Friday, August 18, 2006

Toolik, Take 2

Late August finds me up on the North Slope again, at Toolik Field Station. This trip is part of my institute’s annual graduate summer climate science workshop. The weather has been unseasonably cold here, but the students have kept a positive attitude and we’ve had some fun times. Since we are studying snow and ecology, it is nice that we could arrange for a snow event up here. It really illustrates some of the concepts we’ve been discussing. Still, with so many people in camp in the cold, we are at full power generating capacity and have to schedule electricity outages. The poor students have been wearing their gloves and hats during the lectures in the dark classroom tent. I don’t think anyone will be sad to say goodbye to the snow when we leave, but the wood-fired sauna has assuaged our suffering considerably.

A couple of days ago, we drove up to Prudhoe Bay to get a tour of the oilfields and swim in the Arctic Ocean. Brrr. I don’t need to do that again. Prudhoe Bay was an interesting place to see, given the current partial shutdown of the pumping there. The oil fields look like a sight from Mad Max; big, color-coded camps for each company, isolated by swampy tundra. BP, Exxon, ConocoPhillips, and Haliburton are all there. We saw a grizzly bear near the road, jumping on a squirrel burrow. The flat coastal plain looks a lot like the Nebraska prairie, and in fact we saw a flock of Sandhill cranes, making their way south. 10,000 year-old Athabaskan ruins have been found here, where hunters watched for herds of caribou. It’s a beautiful place where the landscape has changed both slowly and quickly. The caribou have wandered this slope for thousands of years, but now the pipeline snakes quietly through the river valley. More development is likely to come.

Yesterday we took a break from the classroom to head into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for a great hike in the Brooks Range. This has been a perfect way to cap the summer season. Tomorrow we head back to Fairbanks and I fly off to a meeting in England. Bob is also out in the field, a couple hundred miles to the west from here in a place called Ivotuk. He’s uninstalling some meteorological towers with a Russian friend of ours who eats raw bacon. I hope you guys are staying warm! Thanks to modern technology, we’ve been able to keep in touch via wireless internet, even in these remote places. Thank you Al Gore.


Adventures with Superbob

So who’s this Bob guy? Well, he appeared in an earlier blog as the leader of the adventure to Nome and environs. He seems to have stuck around ever since. Bob is a hydrology field engineer and researcher, photographer, chef, dog lover, and blogger ( extraordinare. From Sitka in Southeast Alaska. He lives in a cabin down the road from me with his girls, Midge and Bergey. Bob’s been in Fairbanks for the last ten years and current goals include getting indoor plumbing shortly after (?) his outhouse frost-jacks completely out of the ground. Bob is also the nexus for a cast of great local characters: strong ladies and goofy men, is how I would describe them. That seems to be the way they grow ‘em up here!


Summer in Alaska

There was a season on visitors this summer in Fairbanks. In early May, Tim and Rachel came up to see me and on the way back stopped in Seattle to see Rachel’s sister Danielle. Though Fairbanksians are already enthusiastically sporting short sleeves and rollerskis by this time, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground. We all went to Denali Park before it was officially open. We biked in a few miles and saw a Ptarmigan and a momma bear with cubs. Biked through a couple snow squalls…it was still pretty cold. Tim and Rachel took it easy around Fairbanks then, while I worked. They helped me finish unpacking and headed to the nearby hotsprings. It was a fun visit, but you two should come back when it’s warm!

Next came my pal Jeff from Lamont. He flew into Anchorage, which gave me an excuse to go check out South Central Alaska. We hiked and camped near Hope, Seward (lovely Primrose Campground on Kenai Lake), and Whittier. We drove back to Fairbanks and Jeff, Bob and I went hiking at Angel Rocks before Jeff headed out on a four-day solo trek on the Chena dome trail. Luckily he didn’t run into the bears that were wandering around out there. Then he headed back to Anchorage on the train. Matilda came along on most of the adventures, but she was still having a lot of behavior problems. She could seem to be let out of my sight without whining and crying. Poor Jeff! They became buddies by the end though.

Next came Mom. We had lots of fun. Bob, Mom, and I headed down to Denali for a nice bus tour. It was drizzly, but that merely brought out the nice colors on the rocks. Polychrome was gorgeous. Mom also enjoyed kicking around Fairbanks, heading to the knitting store, watching us BBQ, and seeing the giant cabbage at the botanical garden. Bob had a list of required activities including the hotsprings and North Pole, where we took photos of us with giant, barbed wire-lined Santa next to an RV park. By the end of the week, Mom even got the hang of the outhouse. Yay! Matilda was feeling much better about life by this time. Bob’s been teaching her to meditate when she gets angry and to get along with his dogs. Getting better all the time. But when Grandma Judy brought dried liver chips, she became an instant hit.

After Mom came Abby and Miriam, my friends from graduate school. Along with Bob and the three dogs (Bob’s two and my one) the five of us had a blast. Abby and Miriam took a great backpacking trip to Denali. Then we went to a fun wedding reception for Bob’s photographer/dog musher friends Sam and Jillian. The highlights of that night included Bob taking illicit pictures with the camera of the bride’s father and them becoming best buddies afterwards. The evening culminated with a guy running through the yard with a BBQ rib in his mouth, chased by 8 or 9 dogs ranging from huskies to a small poodle. Abby, Miriam, Bob, Matilda, and I also went berry picking and canoeing on Abby’s last weekend in town. Lots of fun!! Great summer everyone!!


End of an Era

I’ve finally ended a long run at Columbia University. There’s no other place quite like it. I moved to Manhattan when I was 18 years old and left just after turning 29. Looking back, I couldn’t imagine spending these years of my life anywhere else. What an adventure. It was hard to leave. During the last 8 years New York became a cultural center for my generation. It was THE place to be. Other Nebraskans agreed as they migrated to the city for college, journalism school, law school, and jobs. Nebyorkers: I love you all! And then a war started there. A war which will be the other defining element of our generation. The impact of the war on individual families is stronger in the American South and Midwest, where most of our soldiers are coming from. But when the threat reappears on U.S. soil, I imagine New York City will return to those anxious days of 2001.