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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

From the Mountains to the Sea: Vin Hoeman and POBSP

The Division of Birds in the National Museum of Natural History holds an extensive collection of field books that are part of Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 000245, and contain the notes of researchers who worked for the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program (POBSP). A significant portion of my internship has involved finding out more about the people who were involved with POBSP, and creating biographical profiles for these researchers. While many of the researchers who worked on POBSP went on to careers as botanists, entomologists, ornithologists, and zoologists for the Smithsonian and other academic institutions, there were a few that went in other directions. One especially notable example was John Vincent “Vin” Hoeman.

Vin worked with POBSP in 1964 and 1965, but his path to working with birds was somewhat unorthodox. He earned his B.S. from Colorado State University in Forest Management, and later moved to Alaska, where he did graduate work in zoology and worked for the Arctic Health Research Center in Anchorage. Life in the outdoors, especially mountaineering, had been an important part of Vin’s life from an early age, so it is not surprising that he was interested in working on these types of projects. Although he had no formal training in ornithology, his detailed notes for the field books indicate his keen interest in studying birds and other wildlife. Vin worked as a research assistant for POBSP, participating in six at-sea expeditions, as well conducting research on the main Hawaiian islands while not at sea. His main duties involved bird banding, taking blood samples, and general wildlife observation.

An example of bird banding data
Vin’s field notes come across as thoughtful and intelligent, even poetic at times. After his arrival in Hawaii to begin work with POBSP, he writes, “the steady stream of thoughts kept sleep from reaching me.” (SIA RU000245, Series 60, Volume 57) Notes about interactions with fellow crew members frequently included details about family and physical descriptions. He was also in Hawaii at the time of the April 1964 Alaskan earthquake, the second most powerful earthquake in recorded history. The field notes show Vin’s internal monologue, worrying about his friends in Anchorage, and debating the pros and cons of leaving POBSP to help with the recovery efforts:
Tell Pat when I get back, waking him to do so. “Do you think it’s that serious?” he says. I tell him I think the lives of my friends are of importance. He later agrees and would’ve let me go on my own. I’d thought of doing so, of course, but told myself that would be irresponsible. After all I’m unauthorized and probably not needed. Civil defense and the Army will have things under control. What matters that I’m a member of ARG [Alaska Rescue Group]. I’d just be another mouth to feed. If I was any good or a first aid instructor my pupils will save lives.
I hope these were my foremost thoughts rather than the cost of fare I’d have to bear, the possibility of losing my job, the fact that I’d have to buy arctic gear in Seattle before going up; the threat of prolonged discomfort.
(SIA RU000245, Series 60, Volume 57)
Destruction on 4th Avenue in Anchorage after the April 1964 earthquake. On the left, Mac's Foto (mentioned in Vin's notes) is visible as one of the damaged businesses (
 When Vin finally visited Anchorage as he prepared for a POBSP expedition in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands in June of 1964, he saw a city that had been devastated, making note of a “rubble-pile and a terrific fault full of sunken houses.” Despite this (or perhaps because of this), he also tries to find humor in the situation: “Walk up to 4th Ave., and look at the gap where all those bars, Mac’s Photo, Dendi Theater and Hautbrau used to be. Urban renewal I call it – a fine view.” (SIA RU000245, Series 60, Volume 57)

Mountaineering was never far from Vin’s mind, even when he was out at sea. His field notes from March 5, 1965 give some insight into his plans for after his work with POBSP was finished, saying “If I’m going to be a great anything it’ll be [a] mountaineer and mtn. writer I think.” (SIA RU000245, Series 60, Volume 57) Vin did end up returning to Alaska, and became a mountain climber of some renown. Among his many “firsts”, one that stands out is his accomplishment of being the first person to reach the summit of all 50 states. He was also part of the team that became the first to cross the Harding Icefield on the Kenai Peninsula. Sadly, Vin was killed in an avalanche during a climbing expedition on Dhaulagiri, a peak in the Himalayas, in 1969, leaving behind his wife Grace, as well as many family members and friends.

Notes from an at sea expedition
Although he was only with POBSP for a few seasons, Vin evidently thought highly enough of his cohorts to send a letter in 1967, informing everyone of what he had been doing since leaving the program. And Vin certainly had a positive impact on POBSP through the data he collected. I believe that this story points to the importance of “citizen scientists” – that no matter what a person’s academic background or training might be, if someone is passionate about a certain topic, they can make a contribution to the world’s understanding of that topic. It also reminds us that behind the data, there are wonderful human stories to be shared. I hope you have enjoyed learning about Vin’s story.

Conal Huetter, Intern
Field Book ProjectSmithsonian Institution Libraries

To learn more about the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program and its field documentation, check out “Life in the Field: a Reflection on Cataloging Field Notes in the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program”  on the Field Book Project Blog, images on Flickr, and field book records on Smithsonian Collections Search Center.

Sources consulted:
Hoeman, J. Vincent. Field Notes. 1964-1965. Series 60, Volume 57. SIA RU000245, National Museum of Natural History (U.S.) Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program, Records, circa 1961-1973, with data from 1923. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. 15 July 2016.

Gonzales, J. (2014). Project 49: Grace without Vin, a love story without a happy ending. Green and Gold News. Retrieved from

Johnston, D. (1969). John Vincent Hoeman, 1936-1969. American Alpine Journal, 16 (2). Retrieved from

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