Friday, June 16, 2006

The North Slope

I just returned from another field adventure out on Alaska's North Slope, the area north of the Brooks Range. This was more of a reconnaissance mission than anything. I was working with a group from University of Texas at Austin, who was sampling water on the Sag, Kuparuk, and other rivers in the area, all the way up to Prudhoe bay.

The trip up was pretty cool. I took a van driven by a friend of mine, Alice, who has driven the haul road between Fairbanks and Prudhoe for 11 years. She knows every trucker and every tree on that road. We'd be driving in the middle of nowhere and she'd pull out the CB radio to check to see if Jack or Jerry was home. We stopped in Coldfoot to drop off some folks at the airfield. They were going to be flown into someplace for a week of hiking. Man, some people just can't get far enough away from themselves. Sheesh. This is already 6-hours north of Fairbanks. The coolest thing in Coldfoot was that a couple of kids had a lemonade stand on the airfield. How cute is that?

The Arctic cotton was in full force, since most of the snow is gone. Beautiful! Toolik Field Station was home base, a strange M*A*S*H unit for scientists. I tagged along with Jim, Amy, Breton, and Jorges while they sampled the Sag in five places. Jorges was from Peru, Jim and Amy were working in Texas and Breton was from Hawaii.

We ran into this goofy butterfly guy who was camped out at the river, about 60 miles from Prudhoe Bay. Said he was from Salt Lake City, but he'd been at that campsite for weeks looking for caterpillers. When he found them, he put little tents around them and waited for them to turn into butterfies. The day we were there was the day the first one hatched. This made me miss Matilda who likes to chase butterflies.

Toolik is mostly a biological research station, and the summer interns had just arrived. Including a goofy guy named Eugene who was a computing science bigwig who happened to enjoy lying on his stomach weeding mosses. Go figure.

There was still ice on the lake when I got there and a few days later it was almost gone. The loons are the most famous bird on this little lake, but there were also swans swimming in the open water. Very peaceful. flickr

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

To Fly or Not to Fly

The next morning we woke up in a dark cloud. Literally. The cloud base was only a ~100 feet above the air strip. We called back to Nome on our satellite phone and talked to the Bering Air dispatcher. After Bob laboriously transmitted the poor conditions to the dispatcher over the intermittent connection, she replied, “Oh, of course we can’t fly, Nome is all fogged in.” Thanks. After waking up in what my flight safety instructor would call canonical bad flying conditions, however, I was fine with waiting. Bob and I made another cup of coffee while we thought of plan “B” which was a trip back to Nome for, among other things, beer.

That evening we returned to Quartz Creek, packed up more met station instruments and tools, tossed the camp canoe on our truck and drove to the Kougarok landing. Here we canoed and then hiked to several more met stations, gauged the river, and installed some rods to track this season’s thermokarst erosion on a stream called Niagra. It was another late night.

The next morning we went ahead with the helicopter flight to fix the Kigluaiks radio repeater and the Skookum Pass antenna. Skookum was another met station and the Kigluaiks repeater station helps transport the VHF signal into a base station in Nome. It was really chilly at these sites and I was only wearing jeans (designer ones mind you) with no long-underwear in case I caught on fire in a helo crash. Our pilot was a Nome lifer about our age who probably burned more fuel keeping himself warm in the helo than he did transporting us, but gave us complimentary flight narration. He and his buddies were starting an ambitious hunting, flying, and fishing charter business. They were building a cabin to house the guests, but the late pack ice in the harbor was preventing the first summer barge from coming in and they were out of building supplies. Ben would entertain us, though, by flying in close to various cabins and saying “let’s see if the Hansons are out for the weekend or whether it’s too cold for them.”

We did see a bear and her three cubs from the helo. They were playing in one of the mining ditches and just looked like teddies from the air. Back at base camp the National Park Service had flown in two tiny Super Cubs for a week of bear surveys. Two NPS rangers were waiting for the planes to come in when we arrived one evening. They were a couple of goofballs: a giddy middle-aged white stoner who was probably from New Jersey and an old quiet Native guy. They were joking with us that they were waiting for a bunch of “enthusiastic young women to show up in planes to count bears”. Ah yes, everyone loves intern season.

I could go on for pages describing the rest of the trip, but I have to pack for the next one on the North Slope of Alaska. Suffice it to say that Bob and I celebrated back in town with some Japanese pizza and I flew back to Fairbanks. It’s true there is “No place like Nome” and I look forward to coming back soon.


Does “All Terrain” Include Tussock Tundra?

The next morning Bob and I head out in our truck on one of the old mining roads. About an hour and a half up the road we stop at the Kuzitrin River to gauge it and service the met station. The bridge over this river used to be the Cushman street bridge over the Chena in Fairbanks. When Fairbanks remodeled they shipped it up north and put it here. Probably one of the few Alaska recycling projects that worked out.

I should also mention that Nome is packed this time of year with the subspecies known as Homo Birdwatcherous. They made up most of our flight over here and can be spotted a mile away. Light rain jackets, homemade knit hats, wire glasses, binoculars around their necks at all times, camera tripods, folding chairs, and of course, bird books. Homo Birdwatcherous also travels in pairs, typically in their late 50s-late 60s. Often from Michigan. Anyway, as the birds come north, so to the birdwatchers and these peacenik versions of fishing hobbiests are the source of much fun-making by the locals, probably because they don’t kill anything.

The Kuzitrin River has birds all over it. I don’t know any of their names, but there are small ones which make tweety noises, medium-sized ones which make sorrowful wails, and big geese which honk like taxis. Bob and I measure the speed of the river with an Acoustic Doppler Profiler called a Rivercat. Bob puts on his waders, straps a car battery on his back and wades out to the met station. Like the previous one, this tower is a couple feet underwater and only the instrument box is dry. I hang back and watch for moose and bears. Most of my job on this trip is to make sure bob doesn’t drown or get attacked by an animal. Though I’m familiar with most of the equipment, I have little to offer Bob; he’s a capable technician. I try to provide cheerful company at least.

Next we make our way up the mining road to a base camp called Quartz Creek. This is a small, unheated building next to a bush air strip and a couple of comex/semi-trailers/containers (these seem to be called something different in every part of the world). We unload our gear and supplies into the building. We pull the 4-wheeler out of the container and fill it with fuel. The engine won’t turn over, so we jump it with another battery we have.

Bob shows me how the controls work and sends me out on the air strip to learn how to drive it and charge up the battery. Meanwhile he packs for our trip out to a couple more met stations. Driving the ATV is a lot more fun than I expected. I “tear it” down the gravel runway for a while, then head back to where Bob is waiting. We bungee a Rubbermaid lid to the cargo rack where is says “No passengers” and strap our equipment and bear spray on the front. I hop on the cargo rack and Bob says, “Hold on!”

The road goes another mile or so past this camp, but we turn off earlier onto the tussock tundra. The first few hundred meters are muddy as hell and we get the 4-wheeler stuck a couple of times. Then the mud subsides to tussock that burned recently leaving isolated 10 inch tall mounds of grass separated by little moats of marshy tundra. Each wheel on the ATV must climb each of these little grass islands between squishing through the tiny moats. It’s slow going with the ATV lurching back and forth, occasionally threatening to flip over.

After 20 minutes of this from the vantage point of the cargo rack, I’m fairly sure my spine has dislocated, so I jump off and walk in the direction Bob says the met station should be. Hiking through the burned tussocks is nearly as bad; the mounds are not sturdy enough to support my weight, so my ankle just rolls off of them. The mini-moats between them seem better, but they are too narrow, so my boots get caught and I stumble every few feet. Despite the challenge of the tussocks, crossing 3 foot snow drifts, and wading through willow swamps, Bob only beats me to the station by a few minutes. He downloads the data while I attach a radiometer and we are both dive-bombed by the enormous early season mosquitos.

For the second station I decide the cargo rack on the ATV is the better option and suggest to Bob that NSF acquisition a monster truck for this job. Or a trail pony. I find the most comfortable position I can and concentrate on looking for bears as we negotiate a 2 mile trek, tussock by tussock. The second station we arrive at has been mauled by a bear. The precipitation gauge has been crushed, as if the bear sat on it. The animal then crawled up the tower, took a bite out of the windmill-shaped anemometer and bent over the temperature/humidity gauge. Finally to add insult to injury, the bear crapped all over the station. Sheesh.

We re-assembled and McGuyvered the instruments as best we could. By the time we headed back to our camp, everything was back to working except the half-eaten anemometer and we’d installed a radiometer. It felt great to get out of the cold, make dinner, and crawl into bed. By this time it was 1 am. One problem with Arctic fieldwork in the summer is that you are never constrained by the sun, only your own energy.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

It’s a Lot Better than a Dog’s Life

I am accompanying one of the UAF hydrology technicians into the field here to service about six meteorological stations, install the instruments which they only use in summer, and repair any damage done by bears or harsh weather. My companion here, Bob, is my age, with a mechanical engineering degree from UAF and a life of experience living and working all over Alaska. Bob has a particularly upbeat attitude which makes him well-suited for this harsh job. His attitude ships with a hilarious giggle and some of the loudest snoring I’ve ever heard in my life, for which he thoughtfully provided me several pairs of ear plugs.

The first day in the area we checked into the local hotel, rented a truck, picked up the cargo we’d shipped ahead, stopped by our storage unit for more parts, bought gas and did our grocery shopping. Then we headed out to the Snake River, just outside of town, pull on our waders and gauge the river. We found the meteorological station sitting in several feet of swampy half-frozen water, but it seemed to be working fine. A couple pressure transducers had been abandoned over the winter as they’d frozen in before Bob and one of the grad students had gotten here on the last trip of the past summer.

Driving back into town we passed a dozen or so kennels of sled dogs. Nome is the end point of the Iditarod race and many locals compete. A sled dog kennel isn’t exactly what most people on the Outside picture when they hear the word “kennel”. It’s 10 or 20 or more individual dog houses with a dog chained tightly, so it can’t touch (or destroy) the other dogs. Sometimes these kennels are on a concrete pad so they can easily be cleaned with a hose. More often they are on bare ground and therefore everything—the dogs, their houses, and the surrounding area are dusty. These Nome kennels were particularly dirty and dusty and in many cases just out in a tundra field with no human presence nearby. Come winter, it must be a sight to see these dogs doing what they do best: running like hell. In the meantime, their lives seem pretty-much like hell and I’m skeptical that there’s a humane way to do this sport. flickr

There's No Place Like Nome

Bob's truck rumbles into my driveway a few mornings after the flight safety class. We head out to the airport and pile ourselves and all of our gear boxes onto the 14-seater Beechcraft 1900 that's headed to Nome. These planes are the way to go. No security, no metal detector, no flight attendant, no W.C. It's just a 2-hr flight to Nome, a small coastal town on the Seward Peninsula that forms the U.S. side of the Bering Strait.

I have fond memories of Nome. I was here a few years ago at the terminus of a research cruise in the Bering and Chukchi seas. Nome is unusual for a small coastal Alaska town in that there are several roads that are maintained deep inland, up into the mountains. Gold was found here by the "three lucky Swedes" over a hundred years ago. Nome became an early engineering feat as hundreds of laborers dug water trenches for miles and miles deep into the mountains, to bring water to the mines. Gold dredges still dot the landscape. Apparently there were even competing companies who dug the water trenches and folks with claims who didn't pay up got their canal blocked off.

Three years ago, I'd piled into a beer-stocked van with my friends from the USCG Healy and driven out in search of the local hot springs. But, like many things in Alaska, this plan didn't quite work out. Twenty miles or so on our way the road had been washed out and offending creek had frozen in place. Despite the drunken jeering from the backseat, my responsible friend Ryan had decided against coaxing the rental van down into and more importantly back out of the icy hole where that section of the road used to be. And the tussock tundra on each side of the hole was impassible.

Despite this failure, we'd spotted some musk oxen up on a hillside and ventured up to see them. My friend Chris is a wildlife photographer. He set up his tripod on the ridge and waited an hour to get all the shots he wanted. Though it was only early October, it was far below zero with the wind blowing and light patches of snow everywhere. Few of us had brought our heavy-weight sea gear and only our drunkenness kept us huddled behind a rock staring down these squat, wooly, paleolithic survivors.

Later, we found a warmer valley with a lake connected to the Bering Sea. Here, misty rain lit up the tundra's brilliant colors and salmon carcasses were washed up everywhere around the lake. They had made their run and fertile eggs were waiting out the winter below what was already a thin layer of ice on the lake.

This trip to Nome has been every bit as enchanting. I really like this place. Spring has come late this year. The port is still frozen in with pack ice. The mountains are still covered in snow. Many of the roads are still closed by snow drifts and there's still river ice here on June 4th. But the light makes up for it. It plays in the maritime clouds and shines for more than all my waking hours; soon the summer solstice will be here. Still it's cold and windy, which stifles the carelessness of summer and leaves the heavy-weight of winter lingering.


Is this the day we might burn up, Bob?

Within my first few weeks here in AK, I've jumped on a couple opportunities to do fieldwork with some folks who have a lot of experience working out here. Much of the work out in Alaska's bush requires helicopters or small planes because there are few roads. So, one of the first things I was asked to do was to take a small aircraft safety class over at the Fairbanks office of the Bureau of Land Management. Early on a Wednesday morning I pile into a sleepy classroom with a couple dozen folks who are about to start the summer field season for the park service or the university.

Our instructor is a stringy old guy who starts the class by telling us about all of the crashes--he calls them unanticipated landings--he's survived and how. He reminded me of my high school health teacher who showed us videos of don't-drink-and-drive stories like "Blood on the Highway" and "The Last Prom" to scare the crap out of us.

A lot of people have asked me why aircraft crash so often in the Arctic. My basic understanding is that the reasons are a combination of poor weather conditions, sparse weather monitoring, and the aircrafts in question. The lower part of the atmosphere (troposphere) is thin in the Arctic and the result is that clouds are very low and it's difficult to climb the mountinous topography in low clouds. Many Alaskan towns are coastal and subject to a cloudy maritime climate. Few weather stations exist relative to the vast area of the state, so weather prediction has little skill. And finally, people fly around in really old aircraft. If you are trying to summit a 3000 meter snowy mountain with a 2500 m cloud base in a helicopter built during the Korean war, you are in trouble. It's difficult to visually separate the clouds from the snow and easy for a pilot to get disoriented.

The basic advice we got in this class was "don't wear synthetic fiber clothing while flying in small aircraft. If you crash, you will have fuel on you and then you will catch on fire and your clothes will melt onto your skin. So wear all cotton or a Nomax fireproof flight suit. Second wear a plastic impact-proof flight helmet which can sustain even multiple contacts with a spinning rotar on the helo. The class was interesting/terrifying. My soon-to-be fieldwork companion, Bob, asked me if I learned anything. "Oh and by the way, we don't have any of that safety gear...hee hee ha hoo hoo (hysterical laughter)"...