Saturday, October 10, 2009

Leviathan Carved

I just spent the last few days up on the North Slope, in Barrow and Atqasuk. In Barrow, there was a very successful fall whale hunt. Three whales were harvested from off the Point while I was there. They were towed back to the Naval Arctic Research Lab runway and the whole town had a big party. It was great fun to watch all of the people coming and going during this incredible event. Biologists were sampling the stomach; kids were crawling all over the carcasses, fascinated by the rubbery texture of the flesh; and the proud captains stood by and watched the men and women from the community slowly peel back the thick layers of blubber.

Atqasuk was also fascinating to me. It looked and felt much like the Prairies down south, with the wind trying to blow the soul from your body. People were busy ice fishing and building a collection of caribou meat that hung just outside their doors. A woman…a single mother of six young kids…disappeared for five days out caribou hunting alone. Finally, just as our tiny Cessna Caravan was leaving, she was found alive with a helleva story to tell. I look forward to returning and hearing whatever stories people are willing to share with a stranger.

More pictures here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Solo in the Far North

It's been several months without a post; here's why. I'm trying to finish my private pilot's license. Last summer's rainy weather and house renovations slowed my progress. Now, I can see the end in view. With this in mind, I had the opportunity to fly my club's Cessna 172 up to the North Slope this week to install one of my snow sensors. I invited my flight instructor along and he foolishly accepted. We worked through the flight planning, packed the plane, and set off last Sunday to the work camp of Umiat, on the Colville River, with a re-fueling stop in Bettles. Umiat has a modern history dating back to the 1940's when gas was discovered there. Now, there are plans to develop the gas fields and build another pipeline, keeping the camp busy with geologists and hydrologists. The weather record at Umiat also dates back to the 1940's, making it an attractive place to install additional weather sensors. Bettles is a small community on the South Side of the Brooks Range, a starting point for hiking in the mountains, and a perfect re-fueling point for arctic flights.

In Bettles, I got my first mechanical training. We couldn't start the plane after parking it. So we pulled out the spark plugs out and my instructor, F., showed me how to clean them. That worked, we gassed up, and were off. Shortly thereafter, we ascended into the Brooks Range and promptly entered thick clouds, i.e. IFR conditions. We kept a close eye on the carburetor and ice building on the wings and ascended out of the freezing conditions when we needed to. But at one point it was actually snowing in the cabin.

Finding Umiat was no small task as well. We knew from the GPS that we were close and decended through a hole in the clouds. Then we stayed 100 feet off the ground or so, looking for a runway. When we lost visual contact with the ground, we ascended and started over again. Finally, we saw a sodium light in the distance. Soon, a brown strip appeared. We entered the pattern and put the plane down. Phew. So much for my first cross country flight!

For the next day and a half F. and I worked busily to install my sensor. We must have lost 2 quarts of blood to the mosquitoes. Finally, when it was all done, our BLM collaborator arrived on an ATV and announced that we would have to move the whole installation half a mile to the other side of camp. We decided to take a break and go flying. We took off and toured the Colville basin. It was a beautiful day with hardly a cloud in the sky and no wind. The river cut through big bluffs that must have been heavy with fossils. Smaller tributaries formed thousands of ponds when they lost the momentum to move forward. Finally, I told F. that I was ready for some touch and goes. We headed back to Umiat. Three good landings and F. asked me to come to a full stop and let him out. Finally, my day had come. I was too tired to be very nervous about it and I'd just had a lot of hours in the plane. I back taxied to the end of the runway and off I went. My first solo was in Umiat, more than three degrees north of the Arctic Circle. I could not have had more fun in the process. My collaborator at BLM celebrated with us and agreed to move the sensor himself, so we could fly home the next day in clear sky conditions. It was certainly a trip to remember. More pictures here.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Back from the Very North

This February brought another trip to Barrow to install a new snow sensor. We had a couple of beautiful days with not much wind that made the trip more pleasant. My colleagues assigned a local teenager to guide me to the site via snow machine. J was very helpful but flipped over his own snow machine, much to his embarrassment. Scolding from his father ensued. I did manage to capture part of the trip back on video. If you don't mind feeling a little seasick, take a look.

video

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Poo Chronicles

Alaskans have unique relationship to their waste stream. And sewage in particular. I was recently at an all women's dinner party where the topic of sewage captivated the crowd for a good 20 minutes; one woman, an engineer in designer jeans claimed 'I LOVE inspecting people's septic tanks.' Really. Keeping one's systems 'a go' during the long winter is a huge challenge. Like several other homes on our block, we have a personal sized, above ground 'Extreme Sewage Treatment Plant' (ExtremeSTP). This is pretty much what it sounds like. Bad stuff goes in, good stuff goes out. The ground is simply too frozen for a septic tank.

Well, we didn't quite get around to checking all of our plumbing heat trace over the summer and we're paying the price now. A few weeks ago we replaced the ~40feet of output pipe from the STP because it was entirely blocked with ice. All of this at -40 in the dark. The bathroom sink hot water invariably freezes every night and must be thawed every morning. Finally, this last week, the entire toilet line froze. So it was a matter of thawing the contents, tearing out the old insulation, adding a functional heat trace, and replacing the insulation. Pretty awful. But we learned a lot about our house in the process!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Crawling Toward the Finish Line

Well, there are still a few details left, but we are very close to having finished our kitchen renovation. Hence no posts for many months. In an earlier post you can see what was a dark, cold, ugly cabin.

Some in-between pictures show us laboriously replacing the electricity, framing in the walls, adding insulation, a vapor barrier, and drywall. New doors went in. A solid oak floor took nearly a week of our labor. We painted the cabinets and put on new handles. A local hardwood specialist made us an ash countertop.

Bob washed 30 years of grime off the wood ceiling. That was pretty gross. We took out the old propane lights and added new track lighting and a chandelier.

Finishing touches included curtains and some additional chairs from Ikea. The rug is a Navajo antique that belonged to my grandmother.

We kept all of the old appliances for now, but added a dish washer...that was possibly the best part of all.

Where We've Been

Everyone loves a great 'before' and 'after' picture. Bob was the official documentary photographer on our cabin renovation. I'll let his pictures speak for themselves. The top picture was taken in June and the bottom one in early November.