Unconventional Journey: Student Forges Her Own Summer Project in Alaska
As the summer break between her first and second year approached, Christina Stone felt the pressure to land a prestigious internship that others seemed to land easily. Then she created an opportunity in Alaska that was right for her.
By Christina Stone
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
<font color="black" face="Calibri,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif" size="3"><span id="divtagdefaultwrapper" style="font-size:12pt;">Christina Stone adjusts her GoPro as she descends into a several-hundred-foot deep chasm called a glacial moulin.</span></font>
If I could share one piece of advice with any F&ES student planning their summer internship or research project, it would be this: Don’t listen to anyone’s advice.
In fact, don’t listen to anyone at all.
Okay, yes, I’m being cheeky, but what I really mean by that is: you know yourself better than anyone else, so only you can know what’s best for you.
Rather than following the advice of others (including me), learn instead from the experiences that others have had before you. Take what’s relevant to you, and find a way to make it your own.
There are endless opportunities at your fingertips, and therein lies the problem. It’s overwhelming to try to find the ultimate experience that perfectly defines all of your career aspirations while also putting you on the road to certain and immediate success following graduation — and of course, securing the financial resources and funding to pull it all off.
If those challenges sound familiar, you’re not alone.
It’s overwhelming because it’s unrealistic and sets too high an expectation of yourself and of the eight to 12 weeks carved out between semesters. We get caught up in looking for the perfect opportunities, and we feel like failures when can’t figure out what we want or when we don’t get that prestigious internship that someone else apparently landed effortlessly.
The F&ES summer experience is a source of eager anticipation in our first semester, and the catalyst for soaring anxiety and stress levels in the spring. After the summer draws to an end, classmates reunite to regale one another with their adventures and achievements and, of course, to see where their experiences measure up against those of their peers. Was your internship as cool as hers? Did you travel around the world like he did? Was your research groundbreaking and completed perfectly with zero setbacks?
All in all, it’s a silly ritual. This is your summer experience. Don’t compare it to anyone else’s, and don’t measure your value based on what kinds of opportunities you are able to find. Focus on finding the kinds of opportunities that would make you happy. And if you don’t find one, make one.
This is the story of my journey, and how I created an opportunity that was right for me. This journey was not smooth and easy, and I went through my share of stress. But, I’m hoping that by sharing my experience, I can provide a measure of comfort and inspiration to fellow F&ESers.
Reality first came crashing in when I realized that my hopes and dreams needed to be married with actual plans, projects, positions — and funding. I set out at the beginning of the spring semester looking for an opportunity that would give me some hands-on filmmaking experience while making good use of my expertise in environmental communication. On top of that, I was really looking for a way to do all of that while also getting a chance to learn and practice skills for adventure filmmaking. Skills like top-rope climbing, ice climbing, all-terrain vehicles and motorcycle driving, wilderness first-aid, and basic skills like where, how, and when to use a GoPro.
It didn’t take long to suspect that the opportunity I was looking for didn’t really exist. I might have been able to find something that could accomplish one, maybe two of my goals — if I was lucky. With most internships, you start to realize that companies aren’t keen on giving a new intern a lot of responsibility, especially for a project that will outlast their internship.
I won’t lie. Every week from January through April became decidedly less fun without real prospects the kind of internship that would provide an opportunity to get hands-on experience in my field. I know many of my peers had the same deflating experience as the deadline for funding applications ticked mercilessly closer.
With a few weeks to go before the April 1 funding deadline, I was running out of options. My focus — environmental communication, including journalism and film — is broad enough that there should have been many paths I could pursue, and maybe there were. But, like everyone else, I was looking for the most beneficial experience, one that I could really learn from and expand my current skillset.
Film is a key part of my career plans. I took a documentary filmmaking class in the spring but I was still inexperienced with many of the required skills: Pre-production, cinematography, conducting interviews, and editing together a cohesive and coherent story. There is a tremendous amount of work and skill that goes into making a movie, and I knew that I needed experience that allowed me to actually do all of these things — not just watch from the sidelines.
I had a couple of potential prospects; I was invited to work with a filmmaker I’d met at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale. He was going to be working on the East Coast in late spring… right in the middle of finals. So I kept looking, emailing film companies, scouring the internet for internship opportunities. I wasn’t interested in being a glorified coffee runner for a big film company, so I reached out to independent filmmakers and small film companies. I didn’t know whether I’d hear back from any of them, but I tried anyway. I did hear back from a few companies, even though they couldn’t take me on as an intern, which I really appreciated.
But with each passing day, I grew more and more frustrated and desperate. Time was running out, and nobody was giving me any opportunities.
So I made my own.
When I talked to Ladd Flock, director of Career Development at F&ES, about my concerns, he suggested, “What about just making your own movie here in New Haven?” I chewed on that for a few weeks. I agreed with him, but without a story I was still treading water. I needed a story that challenged me, that forced me to use all my communications skills and required me to learn how to be self-sufficient in the field as a solo filmmaker. And I needed a story that got me out in the world, to test my limits, physically and mentally. Staying in New Haven wasn’t an option.
There was this one project, though. This one big dream that I had was a story that was far bigger than me, a behemoth of an undertaking. To do it, I’d need a team, a lot of funding, and a heck of a lot more time than three months.
But so often when you have a dream, it’s always there, whispering in the back of your head. Why not? What if? What else?
I had also emailed a veteran adventure filmmaker, and while he couldn’t take me on, either, he was nice enough to give me some advice that echoed Ladd’s suggestion:
“Just doing it would be the best answer I can offer. There’s no one path, so forge your own. That’s what I did. Wasn’t easy, never will be either. Be relentless and don’t stop following your passion and heart.”
So with only a few days left before the deadline, I just decided. No more waiting for companies that might get back to me. No more hesitating, it was time to act. I took a piece of my dream project and turned that into my summer experience.
<div style="margin-top:0;margin-bottom:0;"> <font color="black" face="Calibri,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif" size="3"><span id="divtagdefaultwrapper" style="font-size:12pt;">The view from the cockpit of a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 flying over the Arctic Circle.</span></font></div>
I decided to throw myself head-first into the worlds of adventure and documentary filmmaking. To travel over 3,000 miles, alone, to Alaska, to start making my film about climate change. This turned out to be an extraordinary experience that amazed my friends and became a topic of discussion among my classmates. It was a colossal amount of work, but work that was as much a part of my internship as the cool stuff that everyone else got to see.
My internship began in earnest the first week after my spring finals. In the six weeks before my flight to Anchorage, I had a mountain of research to do. I had to set up interviews, network with acquaintances and their colleagues, and reach out to complete strangers and convince them to meet with me. This is the pre-production piece of filmmaking, the part nobody ever sees. The grunt work, sending hundreds of emails, making countless phone calls, and collecting research on every person, company or place that I might encounter. I had to plan my itinerary, schedule flights, find rentals and figure out how I was going to get from place to place (not an easy feat in Alaska).
This meant I had to schedule interviews before I had my travel itinerary nailed down. But I couldn’t know my travel itinerary until I knew where I’d need to be. It was a delicate balancing act I had to master.
And of course, I had to work with a small budget. I was fortunate enough to be granted funding from the F&ES and Carpenter-Sperry Funds. And I was genuinely overwhelmed by and extremely appreciative of the amount of support I received. But Alaska is an extremely expensive place, and even with the tremendous generosity of F&ES, I was only partially funded.
It would have cost thousands in flights alone to reach all of the villages and parks that I wanted to get to, so I had to prioritize and make tough decisions. Through the standard car rental agencies, I was looking at a $2,500 bill for a rental car for just three weeks. And then there are certain places you’re prohibited to drive to (places that I, of course, wanted access to). And then there was the problematic issue of lodging. You’re lucky to find a place to stay under $200 a night in Alaska during the summer. And I was going to be there for a month. And don’t even think about eating anything.
At times it seemed like I would need a miracle to pull it off. But instead of a miracle, I learned just how resourceful and creative required to pursue one’s passions.
I explored low-cost equipment rental options, but ultimately cut almost my entire equipment budget by seeking out and securing free equipment through the Yale network. Instead of spending half of my budget on a rental car, I looked into clever alternatives – like renting a UHAUL pickup at a fraction of the price, or turning to Craigslist. I took a leap of faith and set up a three-week rental of an SUV through a Craigslist ad, complete with a 4 a.m. pickup, by myself. It turned out to be well worth the risk. I had a reliable vehicle for a third of the going rate, and the owner gave me permission to go wherever I needed to, liberating me from the beaten path.
Through serendipity, I came to know Janet Reiser, the chair of one of Alaska’s electrical utilities, and a family friend of Gordon Geballe. She opened her beautiful home to me, allowing me to stay for three weeks at no cost. To say that she saved me from paying a fortune in lodging costs wouldn’t quite cover it; Without Janet’s generosity, I would not have been able to make my journey what it was, and it certainly would have been much shorter. Janet also tapped into her own network on my behalf, hooking me up with colleagues and friends who could contribute to my film.
Connecting with these and many other people helped make the project so successful — and most of this happened before I stepped foot on an airplane. I met some of the most incredible and generous people all through my journey. It is sometimes surprising how willing people can be to help. It starts with knowing who to reach out to, how to approach them, how to present yourself, how to explain the project, what you can ask of people, and what to can offer in return, even if it’s just sincere gratitude.
With pre-production mercifully behind me, I left for Alaska. Ready or not. I spent the first few days getting familiar with my camera gear, learning the area, and setting up my home base at Janet’s house. She and I finalized some of the last-minute details for interviews and meetings, and then I hit the ground running. For four weeks I was on the go, travelling from interview to interview.
Filming interviews and B-roll as a one-person crew presented its own set of challenges. Being the interviewer as well as the cinematographer and sound technician was another difficult balancing act I had to master. With each interview I became more comfortable with the equipment, learned to trust it and myself, and was able to focus more on the conversation. This is not a skill that can be taught or learned through observation. Like so many before me have said, this is something you have to do yourself. Traditional internships would not have provided the kinds of opportunities that I could just make for myself.
Yes, I hit bumps, I had technical mishaps, and I made mistakes. This is something I knew and accepted before I ever left. I knew my footage would not be perfect. Of course, encountering some problems in the field is inevitable. Like an interviewee muting his microphone half way through a spectacular interview. But giving myself the impetus to learn — but also the room to make mistakes — was the ideal environment to learn.
<div style="margin-top:0;margin-bottom:0;"> <font color="black" face="Calibri,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif" size="3"><span id="divtagdefaultwrapper" style="font-size:12pt;">Christina snaps a picture of a Coast Guard Loadmaster as he prepares to deploy sensors that will collect data on sea ice.</span></font></div>
Perhaps the most dramatic example of what I was able to accomplish was that my journey, which started with a cold phone call to a researcher across the country, ended with me flying over the Arctic Circle strapped to the cargo ramp of a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft.
Earlier in the spring, while searching for Arctic research projects and possible contacts, I read about Jamie Morison, an oceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle.Jamie had been the principal investigator for the North Pole Environmental Observatory for 16 years and was involved in National Science Foundation and NASA-funded projects on the Arctic. So I picked up the phone and called him out of the blue.
Morison answered right away and we had a wonderful conversation about his research and funded projects in the Arctic. He mentioned that their trips to the Polar Science Center would not be funded this year, but asked if I’d be interested in going along on one of their Seasonal Ice Zone Reconnaissance Surveys, or SIZRS. This program partners with the Coast Guard to take measurements of the seasonal sea ice across the Beaufort-Chukchi Sea from a USCG Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Of course I wanted to go to the North Pole in a C-130!
I contained my childish glee, or at least I think I did, all through the weeks of planning, logistics, and security screening. When the day arrived, it was pretty incredible. The sea ice really is bright blue and white. I got as close to the doors as I could and got strapped in so I could get my footage.
Cargo doors were opened to roll out a large buoy, and the side doors were opened throughout the flight to toss out smaller remote sensors. I interviewed the SIZRS team, and most of their research and methods soared straight over my head. It is now my job to put together a coherent summary of the SIZRS project that the rest of us can understand.
The flight was about 10 hours, from takeoff to landing back at Kodiak Air Station. There were a few of us hitchhikers onboard, and both the Coast Guard aircrew and SIZRS team made us all feel welcome, encouraging us to get pictures, visit the cockpit, and watch the action.
Had I not had the audacity to call a prominent scientist out of the blue, I would never have even known of the opportunity that was out there for me to find and take advantage of.
While in Alaska, I also learned that I am not invincible and unshakeable as I had previously assumed. During a trip to the Root Glacier inside the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, between ice climbing and a terrifying drop into a glacier moulin, I got some real on-the-job experience with fear — and with the necessity of continuing to work in the grip of terror.
Read a detailed synopsis of my time in Wrangell-St. Elias in Sage Magazine.
We could hear the moulin before we could see it. A moulin is created when water cuts its way through the glacier, creating a massive well that can be hundreds of feet deep. The waterfall was thunderous and unsettling.
<div style="margin-top:0;margin-bottom:0;"> <font color="black" face="Calibri,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif" size="3"><span id="divtagdefaultwrapper" style="font-size:12pt;">Christina explores an ice cave, deep beneath the Root Glacier.</span></font></div>
Once we got all of the equipment in place, my guide, Cody, led me to the edge and instructed me how to lean back and walk down as he lowered the rope from the surface. I shuffled my feet to the edge, and began to lean back. I held onto the rope for dear life, but I came to a point where I couldn’t hold on any longer — I had to let go and allow myself to fall back into position.
In that moment, for the first time in my life, I experienced true fear. All-consuming, paralyzing terror. Never had I ever been more terrified in my life. I couldn’t even tell you what I was afraid of: Was I afraid of falling? Of the rope snapping, sending me falling to an icy grave? Either way, I was so gripped in fear that my mind simply stopped working.
As I hovered on the edge of the moulin, I also hovered on the edge of my rationality. Normally I would never use such a clichéd metaphor; in this case it has a quite literal meaning. When I craned my neck and looked down at the bottom that I could not see, I knew that I was close to crossing the line of my ability to control my fear. My dreams of a career in adventure filmmaking were literally hanging in the balance. If I couldn’t will myself to let go, how could I expect to become someone capable of doing much more in far more dangerous conditions?
Even Cody’s reassurance had little impact, and for one moment, I really thought that I couldn’t do it. I looked at him, looked at my feet, shuffled in desperation, and looked at Cody one more time.
And then I just… let go.
Dropping back into a rappelling position on the edge of a hundred-foot canyon is a pretty alarming feeling. It did not feel good.
<div style="margin-top:0;margin-bottom:0;"> <font color="black" face="Calibri,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif" size="3"><span id="divtagdefaultwrapper" style="font-size:12pt;">The view from Christina’s GoPro as she rappelled into the moulin.</span></font></div>
Once I was down and in position, the fear didn’t go away. I was pretty freaked out the whole time I was down there, but I was in control. I was able to look around and get some footage from my GoPro, and I was able to react appropriately when the rope slipped sideways and I smacked into the wall of ice.
I wish I had enjoyed it more. But this was a hands-on experience that taught me about fear, and what it’s going to be like as I continue down this career path. No other internship experience would have given me such a valuable lesson. It’s not a lesson I expected to have during my summer internship, and it probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t ventured off on my own.
After we left the moulin, we trekked into the moraine of the glacier, a vast area of the glacier covered with soil, rocks, and gravel, a sort of rocky version of the Sahara Desert. The sun beat down upon us as we crawled up and then skied down hills of rocks. We were searching for an ice cave, and our efforts were rewarded when we finally spotted a small opening that opened into a brilliant-blue ice cave. I had hoped to be able to explore such a cave, like National Geographic explorers have done before me, and it was everything I ever wanted it to be.
Cody and I were the first to discover this cave, and we went down as far as we could. As we crawled around, I made mental notes of the kinds of equipment I might need on my next adventure.
As I reflected on everything that I had accomplished in Alaska, I could not imagine having taken any other path. It was undoubtedly an incredibly challenging experience — mentally, professionally, and physically. My tired and bruised body bore evidence to the epic journey. And I arrived home with hundreds of hours of footage to sort through.
As exhausted as I was, I was, and still am, far from done. Now I have a movie to make.
The footage will be used for the film I am making. But beyond that, I need to find ways to use this footage to build up my professional portfolio. (That’s another advantage of doing my own internship: I own the footage. Had I interned with a company I would likely not be able to claim any media as my own. And in the unlikely event that I was involved in creating media, I’d probably have to request permission to use it for my portfolio.)
Now there is a tremendous amount of pressure on me to deliver a film worthy of everyone who contributed to it. My interviewees, funders, and everyone in between — even the guy from Craigslist who rented his RAV4 to me — I owe them my very best.
There is one other person that I owe my best to. That’s myself. I gave everything I had to this project. If I hadn’t taken this path, it would have been a disservice to myself. And I would have known it.
It was more challenging, uncertain, risky and audacious than anything else I could have done. But it was the right choice. I learned more about myself and my profession than I could ever enumerate. I suspect I’ll continue to learn from the experience even as my career progresses.
Christina Stone is a second-year Master of Environmental Management student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and former editor of Yale Environment Review.
<div style="margin-top:0;margin-bottom:0;"> <font color="black" face="Calibri,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif" size="3"><span id="divtagdefaultwrapper" style="font-size:12pt;">Icebergs floating at the base of the Knik Glacier at the mouth of the Knik River.</span></font></div>