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Geology majors gain skills, confidence by working on a remote mountain range above the Arctic Circle

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Geology majors Bryanna Rayhorn (left) and Lindsey Henricks spent their summer living on a mountain range above the Arctic Circle while working for a geological consulting firm in northern Alaska. The area was so remote that they had to take a helicopter to get to work every day, something the Blugolds say added to their experience. Both say they gained skills and confidence, which will help them in their future careers. (Submitted photo)

Plenty of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students spend their summers exploring new places and enjoying new experiences, thanks to jobs that take them far from home.

However, Bryanna Rayhorn and Lindsey Henricks are likely the only Blugolds whose summer jobs included living and working on a mountain range above the Arctic Circle, an area so remote that they had to take a helicopter to work each day.

Working for the geological consulting firm Alaska Earth Sciences, Rayhorn and Henricks spent three months in the southeastern Brooks Range in northern Alaska.

Bryanna Rayhorn says she loved doing something new in a place most people will never see.

Bryanna Rayhorn says she loved doing something new in a place most people will never see. (Submitted photo)

“I think what intrigued me the most about this job was getting to do something I had never done before, in a place most people will never get the chance to see,” says Rayhorn, a geology major from Loyal. “I also think it's amazing to say that I've stepped foot where no other human has likely stepped before.”

During the summer, the Blugolds were part of a helicopter-supported mineral exploration project.

Rayhorn’s job was to hike the prospect area, an area roughly 90 kilometers, creating a geologic map as she went. Her team made maps of the different rock types they saw and looked for specific minerals, work Rayhorn says is vital to understanding the geology of the area.

Henricks was primarily a field assistant to the senior geologists, doing geologic mapping and collecting rock samples. She learned how to map at different scales and learned to identify different rocks and minerals. She also filled various other roles, including collecting soil samples and assisting a geophysics crew to conduct an electromagnetic survey of areas of interest to the company.

While she learned a lot from her work, the highlight of the summer, Henricks says, was “experiencing the beauty of Alaska in a way that most people don’t get to.”

Lindsey Henricks says that northern Alaska’s natural beauty and views were breathtaking.

Lindsey Henricks says that northern Alaska’s natural beauty and views were breathtaking. (Submitted photo)

“We worked in remote areas only accessible by helicopter, and the natural beauty and views were breathtaking,” says Henricks, a senior geology major from Oak Creek who also is pursuing geospatial and responsible mining certificates.

Rayhorn says the work was interesting, and she loved living in the small base camp as well as taking daily helicopter rides to her work site.

The camp, which is located at the base of the mountains next to a small lake on the tundra, includes an office tent, a bathroom tent, a kitchen tent and two-person sleeping tents. The group of about 26 people who lived in the camp became her “second family,” Rayhorn says.

There are no roads, so the helicopters are the only way to get in and out of the camp, Rayhorn says.

She hiked every day, regardless of the weather, and sometimes came across wildlife, all experiences that helped her learn about her own “mental toughness” and how to better manage her stress, Rayhorn says. Her experiences in Alaska showed her just how much she’s capable of, she says.

“I don't think this type of job is for everyone,” Rayhorn says of living and working above the Arctic Circle for three months. “It's hard being away from family and friends, or civilization in general. It can also be hard to hike in pouring rain in 40-degree weather or to come across a bear grazing on berries.

“However, I learned that I could do all those things. In fact, I loved it there.”

Rayhorn always enjoyed science, but it was a family trip to Glacier National Park in Montana when she was a teen that sparked her interest in geology.

“It was something I knew nothing about, but I loved the mountains and I wanted to figure out how they got there,” Rayhorn says of what motivated her to study geology in college.

Now, her summer job in Alaska is shaping her future career goals, says Rayhorn, who will graduate in May 2023. She plans to go to graduate school and then pursue a career in the field of economic/exploration geology.

“After working at Camp Oliver all summer, I can see myself doing something similar for a long-term career,” Rayhorn says. “It was such a fun and fulfilling experience, and now that I know I can do it, I hope to keep doing it.”

Henricks, who also will graduate in May 2023, became interested in geology after taking an environmental geology class as a freshman. While she always was interested in environmental science, the class showed her that geology could lead to an interesting career, she says.

“I ended up falling in love with geology as a whole through the coursework and research opportunities,” Henricks says.

Her summer job in Alaska gave Henricks an even better understanding of what career paths are possible, thanks to her geology studies.

“The job exposed me to many aspects of exploration and economic geology, which is incredibly valuable as I continue to figure out what I want my career to be,” Henricks says. “I feel much more knowledgeable about the types of careers that may be available to me after graduation. I also made many professional connections, so I am very grateful.”

Henricks and Rayhorn say they are especially grateful to the geology faculty who helped them gain the skills and knowledge they needed to be considered for the positions.

Dr. Brian Mahoney, professor of geology, was especially instrumental, inviting her to join a student-faculty research project that he leads, Rayhorn says. The research “involved geochronology and petrology of the exact area where I worked this summer,” research that helped her stand out when she applied for the summer job, Rayhorn says.

“They are the reason I had this amazing experience,” Rayhorn says of her faculty mentors.

Henricks agrees, saying “all of the geology faculty have played a huge role in shaping my UWEC experience through classes and always being available outside of class for advice.”

In addition to exceptional faculty, Henricks says the outside-the-classroom experiences and opportunities she’s had as a Blugold have greatly enhanced her time in college. For example, in the summer of 2021, she worked at the Black Butte Copper mine in Montana, which was another “incredibly meaningful experience, as I also learned a lot about the process of starting a mine.”

She also is involved in research through the geology department, focusing on geochronology and petrography, work that has given her new skills and confidence, Henricks says.

Rayhorn says she hopes her experiences in Alaska will inspire other Blugolds to take chances and to pursue their own dreams.

“For anyone who is on the fence about an internship or a new experience, I encourage you to give it a shot,” Rayhorn says. “It can be scary, but you can surprise yourself. I really enjoyed my time in Alaska. It was truly an adventure, and I know it was just the first of many.”