It hardly seems possible that I'm approaching the end of my third year in Alaska. I haven't shared my adventures in awhile, not that I've stopped having them, but the frequent flier miles I've been racking up suggest it's time to tell a few more stories. I've been having an amazing summer, just filled with wonder and growth, really. I know this is long.
Two trips for work hold the bulk of my wonder June 24 to July 2, I was traveling on the Yukon and Anvik Rivers, helping a BLM biologist band birds, survey raptor nests and do breeding bird surveys. I found out I was going three days before I left! We flew into Aniak (on the Kuskokwim River, kind of a hub for the middle Kuskokwim/Yukon area) and chartered a bush plane to Holy Cross (on the Yukon River), pop. 247. In Holy Cross, we picked up our boat (changed the umpeller of the jet boat engine, changed the oil and got a lift down to the Yukon). There's a lot of planning that goes into field work and I expected thinks to go smoothly. Right? Well, the more remote the village, the more remote reality is. Gee, who has the key to where our boat is stored...ohhh, he' s out fishing. Gosh, looks like someone helped themselves to our battery this winter. These are all questions that are answered with varying amounts of urgency. And it kind of makes sense, when your life is more in tune with salmon runs or berry season, instead of email or cell phones. That may not give you a clear picture of village life though. Some of these villages are a lot closer to the third (or developing) world. Problems with water, sanitation, power supply, fuel...social problems. Some of these houses don't look fit to live in the summer, let alone winter...and just like the rural and urban areas around you, there may not be quality food in the fridge, but they have satellite tv.
We boated up the Yukon to Anvik and the head of the Anvik River. It was here that I realized how the rest of the trip was going to be. Mosquitoes, black skies, like science fiction. I couldn't slap my face, neck, nose and ears enough to clear them off me. Our headnets were in the boat, with our net coats and DEET. It was unreal, enough to drive you mad. Bruce, the guy I was assisting was affected, but not that crazy, he'd been here before. I wore my head net constantly for the next 8 days, there really wasn't a time that my hands weren't being bit that whole trip.
We camped on gravel bars each night, trying to pick the windiest one, with the least vegetation. Some times were just awful, at times it would calm down enough for you to lift up your headnet and eat dinner, or sip your coffee, with at least a few floaters in it. You develop a dark sense of humor in dire times like these. Taking birds out of mist nets, wondering what the world would be like with no bugs. But isn't that why these songbirds come so far to Alaska, the productive summer, all that insect food. Every time you put your head net on, you catch at least 12 mosquitoes inside of it. Pretty soon, they've gotten you right behind the ears, and fly in front of you, inside the net, abdomen full of your blood. We boated up the Anvik River to the Anvik River Lodge, meeting our helicopter and the oddest bunch of people ever to be collected 90 miles from nowhere...nowhere being Anvik. The family who ran the lodge, their fishing guides and three guys and a girl from the fish and game sonar counting station downriver were having a party to celebrate the last day before the guests arrived at the lodge. Guest pay upwards of $5k to fly to this lodge by float plane and fish for arctic char, grayling, the occasional chum salmon and the monster water wolf, the pike. We met our helicopter at the lodge, it dropped us and a raft up the Anvik further than our heavy boat could float. We floated for two days looking for bald eagle, osprey and peregrine falcon nests on high cliffs and in trees. I really thought we'd sneak up on a bear, being a little less intrusive in a raft, but it didn't happen. Bear tracks, wolf tracks, wolves howling at night, moose escaping the mosquitoes in the river...probably the wildest place I've ever been. The rafting was interesting. It's hard to see where to paddle with the head net on, but you don't dare take it off. Mosquitoes are constantly biting your hands as you paddle the raft and you don't really have the luxury of taking your hand off one of the oars to swat. The emerging pattern being that when you were in the most precarious situation, fast water and a tree leaning over the river in front of you ( a "sweeper"), that's when the most mosquitoes would be on your hands, devilishly biting you as you tried to row out of danger.
We got to the lodge again in two days, we didn't find too many raptor nests. We traded boats again and headed up river to our banding station. Bruce has set the nets at the confluence of the Anvik and Yellow Rivers for four years now. We set up the 10 (12 meter) mist nets and kept them running for about two days. The banding was fun and productive. 100 birds were caught, several were recaptures from the same sight in years past. Can you imagine a Northern Waterthrush, weighing in at around 5 grams, flying to Central or South America in the winter, returning thousands of miles to practically the same willow on the same gravel bar on the Anvik River, in Alaska. Other species caught included Myrtle, Wilson's and Yellow Warbler, Gray Jay, Swainson's Thrush and a Semipalmated Plover.
The mystery of buying gas in Anvik determined the schedule for our trip down the river. Well, the guy only sells it between 12 and 3, and if you're an outsider, he'll definitely charge you an extra $20, if he's even around. It would take a team of UN negotiators to get a receipt. One pretty amazing sight in Anvik, after we finally found gas, we were lugging our gas can back to the boat as we passed two houses. One house had a timber rack in the yard, covered with chum salmon carcasses, drying in the sun. Taken from the sight and smell of the salmon (thinking of tradition and real dependence on wild food), the dribbling of a basketball caught your ear, and there's a native girl wearing an NBA jersey, shooting hoops. What a contrast, modern to traditional (I can't really explain what a huge sport basketball is in the bush. Often the school gym is the nicest building in town, basketball doesn't take much equipment and can be played all year round.)
We boated back down the Yukon towards Holy Cross. At this point the Yukon resembles a big muddy, choppy lake. The bush plane took us to Aniak, where we stayed one night and got back to Anchorage the next morning. 8 days, over 300 river miles, 100 birds banded and a carnage of mosquitoes that no number could describe.
About a week later I had a chance to go to Alaska's North Slope, Prudhoe Bay. This, of course, is where the oil is, and the birds, caribou, polar bears, musk oxen, and arctic foxes are. It's called the North Slope because it is the sloping landscape from Alaska's Brooks Range down towards the Arctic Ocean. The purpose of the trip was to tour the summer operations (oil and gas drilling) and to see the NPR-A (the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska) - the vast area west of the current development, which the government doled out in recent lease sales for oil and gas exploration. We flew to Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse…really the same place. Several companies drill for oil on the North Slope and of course transport it to Valdez via the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. East of Prudhoe is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, west is the NPR-A. This was my first time in/above the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle is the imaginary line at 66.5 degrees north latitude. Prudhoe Bay is still 20 degrees from the North Pole, around 70 degrees latitude and in fact it was around 80 degrees F when we were there, a real record. The sun didn't set the whole time I was there.
It was a fascinating trip, to be at the top of the world, or pretty darn close, to see the technology used to drill for oil in an extreme environment, technology that for the most part is designed to reduce impacts on the environment. There is so much information in the news and in my field related to energy development, so much biased in either direction. I can't say I agree with Bush or the Sierra Club right now. I do know that every time I turn on my car, I agree with oil development. I also know that this is a place unlike any other in the world, with amazing assortments of animal and plant life, regimes of climate and daylight that drive some fascinating adaptations. As you drive the dirt roads that are ice 10 months out of the year, it would seem to be a pretty developed area. Drilling rigs on gravel pads, construction camps, networks of trailers on stilts and everything connected by pipelines. The actual oil pipeline, pipes for seawater and wastewater, pipes for diesel fuel and natural gas. You make your way along the tines of this giant spider web on the ground and it seems endless. When you get up in a helicopter over it, perspective changes instantly…Endless green, dotted with lakes, rivers, ponds, puddles, kettles and spongy wet tundra. It goes on forever.
I may have seen more wildlife in the developed oilfield than I saw in 8 days on the Yukon. There were plenty of birds up there. 2/3 of the world's shorebirds come to Alaska (as a whole) each summer to feed off the productive summer and have their young. There were tundra swans, Canada geese and greater white-fronted geese, plenty of unidentifiable shorebirds. We saw a red fox from the helicopter, but no arctic foxes. I understand the polar bears spend the summer on the floating sea ice, nabbing seals, so we missed them. The crowning moment was seeing a few thousand caribou just outside Prudhoe Bay, along the pipeline. The oil industry loves that picture. It's not that simple though, am ecosystem is much more complex than one species that seems to benefit from development. It was an amazing day and a half (you're thinking, what, he wrote this much about a day and a half!!) I think of the trip much like my first time hunting; learning more, experiencing it for myself, I can begin to form a mature and informed opinion.
This may seem long and boring, I'm just glad to finally get it down. I'll try to send some photos once they are scanned.