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.