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Posts Tagged ‘AK Maritime NWR’

Tuesday 6 June 2017, week 4: Buldir Island

When driving to Seattle from Fairbanks on a free ride from Craigslist a couple autumns ago, my driver Jim told me that I’m pretty much the definition of low maintenance. Given my nature of being content sleeping on any surface, living without running water, and eating basics rather than going out, I’d agree that it doesn’t take much to cover my needs. It’s how I’ve been able to live as a semi-homeless seasonal wildlife tech.

With that being said, nothing beats the feeling I get during and after the first shower of a field season in a remote camp. It doesn’t matter that I just showered with 5 gallons – at most – of rainwater collected from our roof. This afternoon those 5 gallons made me the cleanest I’d been since the evening of Wednesday, May 24th.

Our first showers were a little delayed because Mother Nature had her way around camp while we were gone this winter. Upon our arrival on May 25th, we were happy to still see 2 cabins standing. However, our outhouse and shower had been battered and bruised apart and strewn around the area, therefore requiring some imaginative building. Know those “Paris is for lovers” shirts? Well, we should have some made that read “Buldir is for hillbilly builders.”

As Kevin put it, like a phoenix rising from the ashes – except a phoenix of plywood, buoy patches and spray foam… We resurrected our beloved shower stall on June 4th, using almost all of our remaining screws and usable plywood. Our side window was enlarged for more of a view of North Marsh, which is very important for cleanliness. My beach walk of buoy collecting provided us with patching material to cover holes and eliminate draft. Our shower won’t get any marks for architectural beauty, but its character makes it fit for a museum of field camp life.

The testing of the new shower didn’t commence until today (the 6th) because we hadn’t wanted to go to bed with wet hair, and we’d known our trip to Spike Camp, a 4 mile hike with a ~1100 foot climb one-way, from the 5th to the 6th would immediately undo our showers. That meant we all had shower dreams dancing in our heads as we hiked home today.

Everything about shower day is refreshing. Just filling the big pot with water to heat, pulling out the solar shower bag, and stocking the shower shelves with shampoo, conditioner, and soap gets me excited. Once I’ve climbed the ladder and heaved the bag onto the roof of the stall, I’m practically singing. Moments separate me from my departure from the smelly base layer I’ve been wearing for the last unmentionable length of time.

When the first spray of hot water hits, it’s heavenly – so heavenly that even the shampoo I manage to get in my eye hurts so good! Scrubbing 2 weeks’ worth of sweat, rain, dirt, and dead skin away is like starting a new life. Since I have more hair this year, I am a little more careful with my water usage so that I won’t end up with soap to rinse off and no remaining water. Fortunately I am so careful that my glorious shower even ends with a seemingly never-ending cascade to rinse under and savor. It just keeps coming and coming!

Wearing my clean “sauna day” clothes (holdover name from a previous field camp with an awesome plywood and visqueen sauna) makes me feel like I’m a whole different person after the shower. Cotton t-shirt with a hoodie rather than a base layer with my brown fleece vest or wool sweater, softshell pants rather than a base layer, quick dry pants, or sweatpants; and Salomon shoes rather than XtraTufs or Crocs. Most importantly, I’m wearing a real bra rather than a sports bra. It’s the best! Actually, the best part is that none of these clothes smell.

Now I’m completing my illusion of normalcy by drinking a dark and stormy as we enjoy a relatively calm evening in camp. Life is good because tonight, we don’t stink.

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Saturday 3 June 2017, week 3: Buldir Island, 22:52

The most geographically isolated island in the Aleutians. The most diverse seabird colony in the northern hemisphere. The westernmost home of bald eagles. The westernmost volcano in the Aleutians. All of these extremes are descriptors of Buldir, making it my most decorated summer home. From learning of its existence in 2010 until last year, working out here had been a dream of mine.

Being so far west, Buldir’s draw for many is the potential to see vagrant birds riding western winds from Asia. In that sense, it really is a shame that I’ve deprived birders of the chance to work on Buldir last summer and this year. If asked, I’d probably consider myself a birder for about a day or two of each year. Contrary to what one would think, many people in my field don’t consider themselves birders. Fellow field technicians have referred to our seasonal cohort as “bird professionals,” meaning we study and enjoy birds but aren’t necessarily going to grab our binoculars and jump in the car if a weather system is predicted to bring an unusual mixture of species to a nearby area.

This week I did change my tune and act like a birder for the sake of our bird list and Kevin and McKenzie, who are birders. On Wednesday I volunteered to wake up early for our third beach transect, which is where we walk along the wrack line and survey down to the water and about 50m inland for songbirds. Gray-crowned rosy finches, song sparrows, pacific wrens, and lapland longspurs are the typical birds whose visual or auditory presence we note as we navigate the boulder field and tall grass inland of North Bight Beach.

As I approached our creek crossing near a small inland marsh, I spotted a shorebird standing in plain view on a log. Since shorebirds are small and rather difficult to identify because of their slight differences in appearance, I wished I had the birders along. (My ornithology lab quizzes on species ID were more than a handful of years ago.) It didn’t look like the dunlin, least sandpipers, western sandpipers, or plover species that I’d come to recognize from counting birds in California, so I was at a loss.

Knowing there was a good chance it was a vagrant, I dedicated myself to trying to note the details of its appearance. Naturally I’d not pocketed my point and shoot camera for my little half hour walk. White breast, red below the eye, black legs, reddish hue, very thin white eye ring, black on the edges of the primaries. I even voiced these observations in the hopes they’d stick with me and enhance my mental picture.

Back in camp I pulled out our Sibley Guide to Birds and Nat Geo’s Birds of North America. As I paged through the shorebirds sections, nothing stood out as being close to my description. When Kevin and McKenzie entered our main cabin, I didn’t say anything for a little while, knowing my attempt to vocalize the description would sound vague and unhelpful. Birds of East Asia didn’t seem to have the right fit, and I was starting to give up hope that I’d find a close match. By this point I’d shared my birding news and given a few details, but nothing came to mind to the birders.

“Check out Rare Birds of North America. It has pretty good pictures,” suggested McKenzie.

Bingo. Upon searching through its shorebird section, I came across the little stint. Out of all the pictures I’d looked at, it seemed like the closest fit. Unfortunately the book also said “On w. and cen. Aleutians and Bering Sea islands, rare or very rare in fall, exceptional in spring.” Had I managed to notice and identify an exceptional sighting? It seemed unlikely to me.

Having piqued the interest of Kevin and McKenzie, I walked them to the area where I’d seen the mystery bird. Somehow I was the first to spot it on logs in that same marshy area, and Kevin took multiple shots of it with his DSLR camera. As we looked at it, McKenzie made comments that seemed to agree with my educated guess of little stint. Knowing that the birders couldn’t ID it at first glance made me feel better.

That evening we opened all the bird guides to compare Kevin’s photos to various sketches. Before the evening was through, we all agreed that a little stint had decided to visit us that day. Little stint are quite the world travelers; they breed on tundra from Scandinavia across Eurasia to northeast Russia and then winter in sub-Saharan Africa, tropical India, and southeast Asia. A visit to Buldir wasn’t out of the question, either, as sightings were reported by FWS techs in 1998, 2006, 2008, and 2009.

Being able to add a little stint to our rare bird list was exciting, but that wasn’t the bird of the week for me. On Tuesday McKenzie had radioed me to let me know there was a long-tailed duck hanging out with some harlequin ducks off Crested Point. Long-tailed ducks are my favorite!! Not only are they adorable, but their call is also cute and the one bird sound I’m happy to mimic. Sadly I did not see my duck when I searched the area that day.

However, I did see it on Thursday, and thoughts of long-tailed duck cuteness distracted me so much that I nearly fell over as I continued my walk down our treacherous boulder beach. Birds are pretty okay!

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Saturday 27 May 2017, week 2: Buldir Island

If there’s one thing I learned from last summer, it’s that I love riding the Tiglax so far west that it becomes east. Unlike everyone else on board, I hope for headwinds and troughs to slow down our progress and rock the boat.

Because my love of boat time is common knowledge, I surprised everyone – the ship’s crew, Kevin and McKenzie, a few biologists from the office, and myself – by electing to sleep in the cabin on shore for our first night on Buldir. The Tiglax had a spare day at Buldir built into the schedule, and since the weather had cooperated for a successful offload on Thursday, Friday would be spent re-roofing the bunk cabin, settling in to camp, and trying to catch some red-legged kittiwakes we’d deployed geolocators on last year. (Geolocators record where the birds have traveled.)

After a delicious dinner of steak, beets and squash, mashed potatoes, and salad – plus amazing boka negra for dessert – Andy drove Kevin, McKenzie, and me to shore for the night. We worked at unpacking our personal gear and a few more boxes before toasting our return with some Hop Slice Summer Ale and calling it a night.

Of course it didn’t look at all like night because (a) we’re in Alaska, and (b) we were still on Alaskan time. Buldir is so far west that Alaskan time is completely illogical in terms of daylight, so we normally run camp on Aleutian time. The confusing part is that the Tiglax will remain on Alaskan time for the summer, meaning the island and ship are in different time zones! (We did change our time only after the ship left to save ourselves from confusion.)

Tucked in a fleece sleeping bag inside a warmer sleeping bag, wearing one plaid shirt and hugging another, I slowly drifted off to sleep. Without the sounds of water sloshing, the ship’s creaking, or the engine running, all seemed very quiet. But then the middle of the night arrived, bringing with it the talkative community of fork-tailed and Leach’s storm petrels. I’d missed their flute-like chorus and screechy cries, and their sounds woke me up before sending me back to sleep.

Come morning, I was rather dead to the world. Knowing McKenzie had set an alarm for 7:00 ship time, I figured it couldn’t be much later than that when I rolled over and saw a gray sky that still looked darker than morning. Then I looked at my watch and saw the time: 7:50. The others had been so quiet about leaving the bunk cabin that I’d had no clue they were up!

I quickly changed from comfy clothes into field clothes, and just a couple minutes later Kevin came in to let me know he’d just talked to the ship. The skiff would be ready to come pick me up to head to Kittiwake Lane for bird catching in about 20 minutes. Sleepily I poured hot water in my HydroFlask for tea and threw a granola bar, raingear, XtraTufs, water, and camera in a drybag.

John, the ship’s captain, called over the radio, “Is Sleeping Beauty awake yet?” Andy would be headed to shore in 5-8 minutes.

Still not fully awake, I squirmed my way into my waders and float coat, then walked down to the beach. As much fun as it is to try catching kittiwakes, I wasn’t excited about leaving camp set-up to the others. Returning to Buldir for the 2nd (Kevin and McKenzie’s 3rd) summer does make it feel like returning to a summer cottage, and helping open it up and settle in is part of the fun.

Andy swapped John for me on our steep cobble beach, and then we returned to the Tiglax to pick up the other biologists. From there we took a bumpy skiff ride into the wind toward Kittiwake Lane and East Cape. Fortunately Buldir had saved me a treat for being the crew member to help Heather and Nora with kittiwake catching.

As we approached the area offshore of Main Talus, home of thousands of crested, least, and whiskered auklets, the aurora of auklets* approached and surrounded us. The scent of tangerines, the smell of crested auklets, filled the air. Streams of small birds rapidly flapped their wings as they flew just above the water; boating amidst so much action almost made it feel like we were flying with them. Lines and clusters of auklets escorted us across the waters of the Bering Sea, the quality of the real life experience surpassing the most spectacular Planet Earth footage. The rising and falling, twisting and turning of the auklet clouds was mesmerizing.

Our escorted passage couldn’t have lasted more than 5 minutes, but it made up for a cold, sleepy day of unsuccessful kittiwake captures on the windy, cloudy side of the island.

*See last June’s entry in the “Aleutians – Buldir 2016” category

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Thursday 18 May 2017, week 1: at sea in Unimak Pass, 9:05   (through 20 May 2017 as we enter Dutch Harbor in the evening)

Riding a ship down the Aleutian chain is not for those who don’t know how to sit still. This year’s cruise west features only a few stops on random islands compared to last year, so in our first 4 full days at sea we’ve only stopped on Chowiet and Chirikof. The rest of the time we’ve been in transit, and all that travel has only carried us an hour shy of Aiktak in the eastern Aleutians.

Still, there have been entertaining moments.

For instance, if anyone was wondering how to transport ATVs from ship to shore, this is how. Of course that means first using a crane to move it from the hilo deck into the skiff waiting below. Yee haw!

There was also the time when Andy brought the skiff in to pick up Aiktakians and Buldirians from a beach walk on Chirikof. The tide had gone out enough that he couldn’t boat all the way in; a sandbar left him about 20 yards shy of where we stood. He motioned for us to wade out to him. Since Sarah, Dan, Kevin, McKenzie, and I were wearing neoprene chest waders and orange float coats, he wasn’t worried about us getting wet.

What he didn’t know was that the ocean floor wasn’t level for our walk out to him. The water level started at our ankles, then progressed to our shins and knees. As it rose to thigh level around the halfway mark, we began wondering how much deeper it would get. We stretched our arms above our heads as the water reached hip and then belly button depth. Kevin even carried the old drybag backpack over his head. Being the shortest of the bunch, I was in the greatest danger of flooding my waders. Andy could only stand and watch our humorous approach; not to sound insensitive, but we looked like a group of refugees approaching a rescue boat.

Chest waders cover up to a couple inches shy of armpit height, and the water was approaching the danger zone in the last 5 yards. “Just go quickly!” McKenzie suggested. So we did, and soon we were relieved to feel the ocean floor rising beneath our feet. All of us made it without flooding our waders, ending our nervous laughter.

water line on waders

Check out that water line!

When we’re just cruising along in open ocean or fog and clouds are obscuring our view, there’s not much to do beyond read, sleep, eat, watch movies, or hang out in the wheelhouse for bird or whale watching. Or – since Morgan feeds us too well – we can go biking or skiing! I’ll take a real bike over an exercise bike every single day of my life, but a band told me I can’t always get what I want but sometimes I get what I need. Yesterday I biked 15 hilly miles while listening to Beautiful/Anonymous, and tonight I’ll probably continue reading Snow Falling on Cedars while I ride. The elliptical is more fun – particularly in rougher water – because it’s in the forward hold and not as sturdy. Skiing on a ship is not for those susceptible to motion sickness!

Update for 20 May: Watching Fellowship of the Ring while biking makes it so much more interesting! I biked 31 miles and skied 7 miles today. I even picked up the pace while Arwen was being chased by Ringwraiths.

The most intriguing source of entertainment is a new one from last year: Bogoslof volcano is active! It erupted again on Tuesday the 16th, sending ash to 34,000 feet. The best part of this news is that tomorrow we’re heading “to it” – I’m not sure how close yet – to drop a data collecting buoy for the Alaska Volcano Observatory. We really, really, really, really want the blue skies we’ve been cruising through to stick around so that we can see Bogoslof.

And finally, our last source of entertainment – if I’d call it that – is the lone rabbit on Poa Island, a tiny island just east of Akun and Akutan. The goal is to eradicate rabbits from Poa; the chance to kill the wascally wabbit presented itself last summer, but the chance wasn’t successfully taken. It’s figured this rabbit is at least 6 years old. The trappers found signs of it when they went hunting for it again on 2 different days; it seems to hang out in a 20 yard area between 2 eagle nests. Who knew eagles and rabbits were such good friends? Regardless, it’s probably escaped death from humans until next summer. Maybe Elmer Fudd would have better luck than our trappers.


We haven’t done the exploring of last year’s voyage west, but there’s been ample reading time, exercise, and nice weather. Of course, I’d take more rocking, but it seems like the weather is waiting to give us a difficult offload on Buldir. If all goes according to plan, we’ll arrive there Thursday.

*For the final note of entertainment, know I’m finalizing this post from the Norwegian Rat Bar in Dutch Harbor. That’s dedication to trying to post with some pictures!

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hammock

Saturday 13 May 2017, end of weeks 0a / 0b in Homer: too late… it’s really Sunday

Can someone please explain what’s wrong with me? At the beginning of the month I left the above Mexican Alaskan set-up, my neighboring puppies, and the chance for a real summer of hammock time, biking, and friends for another season of fieldwork in the Aleutians.

I believe there comes a time in every wildlife field technician’s career when he or she can no longer ignore the the little voice in the back of his or her head that’s been whispering, “Summer. You want an actual summer,” year after year.

That time has come for me, to the point where I would have been quite content if the government had shut itself down for the summer, thereby denying me the season of fieldwork. I’ve only ever had 1 true Alaskan summer, and that was when I worked on the Riverboat and at Trailbreaker Kennel in 2012.

tiglax in seward

Being paid for a day of roadtripping to Seward and driving the empty van back to Homer was great!

As I was driving back from meeting the Tiglax in Seward on Monday, I realized that I just want to bike, bake, read, write, and drive this summer. Those sound like the makings of a great summer – well, those plus eating Hot Licks ice cream, participating in the Midnight Sun Run, floating the Chena, backpacking, checking out the Chitina River (where everyone goes for fishing adventures), and just enjoying summer weather.

This comes from the realization that spending time in a place that means something to me (Fairbanks) lends itself to wanting to belong. Over the years I’ve become the person of whom it can be said, “Steph leaves… that’s what she does.” As much as I’ve loved my travels, this saddens me, as I’m learning people matter as much as adventure. Apart from when I have a puppy or my bike with me, I’m starting to acknowledge that my wandering ways are growing lonely.

Being in couplesville at the bunkhouse in Homer has emphasized how nice it would be to have someone else with whom to cook, plan, and wrap up loose ends before leaving for the summer. I was lovingly referred to as the “9th wheel” and “redheaded stepchild” of this year’s 3 Aleutian crews, which are composed of 3 different couples + me.

But enough of that for now. Since those knuckleheads in D.C. managed to agree on a budget, in the morning I’ll board the Tiglax for my westward cruise back home to Buldir with Kevin and McKenzie. We’re extremely curious to see what this year’s weather brings and how the birds’ breeding season plays out. I’m looking forward to sleeping to the sounds of waves and storm petrels.


The day before I left Fairbanks the temperature was around 60F, and I was itching for a final bike ride. I’d wanted to head down Chena Hot Springs Road (CHSR) but didn’t necessarily want the miles through town to get there, so I settled on biking Chena Ridge (left loop on map).

Unfortunately those 20 miles weren’t enough, so after my mid-ride muffin – because my hopeful mid-ride mojito venue wasn’t open yet – I decided to tack on Farmers Loop (right loop). Well, I got to the far end of Farmers Loop and realized I was just a little over a mile from CHSR, and before I knew it, Trekker had turned that direction and I had no say in the matter.

When I turned on CHSR, I had my usual goofy biking grin on my face and was loving life. I still needed to pack and take some belongings to storage, but biking was more important. By the time I forced myself to turn around, I’d learned that the big hills of the first 9 miles aren’t as steep as they look from a car. I’d also learned I should know better than to think bringing snacks wouldn’t be necessary. I know my riding habits.

By the end of the ride I was in no hurry to think about leaving Fairbanks, and I was thrilled to see I’d managed to squeak in a 60+ miler on my last afternoon. I could have gone another 20+ miles without a problem. Next time. That’s the dream!

First, it’s time for the dream of another long boat ride and season surrounded by seabirds.

Buldir

 

 

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Now that my bags are ¾ packed, my only work remaining is picking up my paycheck and returning my truck, the Spartans are in the Final Four, and I’m getting giddy for cooler weather; it’s time for the conclusion of my search for summer 2015 employment.

Just like I knew it would happen, I heard from both jobs on the same day. It’s a tale of an emotional roller coaster to reach this point, and it’s not necessarily where I hoped or expected to be, but I’m still content. It’ll be a good summer.

Way back on March 11th I received a message from my friend Sarah wondering if I’d heard anything from the AK Maritime NWR yet. She’d worked on St. George the summer before me and had also gone to UAF, but our paths had never crossed. That is, they hadn’t until I was in Hawaii and forced her to take a break from graduate school studies and take a long walk on the beach to “catch up.” I learned she was also planning on working for the refuge this summer, so we’d been checking in to see if there was any news all winter.

She let me know she’d been contacted and offered a position on Aiktak Island, leaving me wondering when I would hear something. For years the refuge and I just hadn’t gotten the timing right. I’d been busy playing with kiwi, herding tourists, or trapping brant for the past few summers, but the refuge and I had shown mutual interest for years. If I didn’t get a call, I’d feel let down.

Fortunately a phone call from “Unknown” came through while I was entering some data, and I knew it was the refuge.

“Hi Steph! Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. First off, do you have a job lined up yet?”

“Nope, I don’t,” I replied.

“I’m sorry to hear that, but that’s good for me. Well, I have good news and bad news,” Mark told me. I could guess the nature of the news before he even could say it; somehow I’d felt it would turn out this way from the start.

“We do have 3 positions on Buldir, but returning employees requested those spots. Aiktak has probably been claimed by a couple.”

“– Sarah and Dan, right?” I cut in.

“What an incestuous community! You know things before I even do!” chuckled Mark. (It’s true, someday I’ll draw up a map, list names of friends, and draw mutual connections.) “The islands you’d shown the most interest in have been claimed, but I can offer you St. George.”

high bluffs

kittiwakes

Catching kittiwakes

murre

Murre in a sock

St. George: my home in the Bering Sea that I love dearly! The island that I first dubbed “my island” and subsequently made a travel guide about as a senior capstone project. Although Mark had given me hope that one of the Aleutians would be open, I’d had a feeling that returners would have first dibs and therefore land me with choices in the Pribilofs again.

Mark let me know he didn’t need an immediate decision on Wednesday, but Thursday (12th) would be “great,” Friday (13th) would be “good,” and Monday (16th) would be “not so good.” He was aware of the potential position in Churchill and suggested I send an email letting Dave know I had an offer on the table. He also said he could email Dave to convince him not to hire me.

After letting Mark know I’d be in touch, I sat back down to email Dave, feeling slightly more comfortable in knowing I’d have a job for summer. Since Dave had told me he was hoping to have his decision made between the 13th and 15th, I needed to check in to speed things along.

However, that proved to be unnecessary, as I received an email with the subject line “Decision on field technician position” after I’d typed about 3 sentences of my inquiry email. From that, I knew my gut had once again been right. Out of 500 applicants from 5 countries, I’d made it to the top 2% by being in the top 10 who were interviewed, but he hadn’t selected me for the position. (I’m guessing my enthusiasm for the train ride from Winnipeg to Churchill scared him off.)

Whew. Talk about timing, eh? I felt mixed feelings of disappointment and relief with the verdict. I didn’t have to make a tough choice, I’d have another season of decent pay, and I’d get to spend a whole summer on an awesome island. I’ll probably just have to take myself back to Churchill one of these days.

That tale leads me to where I am now: in the Sacramento airport waiting to start my journey north. I’ll fly to Alaska, stop by storage to grab a warmer sleeping bag, and then spend my weekend refreshing my wilderness first responder skills. Fortunately while the Spartans are playing Duke, I’ll be surrounded by people trained in first aid. When I suffer from a heart attack, help will be on hand!

In about a month I’ll be heading off for summer, which – oddly enough – will be significantly cooler than winter. It won’t be a brand new adventure, but it’ll be like going home.

DSC_0185 copy

 

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