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Erie-ly Different: Life changing experiences on the US brig Niagara

October 24, 2016

It began as all good things do: before sunrise.

Seventeen bleary eyed students met up with our three science faculty members in a Seaport parking lot, dragging our new LL Bean duffle bags behind us. We rode a coach bus in virtual silence to Logan airport. There was some excited chatter from those who had never been to Boston before, an occasional snore from one of the students sprawled out in the back row of seats, and the air was thick with anticipation (or stale bus farts, I’m not sure which). We bustled through airport security, I was eager to caffeinate before getting on the plane, and then after a short bit of quality airport time – brought on by the rain – we boarded. By the time we had arrived in Buffalo, New York and boarded another coach bus, (the last step in our travels to Erie, Pennsylvania), the majority of us were awake and eagerly looking out of our windows. Then, in the distance, we saw two masts poking above rooftops. We had arrived at the U.S. Brig Niagara.

While the top-notch faculty, location at Mystic Seaport, and opportunities to do groundbreaking independent research are all excellent reasons to attend Williams-Mystic, perhaps the coolest part of the program is the field seminars. The first of our seminars this semester took us on the glorious recreation of the U.S. Brig Niagara that fought in the battle of Lake Erie, which – for those of you who are not up on your War of 1812 history – was a rather decisive victory for America and granted the nation control of the Great Lakes. Also, for those not in the know about what defines a brig: a brig is a two masted, square-rigged vessel. Now that we’ve got that out of the way we can really dig into the meat of this trip.

We spent the first day on shore, eating. Actually, every day we were offshore we ate a lot too. I am happy to say that this program seems to value food almost as much as I do. Good stuff. We arrived in Erie, stuffed our faces, and then got oriented with the boat that would be our home for the next six days.

We slept on board that night. As students we were considered trainees and slept in the birth deck which is towards the middle of the vessel. We slept in hammocks rather than bunks. Now I had heard from my friend, an alum of the program, that these hammocks were the greatest thing ever. And while I did enjoy being rocked to sleep in what I can really only describe conveniently as a large canvas sack, it was not the best sleep of my life. Sorry, Alyssa (F’14).

As trainees, we were both students in the Williams-Mystic Program and members of the crew. I include our allegiance to our academic program, because it meant that we did not fully follow the same routine as the rest of the crew. Unlike the professional crew, we had class every day and did science during our watches while also getting trained in the more traditional watch-related duties. These tasks included standing on lookout, manning the helm, sail handling, and performing brig checks. We were divided into port and starboard watches and then within those watches we were also separated into divisions, so I was a proud member of 4th division, port watch. In a lot of talks we give at Mystic Seaport and in maritime literature, it is often mentioned that if two friends signed on board a vessel together and were put in separate watches they might never really see each other. I happen to be doing this program with my best friend, Grace (Brown ’18) and while we shared a few meals together, her position in 3rd division, starboard watch meant that I felt like I had not really seen her the entire trip. However, while I am sure the experience would have been great with Grace in my watch, this trip certainly leant itself to some pretty intense bonding between all members of the program, specifically with those in our divisions.

We did so many truly awesome things on the Niagara that I cannot recount them all here and do my other work, so instead I am just going to pick out a few moments that I think capture the essence of the voyage and that I know I will never forget.

Down-Rigging

Our class happened to be the Niagara’s last voyage for the season, which meant that to save on time, the crew started to down-rig her before and during our sail. When we arrived in Erie they had already unbent the mainsail, and then while we were sailing we actually got to help unbend the foresail. What this meant was that while we were slowly slipping across Lake Erie, I got to be up aloft helping them lower one of the largest sails on the vessel. I found this to be particularly cool because I had just spent the week before down-rigging on the Charles W. Morgan at the Seaport. However, instead of being tied to a wharf in an estuary, I was now sailing on the Great Lakes. Yay for practical application!

The Storm

As is the case with any good sea going narrative, we did encounter a storm. It was not quite a Moby-Dick level typhoon – Saint Elmo’s fire did not make an appearance – but it was quite exciting. Around dinnertime the sky began to darken and the ship started to jump from wave to wave. Many of us were sitting in the bow singing sea music, like nerds, and the intense movement of the vessel started to take its toll. Somewhere in the night three students performed what is fondly being referred to as the “throw up trifecta.” Yet I remember the storm as the most exciting part of the trip.

My division had the 0200 to 0500 watch, but we were woken up at 0045 and told to be on deck by 0100 for sail handling. Then my division, 4, and the division already on duty, 3, sailed the vessel to anchor. I don’t really know what we even did. It was pitch black and windy. I had lost one of my contacts on the sole of the ship when I was putting on my foul weather gear, so everything was pretty blurry too. Waves crashed over the bow, hitting us in the face with cold lake water. As trainees we (maybe it was just me) did not really know what to do, but we went where the crew told us to and threw our weight on lines that were too wet to want to move. We passed a strip of blinding white lights that made the shore seem impossibly close. In the morning, we were shown the route we had taken, and indeed the land had been right there.

When we anchored the winds calmed slightly, but they were still whistling in the rigging. Division 3 went below to their bunks, their watch now over. My division stayed on deck and began to furl the sails – protecting them from the storm. I did things at 0200 that I probably would struggle to do during normal hours of the day. I got to climb out on to the bowsprit and furl the fore topmast staysail. I got to go aloft on the main and the fore and furl topsails, and I got to straddle cranelines while attempting to furl the main topmast staysail while it blew in my face. It was awesome. Then the whole division sat in the bow and spent the last two hours of our watch telling jokes and eating banana chocolate chip muffins. When I climbed into my hammock a few minutes after 0500, I felt cold and a little dead, but I also had the distinct feeling that I had just lived a scene from a famous work of literature and could now hangout with Ishmael, Captain Aubrey and Willie Keith.

Swim Call

There are no showers on the Niagara. There are sinks, wipes, deodorant, and – if you’re lucky – a firehose that brings lake water on board. I am a pretty big fan of personal hygiene. I am not squeamish, but I shower daily and change my clothes with a fair amount of regularity. This however, was not an option while offshore, and I have to say, I am a little disgusted with how easily I adjusted to wearing the same pair of socks for four days (I wrote socks but I meant underwear). Maybe not showering would have been fine if we were not sweating, battling flies, and rubbing sediment on our hands and faces because science is exciting. This is all to say that when the opportunity to go swimming arose, my classmates and I were pretty dang excited.

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Midway through the week, the captain ordered a swim call and permitted us to jump off the vessel and swim while the ship continued to sail along slowly. He warned us – half jokingly – that if the wind picked up we might need to hustle back to the ship.

This was by far the most aesthetically magnificent part of the trip. Having just read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner before we left, I kept thinking about lines from the poem when looking out at the scene in front of me. However, I recalled the lines in a sort of romantic and beautiful kind of way and less in an “I shot an albatross and now I am doomed” way. On every side of the vessel, there was water stretching out as far as the eye could see, and mind you this was before I lost my contacts. The sun was beginning to set and the sky blushed a pale pink that appeared to be melting into the lake below, making the horizon almost indistinguishable. We scrambled awkwardly across the sprityard and jumped into the sunset trusting that the water, some twelve feet below, would catch us.

We floated on our backs, staring up at a square-rigged vessel that, as suggested in Coleridge’s poem, seemed painted against the sky and water. Then as the ship sailed and the sun set, we climbed up the head rig, out of the water, and jumped in again.

Science

In addition to these experiences that I had sailing, I think it is important to note that there was also an academic side to this experience. During our watches we sampled nitrate and phosphate levels in the lake and recorded the temperature and chlorophyll levels. We also spent five minutes a watch recording the number of birds we saw. We learned that birds hate science, because they weirdly all disappeared every time the birdwatching five minutes began. With a partner, we presented posters at the end of the week that analyzed the scientific data we collected on the voyage. My partner, Shanti (Williams ’19), and I presented on the different types of sediments found in the three basins of Lake Erie, and we titled our poster “Erie-ly Different” because we are hilarious. Please note that this is also the hilarious title of this post.

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I had heard that the offshore seminar would bring us closer together. I had heard that it would change my life. I was warned that I would give up on cleanliness, that my sleep schedule would be all sorts of weird, and that there would be spiders in the rig. All of these things proved to be true, and despite my smell and the exhaustion, I think it is safe to say that this was one of the more incredible and intense experiences of my life. Also I think I kind of miss finding spiders in my hair.

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Making Friends (and also Cake)

October 5, 2016

Weird things happened with my email account this past week and so there is a delay in my posts. While I am currently living it up in Week 3 of the program I am going to flashback to the events of last week.

As I mentioned in my last post, I live in Albion House along with three other girls. There is Meghan (Smith ’18), Meaghan (UCONN ’19), and Meagan (Williams ’19). Totally kidding. Meagan is actually named Kristen, but she really is a sophomore at Williams College. They are great. Maybe I will feel differently about them in a week or two but so far I am happy to be in such a friendly and fairly clean house. To be fully honest, we do need to vacuum again. Four girls. Long hair. You get the picture.

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Celeste and her horse, Cupcake (2016); Meaghan Rondeau; Crayon on paper

 

 

For those of you reading this who are not alums, students, faculty, or staff, and therefore might not know how the housing works for the program, I will explain. The students are divided into four or five houses that are owned by the Seaport. All the houses are together so we can walk to and from one another’s house with ease. We shop for groceries with our houses and in Albion we eat together most nights. Albion has also taken to coloring in pictures of Disney princesses after dinner. We assume that the students who were here last semester left these coloring pages behind. Our goal is to diversify Disney. The drawings are questionable, but the process has definitely bonded us.

 

 

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Barbara leaving her Bat Mitzah (2016); Hannah Thomas; Crayon on paper

Every semester the students take four academic classes which are Maritime Literature, Marine Policy and Law, Maritime History, and then a science course. I am in Oceanography with about half of the students in the program while the other half is in Marine Ecology. In addition to the academic classes we also study a skill at the Seaport, mine is blacksmithing in the Ship Smith Shop. Additionally students are given the opportunity to work while in the program so I am working as the rigging loft assistant in the shipyard, while continuing to work my normal job in the interpretation department. Several students work on grounds, but others work as research assistants for professor or work in the offices. Some even write blog posts about the program.

So far all of the classes are pretty cool. I find Oceanography to be incredibly daunting as I am not much of a science student. My preferred science is political. Perhaps my reservations are rooted in the fact that my mother was my AP chemistry teacher in high school, and there were some road bumps.  That being said, all of the professors here are ridiculously nice and involved and so it is hard to dislike any subject. Not only do they teach our classes but they come with us on our field seminars and always seem to be happy to talk. Plus, at Williams-Mystic we get to do our own research projects, sail on a tall ship, and explore the local (and not local) history. I am trying not to geek out, but it is hard for me.

While I am not willing to say that I have a favorite class, I am comfortable admitting that my favorite tradition in the classroom takes place in Marine Policy and Law where, in an effort to break up the three hour seminar on Friday morning, we break at 10:30 for snack. Each week a house is assigned the task of bringing in a snack that is both delicious and relevant, meaning that we have to try to represent the cases we are discussing in that class, in food form. The assignments run alphabetically which means that my housemates and I were first. Our readings focused on public and private interests in coastal lands and waters. Naturally, we decided to make a sheet cake with a graham cracker house and a beach, clearly showing how private land extends to the high water mark. It was delicious. I am biased, but also, c’mon. Cake is cake.

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Cake aside, all of the classes have been pretty interesting. I say “pretty” because I am trying to have a laissez-faire vibe and not come across as a nerd who really likes going to class. On the first day of our literature class we got to listen to a live performance of sea music. In each history class we meet on Seaport grounds first and listen to a student lead presentation on a museum artifact. And of course we are exploring the local coastline in our science labs. Even in the classes where snack is not mandatory (and awesome), we are doing truly exciting things.

Speaking of exciting, F’16 completed a Williams-Mystic first this past weekend. A group of four students accompanied the ecology professor and the former director of the program to Long Island. The purpose of their journey was to study the recent mussel die-off. I was working so I missed this adventure, but two of my housemates, Meaghan and Meghan, went and had a wonderful time. They got lost, but they also got to ride on the ferry boats (Meaghan really likes ferries (and fairies)) and Mike, the ecology professor, bought breakfast and lunch. All good things. Jokes aside, my housemates said that it was a very interesting experience and ultimately a lot of fun.

Several of us definitely also watched Pirates of the Caribbean this weekend because we care about maritime history and inaccurate portrayals of pirates. Piratical misrepresentations aside, this week’s movie quote/piece of inspiration comes from that film because it is great, and because I think it applies to college students… sort of:

“One word, love: curiosity. You long for freedom. You long to do what you want to do because you want it. To act on selfish impulse. You want to see what it’s like. One day you won’t be able to resist.” – Jack Sparrow

All in all we are off to a great start, or at least that’s what Hannah of Week 2 thought. DUN DUN DUN!!!!

Fall’16 begins!

September 8, 2016

Hi all! Mauro, Assistant Director of Admissions, here with a quick introduction: the Fall 2016 semester began on August 22nd, with our newest crew of 17 students coming from 12 different colleges and universities. Students very quickly “learned the ropes” (or “lines,” rather) of the WM way of life since day 2 of their semester started with boarding the Mystic Whaler for a short 2.5 day Block Island Sound excursion, which our newest blogger Hannah Thomas writes about below. Everyone welcome Hannah and let’s ready ourselves for another exciting semester full of adventures told from her point of view–take it away, Hannah!

Week 1

There is a certain level of anxiety and excitement that comes with the start of every semester. Freshman year the prospect of college was thrilling, and I remember that while the thought of moving nine hours away and meeting new people made me a little sweaty, the excitement of starting what many refer to as the best years of their lives won out.

After a year of transferring colleges, crippling anxiety and the fear inducing realization that the best years of my life might be further down the road, entering my sophomore year intimidated me. Much like my freshman year, it left a lot to be desired. Classes were interesting yet not as challenging as people promised they would be, my social life on campus was non-existent, and my only respite was the weekends when I got to work at Mystic Seaport which I cornily refer to as my “Happy Place.”

Having worked at the Seaport for three years I associate the tall ships and smell of codfish with physical activity and good people. I am my happiest and best self at the Seaport. Not only is the museum home to the last surviving wooden whaleship (huzzah!), but it also is home to perhaps the most concentrated group of hardworking, intelligent, and kind people I’ve ever encountered. Suffice to say, I love it, and I want to spend all of my time there. I am a huge nerd.

Rather than allowing me to worry away the summer thinking about another year at the same old institution, I was encouraged by my coworkers and mother to apply to Williams-Mystic so that I could go to school, have incredible life experiences, and be happy all at the same time. For the first time in years, the start of a semester brought with it a sense of hope and excitement that I thought I had lost somewhere during my freshman year.

Orientation began like many do. We, the students, spent the first day moving into our assigned houses. I was fortunate enough to be placed in Albion which is perhaps the cleanest and definitely the greenest (in color) of the houses. I have a double and I still have more room than I do in my single at my home institution. Granted there is variety between houses, but honestly I think most people are pretty content with the living situation. I digress. After move-in we congregated on Seaport grounds for a brief introduction to the program and faculty and then we were fed – which obviously was great.

Following a fairly typical, albeit, enjoyable first dinner as a group, we returned to our houses to prepare for the next day’s far more unusual orientation activity. Maybe I have been oriented to schools one too many times, but the icebreakers, course selections, and awkward game nights have grown old. Fortunately for me, by day two we had set sail on the Mystic Whaler and were headed for Block Island. A quick disclaimer: the Mystic Whaler is not from Mystic, nor is it a whaleship, but it is still cool and was a lot of fun to sail on. As I mentioned previously, I work at Mystic Seaport. I am fairly familiar with sailboats and quite familiar with the area, but that did not mean that the Whaler was in anyway boring or unsatisfying. It was cool. Really cool. Again, this may sound nerdy, but keep in mind, there were no icebreakers. There was just a boat, a crew, our delightful faculty, and a group of seventeen college students who turned out to be far less nerdy than I had been picturing.

I do not want to assume things, but I feel like it is safe to say that an orientation that involves sailing on a schooner and throwing pancakes at the men who work the Mystic drawbridge is unique to Williams-Mystic. Unique, quirky, and fun. Somewhere along the line, and I am sorry that I do not remember the specifics, the crew of the Whaler made it their goal to serve the bridge controller breakfast every time they went by. I think he used to come over for breakfast when he was not working, or something like that. Regardless of the reasoning, the tradition has held fast, and as we motored down the river – sailing came later, fear not – seventeen bright students put their minds to the age old question of how to best throw a pancake at a drawbridge. Several of us opted for the Frisbee method, and while we tried our hardest, I think only one pancake, thrown by the captain himself, landed in the huge net that the bridge controller held out the window. Perhaps a lesson for this man to eat breakfast before he goes to work, rather than relying on the goodwill of a local schooner and her crew. It should be noted here that I am not athletic and therefore was not even close to getting my pancake in the net, but nobody made fun of me, which left me feeling like this group of people might be all right.

For two days, we sailed around Block Island Sound. We learned how to tack the boat which was very cool and far simpler than anything I have encountered on the square-rig vessels I am more familiar with (brag). While a lot of the focus was on sailing the Whaler, we also got an introduction to some of the material and people we would be working with. I could go into detail and probably say something science-y embarrassingly incorrectly, but instead I will just say that learning about the environmental issues in a body of water or region seem a lot more relevant when you are actually sailing on said body of water instead of when simply sitting in a classroom.

Many of us opted to sleep on deck at night, and some of us were even foolish enough to sleep on deck both nights. I say foolish not because it was really bad-it was just so cold. I usually pride myself on my preparedness but I do not think I could have been fully comfortable up on deck at night unless I had some twenty odd blankets and fleece footie pajamas. However, the romanticism of sleeping under the stars and staring up at masts won out for me – and many others – and so we slept on deck. And while I shivered under three thick wool blankets, it was a pretty memorable experience and definitely beat sleeping in a dorm room with cockroaches (which is what I have grown accustomed to).

After two full days of sailing we returned to our lovely campus, Mystic Seaport, and began to prepare more seriously for the semester ahead. Back at home we had communal living to explore, classes to start, and jobs and skills to select: all things I will happily cover in the days and weeks to come. In the meantime I have Oceanography homework to do and a Marine Policy snack to prepare. However, I would like to end each post with a final piece of wisdom from a movie about the sea.  When someone asks where you are sailing to, respond à la Jim Hawkins in the 1996 hit movie “Muppet Treasure Island,” and simply say “Wherever the wind may take us!” I am not saying this happened on the Mystic Whaler, but dang, wouldn’t it have been cool if it had?

Fantastic & Scholastic

May 19, 2016

Dear Prospective Student,

We have but two days left in the Williams-Mystic Spring 2016 semester. I hope that you have enjoyed reading about all our adventures at sea, on the road and in the kitchen.

Seeing the previous entries and vibrant photos, one could get the notion that Williams-Mystic is all about traveling and eating. I feel it incumbent upon me to emphasize that while those two activities do play a beautiful and vital role in the semester, there is something else Williams-Mystic students do a fair bit of…

We study! Earlier on the blog, I mentioned writing the research proposals and designing final projects… Well, last week was the culmination of our research efforts: in total, I submitted around 64 pages. (Please don’t let that number intimidate you; we’ve been working on those papers for several weeks, so last week was mostly putting on the finishing touches!). Throughout the semester, professors encourage (and often require) students to submit proposals, drafts and check-ins along the way to ensure that these research projects are a thoughtful and fruitful endeavor.

In addition to writing the research papers, we take exams (of the “show-what-you-know” variety, not the “gotcha!” kind). I emerged this morning from the last exam with the nerdiest of ailments: a sore and cramped hand. From all the typing and gripping my pencil too tight, my right hand was strained from the effort. I think I will soon recover fully, though it might require another visit to Drawbridge ice cream before the week is out.

The Williams-Mystic semester is interdisciplinary, fun, full…and rigorous. The professors expect a lot of students. The readings, assignments, in-class exercises and final papers add up to a significant amount of engaging and meaningful work. When I was looking into study away programs, I was anxious about leaving the small classes sizes, stimulating discussions and challenging workload of my liberal arts college for the larger classes and sometimes impersonal academic experience of some international institutions. Williams-Mystic offers a unique field component, attentive faculty and rigorous academics.

Here it is fresh—the unsolicited advice you will ignore until you are busy typing and reading and feeling stressed (but never overwhelmed) in the last weeks of the semester. The following may be my first attempt at the internet classic “listicle,” provided in no particular order:

  1. Meet early and often with your professors about drafts. They are eager and equipped to provide thoughtful feedback at any stage.
  2. Start your policy interviews early…start contacting a variety of potential stakeholders several weeks before the deadline.
  3. Same goes for science research…collect more data than you think you will need.
  4. Thank your professors and classmates for their support and patience along the way.
  5. Take time to bake cookies. Johnston house made sure to have homemade dough on hand for a quick snack in the evening to fuel all the work…
  6. Finish your independent book for Literature of the Sea well before the paper deadline so that you have plenty of time to dive into analysis.
  7. Leave time to enjoy the Seaport. It’s a real treat in the Spring semester to watch the blossoming of trees and the bustling of visitors.
  8. Coordinate your history research with the available hours at the Collections and Research Center. The research support staff are incredibly knowledgeable and can help you identify the resources you need. They generously make available special hours for W-M students, but plan ahead so you can accumulate all those trusty primary sources.
  9. Don’t forget to do laundry. Some people (not me, of course) forget until they have but one pair of clean underwear. Again, this never happened to me…
  10. Enjoy the company of your peers and the staff and faculty.
  11. Organize notes and handouts throughout the semester so that reviewing for exams is not a game of hide and seek.
  12. Visit Drawbridge Ice Cream (no, they are not paying me to plug them in the blog, but I figure if I do it enough, they might just start)

 

Yours truly,
An exhausted and preemptively nostalgic Spring ‘16 student

What’s Cookin’, Good Lookin’?

April 29, 2016

One of the integral components of the Williams-Mystic semester is cooperative living. Students live, laugh and COOK with peers. The admissions team arranges students into houses based on a comprehensive survey, which addresses dietary preferences, sleep patterns and personalities. I live in an all vegetarian house and relish to the opportunity to expand my cooking repertoire.

Each house comes with a fully equipped kitchen with all necessary appliances, dishes, silverware and maybe even some spices. If you can’t find the baking pan with the right dimensions, ask another house!

Every week, each house receives a grocery stipend. Then we all make the pilgrimage to the local store for the weekly shop. Each house has a different strategy: some opting for the divide & conquer while others move methodically through the aisles. Some houses go armed with lists, while others take a more organic approach.

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At the check-out. This is a weekly haul for Johnston House (the vegetarians)…If you have time, play a quick game of “I Spy.” Can you spot the 3 bunches of bananas, 2 cauliflower, 3 bags of spinach…?

 

Please peruse the gallery of food photos below to get a sense of what’s cooking at Williams-Mystic in a typical week.

For the parents and guardians at home who may be worried that their charges are not getting enough nutritious food, I hope that these photos dispel any anxiety.

For prospective students, you may well find the food you end up eating during your Williams-Mystic semester is better than what’s being served in your cafeteria!

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Erica (Williams ’18) made her world famous enchilada casserole and a delicious kale salad (with avocado, cucumber, granny smith apple, slivered almonds topped with an olive oil & oregano dressing)

 

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Mallory House looks eager for their feast of Italian flank steak pinwheels with garlic, feta, spinach and mozzarella lovingly prepared by Kenny and baked asparagus and zucchini by Thomas.

 

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Marlo (Smith ’17) prepared a delightful spread of salmon, asparagus and potatoes. Yum!

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Albion House shared this photo documenting their very first house dinner….”Taco Tuesday” has since become a tradition!

 

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Sarah (Middlebury ’17) hard at work in the kitchen preparing her scrumptious noodleless lasagna. As she tends to a flavorful tomato sauce, a mosaic of squash and zucchini just waits become part of the dish!

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Thomas (San Francisco State ’15) cooking up something delectable!

 

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Sophie and Virginia created quite a spread refreshments for “Moby on the Morgan.” The menu included: Cheesy pesto pull-apart bread, angel food cake, sliced strawberries…and of course a watermelon carved like a whale!

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Brinner! Rachel (Wesleyan ’17) prepared homemade buttermilk pancakes and hash-browns, sizzled some fake bacon and sliced strawberries & bananas for this meal. #nofilter

 

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Stewpendous!

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Grillmaster Kenny (SUNY-Maritime).

 

The votes are in: the Williams-Mystic cooperative living and dining arrangement is a recipe for success!

 

EnGULFed in Learning: Louisiana Field Seminar

April 23, 2016

Apologies to my loyal following of readers, all seven of you, for the great delay in posting this. The second half of the semester certainly picks up! Since our return, my peers and I been have been busy hunched over the tables in the Collections Research Center analyzing primary sources for our history papers, tending science projects, calling experts for their insights as we write marine policy research papers and finishing the epic Moby Dick.  But enough apologies and excuses…to the adventure!

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We landed in New Orleans and made haste toward the French Quarter for a walking tour to learn about the history and literary legacy that saturates every door and corner. We were set free for lunch, which for most included beignets. After strolling through the pulsing city center, we boarded the Natchez, New Orleans’ last true steamboat, for a ride on the Mississippi. The Big Muddy was as big and muddy as advertised. Floating on the mighty river and being able to look down on the roofs of homes below the river level revealed the true need for levees.

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Full steam ahead to the Natchez!

We visited the Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum, which integrates personal narratives from the storm alongside stirring images and information to help convey the profoundly devastating impacts of this disaster and its legacy in New Orleans and the nation. Understanding damage wrought by Katrina is essential moving forward to adequately prepare for future disasters to ensure a swift and just response.

From there, we rolled toward the Acme Oyster House. It was a rather loud affair and many of among us tried their hand slurping down oysters. We vegetarians relished in the salad, side options and large ice-cream sundaes.

The next day found us at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (lovingly known as LUMCON) in Cochodrie. After a short orientation, we donned our sacrificial clothing and launched kayaks and canoes into the marsh. As we floated near the docks, Marlo and Lizzie sensed something was amiss with their brand new kayak. After a chorus of admonishment to just keep going, it became clear that they indeed were headed for the silty bottom. Expertly, they maneuvered the sinking vessel toward the dock and scrambled to safety. Removing the waterlogged kayak revealed a large crack in the side. Our brave survivors stood on the dock pumping their fists shouting “Not today, Gulf, not today!” (Not sure if that last sentence is really how it went down…but please imagine something dramatic if you will).

After Marlo and Lizzie were assigned an intact kayak, we all set out for the salt marsh for a morning of science and squelching through the mud. This was truly a rubber boots on the ground operation. Mike led a brief snail counting activity. the core of our visit to the marsh was to take a sediment sample. Using a massive tube apparatus assembled from home depot parts, ahem I mean a very serious piece of equipment, we drilled into the sediment. Students showed muscle lowering and lifting the tube through thirty feet of sediment.

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Nicola (CUNY-Hunter ’16) and her trusty boot observe from a safe distance.

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We’ve got to hand it to Chelsea (URI ’17) for her hard work on the core!

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Together, we “core”dinate the movement of the core. Back at LUMCON, we sawed it in half and examined the layers!

Back at LUMCOM, we cut open the core to read the layers. In engaging with the core, we discussed the geological role of the Mississippi. The Mississippi River has been delivering sediment to the Southern Gulf for thousands of years, spreading it in “lobes.” The location of delivery shifts slowly over time and the River delivers its sediment elsewhere. Devastating flood events like the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 also inspired the hardening of the river, which means that it can no longer deliver its fertile sediment to the regions that once relied on that input. Louisiana is truly the epicenter for climate change, losing land a frightening rate due the compounding factors of land subsidence and sea level rise.

Following a delicious gumbo lunch, we traveled down the road to speak with an oyster business owner. As she spoke about the ins and outs of running a business, we saw several boats dock and unload tremendous piles of oysters.

We spent the evening twirling and twisting and getting dizzy at the Jolly Inn. We came away a little breathless from hours of dancing to the sounds of the Couche Couche band. I’ll let the blurred photos speak for themselves:

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Jolly indeed! The Jolly Inn was declared the “official dancehall of Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program!”

In spite of the night of dancing, we all managed to rise early the next morning to set out for our visit to Grand Isle. On the long drive, we looked over the submerged roads leading to Port Fourchon, an oil hub responsible for receiving a considerable percentage of the nation’s oil. Conversations about oil in Southern Louisiana carry a cruel irony. Many lives and local economies are intimately tied to oil drilling and the associated industries, yet the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to the rising seas that are gnawing at the Gulf Coast, submerging a football field of Louisiana’s land every hour. How to reconcile the importance of oil in the economy and the environmental impacts remains a difficult question that this field seminar encourages us to ruminate upon. As students of the ocean and future educators, scientists, artists, lawyers and citizens, we must know and understand where our energy comes from and the impacts that our consumption has on coastal communities.

After seeing the industrial, austere Port Fouchon, we traveled through low-lying marsh toward Grand Isle. Chris Hernandez, a town official and friend of the program, met us to give us an intimate orientation on this barrier island which is truly on the front lines of storms, rising sea level and oil spills. Since being ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Grand Isle has rebuilt and rebounded. Mr. Hernandez presented a passionate plea that Grand Isle continue to receive federal and state funding to stave off the waves. It was a sobering moment to see the tangible and dramatic impacts of coastal erosion as we stood above a recently constructed beach access point that led into the sea,. Mr. Hernandez welcomed us into his home, more specifically his “Man Cave,” to meet his delightful family for a lunch celebration. Many of us walked away sincerely impressed by the resiliency of the community and touched by the generosity of our host. On the macro-scale, many us are conflicted by the future of developed barrier islands. Katy, our marine policy professor, encouraged us to think critically about the social and policy considerations in this case, and we have continued to ponder these important issues back in Mystic.

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Chris Hernandez, a Grand Isle town official, opened his home to Williams-Mystic

We could not leave Grand Isle without a visit to the beach to hear about the history and marine biology of the region, and, of course, the canonical literary work of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. To be in a place and read a work written a century before about that location is a unique opportunity. Of course, the faculty could not lecture without letting us explore the shore.

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Marlo, Jessica, Lizzie & Thomas shore look like they’re having fun!

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Cloey (College of New Rochelle ’16), Lizzie (Millersville ’18) and Amelia (Williams ’17) were just trying to saw hello!

 

In the evening, it was a crawfish extravaganza:

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Examining the feast…

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And so it begins…

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Thomas (San Francisco State ’15) and his crawfish

We began our final morning with one of ZAM’s world famous Swamp Tours. Bayou’ve got to see this to believe it. We soon said later, alligator (yes, we saw several alligators!) to Zam’s and were on our way.

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Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to hear from the environmental justice speaker planned for the afternoon because of inclement weather. Williams-Mystic Spring 16 has been eager to continue the conversation and engage with issues of environmental justice in Southern Louisiana. Field seminars offer an opportunity to engage with different perspectives and new environments, and it is inspiring to see my peers so invested in enhancing the experience suggestions about how to further integrate issues of issues of race, class and gender into the curriculum.

Our short visit to Louisiana was brimming with Mississippi River mud, crawfish, discussion about climate change and exposure to new ideas. I am writing this during “Climate Week” at the Mystic campus, so, of course, the Gulf Coast field seminar is weighing heavily on our minds.

 

We may be done with the field seminars, but please check in soon for updates about life here in Mystic.

West Coast…Best Coast?

March 24, 2016

Pacific Northwest Field Seminar Part 2 

The Oregon leg of the Pacific Northwest adventure was brimming with new adventures, mini lectures, bonding time in the vans and even more awe.

One of the first stops on what could possibly be described as the world’s best road trip was Bonneville Dam, completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1937 under the direction of Franklin Roosevelt. The Bonneville Dam is an exemplary site for learning about the complexities of environmental and energy issues. Bonneville provides hydroelectric to hundreds of thousands of homes and has been working to improve their salmon runs and corridors so as to better assist fish migration. Notably, dams can profoundly impact ecosystems and have the potential to affect salmon migration. In our discussion of Bonneville following our tour guide’s enthusiastic speech regarding the dam, the Williams-Mystic instructors guided us to think critically about all facets of the issue.

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What did the salmon say when she ran into a brick wall? Dam!

 

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Jessica (Maine Maritime ’16) and Chelsea (URI ’17) wait expectantly….

 

After pausing at the salmon hatchery and the breathtaking Multnomah Falls, we arrived at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria. Here we learned about the tempestuous Columbia Bar where the mighty Columbia River (some 1,200 miles long) collides dramatically with the Pacific…the sight has been nicknamed “the graveyard of the Pacific” for to its deep history of pulling ships under. Today the Coast Guard hires only the most qualified bar and river pilots to guide vessels across the treacherous bar and through the thin channel. These unsung experts make possible safe navigation and the transport of goods inland on the River. At night, we slept aboard a the decommissioned Columbia lightship, which had been used for decades to mark the bar. 

On the way to our next destination the next morning, we paused at Cannon Beach. Here I will let a photo illustrate the wind because my words would fail to capture the force:

In between the fascinating site visits and accompanying lectures, there was a considerable amount of transit time. “Van time,” like “ship time” takes on a different quality. Hours in the van are prime for learning more about each other and the places we are visiting or passing through. While a few of my peers could be found napping, I refused to close my eyes lest I miss a moment of the glorious scenery rolling by: deep green forests of firs and ferns and dramatic cliffs with white waves crashing and foaming at the base: the Pacific Northwest is like a whole other world. Truly, everything just seems more epic on the West Coast!

We met up with Susan Schnurr (F’06), a PhD student at Oregon State University, who explained the tsunami planning initiatives in Pacific coastal communities. After her presentation, we had a chance to try the tsunami evacuation route by following the signs to high ground. Unfortunately, some in our group were not fast enough to beat the terrifying rush of water that was (hypothetically) nipping at our heels… After this high-octane exercise, we sought refuge in the aquarium where I shared some deep soulful eye contact with the sea otter. Fun fact: one sea otter at the aquarium eats $17,000 worth of seafood annually– otterly expensive!

Then it was back on the road. After driving along the breathtaking cliffs, we paused at the Sea Lion cave, which is in fact the largest sea cave in North America…you enter through a gift shop and walk down the path hugging a cliff to an old elevator that takes you down 200 feet to the cave. As the door opens you are greeted by the loud barking of the hundred or so stellar sea lions that are stretched across the rocks. There is a metal fence between the humans and the sea lions, but the pinnipeds pay no mind to us. This site presents a fascinating opportunity to discuss the tension between private ownership of an ostensibly public access point on the coast. Again, these on-site discussions push us to think critically about complexity on interdisciplinary matters.

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After the sea lion cave, we visited the expansive Umpqua dunes (some 4,000 acres), which looked like a rolling desert that extends some 3 miles from the ocean. There was an abrupt transition from the evergreens to the sand… quite a sight for someone used to the sloping banks of the East Coast. At the top of a dune, we paused for a fabulous lecture from Professor Marlo Stein (Smith ’17) about dune formation. A light rain came down, but soon it cleared and a rainbow emerged to frame our impromptu class.

 

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I think they were dune for the day…

We then made our way to the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Coos Bay for our last couple days on the West Coast. With OIMB as our base, we visited South Slough, the first National Estuarine Research Reserve, to learn about the difficult task of wetland restoration. In the afternoon, we also free time to hike and explore the area…

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With Mike leading the charge the next morning, we explored the rocky inter-tidal zone in Cape Arago National Park and found a multifarious world of life clinging to the rocks: starfish, chiton, anemones and all manner of other species I can’t spell. And for the first time in the 20 years of W-M visiting the site, it HAILED! For maybe 12 minutes were all stood like sentinels facing away from the rather large pellets blowing towards us.

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Sophie (URI ’18) knows one way to chiton your day!

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What the hail! Stu (Roanake ’18) holds proof of the hail storm.

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Our time in the Pacific Northwest had been at times wet, at times windy, but every moment had been thoroughly engaging.

***

After a week or so back in Mystic, I think we are all finally dry. While some of us may still be unpacking from the last trip, we must turn our attention toward that next adventure and packing list. In a few short days, we will be departing for our third and final field seminar in Louisiana…