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  • Writer's pictureMonica

Wildlife research in the Alaskan wilderness - Luke

Shares thoughts on pushing his limits, spending time in the wilderness, and how someone he never met left an indelible mark on the trajectory of his life. Cold wind blows the tempestuous waters of Turnagain arm, as ominous clouds gather with surprising speed over snow-capped mountains on the Kenai Peninsula. Luke Metherell stands on a rocky outcropping at the waters edge, on a cool summer evening in Alaska. Wearing a light weight down jacket and a faded Patagonia baseball cap, Luke seems to grow even larger than his 6 foot 4 frame as the wind intensifies. He removes his hat, and runs a rough, weathered, hand through curly hair that’s a mix of brown, sun-bleached blonde, and speckles of grey. He’s returning home from a day fly fishing on Kenai Lake. “Usually, the gale force storm blows in while I’m still fishing, and I end up driving home soaked to the bone!” He says with a smile and a laugh. “Alaska is the frontier. It’s mother nature at her utmost beauty, and utmost strength.” “My life has been defined by the wild places where I go,” Luke says, as he watches Beluga whales ease in and out of the salty water. “Lately, I’m tracking Dall sheep in the most rugged terrain in the Chugach, and jumping out of a helicopter onto snowy mountainsides.” “My job is unconventional, but it is something I am passionate about.” Luke takes deep breaths of the cool air as raindrops begin to fall. “You can’t be afraid to go after what you’re passionate about. Life is too short to give up on finding what you love.” What brings you to chase Dall sheep in Alaska? I work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, attempting to map the diet of the Dall sheep. It’s research I designed as part of my coursework at University of Alaska, Anchorage. I’ve been really fortunate to have a great supervisor at Fish and Game, and faculty advisor at UAA, who were open to collaborating on this. What is your field work like, doing wildlife research? During the summer, I observe sheep eating, and collect video recording data and various samples. I backpack in 10 to 15 miles with a 70 pound pack, and spend 4 to 10 days at a time in the field. It is very remote locations, in extreme conditions. Strong winds, heavy rainfall, and you’re on a mountainside 5,000 feet above the valley floor, looking at sheep through a spotting scope! So you spend summers in the mountains of Alaska. Where does the helicopter come in?! During the spring, we do live capture. The technique we use is net gunning. Three of us fly in the helicopter. A pilot, a biologist, and a wildlife tech. We take the door off, and use a climbing harness to hold the person launching the 10 by 10 foot net. You lean out the side of the helicopter, and shoot the net to capture the sheep. It’s too steep for the helicopter to land, sometimes they can touch the front tips of the struts onto the hillside for us to climb out, otherwise we jump out in the air a few feet off the ground. There is a lot of turbulence because the helicopter is still running. We run to the sheep and check body temp to make sure they are not overstressed. If so, we immediately release the animal. If the sheep is ok, we take hair samples and physiological measurements. Bone structure, horn measurements, looking at growth rings called annuli on the rams that tell you their age. Its a very intricate procedure. It can be very dangerous with the weather, visibility, and avalanche conditions. There are always potential hazards. What do you do when it’s too cold and snowy for hikes and helicopters? I analyze video data, information, and tissue samples we’ve collected. I’m doing stabilized isotopic analysis, it’s really fascinating. I also do microhistological analysis to determine botanical composition of their diet. I work at the lab at Fish and Game, and also a lab on campus. It’s amazing - the other studies at the lab are things like arctic research, how climate change is affecting the Greenland ice sheet and the Bering sea, tracking weather patterns, looking at glacial change. My advisor does cutting edge research in Alaska and the Arctic. He has a youthful vigor when it comes to his work, he’s so enthusiastic about the possibilities. Did you start doing wildlife research here in Alaska? I started doing urban ecology in San Diego. I worked on a project with burrowing owls. I really enjoyed it, but I wanted to be in wild, remote places. You grew up somewhere fairly remote, didn’t you? In Jackson, Wyoming. We owned an outfitting business, my dad guided big game hunting. We were a very outdoor family. We didn’t have television. What did you learn from your parents? Everything! My parents taught me how to survive in the mountains. From the time I was 8 or 10, I felt like I would be alright on my own if I got lost in the woods. I got a lot of wild spirit from my mom. She was constantly doing multi day backpack trips with us into the Wind Rivers. She's this incredibly supportive woman, and a powerful influence on my life. My dad taught me the skills of pursuing animals, and the importance of respecting the animals and their habitat. I look very highly on his abilities, as well as his ethics. He taught me they are both of equal importance. I definitely agree with that. I was very fortunate. Another thing my dad showed me is how to be emotionally secure. My dad was an old school cowboy. He’s tough as nails, but he’s never been withholding with how much he loves me. The people he loves - he tells them. A lot of guys miss out on that in life. What made you want to be a biologist? My grandfather was a biologist in National Parks. Acadia, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion. He passed away when my dad was 18. He died in a single engine plane crash, he was a pilot as well. I wish I could have met him. He reintroduced desert big horn sheep into Zion national park. Biologically, that’s a huge thing. I would love to work on that project. That would be really special. I always feel closest to my grandfather when I’m fly fishing with my dad. It’s crazy, but sometimes I feel like he’s standing right there with me. Do you do a lot of fly fishing? All the time. From when I was a kid. I am crazy about the sport. Fly fishing is just incredible. It takes you to amazing remote locations, and the fish we target are crepuscular which means they’re most active at dawn and dusk. At first light, the ecosystem is waking up. Everything is coming into life, birds are singing, it’s this half-lit, half-alive, dawn. It’s just beautiful. Or right at dusk, the sun setting and there’s a glassy lake and trout rising, it’s an amazing experience. I absolutely love it. A fly fisherman’s cast is so much of who you are. It’s about where you came from. In what way? Usually I have low, tight loops, because I grew up in Wyoming, and it’s super windy! Some people, like my dad, can cast to the beat of any ecosystem, whatever river he’s on. I love watching him throw big, beautiful loops, 60 to 80 foot loops. Watching my dad cast… it’s like poetry. When you see people in their element, everything in the universe aligns for one moment. That’s what happiness is like. You see happiness as a moment when everything aligns? Yes. Happiness is feeling elated, but also a feeling of contentment. Being perfectly content to be there, in that moment. When you reach a really happy moment, you have to enjoy it because it will not last forever. Happiness ebbs and flows, I think that’s the way life is. Even the happiest people, if you expect to be happy all the time, you’re going to be disappointed. Are you a happy person? Very happy! It’s one of my goals. I’ve lived a very full life. I’m constantly experiencing new things. I’m interested in what I’m doing, and what will come next. I find a lot of happy moments. You spend so much time in nature. Do you prefer being on your own, or with other people? I love both, but there’s something profound about solo trips. When I go on multi-day hunting trips by myself in Alaska, it pushes me to a limit. It’s similar to rowing really intense whitewater, you know you’re on the edge. It’s invigorating and terrifying all at once. You don’t rely on anyone. The consequences or rewards are yours. Have you ever had scary moments, either alone or with other people? Once a grizzly bear chased me, in the middle of the night in Wyoming. It sounded like a bulldozer coming through the willows. I’ve almost drowned, I fell and my waders filled with water, and a massive river drug me under. The scariest time was on the Snake. I was 20. It was high water season, in a big year. An upside down boat went by the take out, with 2 men holding on for dear life. A mile after the take out is an old dam site and an 18 foot waterfall. You die if you go over. The water was in the 30’s, and the Snake was running at 25,000 CFS. 5 minutes in that water and you’re hypothermic. The guide who flipped his boat and left them in the water was crying. I grabbed him and threw him in a boat with a paddle, and started rowing. He collapsed quickly, he was hypothermic and in shock. I’ve never paddled so hard. I kept taking long strokes, saying prayers I could catch those men. And I did. I pulled them into my boat, but I still had to stop us before we all went over the waterfall, and it was 200 yards away! I grabbed the bowline and jumped into the water. I was clawing at the bank, it was raspberry and wild rose bushes, all thorns. It shredded my arms, I was bleeding like crazy. But I held on. I started pulling the boat against the current, grabbing onto raspberry bushes, going 2 feet at a time, until a place where I could climb out of the canyon. When we finally got back and I watched these two fathers, reuniting with their families who thought they had died, I’ll be honest I broke down and cried. For all the time I’ve spent outdoors, I’ve very rarely had negative experiences. You are clearly excited about everything you’re doing, you have so many things you love! I do! I have so many interests and passions, it’s led me to change schools and majors many times. I love theater and acting. I tried journalism, marketing, I was even a textile major! I went to Guatemala for a year, we built an elementary school and then I taught English and computer skills there. I guided whitewater in the summers. I went to school in Santa Barbara, at University of Wyoming, and University of Minnesota. And now I’m a 29 year old undergraduate! Maybe I don’t have my PhD - yet! - but I’ve had experience in life, and I really cherish that. Do you have any other big goals for the future, besides education and wildlife biology? My dream is to either bring people to nature, or bring nature to people in whatever way I can. Perhaps through an outdoor adventure program, a TV series or a documentary. Conservation is important, but the majority of Americans have never been exposed to these amazing wild places. It is a daunting task to try to conserve the natural resources we have, it’s so overwhelming that some people say it’s impossible. But I think it IS possible. If you can reach people, and inspire them. People can do amazing things. You have quite the eclectic mix of interests! I haven’t lived a conventional lifestyle. I’ve always had the freedom to change things drastically, pack the car and go. And I have, many times! Were you running away from something, or running to something? In the past, I was running away. From commitment, and decisions about what to do with my life. It’s something a lot of people struggle with. Especially this generation, we have so much freedom and independence. There’s a world of possibilities out there - and that’s a blessing and a curse. It can be overwhelming. I ran away in the past. But now, I’m running towards the things I know I want. It seems the outdoors are one thing that’s been a constant your entire life. Always! The outdoors are an escape. You get away from everything. When you get back to camp, you don’t have to check email. There’s no place you need to be. You have a cup of tea, and watch the sunset on the high tundra. You drink in every drop of that panorama of mother nature’s artwork. There’s nowhere I’d rather be. Learn more about Luke and the Dall Sheep of the Chugach here:


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