By Ned Rozell
January 25, 2008
Gunderson, 27, lives in Fairbanks, in a cabin with no running water. He is tall, athletic, adventurous, and probably would do well on the reality television show Survivor, where contestants test their tenacity and social skills on a tropical island. The last person standing gets $1 million.
Upon the urging of his sister, Rane Cortez of Washington D.C., Gunderson, a student working on a master's degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, made an audition video for the producers of Survivor. In his three-minute film, the shaggy-haired Gunderson is seen dog mushing and, with his snow-covered outhouse as a backdrop, ranting as to why he needs a million dollars.
He mailed the tape to Seattle and went on with his life as an Alaska graduate student who wears Carhartts and does fieldwork in some of the most incredible alpine country on Earth.
A few months later came a surprise call from a casting agent - Survivor wanted him. The commitment was three months, including 60 days of sequestering in an unknown location if he left the island early. The opportunity caught him a bit off-guard.
"I was in a spot," he said.
The problem was that Gunderson studies the mysterious Alaska marmot, a creature the size of a chubby house cat that haunts Alaska mountaintops in the Brooks Range and a few other spots north of the Yukon River. Survivor wanted him mid-June to mid-August. Alaska marmots hibernate for nine months; the only time they show themselves is from June to September.
"It was definitely a dilemma," he said. "I had to decide whether to forgo my thesis for a season or not."
After a tortuous week in March, Gunderson wondered a thousand times whether he should sign the Survivor contract and FedEx it back to the producers. He decided to go with the marmots.
"I just couldn't put the previous three years aside for a chance to be on TV," he said.
foothills of the Brooks Range.
Photo by Dave Robichaud
With his degree in his back
pocket, Gunderson said he had no regrets about choosing marmots
over the chance to become instantly wealthy.
Ned Rozell will speak in the 2008 Science for Alaska Lecture Series. You can meet the writer in person Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. in the Westmark Gold Room in Fairbanks, or Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. in UAA's Wendy Williamson Auditorium in Anchorage. Go to http://www.scienceforalaska.com for more information.
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research
community. Ned Rozell [ firstname.lastname@example.org ] is a science writer at the institute.
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