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Millie McInnes – Conserving the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen: bears, glaciers, mountain peaks and more

Deep in the Alaskan rainforest, I stopped dead in my tracks. “Pam! Pam! There’s a bear!” A terrifying moment yet one of the best of my life. First, I’m going to backtrack to mid-May. I was beginning my internship application process when I saw a position located in Alaska. “A summer in bear country?” I said. I have always wanted to explore Alaska so I applied- before I knew it I was interviewed and received a phone call with an offer. Suddenly I was on my way to Homer, Alaska, a town of 5,000 people. I switched out my tank tops and shorts for a carry-on bag full of jackets and pants. I gave my goodbyes to my family and friends and braced myself for two days of traveling. I was feeling pretty good about myself. I could write a book: ‘Traveling: Cheap College Student Edition’ about traveling with a bag too small and flights with twelve-hour layovers. But truly none of the traveling chaos mattered until the moment I first got a glimpse of Alaska out of my aisle seat window. A life-changing moment. I arrived in Homer, Alaska where my lovely supervisor picked me up from the airport. My eyes were glued to the snowy white peaks across the Kachemak Bay on the entire car ride to the bunkhouse. Luckily the sun did not set until around 10 p.m. (at this time in the summer) so I could spend the whole day walking along Bishop’s Beach.

What sunset can look like from 10pm to midnight throughout the summer on Bishop’s Beach.

Then it’s Monday, time for work! I was hired through the Student Conservation Association (SCA), and they connected me to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). To other CNR students: I highly recommend looking into the Student Conservation Association. The SCA paid for my housing costs and travel costs, I received a living allowance, and I received an Americorps Education Award at the end of my service. Since USFWS manages the National Wildlife Refuges all across the country, they helped connect me to the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge as a Visitor Services and Outreach Intern. I was expected to create my own programs and educate the public about the refuge and its conservation efforts. “Wait. I’m not from Alaska… How am I supposed to learn about all of the Alaskan Wildlife and the work done on the Aleutian Islands?” It’s called training, Millie. Training.

Training time it was: various biologists and educators spoke to us about the logistics of the refuge, as well as how to interpret and convey that information to the public. Interpretation is to bridge education to emotional connection. We learned how to do this through the Master Naturalist program. Our visitor center team collaborated with Alaskan Coastal Studies and The NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve to exchange knowledge on topics ranging from Alaskan wildlife to air quality, water quality, climate change, botany, ecology, and interpretation practices. The Naturalists helped us explore the Homer and Kachemak Bay area. This involved taking a boat across the bay to meet those beautiful snowy peaked mountains. Once we made our way across, we hiked to Grewingk Glacier and saw Gull Island on our journey back to Homer.

Marisa, my fellow SCA intern, and I are standing in front of Grewingk Glacier.
“Gull Island” is home to sea otters, puffins, murres, and hundreds of black legged kittiwakes.

At this point, I’m feeling pretty excited to start sharing my new fascination with others. So I was stationed at the front desk to welcome incoming visitors and to talk to them about Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. AMNWR conserves, protects, and restores the diverse lands, waters, wildlife, and cultural resources of the Aleutian Islands. As Homer is home to the headquarters of the refuge I was able to get to know the biologists that managed the permanent monitoring sites and have even been out to the islands themselves. The refuge is known as “Thousands of Islands and Millions of Birds” and therefore is predominantly a seabird refuge.

Inventory, monitoring, research, and restoration is the refuge’s main focus for protecting the wildlife. Although plenty of projects and research reports are in this mix throughout the year, the summer is extra exciting. From the beginning of May towards the end of August, biotechnicians are sent to these far-flung lands to conduct bird monitoring. Using the only research vessel in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2-3 biotechs are sent to the 6 permanent sites. The sites are located from Saint Lazaria (which is in the southeast region of Alaska) to Buldir Island. About 30 species of birds are monitored along the Aleutian islands. The majority of the threats to these marine mammals and seabirds are due to human activities. This includes invasive species, oil-fouling, illegal hunting, overfishing, pollution, and most importantly climate change can cause a lack of food availability and uninhabitable lands and waters for these species. My interpretive programs and outreach work towards mitigating those human threats by building conservation awareness.

I developed my own programs consisting of hikes, tidepooling, natural history talks, refuge story talks, and lobby talks and leading a discovery lab. I led almost 60 total programs all tying back to the beauty of the natural world and the importance of protecting it. From the hikes and tidepooling programs, I educated visitors on Alaskan wildlife. This made my job a lot easier as we encountered moose, birds, sea stars, urchins, anemones, octopi, sea crabs, jellies, and plants. For my talks and the discovery lab, I was able to focus more on the birds, marine mammals, habitats, volcanoes, ecology, and conservation work all in relation to the Aleutian Islands. My favorite part about my position was sharing my love for the natural world. I loved to see visitors have a new spark of fascination that could lead to a changed relationship with nature for the better. Other times I got to develop Facebook posts and other tasks supporting the visitor center maintenance. This internship has shaped my future career plans because I plan to become more involved with the USFWS and potentially work as a biotechnician on the Aleutian Islands one day. For now, I am walking away with improved communication skills, leadership experience, a greater understanding of wildlife and the many ways to conserve it.

An interpretive hike led by me. I am only discussing plants but I would love to point out the jaw drop of the woman in the red shirt.
A Giant Pacific Octopus (left) and a Striped Sun Sea Star (right) found while tidepooling.

After learning all of these skills I realized my internship was coming to an end. My coworker Pam and I wanted to do one last trip before parting ways. Seldovia Alaska it was! We moseyed on through a trail cutting through the temperate rainforest and down to the beach. On our journey back to town, I stopped in my tracks. I made eye contact with the one and only. “Pam! Pam! There’s a bear!” Pam and I heroically forgot all of the bear training we had learned in the past three months. All we could do was stare which is terribly rude. The not-so ferocious bear returned to his stroll in the other direction. I then jumped up and down with excitement while Pam was already five steps ahead of me looking for the quickest exit. I fell more in love with nature than I ever thought was possible. This summer was not without its challenges. I began this summer traveling solo in an entirely new place, quickly taking on new topics and practicing interpretation and outreach. I learned so much about the world of USFWS and about real-world conservation practices that I got to share with others! I am very thankful for this opportunity and to have ended the summer with some incredible friends and memories.

A “Yurt Warming Party” with the AMNWR Visitor Center Staff.