Archive for the ‘Aleutians – Buldir 2016’ Category


Last (and only?) sunrise at sea, north of Kodiak

The morning of September 5th dawned with an elusive scene in the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea: a beautiful sunrise. As the nautical miles slipped by, the Tiglax moved ever closer to returning our band of field biologists to Homer. The ship’s crew seemed anxious to return home to friends and family, and the rest of us had emotions ranging from apprehension to excitement to calm.

After picking up a small field crew on East Amatuli, there was nothing separating us from Homer except the waters of Kachemak Bay. Riding a rising tide, we finished our last supper of brisket and coleslaw shortly before rounding the Homer Spit.

loaded truckA small welcoming committee greeted us at the dock, where we unloaded dry bags of personal gear and boxes of extra food, diet samples, and data books from the ship. Once everything had been carted up to a waiting pickup, we were turned loose on solid ground. After unloading at the bunkhouse, there was just one more thing to do before bed.

We Buldirians, Aiktakians, and Chowieteers walked to the Otter Room next door for a beer. Drawing heads’ attention upon our entrance, I knew we were XtraTuf-wearing unknowns. The 7 of us put 2 tables together, ordered pints, and timidly looked around as we tried not to stare at other people or the multiple TV screens. We talked quietly – as we always do – about the season and personalities aboard the boat. Knowing glances made their way around the table, and I knew we were the 4 hobbits having a journey’s end pint at the Green Dragon. No one else in the bar knew where we’d just returned from, and most of us don’t quite know what’s next in store. We’re happy to be together, though.


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Thursday 1September 2016, week 16: R/V Tiglax, AK time 14:40

Here I am on day 4 at sea, wondering when we’re going to meet some weather. The ship’s not rocking enough; I want to be stumbling around the boat! After spending a couple days between Gareloi and Tanaga watching for orcas with some whale biologists, the ship once again belongs to Buldirians. We stopped in Adak to drop off the whale guys and grab a couple food items, which allowed me to see some of the town in daylight. Now we’re steaming our way to Aiktak, the home of the next field camp.

As we travel east, my mind travels the other direction – away from pending society. Although I’ve admitted I’ll be happy to have some of its aspects back in my life, there’s one aspect where life in the field dominates: my other life – my night life – of dreams.

Sometimes I can tell what parts of waking life my subconscious has been trying to work out, and other times I’m in any type of random story. For some reason the Harry Potter storyline and characters frequently feature in my dreams, and my role in those varies. Regardless of the content of my dreams, I delight in knowing my dream life is alive and well.

Last summer on St. George I kept track of how many nights I woke up and remembered my dreams the next day. From mid-May through the first week of September, there were only 3 instances in which I couldn’t recall what I’d dreamed about. Intrigued to see how Buldir would compare, keeping track revealed that I’ve only had 2 nights whose dreams were hidden from me from mid-May through present.

Since my documentation of life between adventures in the field is rather lacking, I haven’t kept track of how often I remember my dreams when I’m in town. However, I’m confident in saying that the figure would drop to below 65% between last September and this May.

Although I don’t have any scientific back-up to support this, my personal theory on my frequency of dream remembrance revolves around one random fact and one theory.First off, my mom dreamed up my full name. She just woke up one morning and said, “What about Stephanie L?” With my dad in agreement, my coming self had a name should I be a girl. We don’t know anything about the dream’s substance, but I’ll go ahead and assume it must have been a good one.

Secondly and admittedly up for debate, I dream and remember it more when I’m most content with where I am. Why else do I recall dreams so frequently during fieldwork and travel stints? That’s when I’m happiest and at the fullest height of being myself.

Maybe the dreaming will continue during my stay in Homer, and hopefully the dream where my adorable sheltie – border collie mix future puppy is at the Homer Animal Shelter comes true.* After all, I can dream, can’t I?

* I promise I did have that dream during my final week on Buldir.

**Update: As I finish this at 23:50 on 4 September, all FWS field crews are aboard. We picked up Chowiet this morning and spent the morning trying to get puffin diet samples on Suklik Island before continuing our voyage east. If all goes to the captain’s plan, we’ll be in town by Monday evening… and have to switch to normal work hours that involve going to an office starting Tuesday.

***Update 2: We’re on solid ground. Vehicles move quickly!

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Thursday 25 August 2016, week 15: Buldir Island, 19:10

Time is rapidly flying by, and mere days are left before we Buldirians leave our summer home. I keep looking for ways to delay our return to society, with the only possible winner being a mega storm that means the Tiglax can’t pick us up on time. Unfortunately our current forecast for Friday through Monday calls for variable 10 knot winds and 5 foot seas, roughly as nice as conditions can be for running the skiff to and from the beach. I was reminded that locking the captain in his stateroom and turning the ship for a surprise trip to Attu has a name – mutiny – so regrettably that option is also out.

As the days tick by, we’re checking off tasks for the last time. We’ve made our final visits to the puffin nests we’ve been following on Main Talus and Northwest Ridge. Monday gave us our final round of reaching inside storm petrel burrows and feeling for chicks. With Tuesday’s sunny weather we took down the food weatherport and moved boxes of food to the bunkhouse. Wednesday brought wind and rain but also time for a first attempt at making cinnamon rolls and plenty of inventorying everything in camp. Today found us mostly wrapping up inventories and then taking our last weekly measurements of fork-tailed and Leach’s storm petrel chicks in our chronology plot. Tomorrow we’re planning a day trip to Spike for one last look at our kittiwakes and murres on the ledges, as well as the horned puffins on Bottle Hill.

The end of the field season is no tech’s favorite time of the year. While I haven’t been missing much about the rest of the world, there are a few things I’ve been looking forward to for quite awhile: · stable ground
· football season
· more episodes of “Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People,” a podcast of hour-long phone calls with a host who gets genuinely interested in whatever the caller wants to talk about

Yet on the other hand, among the many aspects of field life that I love, I’ll miss: · our camp kitchen
· my sleeping bag and plywood headboard (the only headboard I’ve ever had), along with feeling the bunkhouse move with gusts of wind and hearing rain on the roof or sounds of the ocean · the cutely curious songbird fledgelings that use camp as a playground
· nightly “comms” when we hear what the Tiglax and other island camps have been up to each day

But more recently I’ve realized that the following are good reasons to leave Buldir: · not wearing Helly Hanson raingear and XtraTufs every single day · having real eggs on hand
· talking to some friends over the phone
· puppy time
· spending a week on the Tiglax as we return to AK Standard Time

Anyone know of some puppies who need some love in Homer? I’ll be available soon! Until then I’ll enjoy the rest of the abnormally nice weather we’ve had all season on Buldir.

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Monday 22 August 2016, week 15: Buldir Island, 22:40

For years of childhood and adolescence I wondered why my mom would tear up over what seemed to me the most insignificant events. Take her to a comedic film and she’d find a way to cry at some point. It didn’t make any sense to me.

As usual, genetics finally caught up with me, and now I understand why she used to say she couldn’t help it. She’s carries what I’ve coined the Insta-tear Gene and successfully passed it on to me. Occasionally I find myself caught in moments where nothing significant has happened, and yet a few tears appear at the corner of my eye.

For instance, back in July I was enjoying a morning in the blind on Main Talus, taking in all the crested and least auklets surrounding me in waves of flight. Even through the fog, it became magical; as I appreciated the scene, a tear crept to my eye.

During our last check of kittiwakes and murres on the Spike Camp side of the island, it was hot enough under the blazing sun that all of us were watching our cliffs in just our base layers. Kevin was completely barefoot, and McKenzie was holding her Pendleton above herself as a sunblock. The sky was blue, East Cape was swirling with seabirds, and a few early thick-billed murre fledgelings were swimming and celebrating their successful leaps from the cliffs with their dads and supportive fans. There was nothing sad about the scene, and yet there it was sliding down my face again, that silly tear of gratitude.

I can no longer tease my mom about her ability to just turn on the waterworks because I also have no control over it. Life offers us moments that can be beautiful, funny, poignant, and meaningless at the same time. There are worse ways than tears to recognize such moments, such as taking no notice.

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Monday/Thursday 15/18 August 2016, week 14: Buldir Island, 17:00

Since I was so wrapped up in relaxing on our day off that I forgot our day off means shower day, it seems fitting that I address how we deal with personal hygiene in field camps.

Field life is certainly not for everyone; showers – if possible at all – come less than once a week, in my experience. For someone like me who embraced 2 years of college life in a dry cabin – meaning no running water – in Fairbanks, Alaska, the limited bathing options of life in the field are no big deal. Teri and I used to go without showering for nearly a week and laughingly do “pit checks” in the cabin, which is when we’d realize we probably should find time to shower. Those who shower at least every other day might find that repulsive, and the daily showerers probably think I’m on the same level as animals.

Keeping that kind of lifestyle definitely has made field life seem less extreme, and my tendencies between civilized and field life are not that different. That’s not to say I don’t shower often. I do use running water and shower on a fairly normal basis when I’m in town. However, I’ve noticed that on over ½ of days in non-field life, I can have been around town for hours before realizing that I never looked in the mirror to see how crazy my wavy, curly hair had decided to be that day. It’s not that I don’t care about my appearance, but rather that I assume I look fine. I’m comfortable with my natural appearance, which is the easiest option for field life.

Bathing options vary across field camps, but I’d guess the most typical form is the solar shower. On the North Slope we boiled a pot of pond water and combined that with cool pond water in a solar shower bag. That was hoisted up by the ceiling in an old shed, and voila! A hot, relatively clean shower was possible. I lived the life of luxury in buildings on St. George, my kiwi island in New Zealand, and in NE Alberta, so showers came fairly frequently.

In remote camps having one t-shirt and sweatshirt designated as “sauna/shower clothes” means I’m always guaranteed to have clean clothes to wear after the shower. These clothes NEVER get worn otherwise. Baby wipes are must-haves for field life, as a wipe-down with those can feel great on the particularly sweaty days.

My current and previous 2 summers provided me with my favorite bathing memories of field camps. The black brant camp on the Tutakoke River features a plywood sauna wrapped in Visqueen, and it’s heated by a barrel stove. By collecting firewood via snowmachine early in the season, we had a nice supply of wood to fire up the sauna about once a week all summer.

Since I have Finnish blood and have taken many a sauna on the shores of Lake Superior, I had low expectations for the heat levels. Boy, was I ever proven wrong. Both summers we got the sauna piping hot to the point where we were legitimately covered in sweat and needed to dash out of the sauna to jump in the Tutakoke River to cool off. We soaped up in the sauna, rinsed off in the tidal river, and then used warm snowmelt water in 4 pots on the floor to rinse off the saltwater. Sometimes I swam across the chilly river to walk around on the mudflat, and another time the crew rode the tide a good ¼ toward the mouth of the river just for fun. I didn’t expect to spend 2 summers sitting naked in the dark in a hot 7’x7′ box with my boss and co-workers, but sauna days were some of the best days of summer.

Here on Buldir Kevin ramped up the showering situation from last year. He assembled an old plywood shower stall around a pallet floor, but to this he added some corner shelves, a buoy for a seat, and a small net to hold clean clothes and a towel out of the shower spray. The brilliant feature is his crowning achievement for the summer: a window offering a view across North Marsh and toward Buldir Eccentric, as well as a skylight, which allows the stall to heat up with the water’s heat and any small amount of sunshine. With the right temperature of creek water in the solar shower bag, showering on Buldir is about as good as it gets for the field.

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Thursday 11 August 2016, week 13: Buldir Island, 20:15

“Should we have halibut or cod for dinner?”

Those words from McKenzie indicated Christmas had arrived for us Buldirians. On Tuesday the Tiglax returned to the remote waters of the western Aleutians for our resupply: our one day to receive packages, wash and dry laundry in machines, and shower with a normal water supply.

While the weather has been rather unBuldir-like all season, providing us with a few sunburns, little rain, and lower winds than are typical, our resupply just happened to line up with the first storm of autumn. Tuesday’s forecast was for SW30 knot winds with rain and seas of 12-13 feet. To put that in perspective, much of our season has given us 10-15 knot winds and seas of 4-6 feet.

We heard the rain overnight and knew it would be a wet day. Having been told the ship would be ready for us after first light, we awoke at 6:30 to finish packing up our trash, recycling, empty propane and kerosene jugs, auklet diet samples, and murre eggs.

By 7:20 it was light enough for a walk to the beach to survey the conditions to see if a skiff landing would be possible. Although I got a “way to delegate!” from the current ship’s skipper over the handheld radio, I just happened to not be one of the pair who donned raingear to check things out. If the conditions had been unfavorable, we could have been stuck on land or needing to hike to an alternate landing. Fortunately, God placed the storm on our side. We had a slight northerly swell, but the winds were from the south.

Without too much of a hassle, John was able to land the skiff to retrieve us from our island home and deliver us wet, but happy, to the ship. For the first time in months, we had real eggs for breakfast! The laundry facilities, longer showers, and meals (crunchy salad!) were nice, but I think we all most enjoyed returning to the ship and its crew. The Tiglax had made a run west from Adak with the pure purpose of our resupply; no other scientists were on board, and the ship was going to turn around and travel the ~30 hours straight back to Adak.

As Kevin put it in our thank you e-mail, having the ship and crew to ourselves was a special treat. It was “almost like stopping by a friend’s house for a visit, except that our friends brought their house by for a visit.” We were able to hear how their season of seafaring has been and get filled in with only as much news as we wanted. The crew kept asking if there was anything else we wanted, and we were made to feel at home. It was all we could have asked for.

By early afternoon we were in transit back to the wilds of our beach, where the swell had picked up and become more exciting. During the offload of cardboard boxes of produce, mail, a dutch oven, and 50 lb. of nails we did end up with a drybag in the surf and a ¼ skiff-load of water, but everything and everyone made it. After a few doughnuts in the skiff to drain water, John was headed back to the dry warmth of the Tiglax.

McKenzie, Kevin, and I were left carrying everything up the cobble beach and down our path to the cabin. The surf had washed our faces and hair with saltwater, but we were in good spirits. The cabin was soon a mess of wet bags and boxes that we shortly opened to find camp supplies, beer, work gloves, magazines, chocolate, new socks, watermelon, apples, sweet potatoes, happy carrots and potatoes, pickled fiddleheads from our friends on Chowiet, and the most important item of all: a new Michigan State hat to replace the one that went up in flames this winter. It was a merry Christmas indeed.

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Monday 1 August 2016, week 12: Buldir Island, 14:15

My 2 winters based south of Sacramento have gone unwritten because there wasn’t anything exciting enough to chronicle. In a nutshell, I drove a white pick-up truck and counted many thousands of birds in California’s Central Valley. While the mega flocks of geese flying overhead were impressive, and I enjoyed living on the Cosumnes River Preserve, the flatlands were not for me.

When I had my brother’s old Specialized road bike operational my second year, I thoroughly loved flying down roads, but I only had time for that in rare spare hours of daylight. The occasional weekend forays to the coast, mountains, or friends just teased me with how much more interesting those places were. The outings were so nice that they made returning to the valley a disappointment.

Fortunately my ginger friends/co-workers/housemates helped me find Sacramento’s redeeming quality: Sacramento Pipeworks Climbing & Fitness. Kelsey and Emily had gone twice my first winter, and I tagged along the second time. Housed in an old warehouse with a dramatically high interior, Pipeworks features a handful of pillars that connect at the rock textured ceiling. Color coded rock holds of purple, green, blue, red, orange, white, pink, black, and gray mark routes of varying difficulties. Certain routes are for lead climbing only, enabling climbers with their own gear to train for outdoor climbing where everything is not all set up.

In addition to the main climbing pillars, there’s a whole room dedicated to bouldering, which is climbing at lower heights without being roped in through a harness or anything. If someone falls while bouldering, he or she will land on the crash pad, a cushion the thickness of a mattress.

With the $100 initiation fee waived for those joining in January, Kelsey and Laney joined the gym and began going there after work. Torn between wanting to join them to rekindle my interest in climbing and being the penny pincher who stays at home to keep my feelings of inadequacy, competitive nature, and slight discomfort of climbing hidden, I let my desire to climb win. After all, my college guy friends wouldn’t be there to see my weakness, and neither Kelsey nor Laney were ultra experienced. No sweat, right? Just have fun!

It took me a little while, but that’s what I did. When I did get worked up at failing to pass a tough point on a route, I finally got to a place where I would tell Kelsey to let me down instead of letting me flail around. I even told her to feel free to just drop me slightly if she saw me beating myself up for too long. Once I was able to acknowledge my own weakness, climbing became more enjoyable, and I was able to notice my own improvements over time. I had a blast!

Next to the farmers’ markets, Sacramento Pipeworks is my favorite scene in town, for the climbing and fitness area, as well as the puppies and wealth of good-looking guys. Yes, Pipeworks allows canines inside, so it was my duty to smile at all of them and pet any that needed attention. What more does one need in a gym?

So that’s my shout out to Pipeworks, the place that enlivened my winter. Puppies, calluses, blisters, more use for my climbing gear than it had seen in years, and a reawakened interest in climbing. The guys behind the counter became friendly familiar faces, as did some of the climbers and their puppies. As much as I’m looking forward to winter elsewhere, I will thoroughly miss that gym.

Climbing has come to mind this summer because of the style of our work on Buldir. For checking crevices on Main Talus, we wear DeWalt knee pads and work gloves for scrambling over boulders and crawling inside little caves. On Northwest Ridge our trail to the crevices and burrows initially climbs dirt steps that have been cut into the hillside over the years; I grab onto the vegetation on my way up and throughout my route since in most places it’s so tall that I can’t see my feet and am likely to slip at any time. Bottle Hill offers limited putchki to grab and more of the flimsy ferns; fortunately the tall, lush ferns are soft for cushioning my falls.

Buldir-style climbing is very different from actual rock climbing. Here you can never trust your footing, so grabbing handfuls of strong vegetation is essential. Slippery vegetation, loose rocks, unstable boulders, and slick dirt make me slip all the time, and sometimes that purchase on putchki is all that keeps me from sliding far. Tall grass helps me pull myself up the Super Upper section of Main Talus. In the areas of large boulders, I enjoy heaving myself up and around by using my arms just as much as my legs. It’s like being on a playground!

Watching the auklets has shown me that wings would be helpful on this terrain. Often they land with less than grace and end up flapping their wings to regain balance and scamper up those last few inches to the tops of boulders.

Climbing in a gym or on real rock is a world I’ll return to at some point, but for now I’ll enjoy my bizarre climbing methods and thoroughly appreciate my knee pads.

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