For my master’s program in Environmental Management at Yale, I was required to do a summer internship between my first and second year. Or maybe even an independent project, if it was comprehensive and significant enough to meet the requirements for the program.
During our first fall semester, this was really an exciting prospect; my classmates and I felt like there were limitless opportunities, like this was a chance to get a taste of our dream jobs. Internships at the United Nations or Google, really cool research projects in Africa and Asia. We were bright-eyed and looking forward to what the spring and summer would bring us.
For most of us, spring brought soaring anxiety and stress levels. Reality came knocking with the realization that our hopes and dreams needed to be married with actual plans, projects and funding.
I won’t lie, every week from January through April became decidedly less fun without real prospects for an internship. One 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.
I had a couple of potential prospects; I was invited to work with a filmmaker I’d met during the spring. He was going to be working on the East Coast in late spring…which happened to coincide with the week or two leading up to, and during, finals week at Yale. So I kept looking, emailing film companies, scouring the internet for internship opportunities. I found a few in bigger companies, but every one I came across was in every division except production. I sent cold emails to filmmakers and film companies that make the kind of movies I want to make. 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. I’ll probably apply to those companies in a few months as my graduation approaches.
I also emailed a veteran adventure filmmaker, and while he couldn’t take me on, either, he was nice enough to give me some advice.
“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. Master the business side as well otherwise you’ll starve. Everyone forgets that piece.”
Thank you, Elia.
With a few weeks to go before the April 1st funding deadline, I was running out of options. I was looking for the most beneficial experience, one that I could actually learn from and expand my skills in communication and filmmaking. And with a focus in environmental communication and a career path intertwined with adventure and documentary filmmaking, that kind of experience was not something I was ever going to find.
So I made my own.
Backed by the advice of Rob, Elia and even my career counselor at Yale, I knew that the best opportunity was one that I’d make for myself.
Even before coming to Yale, I had wanted to make Common Ground, a feature-length documentary that would span all the continents and take a whole team several years to complete. This is a film that will stretch the limits of my expertise and abilities. And the story is a behemoth of an undertaking.
This was not something I could pull off in one summer.
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?
With a few days to before the deadline, I decided to do something outrageous, bold and even a bit crazy.
No more waiting for companies to maybe get back to me with internship offers. No more hesitating, no more being afraid. It was time to act. I took a piece of Common Ground and turned that into my summer experience.
I decided to throw myself head-first into the worlds of adventure and documentary filmmaking. To travel over 3000 miles, alone, to Alaska, to start making my film.
As soon as I committed to this thing, that’s when the work began. 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). It seems simple enough on the surface. But I had to make big decisions like how long I would be in Anchorage, what villages would I travel to (and when), taking into consideration that many places are only accessible by air. I had to schedule interviews before I had my travel itinerary nailed down, because 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 my school, 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 the Forestry School, 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 see. 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 that the rental agencies won’t let you 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.
Even for just the pre-production piece, my project was a huge undertaking. 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 you have to be to pursue what you’re passionate about.
I explored low-cost equipment rental options, but ultimately cut almost my entire equipment budget by tenaciously 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 4AM 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 the serendipity of networking, I came to know Janet Reiser, the chair of one of Alaska’s electrical utilities, and a family friend of one of my Yale advisors. Janet opened her home to me and allowed me to stay at her beautiful house 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.
It is because of connecting with these and many other people that my summer project was 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. My first few days were spent getting familiar with my camera gear, learning the area and getting my home base at Janet’s house set up. 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. Backing up my footage. And then backing it up again for good measure. Charging all of my batteries and backup batteries. Scouting out filming locations. I continued to network and find new people to interview, following up with people I’d already met with, or their colleagues that had been referred to me.
Filming interviews and B-roll as a one-person crew presented its own set of challenges that I had to overcome. Being the interviewer as well as the cinematographer and sound technician is another difficult balancing act that I had to master. Through every subsequent 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 going to Alaska. Part of learning includes the curve, and I knew my footage would not be perfect. Of course, some things are inevitable in this field. Like an interviewee muting his microphone half way through a spectacular interview. But giving myself the impetus to learn but the room to make mistakes was the ideal environment to learn what it takes to be a filmmaker and interviewer.
The most dramatic example of what I was able to accomplish was my journey that started with a cold phone call to a researcher across the country, and ended with me flying over the arctic circle strapped to the cargo ramp of a US Coast Guard C-130.
Early in the spring, I was looking for arctic research projects and compiling a list of people to reach out to. I read about Dr. Jamie Morison, an oceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle. Dr. Morison 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. I sent Dr. Morison an email and introduced myself and my project, asking to connect with him.
As it turns out, my email was kicked back by the administrator server, but neither of us knew that. One of the most important lessons I took away from my internship is to be thorough and a bit persistent when chasing leads for a story. I waited for a few business days after I emailed Dr. Morison, and then I just picked up the phone and called him. Dr. Morison answered right away and we had a wonderful conversation about his research and what was going on in the arctic as far as funded projects. 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 United States 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; it was an incredible thing to see. I got as close to the doors as I could and got strapped in so I could get my footage.
The 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 ten 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.
This was an opportunity that was out there for me to find and take advantage of. Had I not had the audacity to call a prominent scientist out of the blue, I would never even know what I missed out on.
A few days later, when I was in Fairbanks, I once again benefited from being assertive and bold, and managed to get into a tour trip that was leaving from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, heading to the permafrost tunnel. This isn’t as exciting as a C-130 flight, but I had read about this tunnel long before arriving in Alaska – if you know about permafrost, you know about this tunnel. It’s the property of the U.S. Amy Corps of Engineers and not a place I can just waltz into. My experience in Alaska had given me the tools and confidence to approach the situation and seize the opportunity.
There is one more thing that happened in Alaska that was particularly eye-opening; for the first time, I experienced real, paralyzing fear – and I learned that I am not invincible and unshakeable, as I had previously assumed.
The thing about Alaska is that it really is the final frontier; the place to have real adventures, push your limits and challenge yourself. Alaskans have adapted to their environment, one that is as harsh, dangerous and merciless as it is beautiful and majestic. Most activities many of us take for granted, boating, backpacking or camping as great examples, are so much more dangerous in Alaska. Animal attacks, rockslides, cave-ins, avalanches, floods and medical emergencies are extremely serious threats. These are exacerbated by spotty cell service and limited search and rescue access. Alaska’s wilderness has claimed many unprepared and unaware travelers, and more than a few experienced adventurers. It is not to be underestimated.
This lesson was already drilled into my head within the first few days of arriving in Anchorage. My host, Janet, regaled me with so many horror stories of fatal accidents and close-calls, that I was properly respectful of the supremacy of mother nature in Alaska.
I experienced a first-hand lesson in this concept when the ATV I was driving didn’t quite make it out of a waist-deep river; I had followed a guide into the water, but when he signaled for me to go to the opposite bank, I didn’t react in time. When I attempted to climb the riverbank after him, my ATV got halfway up, and then started falling into the water, carrying me down with it. I was thankfully strong enough to stop the ATV, and myself, from going under, and hold it until I could be towed out by my guide. This was a relatively innocuous mishap, and nobody was scathed, physically or mentally. But the lesson here is how much worse it could have been if I had been pulled under the current with the ATV on top of me. This is everyday life in Alaska. Everything, even a guided ATV tour, is just a bit more dangerous and definitely more challenging.
But the moment that taught me how powerful fear can be happened during my two days on the Root Glacier in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
The Root Glacier is the most awe-inspiring and incredible thing I have ever seen. Much like so many who have gone before me, I now have a fire burning in my heart to go back.
The glacier itself is massive and filled with pristine waterfalls, rivers, canyons and lakes, all of it surrounded by the Wrangell mountain range.
I drank water directly from the glacier, and it was the most refreshing , delicious and purest water.
I learned how to ice climb on the first day of a two-day guided backpacking trip – and I had my guide, Cody, all to myself for the whole trip.
Ice climbing is much more terrifying than I had anticipated. Reflecting on it after the fact, I really can’t provide any good reason as to why – I was completely safe. But on that day, I battled with powerful, unreasonable fear, and had to figure out how to push through it. I eventually prevailed, and was somewhat satisfied with my achievement.
Yep, that wasn’t so bad.
I can handle fear.
Oh, but that was just the beginning. I had no idea what the glacier, and Cody, had in store for me.
On day two of our glacier adventure, Cody took me to a moulin, also called a glacial mill. I personally describe it more as a seemingly bottomless pit of ice.
Cody had told me about the moulin, and how the guides lower people into it for a truly unique experience for the more adventurous. I had to go, I needed to do this. One of the reasons I went to Alaska was to get experience as an adventure filmmaker. I was excited, but nervous. Cody warned me that it was scary, but assured me I could do it (and he was right).
We could hear it before we could see it. A moulin is created by water cutting its way through the glacier, creating a massive well that can be hundreds of feet deep. The waterfall was thunderous and unsettling. This had a very disquieting effect on my nerves.
Once we got all of the equipment in place, 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. 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.
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.
If you could stop time for a breath and see that moment frozen in time, you’d probably be able to see in my eyes the exact moment when I battled with my fear.
And then I just…let go.
Oh, goodness have mercy, I screamed. Not a full-out scream of bloody murder, but enough of a shriek to make me blush even now.
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.
Again, looking back I really don’t know what I was so afraid of, and despite people’s assurances that it was a pretty scary thing to do, I wish I had enjoyed it more.
But, such is life.
Now I have a burning need for redemption, a need to go back and conquer the moulin. More importantly, though, I learned a great lesson about fear, one that will be invaluable for my career goals, and life in general. This was not a lesson I expected to have during my summer internship, and it was one I never would have experienced if I hadn’t ventured off on my own and made my own path.
After we left the moulin, the glacier had one more treat for me, and this time I had much more fun; I got to go spelunking! Cody found an ice cave and we spent a while exploring it. We crawled down, over rocks and through tight spaces, and both of us were positively gleeful, grinning like kids. The cave was a brilliant blue (not all ice caves are blue) and it was still blue when we couldn’t go any further.
Now that I’m back in New Haven, my internship continues as I process the hundreds of hours of footage and start putting together my movie, Common Ground. I will be able to continue this work through the fall through a film workshop course.
Reflecting on everything that I accomplished, learned and experienced, I cannot imagine taking any other path. It was really, really challenging, and it’s not even over. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on me to deliver a film worthy of everyone that contributed to it. My interviewees, funders, and everyone in between – even the guy on Craigslist – I owe them my very best.
There is one other person that I owe my best to, and 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.
So although it was more challenging, uncertain, risky and audacious than anything else I could have done, it was the right choice. I learned more about myself and my profession than I could ever enumerate, and I suspect I’ll continue learning from my summer in Alaska as I progress further in my career.