by Tyler Goodearly
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to study fish. Like my idols, Jacques Cousteau, or Steve Irwin, or Jeff Corwin, I too had the “fish itch,” and I knew I must follow this passion.
By the time I was in the seventh grade I had devised a 10-year plan to make this dream come true: I would excel academically in high school, then go to UC Davis where I would study Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology under the renowned Dr. Peter Moyle (whose name was a common one around our dinner table). Yes, this was an ambitious goal, but I was as determined as a Chinook salmon returning to spawn – nothing could get in my way.
Little did I know, being only 12 years old at the time, that this plan, once put into action, would not actually do much to propel me into ichthyologisthood. Instead, one person, with a single proposition to take a single class, would change my life and give me all the tools I needed to become a fish biologist. It’s only upon reflection that I realize the significance of that pivotal class: Ecogeomorphology.
It was senior year, early 2015, and there was one question that was simultaneously running through all of my fellow students’ minds: “What am I going to do after graduation?” I’d tell the meddlesome snoopers who were constantly nagging me with this question that I wasn’t sure yet, that maybe I’d go to grad school, or maybe I would travel, or really any awkwardly ambiguous excuse that would lead to the demise of these irksome conversations. I couldn’t bear to tell them that 12-year-old Tyler’s plan had failed. I was terrified to graduate because, for the first time in my life, I would not know my next move.
It was in this state of existential doubt that my friend asked me this seemingly benign question: “Will you take Ecogeomorphology with me?” She knew I was in the mindset of saving the world and emphasized that this class would have a field excursion that would help hone my planet-saving skills. Regardless, I was reluctant to join. It was not part of my plan, and I was fearful of that octosyllabic word. To date, I had little field experience, and coming from indoors-only family, I had little camping experience. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to compete with my peers who all seemed to know where they were going post-college. I struggled with this fear until the very last day of open registration, and in a whirlwind of temporary bravery and oh-my-goodness-what-am-I-getting-myself-into I submitted my application (just a few questions about how I would be a good fit for the class, which can only accommodate 14 students).
This class was like no other class I had taken. Unlike other classes, this one took the “big picture” approach to learning. Each week, we had two, one-hour lectures that focused on biological (eco) and physical (geo) properties converging to shape (morph) our rivers. We learned about the connection between pizza toppings and our beloved Sierra Mountains, how salmon are well-adapted for California’s Mediterranean climate, and how rivers move across landscapes in predictable patterns. In addition, the supplemental weekly labs taught us methods on how to collect data in the field; these included drawing reach sketches, taking flow measurements, processing benthic macroinvertebrates, seining, and identifying fish. By integrating this array of disciplines, I learned how to look at a river and understand it on a whole new level: I learned how to read the physical environment in order to reveal histories of the river and how to predict where in the river fish could take refuge. I was able to understand the conflicting needs of natural resources and where to allocate them, and I began to appreciate the complexity of conservation.
What really set this class apart from any other was that once feared but now eagerly anticipated, nine-day camping trip, during which we put the field methods and theories we learned into practice for our own research. Our trip revolved around the Tuolumne River watershed. We started at the headwaters in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite and throughout the nine days made our way down to the end of the river where it joins the San Joaquin River in the Central Valley. At each stop along the way we put our conceptual and practical tools to use, and our professors took every opportunity to test our knowledge by asking us questions about the river that was right in front of us.
Unlike laboratory settings, fieldwork is unpredictable and requires resiliency and educated improvisation. For example, I had intended to do my research project on Yellow-Legged Frogs. Specifically, I wanted to make a map of where they occur with the physical conditions of the water they were; however, we never found any frogs! Instead, I wrote my paper on where they should have been and why we didn’t find any.
Being able to tell employers that I, a recent graduate desperate for a job, had worked in the field and conducted my own research, gave me an edge over my competition. I easily found a job immediately after college (meddlesome snoopers, I hope this finally lays your inquisitions to rest) working for… PETER MOYLE! Though temporary, that job was by far the best summer of my life.
With the help of that experience, I earned a job with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It was another seasonal job, this time working with salmon carcasses. As gloriously disgusting that may sound, I was very happy. Through that project, I met the people of Cramer Fish Sciences (a firm I had been applying to for years). They were able to see me put to use the skills I learned from my Ecogeomorphology class, and asked me to apply for an open position (oh, how the tables had turned).
Today I am still with CFS as a field biologist and I know 12-year-old Tyler would be proud. I cannot emphasize enough how paramount the Ecogeomorphology class has been in my success. It is my profound hope that future students will be granted the same gifts that the professors and staff of the Ecogeomorphology class have given me.
Tyler Goodearly is a Fish Biologist working for Cramer Fish Sciences located in West Sacramento, CA. He graduated in June 2015 with a B.S. in Wildlife Fish and Conservation Biology from UC Davis.
It takes a river. Amy Quinton for Capitol Public Radio