West Coast…Best Coast?

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.

sea lion

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.



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…


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.

Chiton Sophie
Sophie (URI ’18) knows one way to chiton your day!
What the hail! Stu (Roanake ’18) holds proof of the hail storm.


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…









Leave the Umbrellas at Home!

Pacific Northwest Field Seminar Report PART ONE

During field seminars, we are constantly in motion. Every minute is scheduled so we can embrace fully all that each place has to offer, thus this post seeks only to provide a slice, a glimpse of the adventure. A detailed account would surely stretch on beyond comfortably reading length…

Shortly after landing in Washington State, we mobilized “to the vans!” (a phrase that became our battle cry) and made our way into the city. We wasted no time, immediately ascending the Space Needle. From 605 feet up, we had a birdeye’s view of Seattle, our home for the next two days. After a few minutes of awe, we were down the needle for a presentation from our guest lecturer about the geologic identity of the region and some of the threats (volcanoes, earthquakes, the usual) facing a city built on the geologically active Pacific Rim. Only once we had been assured of the low risk of one of the catastrophic events striking during our visit, we set out to explore the city. Professor Mike Nishisaki led many of us on a pilgrimage to visit the blooming cherry blossoms on the University of Washington campus. After gawking for a while, we finally dispersed in search of dinner.

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Albion House (Sophie, Amelia, Amanda & Lizzie) thinks the Space Needle is out of this world!
Sarah (Middlebury ’17) and Erica (Williams ’18) had a cherry nice visit to the UW campus.


We had been warned that our umbrellas would mark us as tourists…and soon learned why. While the first hours in Seattle had greeted us with sun, we shortly became acquainted with the rain for which the area is famous. It’s not the vertical plump drops of the East Coast, but rather a wetness in the air. Thus we kept raingear or “foulies” close at hand during our visit!

All days on field seminars start early…there is so much to do! The first day, however, we were granted the privilege of sleeping in until 7:30. While some hearty souls rose earlier and went on dawn runs through the city or combed the streets in search of quality coffee (very difficult to find from what I hear), others of us treasured the sleep. After breakfast at our home of the College Inn we once again charged “to the vans” and reconvened at the Port of Seattle to hear a presentation about environmental initiatives and restoration projects nears the port, which has been subject to decades of development and industrial pollutants.

From there, we joined the Crowley team for a ride aboard a tugboat! The whole Crowley staff were incredibly friendly and fielded our many questions. Since we had already enjoyed an aerial view of Seattle, it was a treat to add another perspective of the skyline from the water. From the bow we could also watch the industrial cranes move containers in the artful cargo ship choreography. One of the many things that makes the Williams-Mystic program so special is that it discusses the practical application of maritime issues. We all come with an academic background, but to see and understand the shipping structures that supply us with the goods and commodities we use everyday is an important practical complement to our education.


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S’ 16 aboard the Crowley Tugboat. It was difficult to tug us away from exploring deck and engine room for a photo!
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Virginia (Connecticut College ’17) presents…Seattle!

Having built up an appetite, we eagerly descended on Pike Place Market to graze the delicious options. For those unfamiliar with Pike Place Market, it is a vibrant center brimming with flowers, seafood, fresh produce, baked goods, and crafts, and, bustling with tourists and locals alike. After lunch (and taking full advantage of the free samples), we left the market and a made a stop at the infamous gum wall, which has re-accumulated an impressive amount of gum after being scrubbed clean just this past fall.

Then Seattle became our classroom for our walking tour, which involved many lectures about the historical, geological and political dimensions of the city. The mini on-site lecture is foundational to the field seminar: place-based learning at its finest! Many us of carried around journals poised to jot down notes. 

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Seattle as our classroom!

One of the highlights for students and faculty alike is the alumni mini-reunion dinner, which was held at the Center for Wooden Boats. We enjoyed learning about the varied post-Williams-Mystic trajectories. Among the Seattle alums in attendance: there was a Surgeon with the United States Army, a NOAA specialist, and two PhD students at the University of Washington. I know many of us in Spring ‘16 look forward to becoming part of the Williams-Mystic network and one day holding conversations with current students…

center for wooden boats
Not sure, but I assume we all were just excited by the prospect of talking to future Williams-Mystic students after the reunion!

The next morning held a fascinating visit to Fisherman’s Terminal to learn about the rich history of this dock that hosts some 600 vessels, of varying sizes and designs. We then enjoyed some quality bonding time in the vans as we made our way to Oregon. Our evening excursion was to Powell’s Books in Portland. So, I will be frank here, I had heard the hype about this being the crème de la crème of bookstores, but will admit that I was a little skeptical…After picking up a store map(!!) at the front desk, it became clear that the rumors were true. Some students made a beeline for a section while others meandered through the rooms and stacks. No matter what the strategy, soon everyone had a few books in their arms. For a while, the ocean and nature writing sections were a bit crowded with Williams-Mystic students. Whether we tracked down a book that had been eluding us for a while or stumbled across a hidden gem, most found some fantastic selections. Sarah (Middlebury ’17) is excited to have found some promising texts for her thesis on fishermen’s wives. Some of us were forced to return some of our selections to the shelves because buying the books also meant fitting them into our duffle bags…


*Please check back in a few days for Part Two: more about the Oregon leg of our Pacific Northwest Adventure, or “Moregon” for short.

Read this if Moot Court Appeals to You

May it please the court: my name is Rachel Earnhardt and I am here to represent the Williams-Mystic program. I urge the court to declare Williams-Mystic is the best maritime studies program in these great United States of America. If I may begin with the immortal words of the Constitution…

Oh gee whiz, apologies for the formality! This past week we have all grown accustomed to speaking in court-appropriate language for our Moot Court proceedings. I won’t reveal the details of our case for the sake of prospective students, but I can say that we spent the week engaging with issues of public beach access and private property rights.

Marine Policy expert Katy Hall had divided the Spring ’16 class into two opposing teams, and encouraged us to meet early and often with our groups to craft our arguments. For many, the conception process for the argument included: writing, sharing, changing, practicing, changing, editing and then adjusting one more time.  This week held many long nights preparing for the courtroom proceedings, at times with legal guidance provided by Counselors Katy Hall and Brian Wagner. Truly the whole week was an exercise in collaboration, adaptability and endurance.

On Friday morning we gathered in the lounge to look at muffins we were too nervous to eat. Dressed for success, we milled about quietly. Some of us slipped out to practice our talking points in front of the bathroom mirror one last time, but finally we all filed into the courtroom (well, it was the science classroom…let’s just pretend). Draped in a black robe, Judge Derek Langhauser (W-M Fall ‘82) entered a few moments later. And thus it began.

What do lawyers wear to court? … Lawsuits, of course!

With sweaty palms, we each took a turn at the podium to present the case we had so meticulously prepared. This was not a chance to simply recite a speech, rather we had to be versatile and respond to numerous interruptions and questions from the judge. Soon it became clear that the anxiety, which had weighed so heavily in the room early on, was not necessary. The hours of practice and late nights had equipped all of us for the courtroom. (Secretly, I hoped someone would be bold enough to break out into a rap from the Hamilton soundtrack to help make her or his case.)

Even though the class had been split into two factions, I could feel nothing but proud of all my shipmates for presenting their arguments so persuasively and maneuvering so well to answer questions. I won’t spotlight any performance in particular because even though we each spoke individually, it was a team effort. The moot court exercise is not meant to encourage us to become lawyers, but rather aims to equip us each with the skills and confidence to argue any case effectively. As Judge Langhauser emphasized, the case we argued is a microcosm for discussing and weighing different values and rights, and informs conversations about a variety of contemporary legal issues.

Had someone stopped by the Carlton lounge any night last week, it may have seemed that we all lived and breathed Moot Court…but life went on here in Mystic. We are getting into the rhythm of classes and skills and jobs. Beyond the routine, we have also appreciated several field trips. In the last two weeks, lab excursions have taken us to explore nearby marshes, beaches and tide pools.

On a coastal bus tour, we enjoyed learning about the historical, geological and biological identities of local landmarks from Glenn, Lisa and Mike. While flying to field seminars in the Caribbean, West Coast and Gulf Coast may steal the thunder, I am inspired by all the places we can visit with a short van ride. Mystic Seaport, the town of Mystic and the surrounding area are proving to an incredibly unique and engaging classroom.

This upcoming week we will be turning in research proposals for marine policy and oceanography or marine ecology. All four of the Williams-Mystic courses invite students to conduct original research throughout the semester as part of the culminating project. The emphasis on original research is a hallmark of the program and students are encouraged to make use all the resources available here in the Seaport and Mystic area.

It is always a treat to see the moment of epiphany as someone finds the idea for a research project. Whether working with mussels or GIS software or microplastics, my peers are gearing up to conduct some fascinating science research. In the coming weeks, I am looking forward to hearing about a wide variety of project ideas for all the different courses.

Right now, we are preparing for the Pacific Northwest field seminar at the end of the week. Please do check back soon for updates from the West Coast!