Palmer Station: Home of the Party People and the Penguins

Glacier hiking, whiskey over glacier ice, and a little light penguin stalking makes for an awesome time at Palmer Station.

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After a smooth as butter crossing across the Drake Passage and the most scenic views I’d ever seen (read and see them HERE) in my life, we arrived at Palmer Station, Antarctica which is located on the Southern tip of Anvers Island. The first thing we were greeted with after leaving the Neumayer Channel and entered into the realm of Palmer was the smell. Some complained, but others like me relished in the smell of hundreds of penguins perched upon high rocks in the heat of breeding season. Although not visible, proud parents stood guard of tiny penguin chicks on several of these rocks surrounding station. We watched a few awkward Gentoo’s and Adelie’s slide and waddle around on the rocks.

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As we approached the station, we were greeted with two VERY large icebergs that were taller than the ship. In order to dock we even had to sail right next to one. We were so close you could feel the cold coming off the berg. If you had a broomstick, you could have touched it. Don’t worry – since I’m here writing this…we didn’t share the same fate as the Titanic.

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Folks at Palmer Station all walked out of the station to greet us with waves, excited to meet new people and receive a shipment of goods (and freshies! Remember talking about the freshies HERE?). We arrived at station a whole half a day early which was amazing because we had more time to explore and get to know the scientists living and working there.

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Palmer Station itself sits at the bottom of a very large glacier, and for those willing to make the climb – it offers the most breathtaking views of the station, Arthur Harbor, and the back side of the mountains lining the Neumayer Channel.

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My inner Texan panicked at the words “glacier hike”. I’ll just preface this with the fact that everyone around me is either East Coast or used to the snow or has been coming to Antarctica for years. Then you’ve got me. Little Texas girl who has maybe seen snow three times in her life and walked in ankle deep snow once. Yet I was brave enough to go along with this glacier hiking. After asking around and gathering as much advice from the rest of the scientists on board I finally figured out what to wear, bring, etc. Dressing in a single layer of long underwear with short sleeves and yoga pants on top I was ready (it’s really not THAT cold here guys). I layered two pairs of wool socks under the world’s largest and clunkiest “hiking boots” that I obtained from gear issue back in South America. Remember the last post where we talked about gear issue being completely cleaned out by the folks on the other research vessel (if not read it HERE)? That was the case here. These boots were HUGE and HEAVY. You’ll see where this ends up in a bit.

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Grabbing sunglasses and my Mahi buff (I refused to leave that at home!) I was out the door, across the gangway, and joining my lab group to go on a hike. The first portion of the hike is through what is called the “backyard” behind Palmer Station. It is a very rocky pit underneath the glacier, which can get quite slippery when covered in snow and ice. A flock of Skua (really ugly and vicious brown birds, like angry ravens) settled in the rock a few hundred feet away from us. I made sure to keep my distance because they are notorious for attacking anything in their path.

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After making it out of the backyard, that is where the climb began. First we climbed over dense ice that had been carved by melting snow (remember it is summer time here). After making it through this portion of the hike, came the hard part: the white fluffy shit. As a native Texan, it is engrained in my DNA to hate the white fluffy shit that is referred to as snow. Very pretty to look at, but we are not physically adapted to handle it.

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I’m the little short thing with the blue backpack and the camo beanie.

My first step into the white fluffy shit landed me knee deep. It was at this moment in time that I began to think about all those skipped gym days and how actually pushing myself on the elliptical would have been a good idea. The initial hike through this white fluffy shit was not as bad as I thought. I kept pace with my group. Then came the fall.

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Those damn clunky boots, like extra lead weights strapped to my feet betrayed me on this uphill hike. I felt my ankle twist below me and then searing pain. I said a few choice words and continued to try and keep pace with my group. The effort was in vain as I was left alone to enjoy the view and endure the white fluffy shit. Mind you, this is a glacier, a nearly vertical climb upward. The promise of the view kept me going as I struggled to drag my bum ankle through the snow. With the sun shining brightly above me, I wanted to strip down to shorts and a t-shirt. I began feeling like Chevy Chase in that scene from National Lampoon’s Vacation after they had been stranded in the desert.

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After arriving at the top of this glacier looking like a war torn victim with even more hate for snow…it was worth it. In combination with being out of shape and making this climb…the view completely took my breath away.

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Silence. You could hear nothing. No cars, no planes above, no chatter of other human beings. Just silence until the loud rumble of thunder in the background broke this silence. We listened as we heard the wind blow around us and glaciers cave into the sea below. I have a really hard time conveying to my readers just how pristine and beautiful this place truly is. Being off of the grid for the most part has been an amazing experience. You have a lot of time to just sit back, relax, and enjoy how great life truly is.

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While others hiked down the other side of the glacier (and had to eventually come back up). I opted out with my bum ankle. I also wanted a few moments alone at the top of this glacier to just sit and reflect and not think about papers, deadlines, bills to be paid, and any other daily worries. This was probably one of the healthiest moments I’ve had lately with the amount of stress I had been under the months leading up to this voyage. I was truly grateful for it and I hope that by sharing my pictures and stories that my readers can draw off some of that positive energy.

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After spending some time on top of the glacier, it was time to make my way back down which was a MUCH more enjoyable experience as my back was no longer turned to the view and that I did not have to struggle through thigh deep snow on an upward incline.

Once I returned to the ship….I showered and slept because it had been quite the day. Tomorrow’s adventure? A game of speed dating (David approved).

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The next morning after sleeping in (until 10 AM!) I had a late breakfast with my favorite bearded sailor and we made plans to go walk around the station for a bit and hopefully get a tour. One of my lab mates showed us around. We explored the lab areas, galley, and then were taken to the recreational building. There was a fully stocked gym, cabins where scientists stayed, a lounge with a big tv, movies, etc., a bar (woohoo!) and a deck located on the other side of the bar (with amazing views of the harbor, of course!).

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The best part was a tall, slightly rickety ladder that led to a crow’s nest on top of the rec building and guess what was at the top…..EVEN MORE AMAZING VIEWS!

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The folks at Palmer are truly blessed to live in such a beautiful, ever changing environment. We were showed where the store was afterwards (it only opens for a half hour at a time and usually only when there are guests in town) and a really neat closet called “SKUA” but unlike the bird, there were no surprise attacks. It is simply a closet where station off-going occupants can donate items like clothes, costumes, etc. for others to take. There is no shortage of crazy costumes in the closet. We found a mullet wig, a flamingo hat (which I took as my lucky MOCNESS costume), a mermaid tail, and a whole stack full of sweaters fit for the rack at your local Goodwill.

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After a tour, we were left to explore the station on our own, which resulted in some heavy penguin stalking. Yes readers, I did squeal in delight as I saw my first Gentoo penguin up close. There was even more shrieking as I watched it awkwardly slip and fall into the ice cold water. These awkward little tuxedo chickens will quickly work their way into the hearts of whoever is watching.

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For those asking me for feathers, rocks, whole penguins (greedy bunch you are) it is strictly forbidden! In order to keep this continent pristine and healthy, the Antarctic Treaty states that you’re not allowed to bring any part of it back and you’re only allowed to be within 5 meters of any animal, or farther away if their behavior becomes altered due to your presence.

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A quick lunch followed, and reading a book while sitting on the deck and basking in the sunshine. We got word that the station store was set to open at 5PM for thirty minutes. Everyone impatiently waited outside as this is the one chance in the cruise to buy alcohol since we have a dry ship (all alcohol gets labeled with your name and left at the Palmer Station bar). Oh and t-shirts and all that good crap for your family, of course. Spoiler alert: You’re all getting stickers!

At 6PM we suited up to go for a zodiac (smaller, raft looking boats) ride in Arthur Harbor. Donning a couple base layers, float coat, hat, gloves, water proof pants, and boots feeling much like Ralphie’s brother from A Christmas story, we hobbled into zodiacs from the floating dock next to the ship.

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This actually isn’t what I wore but it felt like it.

Brash ice (really flaky, thinner ice) from the two icebergs that greeted us when we docked at station now littered the waters around the ship and dock. Our zodiac tore through it easily as we made our way into Arthur Harbor. We got a close up view of two different penguin colonies (and smell). After checking the penguins out and watching them awkwardly hobble and slide into the water, we cruised over to some really cool icebergs. There’s something really special about the beautiful, turquoise blue ones that just captivate everyone who visits. Iceberg blue, as I have been calling it, is one of my new favorite colors.

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We were able to see a few elephant seals snoozing lazily in the late afternoon sun on some of the bergs. Our zodiac captain even brought us next to a small, rocky piece of land (located right between the two penguin colonies of course) called “Seal Island” where most of the Palmer seals could be found.

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We ventured a little further into the harbor checking out some icebergs when another scientist pointed out seeing a whale surface in the distance. Excitedly we began heading towards the whale. We must have found the most curious whale in the harbor because as we headed towards him, he decided to surface within feet of our zodiac. We all screamed, some out of excitement because whales are awesome, but in my case because A) I thought that whale was going to flip our zodiac B) The water is cold as a witch’s titty and C) For the second time in the past six months, I didn’t want to pee my pants again.

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Luckily another passenger in the zodiac was quick enough to take some amazing pictures of the Humpback whale, so what I’m sharing on this blog is his work, thank you to Tyler from the Ducklow lab for sharing your pictures with the rest of us and catching that beautiful moment in time!

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Sorry readers, I was not brave enough to bring my camera into the zodiac (I did have my phone though). We slowly puttered around this whale for at least 30 minutes as he put on a show for us, surfacing, waving, spewing water from his blowhole. I will say it again…I am not a mammals person, but realizing how small you are next to a creature that large and beautiful…it is really a humbling experience.

We rushed back to station to change and get ready for speed dating. David approved, of course! The game was much more like speed friending, it was a great opportunity to spend 4 minutes getting to know each of the scientists and what brought them to Palmer Station. There were no fellow Texans, sadly. We had score cards to score each of our dates, either you loved them, wanted to get to know them better, meh, or disliked them. Everyone was pretty interesting and only two people got dislikes. One was a crotchety old man, and the other was a lady who said she hated all Texans and donkeys. I can’t be friends with anyone who dislikes donkeys. That’s just a deal breaker. By far my favorite “date” of the night was a guy about a foot shorter than me whose name was “Hot Mike”. Anyone who shares whiskey with me out of a nalgene sample bottle gets a heart on the speed dating score sheet.

After spending some time getting to know the Palmer Station folks, we all took our purchased booze from the Palmer Station store (they had a REALLY extensive selection) and headed to the bar. Tonight was DANCE PARTY NIGHT!

On the porch of the bar was a large block of glacier ice older than your great grandparents. Probably sounds like some fancy city slicker bar, but it was just collected from the harbor via zodiac. We all spent some time socializing and asking about research, and how the hell did you get to Antarctica and then when everyone began feeling it…the dance party began.

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To be in the Steinberg Zooplankton Lab…it is a requirement that you like to dance. Our advisor, Debbie was front and center on the floor. The party continued until 12:30 when the station bar shuts down. We all walked back to the ship, admiring penguins and seals along the way. There’s something to be said about having so much fun in the most desolate place on Earth.

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Can you spot the seal and penguin? They were ready to crash for the night.

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The next day we spent some time on deck building our MOCNESS net. MOCNESS for all my non-fisheries folk stands for multiple opening and closing net and environmental sensing system. Pretty much it’s 9 nets that are strung on a frame and a scientist at a computer tells the net when to open and close each one. It allows us to sample and catch critters at different depths. This is really useful since we usually see quite a bit of diversity between the ranges of depths. The net will also give us a read out of environmental data such as temperature and salinity (how salty the water is).

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The unfinished MOCNESS in all its glory.

We spent our morning adding the nets to the frames and what we call the “cod” ends. It’s a PVC pipe with mesh covered holes that all the animals get collected in as we pull the net through the water. They have to be fastened to the net with clips and then…duct taped for extra security. Duct tape is a staple in our lab!

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After building the MOCNESS we spent some time discussing how all of the lab work and deck work would be done and did a few mock run throughs. Believe it or not…studying the zooplankton is so much more than just putting nets in the water. It takes a team to ensure that there is a successful net tow. We have an MT (marine technician) and another lab member on deck who are responsible for putting the net in the water, making sure flowmeters (they record the total volume of water that has gone through the net) are attached, communicating with the winch operator, bridge (where the captain and mates drive the ship from), and the lab. Inside the lab is another person who must record data pertaining to the net tow such as water temperature, salinity, wind speed and direction, sea ice coverage and wave height, GPS coordinates, time, specific tow and event numbers, and much more. Communication between all the parties via ship radio is key in this whole process! Not to mention in the rolling seas the deck is a VERY dangerous place. It can be slippery, objects such as weights, nets, frames, etc. can cause operators to trip. The ship has a large gate at the stern which opens up so nets can be deployed. A steep drop leads to the abyss below which on average is about 3000 feet deep (Usually it ranges from 600-9000 feet deep). A fall into this water would kill you within minutes as hypothermia and shock set in. However, if you’re working deploying nets (which I do most of the time!) you have to be tethered to the ship with a safety line that prevents you from falling overboard. The part that concerns me the most is that the nets are made with large, steel frames. A simple miscalculation by the winch operator or shift in the wind could cause the net to knock out or crush a person to death. A hydraulic A-frame at the stern aids the winch in lowering these nets into the water. You’re probably realizing by now just how large they are….they have radii of ~3 feet and ~6 feet and are probably about 30-50 feet long. I’ll stop here with describing the logistics…for more info you’ll have to read my next few posts about life on the ship and doing science at sea!

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The Palmer Station Lab

After building nets and getting some lab work done before leaving port (guys I actually science-d INSIDE the Palmer Station lab!) I decided to take a much needed nap after dinner. When I woke up, I realized I had missed trivia night at the station. I did happen to catch a great photo of an oddly shaped iceberg.

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Early the next morning we pulled away from the station. I was nervous at the fact that the real deal was about to begin. I had already shared a week’s worth of time with all the experts on this boat…and now it was time to perform.

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Keep it classy, friends. Until next time.

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Palmer in shorts? Okay.

–The Girl with the Big Bass

The Journey

Adventures in South America!

*Disclaimer: This is a really long blog post!*

Day 1:

Houston, Texas (HOU) –> Dallas, Texas (DFW)

I left Texas with a heavy heart after telling my favorite little fish at work goodbye and hugging my family tight. I thought about how much taller my two nephews would be when I returned. I hoped that orange Julius (our cat) didn’t feel abandoned. I worried that he might have chosen to run away, but let’s be real the only thing that fatty runs for is food being dropped in the bowl. I shoved my face full of Whataburger and Dr. Pepper as a last meal.

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Security through Houston was a breeze and I even had time to do some people watching at my gate (See my last post here). However, the first flight began with a rocky start. I was crammed into an express jet that had an overhead that wasn’t even able to fit my carry on. Typical. Frazzled and panicked that I’d have to check the bag that held the most important shit I had to pack for this trip, the flight attendant let me unpack the bag and fit the contents into the overhead (you’re welcome for me transporting your camera, David, it was the culprit). For a minute there I was that bumbling idiot “You can’t check my bag, you can’t have it!” But don’t worry guys – this isn’t where the post ends. The scene from Meet the Parents did not end up becoming real life for me.

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I definitely looked like a frazzled idiot. I want to thank all the folks on that flight for their help. Also not thank you to the women in the back who whispered back and forth about blessing my poor little heart. For all my non-southern readers, this basically means “Screw you” in southern speak.

Also, let’s take a minute to talk about stress sweat. Readers – we are past the point of awkward comfortability in this blog. You already got a chance to read about how at the age of 23, I peed my pants (And if you haven’t you can read all about it here).

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Stress sweat is a real thing. My poor hoodie at this point of the bag debacle had rings down to my side. Embarrassing. The poor guy next to me probably thought he had to sit next to the stinky kid. I swear I smelled like peaches because my dove deodorant has never failed me!

Dallas (DFW) –> Santiago, Chile (SCL)

Then came riding the tram in the DFW airport which was much like being in a Guatemalan taxi (which I’ve never been in but my friend Corbin decided to coin this phrase and it stuck). It only took me a couple rides to get to the correct gate. The flight itself wasn’t bad, it had Wi-Fi, movies, and even a charging port. This was the really long, overnight flight (about 9.5 hours).

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This is actually what comes up on Google when you type in “Guatemalan Taxi”.

Day 2:

Dallas (DFW) –> Santiago, Chile (SCL) CONTINUED

Let’s talk for a bit about trying to sleep on a plane. As a person who can easily sleep sitting up in class, in a shark cradle on a rocking boat, or even just passed out on the floor, I could not sleep on this flight. It was the most uncomfortable thing on the planet. I joked when USAP (United States Antarctic Program) sent me a little sheet about relieving cramps, improving circulation, and discomfort while flying. The cramps were real. I think I slept for about 2 hours. The food was actually pretty decent. A fellow scientist here got an upgrade to first class – which we were all completely jealous of…

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Upon landing in Santiago, Chile is where the real circus began. I thought I would be coming in alone, but the group from the Northeast arrived at the same time. The “science crew” as we called the 25 people crazy enough to come down here to study, was marshalled through immigration by a little agent named Jimmy. I happily collected my first “real” stamp on my passport, finally (sorry guys I can’t even count our cruise as a first foreign country experience, being herded like cattle through a tourist fronted place and eating at Margaritaville is not travelling).

I am thankful that this leg of the trip went well because I was the most worried about getting lost in the Santiago airport.

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I’m not really sure what M&M’s was going for here.

Santiago, Chile (SCL) –> Puerto Montt, Chile (PMC)

Luggage had to be recollected and checked again for our now domestic flights. Our customs forms were snapped up by Jimmy and we passed through with no issue at all (don’t worry family, I was well taken care of). The drug dogs were particularly cute and not as serious as their American counterparts.

Mounds of luggage and the “science crew” were then transported to Jimmy’s office where we would wait between the two flights. With so much spare time I got my first taste of Chilean food and dose of culture shock. We decided to dine at a place called Gatsby’s but first had to go to the ATM to get pesos. I really should have taken the time to figure out what the conversion rate was. I got 150,000 from the ATM which was equivalent to about $220 USD. My first foreign meal was “Ave con palta” which translate roughly to sandwich with avocado, chicken, and mayonnaise. Chileans LOVE mayonnaise. I was able to figure this out on the first day after receiving a sandwich with about half a year’s portion worth of mayonnaise. Also once you venture into Chile water is no longer just “agua” like my ignorance had hoped. You must order either “aqua sin gas” or “aqua con gas”. Do you want water with no bubbles or sparkling water? Thankfully someone with better Spanish could tell me what the waitress was rattling off furiously trying to explain to me. In order to pay the bill, you must as for “la cuenta” which is something I remembered from my first basic Spanish class (gracias senora Bailey). Unlike the states, when you sit down to eat a meal as a group you enjoy one another’s company and the waitress/waiter will not burden you with a check in hopes to get rid of you.

After eating lunch, it was time to begin the process of re-checking bags, going through security, and then waiting at the gate for the next round of flights. The flight to Puerto Montt was particularly gorgeous. We passed over many mountain ranges, rolling hills, and even a couple of volcanoes from what I could understand. I was told by seasoned veterans that the best scenery would come on the next flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas. While waiting at the gate in Santiago for the last small stretch of flights, all I could think about how was in my life I had never wanted to lay horizontal and drink a beer so bad in my life.

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Puerto Montt, Chile (PMC) –> Punta Arenas, Chile (PUQ)

Once we arrived at Puerto Montt, we were lucky enough to stay seated on the same plane (which had an AWESOME amount of leg room). I was thankful to not have to do the airport shuffle again but this would have been the easiest navigable airport of all that we visited. Puerto Montt has exactly one runway and five gates. You can see the entire airport from your window just sitting on the tarmac.

After picking up another round of passengers, we were ready for the last flight of the journey down South, from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, Chile. As the others had indicated, the scenery was even more beautiful before as some type of foreshadowing that the further south we went, the prettier it got. I spent most of this plane ride trying to sleep for a few minutes then waking up to snap a picture, sleep, snap, sleep, snap.

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Finally flying over the blue waters of this port town, we had arrived in Punta Arenas. From my airplane window I immediately recognized the bright orange hull of the ship that I’d call home for the next 45 days. My heart fluttered a bit thinking I was also a little bit closer to being reunited again with David after almost two months of being apart. I am very thankful that we’re getting to cheat the system and win more time together. I was also thankful that once we arrived in Punta Arenas, I’d have my own tour guide who had spent a couple years down here.

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The first night in Punta Arenas

From the airport the “science crew” was ushered out with bags in hand (or cart in our cases which are FREE at airports down here) to vans where we loaded up and headed for a hotel for a night stay on the town. Once we arrived at Diego del Almagro we were issued key cards to our rooms. If you have never traveled to and stayed in another foreign country let me bestow a bit of advice upon you: apparently you have to “activate” the lights before they will actually come on. I decided to use the bathroom, change, and freshen up for dinner a la phone flashlight because I could NOT figure out how to get the lights on in my room. Apparently you have to insert your key card into a port near the door to activate the lights. I was able to figure it out as others had also shared my same struggle. I was thankful that I was not looked upon as the dumb redneck child “Hey y’all, how do you get these fancy lights to come on?”

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So I should begin by explaining that this “science crew” is divided up into a few separate labs. The purpose of this LTER cruise is for scientists of many, specific disciplines to come together to look at the overall health of the Antarctic ecosystem. Most of the scientists here are veterans, who come every year to continue with their research. Much like explaining the cafeteria in the movie Mean Girls, you have your “cliques” or as we like to call them, labs.

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Basically me being thrown into the shuffle this year.

First you have your phytoplankton crew, commonly called the “Ducklings” led by a man with the last name Ducklow. This group works closely with our second group, the oceanographers. Their work is definitely fascinating and makes me wish I would have paid more attention to Mr. Coleman as a super senior in oceanography at A&M. The third group is us, the zooplankton group, or as we’ve been calling ourselves the “Steinburglers” (our principle investigator’s (PI) last name is Steinberg) or “The Copepod Crew” or “The Krillers”. I like to think that we are definitely the most fun. At our first dinner, the question our PI had asked was, “Do you all like to dance?” and I knew immediately that this was probably the lab I belonged in. The fourth group are the birders who come along to study the penguin colonies and spend some time camping out with them to observe their behavior. The final group are the mammal folks, which much like the birders are doing some really cool science. But Katie, you definitely don’t like marine mammals most of you would say. These guys are probably doing the most bad ass form of science on this ship, and have changed my opinion of mammal people (sorry but most of the barbies we’re forced to be with in the MARB program at TAMUG are NOT cut out for this work). So here it is….these guys go out in zodiacs (smaller boats) to shoot at whales with cross bows. WHAT?! These are really special crossbows that actually take out a plug of tissue and blubber that these guys will be using to study populations and individuals on a molecular level. The arrows are designed to float after the plug of tissue has been removed, at which the mammal guys retrieve from the water and store samples from. And in case you’re wondering, you have to be part of the lab to actually shoot one of the whales (I am saddened by this). I have to say that overall this is a VERY fun crew full of knowledgeable people. I am honored to be here and even to be considered a part of this crew because what these folks do is truly amazing. The spirit here is very collaborative. Each group works together for the greater good of the cause and this really makes for an amazing learning environment for the couple of undergrads who were lucky enough to tag along.

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If you want to see exactly what we are doing out here, please watch the documentary about the LTER program and crew that is on Netflix: The Antarctic Edge: 70 degrees South. You’ll get to see all the characters I work with and the type of science we will be conducting.

So back to venturing around in Punta Arenas, the science crew began splitting into labs for dinner and the night out on the town. Our lab chose to eat at a restaurant called “El Broccolino” which actually had no broccoli on the menu.

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Most of the main dishes here are seafood based since the town is built around a small port. I settled on some conger and king crab drizzled in scallop sauce. Conger is a very flaky, white meat fish with a wonderful texture and somewhat sweet taste. Paired with a nice white Chilean wine….I was in heaven. I was also able to eat a thai spiced octopus tentacle which was delicious! My best advice for those visiting another country is to just immerse yourself in the culture and TRY EVERYTHING! I even tried the local drink of choice, a pisco sour (a liquor tasting like tequila and wine mixed with some sweet and sour mix and sometimes a blend of spices). El Broccolino did not make me a fan of this as they spiked the drink with some type of weird spices, like a mix of nutmeg and cayenne pepper. I decided that I’d have to try my second pisco sour somewhere else. After spending a fair amount of time socializing and getting to know one another, we asked for “la cuenta”. It was approximately 10:30 PM when we left. It does not get dark down here until about 11:00 PM and becomes light around 5:30 AM. It is VERY weird getting used to but the increased light really gives you more energy.

Our next stop of the night was to the local watering hole, a real hole in the wall type of bar called “Colonial”. For all my Galveston friends, this place reminds me of Murphy’s except for instead of pizza they serve a dish with French fries, mayonnaise, and hot dog wieners to their drunken clientele. I got my first taste of being ripped off as I did not speak very much Spanish. I order a “Jack Daniels numero siete y Coke” and was given about half a pint glass’ worth of whiskey and a diet coke. For some reason I was charged 19,000 pesos when most drinks are around 4,000-9,000. I really didn’t know any better so I figured I’d just continue on with my buzz and shut up.

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At the stroke of midnight, a short bearded man with a huge smile entered the bar. Much like the redneck version of Cinderella, prince charming and I had a couple more whiskey drinks before he walked me back to my hotel. Punta Arenas is full of huge, stray dogs. These strays are very friendly and after a couple pats, will follow you anywhere. There are many husky, lab, and German shepherd mixes. If I had all the money in the world, I’d open a shelter and possibly adopt all of the Punta Arenas dogs. Unfortunately, since they are strays, there’s no telling what kind of diseases they may actually carry. I was scolded by David as I ran through the streets wanting to love all the dogs. After we parted ways, I settled into bed to ready myself for the busy day that would lie ahead.

Day 3:

The last day in port

After a good night’s sleep, we began our third day of the journey. Our busy schedule included wellness checks, receiving cold weather gear, boarding the ship, and unloading our large shipping container of gear and organizing it into a lab.

A short, ten minute walk from our hotel to the port brought us to the USAP warehouse where we were broken into small groups and led into a room, much interrogation style, and asked a few questions mostly to make sure that we did not have Ebola. After answering questions, a freaking laser beam was pointed at your forehead to make sure that you were not running a fever. I’m not entirely sure how accurate this was since my sweaty forehead was probably hotter than the rest of my body. I was told I was “okay”.

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After making sure everyone had a flu shot (I got mine in the states and not in the creepy warehouse!) we were ushered into a small room for gear pick up. Duffel bags with what was supposed to be our size gear (we mail in a sheet with our measurements) were distributed. Short doesn’t always equal skinny and everything in my bag was an extra small. I had the joy of exchanging everything and being questioned. Sorry folks, my cornbread fed body isn’t squeezing into a pair of bibs (rubber pants with suspenders) that is a size extra small. Talk about a busted can of biscuit dough looking body. I don’t even think I could fit a leg into those damn things.

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Gear was VERY limited due to the fact that the other Antarctic R/V (research vessel) had raided their stocks. I was lucky enough to receive my waterproof deck suit, steel toe deck boots, classic red parka with USAP patch, hiking boots, face mask, goggles, fleece pants, gloves of every type, neck gaiter, and a couple of hats. It was much of a scene of chaos as everyone struggled to get gear in their size, switching between each other, trying on, etc.

Once I arrived on the ship (our luggage and gear was to be delivered) we began unloading a shipping container full of our lab gear. We spent the morning until lunchtime unloading this container which contained our nets, glassware, incubators, and everything we needed to do science with. We made a brisk walk across the town square after leaving the port to a small sandwich shop where we ate maybe pork? sandwiches and returned back to the ship. I am going to hope that this weird meat was in fact pork and not Punta Arenas stray dog or something of the sort (as I’m writing this I’m on day four and still not sick so no worries).

We had a short safety meeting and got some general info about the house rules on the ship. We then broke back into our groups and began setting up our lab. Organizing glassware, tools, and materials into drawers and labeling. At the end of the day we cleaned up and ventured back out on the town for some comida y cervezas (food and beer all of my non Spanish speaking friends).

Round two of pisco sours went much better at a little restaurant called “La Luna”. I had another version of the pisco sour called the pisco calafate. Calfate refers to these tiny little black berries that are crushed and emulsified into a syrup. The sweetness of the calafate berries definitely balanced the drink out and I was very impressed. Food once again was delicious, portions are absolutely loaded with seafood here. I order a spicy baked shrimp (which actually came in more of a soup form) each spoonful of the soupy mixture yielded at least 2-3 shrimp. Once again, I was in heaven.

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La Luna – where we had dinner on the second night. It was a neat little place.

From here we took some time to explore the square which contained a very large statue of Magellan in the center. The bronze statue had age, but its foot was shiny. It is good luck when crossing the Drake Passage (the area of the ocean that divides Antarctica from South American) to actually rub the foot of the statue. Looking at the statue you’ll see that it is an honored tradition that many folks still participate in. It reminded me much of rubbing the anchor at TAMUG before exam day. I grabbed the entire foot of the statue like a maniac with a fetish because having a rough Drake crossing was not something I was ready for yet.

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From the square, we ventured into a very elegant hotel bar where we indulged in a glass or two of “vino blanco”. For all my wine drinking friends, the Chilean white wines are EXCELLENT!

A short walk to Colonial was next. We all debated whether toxifying our livers or sleep was in order. You can probably guess what a bunch of scientists stuck on a ship for 45 days would have picked. There is absolutely no drinking allowed on the ship because A) we are at work and B) it is VERY dangerous. The ship alone is dangerous enough with having to step over door frames, handle the world’s steepest stairs, and navigate through large water tight doors (which can easily take a finger off if they close on it).

After several Jack Daniels y Cokes we all stumbled back to the ship celebrating our last night of freedom. David had met up with us after he got off work and I was glad he was there to baby sit me. I thought it was a wonderful idea to climb into an abandoned shopping cart on the sidewalk and he thought it was an even better idea to push me back to the ship in said cart. So here I was drunkenly rolling through the streets of a small, South American port city with the love of my life in a grocery cart. If you asked me a year ago if I would have participated in such shenanigans, I would have thought you were crazy.

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After stumbling back up into the ship (David, thanks for all of your sober help) we all parted ways into our respective quarters and thus was the end of our last night in port.

Day 4:

Embarkation

After a light snooze David and I were able to venture out on the town for breakfast and a stroll before departing from Punta Arenas. The Unimarc is a super market a few blocks away from the ship. We picked up some last minute items and went to a small empanada shop for breakfast. After strolling back onto the ship they began loading a large crate of what we call “freshies”. This is the code word for fruits and vegetables which people run to the galley for at meal time to enjoy since they only last for the first couple of weeks. Avocadoes go very quickly.

After loading freshies, picking up a few more scientists, and getting some gear on board we were ready to depart. Working in the lab, I could feel the rumble of the main engines beneath my feet and knew that David was hard at work getting us out of port!

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I hope everyone enjoyed the post – in a couple days I’m hoping to get some pictures and stories up about sailing through the Drake Passage and Neumayer Channel. I’ve also had some requests to share what it’s like to be on board! As soon as I clean my bunk up I’d love to share with you guys.

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Our first sunset from the ship as we sailed through the Magellan Straits.

Until next time,

–The Girl With the Big Bass

Turning The Texan Into a Popsicle

One of the main reasons why I’ve chosen to finally start this blog is because I was lucky enough to receive an internship with the National Science Foundation (NSF) aboard a research vessel bound for…ANTARCTICA.

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This will be my home for 6 weeks! The R/V Laurence M. Gould.

Many of you have had a lot of questions about the process and what I’ll be doing so I thought I would take the chance to answer my most frequently asked questions and give a little insight on the process of getting cleared to go, etc.

1. Katie…isn’t it cold there? You’ll freeze to death!

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It’s actually summer time down there so average temperatures (for this week) have been in the 30’s so it won’t be too cold. But yes, much colder than my inner Texan agrees with. Long underwear, check. You can check the weather here if you’re interested: https://www.wunderground.com/aq/palmer-station

     2. Can you bring me a penguin back?

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Yeah. This is a solid no. If I can’t have one you can’t either, but I promise to post plenty of pictures. Comment if you want to be added to my email list for whenever I won’t be able to update this blog!

     3. What exactly will you be doing on the boat?

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These are what the moorings look like.

I am part of a cruise called LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) and we are doing a lot of things! My primary goal is to handle oceanographic moorings (retrieval and deployment) but since that is such a small portion of the actual research cruise, I’ll be acting as a intern in a couple different labs. I’ll be working with a phytoplankton and zooplankton lab. Most of my job will involve sorting out fish and inverts from trawls and recording data. We work in 12 hour shifts.

    4. So are you and David going to be bunk mates?

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I get this one a lot. David happens to work on the same ship – but we are both at work, therefore we will not be bunk mates. While we are happy to share this life event together, there’s a certain level of professionalism we both hope to maintain.

   5. What do you do in your spare time while on the boat?

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I haven’t figured out what exactly I’ll be doing but I love sleep, reading books, and watching movies. I’ll probably be catching up on some shows and a huge list of books that I’d actually like to read (that aren’t scientific). I’ll probably be grudgingly working on my thesis as well.

So these are the five questions I generally get asked the most, besides “When are you leaving/coming back?”

Continue reading “Turning The Texan Into a Popsicle”

The Top 10 Things I Would Buy With My Funding…If I Could

Micropipettes, whiskey, and donkeys, oh my!

In the spirit of the season and giving, let’s talk a little bit about funding.

There are people out there who are willing to fork over thousands of dollars for anyone willing to do research. I’ve learned recently that if you’re an undergraduate dumb enough to do a thesis, the amount of financial resources out there is overwhelming. I spent my entire fall semester writing proposals and applying for grants and walked away with thousands of dollars for my research.

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For the first time in life I feel…RICH BITCH! Kidding…a genetics project is expensive, but for some lightheartedness – this is a list of ten things I’d buy with my funding, for the lab, of course, if I could.

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1. The biggest pack of googly eyes possible.

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Guys, let’s face it. Everything suddenly becomes funnier with a pair of googly eyes. I actually feel like I might have company on those long nights waiting for samples to process.

     2. A lab donkey.

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Enough said. Do you know that you can give a perfectly good donkey a home for as little as $200? There are donkeys out there that need homes. This goes back to those times in the lab where you just need to hug something warm and furry. Plus someone else can finally be called the biggest asshole in the lab. His name is going to be Max. As in gluteus maximus.

     3. Drone shipping for my primers.

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I have been waiting for my primers for entirely too long. I can’t science without them. This is why I have enough time to actually write this blog post.

     4. A tuxedo for Max the lab donkey.

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What is Max supposed to wear when we go to conferences? He’s a part of the team now. We can’t just leave him naked in the lab all the time. Do they make donkey tuxes?

     5. DJ Roomba from Parks and Rec.

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Not only will we have music while we work, but someone to clean who isn’t us. Win win.

    6. A “water” dispenser.

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Channeling my inner Hemingway may be necessary if I’m going to crack out an entire thesis by April. Sorry for drinking the devil’s water, Nana.

    7. A pizza dispensing machine.

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   Because pizza. And whiskey.

8. Ping pong door.

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Because all those pizza and whiskey calories need to be worked off somehow. All major decisions in the lab will now be made by ping pong tournament results.

    9. A hammock for this weird beam in our lab.

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Prime time for taking naps during PCR’s. Thanks to Bri the lovely model (who consequently lost her foot in a terrible Photoshop accident).

    10. A tracker for our advisor.

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They’re either never around when you need them or around when you’re trying to hide something or hide from them. There’s no in between. He wears the same shoes every day, if only we could find a way to hide it…

Well that’s it folks – the ten things I’d currently buy with my funding if I were allowed to. Special thanks to everyone in our lab for help with this list – they helped come up with a few creative answers. We definitely have some ideas…

–The Girl with the Big Bass

Breaking the Ice

Getting to know the girl with the big ol’ bass.

Remember those beginning days of starting a new job or class? We were all shoved into some type of misshapen circle and forced to socialize with one another, to “break the ice”? I guess for a first blog post I should actually break the ice with any of you who are choosing to read about any of my adventures, so here it goes:

Twenty-three years ago I made my entrance into this world, covered in guts, a head full of hair, butt ass naked, and screaming (not much has changed since then, I still hate pants). I lived a typically normal life with two loving parents, a brother, and plethora of pets.

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My family minus my youngest nephew who is now 2! Left to right: Sister in law, Brother, Father, Oldest Nephew, Mother, and Me.

I grew up in Dayton, TX which is a small town half way between Beaumont and Houston, TX.

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Map, Dayton, TX is the purple star.

Growing up in tiny East Texas town had its moments. I lived in a place where everyone knew everyone’s business before Facebook was invented, where a traffic jam meant being stuck behind a tractor, and where it was not uncommon to see someone taking their cows to the car wash for a bath. I hail from the land of over twenty gas stations for nearly 40,000 residents (this was the population when I left). Entertainment was found by visiting the local Walgreens (we were never big enough for a Walmart), shooting things (we actually used to sell dead raccoons for money), or otherwise doing things that were illegal or frowned upon. I somehow made it out alive and not pregnant (why didn’t we give scholarships for that?).

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This literally came from a folder on my old laptop labeled “Redneck Crap”.

I left Dayton in 2012 and never looked back. I was accepted into Texas A&M University at Galveston after graduating high school and have been slaving away at this University since then.

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They actually let me speak at graduation. Of course my military honor speech contained a Captain America quote.

 

Growing up close to the coast, my family and I always spent an ample amount of time fishing on the weekends. There were several flounder run trips to Rollover Pass, weekends spent fishing the intercoastal on Bolivar Peninsula, and trips to Alabama for deep sea fishing.

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Family and fish. Two of the most important things in my life.

My grandfather was probably one of the biggest influences on my choice of career. He graduated from Texas A&M University with a Wildlife and Fisheries degree in 1954. He accepted a job in Charleston, South Carolina, but was drafted into the army the very next day. He never did go on to use his degree but he always joked that if he would have, then I would have never existed.

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Always have been and always will be a Grandpa’s girl.

My grandfather was overjoyed to know that I had been accepted in the Department of Marine Biology to complete two Bachelor’s degrees in Marine Fisheries and Marine Biology and would begin my career in August of 2012.

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My freshman year of college. 

I excelled in most of my classes and quickly became interested in research and all the volunteer opportunities that were offered. My original plan was to hopefully work with sea turtles (this all stemmed from foul hooking a large green sea turtle in the intercoastal waterway in Bolivar when I was probably 10). I began working under a professor who is to remain nameless who studied sea turtles. I started my career at the Sea Life Facility (our University’s research facility) as a second semester freshman. There I learned about practices of aquaculture, animal husbandry, sea turtle rehabilitation, and much more. I still work there (my four year work anniversary is coming up!) and love every minute of it. I have been exposed to many different research projects and have learned a lot of valuable skills and life lessons working at the facility.

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Working at the Sea Life Facility – the cute turtle is Stitch, one of the many that I have helped rehab. He did have a sister named Lilo.

I also spent some summers working for sea turtle patrol. For two years I spent time combing the beaches by foot or UTV patrol searching for Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle tracks. Kemp’s Ridleys are the smallest, most endangered species of sea turtle in the world and in an effort to help populations, we collected eggs to be incubated in lab settings before releasing the hatchlings.

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Really bad photo, but we’re excavating a sea turtle nest on Bolivar Peninsula in the summer of 2014.

After spending some time working with the turtles, I began to realize that a lot of people I worked with were…bat shit crazy. The bad kind of crazy. And I quickly abandoned that avenue after two years of hard work. I was happy for the chance to work with the turtles, but quickly learned that they weren’t for me. I am still happy for the little bit of rehabilitation I continue to do at the Sea Life Facility. They truly are amazing animals and I was lucky to work with them for a small stint. People still call me the turtle lady an I am okay with it.

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My good friend, Murgatroid, another one of my rehab babies. He only had 1 good flipper.

As I continued to work at the University and take classes that were fisheries specific, I quickly knew where my heart belonged. Fish. Smelly, slimy, fish. For those of you who thought my job was glamorous and that I played with all the cute critters like dolphins and turtles, you are wrong. One of the things I enjoy the most about this career is the fact that I am usually covered in guts of some sort, smelling like sulphur from being in the marsh, and usually dog tired. However, all of these aspects will never disguise the smile I have on my face from being in the field and working with my fish.

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Helping a friend extract some vertebrae from stingrays in the necropsy room. Mmmm dead things.

I worked for an entire summer for Texas Parks and Wildlife, and I can say that it was the best summer of my life. The people I met and experiences I had are memories that I will always carry with me. My brother and I had always dreamed of working for Parks and Wildlife growing up, we spent a lot of time watching the Parks and Wildlife program on PBS. Unfortunately, he left this world entirely too soon on December 10, 2015. Going on to work for Parks and Wildlife was so much more fulfilling to me knowing that I was living the dream for both of us. Every gentle breeze I felt on those stifling days long lining, fiery sunsets and sunrises during gill net season, the little voice that told me to keep going when I was thigh deep in sulfurous mud, and every speckled trout smiling at me from the cooler was my brother letting me know he was there…and jealous.

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The coolest picture from my internship, giving this big momma bull shark a kiss before she was safely released back into the wild.

Currently I’m working on a few research projects (which will all have their own posts soon!) and hoping to graduate in May of 2017 with several honors, a couple of B.S. degrees, and hopefully a job.

My rock for the past four years, who is totally okay with me smelling like a fish, also deserves a mention in this blog post. Besides having an awesome career, I have a pretty bomb ass boyfriend named David.

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My bearded fellow.

We actually met in a bar. This sounds bad but being an East Texas redneck, I enjoyed time out with my friends two-stepping at the local watering hole. These events were generally coordinated with girls having dance partners, etc. Recently single, I got stuck with David. He was very friendly, we had some good, intelligent conversation, and the only thing I could remember after meeting this guy was that he had the hairiest knuckles I had ever seen. After dropping him off at his dorm, and realizing that he was corps boy, I decided to stay away from him.

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The early days of baby face David.

He followed me around campus (in a non-stalker sense), carried my books, escorted me to class, stood in line for me at the caf, and was always there to listen to me talk about my classes. We became quick friends (although he was persistent about wanting to take me on a date). I knew I’d be stupid to not date a guy who was pretty cute and genuinely nice to everyone he met.

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At David’s final pass and review ceremony. Circa 2014.

We’ve spent 4 years together and went through some of life’s biggest struggles and joys and I wouldn’t choose anyone else to share those experiences with. We also adopted a pretty cute cat named Julius who you’ll see plenty of. I am convinced that he is the spawn of satan, but he makes a nice pillow for the many months that David spends at sea as a merchant marine.

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Our little family.

In my spare time I really just enjoy being outside. Fishing, camping, hammocking, hiking, you name it, if it’s outside, I probably like doing it. I love to cook, shoot guns, and restore pieces of old, garbage picked furniture. You’ll probably find me on the weekends with my nose in a book. I have a witty sense of humor and there’s never a time where I’m not sarcastic.

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Me in my natural state.

Most of all, I want this blog to be a catalog of the many memories I’ll be making along this crazy journey we call life. Be prepared for some humorous, buzzfeed inspired lists. I have a lot of exciting things happening in the near future that I hope to share with whoever cares to read this…so stay tuned. In two weeks I’ll be shipping out for the craziest adventure of my life….Antarctica.

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-The Girl With the Big Bass

AKA – Katie