Thursday, July 29, 2010

Day 17

Well, the last three days have been a trip. It's been a little bit good, a little bit bad, and a little bit ugly.

We left Deadhorse ready for the change. It was going to be an easy three days (or so we thought). The weather had been relatively nice so far, we were headed to the mountains to see some fresh scenery, we had three travel days with only one day of real work, and we were about to head home for a week of relaxation.

Huge herd of caribou along the Dalton Highway

We made our way south toward Galbraith Lake, our home for the next two nights. Along the way we stopped a couple of times to look at the impressive views.

Heading into the Brooks Range

We eventually found our way to Galbraith Lake and journeyed down the bumpy dirt road leading into camp. It was different than Deadhorse; absolutely gorgeous but rugged, and we were excited.

Galbraith Lake

We checked in, put our gear in our tents and went for a hike. The area was absolutely stunning and we followed a creek upstream for a while before we headed up to the top of a bluff.

At the top of the bluff we looked around and decided that the  best way to appreciate this wonderful place was to bust out the hackey sack and play what may be considered "The most beautiful game of Hackey Sack in the world".

We made our way back to camp, ate dinner and retired to our tents. It was about this time we realized that we had no heater, no sheets, and one tiny blanket thinner than a towel. Needless to say, it was a cold, miserable night. However, always one to make the best of a bad situation (ha ha), I managed to take a couple of great shots during the half hour that the sun was setting/rising.

12:23 AM

The next day was rough. It rained all day long and there was water everywhere. I was tired and grouchy after my horrible night of sleep, and we had now been working for nearly three weeks straight. We trudged through and tried to have some fun.

Eventually the day ended and we made our way back to camp. After a friendly discussion (ahem) with the camp manager, we had more than enough blankets and heaters to keep warm. I slept well last night knowing that I was close to coming home for a week of rest and relaxation. One thing that is great about this camp (and most of the remote camps) is the food. These guys can cook and last night we had fresh salmon with rice, peas, and some sort of stew; followed by banana creme pie for dessert.

In the morning we slept in, ate a great breakfast with much coffee, and headed back to Deadhorse. It was still raining and the rivers had swelled, turning chocolate in color and flowing with incredible force.

We got stuck behind some road construction, saw a few musk ox, and eventually rolled into Deadhorse. Tomorrow we are going to fly to Fairbanks for our debrief and a night in civilization (drink lots of beer), and the following day I head home.

This may be the last post for a while. I am coming back up on the 8th of August and will be traveling from Coldfoot to Fairbanks. However I suspect I won't have access to the internet and updates will be few and far between. This phase is done and I have had a great time. I can't wait to come back up, but I have a few things I need to purchase before I do. In the meantime, I am going to spend time with my girlfriend, hang out in the garden, work on my fish class, and ride my motorcycle. I'm excited.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Day 14

Tomorrow is a travel day and I am quite happy about it. I'm worn out. Too many long days of work in a row have worn me down. Today I almost passed out during lunch. One minute I was eating a sandwich and discussing the relative differences between midgets and dwarfs, and the next minute everything was blurry; I got dizzy and the world started to spin. I sat down, hard. After a few minutes I felt ok, but I think I just got used to the world spinning around me. I knew at that point that I needed a break, and as it turns out we get to drive down to Galbraith Lake (about 4 hours south) tomorrow for a whopping one day of field work before returning the following day to unload our gear and fly home for a week. My break is in sight and I am getting excited. Well, as excited as a zombie can get, I suppose. I am looking forward to my next deployment in August, where we will make our way south through the mountains. But more importantly, I am ready to go home for a while.

Other than my little event, today was pretty uneventful. We took the chopper out to a site, did some hydrology, got picked up by the chopper and went to another site, did some more hydrology, then flew home. While the north slope is beautiful and wild, I am ready to see something different. We tend to make the best of things as demonstrated in this photo, as Paul attempts to jump the creek (he made it).

I also had my first bear sighting. It wasn't quite as exciting as I thought it wold be and I am not sure if it was a brown bear (grizzly) or a polar bear. Maybe you can figure it out:

I mentioned in an earlier post these things called beaded streams. It's where a stream forms these weird, bead shaped pools where ice forms with narrow channels between. They are really weird and I took a couple of good shots of them today.

Well that's it for today. I don't think I have internet access at Galbraith Lake, so I'll be out of touch for a couple of days. Hopefully I'll have something cool to report on the 30th. Until then, I am taking off.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day 13

Today was an interesting day. I could barely get out of bed and it took several attempts before I managed to set my feet on the ground. Physically I felt great, but 12 straight days of work averaging 10-12 hours a day, as well as severe dehydration and insomnia had taken a serious toll. I looked over and saw that my roommate was in a similar situation. I almost called a stand down day as I wasn't sure if either of us were fit for duty. After a decent breakfast of eggs benedict, fruit, juice, and lots of coffee, we decided that working was better than sitting in Deadhorse all day. Hell, dying is better than sitting in Deadhorse all day. So we rallied and wandered over to the helicopter hangar.

Casey in the chopper

It was a beautiful day, sunny but cold and windy. The wind was blowing in off the arctic and it was cold. However it kept the mosquitoes away and it was the first day we could work without wearing our bug shirts. What a difference this made in comfort and morale.

The crew

After flying about 45 miles out along the edge of the Beaufort Sea, we set down at our first stream. It was so nice to be able to work without my head encased in mesh.

Paul in a cold creek

Soon the helicopter picked us up and moved us to our next site, informed us that this would be our last site, and told us to be ready for pickup at 4:00. As we were landing a pair of jaegers were circling and I managed to get a picture of one of them.

Well, we were done by 4:00 but the helicopter was nowhere in sight. Up here, you never really know when or if things will actually get done, which is why we have a massive survival kit including food, a tent, stove, sleeping bags, and enough clothing to handle any condition. We relaxed for a while.

But soon we got tired of laying around doing nothing, so we did what any sensible field crew would do when stuck in the middle of nowhere with no idea whether they are going to make it back to camp.... we played hackey sack.

Casey, Matt, and Paul

Me and Casey

Eventually, the helicopter showed up and took us home. Along the way I was able to get some great shots of the ice shelf. Tomorrow, provided we aren't too sore from hackey, er uh work, we'll fly again. Hopefully the helicopter won't leave us stranded for two hours, but who knows?

The ice shelf

Another day on the north slope, we'll see what tomorrow has in store.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Day 12

Dehydration and lack of sleep took its toll on me today. I crashed big time at about 1 pm and it was all I could do to pull through and finish out the day. As luck would have it, the day was long and the sun burned strong. By the time we rolled into the parking lot, my tongue was swollen thick and I wasn't feeling too hot. So I'm not going to spend much time on this. In fact, this is all I can muster. Maybe tomorrow.

We have a couple more days here in Deadhorse and then we travel south to Galbraith Lake, a remote field camp. I'll probably be offline for a few days, but then I get to come home for a week before the next stint from Atigun Pass, through Coldfoot and the Yukon River, to Fairbanks. In other words, it's going to get good real soon. I may even get to see a tree.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Day 11

I am incredibly tired today so this will be short and sweet. I'm going to try and catch up on sleep tonight. Yesterday I got pretty dehydrated and all the water I drank before bed kept me up at night.

I still haven't seen a bear. I've been hoping to see a polar or grizzly bear but have had no luck. However one guy saw one last night in town. He was wandering around about 5 miles from our camp (glorified trailer complex) and came across a big grizzly. Nothing happened but he decided to catch a ride back to camp. Not really sure why the genius decided to waltz out of camp alone, but at least he's not on my crew.

The helicopter is still broken so we couldn't fly. Besides, the fog was as thick as I have ever seen. This place is weird, I woke up at 5:15 and it was gorgeous; blue skies, sun shining, and a light breeze. Within a half hour the fog had rolled in so thick you could cut it with a knife. A giant knife made of polar bears and narwhals battling to the death while walruses cheered in glee and baby seals flung themselves wildly in the air. After breakfast we jumped in the truck and headed out.

About ten miles out of town I looked out the window and saw a bird racing us. I am not sure what kind of bird it was, it kind of looked like a kestrel, but this thing was hauling ass. We were cruising along at 50 mph and it paced us directly outside our window for at least a mile before it veered right and flew over our truck. Crazy.

We drove for about 80 miles to our first site. We are now starting to get into the foothills of the Brooks Range, which is a nice change of pace. The mosquitoes here are absolutely horrific but today was a picture perfect day. It was probably 60-65 degrees, blue skies with enough wind to keep the bugs down slightly. A group of 4 on motorcycles rode by so I took a photo of them. A lot of people ride up to Deadhorse for the adventure. I wonder if it's a disappointment.

As we pulled up to our second site, we saw a red fox. They are huge up here. It saw us pull over and wandered right up to our truck. It stopped about twenty feet away and then wandered off. While this is all good and fine and we were quite impressed, apparently rabies is a huge problem up here. He worked the hillside for a while and then wandered off. We worked the stream for a while and then wandered off.

After finishing our second site, we didn't have enough time to start a third site so we drove up the road to see what we had to look forward to. It's going to get good. The sites are absolutely stunning and I can't wait to get into the mountains. And the streams are actually going to be streams, not the piddly little swales we have encountered so far.

That's it for tonight, I'm going to bed.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day 10

I have the best crew in the world. I don't know how I got so lucky, but the four of us get along great. We eat together, work together, then hang out together during our free time (what little we have). All four of us have similar interests and we have yet to argue about a single thing. They've even told me I was a great crew chief, which is funny because I always thought I was kind of an asshole. I think it may be that we all realize how lucky we are to be on this incredible project, and how screwed we are if we can't rely on each other. Either way, I'm quite pleased with my crew.
A fine lunch of steak and chimichangas

Another great day on the north slope. Today actually was a great day, it started out sunny and in the 50's. Without a wind the bugs were worse than usual, but since we were working along the coast they weren't too bad. I even worked for a while with my bug jacket open and my face exposed. We flew east along the Beaufort Sea (Arctic Ocean) for about 45 miles before being dropped off at a pair of small streams, our sites for the day.
River and the Arctic Ocean

Along the way, we saw an incredible herd of caribou running toward the coast. Apparently the mosquitoes drive them crazy too and they sprint to get away from them. It was amazing to see a thousand caribou sprinting down a stream to the coast; straight out of a National Geographic special. I tried to get a shot, but I was buckled in pretty tight and just couldn't get the right shot. Besides, we were 1,500 feet off the ground so it wouldn't have shown much. We could also see the polar ice cap really well because of the great weather. Up here, the atmosphere causes quite a bit of distortion and at times, the ice cap looks like a 1,000 foot cliff. Five minutes later, it's just a layer on the ocean. Regardless, it's truly stunning.
Polar ice cap (kind of blurry)
We proceeded to survey a couple of streams and were hoping to walk down to the coast to actually stand on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, where no doubt we would see thousands of walruses battling polar bears while the narwhals flung baby seals in the air with their horns. However about halfway through our second site, two things happened.
Me in the water

First we got a call on our satellite phone telling us that our helicopter was having some issues and another chopper was coming to pick us up immediately. Of course, by immediately they meant in an hour and a half due to the fact that they had to bring the chopper in from an even more remote location and we were 45 miles from town. This was fine as it allowed us to finish the second site.

Also the weather changed. If their is one rule regarding weather in Alaska it is that it can change on a dime. And today it did. Within an hour it went from sunny and warm to cold and rainy. Thank God we were prepared and it wasn't a big deal. In fact my day pack weighs about 25 pounds and is completely crammed full. About 90% of the size is clothing ranging from a wool jacket, a fleece vest, a rain coat and hat, to a balaclava and winter mittens. In addition, we have a huge waterproof duffel bag that goes everywhere with us that included a tent, sleeping bags, food, survival gear,....... You never know.
Casey with the Brooks Range in background

Eventually the chopper showed up and shuttled us back to our temporary home. Once on the ground, we noticed the tour buses at the Arctic Caribou Inn. Testing our theory we decided to see what they had for dinner. Rib eye steak, shrimp, baked potatoes and coconut cream pie. It appears that our theory just became law. Two steak nights in a row, life truly is good.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Day 9

Today was awesome. It started out a bit slow as the fog was still in and flying wasn't going to happen for a while. In Alaska, and especially the North Slope, things are dictated by the weather. People work during all kinds of horrible conditions but if you can't see, you can't fly. And if you can't fly, you can't work. And lately we haven't been able to see. But I had high hopes as it wasn't raining and the skies had been clearing the last couple of days in the later afternoon. In fact last night I was standing outside on the phone for about an hour in my shorts and a long sleeve t-shirt catching some sun (at 9 pm). I can't get over the 24 hour light thing, it's just weird.

So we checked in with the helicopter pilots and the word was that we should be able to fly at some point. So we waited:

While we were waiting, we hung out at the airport and watched all sorts of unusual and scary aircraft coming and going, including this Winnebago with wings.

Eventually the fog cleared and we were ready to go, so we hopped in the chopper and flew east along the Beaufort Sea toward our first site. Needless to say we were happy to finally be headed out to do some work. There is truly nothing worse than waiting for an unknown period of time with no concept of when, or if, you are going to be able to do what you need to, except maybe being without beer. Mosquitoes have been a recurring theme throughout my stay here, and this photo demonstrates why they are so prolific. There is literally water everywhere. These are lakes formed by ice flows. The majority of them are about two feet deep, but huge.

To the north, we could see the polar ice cap. It is difficult to see in this photo, but if you look closely you can see the ice cap at the top of the photo. Also in this photo is a phenomenon called a beaded stream. It is caused by ice forming in a small stream, causing a constriction which leads to stream flowing underground or through a very small channel. Where the ice forms the stream forms a large pool, like a bowl.                                                                                                     

This is the caribou herd we saw a few days ago. I finally managed to get some photos from my coworkers camera. In total, we estimated about 1,000 caribou split into two groups. One group crossed the road right in front of our truck while the other herd was located off to our west. In the background you can see the Franklin Bluffs, which still have snow on them at the end of July. This is about 100 feet elevation.


Ok, back to what I actually did today....

Well I saw some caribou.

And we did some work. I still crack up when I look over and see our bear guard standing with a shotgun. In fact, he is a great guy and we get along quite well. You can see the Alaska pipeline in the background and you'll note we are still wearing our mosquito gear. It's much easier and works better than bug spray.

And every now and then I took a good look around to see the view.

And before we knew it, we heard the distinctive thumping sound of our ride home. We made our way back to the chopper and headed in for the night (day). And to top it off, it was steak night at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. All in all it was a great day.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Day 8

Beer. God what I wouldn't give for a beer.

Today started out rough. After a wonderful dinner of roasted pork loin, mashed potatoes and some great salads, I finally got a good night sleep. We have started to see a trend here in Deadhorse concerning the food. The Prudhoe Bay Hotel is ok, about one step up from cafeteria food. But just down the road is the Arctic Caribou Inn. This is where the tour buses stay when they make the journey up from Fairbanks so the blue-hairs can dip their toes in the Arctic Ocean and marvel at the common folk working the oil fields. And on the nights the tour buses are in town, this is the place to be. The food is damn good and plentiful. On the days that the tour buses are not in town, well let's just say it's not. Last night over cheesecake we met a couple from Sydney, who were amazed that people live and work here. They seemed disgusted by the whole thing and seemed to turn their nose at us blue collar worker types. But when I kindly showed them how to use the coffee dispenser (place cup under spout, pull handle), they acknowledged my brilliance.

Anyway, after a breakfast burrito with fresh guacamole, fresh ground coffee, fruit salad and pastries, we noticed our tire was flat. The thought of changing our tire in 2 inch deep mud during 40 degree windy, foggy weather was not appealing. So I was pleased to find out the rental company would change it for us. Of course it took them three hours to show up so our morning was shot. Once the tire was changed we headed to the airport to catch the helicopter east along the Beaufort Sea to our sites. The fog was starting to lift and by noon, we were ready to fly.

We lifted off and flew for about ten minutes before we hit a wall of fog coming in from the sea. It was headed right for us and moving fast.

The pilots explained that we could either turn around or plan on spending the night out on the tundra. While we have more survival gear than you could imagine and would probably have been quite comfortable, we decided to turn around. I took a couple of shots in mid-flight.

Below us is Deadhorse. If you look closely, you can see a polar bear eating a wolf eating a caribou.

Gotcha didn't I? I'm still hoping to see a polar bear.

In this photo, you can see the fog bank rolling in. What you can't see is the giant wall of fog in front of us......or the polar bear eating the wolf eating the caribou.

So we landed again. By this time it was 2:45 and we decided to take a stand down day. Our only other option was to drive 2 hours south to our next roadside stop and it wasn't worth it. While it hasn't gotten dark since I have arrived here, we are only supposed to work 10 hour days (not including the crew chief and data mapper who usually put in two extra hours a day [I am the crew chief]). Since we had been on the clock since 8:00, we decided to call it a day. We all rejoiced and decided to drive south and find a herd of musk ox that was a couple of miles south of town.

We found them. However we stayed back a ways to watch. These are the best shots I could get without instantly getting trampled to death, then eaten by a polar bear (and a wolf).

Well, that's it for today. I got the schedule for August and it looks awesome. I go home for the first week of August (beer), then back up for the following three weeks. In that time, I'll get to wander south through the Brooks Range all the way to Fairbanks. Talk to you tomorrow.