The Start of an Adventure
When I found out that I would be spending my summer at Inian Islands Institute as an intern, I was not at all sure what to expect.
On one hand, I was extremely excited. As a kid, I had heard many stories from my Dad and uncles about Alaska – about how big and rugged and spectacular it was, and how it was a place so boundless and uncontainable that it stayed with everyone who visited for years afterward, or until they came back for good. Over the years, these conversations had inspired me to romanticize Alaska as a bastion of wilderness and self-reliance amidst the increasingly fast-paced, materialistic society around me. I also came to picture it as a sprawling expanse of forest, glacier, mountain, and tundra where people could go and find pieces of themselves they didn’t know existed, renewing their intimate bond to the natural world in the process. The prospect of having such an experience for myself was thrilling. It felt like a way to both enjoy all that I most love about my Puget Sound home in Washington and to break out of my comfort zone.
On the other hand, I was nervous. True, my experiences growing up mean that the sea, mountains, and forests have always been my home, and I love and long for these places more and more with each month in college. But I reminded myself that the Hobbit Hole was far and away to be the most remote and wild place where I had ever lived, and my mind periodically fogged with worries about how I would adjust to life on the Inian Islands. How would I handle the remoteness? What if I was more burden than help?
Before I knew it, I was gazing out the window of my seaplane to Elfin Cove (the landing site nearest the Inian Islands), awestruck. The deep channels of Icy Strait below were sapphire blue, reflecting the marbled hues of the clouds and the jagged shapes of snow-capped mountains. Island after island glided past, some with large snaking ridges and others with sharp peaks and steep slopes. Each one was covered shore to shore with thick spruce and hemlock forests that stretched for miles. By the time my plane began to descend, I was so overcome with gratitude for the new world I had entered that my anxiety was replaced with excitement for life in such a spectacular place.
In the weeks that followed, I settled into the new pace and ethic of life at the Hobbit Hole. As an intern, I worked on partnership building and science project-planning with an array of researchers who study everything from human-sea lion conflict and shellfish toxins to climate change-induced yellow cedar mortality and whale acoustics. While it was exciting to see the passion that these scientists have for their work and to observe their eagerness to help an up-and-coming field school, it was also extremely inspiring to hear from locals about their connections to the homestead and their hopes for education programs that could engage their communities and knowledge years into the future. I quickly realized how much the Hobbit Hole is valued by people who have visited, lived there, or who have family or historical ties to the island, and I felt extremely honored to develop my own connection to it.
At the same time, I gained great appreciation for the do-it-yourself mentality of life on the homestead as I helped with an array of tasks from garden to kitchen. From my first day on the island, I was humbled to learn how much I don’t know about the fundamental systems that support individual and community needs. I didn’t even know how to build a fire or hold a kayak paddle correctly at first, but I discovered that the more important thing was to keep an open mind, seek chances to learn, ask questions, and listen to everyone around me. Moreover, thinking constantly about where food, water, firewood, and power were coming from taught me the necessity and pride that come with the homesteading lifestyle. Especially after the constant hustle and grind of college life, I felt rejuvenated by my place in a community that strives toward self-sufficiency and humility.
On top of this, the natural beauty of the Inian Islands is inescapable, encompassing the peaceful calm and humbling power of the sea, as well as the vibrant quiet of the forests and subalpine meadows. Whether paddling through glassy jade waters or churning waves, I never tired of porpoises and humpback whales emerging, majestic glaciers and mountains towering in the distance, or of curious sea lions surfacing to huff at their visitors. I also never tired of the forest; from the tiniest mushroom to the largest trees and gurgling creek, intricacy and interconnectedness of life on every level are apparent. Almost every day, I reveled in hiking beneath the emerald canopy, climbing the slope to navigate salmonberry thickets and meadows of electric blue gentians and tufted cotton weed. At the top, I spent as long as possible staring out at the views of the surrounding islands and mountains. Silently reflecting on my own or sharing this experience with others, I could only drink it all in and let it settle into my soul.
The best part of my summer, however, was getting to know amazing people. Though the homestead is remote, the community that I found there made it anything but isolating, and I was lucky enough to witness the island’s special power to bring people together as three class groups and an array of visitors came and went. Throughout the summer, talented, passionate, creative people from all different backgrounds and interests learned from each other and enjoyed each other’s company and stories. Everything that separates people in “civilization” fell away, replaced by deep conversations and the sharing of life stories; nights singing and dancing around the campfire as the guitar was passed from person to person; and constant, mutual communion with nature. Though always shifting, the community was one of lifelong learners of all ages. I feel especially fortunate because I got to spend so much time with the rocks of this community – caretakers Colter, Lexie, and Jordan. They felt like family by the end of my time, and they always made me feel at home at the Hobbit Hole even as they continued to settle in themselves.
My nine weeks at the Hobbit Hole passed in the blink of an eye. Now that I am in the thick of school again, I am more aware than ever of how lucky I am to have spent my summer in such a special place, with such remarkable people. I miss it tremendously. Still, ever since my seaplane flight back to Juneau at the end of the summer, my sadness at leaving has been mingled with hope. As the verdant islands and cobalt reaches of Icy Strait passed once again below, waves of gratitude and promise washed over me in a pulse that continues today. Gratitude for the people and wilderness, and promise that I will come back and continue the adventure.