Sunday, September 30, 2007

Top of the World

Bob and I both headed north to Barrow last week for separate fieldwork projects. Barrow is the northern-most point in Alaska and serves as a hub for several of the North Slope coastal villages, as well as a whole host of science research.

We've just passed the equinox, so there are still almost 12 hours of light, even up in Barrow. However, the angle of the light is low and the amount of incoming solar radiation is dropping fast.

What used to be the Navy Arctic Research Lab, established in 1947, is now the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium. The naval architecture remains in the quonset huts and other utilitarian buildings.

I'm not sure what these giant radio dishes are for...they litter the coastal skyline. Bowhead whale skulls are also prominent fixtures; these juvenile skulls are mounted next to the community college.

Bob and his Swedish colleague Anna were installing soil moisture and temperature probes in a permafrost polygon. It was great to see some familiar faces up there. Even if those faces were burned by the steady 40 mph wind. It snowed the last couple of days I was there, but little accumulation.

Other nature highlights included seabirds, snowy owls, and this feisty fox.

A few days after we left, the autumn whaling season was set to begin. I don't know if this little boat is used for whaling, but it seemed as ready as any of the others I saw lying around. Which is to say rotten and hardly seaworthy. But that is in the spirit of these arctic towns.

The biggest story around town these days is the new football field for the Barrow Whalers. This is a bright blue and yellow astroturf field on a little sand spit on the north side of town. If you want a real field good story, check out the ESPN coverage. I'm guessing there will be a PG film in the near future. It's easy to see how it captured the imagination of the media: pretty positive story in a town where there aren't many.

Fall Sets In

Well, it's the time in Fairbanks when the sun starts to drop a little lower in the sky, shadows get long and the aspen and birch leaves turn yellow. It's started freezing at night and puddles form little ice caps. Almost time to fire up our soapstone fireplace here. Matilda and the other pups have taken on a bit of melancholy, as our days of camping and canoeing draw to a close.

Still, there's plenty to celebrate. Bob had his 31st birthday and I baked him our traditional family "toothpaste" cake. This is a peppermint chiffon cake from the 1950s that my grandmother used to bake for my mother when she was a kid and I consequently learned to appreciate at a young age.

This recipe looks pretty close, though our family uses an egg-white/sugar/peppermint/cream of tartar frosting, made in a double-broiler. Bob suggests doubling the frosting load.

While our tomatoes never ripened outdoors, we pulled them out of the soil and Bob hung them in the house, upside down. We were skeptical, but about three weeks later, the toms have started to turn red. They are incomparable to the Nebraska tomatoes I grew up with, but they are homegrown and taste pretty good. A heck-of-a lot of work for these little red nuggets, though.

Despite the onset of fall, the mushrooms seem to be going strong. In addition to the beauts growing all over the yard, we recently noticed some very large dried mushrooms that the squirrels have been stashing in the space where the walls meet the roof of the house. According to a researcher at UAF, these are likely to be hallucinogenic mushrooms which Alaska squirrels reportedly cache for the long winter. Hmmmm. Makes a lot of sense. Hunker down for winter in a nest of our roof insulation with a good stash of Shrooms.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

September on the Seward Peninsula

In mid-September, Bob and I headed out to the Seward Peninsula in northwestern Alaska. The SP makes up the US side of the Bering Strait and you can see a map here. It's totally out there. There are not a lot of photos of us doing field work because we were too exhausted. Our four-wheeler broke down and we ended up walking to all of our sites...over 25 miles on tussock tundra! It sure was beautiful, though. The photos can't adequately capture the colors.

In addition to working on the sites in the Kougarok area, we headed out the Council road, along the beach, past the fishing huts of Soloman, and finally inland to the community of Council. Just as we pulled up, the last handful of folks had pulled their boats out of the river there; a big Bering Sea storm was on its way. These storm surges can and do completely eliminate the road, situated delicately on a sand bar. If someone gets stuck on the other side they can be there for a long long time...until it snows (creating skidoo access) or the road gets rebuilt. It's a tough life out here. We weren't able to hitch a ride across the river, unfortunately, so we didn't get to one of our sites.

The arctic light was beautiful as we came back to Nome from Council. Lots of twisted driftwood from the Yukon River ends up in this lagoon area. Huge old trees from the boreal forests.

Some old railroad junk from the gold rush days rots away on the sand. In the background an old gold dredge stands waiting in the marsh. These things are the size of buildings.

Finally, this old collapsed water tank reminded me of Serra's Torqued Ellipses.

Summer of Love

Like many folks in their 30s, Bob and I had the opportunity to share several ceremonies of unity this summer. Or whatever they're called. It was a lot of fun. Alaska weddings tend to be pretty relaxed. Our friends Margaret and Hagen started the blitzkrieg in May before moving South and South-er for work.

Then came Mary and John and while we didn't make it to San Antonio, we celebrated in spirit. Emily and Luke provided not only stunning views and whitewater canoeing, but also fresh caught fish and blueberries. Bob brought fresh crab from Nome and it was a sentimental feast.

In August, we headed down to Seattle to celebrate the wedding of my sister in law's sister and her partner. We met up with my brother and his wife, caught up with Margaret down there, and only shutdown metro traffic once with our hobo-mobile. See previous posts on hobos. Same as usual.

At the end of August, I headed to Atlanta for the traditional Southern Spanish-American-British Physics wedding of Cristina and Andrew. Mmm mmm. Pretty fun. Erik, I'm completely heartbroken that I will miss your and Solana's nuptials in the NYC Zipper Factory. I hope you forgive me someday. If the Concorde still flew and they had flights from AK, I swear I would be there. I miss you all!

Peter and Anya giggling during Robin and Dani's ceremony.

Emily, Luke, Jeff the officiant, and a beautiful ridge. Check out that hat hair Luke is sporting!

Jessie and Todd get down and boogie at the physics wedding.

Bob and Hagen await arrival of the lovely bride, Margaret, in front of the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Preserving the bounty

I tried my hand at canning for the first time this summer. We had raspberries and blueberries coming out our ears, so it seemed like a reasonable solution. It took me a couple of tries to get it right, but I had some help from a couple of awesome websites:

Paul Noll's World of Canning

USDA Canning Guide

Getting out and about

We decided to head for the Chena Dome Trail on Labor Day weekend. We were taking a chance on not finding water on the trail. This time of year, smaller streams and ponds tend to dry up in the AK interior. We were optimistic for the 29 mile hike, though, packing a full loaf of sandwiches and 9 liters of water. Unfortunately, it was dry as a bone and we didn't make it very far. Still had a great time. The views were beautiful, the company good, and the blueberries fat and heavy.

Summer Harvest

Gardening was a big part of our short summer here in the 'banks. We started seeds indoors in early March and Bob nursed them along until early June transplant time. We had some mixed success. The greenhouse proved to be more or less useless, or at least not helpful with tomatoes. We did well with lettuce, carrots, cabbage, winter greens, and some herbs. Everything else never quite graduated from kinderkare. The leeks still look like grasslings and the squashes produced a hundred blossoms and no fruit. I mean, who can't grow zuccini? Pretty bad. Well, we don't get much light in our garden and there's not much we can do about that.

Girls of Summer

The cuteness herein needs no explanation.

Rocking Fourth in Central, AK

My folks came to visit this summer, as did Bob's. We had a lot of fun showing them around the Fairbanks area. Bob had the great idea of heading up to the hamlet of Central for the Fourth of July. This is a tiny community that really puts on a good show, come Independence Day. We brought my parents, a couple of friends, and the dogs, piled into two cars and drove a couple hours up the Steese Highway, just short of the Yukon River. We stayed in the local roadhouse, which is a couple of trailers welded together. Mom was really insistent on getting a room with a door, which took a few tries. If we'd all been so picky, we probably would have been out of luck. The roadhouse was a great staging ground for all of our detailed plans that day: watching the parade (8 minutes) and siting in lawnchairs drinking beer/walking dogs/smoking/eating chips (14 hours). A good time was had by all. Highlights below include Mom, Dad, man with large cucumbers, man wearing Native mask driving WWII motorcycle covered in Crown Royal felt bags, wiener dog.