By Ned Rozell
In places where the air gets cold enough to freeze seawater, sea ice creates a world known by few people — a shifting, ephemeral, both jagged and smooth platform of white that clings to the shore for much of the year. In Barrow, people who hunt whales start packing down snowmachine trails over this blue-white dreamscape in March. The trails allow a few dozen crews to pursue and hopefully winch home a few bowhead whales in April and May.
Like most college students, Matt Druckenmiller did not know much about sea ice when he began his degree program. But now he has walked and snowmachined whaler’s trails to the ice edge near Barrow, earning a doctorate and getting to know people who harvest bowhead whales along the way.
A few weeks ago, Druckenmiller defended his thesis at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He described the last couple of years in which he made detailed maps of whaler’s snowmachine trails across sea ice, creating something local people found useful while also getting detailed information on thickness and the curious nature of landfast formations.
“Once they saw a product, they loved it,” said the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium’s Glenn Sheehan of Druckenmiller’s maps that showed the paths of whaling crews squiggling from town to the edge of the sea ice. “Whenever hunters would see them, they’d always stop and talk about them.”
As he created the maps by walking or snowmachining trails with a GPS, Druckenmiller had time to appreciate how different life is in the far north.
“It really is a dangerous and committing venture to be camped miles offshore in such dynamic (ice) conditions,” Druckenmiller said in an e-mail after he defended his thesis. “These hunters are truly sea ice experts, but not simply because of ‘traditional knowledge.’ Their ingenuity in dealing with such a harsh and variable environment also plays an important role in their hunting success.”
Druckenmiller’s research is a rare combination of hard science and listening. He found himself interviewing hunters over cups of coffee and spending hours on the ice with them, hacking trails though ridges, or just absorbing their words. When he first flew to Barrow, Druckenmiller was intimidated at the prospect of working with locals.
“I was never quite sure how they might view a migratory graduate student driving around on their ice trails measuring thickness,” Druckenmiller said. “But after a few years, it became clear that, by and large, they appreciated the work I was doing, especially since I produced usable maps for the whaling crews during the hunting season. Also, after a while, you get to know individuals and the whole effort becomes much more personal, more meaningful.”
Craig George is a researcher who also grew up outside the Inupiat culture but who has lived in Barrow for decades, becoming one of the world’s few experts on bowhead whales. He was impressed with Druckenmiller’s efforts, which he hopes will continue.
“The bottom line is trust (from the locals),” George said. “And in Matt’s case, some brains and toughness.”
“He listens a lot,” said Lewis Brower, a lifelong Barrow resident who is on a whaling crew and is station manager for the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.
“We’ve gotten to know each other over the years,” Brower said. “He’s become more of a friend than a scientist. He’s really one of those guys that makes projects worth reoccurring. There should be more people like him.”
This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.