Thursday, June 25, 2015

In the Haze

Alaska is on fire.  Over 100 wildfires are currently burning, and only 10% or so being managed by firefighting efforts.  Few people have been directly affected, but they include entire communities whose homes have been destroyed, and who are already beginning the process of rebuilding now, before the long freeze of winter sets in and makes construction difficult, if not impossible.

When I woke up, a haze had settled over Coldfoot.  Even the closest mountains are less distinct, the colors less vibrant.  Smoke from fires hundreds of miles away has saturated the atmosphere, leaving a faint odor in the air and causing the sun to glow orange at certain times.

Some fires are closer.  Anyone driving between Coldfoot and Fairbanks in the last few days has had to deal with dense smoke on the road and, at mile 30 on the Elliott Highway, flames "licking" the road and passing cars.  The phrasing may have been an exaggeration, but I'm honestly not sure.  I haven't made that trip lately.

I have been making other trips up and down the Dalton Highway, however.  Last week, five of us took a truck north to Galbraith Lake to clean up the campground, post fire ban flyers at the outhouse, and collect a big barrel of backcountry camping gear from a spot a couple miles into the hilly tundra.  I'll probably make a separate post about that adventure later.  For now, be assured that I have seen the "midnight sun" (true midnight was closer to 2 AM), and that, thanks to the constant direct sunlight and the greenhouse effect of my tent's rain fly, I didn't get much sleep that night.

My sleep schedule might have recovered, but then two nights later was true solstice, and the Coldfoot staff threw a non-bonfire party to celebrate, and since we were up until 3 AM and I had an opening shift the next day, I got very little sleep that night as well.

These sleepless nights and exhausting days have put me in my own haze this past week, but they seem to be behind me now.  Unfortunately, a complication has arisen in my tidy little life here, mostly affecting the volunteers and BLM staff at the visitor center:  our power is out.

It seems appropriate that the ultimate cause is the same as what's making Alaska so combustible right now.  We're experiencing a major heat wave.  In fact, temperatures have been higher than average since May, and are expected to remain that way until September.  The snow and ice melted weeks ahead of the usual schedule, and the past two weeks have been dominated by sunny, cloudless days with only light breezes and temperatures reaching into the high 80s, Fahrenheit.  We've had some clouds, a bit of rain, and a few days in the 70s, but they've been little relief.  Nights are cooler, but my room doesn't circulate air too well, and I can hardly take advantage of the refreshing night air without a strong breeze to shove it into my only window.

This heat wave has also caused at least two powerful generators in Coldfoot to overheat, their cooling systems not up to the task in these conditions.  Coldfoot Camp itself has a backup for their lights, gas and water pumps, and everything else they need to operate.  But the visitor center is in the dark.  Our water pressure is likely dwindling as we use it, so we use it sparingly.  Drinking water only, pretty much.  We can get showers from Coldfoot Camp for a discounted fee (reimbursed or prepaid by whichever agency we work under), so that just makes for a longer walk than I'm used to.  I can still get online at the old visitor center, but that building has never had good insulation or air circulation, and it's difficult to stay in there for over an hour.

The visitor center itself is still open, for now.  Liability and safety concerns are on our minds, but we haven't been ordered to close yet, and we can still provide useful information and a cool building to rest in after a long drive.  So my work schedule is pretty normal now, but I can't work on any side projects until the computers in the building are powered up again.  This may take a few days still, while a new emergency generator is being sent from Anchorage.  It's meant to be enough to provide power to us again while the current generators have their new cooling systems installed.

So in some ways, life got a little more rustic here, but nothing has actually changed that much.  As I get back to my routine and the haze in my mind clears, it seems to be escaping into the air around me.  Forecasts predicted rain this weekend, and I think we're all hoping it brings the temperatures down, calms the fires, and clears the haze.

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Birding like a pro

While I was in Fairbanks last week, I found out I'd be assisting a biologist, working for BLM, with a bird survey. I didn't know exactly what that would entail, only that it would begin at about 1:00 AM on Monday or Tuesday earlier this week. I didn't know much else until the biologist, Jen, arrived in Coldfoot on Sunday.

Jen led a few of us on a little nature walk from the visitor center down to the Middle Fork Koyukuk River. Along the way, we stopped periodically to listen for birds, and she identified the chirps and whistles for us, some close and distinctive, some distant and detected only by Jen's trained ears.

Soon we had a good sense of the most common species near the visitor center. White-crowned sparrows have one of the most easily recognized songs, nearly always consisting of three rising notes, then two falling. Different individuals might trill the first note or add some other variation.

Swainson's thrushes have a song that sounds like a tape being sped up faster and faster, the pitch spiraling upward. After close listening, it's really just three strong notes that rise in pitch, but the end of each note drops a bit before the next one starts.

Dark-eyed juncos sound like an early cordless telephone ringing. Yellow-rumped warblers, according to Jen, say "chub chub chub," although that isn't quite how I hear it.

When we got to the river, we began to hear fox sparrows, whose calls sound like "a mess," according to Jen. For sure, I haven't even begun to figure how to imitate their song, the notes of which rise and fall, with trills, sustains, or staccato rhythms, all chosen seemingly at random.

We saw swifts, but couldn't tell what type exactly. Jen told us about other birds which sound just like juncos, which are rarer but not out of the question to hear in this area, and others that could easily be mistaken for yellow-rumped warblers.

To further complicate identification, gray jays, which have their own highly complex set of calls and songs, will also imitate other birds. American robins are also very common here, and I'm embarrassed to admit I'm still learning what they sound like, despite having always lived in parts of the country littered with robins. For now, they're the birds that sound kinda familiar.

After the walk, Jen discussed with Joe and I what we'd be doing over the next couple mornings. Joe would be driving with her north, leaving her Marion Creek cabin at about 2:00 AM. After reaching a certain mile marker, they'd get out of the truck and watch and listen for birds for three minutes. Jen would record every bird she was able to observe and identify, charting approximately what direction and how far away each individual bird was. She'd record the mile mark and time, and other relevant data, and then they'd drive 0.5 miles south and do it again.

They'd be doing this at each 0.5 mile point for 25 miles. It would be finished by 9:00 AM if everything went according to plan.

I learned I'd be doing the same exact thing Tuesday morning, but driving south for 25 miles before heading back north to do the survey.

I thought backwards, keeping my work schedule in mind. I'd want to be well rested before the survey, since I was meant to opening the visitor center at 10:30 AM afterward, and working until 7:30 PM. So I should be sleeping until about 12:30 AM, giving myself time to eat, make coffee, pack a bag with warm clothes and snacks, and get to Marion Creek.

My shift on Monday had been adjusted to end at 1:30 PM, so I'd be set to have an afternoon doing whatever, and getting to bed by 4:30 PM. Eight hours of sleep, no problem! But I'm never really able to sleep when I'm not tired, so I decided to make sure I'd be tired and stay up late the night before, Sunday night, i.e. that very night.

It just so happened I was scheduled to clean the visitor center that night (a side job, contracted out to whoever of us want the extra bit of income), so I knew that would eat up a couple hours eaily. I ended up staying online Sunday night until about 11:30 PM, then went to the visitor center to sweep, vacuum, and mop, listening to my own CDs through the gift shop speakers. I finished at about 1:30 AM or so, and wandered over to the Coldfoot staff lounge to see who might be up. A couple people were playing cribbage and enjoying refreshing canned beverages. I was offered one, and graciously accepted, setting my laptop bag against the wall and sitting across the table. Our conversation lasted until around 3:30 AM, when I decided to head back to my cabin for the bit of sleep I planned to get that night.

On Monday, I left work at 1:30 PM as planned, went to the old visitor center to get online as planned, and then wandered over to Coldfoot again, with a question I'd been meaning to ask them, as planned.

We're in the middle of a heat wave this week, and when Jen took us to the river, I couldn't help but say out loud how much I wanted to go swimming, even though the Koyukuk is shallow, frigid, and has a dangerous current. Generally, this is not a recommended activity, but it seemed like it could be done somewhat safely. Stick to the eddies, bring a buddy, check the water for logs and boulders, etc.

So I poked my head into the restaurant side of Coldfoot camp and asked someone if swimming was something that people would consider doing. She said, yeah, probably, and then I saw another Coldfooter, who asked what was up, how I was, or something like that. I asked him the same thing, and before I knew it, four of them had agreed to come with me to the river to swim. This wasn't exactly my plan, but sure, okay. Let's go swimming.

Swimming in the Koyukuk is pretty much wading in, cursing at how cold it is, then dunking your whole body in for a few seconds if you're susceptible to peer pressure. The cold makes you want to take shallow breaths, or stop breathing altogether, so it takes effort just to get enough air in your lungs, even if you're only floating. Swimming, that is, kicking and pulling with your arms to make forward progress, wasn't really possible.

So I dried off and warmed up by the side of the river, and took my leave at about 6:30 PM. I could still get about six hours of sleep, which should be enough.

Unfortunately, I got about three. I couldn't really sleep after 10:00 PM. At about midnight, I made myself a dinner/breakfast of steamed broccoli, a baked potato, butter, two hotdogs with ketchup, some cottage cheese, and a kosher dill pickle or two. (I hadn't really eaten since breakfast that morning.)
I got a bag together with warm clothes and a satellite phone. I skipped packing food, but brought a bottle of water, and another of orange juice from concentrate. I grabbed my coffee mug and drove to the visitor center, where I planned to brew a couple cups. Luckily, enough was left over from the day before to fill my mug, and I was on my way.

I arrived at Marion Creek early. Jen was still getting her truck ready, but she handed me a Nikon DSLR camera to figure out how to use before we left, so I could get pictures of birds if the opportunity presented itself.

Before long, we were ready to go. I threw my backpack into her truck, put on a bright orange safety vest she gave me, and climbed into the driver seat. There's a certain way to step into a big truck in one fluid motion, and I get it right about a third of the time. More often I put the wrong foot up first and have to shuffle into position. I got a lot of practice on this trip.

Before we even got to the highway, we were practically talking politics, and I was recommending a Steven Pinker book as an enlightening read on the nature of human violence. It seemed neither of us were afraid to speak our minds, nor did we have any reason to be.

Twenty-five miles south of Marion Creek, the Dalton Highway crosses the South Fork of the Koyukuk River. The mile marker at that point was our first stop. We got out of the truck, I stretched my legs, and we took turns walking into the woods to pee. We took our time; we were ahead of schedule.

After a sip of coffee, we began the first three minutes of listening. I don't remember exactly, but there were likely four or five individual birds observed, of two to four species. That would have been typical.

Jen would have asked me what I heard, and I would have heard the white-crowned sparrow or the Swainson's thrush if there had been one, and not much else. She'd tell me what she heard, and I'd be impressed, possibly dazzled, and, if there had been a robin, embarrassed.

Here's what I do remember: the second point was on a fairly steep hill where the highway curved on the incline. This is actually a dangerous enough spot to be one of the CB callouts. We didn't have a CB, incidentally. There's a plan to get one for Jen sometime soon. We stood for 3 minutes on that incline, up against a guard rail, listening for both birds and oncoming semis from above the hill. Down the hill wasn't a concern; we could see for miles in that direction. We weren't flattened that day, but on our way back to our truck, a semi came barreling down the hill. I was sure I'd be witnessing a catastrophic accident and a man's untimely death, but it zoomed around the downhill curve as if on rails. Truckers. That's why we call out that curve on CB.

A little further along, the wind prevented us from hearing much for several points. We drove ahead to see if it would abate anytime soon, and a few miles up it didn't seem so bad. So we went back where we'd stopped and kept at it.

At 3:00 AM, by the way, the sun was up, but low. Any mountains in the northeast would put us in a chilly shade, but by 5:00 AM the sun had risen above them.

Luckily, early morning is the perfect time for both listening for birds and for avoiding heavy traffic on the highway. If a big truck rolled by it could disrupt nearly a minute of listening time, but there was no pausing or restarting for such interruptions. That would be bad science, and we didn't have a lot of spare time, anyway. In fact, after our reconnaissance mission, we had gone from "ahead of schedule" to "just barely on schedule."

As we got closer to Coldfoot, our time improved. I'd finished my coffee and was halfway through my bottle of OJ. Pee breaks were not frequent, but well appreciated.

Since I'd mastered white-crowned sparrows ("I am a white-crowned sparrow" was Jen's mnemonic) and Swainson's thrushes (spiraling out of control), Jen had me listen for juncos (pronounced "JUNK-oes," not "HOON-koes," unfortunately). Alas, juncos were few and far between on our survey, so when they did sing, I'd invariably be caught off-guard as Jen asked "what was that?" with a mischievous smile. ("Uhhhhh, OH, right, a... a... junco!") At one point, though, the loudest and closest bird by far was a junco, and it was exactly like a telephone ringing, but one that no one was answering, and wasn't hooked up to an answering machine. I was glad to move on from that spot.

Sometimes, the challenge was picking out the four or five individuals, all singing the same song. I called this the "How many white-crowned sparrows? game." In other places, we could clearly hear four or five birds again, but some singing, some calling, and no two birds sounding alike. In response to my earlier comment, Jen called this the "How many different birds? game," or something cleverer than that.

At one point, a bird sang out with a very clear and distinctive song, but one I wasn't familiar with. "What was that?" Jen quizzed me. I ran the tune over in my head, hummed it out, but no answer seemed quite right. I hedged, "fox sparrow?" and she said, "very good!" Soon, every bird with a complex but unfamiliar song became a fox sparrow in my mind. That probably wasn't the intended lesson.

I got a little bit better at identifying juncos and yellow-rumped warblers, but plenty of other species had calls so similar to them that I was never entirely sure what I'd heard. White-crowned sparrows and Swainson's thrushes became my houses built on rock. I was always happy to hear one so I could say something like "at least three white-crowned sparrows," and indicate in what directions when Jen asked me what I'd heard at a point.

We made a few stops within or right outside Coldfoot itself, which felt silly, but no one was out at 8:30 AM to witness us. Soon, we were out again, and headed further north, back to Marion Creek. Our last point was just beyond Marion Creek, at mile mark 180.

Between Coldfoot and Marion Creek, Jen informed me we had three more points to complete, and ten minutes to do them. I still don't know what we did with the time we'd saved after our early recon mission.

Luckily, we were able to begin the last point at the literal last minute. I'd heard that the entire survey would have been scrapped had we missed it, but Jen acted as if only the last point would be dropped, which wouldn't be so bad. She'd said in her early days, she once pushed herself to exhaustion to reach a last point on time, but two teams behind her had no hope of making it before time was up, and it was a survey that had to be replicated by all three teams. So young Jen had wasted her efforts, and a colleague of hers still brings it up regularly, to her humored chagrin.

With the last point completed, we returned to Jen's cabin at Marion Creek. I removed my bright orange and yellow safety vest, replaced the big fancy camera to its case (I'm afraid those photos belong to the U.S. Government now, and I don't have access to them), and collected my backpack and coffee mug.

I drove back to my cabin, arriving at about 9:30 AM, ate a couple bowls of cereal, changed into my work clothes, and walked to the visitor center for the opening shift. Jenny and Bryant were there (my supervisors and co-managers of the visitor center this summer), Bryant having just arrived from Fairbanks the night before. I think they were both a little surprised to see me, or at least wouldn't have been surprised to not see me, but while I certainly was tired, I didn't feel that bad, really. Joe, who'd done the survey the morning before, had taken the next day off, and I knew that I could do the same.

Was it pride? One-upmanship? Stubbornness to stick to the schedule? Was I showing off?

Yes, absolutely.

Jenny and Bryant even suggested I get some sleep, but I demurred. They continued discussing operations and whatnot while I turned on the lights, counted the opening till into the cash register, and collected the data from our weather station. I opened the doors (but forgot to take down the closed sign) and greeted the first few groups of visitors, answering their various questions and generally being bright and friendly. Did I mention I brewed more coffee? I'd brewed more coffee. Essentially, I was running the visitor center alone (though backup was a knock away) on less than six hours of sleep from the past two nights.

Soon, things quieted down, and the next shift arrived at 1:30 PM. I hung on until 2:30 PM, when I decided I'd be more productive if I was working on projects instead of waiting at the desk, but I was way too tired to focus on a project in a quiet room alone. So I announced I'd be taking a lunch break and not coming back, which was received much better than that statement would under normal circumstances.

I got back to my cabin, shut my curtains, closed my door, changed into pajamas, and fell fast asleep. I woke up at around 8:30 PM, got a snack, and read in bed until 1:30 AM, having at that point finished the book, Wildwood by Colin Meloy (lead singer of The Decemberists). I slept again until 10:30 AM, and arrived a bit late for my shift today, but thoroughly well-rested.

I'd dreamed of birds, of course.

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Where are all the animals?

Considering the conditions outdoors in the Arctic, it's amazing anything survives the winter at all.  Yet bears, moose, Dall sheep, caribou, muskoxen, foxes, hares, ravens, boreal owls, lemmings, voles, mosquitos, spiders, wood frogs, and many, many more species accomplish this feat.  More species still live off the land or waters offshore in summer, and migrate south in winter.  Many common American songbirds do this, as do whales and other marine mammals.

And people come to the Arctic in summer, too, many hoping to see moose, brown (grizzly) bears, caribou, and muskoxen.  And many arrive in Coldfoot disappointed after traveling for 6 or 7 white-knuckled hours on the Dalton highway and seeing nothing larger than a snowshoe hare.

This leads them to ask, inevitably, "Where are all the animals?"  I heard this question twice in short succession one day, and I thought someone was playing a practical joke.

The answer is fairly simple:  the Arctic can't support very many animals.  The variety may be surprisingly large, if you (like me) instinctively think it must be impossible for anything to live here year round.  But each species has adapted to depend on different sources of food, in different habitats.

Moose stay in the boreal forests all year.  In summer they eat a wide range of plants, while in winter they enjoy dormant willow buds and other rather woody foods.  Moose scat from winter looks like particle board when you break it open.

Caribou and muskoxen both roam the North Slope, where no trees grow.  They browse ground vegetation, caribou preferring areas with some snow cover in winter and less severe winds.  Caribou eat lichens they find under the snow.  Muskoxen tolerate wind and cold much more easily, and browse grasses on windswept areas where the snow is blown away for them.

Dall sheep, meanwhile, stick to mountainsides and higher hills, where their sure footing allows them to find food while other animals falter.  And bears roam mountains, forests, and streams in summer, storing up fat to burn during their winter hibernation.

The point is, all these animals have found ways to survive up here, but they all depend on separate sources of food, and they all roam vast areas to find enough food to survive the year.

Historically, humans were no different.  Alaska was home to two major, distinct cultures before the arrival of and settlement by Europeans.  One depended on hunting seals, whales, walruses, and other creatures found on Alaska's coasts.  These people were commonly called Eskimos, but the term (meaning "eaters of raw flesh") is not held in high regard, and most people within this group prefer terms that refer to their more local communities:  Inuit, Inupiat, or Yupik, for instance.

The other major group of humans living here since the last retreat of glaciers are the Alaskan Athabaskans.  These people generally lived in the interior, hunting moose and bears, trapping small game, fishing, and collecting berries and other wild plants.

Life for all residents of Alaska prior to the arrival of firearms was never easy, and certainly not guaranteed.  Overfishing one river too long could cause the fish population to drop to the point of no longer supporting a human community, forcing them to find a new river to fish from or another source of summer food.  Populations of other game were always in flux.  Caribou might wander into the interior for an unknown reason, only to then be followed by packs of wolves.  Then when the caribou were hunted into oblivion by both humans and wolves, the wolves would move on, and the humans would have to find something else to eat.

On the coasts, everything depended on finding large, fatty animals under the ice or out on the open water, successfully killing them, and successfully collecting the kill, which could easily slip away underwater.

For both groups, a year of simple bad luck could be enough to send a community group into starvation.  Stories are told of elders choosing to die, saving food for the rest of the community, instead of being a part of a longer starvation, dooming everyone along with them.  In one story, a great hunter's mother asks him to kill her by hanging, she not wanting to starve with the family or alone in the wilderness.  Their leader tells the hunter that he should do it, and that he would need to be more brave to do it than when he hunted any wild animal.  I'm pretty sure the story, told by Sidney Huntington in his book Shadows on the Koyukuk, brought tears to my eyes when I read it.

So yes, Alaska does host many large and charismatic creatures, and supported a rather wide range of human cultures for thousands of years.  But life for both humans and animals here has been harsh, existing on a knife edge.  Today, both coastal and interior natives no longer have to fear starvation if they can't find enough game in the wild, but of course most natives no longer try to depend on the wilderness for survival.  Subsistence hunting and trapping are still practiced by both natives and other rural residents, but modern technology has made these practices less risky and more productive, and allowed for alternative sources of food in times of need via shipping by plane.  And many natives are foregoing the practices of their parents and grandparents altogether, moving out of their rural communities and finding work in larger towns and cities.

The animals, meanwhile, have not enjoyed the benefits of human-made technology, and so are still forced to deal with the environment using the tools they were born with, taking the bad years with the good as best they can.  The Arctic is not forgiving.  It is not a simple matter to live here with nothing but the fur or feathers on your back.  It requires moving constantly, finding whatever food you can wherever you can.  Because the wilderness here is staggeringly vast, it can be done, and many animals manage it, year after year.  But it isn't easy, and it couldn't be done at all without millions and millions of acres to wander.

So I think we can accept that some days, we just aren't going to see any animals.

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, June 13, 2015


It's not hard to see evidence of ice in Coldfoot, even in summer.  Even today, there's snow on the nearby mountains.  The taller the peak, the more snow you see.  You can even dig down under the moss and lichen in the forest or out in the tussock fields and feel the ice-cold soil only inches deep.

On a hike, you see the impact of ice on the land at nearly every step.

Any resident of Buffalo, New York knows what ice does to the roads.  In winter, snow will fall, then melt on a warm day, then freeze again at night.  The meltwater seeps into miniscule cracks in pavement, and when this water freezes, it expands, widening the crack.  Wash, rinse, repeat, and soon enough you have a huge hole in the road, a pothole.

Ice does the same in the Arctic, but on a vast scale.  Like everything else up here, it all comes back to light.

While every place on Earth receives the same number of hours of sunlight and darkness throughout the year, the Arctic and Antarctic get their sunlight at shallower angles compared to everywhere else.  As a result, the light that hits the ground is spread out over a larger area, providing less energy to each small spot.  This is what causes the Arctic and Antarctic to be colder overall than any other part of the world, which allows for the formation of permafrost.

Permafrost was something I learned about in elementary school, when we learned about rainforests, temperate forests, plains, and other biomes.  When we learned about tundra, we learned it had permafrost, and... well, that's about it.  I don't even think I had a clear sense of what permafrost was until I arrived in Alaska.  I certainly didn't realize how critical it was to the ecology of this area.

In short, permafrost is frozen soil.  I believe the official definition states that the soil has to be frozen for two years straight to qualify, but I'm not clear on the practical difference between one year of being frozen versus two or more.

The important point about the soil being frozen, really, is that it's frozen with water ice suspended between the soil particles.  So permafrost isn't just cold dirt, it's more like an underground sheet of solid ice, with soil in it.

Now, when winter comes in the Arctic, it snows.  Not much, really, but when it snows, the snow sticks around.  Temperatures never climb high enough to melt any snow or ice until spring.  When spring does arrive, and the sun shines again, water flows.  Water will collect in ravines and gulches, running down mountains into creeks and rivers, flooding them for several weeks.  Water will also seep into the soil as deep as it can go until it hits... permafrost.

In most parts of the world, water will seep underground for tens of feet, perhaps hundreds, through soil and even certain types of rock, before hitting bedrock and forming a water table deep underground.  In the Arctic, water never gets the chance to go deeper than a few feet before running into the ubiquitous permafrost.  And because permafrost is made up of so much water ice, water can't seep into it.  Liquid water simply has nowhere to go.  So it doesn't go anywhere.

In spring and summer, plenty of water is available at the surface in fields, sitting calm and still until it evaporates, and hosting swarms of mosquito larvae in the meantime.  More water still has made its way underground, resting on the permafrost layer, in the valleys and the hills.  And there, it remains until next winter.

In winter, the cycle continues.  As new snow is falling, last year's snow is freezing into place underground.  Vast amounts of water, pooled in greater amounts here and there, stuck on the permafrost all summer, begin to freeze, to expand.  Pushing down into the existing permafrost isn't an option, so this winter's freeze expands upward, shifting some land straight up into small hills called pingos.  On the sides of hills, ice can push soil and rocks outward, causing landslides and rockslides, or less dramatically, mounds of dirt and rock pushed out over the grass and lichen.

On the North Slope, this cycle of freeze and thaw can result in dramatic landscape features known as ice polygons, but I haven't seen these in person yet.

Another result of the freeze-thaw is an utterly unique natural disaster, one that takes decades to fully unfold.  It's known as a frozen debris lobe, and it's essentially a landslide that travels somewhere in the order of several feet per year.  I'm not clear on the mechanics behind it, but it has to do with frozen soil, the freeze-thaw cycle, and gravity.  One of these is heading for the Dalton Highway some ways north of Coldfoot, and will make it impassable within the next few decades.  Rumor has it the plan is to reroute the Dalton to avoid this slo-mo debris flow for many more years to come, but not forever.  This frozen landslide will still hit the new route, but only after a hundred more years or so.

So ice is really everywhere up here, and it's easy to see when you know what to look for.  The Koyukuk River valley itself is evidence of ancient glaciers, rivers of ice thousands of feet thick passing between the mountains of the Brooks Range thousands of years ago.

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Stay in the Light

That phrase, "stay in the light," is a favorite of one of the staff here at the visitor center.  It's not difficult to do north of the Arctic Circle as summer approaches.

Starting in late May, the sun officially stopped setting in Coldfoot.  Instead, the sun gets lower and lower in the sky as it travels from its highest point in the south, swinging around to the west, and finally reaching its lowest point in the north, just above the horizon at local midnight.  Then it creeps back up again as it continues its circle around the sky to the east, and back to highest point in the south at local noon.

However, Coldfoot sits in the valley of the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, surrounded by low mountains on all sides.  From down here, the sun does pass behind the mountains to the west and north as the evening and night pass by, casting us in shadow, leaving the northern sky as red as sunset (and sunrise), and keeping the mountaintops shining like monumental lighthouses.

As we get closer to summer solstice, June 21st or so, the "midnight sun" will remain higher and higher in the sky, though I am not sure it will ever clear our northern mountains.  Which means I have a new mission, to hike to the top of one of our hills by midnight between now and early July, when the sun will begin to set again in the north.  Then I'll take a picture of myself and a timepiece showing midnight (you'll have to trust me, I guess) in full sunshine.

The changes in light throughout the year are responsible for everything that makes this region different from the lower 48.  After the sun begins to set again, it will drop lower and lower toward the horizon at noon each day until early December, when it will cease to rise.  Direct sunlight will then be a thing of memory until late January or so.  Each day will receive a touch more sunlight until spring equinox, when the ground will see 12 hours of sun and 12 hours of darkness, just like everywhere else on Earth.  And by summer the cycle will repeat.

Year-round, the Arctic receives exactly the same amount of direct sunlight as anywhere else on Earth.  But here, the sunlight hours are concentrated in the late spring and early summer, and vanish in winter.  The effects on the landscape, plant and animal life, and weather are extraordinary.

In winter, life in the Arctic all but shuts down.  Temperatures routinely drop to -40 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the interior of Alaska, and can get even colder.  Most animals migrate south, hibernate, or literally freeze solid in the case of the wood frog.  Many insects and a few mammals have proteins in their cells that lower the freezing point of water in their bodies, allowing them to withstand internal temperatures below 32 degrees F.  Squirrels, lemmings, foxes, and some birds remain active in winter, eating from caches tucked away in warmer months or hunting the small mammals active below the snow.

What little light comes in winter is probably not usable by plants, as they, too, hibernate or freeze until warmer weather.  Moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and muskox all survive the winter by grazing from plants buried under snow.  Unusual freezing rain showers in recent years have caused many caribou and sheep in the region to die when they couldn't break through the ice on the ground to feed.  Life here is tenuous.

When the sun returns, life explodes.  The snow from winter finally melts, saturating the soil, turning the plains into bogs.  Creeks and rivers flood their banks as snowmelt pours down the mountains.  Plants go into overdrive, producing leaves, flowers, and seeds as quickly as they can, while they can.  Mammals take advantage of the glut of food available, as do many more species of insects than you might expect.  Fish, spiders, shrews, other insects, and birds in turn take advantage of the explosion of invertebrate life.  Many, many species of bird from throughout the United States and parts beyond flock to Alaska's interior, coasts, and North Slope for the bounty of food and relative safety from predators.  The lakes between the Brooks Range and Arctic Ocean can be a birder's paradise for a couple months.

Trees actually grow differently here to capture the sunlight that never comes from above, but from all cardinal directions instead.  Black spruce, the most common tree here, often grows bushier branches near the top, and branches remain rather scraggly lower down.

Mosquitos are famously well-suited to this landscape.  They overwinter as hibernating adults, unhatched eggs, or larvae below the ice, and emerge in spring and summer to take a blood meal from anything warm-blooded, then lay as many eggs as they can in Alaska's boggy fields and ponds.  The swarms get worse as the summer progresses, and I've seen small swarms already.  40% DEET bug spray is the minimum recommended concentration, though I use a 25% version which seems to work.  100% (nearly) DEET is available at the grocery stores in Fairbanks.

The sun dominates the summer sky.  Since May 10th, I've seen only one celestial object aside from the sun or moon, and that was Venus.  I've been up as late as necessary to see that no stars have emerged since I got to Coldfoot.  No aurora, nothing.  Even the moon is illusory.  Either it's in a less-than-half moon phase, and remains close to the sun in the sky, rendering it difficult to see, or it's in a more-than-half moon phase, causing it to spend more time below the mountains and the horizon, just like the sun in winter.  I saw a full moon last week, but I don't think it will be possible to see the next one.  So close to the summer solstice, it will move through the sky just like the sun on winter solstice, which is to say: not at all.

Since the sky never gets truly dark, it's difficult for me to use the word "night" with sincerity up here.  It's nice when I get up in the middle of the night to run to the outhouse, no flashlight necessary.  It's not so nice when I'm trying to sleep and I have to cover my window with curtains, a towel, and a shirt on a wire hanger (and then I can't wake up easily in the morning with the room so dark).  And when we watch a movie at the visitor center that ends after midnight, there's always a moment when I look outside again and think, "oh, it's still light out," as if we had just gotten out of a matinee.

Those who have spent winters here abhor the thought of covering up a window and blocking out sunlight.  I've heard of and read about the malaise that sets in during the dark, cold winter, as people wait impatiently for the sun to rise for the first time in weeks or months.  From that point of view, sunlight is a blessing, never to be taken for granted again, and locals seem to relish spending as much time as possible outdoors in the summer months, and whither if forced to spend too much time in an office.

As the summer goes by, everything living up here will be making the most of the warm weather and abundant food, from caribou to construction crews.  Animals need calories in their bodies or stored in caches underground to migrate, hibernate, or eat throughout the winter.  Plants grow as much they can, but never reach the heights or girths of their southern relatives.

Life here seems impossible in the winter, and it all depends on the summer.

Stay in the light.


Thursday, June 4, 2015


I thought I came from a small town until I visited Wiseman.  It’s hard to imagine a community of about a dozen people until you walk through one.

Wiseman, founded in the heyday of the Alaskan and Yukon Gold Rushes, has been a small, but stable community for over 100 years now and counting.  Robert Marshall wrote about the town as it existed in 1930-31 for his book Arctic Village.  Here are some of the things I've noticed that have changed since Marshall’s observations:

Snowmobiles (“snow machines”) have mostly replaced dogsleds for winter transportation.  In winter, nearly all (if not all) creeks and rivers, including the mighty Yukon to the south, completely freeze over, becoming convenient highways for light transport.  Rivers are not without their perils, including thin ice and overflow, however.  Overflow is what happens when the pressure of the water under the ice becomes great enough to break through the surface and run over the top of the ice before eventually freezing again.  This liquid water can be difficult to spot, and getting wet in subzero temperatures can be life-threatening.  Even sweating when the air is -40 degrees Fahrenheit can lead to hypothermia.

The Dalton Highway has allowed for automobile transportation year-round.  The first automobile appeared in Wiseman sometime in the 1920s, and it was largely seen as a novelty.  It wasn't useful for transport in winter, it got stuck in the mud… it simply wasn't a better option than transport by sled, boat, horsepower, or even backpacking on foot in most circumstances.  However, at least since the construction of the highway and pipeline, 4-wheel drive vehicles are commonplace, though sleds, boats and planes are still used by some.

Most homes seem to have access to electricity and propane for modern refrigeration, cooking, heating, and other labor saving or entertainment devices.  However, there is no cell service and little running water.  Electricity, when available, is produced by homeowners’ windmills (which charge arrays of batteries) or fuel-burning generators.

Most residents are no longer mining for gold, although a few do.  Most offer lodging, provide tours and hunting guide services, and/or work elsewhere, such as the AIVC in Coldfoot.  Many save money through subsistence hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering.  By hunting moose and other game, rural residents can acquire meat to eat and fur or hide to sell.  One resident turns fangs into jewelry to stretch the value of his kills.  For produce, it is possible to grow vegetables during the long, occasionally endless days of summer.  Because of the long days, vegetables can actually grow to incredible sizes.  Potatoes, for instance, can apparently grow quite large, though Bob Marshall’s Wiseman residents called them “waterballs,” since most of their excess girth was extra water weight, and these turned into husks when baked.  Potatoes and other root vegetables can be stored easily through winter, but leafy greens are impossible to grow or store through the dark months.  One modern resident lamented that in winter he “dreams of salad.”

Airplane service is far more common, but not new since Marshall’s visit.  The first plane touched down in Wiseman in the middle of the 1920s, and it was a sensation.  Airplanes were used by wealthier residents to get to and from Fairbanks, or by anyone else if it was necessary to get to the nearest hospital, again in Fairbanks (this is still true today).  A telegraph service was set up by the U.S. government (as I recall) for the primary purpose of calling for air transport if it was needed.  Today, at least one resident owns a plane and knows how to fly it, and I saw one or two others that looked usable.  And purchasing a flight is likely (I haven’t checked) less of a portion of a person’s yearly income today than it was in 1930.

I can't think of much else that hasn't also changed for everyone throughout the U.S. in the last 85 years.  Wiseman is still largely isolated from the rest of the world.  The residents today have a pretty similar diet.  The community is still extremely close-knit, nearly to the point of being family, although two households are actually family.  In 1930, it was common for everyone to pool their resources to help a community member in need, such as buying a plane ticket to the hospital for a girl whose father spends all the family’s money on booze and gambling.  Today, I haven't heard if such generosity still exists in that form, but neighbors in Wiseman seem to be quite neighborly.

That said, living in Wiseman requires a certain mindset, one accustomed to solitude, and the locals seem to value maintaining their distance from the world at large.  It’s almost paradoxical how friendly and guarded people can be at the same time, but I just think a person needs to earn the trust of the residents here, which is true pretty much everywhere in the world I've been.

I won't say much else, partly because I haven't been here long enough, partly because I'm not used to trying to explain human behavior, and largely because I haven't asked permission to write about anyone by name or conducted any interviews of my own.  But I hope this serves as an introduction for your own further reading, should you be interested.

Thanks for reading.


Bonus:  the Wiseman Trading Post