Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Update from the field

I've been in the field for about a week and a half now, and have just returned to town for an evening to get more fuel for the boat and take a much needed shower. Work at the Jago river delta camp has been going well. There are four of us in camp, and we've been spending our days sampling the mudflat for the invertebrates that shorebirds feed on, conducting surveys of shorebirds on the mudflat every three days, and trying to catch a few select species of shorebirds to test them for avian influenza. The weather has been wonderful, for the most part. Or perhaps I should say that it's been cold and windy, but people who've spent a lot of time up here say that this is far better than normal! We had a bonfire on one of the barrier islands a few evenings ago after work, and searched for polar bear tracks, but didn't find any. In fact we haven't seen any polar bears at all so far, which is unusual. Yesterday it was very foggy on the mudflat, and it was a bit frightening spending the day slogging across the mud in the gloom, seaching the white landscape for a white bear-shape that might pop out of it. We did see a grizzly bear a few days ago close to camp, but it ran like the wind when we got close to it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


After two weeks of preperation in Fairbanks, I flew on a commercial flight to Kaktovic, a small community on the northern coast of Alaska on the Arctic Ocean. The town has a population of only about 250 people, mostly of Inupiak Eskimo heritage. Until the 1940's the Inupiak were transient and mobile, moving around the Alaskan coastal plain following seasonal resources. Only with the establishment of the DEW (Distance Early Warning) Line, a network of radar facilities around the coast of Alaska to detect incoming bombers from Russia, did the Inupiak settle near these facilities. We are staying in the Fish and Wildlife bunkhouse, which is one of the nicer buildings in town. All week we've been completing final preparations; today our entire crew went out in boats to set up one of the field camp sites.

I've been learning a number of new skills here in Kaktovic, including how to fix and assemble zodiacs, how to repair and mount boat motors, and how to shoot and clean Remmington 12 gauge pump-action shotguns. The shotguns are for bear protection - both polar and grizzely bears are common here, and all field teams are required to carry guns as a last option in a bear encounter. Rather than shot, we will have shells with us in the field - packs more of a powerful punch, which is desirable if you have a bear charging you at 35 miles an hour. We will likely move out into our field site permenantly in the next day or two.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


While in Fairbanks and working in the Fish and Wildlife Service office, Ryan and I stayed with our friends Peter and Jill Gates. Peter, Ryan and I first met in 2005 in Antartica, and Peter and Ryan stayed in touch afterwards. They have been very generous hosts to Ryan in past years during his time in Fairbanks, and this year I was able to stay as well. They were very kind in letting us stay at their place for two weeks, as well as taking us on a rafting trip on the Chena river and Chena hotsprings.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Caribou flight

I'm going to India on August 14th, but before that, I'm preparing myself for the heat of the subcontinent by spending the summer in the Alaskan arctic. I thought that if I was going to quit my job to go to India, I might as well quit a bit early and do some fun field work before-hand! I'm working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a seasonal biological technician on a shorebird breeding study on the coastal stretches of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We have a big field team of about 12, who will be divided into three field camps based at three different river deltas along the arctic ocean. I'm not yet sure what delta I'll be at - those assignments will be made once we get into the field. I've been in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the Arctic Refuge field office is, for about a week now, preparing for the field season. This has mostly involved getting gear together, fixing tents and boat motors, and buying A LOT of food from various grocery stores and mailing it up to Kaktovic, a small village on the Arctic Ocean that we will stage the field camps out of. Ha, on Wednesday we bought $3,500 of food, and then spent another $1,000 to mail it. Seems crazy, but we had to get enough to feed 12 people for 6 weeks in a cold climate. We couldn't buy it in Kaktovic because apparently there's not much in the grocery stores there other than soda pop and doritos, and it's very expensive.

On Saturday Ryan and I got to go on a sweet boondoggle. The chief biologist of the refuge called us on Friday night to tell us that the annual census of the Porcupine caribou herd was taking place on Saturday. Three small planes from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service left from Fairbanks at 6am to fly north up over the Brooks range to the coastal plain, using radio telemetry to locate collared caribou individuals, and then take photos of the herd to get a count.

The pilot, Dave, Ryan and I flew north from Fairbanks in a Cessna 185 (a really small plane, the three of us took up all the seats), passing over the White Mountains, the Yukon Flats Wildlife Refuge, the Brooks Range, and finally to the coastal plain and the Arctic Ocean (a three hour flight). In concert with the other two planes, we then flew back and forth, listening intently to our radio reciever for the characteristic beeps that would indicate the presence of a radio-collar banded caribou. When we heard the beeps, we swooped down in the plane to get an exact GPS reading. All the crazy airmanship was making me ill, but it was an awesome experience with spectacular scenery! The photo of the aircraft here is not a Cessna - this was a beaver flown by the Alaska Fish and Game. They had a WWII-era camera mounted underneath to take photos of the herds to complete the census.