Posts Tagged ‘Tiglax’

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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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.




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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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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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Sunday, 29 May 2016, morning

It’s 6:45 in the morning, and the sky is only a shade above inky dark as I gaze out the galley window of the R/V Tiglax. Surely we can’t be in Alaska, Land of the Midnight Sun. That’s where – in my typical Alaska – the sun starts rising by 3:30, providing full daylight well before this time. Where are we?

52º 19′ 750” N 176º 36′ 830” E

That’s right. We’ve sailed off the northwestern edge of the world into the twilight zone. Some may call this the eastern hemisphere, but I’m not convinced this place is on the map. Since 3:30 Saturday morning we’ve continued our journey into the west, going so far that west became east. Adak, the last real area of civilization, is about 30 hours east of us.

The world is one of slate blue-gray water and foggy gray skies. By roughly 10:30 we’re supposed to arrive at this mythical speck called Buldir, the most isolated island in the Aleutians and home to millions of seabirds. As of now, I’m not sure any of us actually exist; life’s surreal.

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