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Posts Tagged ‘Aleutians’

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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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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Monday 11 July 2016, week 9: Buldir Island, 18:56

Bear with me as – for the first time – there wasn’t a point during the last week when I thought, “I can write a blog entry about that.”

Somehow we appear to be around the halfway mark for our time on Buldir. How that’s possible, I’m not sure. McKenzie made some comment about how that’s what happens when you don’t take a day off for the first month. This is the same McKenzie who shared, “Wouldn’t it be cool – if we pooped clouds?” as we were watching fog roll up the trail where we’d been hiking from Spike Camp, so who knows how much stock to put in the things she says.

Kevin’s best line of the season so far is one about a quote from a teabag tag: Friendship is like a sheltering tree. “That’s why there are no trees on Buldir. We aren’t friends here.”

Apparently I live with a deep thinker and a curmudgeon, but I have no problem with that. Those two don’t think I’m introverted, and I think they’re on the quieter side of introversion; yet we all get along just fine and are having a nice summer.

I feel like I part-time play the part of mom and/or soccer mom. In many of my field camps I’ve enjoyed being the first in the main living area to get the heater started and water boiling so others can have their “wake me up” beverage as soon as possible. Providing for the wants of others and having a little alone time are my ideal camp mornings. Although we don’t always stick together on the hike to Spike Camp, and we do split up the food we carry over there, I pack extra “just in case” we’re lower on some item than we remembered.

Personalities and camp dynamics are often emphasized more than questions about work skills during interviews for jobs in remote field camps. In the wrong circumstances, island life isn’t for everyone. Putting an extrovert on an island with only an extreme introvert for company probably wouldn’t work out well for anyone. In these field camps we’re working communities with only each other for conversation.

The only vocal contact we have with the outside world comes from our daily radio calls. Through marine radio Lisa calls WZ3423 Tiglax, then the camps on Chirikof, Chowiet, Aiktak, Ugamak, and finally KOD681 Buldir from her KWL Adak base. She makes sure we’re alive and well, gets updates on our daily activities, and provides us with NOAA weather forecasts and whatever sports news or fun facts we request.

Sure, we’re isolated on our islands, but being around each other most of the time means we can appreciate the same discomforts and joys, joke about our aches, and talk about pooping out clouds.

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I’m on my way to a summer on Buldir, where I’ll only have a satellite phone with e-mail. I’m going to try posting by e-mail once a week, and I won’t know if it worked until the end of summer. Due to my capabilities, I won’t be able to share pictures. Sorry! If it works, I’ll share various things about camp life weekly.  If not, there may be a post dump when I return to internet. Enjoy summer!

Monday 23 May 2016, week 2: at sea north of Akutan, 21:30    (week 1 of work was in Homer)

The sounds of the engine, the slosh of the water just feet away from me, the sway of the boat as I fall asleep. These are a few of my favorite things at sea, which is where we’ve been for just shy of a week. Other than a brief period outside King Cove when we had cell reception just long enough for me to almost cancel my health insurance, my social world has consisted of some Fish & Wildlife Service fox trappers, University of Alaska Anchorage mammalogists, the ship’s crew, and my fellow Bio techs (biological science technicians).

Last Tuesday morning we made our way out of Kachemak Bay, headed southwest toward the Barren Islands and then down Shelikof Strait on the north side of Kodiak Island.

Crew: 6               Passengers: 14

Our first stop was Chirikof Island, home of the first animal that comes to mind when I think of islands: cattle. Okay, that sentence was partly a lie. Years ago a ranch was in operation, and I guess the cows just got left behind when the operation was shut down. Like I said, it’s bizarre to have over 2,000 cows (as of 2014 count) hanging out on an island in the North Pacific.

We helped set up two 2-man camps on the E and W sides of the island, where fox trappers will spend a couple months trying to continue fox population control efforts. Those guys have it easy with ATVs and skiffs at their disposal. While they won’t have the luxury of cabins when the winds and rain come, they did have the luxury of having about 14 people help shuttle gear from the skiff to the beach and set up parts of camp.

Dropping off crews for a final time does have a strange feel, since we’re essentially leaving them stranded on a beach with no visible human contact for months. Sometimes I miss my chance to say goodbye to people, leaving me thinking, “And I never saw them again…” (It’s true! The trapping crews get picked up earlier in summer, so I won’t know if they survived.)

Passengers: 10

Chowiet, part of the Semidi Islands, was John and Emily’s stop. With clear skies we had nice views of rocky cliffs on many of the islands as we approached. Fortunately the green cabin and shed at the base of a prominent hill were still standing, but the same couldn’t be said for their outhouse or produce bin, whose pieces we gathered from all over the surrounding area. Over the course of an evening and the next morning we got their radio communications up and running, as well as all their gear lugged from the skiff to the beach and up the short, steep hill to the flat in front of their cabin. God bless the human chain method of moving packages from place to place.

Passengers: 8

From Chowiet we headed north toward the western end of the Alaska Peninsula before starting our journey west. Our next stop was a roughly ½ x 3 mile island called Outer Iliasik. There we all meandered around as much territory as we could cover to check for signs of mammals’ presence. Foxes and rats were introduced to the Aleutians years ago and prey on seabird eggs, so Fish & Wildlife has worked on eradicating these mammals for decades. Mostly we stumbled our way through tall (knee-high) grass and over spongy tundra that sinks in a half a foot with each step. Undoubtedly we all earned the rhubarb raspberry danishes that awaited us back on the ship.

Today we spent the day at Aiktak, home of the highest density of puffins in the eastern Aleutians. Dan and Sarah’s cabin needed a new roof and new door, so the captain even made it to shore for carpentry work and banter. Watching thousands of tufted puffins circle through the air and raft on the channel separating Aiktak from Ugamak was awesome.

By the end of dinner, Sarah and Dan were shipped back to their home on shore.

Passengers: 6

Update for 25 May: Since we’re running ahead of schedule and needed to get some parts, we diverted to Dutch Harbor. Here the Fish & Wildlife mammalogist/trapper + 2 UAA mammalogists are jumping ship since we’re done exploring islands.

Crew: 6               Passengers: 3 Buldirians

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