Harper Collins, 2022
Chasing Lakes is a brave and honest accounting of the trials, tribulations, and glories of being an Arctic field scientist, especially as a woman, and how our personal lives guide scientific journeys, both through the conditioning of our upbringing and the relationships we build and foster in marriage and parenthood. Enveloping this story is one of spirituality and the gradual uniting of a personal and professional journey through a faith and believe in God. The story is an opportunity to peer into the mind and world of a renowned Arctic scientist on a lifelong journey as her career, personal life, and faith develop and intersect.
Scientific exploration and discovery are key unifying themes. The story begins, and circles back several times, to a distant research station in the Siberian Arctic, where measuring methane emissions from nearby lakes and determining their potential impacts on climate warming are the author’s central research goal.
Here, the author forms life-changing relationships with Russian scientists, most notably Sergey Zimov, who provide pivotal mentorship for her scientific career, challenging her to think critically, explore deeply, to push beyond her comfort zone. The author provides vivid descriptions of the emotional and logistical struggles encountered in the remote Russian Arctic, with limited field help, tools, and supplies. She bemoans a family of muskrats destroying limited sampling gear and labors to find debris on roadways and ramshackle buildings to construct essential sampling devices to capture methane bubbles surfacing from the lakes. The author has a great way of explaining complex scientific concepts casually, like why bubble size changes as they float to the water’s surface, almost without the reader knowing they are learning.
Throughout the book, from Siberia to Alaska, the field work descriptions read like an action adventure, with snowmobiles gliding across sunken permafrost depressions, ice walls crashing down on a just sampled lake below, and arctic storms bearing down on tethered motorboats stranded off course near the Arctic Ocean. These stories provide the reader a compelling sense of the excitement and inherent dangers of doing research in extreme remote conditions subject to ever-changing weather and dependent on the skills and knowledge of local residents to navigate difficult conditions to reach sampling locations. The reader also finds oneself enthralled in the author’s endless pursuit of methane bubble plumes emerging from the depths of Arctic lakes, as her approach to finding them becomes fine-tuned over her career. The author intersperses her adventures with stunning descriptions of the arctic’s natural beauty: snowy owls perched above the snow; tundra covered with multicolored sedges, mosses and peat; layered river sediments filled with organic decaying plant remnants and Pleistocene-aged animal bones; the arctic sky with its alpenglow, northern lights, and constant summertime cast of light.
Embedded in the stories of scientific exploration and discovery are colorful descriptions of childhood memories, marriage, and motherhood, and the role of these experiences in the author’s career and personal journeys. At age 16, the author went to Russia for a year as part of an exchange program in an effort to free herself from a difficult family life, saying “At just 16, I tried to essentially run away from home by going to Russia.” She recounts the initial difficulties of being in a place where she could not speak or understand the language and the loneliness of being away from the familiar in a distant and foreign country but eventually overcomes these difficulties and develops supportive friendships, romantic love, and a church community. The author’s eventual marriage to a well-educated and supportive Minnesotan farmer and motherhood to two boys end up playing a key role in the author’s scientific research and her emotional and spiritual journey, helping her illuminate and overcome some of the inner struggles that were deeply conditioned from childhood.
Reading Chasing Lakes feels like embarking on one’s own journey of exploration and discovery, and at the end, leaves a feeling of disappointment that the ride is over. While the stories are personal and unique to the author, they offer something most can relate to. The beauty and serenity of the Arctic and the inherent interconnectedness of all life exists throughout the natural world. The challenges and glories of scientific research mirror those of life, and childhood experiences, whether good or bad, can offer important guidance for adult life when bravely explored.
Reviewed by Heather D. Alexander, Professor of Forestry, Auburn University