Three weeks in the saddle way up north
TOOLIK FIELD STATION -- After 800-plus miles by snowmachine and three weeks of working in the same clothes, it’s time to pack our duffel bags, stuff them into a barrel and set them on fire.
Just kidding about the burn barrel, but three lake studiers and I returned last night to the slushy snow of Toolik Lake, where I got my machine stuck 50 yards from the sauna. There, the boys unrolled the tow ropes and rescued me one last time.
Thanks for that to Ben Jones of the US Geological Survey Science Center in Anchorage, who invited me on this arctic adventure, Guido Grosse of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany and Chris Arp of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Water and Environmental Research Center.
We seem to have broken the back of winter -- the four of us left this research camp in a biting wind and returned to newly emerged ground squirrels playing grab-tail. There are also many more humans here at Toolik now, including squirrel studiers from UAF and a nature documentary crew from the British Broadcasting Company.
We are drying wet things in brilliant sunshine and enjoying a day of decompression. It’s nice to ease off trip mode with the friendly staff here, who are dressed like us, unshaven like us and, after our recent reintroduction to hot water, more overdue for a shower.
Before I exit this blue-white world and drive over Atigun Pass into a different universe, here are some impressions of 21 days north of the Arctic Circle with three guys I barely knew.
* First, the science: the guys gathered hundreds of measurements, filled dozens of tiny bottles with lake water and have tubes of frozen earth and peat ready to ship back to Germany. They have a lot of data to chew on. Three years into their four-year study, they saw the hint of a trend: more snow and thinner ice on the northernmost lakes on our route. This change may be related to the shrinking pack of sea ice on the northern ocean.
More about my traveling/living companions: Ben Jones is a born leader afraid of no mechanical challenge. His interest in everything from burned tundra to fly larvae clinging to rocks leads to what some scientists call “scope creep.” This can be a negative when trying to focus on one thing, but those creative diversions often result in great things. He is a horse that needs to run free.
Guido Grosse celebrated his 38th birthday with us at Ben Jones Camp on Teshekpuk Lake. He looks ten years younger. The tall, kind German always appeared with a boyish smile when someone yelled “Guido, bring the thunder!” He would then proceed to grab a 700-pound sled by its plastic tongue and pull it toward a hitch, sling a 70-pound Arctic Oven tent over his shoulder or open a jar of olives.
Chris has the nasal cadence and snappy timing of a stand-up comedian. I admired the way he jousted with other team members in order to execute the science the way he saw proper. He always woke up first and got the rest of us going. Chris never asked me to do anything, but always thanked me when I did.
All the guys were pros, staying up with the now-endless arctic daylight to finish drilling lakes and tundra, often not tying up the sleds until 10 p.m.
Sometimes, when I was tired and helping shove a blatting two-cycle drill into frozen soil, their zeal made me cranky. But most of the time I liked helping, even though I was the least efficient data gatherer.
At times I went a little coconuts living in tiny spaces with three other guys. Kicking someone’s coffee mug set in your pathway and inhaling another’s essence at times had me reciting my mother’s line, “God give me strength and patience.” But the journey out of my comfort zone was a lesson in appreciation. As they all seem to be.
I got my alone time covering a trans-Alaska distance on snowmachine. On our traverses between sampling nodes, sometimes more than 100 miles and five hours at a pull, I tied on my friend Robbin’s hat made of beaver fur. It kept me warm, deadened the sound of the engine, once saved my head when a sled tried to squish it and transported me to my own universe, one in which I could sing, daydream and follow the tracks ahead with no worries.
I now love being off the Skandic, and being away from its roar and the taste of its oily smoke. Shedding 20 pounds of clothing and clunky boots was bliss. But an unexpected wave of melancholy hit me when I saw the brute parked for the summer next to a shed.
The Arctic left me with this: The terror of seeing fresh polar bear tracks inside a creepy old Distant Early Warning station, a black wolf darting across snow-covered tundra, the nuthouse chatter of ptarmigan and, on the best days, fingers of cloud scratching blue sky.
Other days were a fun-house world of traveling in overcast, flat light. It is surprisingly stressful to operate a snowmachine when you can’t see the path laid down by the person 20 feet ahead. You don’t know whether you are climbing or dropping, whether to lean or sit tall or if that standing animal is a ground squirrel or grizzly. Guido calls those conditions “the perfect whiteness.”
The sun’s orange melt into the snowscape north of Teshekpuk Lake resulted each night in a fiery pool of light on the white line of horizon. Shortly after, on the opposite side of the sky, was Earth’s purple shadow.
The flat horizon when looking south over Teshekpuk Lake was too vast to comprehend. In a world of 7 billion people, none of them are there. The whole trip had a frontier feel. That is a big appeal for the scientists -- this hard-to-reach place has barely been studied. It must be nice to feel like you are the first. Standing on those quiet, frozen lakes, you felt like you were.
To contrast those moments, we also spent a good amount of time near Alpine oilfield and in developed areas of the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska. A younger version of me would have cursed those oil rigs, rollagons scooting like bugs across the black line of the horizon, all those lights and the mysterious mushroom cloud of brown smoke we saw every day. But we dumped a good deal of gasoline in our tanks, hissing propane warmed our tents and burned diesel chased the cold from the cabins. So it is.
I’ve gone on too long here, but a final thanks to Ben Jones for taking a risk and asking me along. A bad fit for either of us would have made for a long three weeks. But I genuinely like these guys and admire the work they did, especially when they were cooked. I appreciate them making me feel like a partner despite my being utterly dependent on their ability to fix snowmachines and yank mine out of deep snow. I liked, too, how they stopped their machines to look at wolverine tracks, shared crude teenage humor that is at the heart of every grown-up boy and, most of all, led me safely through the perfect whiteness.