2015 Team Traveled to France with Earthwatch
In 2015, the Duttenhaver Conservation and Field Study Program team traveled to France’s Midi-Pyrenees region to study the impact of climate change. Graphics Manager Neal Ward, Senior Animal Keeper Dorothy Belanger, and Senior Gardener Andrew Lyell accompanied Student Volunteers Ethan Abercrombie, Isabelle Panze, Audrey Chen, Suzanne Bernard, and Tarynn Kimmick, plus Magnet School Students Marissa Blanco-Johnson and Manuel Jaramillo on the trip, which was more than a physical journey to another continent. As Suzanne observes, it was also a personal journey of discovery.
The gift was inspired by the donor’s belief in the positive impact of international travel and study, and matched the Zoo’s interest in developing field opportunities for students evaluating a future in biological science.
My favorite part about adventures is that you can never predict them. Whenever I’m anticipating something, I have to stop and tell myself, “No matter how much you think it over, your expectations will not match up with reality.” This much remained true for me with my experience in the French Pyrenees.
I definitely expected this expedition to be a learning experience. I wanted to take advantage of the knowledgeable people I was working with. I planned to ask questions and walk every step of the way with open eyes—and I’m glad I did. I took home more knowledge about plants, animals, and climate change than I could hope for. I learned about careers in biology and how exciting (yet repetitive) field studies could be.
But there were many things I didn’t expect to learn about while on this trip. By talking to our guides, I learned about the inspiring language, culture, and patriotism of a region previously unknown to me called Catalonia. Another unexpected parcel of knowledge came on our day off, when we learned about the various instruments and music native to the Pyrenees.
I had been told that we would be hiking up to 10 miles most days. Despite the fair warning, I did not expect that the majority of our time would be spent hiking. The hikes were grueling at worst and thrilling at best—occasionally off-trail, often uphill, and always long. We would hike anywhere from six to 10 miles in a day on our duties through stinging brush, biting insects, and incessant humidity. But it was absolutely worth it. The views were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Oftentimes, I was continuously snapping photos in an attempt to take home pieces of the unbelievable beauty of the Pyrenees.
However, the hikes weren’t all scenery. We had work to do. Some of our undertakings included the maintenance of camera traps, counting seedlings in forest plots, and tagging small mammals.
Despite being hard work, our daily activities were very rewarding. I felt a sense of accomplishment every time I replaced the rechargeable batteries in a camera trap, knowing that the photos the little gadget stored could reveal clear evidence of a mammal species inhabiting the area. Maybe my camera trap would capture a snapshot of a cute, weasel-like martin, or a graceful, goat-like chamois. I enjoyed counting seedlings more than I expected.
Every sprout of a tree was a precious little bit of life that, in years, would become a towering denizen adding to the magic of an old forest. I am quite satisfied with my new skill of being able to confidently identify an ash seedling. But by far my favorite activity was the checking small mammal traps. Catching, tagging, and recording data about the animals before we released them again was always an exciting endeavor. It was the only time we had direct contact with the wildlife there, and the information we collected about the cute rodents would help the scientists in understanding the effects of climate change on their population.
This trip easily surpassed my eager anticipations. I became more knowledgeable about biology, excited about careers in science, and closer to a distant culture. I made life-long friends among those who shared in my adventures. And I’m happy to say that reality can be a lot more exciting than mere expectations.