“Go explore the island,” my mentor, Jason Hagin, said to me the Wednesday before last. It was around 8:45 am, and we had just stepped off the staff ferry to Alcatraz Island. The first boat of tourists would not arrive for at least another half hour, so I could wander about free from the crowds. Relishing the relative emptiness and newly equipped with the black National Park Service volunteer uniform, I walked along the main road towards the Electric Shop, the focus of my summer project.
Situated between the guardhouse and the first bend of the switchback road that leads to the notorious prison on the island’s summit, the Electric Shop’s history extends back to island’s beginnings as a military fortification and prison in the 1860s. No systematic study has focused exclusively on the evolution of this particular structure, so my task is to create a Historic Structure Report for the building in order to guide future NPS initiatives on its management as a cultural resource. Jason, a historical architect for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), is providing me with crucial guidance as I put this report together.
My first objective was to take photographs of the Electric Shop’s exterior. This early, I could get clear shots of the building without needing to maneuver around the tourists trekking towards the summit. As I rounded the first turn, I tried not to make eye contact with the seagull perched on the corner of the roof overhanging the Electric Shop’s doorway. When the island was abandoned as a federal prison in 1963, it evolved into a haven for a variety of colonial nesting seabirds, a function it served over 150 years ago before the US Army designated it a military fortification in 1850. Now partially returned to the birds, access to certain parts of Alcatraz is restricted for the breeding season that lasts from April to September every year.
As I expected, the gull squawked loudly to warn me away from the nest it guarded, a nest I assumed to be located somewhere on the Electric Shop roof. What I did not expect was for the gull to fly aggressively at my head, prompting me to bolt towards the refuge of the prison at a speed no former inmate could have imagined. I roamed through the empty cellblock until I mustered the courage to return to the Electric Shop so I could get on with my work. By this time, the first visitors of the day were making their way up the road. Thinking I would be safer in a crowd, I stared at the ground as I walked past the seagull on the corner, keeping as much distance between myself and bird’s squawks as possible. Seeming to recognize me, however, the gull dive-bombed me once again, and I ran around the corner and into the safety of the roofed guardhouse.
I went to Jason. I told him the seagulls were targeting me. I was afraid I would not be able to do any of the work I came to do there that day. He and the park ranger with him could only chuckle at my analysis of the situation. “The gulls target everyone,” the ranger said. Jason found me a hard hat, and I went back to Electric Shop. I would later find out from the park biologist that the gulls had recognized my volunteer uniform. Biology interns wore the same uniform to move seagull nests and young when they were found in places with a lot of potentially disturbing foot traffic. The seagull believed I was there to mess with its nest, thus figuring me a threat to the safety of its chicks. The nest it guarded was actually across the road from the Electric Shop, and I had walked directly beneath it both times I had passed by.
This is only one of the many new challenges and experiences I have had so far, but it has particularly moved me to reflect on guardianship. A major responsibility of Jason, his colleagues in the Cultural Resource Management and Environmental Protection department, and now mine is the conservation of historically significant environments for future generations, human and avian species alike. They manage maintenance efforts like the periodic repainting of graffiti from the 1969 Indian Occupation by the original activists and communities, and the careful repaving of cement roadways to preserve the foundation posts of the demolished row of enlisted men’s housing. But these activities are intertwined with efforts to install solar panels on the Main Prison roof to offset the island’s power usage, and the imperative to protect the breeding grounds of coastal birds. It is my privilege to join this group, these guardians against an uncertain future, and I am excited for the challenges to come.
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