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Alaska Adventure

Alaska Adventure by Cynthia Baxter
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College freshman Laurel Adams joined a summer research project in Alaska, where she lived with fellow researchers in a log cabin deep in the forest. But poachers were killing Alaskan brown bears and the young researchers decided to investigate. When a chance encounter showed who the villain was, Laurel needed all the courage her Alaskan adventure had taught her. Young Adult Fiction by Cynthia Baxter writing as Cynthia Blair; originally published by Fawcett Juniper

Belgrave House; November 1995
ISBN 9781610846950
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Title: Alaska Adventure
Author: Cynthia Baxter

The winter snows were finally melting. Once again, fields of grass and colorful wildflowers were free to grow. The trees in the endless spruce forests sprouted another year’s growth of tender needles, light green speckled with sunlight. A thick cover of vines crept across the forest floor. This was how the world had once been: untouched, untamed, perfect.

A large bear trundled across the forest, his heavy paws leaving deep prints in the soft ground. He was headed for the stream, knowing he’d find salmon in the clear, cold water.

The air was still. The silence that hung over the earth was broken only by the chirping of birds, the rustle of leaves, the occasional snap of a twig as a squirrel skittered across the forest floor.

Suddenly, the silence was broken by the sounds of engines. The bear looked up. The sight of a plane in the sky set off an automatic reaction of fear. He began to run, tearing through the forest, his large, clumsy form moving with surprising ease.

Yet he couldn’t get away from the relentless whirring of the engines. The plane zeroed in on him. Closer and closer it came. Still the bear ran, terrified by the noise, terrified by the hulking form looming above. Rather than running to safety, to the sanctuary of a cave, he ran out into an open field.

From out of nowhere, a second plane appeared. The bear ran even faster, letting out a bellow that cut through the silence of the forest.

And then the loud noise of a gunshot rang through his ears. Pain ripped through his side.

Then, a second shot. The bear fell to the ground.

The last thing he saw before closing his eyes forever was a silver plane hovering overhead. And just inside the window, a flash of bright red as the gunman withdrew his arm, a satisfied smile on his face.

Chapter 1

“Of course the Andersons’ champagne brunch was the loveliest event of the season.... Lydia, do have some more stuffed mushrooms. They’re Carter’s absolute favorite, so I made sure the caterer included them in today’s menu....”

Laurel Adams leaned out her bedroom window, her face twisting into a disapproving grimace as her mother’s voice drifted up to the second floor. An elegant garden party, a birthday celebration in her father’s honor, was underway on the back lawn of her parents’ stately home. And from what she could see, her mother, Catherine, had gone all out, doing her best to outshine every other hostess in the well-to-do suburbs that surrounded Washington, D.C.

From where Laurel stood, the party looked annoyingly opulent. Strings of twinkling white lights had been draped over the patio, their effect all but wasted given the fact that the late-afternoon sun was still shining brightly in the clear blue sky. The members of a five-piece chamber music group huddled in one corner of the expansive yard, struggling to make the delicate strains of their music heard over the clinking of glasses and the din of voices.

Along the edge of the patio, long narrow tables covered in crisp white linen had been set up. On them were huge platters of food, elaborate concoctions of the richest ingredients imaginable. Waiters in uniforms kept their heads bowed as they moved through the crowd, offering appetizers carefully arranged on silver trays.

With a loud bang, Laurel slammed the window shut. Flopping down on her bed, she picked up the book she’d been trying to read all afternoon, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But as she opened it to the page where she’d left off, she knew she’d have trouble concentrating. True, the famous book describing the great scientist’s theory of evolution was something she’d wanted to dig into for the longest time. All through her freshman year at Mountainville University, her favorite professor had raved about it. Dr. Ames had insisted that her favorite pupil spend at least part of her spring break reading it, telling Laurel that after she did, she would never see the world in quite the same way again.

Even with the window shut, Laurel couldn’t close out the sounds of the garden party down below. Yet she forced herself to focus on the page in front of her. Before long she got lost in her book.

A knock at the bedroom door a few minutes later startled her.

“Come in,” she called. Guiltily she hid her book under the pink ruffled throw pillow that decorated her bed.

“There you are, Laurel.” Catherine Adams stood in the doorway, her face tense. “Everyone’s been asking for you. And here you are, hiding in your bedroom.”

The disapproval in her mother’s voice was hard to miss. Still, she saw no point in starting an argument. Laurel forced herself to smile.

“I’ll be down in ten minutes.” She slid off the bed, combing her hair with her fingers.

Catherine Adams studied her daughter for only a moment. “Make it five. And please, just this once, wear something appropriate.”

It is Dad’s birthday, Laurel reminded herself, gritting her teeth as she reached into the closet and pulled out a simple black dress, its price tag still dangling from the sleeve. She slipped on a pair of pumps she found stashed way in back, put on some lip gloss, and pulled back her long blond hair, fastening it with a silver clip.

It wasn’t that she begrudged her parents and their friends their celebration. It was only that she wanted absolutely no part of it. As far as she was concerned, the very idea of wasting a perfectly good Sunday afternoon standing around on the velvety grass of the backyard, sipping punch and gobbling down cholesterol-filled foods with pretentious French names, was enough to make her shudder. Even worse than idling away most of a day, however, was the company.

Ever since she’d been a little girl, Laurel had felt out of place among her parents’ friends. Even their children, her classmates at the finest private schools, sometimes seemed like creatures from another planet. While they could easily get excited about some silly dance or dinner party, Laurel’s concept of the perfect Saturday night was camping out. Instead of strolling through the local mall, she preferred long hikes in the woods, stopping every few feet to examine an unusual plant or observe a rare species of bird. Her schoolmates’ ceaseless chatter about who was going out with whom and who was switching from this prep school to that boarding school bored her to tears.

All through high school Laurel had resisted their attempts at luring her to social events—just as she’d rejected the advances of the handsome young men with perfect smiles and easy laughs who were so eager to take her out, finding them shallow and uninteresting. Because she was pretty, with her long golden blond hair, intense green eyes, and willowy frame, they never gave up trying. But because she was who she was, she never stopped trying to find ways to avoid them.

She’d also done her best to avoid her parents’ parties. Checking her reflection in the mirror hanging above her dresser, Laurel frowned. She could remember dozens of parties just like this one. Even when she was little, she’d put in a brief appearance, then sneak away, trying her best not to get her fancy clothes dirty as she collected interesting rocks or chased after frogs and butterflies.

Now that she’d started at Mountainville, she’d hoped to be freed of such tedious social obligations. But spring break meant spending a full week with her parents. And while being back at home was supposed to be restful, she and her mother had picked up their ongoing conflict right where they’d left off over winter vacation. The problem was that Catherine Adams expected her daughter to spend her nine-day vacation from college shopping and visiting the girls she’d gone to high school with. Laurel, meanwhile, was determined to use all that luxurious time to organize data for her biology research project.

Being chosen to be part of a research team was an honor rarely bestowed on a member of the freshman class. Tugging on the neckline of her dress, pulling it up as high as she could, Laurel couldn’t resist smiling. She’d been a star in both biology and geology during her first semester, impressing both of her science professors with her knowledge, her skill, and her dedication. Being the only freshman chosen to be part of Dr. Ames’s study had been quite a feather in her cap.

Of course, her parents were baffled about why a “young lady” like Laurel would waste her precious college years hiding out in a lab. They simply couldn’t understand how important science—and becoming a scientist—was to her.

Glancing around, Laurel realized her bedroom was symbolic of the ongoing conflict between her parents and her, the perfect illustration of what she wanted compared to what they wanted. The walls were painted a delicate shade of pink that Laurel had always hated. Since she was nine years old, she’d done her best to cover them up, tacking up posters of wildlife everywhere: regal tigers poised to attack, turtles with oddly thoughtful expressions, monkeys engaged in antics that made them look amazingly human. On the white French-provincial dresser with ornate gold trim— definitely her mother’s taste—was her collection of fossil sharks’ teeth and whale bones.

Through her open closet door, she could see that even the clothes hanging there reflected the struggle she and her parents were engaged in. On one side hung the clothes her mother had chosen for her, designer outfits that ranged from frilly to sophisticated, all of them practically brand-new. On the other side were the oversize flannel shirts she favored, invariably wearing them over tattered jeans and a T-shirt. On the floor, a pair of high heels she hadn’t worn once teetered next to a pair of dilapidated hiking boots.

Laurel sighed. She was constantly frustrated by her mother’s attempts to make her over into someone she wasn’t. Just thinking about what her reaction was bound to be once Laurel got up the nerve to mention her plans for the coming summer caused a knot to form in her stomach.

She’d first found out about Dr. Wells’s summer research project in Alaska completely by accident.

“I have to stop at the Student Center,” her best friend, Cassie Davis, had said casually after lunch one Friday a few weeks earlier. “I know it’s only March, but it’s time to start thinking about a summer job. Walk me over, Laurel. It’ll only take a few minutes.”

While Cassie ducked into the office to fill out some forms, Laurel waited in the hallway. She happened to be standing in front of the Summer Jobs bulletin board. Having nothing else to do, she ran her eyes over the index cards and slips of paper stuck up with colored pushpins. And then one of the small signs caught her eye. Her heart began to pound wildly as she read it over and over.

to spend six weeks in Alaska studying plants and animals

Underneath, in smaller letters, was printed “Low pay ... but adventure guaranteed!

Contact Dr. Ethan Wells, Department of Biology, Life Sciences Building, Room 8.”


Laurel was still staring at the card when Cassie dashed out of the Job Placement Office. “Sorry I took so long,” she said breathlessly. “First they weren’t sure which form I was supposed to fill out, then they couldn’t find it—”

“Cassie, look at this.” Impatiently Laurel pushed her straight blond bangs out of her eyes.

“What is it?” Cassie blinked, frowning as she leaned forward and peered at the bulletin board. “I didn’t know you were looking for a summer job.”

“I wasn’t. Until now. I mean, I figured that when I went home to Alexandria at the end of May, I’d get the same old job I’ve had for the last two summers, working at that awful china shop my mother’s friend owns. But this is such an incredible opportunity!”

Cassie focused on the card Laurel had pointed at. “ ‘Ecologist seeks five students’—Alaska? You’re kidding, right?”

“I’ve never been more serious in my life.” Already Laurel was scribbling the room number of Dr. Wells’s office on the front cover of her spiral notebook.

As the two girls hurried to their two o’clock English Lit class, Laurel found it difficult to concentrate on Cassie’s chatter. She was too busy imagining what Alaska must be like. She pictured glassy lakes surrounded by lush forests, magnificent mountain ranges with craggy peaks jutting up against the horizon, spectacular glaciers with ice blue surfaces that glowed. Going someplace so dramatic, so unspoiled, had always been a dream of hers. Going there as part of a scientific research team was almost too wonderful to imagine.

Yet that very opportunity was suddenly within her reach. If only she played her cards right....

Laurel took one final peek in the mirror. After concluding that even her mother wouldn’t be able to find anything to disapprove of, she headed downstairs.

“Laurel! We’ve all been wondering where on earth you’d disappeared to,” cooed one of her parents’ longtime friends, grabbing her hand the moment she stepped onto the back lawn. She was the mother of a girl with whom Laurel had graduated from high school. “Abigail’s been asking about you. You must stop by to see her engagement ring. It’s simply beautiful. Did she tell you that her fiancé is starting medical school in the fall?”

“Laurel,   you   look  lovely,”  commented  another woman, standing a few feet behind Abigail’s mother. “Did you know Thad’s home from Harvard this week? He’s been wondering whether to give you a call. Should I tell him you’re free?”

Laurel’s mouth was already sore from forcing a smile by the time she reached the punch bowl. Gratefully she accepted a crystal glass from a waiter. She stood at the edge of the lawn, watching the others, counting the seconds until she could escape to her bedroom—and her book.

It quickly became clear she wouldn’t be getting off as easily as she’d hoped. Her mother had spotted her. She was heading across the lawn in her direction with a friend in tow.

“William insisted on saying hello,” Catherine Adams cooed, taking her daughter’s hand. “He was just commenting on what a lovely young lady you’ve turned into.”

“Still chasing lizards?” William Turner, the husband of one of her mother’s close friends, greeted Laurel with a warm smile. He’d always stood out from the rest, more interested in what she was doing than any of the others.

“As a matter of fact, I am.”

“I’m not surprised. Rumor has it you’re now a biology major at Mountainville.”

‘That’s right.”

“I also hear you’re doing a crackerjack job.”

She was about to tell Mr. Turner about Dr. Ames’s research project and what an honor it was to have been chosen to work on it. But her mother caught her eye and gave her a warning glance. Laurel knew what she was thinking: that Mr. Turner was simply being polite and that she’d be much better off talking less about herself—especially her passion for science—and more about some topic of general interest.

“I’m doing my best,” she said simply.

“Laurel,” her mother said, “Elena North is right over there. This might be a good time to firm up your plans for working in her shop again this summer—”

William Turner raised his eyebrows. “Working in a store? Is that what you’ve got lined up for summer?”

Laurel took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a moment before focusing her attention on Mr. Turner. “Actually,” she said boldly, “I’m spending the summer in Alaska.”

“Alaska!” His eyes lit up. “How exciting!”

Laurel glanced over at her mother. Just as she’d expected, her mouth was drawn into a straight line. “What on earth are you talking about, Laurel? Such silliness!”

“It’s true, Mother. Everything’s all set.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“It sounds to me as if your daughter’s dead serious,” William Turner commented. He nodded at Laurel encouragingly. “What’s going on up there? Some research project?”

“Exactly.” She made a point of keeping her eyes fixed on him as she went on, avoiding her mother’s cold stare. “There’s a professor at Mountainville named Ethan Wells. I talked to him a few weeks ago after I found out he was looking for some students to take with him over the summer. He’s doing what’s called a biological inventory of a lake, finding out what plants and animals live in and around it—”

“Laurel,” her mother interrupted impatiently, “this whole thing is completely ridic—

“That’s what happens, Catherine,” Mr. Turner interrupted, his tone jovial. “These kids of ours grow up. One minute we’re forcing strained bananas down their throats, and the next thing we know they’re off on their own, making their own decisions, planning their own lives....”

Laurel cast him a grateful look. Yet her mother didn’t appear to be convinced.

“Laurel, this is certainly something your father and I are going to discuss. Your plans for this summer are anything but definite. Why, up until this moment, I simply assumed you’d be living at home, socializing with your friends, and going back to Elena’s shop.”

“Mother, everything’s already in place. I’ve arranged it all with Dr. Wells—”

“That’s enough for now, Laurel.” Her mother’s tone made it clear the subject was closed. “Come along with me. The Prestons have been asking about you for weeks. They’re anxious to hear all about your first year of college.”

“Good luck, kid,” Mr. Turner whispered with a wink.

Laurel didn’t have a chance to reply before her mother dragged her away.

* * * *

“How could you?” Mrs. Adams cried. She turned her back on Laurel, gazing out at the back lawn through the huge bay window that nearly covered an entire wall of the study. “Embarrassing me like that in front of my friends!”

“I didn’t mean to embarrass you, Mother,” Laurel insisted, struggling to remain calm. “I was simply telling you and Mr. Turner my plans for the summer.”

“I think what your mother means,” Laurel’s father, Carter, interjected, “is that she would have preferred that you clear your summer plans with her first.”

“It’s more than that.” Catherine turned around, her arms folded firmly across her chest. Behind her, Laurel could see the caterer’s crew cleaning up, folding tablecloths, and carrying huge floral centerpieces back to their trucks. “I can’t believe you actually thought your father and I would give you permission to go traipsing off to ... to Alaska, of all places....”

She let her voice trail off, meanwhile staring at her daughter coldly. “What were you thinking? Or maybe you weren’t thinking at all. Maybe this is simply some act of teenage rebelliousness.”

Laurel stood very still, resisting the urge to yell or beg or run from the room. Instead, she looked her mother squarely in the eye. “Surely you must understand how important this is to me.”

For the first time, her mother’s gaze wavered. As Catherine Adams glanced at her husband, Laurel felt a surge of strength rise up inside.

“I’ve wanted to be a biologist ever since I was a little girl,” she went on, sounding more and more sure of herself. “You know how much I’ve always loved being outdoors, collecting things, studying nature. But I’ve always done it on my own. Everything I know, I’ve taught myself or learned from books. I’ve never had a chance to do any fieldwork, to get out there and really do what research biologists do. You said yourself you couldn’t understand how I could bear to spend so much time cooped up in a lab.”

“What your mother meant,” Carter Adams said, “is that a girl your age should be out having fun. Going to parties, meeting people—”

“That may be fine for other girls my age, but it’s not what I want.” Laurel looked at her father pleadingly. “Don’t you know me well enough to see that?”

“But Alaska!” her mother cried. “It’s so far away. So wild. So ... so cold.”

“It’s not cold in the summer, Mother. Dr. Wells told me all about it. The area we’re going to, the Kenai Peninsula, is southwest of Anchorage, in the lower part of the state. The only snow I’m likely to encounter is at high elevations, up near the tops of mountains. The lake where we’ll be doing our research is moderate, not too hot and certainly not cold—”

“You’re talking about this as if you’ve already decided you’re going,” Carter commented.

“I am,” Laurel said, her voice soft but firm. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I can’t pass it up. No one, not even you, can ask me to.”

This time the look her parents exchanged was one of resignation.

“It sounds as if her mind’s made up, Catherine.”

“I suppose Will Turner was right. Children reach a certain age and suddenly you can’t control them anymore.” Pointedly she added, “Even when you see they’re making rash decisions, there’s nothing you can do but stand by and watch, hoping they learn from their mistakes.”

Ordinarily, words like those would have hit Laurel like a blow. But inwardly she was rejoicing. Her parents were going to let her go! Maybe they weren’t being as supportive as she would have liked, but at least they weren’t standing in her way. And that meant that the fantasy she’d harbored for so long was about to become reality.

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