Working in One of the Rainiest Places on Earth Is Actually Sorta Fun

Ashley Lehman is an ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, based in Anchorage. She spends three months of the year hiking through humid, rainy jungle on various Pacific islands, measuring the health of the forest. In the process, Lehman told us how she has to watch out for saltwater crocodiles, poisonous trees, and unexploded World War II bombs.

Pacific Islands FIA coordinator Ashley Lehman is well-versed in what it means to work in extreme weather conditions. (Courtesy of Ashley Lehman)

I coordinate forest inventory projects in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. I spend about three months a year doing fieldwork on the islands.

We produce unbiased research data on forest health, growth, understory vegetation, and invasive species. We visit 1.5-acre plots with different local forestry groups and measure them every ten years to monitor change. Sometimes we’re working in people’s backyards, other times we’re in the most remote area on the island.

We try to avoid rainy season, when there are big typhoons throughout the islands. But I was working in Palau during Typhoon Haiyan. It hit northern Palau and devastated a community up there. The next day, we went out and collected vegetation samples. The wind had knocked down a lot of leaves and flowers, so it was a really good day for collecting.

The weather is hot, humid, and rainy. It’s usually in the mid-80s, with 90 to 100 percent humidity. It rains a lot, but it’s a warm rain, so you don’t notice it. We go out rain or shine, except when there’s a typhoon warning.

The terrain is really steep with slippery soils. We wear these Japanese boots with metal pegs on the soles. They’re great for hiking around the terrain, but they tend to trap in moisture. If your socks get wet, it’s easy to get warm water immersion foot, which is like trench foot. The bottom of your foot starts to shrivel and turn white. You get this sharp pain, and then you lose feeling in your foot. It takes a day or so to recover.

Sometimes we’re working along the coast in mangroves that flood often. You could be standing in tidal water all day. It’s hard to walk a long distance because of the root systems. You’re climbing on roots or crawling under them. There are these sharp, pointed roots called pneumatophores that can cut you or go through the sole of your boot. In Palau, the biggest thing to worry about is saltwater crocodiles, which come in with the tide. You have to get to the boat before the tide comes in.

Because we work in such remote places, we have to watch for unexploded ordinance leftover from World War II. We’re careful not to disturb the soil or dig very deep. You can walk through the forest and suddenly come across an unexploded 1,000-pound bomb.

There are also poison trees—Semecarpus venenosus. This tree has a toxic substance related to poison ivy that causes terrible skin rashes and infections. The rain causes the tree’s oils to drip onto your skin and gear. Every day, we scrub our gear, skin, and clothing with Tecnu soap so we don’t spread the poison.

Working in the heat can be hard. Sometimes the forest is so thick it’s hard to cut your way through. In Guam, you can be cut up by swordgrass, or you can get stuck in a swath of thorny vegetation. It can be hard to keep a positive attitude.

I love my job. At the end of the day, you might be belly-crawling through hibiscus forest, covered in mud, and then you get out and there’s the beach, and you go swimming in the ocean and let the day wash off you, and you think, wow, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Interviewed by Jacob Baynham.

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