking, hunting, or cross-country skiing. I preferred the indoors in every aspect of my life, especially as I am allergic to the usual gamut of grass, trees, and flowers. As I discussed in my Cross Country College Culture Shock post, I never felt like I fit in with the extreme outdoorsy-ness of most Alaskans. In high school, I felt out of place in this exceptionally active and adventurous state. People were always surprised that I wanted to major in environmental science with my self-proclaimed indoorsy status. I wanted to protect the environment while remaining peacefully indoors. This career choice made sense to me, as a lot of environmental work does not involve actually being out in the field.
I decided, rather abruptly, the spring semester of my junior year that I wanted to study abroad during the summer. Studying abroad with any science major can be a challenge, but especially so with environmental science because the required courses are very specific and not available at other universities. Luckily my academic advisor was very willing to work with me and apply almost any relevant abroad opportunity into an elective for the major. I knew about The School for Field Studies (SFS) because a couple of my friends had studied abroad with the organization. It was one of the few environmentally focused abroad opportunities that fit within my time frame and also had programs/locations that I found interesting.
“You’re sure you can handle studying abroad for a month at a remote field station in the jungle?” my aunt asked after I finished telling her a lengthy story about a jumping spider terrorizing me over the course of two days.
It was a valid concern, one that my family and friends expressed several times as I jumped headlong into applying for the fieldwork based program. I had never spent much time outdoors before, and certainly not in a foreign location with poisonous snakes. But I persisted, perhaps naively, full force towards the wild outdoors.
I think understanding how fieldwork is conducted is a keystone for doing any environmental work, especially for jobs that are farther downstream the conservation chain. I wanted to understand the fieldwork process, especially as it relates to experimental design and data collection, so I applied for the four-week course Applied Research Techniques and Strategies Towards Sustainability, in Atenas, Costa Rica. The course focused on how to use qualitative and quantitative analyses to examine how tourism, particularly the newly popular ecotourism, impacted the national park system.
Fifteen students were in this adventure together, people from all over the country, thrown into a new environment together, with everyone learning how to deal with various aspects of life. We were all interested in environmentalism, but that manifested in different ways, from sustainable development to botany to animal behavior. But overall we shared the same core commitment to conservation and working together to build a better, sustainable future. Since we were all newly exposed to so many different things at once, it gave us the space to learn together, to make mistakes, and not feel judged. Every day life was an exploration. Everyone brought their own unique perspectives and helped each other out. On the weekends we went out exploring, weather that was heading out to well-known surfing beaches or trying out different restaurants in town. Everything was an adventure because we had to figure out our transportation and talk to locals with our groups’ limited Spanish. Luckily, a decent amount of our group could speak Spanish in some capacity and we helped out those who couldn’t.
We were in a growth mindset so every weekend we wanted to put ourselves into uncomfortable experiences and try to navigate our way through a country that had different customs and spoke a different language. It’s easier to try new things when everyone is along for the same ride.
Tropical rainforests are obviously wildly different than the boreal forests I’m used to, so every day was an adventure in its own way. The Costa Rican jungle was bursting with life. Every square inch of space had something green growing, competing against its fellow neighbors. I had never seen such a density of plant life, so persistently thriving. Because everything was new, I didn’t automatically flinch away from the crazy large bugs. I looked closer to get a better look at every newfound creature. The professors fostered this approach – they took the time to explain the interesting adaptations of giant millipedes and let us hold them in our hands.
Every activity was active and wildlife was all around all the time. Hard, sweaty work. Everyone sweat all the time and we all wore a weird eclectic mix of clothes. I never felt self conscious about my body while in Atenas. Bug spray was my perfume and sweat was my makeup. I didn’t have a choice in doing it, so I decided I might as well be positive about it.
My parents and brother quickly realized that one of the great things about me going abroad – they got to visit after the program ended. My mom spent hours planning the most adventurous vacation we had ever taken. It was well worth the effort, we had an incredible time. We stayed an extra eight days and I was able to share so much of the knowledge I learned. My Spanish skills had significantly improved after four weeks, and I enjoyed guiding my family around and watching them experience a new country.
Every day of our vacation was jam-packed with new activities. We visited three different towns, each with its own set of escapades. Now that I was comfortable in the Costa Rican climate and fresh off the high of successfully completing an intensive fieldwork based program, I was able to throw myself into each new experience. We kayaked and snorkeled in the Pacific Ocean, went zip lining through mountainous treetops, took walking tours of different forested parks, saw so many new plants and animals, climbed a volcano in the pouring rain, interacted with monkeys, ate delicious fresh food and drank delicious freshly squeezed juices.
I never thought my status as an indoorsy person would change; I thought it was a permanent facet of my personality. It turns out that I just hadn’t found outdoor activities that suited me. But after my time at a field station in the jungles of Costa Rica, I’ve discovered the outdoors can be amazing, and that I enjoy being outside. Costa Rica taught me that outdoor activities could be gentle and nourishing, rather than intense and exhausting.
I’m doing my best to keep that growth mentality that I cultivated in Costa Rica, and apply it to my life in various ways, especially as it relates to outdoor adventures. I like long, solitary walks in the woods, trail running, and occasionally climbing mountains. I love breathing in cool, crisp air filled with the scent of soil. I like the quiet, contemplative woods. I use my time outdoors to reflect and relax.
Gratitude now drives my embrace of the outdoors. Experiencing life in Lancaster during college and Atenas during my time abroad has opened my eyes to how deeply amazing the Alaskan wilderness is. I was too close to the beauty before to really understand its uniqueness and delightfulness. But now I truly appreciate it. I’m so grateful for the dramatic, scenic views that Anchorage offers. I’m grateful that there’s always a cool, refreshing breeze. I’m definitely grateful that there are no snakes or jumping spiders. I’m grateful that I can sit still in the woods and hear everything come to life around me. All of these reasons led me to spending more and more time in the mountains this past summer. There’s no better time to reflect than alone in the serene, still woods with birdsong ringing in your ears.
This summer, perhaps my last summer in Anchorage for a while, I look forward to being as Alaskan adventurous as possible. I want to do it all. I want to kayak in glacier-fed lakes, hike every mountain, camp out in my car, drive eight hours north to Denali National Park, experience the midnight sun, and dive into the natural geothermal hot springs off Chena River. I want to make the most of my remaining time here. Few places have the abundance of nature like Alaska, and I want to experience it all before I leave.
And luckily for you, dear reader, you’ll be coming along for the adventure!