Stanford grad's trek on the edge of wilderness

Zachary Brown defended his thesis, then traveled 2,300 miles by foot and by kayak to establish an Alaskan field school, where he hopes to inspire the next generation's understanding of the environment.

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Video by Ker Than and Kurt Hickman

Stanford PhD graduate Zachary Brown traveled 2,300 miles by foot and by kayak to create an Alaskan field school to inspire and educate future environmental leaders.

In mid-June 2014, as his classmates were trying on their commencement caps and gowns, Zachary Brown was negotiating with a fishing boat captain for a lift across the Columbia River, from Oregon into Washington.

Two months prior, after successfully defending his thesis and earning his PhD from the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, Brown stuffed a backpack with a change of clothes, walked down Palm Drive one last time and turned left onto El Camino Real. He was headed for Alaska, and would spend the next several months trekking there by foot and by kayak. The trip was something of a homecoming for Brown, who grew up in the small Alaskan town of Gustavus, but it also served a greater purpose: to raise awareness for a field school he is establishing at the tip of the Inian Islands, a remote archipelago in the 50th state’s “panhandle” along western Canada. Through the school, called the Inian Islands Institute, Brown aims to inspire and educate future environmental leaders and serve as a base for scientists working in the region.

“Many people who are working in the areas of conservation, sustainability and environmental science will tell you that they do what they do because they were inspired by a wilderness experience at a young age,” Brown said. “These experiences and the exposure to the raw power of nature can instill the passions that ultimately lead people down a path of environmental leadership.”

Over the course of four months, Brown walked 1,000 miles and paddled another 1,300 miles. He battled deadly tides and crushing loneliness; experienced extraordinary kindness from strangers; and fell in love all over again with the “powerful wilderness” of his childhood home.

Chasing a dream

Brown resolved to do two things after he graduated from Stanford: move back to his home state, and go full steam on his dream of establishing a field school. After a decade living in California, Brown missed Southeast Alaska, its people and its lifestyle. “I absolutely love California, but I was realizing that I wanted to return home,” Brown said. “It’s so different from any other place on Earth.”

Inian Islands Institute founders Aaron Strong, Lauren Oakes, Lida Teneva, Zachary Brown

The Inian Islands Institute founders came together as Stanford PhD students; from left to right: Aaron Strong, Lauren Oakes, Lida Teneva and Zachary Brown. (Image credit: Zachary Brown)

As a researcher in the lab of Kevin Arrigo, a professor in the department of Earth system science, Brown bounced between the Arctic and Antarctica, “following the sun in a glorious endless summer,” as he studied how climate change was affecting tiny marine microorganisms called phytoplankton. And although he found science exhilarating, a sense of dissatisfaction eventually took root and grew over time. “My head during my PhD was filling up with a lot of very depressing statistics. One trend that I was acutely aware of through my research was the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice over time as a result of climate change,” Brown said. “I was worried that I wasn’t making as much of a difference as I possibly could through my academic work, and I began to think about education as a way that I could help reverse some of these crazy trends in my own modest way.”

Once the idea of establishing a field school took hold in Brown’s mind, he couldn’t shake it loose. He soon discovered like-minded PhD students at Stanford who shared his conviction, including Lida Teneva, a recent PhD graduate of the Department of Earth System Science; Aaron Strong, a 5th-year PhD candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER); and Lauren Oakes, a recent PhD graduate of E-IPER.

Over late night beer-and-whiteboard sessions in the fall of 2011, the friends crafted the institute’s mission statement and hatched a plan for testing the feasibility and impact of a field school in Alaska.

Students setting a syllabus

Seeking to demonstrate the power of experiential education in Southeast Alaska, the group designed a Stanford Sophomore College course that focused on interactions between humans and the environment. “I saw it as a way to give the vision for a field school a go, and to gain experience creating a curriculum in social-ecological systems,” Oakes said.

In early 2012, the group pitched their course idea to Rob Dunbar, a professor of Earth system science, and asked him to be its faculty sponsor. Eric Lambin, a professor in Earth Systems Science, was also involved in the early curriculum development, helping the team link human and natural systems. “We had done all the leg work with the syllabus and iterating on the pedagogy of the class,” Strong said. “We pitched it to Rob like you would pitch a startup, and his exact words were, ‘I’ll bite.'”

View of the Hobbit Hole buildings

The 5-acre Hobbit Hole property consists of three houses, a workshop and a dock and is nestled between Tongass National Forest and Glacier Bay National Park. (Image credit: Zachary Brown)

The group had selected their faculty sponsor well. Dunbar had been conducting research in Alaska on and off since 1999, and he already taught several field classes at Stanford, including Stanford at Sea and a course in Palau in the western Pacific Ocean. The course’s theme was also dear to his heart. “I love trying to understand how people make use of nature, how they impact nature, and identifying some of the complicated dynamics that arise beyond the sphere of natural science,” said Dunbar, who is the W.M. Keck Professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford.

When the group made it clear that Sophomore College Alaska was part of a larger vision, Dunbar expressed immediate support, in part, he says, because of the brains behind the institute. “I’ve always been a believer in Zach and his intellect, and his love for the land, the sea and the people of Alaska,” said Dunbar, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “I also knew the other members of the team, and I knew they were super capable and could work independently and together as a team to develop something truly unique.”

With funding from the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and September Studies at Stanford, Sophomore College Alaska is now offered every two years. “We wanted to create a course that would be offered continually rather than a one-hit-wonder,” Oakes said. “We never really knew that was possible at Stanford, and we’re excited to see it happening.”

Sophomore College Alaska hosted its first class in 2013 and just wrapped up its second class this fall. Oakes and Brown returned this year as visiting instructors for the 3-week course, which has students working together in small groups to explore various social-ecological challenges in Southeast Alaska, such as ecotourism and fisheries management. With a focus on experiential learning, students in the course caught their own salmon; walked through old-growth and logged forests; witnessed the effects of climate change on glaciers and woods; and conversed with everyone from mill owners and tour operators to native Tlingit elders.

“There’s something about this class,” Dunbar said. “There’s an energy to it, and we get great students. I’d have to say right now that it’s my favorite class at Stanford.”

The Hobbit Hole

Shortly before Brown graduated from Stanford, a unique opportunity presented itself. A remote, 5-acre property in the Inian Islands owned by family friends and known locally as the “Hobbit Hole” came up for sale. Consisting of three houses, a workshop and a dock, the Hobbit Hole is located in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness, nestled between Tongass National Forest and Glacier Bay National Park.

“I thought, that’s it,” Brown said. “That is my opportunity for setting up a remote field station where students can experience the awe-inspiring nature of this place and the lessons that it has to offer about wilderness and sustainability. It’s also my chance to give back, because it was the Alaskan wilderness that inspired me to go into environmental work in the first place.”

Family and friends with finish sign as Zachary Brown paddles into Gustavus

Family and friends greet Zachary Brown as he paddles into Gustavus, Alaska, at the end of his 2,300-mile trek from the Stanford campus. (Image credit: Zachary Brown)

Despite its remoteness and the logistical challenges involved in getting to the Hobbit Hole – it’s 6 hours by boat from the nearest large towns, Sitka and Juneau – Dunbar thinks it’s an ideal place for setting up a field school for Stanford students and beyond. “It’s hard to imagine a better place that is so resource rich, where the human footprint is so light, and which lies at the edge of wilderness where we can look at all of these things together,” he said.

“Colleagues in Alaska sometimes tell me other places could be possible and perhaps less challenging, but Zach has such deep ties there,” Oakes said. “And it’s easy for anyone to see the magic of the place when they visit. The location is rare and sacred.”

To make their dream a reality, Brown and his team will need to raise more than $2 million to buy the Hobbit Hole property and establish their field school. Greg Howe, one of the brothers that owns the property, agreed to allow Sophomore College Alaska to bring students to the Hobbit Hole to experience true wilderness while Brown comes up with the funds.

“We think this is a good legacy to leave,” said Howe, a retired fisherman who lives at the Hobbit Hole with his wife, Jane, and a small menagerie that includes a black dog, a black cat and a family of ducks. “In our minds, we would rather it stay somewhat like it is and not involve cranking hundreds of people through here for a huge profit.”

Brown felt that his training as a natural scientist had prepared him well to set up a field school in a remote environment, but as someone who’d spent more time in the company of penguins than millionaires, the prospect of fundraising daunted him. “I’ve received no shortage of good advice about ‘cultivating donor relationships’ and ‘making asks,’ but that all felt very abstract,” Brown said.

Brown had heard stories of people going to great lengths to demonstrate their passion for their projects, and he wondered if there was an opportunity for him to do something crazy. On paper, Brown’s plan seemed simple: He would walk from Stanford to Port Angeles, Washington, and from there, kayak to the Inian Islands. In preparation for the trip, he practiced rolling a kayak in the university pool, and borrowed a satellite phone from Stanford for use in emergencies. Brown vowed to turn down all offers of rides and to complete the trip under his own power. Along the way, he planned to blog about his trip, hand out letters and cards, give presentations at various communities along the coast and, with luck, attract an “angel” – a visionary who could help his team purchase the Hobbit Hole.

The final leg

The full enormousness of the task that Brown had set for himself hit him on day three of his journey, as he gazed at a California trail marker informing him that he still had another 482 miles to walk before reaching the Oregon border. “I asked myself, ‘How did I get here?'” Brown said. “I had never hiked more than 10 or 20 miles a day before in my life.”

Zachary Brown in his kayak reaches the Hobbit Hole

After 111 days of traveling, Zachary Brown reaches the Hobbit Hole. (Image credit: Zachary Brown)

Brown had set off from Stanford just a few days prior, walking off campus through a light drizzle after saying farewell to a small group of friends gathered on the patio of Stanford’s Mitchell Building, where he had spent most of the past six years working on his degree. “I walked off through San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up the west coast of North America,” Brown said. “I walked until I reached Port Angeles, Washington. That was about 1,000 miles, and it took me 55 days.”

At Port Angeles, he bought a kayak, traded his backpack for a paddle and continued north, impatiently waiting out storms and navigating dangerous tidal currents that threatened to dash him against rocky shorelines or suck him out to sea. When he crossed the border into Alaska, Brown celebrated by pounding his chest and eating a Snickers bar. Later that day, he spotted a black wolf and a large bear – the first bear sighting of his entire trip.

On August 30, 2014, 111 days after he set out from Stanford, Brown paddled into Hobbit Hole’s harbor during a rare window of fair weather. He celebrated with family and friends and permitted himself a brief respite before paddling the final 20 miles to Gustavus. “It was a very satisfying moment for me,” Brown said. “It was a type of satisfaction that I had never known before and I’ll probably never know again.”

Although he doesn’t yet own the land, the Inian Islands Institute is now a 501(c)(3) charter nonprofit institution, and Brown is its executive director. Teneva, Strong, Oakes, Dunbar and Lambin now serve on the institute’s advisory council, and the team Brown has built is focused on fundraising and planning for the future. “We’d like to welcome student groups coming up here regularly, and they could participate in ongoing studies of global change in this region,” Brown said. “We will set up scientific plots for studying the near-shore ecosystems around the Hobbit Hole. The facilities to do that don’t exist yet, but I’m excited to know that within a few years they will.”

Bjorn Carey contributed to the reporting of this story.

Media Contacts

Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944,
Ker Than, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences: (650) 723-9820,
Zachary Brown, Inian Islands Institute: