Sound Stories

The blog of the Long Island Sound Study

From Canoeing to Communications: A College Intern Tests the Waters in the Environmental Field

Every person, every place, and everything has a story to tell, should you look closely enough.

Cheyenne Ellis, a summer 2021 Science Communications Intern for the Long Island Sound Study, describes her experience in 2019 as an aquatic ecology intern conducting field research at Lord Cove in Old Lyme for the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center. A video of this blog, narrated by Ellis, is available on Long Island Sound Study’s YouTube channel.

Cheyenne Ellis (right) on her first day on the water as an aquatic ecology intern at the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center in 2019. She is examining a submerged aquatic vegetation identification guide, while her co-intern inputs coordinates into the handheld GPS system.

Up ahead, I see an egret standing in the shallows of the brackish water. I focus on it while my co-intern enters the coordinates for our next test point; with the water at this height, the egret’s long, awkward legs are almost hidden beneath the surface. I hear a clicking sound which draws my attention back to the canoe. I turn my head. The largest spider I’ve ever seen, short of being in an exhibit, is crawling past me, heading towards the front of the boat. I scream to my co-intern who promptly turns around. Though I am the one who fearfully plucks the tiny, docile daddy long-legs from the canoe each morning before going out, this monstrous spider is apparently my colleague’s limit. With one swing of her paddle, it goes flying out of the boat and into the water. She turns right back around and begins plugging away at the coordinates once again. 

Two and a half hours later, with a TerraSlate datasheet full of abbreviated scientific names, we return to the dock. Only with this dock, we can’t actually “dock”— it’s too high up for a canoe. Instead, we grab ahold of the sides and push against it, propelling the canoe back to shore. We don’t get too far, though. With a foot and a half of water still between us and the tiny bank, we have to disembark here. I step out of the canoe and the water reaches my knees. My co-intern, already much farther ashore than me, easily makes it back to solid ground. She begins to pull the canoe in. I lift my leg and try to walk; it won’t budge. Neither will the other one. Panicking, I pull my leg upwards with as much force as I can muster until my open-toed sandal squelches out of the mud like a suction cup, flinging mud all over me. I take the rest of the way slow and calculated, until my feet are firmly back on land. I look down—I’m covered in mud from head to toe. So is the datasheet I’m still holding, which I’ll have to wipe down before inputting. I wipe my paddle off in the grass and leave it by the canoe for tomorrow’s work: another day on the waters of the Connecticut River Estuary. 

Don’t get me wrong—I thoroughly enjoyed my brief stint as a field researcher. I got to explore some of the most beautiful places in Connecticut and float side by side with the rarest wildlife in the area. But for me, there was something missing. While I sat on the boat, waiting to record the types of aquatic vegetation yards below me, I thought of all the ways I could turn my experiences on the water into words. I wanted to use our pencil and waterproof notebook to explore the history of the river valley, to caution about the invasives we were finding throughout the estuary. I wanted to write. I will always love exploring nature, but meticulously collecting scientific data in the field (not to mention my close encounters with arachnids)? It just wasn’t for me.  

Glass sculpture made by Dave Chihuly, which is inside the Williston Memorial Library at Mount Holyoke College. Credit: Cheyenne Ellis

From the time I was old enough to conceptualize the idea of a career, I knew I wanted to do one of two things: writing or caring for animals. Sometimes as a child, I would combine these interests by listing my dream job as “Author, specializing in writing about sea turtle veterinary care.” I remained passionate about the environment and writing throughout my life, eventually leading me to Mount Holyoke College, where I decided to major in environmental studies with a minor in English.  

I took many influential courses during my time in college, but one in particular stood out above the rest—it was a course called Reading and Writing in the World with Lauret Savoy. In this class, we explored work by writers who attempted to capture the natural world in their writing. One of the most memorable books was Savoy’s own work Trace, which delves into the history and culture of the American Landscape. I left her class with a takeaway that inspired my final project as an undergraduate: every person, every place, and everything has a story to tell, should you look closely enough. 

Stuck taking virtual classes in the basement of my parent’s house in Connecticut due to Covid-19, I did not believe I’d be able to produce a significant senior project given the limitations that came with being away from campus. My plan was to write a reflection on personal narratives that we’d read in class, but without access to those books, I was out of ideas. I thought about writing a personal narrative of my own, but couldn’t think of anything substantial to write about. I played through the course of my life over and over (hometown, college, internship, more college) and slowly began to visualize how the trajectory of my life and the places I lived all had one thing in common: they were all on the banks of the Connecticut River.  

A cloudy day on the Connecticut River Estuary by Lord Cove in Old Lyme. Credit: Cheyenne Ellis.

I went to my local library in search of books on the history of my town and the Connecticut River and found there to be so much more than I had anticipated. The Connecticut, which begins steps away from Quebec, traverses for 406 miles through four different states, before eventually reaching the Long Island Sound. Alone, it contributes 70 percent of the water that goes into the Sound. In my research, I found books on everything from local indigenous history and town records to an entire book on witchcraft trials and artistic works done along the Connecticut River. I found out that the river had its own mythological creature, affectionately named “Connie,” which has been “sighted” over five times. I found out the origin of the word “Connecticut” came from an Algonquian word meaning “long, tidal river,” which had been spelled over 40 different ways in earlier writing. I found out how much I never knew about the very land I grew up on. 

 In one of the books I read, there was a line about how rivers, especially the Connecticut, have become a thing we spot from the bridges when crossing the highway, but never take the time to appreciate. That was certainly true in my life. Although I had resided along the river my entire life, I never so much as went out on the water, or even sat at its banks, until my internship the previous summer. I drove down to the river area for the first time while doing my project. I never knew how important a waterway it was for all of New England, or the rich history steeped in its valley.  

With my new-found appreciation of river valley history paired with my love of aquatic environments and writing, I knew that I wanted to find a way to bring public awareness to water conservation efforts. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College this spring, I became a summer communications intern (working remotely because of Covid-19) at NEIWPCC and the Long Island Sound Study where I’ve interviewed several scientists and have written feature articles about their research. I have also been updating the Stewardship Atlas section of the website, where I’ve added pictures that I took during my time on the estuary and have worked on creating a web page on Living Shoreline Projects in the Long Island Sound. Helping to tell the stories of efforts to restore the Sound showed me that I can still have a meaningful impact on the environment, without having to be out in the field every day. 

This fall, I’m going to be starting a master’s degree program in sustainability science at UMass Amherst, where I’m planning to concentrate on water sustainability and climate change. In the future, I hope to continue being a science communicator and help the public understand the threats of climate change, as well as all the incredible work and research that is being done. I’m extremely grateful for this experience I’ve had with the Long Island Sound Study and have greatly valued the opportunity to interview scientists and working professionals in the field.  

cheyenne ellis

Cheyenne Ellis is a communications intern at NEIWPCC for The Long Island Sound Study. She has been working as an intern during the summer of 2021. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Studies from Mount Holyoke College in 2021, and in the fall will be attending UMass Amherst to pursue a Master’s Degree in Sustainability Science, with a focus on water sustainability and communications.

For more information on the Connecticut River, view the Lower Connecticut River Stewardship Atlas.

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