Ten years after my very first field season as an undergraduate, the field season that solidified my love for trout ecology, I have all the data I need for my Ph.D. dissertation. While I’m still working on a side project that occasionally allows me to get my feet wet, the time has finally come to hang up my waders and turn hard-earned data into results.
This is the first summer in that time span that I’ve been home more than away. And, I don’t know how I feel about that. Sure, it’s great buying perishable groceries, taking hot showers, and having a roof over my head. And, I definitely don’t miss the unexplained bruises and deep soreness felt after carrying equipment that was a little too heavy for a little too long. But, I do miss the comradery of being in the field.
For the last ten summers, I’ve put my friends and family aside and welcomed a whole new family into my life. My field family. People who often started as complete strangers, but who quickly learned my favorite foods, my quirky sleep habits, and every one of my pet peeves (including how to push them, when they wanted). Some joined the field family for only a few weeks as temporary technicians. Others were with me for several years and have since become more like members of my real family. From all I learned something, even if just bad habits and the drinking preferences of a retired army vet.
There’s something special about a field family. Field partners see a completely different side of you that many of your closest friends and relatives may never know. I have a hard time describing why there is such a shift in demeanor, but the moment I begin packing the truck things change. It’s a mix of relaxation as you let go of any hopes of cell phone service and internet, but also a black cloud of anxiety as you’re trying to collect as much good data as possible despite constant equipment malfunctions and roadblocks. It doesn’t take long for pleasantries to fall to the wayside, particularly after you haven’t showered in days or seen another person outside of the crew. Everyone is always at some baseline level of exhaustion and frustration, but no one dare complain. Instead, you find laughter. You rib on each other, tell stories, and design elaborate practical jokes. At the end of the day, you squeeze out the last bit of sunshine doing various camp chores, preparing for the next day, and maybe even enjoying a few pages of a book. But, come nightfall, it’s just the crew and a campfire. And, let me tell you, campfire chat gets deep.
You spend a lot of time, celebrate a lot of holidays, and share a lot of experiences with your field crew. As a result, you’ll form a lot of memories with those people that only they will understand. A Corey Smith song playing while you’re driving around the backwoods of Virginia on a foggy evening. A YouTube video of movie outtakes from This Is 40. “Feesh, feesh.” Basement felonies. Fajitas. I can tell you the story behind every one of those, but it’s just not the same.
Nostalgia aside, field partners are also people who you blindly trust to keep you safe. Entering into a field family is an unspoken pact that you will have the other person’s back at all times. And, you take it seriously. Great data can’t be collected when fearing for your safety. Unfortunately, one of the toughest lessons every biologist must learn is where the fine line is between “probably safe” and “that was really, really stupid.” While young scientists dance back and forth around the line often, I don’t think you ever truly learn to not cross it. So, the best you can do is trust that someone won’t put you into the stupid category too often, and will be able to safely get you out when they do. If you can find that level of trust, you’re guaranteed a great friendship. And, nothing will bring you closer than having to test it. Close calls are harrowing experiences, but make for great stories for many years to come.
Even when you’re not pushing the limits, accidents happen and the only way to recover is to come together. I tore my ACL walking next to a stream, and then refused surgery for over a year until my field seasons were complete. I could do that because I am insanely stubborn, but also because I knew my field partner would pick up my slack. He became the defacto person to hike the furthest, carry the most weight, and even support me when my knee starting popping out under the force from high velocity stream flows. Why? Because he’s a great person, but also because we shared a common goal. We needed the data. There’s something special about being part of a large crew that is willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish the goals and see each other succeed.
So, yea, I’m excited that I can see a small light flickering at the end of the tunnel. But, you’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling just a little sad to be entering into this next stage of my degree. The work may be mentally and physically exhausting, but many of my fondest memories and greatest achievements where made while in the stream with my field family.