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Beach Patrol

Posted: 04/07/2010

Spring breakers hit the beach—but not for partying. Seven Skidmore students traveled to Gulfport, Miss., spent their March vacation digging post holes, installing signs, picking up hurricane debris, and learning about post-Katrina coastal life for animals and humans.

Michelle Hubbs, who coordinates volunteer efforts for Skidmore students, contacted the volunteer agency Hands on Gulf Coast just as it fielded an inquiry from the Gulf Island National Seashore, seeking volunteers to mark off restricted bird-nesting areas. Hubbs duly recruited seven students (because the project’s van had seven seats) and helped cover their travel and living costs with a grant she’d secured from Skidmore’s Responsible Citizenship Task Force.

Early each morning, the group arrived at a dock for an hour’s boat ride out to Horn Island with National Park Service biologist Gary Hopkins. There they installed restricted-access signs on beaches, to keep boaters away from crucial nesting areas for ospreys—impressive, black-and-white birds of prey that require open water for fishing and large, tall trees or platforms for nest building. Environmental-studies major Kate Ito ’11 says, “It was actually nice to do some physical labor. It was relaxing, in the sense that it was a change of pace from school.” International-studies major Katie Temes ’10 says she enjoyed “experiencing the landscape of the barrier islands, which have a very particular ecology that is always changing with the weather.”

Isaac Chansky ’13—“I'm a business and computer-science student, so I wasn’t too familiar with the effects of hurricanes on coastal areas”—hadn’t realized how severely Mississippi was damaged by Katrina. He says, “The importance of casinos to that area's economy also surprised me. Casinos were among the first buildings to be rebuilt.” Ito notes, “Where we stayed, a 40-foot swell had ripped through from Katrina, and the people, the infrastructure, and the environment have not forgotten. There are still signs for shops that are not there anymore.” Temes was impressed by “the resilience, the determination that people have to rebuild their community, the perseverance they've had in the face of struggle, and the importance they afford to their friends and their sense of community and place.”

Out on the island, seeing the shorebirds, as well as dophins and rays and other sea life, was a highlight for many. Another, says Temes, was the ”super-easy-going, open-minded, excited curiosity” that helped the students bond and enjoy working together and learning about the area. In the end, she says, “We were working on a project for birds, but they became a minimal part of our experience; we really learned more about the holistic picture in which the people and environment interact and affect each other.”

Others in the group were ES major Mel Ausanka-Crues ’10, biochem major Tess Wendel ’11, business and economics double-major Penhleak Chan ’12, and anthro major Joe Zhuomedansheng ’11.