A few months ago, I was hired to serve as a refuge technician at Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge through the Mt. Adams Institute’s Public Lands Stewards program. After graduating this spring with a bachelor’s in wildlife and conservation biology, I had pretty good expectations for my new job. But during orientation week at the Mt. Adams Institute, it seemed that no one really knew what to expect, so did I even really? Well here we are, 2 months in, and I feel as though I am beginning to truly understand what my purpose is out here. I thought this would be the perfect time to compare what I expected to what actually happened.
Expectation #1: Driving from Minneapolis, MN to Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Glenwood, WA is going to be super fun and I am going to see so many cool things! Best road trip ever!
Reality: I left the morning after my last final exam as an undergraduate. I didn’t even have time to think about what grades I got because I had 3 days to drive 1,618 miles. That means a twenty-five hour trip, driving at least 8 hours each day–if my car decided to cooperate. I was too busy trying to drive enough each day that I never had the opportunity to stop and see the sights. I also was not prepared for driving through the mountains. Minnesota is pretty flat with some hills, so imagine my shocked face when I realized I had to drive down steep slopes in snow storms around tight curves where there are barely any rails. I mean how is that safe! But, I eventually made it to Washington, even with some hours to spare (probably thanks to Montana’s 80 mph speed limit).
Expectation #2: All of the other members in my orientation group are going to be way too cool for me and we probably won’t even become friends and hang out outside of work.
Reality: Wow, was I wrong! The first day of orientation was definitely weird; but after some coaxing, the awkward ‘get to know you’ games helped. After many games of kickball and nights around the fire, we were a close knit group. By the end of orientation, we hugged each other goodbye and made sure to exchange contact info. Even though communication can be hard, we still manage to hang out when we have time off!
Expectation # 3: According to my job description, I will be spending all of my time in the next six months setting nets, catching fish and measuring them. Yay for repetition!
Reality: Well yes, my main job is to set nets and measure fish, but it is not as boring as I made that sound. In the mornings, my partner and I set nets, collect fish from other nets, and spend some time measuring them. In the afternoons, we go out and set the nets again. Setting nets is both a joy and a challenge because you never know what you are going to catch and it can be fun to play in the water!
But I can honestly say it is no fun to top your waders, set nets in the cold rain or spend an hour trying to actually set the nets up and somehow make sure the rebar stays in the rocks. But when we are not setting nets, there are a number of other fun projects we get to be a part of. To name a few, I have participated in acoustic frog surveys, butterfly and bat surveys, clearing water structures and catching bullfrogs. I’ve also been given the opportunity to come up with my own projects, which may include building bat houses, identifying squirrel hair and building bullfrog traps. I may even get to band sandhill cranes.
Expectation # 4: I’m going to be in the middle of nowhere with no service or Wi-Fi and too far to travel anywhere cool.
Reality: Wrong again. Glenwood is a very small town with less than 500 people and the nearest town with a grocery store is a 40 minute drive, so it is sort of the middle of nowhere. But there are cows (who have not warmed up to me yet), horses, dogs and the like to keep me company.
There are also a total of four people who work at the refuge besides my partner and I, and they make my one minute walk to work from my bunkhouse worth it. My bunkhouse is called by many people the ‘chateaux’. And honestly, that’s true. I try to spend every weekend exploring at least one place. So far I have visited Panther Creek, the Guler Ice Caves, Multnomah Falls, Chelan, WA and more.
So no, my expectations didn’t always match up with my reality, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, these last two months have been better than I could have imagined. I was worried that by making such a drastic move to a place I had never been before, I would feel like a fish out of water. Instead, I have made lasting connections to both the people and this wonderful place I get to call home for the next four months.