Planet Duke: Lattes and black bears in Alaska

To some, the word “Alaska” may evoke a Roosevelt-ian dreamland of an unforgiving Arctic and the ever-present opportunity to wrestle for your life against a bear. The four-week Duke in Alaska summer program is quite different, yet proper bear safety is a necessity.

“One of the students texted me a picture of a [warning] sign just adjacent to campus saying a black bear and her two cubs had been sighted,” says Jon Shaw, a biology professor at Duke who led the inaugural summer in Alaska. “It’s a reminder that this isn’t like walking through Duke Forest ….”

Rest assured: The program isn’t a wandering into the great unknown. The majority of time is spent in Juneau and Anchorage, which boast both Starbucks and more temperate climates than the romanticized Arctic. The program’s focus on furthering a biological and environmental understanding of the area means there are near-constant field trips—to marine wildlife centers in Seward where they care for injured seals and walruses, the Anchorage Museum to understand the state’s history, and a seven-and-a-half-hour-long cruise along a fjord, where students can “see humpback whales and killer whales and birds so abundant that they practically darken the sky,” says Shaw.

“I just love Alaska, and I think everyone else should love Alaska,” says Shaw, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in the region. The program, he adds, “was a way to come up here, hopefully each summer, and show students what’s so great about the area.”

While it’s easy to get excited solely about the ecological wonders of a state that has the highest density of bald eagles in the U.S., the program also touches upon the intriguing economic and sociological issues that Alaska faces. For example, given its natural resources and geographical isolation, the state is overly dependent on global oil demand, and it faces an uphill budgetary battle when those prices fall. Alaska also has had a complicated relationship with its Native American population since the territory was purchased from Russia in 1867. Current educational challenges include the remoteness of many communities and a lack of trained indigenous teachers, Shaw explains.

The myriad interesting topics are reflected in the variety of students represented—for the eleven students in the program, majors range from biology and environmental sciences to comparative area studies and the humanities.

“Alaska is just a natural place for an interdisciplinary course like this, because of the intersection of human history, current human issues, and also ecology and conservation,” says Shaw. “So it’s just a great place to do this.”

In future years, Shaw wants to join for more discussions with area organizations working to solve the state’s issues, from the Army Corps of Engineers to the National Forest Service and representatives in the state legislature. And he hopes to add travel to the Arctic Slope to the itinerary as the program develops.

For now, he’s happy to have the program up and running in Juneau and Anchorage, where the summer temperature hovers around a very acceptable 70 degrees, and where he has yet to encounter a bear.

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