Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Coming back soon

This blog is on hiatus until November 2009, when the handsome and gifted author heads to Antarctica.

Monday, July 14, 2008

If you've seen one ...

True story: While waiting to board my plane leaving Fairbanks I overheard a middle-aged couple telling an airline employee about their trip.
The wife had loved Alaska, hated to leave. The husband had had enough. After you've seen one tree and one mountain, he said, it gets a little redundant.
I suppose. And when you've seen one chubby tourist, you've seen 'em all. Which is way too many.
Two days earlier, I'd made my final hike in the Alaskan wilderness near Galbraith Lake.
It drizzled much of the time. We ended up circling through, at most, three miles of back country and fought off mosquitoes a good part of the way. It seemed too hot when we were moving and too cold when we stopped. After two weeks of camp life, I'd begun to develop a blister on one toe.
And yet I savored the day and, although I was eager to get back to regular showers and the bosom of my family, I dreaded that my time in the foothills of the Brooks Range was coming to an end.
Unlike like the guy boarding my plane, I'd gone about two weeks without seeing a tree because I was living on the tundra. When I headed south over the mountain range from the North Slope toward Fairbanks, I was thrilled to see the dwarf forests of black and blue spruce that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. And not only did the mountain ranges look diverse -- geologists point out what they consider old and new mountains -- but the sun's lazy circles in the sky could make the same rock formation turn different hues throughout the day.
When would I drink fearlessly from a stream again? When would I again walk the length of a stream, a valley, a lake that remained truly wild?
Northern Alaska is not a place for everybody. I'm sure I couldn't cope with the impossibly cold and interminably dark winters. Prudhoe Bay is decidedly unpleasant industrial outpost.
But while the seen-one-seen-'em-all tourist had had his fill, I felt envy for the young researchers spending the entire summer at Toolik Lake -- far from cell phone range and television, up tight with a mostly virgin landscape.
I'll catalog the Alaskan wilderness among the many places I've been to and am unlikely to get back to. After all, it took me 48 years to get there the first time. Still, I'll not remember as a place I got enough of, but as a part of the planet that seems to operate on a different scale, that can't be truly be captured in photographs, and that gives this country a sanctuary for wild things.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Arctic blow-up

Think of a tractor pull, except for the outdoorsy crowd.

Apparently some trash talking about who could inflate a rubber raft most quickly -- a bit of field research drudgery turned into a challenge -- started the whole thing.

One group of researchers declared their superiority on their ability to blow and the contest was on.

Some dressed in faux pimp gear (as best can be done in rubber boots) and others entered the arena to music from a "Rocky" sequel.
In the end it was the guys using the push pumps -- as opposed to foot pumps and the simple blow, blow, blow 'til you turn purple method -- who triumphed.
Next came the deflation and roll up contest, a challenge of splayed bodies trying to squeeze air through valves.
Save your tractor fuel, I'll take this for entertainment.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Science to scientists

That dream about showing up for finals after having skipped class the whole semester? Well, it's baaaaack!

This is a great gig, a scam, actually. The National Science Foundation gives money to the Marine Biological Laboratory. The MBL skims its share and then pays my way to come to the Arctic Circle to stroll among the wilderness.

The catch: I have to do science. And math. While others watch.

In the end, I worked with colleagues mimicking the research and experiments being carried out on the tundra. In my case, it was a look rates of photosynthesis and carbon dioxide flux on tundra -- some that had been fertilized and some that had been left to its own devices.

The work plays off the effects of climate change. With warmer temperatures, more nutrients likely are released into the soil, perhaps spurring more plant growth. It quickly gets into biology courses that I barely passed in high school and avoided altogether in college, and into math that sends a tiny reporter brain into seizures.

After days of pouring over Excel spreadsheets, converting them into graphics, plotting logarithmic lines and transferring all the jumble into a PowerPoint presentation, there I stood presenting my "findings" to scientists.

It's good I was filthy from camp life. That way the pit stains weren't so obvious. For 10 minutes I clicked on the PowerPoint slides. On the bright side, there were only two times -- the truth -- when I looked at what I'd prepared and had no idea what it meant.

The scientists were gentle, but it was ugly nonetheless.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Musk but no dusk

Ovibos moschatus, the muskox, looks like the mastadon’s little brother. Hairier than Haight-Ashbury back in the day, it tromps along the tundra like a defensive tackle in the fourth quarter. Lumbering but majestic. Alert, but largely unperturbed by what goes on around him.
The 600-plus pound animals look like an unkempt cross between a buffalo and a goat, although he is more closely related to the latter. The beasts (think of the creatures from Where the Wild Things Are) disappeared from Alaska in the late 1800s from over-hunting, surviving only in Arctic Canada and Greenland.
A herd was nurtured in the isolation of Nunivak Island and about 40 years ago were set loose again on the coastal plain. They now number about 2,200 across the state.We saw these some 80 miles south of coast, a herd that looked to be anywhere from 18-30 strong. They make a low, guttural grunt. From what I hear, they smell a little like editor.

iPods? We don't need no stinkin' iPods

Psycho Killer
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away
That classic by the Talking Heads somehow melds rather delightfully with the "Circle Be Unbroken," "Banks of the Ohio," and "House of the Rising Sun" when a tent full of Ph.D.s and their research assistants tap their feet on a plywood floor for the evening.
"Mr. Tambourine Man" is next? Don't know the chords. Look at the floor. There they are, written with the ubiquitous field scientist's Sharpie: GADGDGDAD.
It's a little obnoxious really. So many of the gypsies circulating through the Toolik Lake Field Station can tromp over mountain ridges without getting short of breath. They can fit zooplankton into the ecosystem, calculate the cubic meters of water flowing through a stream with their eyes closed and figure out the gender of a long-tailed jaeger from 50 paces. And play music? Come on.

But how to keep them out of your bird feeder?

The Arctic ground squirrel is an amazing little creature. Its body temperature drops below freezing in hibernation and it stumbles out of its slumber, and their burrows periodically to prevent their brains from going to pieces.
Come spring, the guys get out first and gorge themselves for mating. The ladies come up and mate usually on the first day. Twenty-eight days later pups are scurrying about.
Now, like most Alaskans, the rush is for juveniles to set out on their own and the entire brood to prepare for the cold, long, long winter that awaits.
Graduate student and researcher Trixie Lee (shown releasing a squirrel she captured the day before, and trying to coax another catch into a jar for anesthitization) sets traps daily (they love carrots) so she can tag and test a population nestled near the banks of the Atigun River. She'll look at hormones and a number other things to make us all a little hipper to the ways of the squirrel.
Nearby, undergraduate Ashley Fenn charts their behavior, Jane Goodall style.
After a day on the tundra they come back to a trailer to draw squirrel blood samples, take squirrel body mass measurements and tend to furry ones for a night.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The (not so) Great North

So starting in Fairbanks and the Dalton Highway -- the only way to travel north to south -- and bumping along to its conclusion leads you to Deadhorse, Alaska.

Legends abound about how the oil field hamlet got its name. (A horse died there when it could find nothing to eat. A patriarch bankrolled a son's dead horse of a business there. Something to do with the cold.) The truth looks to be lost to time. Yet the name fits. It's a place fit for neither man nor beast of burden. Imagine the rustiest, flatest most industrial part of the most industrial outpost you've ever seen. Something almost apocalyptic.

Befitting the hard work of oil folk, the town is lacking in all things aesthetic. It's the last frontier without the charm.

It's also created a modern legend: Folks drive up the highway from the Midwest thinking they can take their Airstreams to the Arctic Ocean (why us hicks always get blamed for cluelessnes is beyond me). The truth is, however, that the haul road stops a few miles short of the ocean at the foot of oil company operations.

Want to dip a toe in the Arctic? Pluck down $38, sit through a video of petro-propaganda, pile into a van, listen to a cursory description of Deadhorse ("to the right you see the tire repair shop" "to the left is where they make the drilling mud" -- no kidding) and walk a quarter mile out on a rock beach. Great stuff. That's where tourists either dip toes (for the weak of heart) or splash full body into the Arctic Ocean. It's cold, but not as cold as you'd expect, and muddy.

Back into Deadhorse and a meal (not included in tour price) and a stop at the General Store for souvenirs.

For the tough folk that populate the outpost, living there mostly means coming in for a few weeks of 12 hours on, 12 hours off working the oil fields and the sundry operations that support drilling. In the winter, the sun disappears entirely for 54 days (!redruM !redruM! redruM). All of which prompted a colleague to suggest a T-shirt. "Deadhorse: It sucks even more in winter."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

These boots are made for dancin'

It's like this: One, one, one. Then one, two, three. One, two, three. One, two three. ...

In what may be the northernmost salsa dancing on the planet, experts in squirrel hibernation, glacial geology and all things fish shake a little fanny.

So (scientists always beging their explanations with "So"), you're opening yourself up on beat two and setting yourself up to turn on beat three.

It seems it only starts to get truly sunny in the Arctic remote of northern Alaska about 10 p.m., when Wednesday night salsa lessons are in full swing. Joel Mercado (the guy with a hat, glasses and beard) schools fellow researchers at the Toolik Lake Station research camp in the basics -- one, two, three -- of salsa.
Scientists work long hours here because the endless sun makes it so easy and because there's so much work to be done before the cold sets in and teaching duties re-emerge. Mercado is on the verge of a master's degree from the University of Puerto Rico. He's earning it studying tundra plants and how they might respond to rapid climate change. He spends his days surveying plants in one 10-centimeter square after the next. One sunny night a week, he likes to pop a beer and let loose to Latin rhythms.
You're holding me away from you. I won't hurt you. I might stink a little, but maybe everybody up here smells a little. It's OK.
He's been surprised by his colleagues' ability to pick up salsa.
"At first, I didn't think they'd be very good," he said. "But they learn quickly."
Perhaps it's those math skills. One, two three. One, two, three. ...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

If it looks like a glacier, feels like a glacier, melts like a glacier ...

Actually, it's aufeis, German for "ice on top."

And, no, it's not a glacier. The ice sits atop a mountain spring. Although the water gushes from the earth virtually year round, winter temperatures in the Arctic run so cold that it freezes the moment it hits the air. Kansas Citians might think of it as the Northland Fountain on steroids.

The aufeis builds to almost glacier like proportions, covering acres of rocky stream bed. Bust open a piece, and it splinters into crystal shards. (A cultured colleague compared the look to the insides of Superman's castle in the Christopher Reeves version of the movie.) The massive blocks of ice that steadily melt away during the summer -- but never disappear entirely -- sport stripes of calcium that has oozed from rocks in the mountain. That stuff has the color and consistency of drywall mud.
Because the ice is melting, on the Arctic tundra that means that hot sunny days can raise creek levels as quickly as a good rain.
Water dripping from aufeis tastes wonderfully clean and would, no doubt, be great for brewing beer. Now if I can only find some hops and barely growing along the Yukon.

Monday, June 30, 2008


So let's get a couple things clear.
The only thing that works -- and the science types are unequivocal about this -- is DEET. (Yeah, yeah, Udder Cream, Avon's Skin So Soft, the sweat of a Mongolian ox. I've heard about 'em. Go ahead. You'll swat like the rest of us.)
Just as important to remember: DEET doesn't work either. At least not for long.
These little buggers come in clouds on northern slope of the Brooks Range. Nothing other than a stiff breeze seems to shoo them away.
Legend at Toolik Lake holds that the record for most bugs killed in a single slap to a buddy's back is 242 (or 247 or 272 depending on who's telling the story). It's at least plausible.
The best way to tell how long someone has worked here is to watch their reaction to the attacks. New arrivals douse themselves in bug dope, don super dorky head nets or prance about in the impossibly dorky bug shirt (imagine an entire garment made of the stuff of your tent screen). (Full disclosure, I fall in the middle category but would cash in my 401k for a shirt.)
More experienced hands can carry on conversations without pause while mosquitoes simultaneously suck from a half dozen spots on their face.
Walking in valleys and along streams is the worst. Standing atop a windy peak or hiking into a stiff breeze is best. But they're still worse there than at your worst summer picnic.
They are never gone. Not at lunch, not in the outhouse, not in bed.
Me, I'm striving for a bit of zen with the hordes. Want some O-negative, you little bastards? Come and get it. But beware, I've made a bloody pulp of plenty of your kin. As our president might say, bring it on.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Shangri-La for the smart set

The Toolik Lake Field Station is an idyllic place for scientists looking to study everything from fish, to shrubs, to squirrels to microbes. Tucked well into the Arctic Circle, it goes months in dark and extreme cold and then in the summer basks in 24-hour sunlight, an explosion in plant growth across its undulating tundra and an invasion of curious researchers.

And clouds of mosquitoes, but more on that in another post.

The camp is a base for investigative teams -- mostly senior university faculty and their young assistants -- intrigued with all that happens to the ecology of a region that encompasses tundra and boreal forest. The long-term nature of many of the studies puts Toolik in a key position to probe the mysteries of climate change.

It's a scavenged place, converted from a highway construction camp in the mid-'70s (much of the settlement of northern Alaska relates back to the bounty of oil and the building of the pipeline), it can be home to as many as 125 people in the summer. But it's usually about half that.

The population is all about science, a hardy group of researchers who tromp over mountains and into streams in the name of biology. Fashion statements are limited to the works of Goretex, fleece and Carhart.

From 10-14 people tend to the chores so scientists are free for research. It's got two large generators running around the clock on diesel. The chow is hearty and plentiful, made mostly from scratch. Groceries come in 18-wheelers twice weekly from Fairbanks.

The buildings are utilitarian. Largely trailers and semi-permanent tents. To walk through is to imagine a battlefield Army encampment that's fallen into the hands of science guerrillas.

Water is plentiful, drawn from the lake and treated for drinking. Sewage is another matter. The grey water is trucked at great expense to Deadhorse three hours to the north. So campfolk are limited to two very short showers a week. Trash is either incinerated or trucked south to Fairbanks. Again, pricey stuff.

For the last two years, the camp has been open year-round, meaning about 16 sturdy folks hang through the winter. Winds howl at 40 mph. Last year the thermometers maxed out at 60 below.

Summer time is far nicer than you'd expect in the Arctic. T-shirts and a light jacket will do most of the time.

But the physically taxing work and lack of showers can foster a bit of an aroma. The population turns to, well, let's look what Mike Mansur wrote when he first planted the Star flag in the Arctic in 2000:

"Four nights a week, on the shore of this glistening lake, some of the world's leading scientists gather in a small, wooden building and take off all their clothes." It's the sauna. A place to warm up, wash off with biodegradable soap. The bravest jump in the lake. (Your intrepid reporter promises to take the plunge. As a favor to you, he will post no photos.)

It could be said there's no nightlife here, but only in the sense that there's no night. But bring in their own alcohol can drink it here, though rowdiness is discouraged. There are occasionally dances. There's a full drum set, an electric guitar and base, three mandolins and (surely there has to be some sort ecological law forbidding this next one) a banjo.

Mostly, folks get along. Camp manager Chad Diesinger (fresh from the scaling of Denali) says people sometimes don't get along. A few aren't suited for the close quarters and lack of privacy. But generally, it's a granite-tough crowd infatuated with wilderness.

"I tell people to get out and hike a little bit," Diesinger says. "Get where you can't see camp anymore. Enjoy it."

A road paved by oil

The Dalton Highway is a 400-plus mile mix of swerving pavement and spine-rattling gravel that stretches from Fairbanks to Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean.
It was built in the mid-70s to make the Alaskan Pipeline possible, snaking alongside the engineering marvel still pumping crude, that's eventually ending up as $4 gas at a pump near you.
Sardined into a van, I traveled the highway for 10 hours and 360 miles on Friday with some fellow reporters and a couple of scientists.
We passed into the Arctic Circle, through the Atigun Pass and onto the tundra in the foothills north of the Brooks Range mountains.
I've been to some big sky country before, and apologies to those slogan-bogarting folks in Montana, the view at Toolik lake somehow conveys a stretch of horizon not much found in the lower 48.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Heading north

This beauty in blue is where I'm heading this summer. I'll spend two weeks at Toolik Lake, Alaska, hanging with scientists study long-term changes in the local environment and global climate. Hopefully the trip will generate more interesting posts than this one.