Melissa McClaran hears the call of the wild--and answers
Wanted: Person to live in primitive cabin on remote, uninhabited island. No showers, no indoor plumbing, very few visitors. Job responsibilities include daily counting of walrus and, when dead, removal of their organs. Relocation to Alaska required."
If such an advertisement were to appear in print, few people would shuck life in the lower forty-eight states for near total isolation on a blustery island off the coast of Alaska. But few people are like Melissa F. McClaran '94.
A native of Columbus, Ohio, this biology major has repeatedly sought out such unique opportunities. Her résumé reads like a wish list for seasonal wilderness watchers.
Following graduation, the adventuresome twenty-one-year-old went to Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park, where she was lucky enough to get a job as a park ranger. The following summer was spent in Anchorage, Alaska, where she worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a biologist technician specializing in marine mammals.
A year later, in September 1996, McClaran and her boyfriend, Steve Rice '93, also a biology major, moved several hundred miles from Anchorage into a remote cabin on Round Island in Alaska's Bristol Bay. There, under the auspices of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the two biologists monitored the annual walrus hunt by the Yupik natives. "I would count the walrus daily, greet the hunters who came to the island, and watch the walrus hunt from an overlook," she says. "Then, after the hunt, we'd collect mostly liver and kidney tissue to check for heavy contaminants." So scientists on the mainland could also conduct research, tissue samples were sometimes packed in liquid nitrogen and sent back with the hunters, says McClaran, because there were no regular boat deliveries or other means of transport.
The thought of jumping ship may have occurred to unseasoned volunteers, but not to McClaran, who found living on the island "peaceful and relaxing." This despite the frigid temperatures. "There was a tub in front of the cabin," she says, "and we had to catch rain water, heat it inside, pour it into the tub, and take a bath before it would ice over. Needless to say, we didn't bathe every day."
More recently, home for McClaran was Alaska's Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. From May through September of last year, she worked at two different sites within the refugeCape Peirce and Cape Newenhamand from September to October at a third, more familiar location, Round Island. Again with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, McClaran spent countless hours "counting walrus and observing other marine life, including seals, sea lions, and, occasionally, whales."
During the off-seasons, McClaran would visit family and friends in Ohio and San Francisco, California, respectively, and work in Anchorage. Yet all the while she yearned to be back out there, answering nature's call. "I have no complaints when I'm in the field," she says.
And that's where you'll find her now. As alumni read this in the comfort of their living rooms, McClaran will be back at Cape Peirce, where, once again, she's spending six months as a biologist technician. (Rice, meanwhile, had taken on other job responsibilities, but as of press time, he had just received a new assignment at Cape Peirce, where he'll be joining McClaran for the summer.)
"I'm opening the camp this year," she notes. "I'm looking forward to it. I'll be doing daily counts of walrus and seals and looking for other mammals, like sea lions and whales. Last year, we tagged some walrus with transmitters, so I'll check the beach for transmitters, too. One day you won't see too many walrus, then the numbers start to growto about seven thousand a day at their peakand then they drop again. It goes in cycles.
"In the winter, almost all the walrus are farther north, at least to Nome," she explains. The females give birth there and, having expended all of their energy, stay up north with the newborns. As the pack ice melts, clams are an accessible food supply, so there's no need to migrate. One theory, says the young biologist, is that the males have energy to spare so they move south to Cape Peirce, where they congregate.
Watching them gather is amusing, adds McClaran. "They burp and grunt, like a bunch of guys alone without their women. But they're not aggressive. They're actually afraid of people. If they're sleeping, I can walk right up to them, clapping or making noise to prod them along."
And prod them she must. "Cape Peirce," recounts McClaran, "is where in 1994, 1995, and 1996 walrus were climbing up on the cliffs and falling off. Several hundred died. Part of my job is to see they don't climb the cliffs.
"Walrus really like to bunch together to conserve heat," she continues. As they push each other higher up on the beach, the first ones eventually want to get back to the water, but they can't crawl over seven thousand walrus behind them. So they crawl up the cliffs, because the water appears to be closer. "The topography has changed over time," notes McClaran, "and near the cliffs it really does look like the water is closerlike there's not much of a drop to the water. But there is."
Ironically, dropping into cold water was, in retrospect, about the only hint McClaran had of Alaska during her time at Kenyon. A member of the College's Polar Bear Club, she and others would sometimes jump into the wintry Kokosing River. Granted, the Kokosing isn't the Alaskan archipelago, but they're strangely connected. Through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, McClaran says she recently met a polarbear researcher who knew of Jordan Professor of Environmental Science E. Raymond Heithaus '68 and spoke highly of his research. "I felt privileged to know Professor Heithaus and to have worked with him," she says. The same is true of biology professors Dorothy and Tom Jegla, who retired last year, and Associate Professor of Biology David Marcey, all of whom she is in contact with.
Where does this adventurer see herself six years from now? "Who knows where I'll be in six months, much less six years," she laughs. That lack of certainty doesn't worry her much, although the notion of a full-time job in one location certainly has its appeal. "I really love doing field work in beautiful places," McClaran says. And for now, that's calling enough.
Do you have feedback on this page?