Nope, that wasn’t our helicopter. That would have been too quick. Instead, a fine crew cab pick up truck driven by Ben Tucker of University of Alaska Fairbanks carried us safely north to Toolik Field Station yesterday over the course of about ten hours. This chillaxing pilot was encountered on one of our pauses along Dalton Highway, the long road to Prudhoe Bay accompanied along its length by the silver and sinewy stretch of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, carrying the crude 800 miles down to Valdez.
Another pause was to mark our entrance into the Arctic Circle, that cap on top of the earth. Here’s fellow MBL fellow Michael Werner doing the obligatory pose. It seemed odd that I was all bundled up and cold when the same type of photo was taken of me at the equator in Kenya, while the sun was blazing and we were shedding layers as we headed into the Arctic.
The warmth is deceptive. This is a land of cold, permafrost below and evidence of the power of frozen water everywhere across the landscape. Finger Mountain was covered with rocky outcroppings — tors — heaved up from ice action below. I’m learning new vocabulary: pingos (large mounds of earth-covered ice), thermokarst (irregular land surface caused by permafrost melting). Purple fireweed, its bloom a countdown to the end of an all-too-short summer, flared in pockets of disturbed soil.
Also in our posse were Nicholas Gross and Jackson McCormick, researchers from Georgia Tech, perched high to take in the views as ground squirrels scurried around the rocks below.
The farther north we traveled, the more spectacular the landscape. We passed Atigun, waved goodbye to the northernmost black spruce as the Brooks Range loomed ahead. I spied the whitewash on those cliffs and thought a single thought: raptors. There had been reports of peregrines and gyrfalcons from Toolik in the past week, as well as some grizzlies and moose.
As we wind up and over the pass, Ben communicating with truckers via channel 19 on the CB along the way, the surroundings alternate between barren, rocky and scree-sloped that evoke images I’ve seen of Afghanistan and lush greenery on rolling hills that bring to mind Ireland. Side by side. Ben comments that he can see how the green growth has flushed up the side of the steep hills just over the last couple of weeks and glances at the passages that lead away from the road and deeper into the mountains and whispers about how inviting they seem. A native Alaskan, through and through.
On the far side of the range, the ground sweeps out like a gown, the open expanse of the North Slope, leading, eventually, to the Arctic Sea. And then Toolik Lake appears and with a left turn and a slight descent we arrive, bum-weary but delighted, the air cooler than Fairbanks and the daylight longer. Here’s around 10:00 pm…
Now to begin the adventure of figuring out what all these researchers are doing and why.