Staff Spotlight: Pat Saunders

One of the challenges of working at a large university, even if you’re part of a smaller school within it, is getting to meet all of your colleagues. Professors are often scattered to remote study areas or holed up in labs, and everybody seems to have a different research specialty. It’s hard enough learning who they are and what they do, let alone where they’re from, or what kinds of stories lurk behind their casual hellos and handshakes.

At the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), the challenge is doubly hard for those who work at field sites away from the main campus. They don’t get to bump into folks in the coffee room, have a beer after a seminar, or swap news and jokes before meetings. Most interactions occur over the phone or email, and you can go months—even years—knowing someone only by their name announcing itself in your inbox.

Pat Saunders

Pat Saunders having what she called a “Badlands Hair Day.” While camping in Badlands National Park in South Dakota, she says the wind was so bad your chair would get swept away as soon as you stood up.

Today it might be “Pat Saunders” who crops up in the corner of Outlook as you take your first sips of coffee. You’ve communicated with her before, no doubt, and familiar details break through your morning haze. You know she works down at Pack Forest and assists Professor Greg Ettl in his role as director of the Center for Sustainable Forestry. You might also know that she oversees staff who manage the daily operations of the conference center and 10,000 square feet of building space, and that at any given moment she could be budgeting, working with students on a class trip, organizing a research trip, giving forest tours or rescuing lost hikers.

But you’re only scratching the surface. You know there’s more to her story, and that if you pulled up a seat next to her and uncorked a bottle, you’d be in store for hours of entertainment and education, and likely a surprise or two—and you’d be right!

The Maine Concern
Pat Saunders grew up in the small coastal town of Surry, Maine, near Acadia National Park. The community of about 1,500 is located in a part of the state known as “Down East,” nautical slang from the days when ships from Boston would sail east to ports along the Maine coast (even though they’d be heading northeast, the wind would be at their backs so they’d technically be sailing downwind, hence the oddly contradictory “down east”). Timber and fishing were the primary industries, as well as tourism in nearby beach towns during the fleeting summertime.

Pat Saunders

Saunders (left) with her oldest sister Crickie and her son Bryan in Seattle.

Saunders lived in Maine for most of her life until her son Bryan, who had moved out to Seattle, suffered a serious motorcycle accident near the end of 2007. To help with his recovery, she flew out and lived with him for five months as he worked through physical therapy. It took nearly a year before he fully recovered from his injuries, but his mom was enormously thankful for the happy outcome. “The good news is he was fully geared up with helmet and gloves,” she says. “It could have been much worse.”

Not long after Saunders returned to Maine, though, she started thinking she might want to make a permanent move to Seattle. She knew that would mean leaving behind three sisters and a brother, loads of friends and a lifetime of memories. And there was one other potential holdup: Would her son consider it weird if she moved out to live near him?

She called Bryan to ask what he thought, and he gave her an enthusiastic endorsement. Then the wheels really starting turning, as Saunders packed up her things and invited Candy, her best friend of 25 years, to drive and camp their way across the country in the fall of 2008.

Their road trip started with a leg from Maine to Indianapolis to stay with a friend. Next they headed up to Gary, Ind., and skirted around Lake Michigan and Chicago. From there it was a straight shot on Interstate 90 to Seattle—a shade more than 2,000 miles—with plenty of new states to experience. “We had two rules,” says Saunders. “We couldn’t eat in any restaurant you could find somewhere else in the world, and we had to buy a six-pack of local beer in every state we visited.”

They had set out near the end of September, so as they crossed the Great Plains into Montana and the Pacific Northwest, they were often hitting campgrounds about to be shuttered for the season. “We closed down the state parks all the way across the country,” she says. “But we had a beautiful trip. It was gorgeous.”

Into the Woods
During her first few months in Seattle, she lived with Bryan while searching for interesting job opportunities. Then one day she came across a position advertised down at Pack Forest, and she felt an instant connection.

Pat Saunders

Having grown up around her family’s wooded land in Maine, Saunders–pictured here with her son Bryan–felt an immediate connection with Pack Forest.

Back home in Maine, her family has managed a 1,000-acre wood lot for generations. She grew up walking the land, going out with her grandfather and father, cutting wood and marking boundaries. “My father always had this dream that I’d be the forester in the family,” she says, and she learned to identify the conifers and firs and pines and hemlock, and all the hardwoods like maples, ash, elms and oaks. She shared the same lessons with her son, showing him changes in the forest during the seasons and as years passed. “When you walk on the land, you know it,” she says. “I can look at that forest going back 50 years now. It’s in my blood.”

So when she landed the job and moved down to Eatonville, Wash., she felt right at home among the towering woods of Pack Forest and nearby Mount Rainier National Park. She’s one of eight permanent staff members based there, helping oversee 4,300 acres of working forest, as well as conference and housing facilities. Her commute is only four miles, and she loves the familiar small town atmosphere—but also the proximity to a bigger city. “I like where I’m at,” she says. “It’s great to come to work in a place that’s absolutely stunning. I can walk out of my office and go 500 yards and be in the middle of the forest, and yet I’m only an hour and a half from Seattle.”

Saunders believes the same joy she feels at Pack Forest is what makes it such an important educational resource for SEFS and other UW departments. She’d like to see far more students come down and experience the forest, whether as part of a spring planting or summer crew, or on field trips with other courses. “There’s so much here,” she says. “It’s just a great living laboratory and classroom, and when you immerse yourself in the environment, I think it gives you a different understanding.”

Written in Ink
Switching coasts after so many years as a New Englander naturally brought some huge changes. Leaving behind family has been the toughest part, she says, but she’s embraced other adjustments—like saying goodbye to black flies and swarms of mosquitoes—with a bit more gusto. Then there was the issue of Maine’s long winters of brutal cold and snow. Out here, she can handle all the mist and drizzle Seattle can wring from the sky. After all, she says, “you don’t have to shovel rain.”

Pat Saunders

Saunders and her new granddaughter, Darius.

One bittersweet irony of her relocation is that her son has since moved back to Maine. Yet then he got married and now has a brand-new 2-month-old daughter named Darius, so on balance Saunders doesn’t feel too cheated in the bargain. She loves where she is and what she’s doing, and her time together with Bryan in Seattle, though born from tragedy and more temporary than expected, became one of her most treasured periods.

In fact, she has more than memories as a keepsake from that special time.

Back when she was helping care for Bryan after the accident, she spent a great deal of time with his roommates in their house. “He was living with a group of 20-somethings,” she says. “They were incredibly amazing helping him and being really supportive, and I grew close to them.”

Among their house traditions was watching episodes of Battlestar Gallactica (BSG)—the new version, not the original television series that first aired in 1978. “I’m a real science fiction nerd,” says Saunders, “and Friday night was always BSG night. I would drive up from Eatonville to watch the show, and we’d all pile in.”

Their Friday gatherings eventually came to an end when the friends had to move out of the house. Parting wasn’t easy, so in addition to a moving-out party, they decided to come up with another way to commemorate their friendships and emotional bond: getting a group tattoo.

Pat Saunders

“Since the tattoo is on my back, I sometimes forget it’s there,” says Saunders. “I went to a chiropractor once and he commented, ‘I see you like Bonnie Tyler.’ I was impressed he could tell so much from my spine and told him so. He looked at me oddly and said, ‘I was referring to your tattoo!'”

“I’d always said I’d never get a tattoo unless it was really meaningful,” she says, but this felt like the right time. They came up with a design that has the BSG logo and the name of the house, SS AS (the “Sailing Ship Awful Shark”), and around the outside is “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which they used to play at the end of all their house parties. Everyone in the gang got the same tattoo, but they chose different body locations, depending on personal preferences. Saunders opted for the middle of her upper back. “I had to find a place that as I aged and wrinkled and sagged, it would not!”

Getting the tattoo didn’t hurt as much as she expected, but she was glad when it was over. “Believe me,” she says, “childbirth is much more painful.”

Now, anytime she catches a glimpse of her tattoo, she sees a powerful reminder of what brought her to Seattle, the friends she’s made, and priceless memories with her son. If there’s any ink you’d like to be permanent, that would probably be it.

Photos © Pat Saunders.

Pat Saunders