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Katmai National Park Archaeologist - Crissy Phillips

Crissy Phillips, a proud Archaeologist and Georgia native, worked on the Alaska Peninsula during the warmer months of 2016. She received her Anthropology degree from Georgia State University and is part of a cultural research team for Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Phillips worked in Alaska at the end of April through the middle of September. At the moment that I am writing this, she is on her journey back to Alaska to continue her research. Here is my interview with her, where she discusses her triumphs and encounters during her time in Alaska.

Why did you choose Alaska? What were your other options?

Why did I choose Alaska? I asked myself this even after making my decision and arriving in Alaska because it was an extremely difficult one.

At the time of choosing, I was working on an archaeological project in the Yucatán Peninsula and interviewing for positions with the Park Service and Forest Service throughout the United States.

For obvious reasons, Alaska was the most enticing for its beauty. It also offered the best opportunity because of the nature of the position; new research projects were being spearheaded, training in new skills, paid certifications, and there was room for advancement.

"It was a treat being able to do projects on the coastline because it allowed the rare opportunity of seeing Katmai from the sky. [This is] Aleutian Range, Katmai," said Phillips.

"It was a treat being able to do projects on the coastline because it allowed the rare opportunity of seeing Katmai from the sky. [This is] Aleutian Range, Katmai," said Phillips.

Layered on top of considering job opportunities, I was ruminating over the news that my father’s health was not doing well. I received news that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer while I was working in Mexico.

When I was offered the position in Alaska, I was actually in the Cancun airport readying to fly back to Atlanta because his condition was worsening. I boarded my plane, and when I arrived at the hospital to see my family, the reality of my decision accepting any position became very apparent.

Trying to capture a magical moment in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, Katmai

Trying to capture a magical moment in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, Katmai

Accepting a position meant that I may miss some of my dad’s last few months. I became overcome with fear and I was ready to turn down every offer.

My dad kept repeating the only thing he wanted, and ever wanted, was for his kids to have fulfilled lives. He did not want his health to be any reason for us to stop pursuing that.

With the guidance of my family, especially my father, I made the decision that we all agreed was right. I accepted the position to Alaska and I would never undo that choice.

Although my dad did pass away the day I left and I was unable to share my experiences with him, he knew more than anyone what a significant impact going would have on my life.

Rigging up for a human-powered caribou hunt.

Rigging up for a human-powered caribou hunt.

Talk about your favorite memory in Alaska.

Favorite memory? Wow. It would be easier to pick my favorite memory for every month I lived there. But if I have to choose, I will say it was climbing Mount Katolinat.

Mount Katolinat is in Katmai National Park and offers some of the best views of the Park and the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

The trip started out with six of us taking a boat in the afternoon to a shoreline at the mouth of Margot Creek. We set up camp that night and had plans to start hiking in the morning. We were never fighting for daylight because it was the middle of June.

Mount Griggs, Valley of 10,000 Smokes, Katmai

Mount Griggs, Valley of 10,000 Smokes, Katmai

In the morning, we began our ascent. Right out of the gate we had the most grueling part of the hike: bushwhacking through alders. This took us a couple of hours, but along the way there were high spirits at the comedy of the struggle.

One of my friends decided to bring his skis so he could ski from the summit. He did succeed in doing just that, but he also had the chore of bushwhacking with these obtrusive things on his back before and after! There was a lot of exasperations from all of us, most of all him!

Along the way, we came across this perfectly rested moose shed! I will never be able to forget that because holding it up made me feel so tiny.

Once we came out of the alders we were on my favorite Alaska terrain: the tundra! This ground cover is plush and so satisfying to lay on top of. It is also where you find blueberries, crowberries--just all the berries! And the lichen that grows on the tundra is so intricate and beautiful.

Looking out towards the Valley of 10,000 Smokes from Baked Mountain, Katmai.

Looking out towards the Valley of 10,000 Smokes from Baked Mountain, Katmai.

We were all growing anxious once we made it up to the ridgeline of the summit.

As we skirted one edge a brown bear and her spring cubs came into view. They were slowly moving around and eventually began playing on one of the snow patches within clear view. It made every one of us pause to watch. There are few experiences that compare to an opportunity to view bears in the wild and within that context.

The summit of Mount Katolinat far exceeded my expectations. It was such a dreamy landscape to look out from.

There is a powerful feeling that emanates from the Aleutian Mountain Range, hemmed together from glacier studded peaks and volcanoes. It is a truly rugged terrain unspoiled by man. This backdrop on one side of you is then contrasted when you turn towards the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

As an aside, the reason for the establishment of the Park started with the protection of the area named the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. This was ground zero from the 1912 volcanic eruption of Novarupta. This eruption was categorized as expelling 30 times as much ash as Mount St. Helens.

The Valley is an ash-fallen landscape that makes you feel displaced into another world, like being on Mars. All of this in view from the summit of Katolinat. It was hard to leave.

Brooks River

Brooks River

Below the summit, I had the opportunity to view the infusion of wildflower colors that comes during Alaska summers. I was overwhelmed with reverie sitting on an especially lush ridgeline of wildflowers. My friend and I were overcome with laughter from the beauty.

There was this profusion of colors coming from wild iris, lupine, and geraniums that will stand out in my mind. Sitting there I remember thinking of some of my favorite quotes, and here I was repeating something said by John Keats, "what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth."

I think the primary reason this memory stands out is because by that time, I was beginning to feel more certainty about choosing to be in Alaska. This was a capstone for the time leading up to Katolinat when I had more challenging days. I took all of my grief and threw it against the ridgelines so I could confront it. And when I succeeded in coming down from that experience I was giving an open invitation for Alaska to take hold of me.

I was ready to explore valleys and peaks by foot, rivers by packraft, toss my flies into the current, commune with the bears, and find union with the landscape.

I was ready to vivify all that engages me most.

"Our cultural resource staff hiking back to camp from the base of Mount Cerberus. This was one of our projects where we re-located and documented one of the first NGS expedition camps."

"Our cultural resource staff hiking back to camp from the base of Mount Cerberus. This was one of our projects where we re-located and documented one of the first NGS expedition camps."

Talk about your least favorite memory in Alaska.

Least favorite was every time I got bit by a white sock [black fly; also known as "White Sox"]. These biting flies make every other petulant insect seem like nothing. Everyone knows the reputation of mosquitoes in Alaska. I don’t know where the hell they were, but I would have taken all of them if it meant bye, bye white socks. It is buggy as fuck on the peninsula and those bastards make you have a huge welt for weeks before they begin to heal.

Access to Katmai requires a lot of flying.

Access to Katmai requires a lot of flying.

Was there anything that you had to sacrifice to make this position obtainable?

In this case, I had to sacrifice being able to have my dog Kit come along with me. This has been a consistent challenge as I have been paying my dues in the field of archaeology. A lot of time is spent in backcountry settings and schedules are not conducive to having your furry friend with you.

Being seasonal is challenging. This is another huge contributor to wanting to return to school so I can settle in a place and obtain a permanent position.

Talk about your growth while in Alaska.

I grew significantly in Alaska. That growth developed individually and professionally.

At a professional level, I developed new skills and obtained a lot of new training and education in my field. I was empowered as an employee under the guidance of my supervisor and peers. I found a lot of fulfillment in my professional life.

There was one project I worked on that was especially enjoyable and even inspired me to refocus on returning to school. The project is an ethnographic survey and account of Katmai county.

There was one project I worked on that was especially enjoyable and even inspired me to refocus on returning to school. The project is an ethnographic survey and account of Katmai county.

Ethnography is a term most often used by anthropologists and just relates to the research of people and culture in a systematic way. It follows certain methods of interviewing and taking part in participant-observation. This work pushed me to ask a lot of questions that have now shaped a research interest for a Master’s Program.

I am currently trying to decide between the graduate programs I have been accepted to. So, I will not be leaving the field of anthropology for some time.

"There was no shortage of idyllic camping spots to base and stem off from on our weekends."

"There was no shortage of idyllic camping spots to base and stem off from on our weekends."

Individually, it was a very uncertain time for me. But out of that uncertainty bred a lot of new things. It reminds me of a quote by Terry Tempest Williams that states, “my voice is born repeatedly in the field of uncertainty.” This resonated with me during my time in Alaska. 

It was terrifying at first to grieve such a significant loss in an unknown place without any familiar companionship. I was emboldened to draw strength that derived from my own will.

I know it is may be thought as untraditional and unhealthy to isolate yourself after a loss, and maybe people are right. I found myself thinking that same thing some days and would criticize myself for being an idiot and leaving my support network. But every time I had this thought and got on the phone with a friend, I would be reminded that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. My friends knew it, they knew I needed to be away for a breather. In that way, I was forced to wholly focus on myself and my grief.

So yeah, I had a hard time ahead of me. But despite everything, I felt very grounded once I recognized I was doing the best thing for myself.

When I think back about the heartbreaks of the year, maybe I will want to cry, but maybe I will cry remembering that I got to grieve a loss in a beautiful place. Alaska breathed life into me when I lost my breath. I had no choice!

When I faced a hard memory, I could look across a vast, open, and beautiful landscape. The landscape competed with my overwhelming desire to just give up. These experiences made for cathartic, visceral, and really revealing moments. I learned how to honor myself and that was a meaningful lesson for me. This probably sounds absolutely contrived and corny, but damnit, it is just the truth of it!

This year will stand out as the most exciting to date, until I return next year. Gracious, the adventures I threw myself into!

Packrafting down rivers, crossing a river with a bear swimming alongside me, swimming above huge schools of salmon, fishing on the most idyllic rivers, seeing bears every day, summiting steep mountains, trekking through a valley of ash, glissading down snow shafts, hunting caribou, bike touring for the first time, flying in little planes all throughout Alaska, and being beside myself with joy.

Climbing Mount Katolinat was only a drop in the pool of outstanding memories I will take from the year.

Floating above Brooks River in a gumbi suit to watch the salmon.

Floating above Brooks River in a gumbi suit to watch the salmon.

To summarize in the words of Everett Ruess, “I don't think I could ever settle down. I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax.” And that is how I really feel about my whole experience in Alaska.

Two brown bears playing in the Brooks River just below the falls.

Two brown bears playing in the Brooks River just below the falls.

Do you see yourself doing work like this in the future? For how long?

I will be returning this season to my same position with Katmai--and I am amped about it! Our cultural resource staff has of exciting new projects on the itinerary that will take us to different parts of the park. I’m also contributing to more work on the community and subsistence level.

I love my field of work and I don’t intend to change careers. Time will tell. For now, I plan on a life of being schooled in anthropology and continuing to work with indigenous communities.

After field dressing a caribou and packing out the hide to the base camp. 

After field dressing a caribou and packing out the hide to the base camp. 

Want to learn more about Crissy Phillips and Katmai National Park? Check out this blog post that she wrote on the Katmai National Park Service website.

*This interview was exchanged via email. Intro and questions formed by Kelsey O’Manion, answered by Crissy Phillips, and edited by Kelsey O’Manion. All photos provided by Crissy Phillips.