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Posts Tagged ‘Buldir’

Saturday 17 June 2017, week 5: Buldir Island

Coming up with weekly topics is proving more difficult this year. Of course it doesn’t help that I’m struggling to balance it with my same two hobbies from last year, either; reading and journaling are still the evil culprits. Just to send all the blame away from myself, it’s also Kevin and McKenzie’s fault that I’m not writing. They’re always reading, so I want to always be reading!

Instead of forcing some topic, I’m playing my Get Out of Blogging Free card early this year. In the meantime, anyone reading this should go read a book. Here’s what I’ve read since leaving Fairbanks at the end of April:

1. The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud – Essentially about making the most out of life. I could relate to some characters more than expected.
2. The Sea-Wolf – I like being on ships but not with this captain. Life on the Tiglax is much better.
3. Finding Mars – About a Japanese permafrost researcher (based in Fairbanks) who has adventured and/or worked in Australia, the Sahara, Greenland, Antarctica, the Amazon, and Alaska.
4. Snow Falling on Cedars – From the list of options on my AP English summer reading list… I only got around to reading it over 10 years later.
5. The Pleasure Instinct: Why we Crave Adventure, Chocolate, Pheromones, and Music – Lots of science behind this. Interesting to read about babies’ development in the womb. 6. Me Before You – About life for a quadriplegic and his caregivers.
7. Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire – About sea journeys and land expeditions from New York to establish an American empire at Astoria in the early 1810s. (If you’re looking for a book, choose this one!)

Currently reading:
The Possibility Dogs: What I Learned from Second-Chance Rescues about Service, Hope, and Healing – Not the most well-written, in my opinion, but interesting to read about dog training and various types of service dogs.

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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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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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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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