Man departs Port Angeles on quest to Alaska to realize his dream of creating field school
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Inian Island Institute
Zach Brown prepares to depart Sunday from a beach near Port Angeles for the second leg of his 2,000-mile trip to the Hobbit Hole, a homestead in Alaska.
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Inian Island Institute
Zach Brown is kayaking from Port Angeles to the Hobbit Hole, a homestead in Alaska, above, through the Inland Passage, to the Inian Islands, where the Hobbit Hole is located.

By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — A newly-hooded Ph.D. departed via sea kayak from a beach near Port Angeles on Sunday, halfway through a 2,000-mile quest for the Hobbit Hole in Alaska.

Zach Brown's first 1,000 miles, journeyed on foot, began April 25 when he departed from the Stanford University office in California where he recently earned his Ph.D. in environmental Earth system sciences.

He traveled the distance completely by foot, completely wore out a pair of shoes and on June 18, arrived in Port Angeles to prepare for the second half of his trip — paddling a sea kayak another 1,000 miles to the Hobbit Hole, a historic, self-sufficient 5-acre homestead in the mostly uninhabited Inian Islands, in Southeast Alaska.

The walk and paddle trip is to raise awareness — and funding — for the Inian Island Institute, a currently homeless field school the young scientist hopes will provide summer university level courses in ecology and renewable resources.

“It's also a personal adventure after the long marathon of a Ph.D.,” Brown said.

Along the way he has swam two rivers, taken 746 photographs, stumbled into large patches of poison oak and was briefly trapped by an incoming tide when he tried to cross between two headlands, but was able to walk through the waters.

Brown estimates that he took about 2 million steps in his first 1,000 miles and took only two days' breaks from the hike.

“The best moments were when I was out on my own on the coast,” Brown said.

He also cut through the middle of the Olympic Mountain Range, and took a moment at the remnants of Glines Canyon Dam and the former site of the Elwha Dam on the Elwha River to reflect on the $325 million dam removal project — a touchstone for the ecological restoration movement.

“That was an impressive sight. It's something I've heard about. It's a really exciting time,” Brown said.

Brown and three other Stanford doctorate students — Lauren Oakes, Aaron Strong, and Lida Teneva — hit on the idea to create the first field school for social ecological systems in the world.

The Inian Island Institute would feature the chance to host scientists, artists and writers in residence who would have direct access to Tongass National Forest to the south and Glacier Bay National Park to the north.

With permission from the current owners of the Hobbit Hole property, the institute held its first summer course in the summer of 2013 and hosted about a dozen students from Stanford, many of whom had learned the theories of ecology and sustainability, but never had to live them, Brown said.

“It's so different from the urban settings they're used to,” he said.

His fledgling nonprofit organization for the Inian Island Institute seeks to purchase the island homestead to create a center for education and research in the nearly pristine island chain with access to millions of acres of wilderness, Brown said.

The homestead, which is near Brown's home town of Gustavus, Alaska, boasts three houses, a workshop and a dock.

Brown said the homestead is currently used as a home base for a fishing operation, but after 40 years in the industry, the owners are ready to retire.

They have no children, he said, but want the property to be protected.

“The institute would be their legacy,” he said.

Hobbit Hole is currently on the market for $2 million, and the members of the Institute hope to be able to negotiate a lower price for the property, he said.

For more information on the Inian Island Institute or to donate money for the purchase of Hobbit Hole, see the organization's website at www.inianislandsinstitute.org.

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Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at arwyn.rice@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 06. 2014 7:57PM
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