Monday, 15 October 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 44, 45 AND 46- Field Trip of a lifetime

For the last couple of weeks, I have become involved with a ground-breaking geographical project here in Alaska, led by university professors Ronald Daanen and Margaret Darrow. For the last six years, they have been studying a new 'never before seen' feature, that they have named Frozen Debris Lobes. They're not glaciers, because they are composed of debris (not ice) but behave similarily. Although here in Alaska, they're actually quite common, the reason why particular attention is being drawn to them is because four lobes are sliding down a slope, towards the Dalton Highway (the only road to Alaska's North) and the Trans Atlantic Pipeline. One of them is currently advancing 1 inch a day, and is expected at current rates, to reach the road by the next couple of years. If it did ever reach the road, it would cost Alaska billions of dollars, and could jeopardise the state's oil industry for which it relies for its economic development.

This weekend, Ronald and I made a trip to see these troublesome debris lobes, to take measurements and make observations. Whilst this was a field trip, it would also serve for me, the chance to see more of Alaska's wilderness, and it would also be my furthest adventure North on this scholarship so far, and also probably the most northerly experience in the world. To say it was great, is a massive understatement; I feel so much more aware of Alaska's diversity, and even more honoured to have this scholarship, from which all these opportunities derive from.

I arrived, Friday afternoon, at the university. Ronald was just about ready to set off, and after grabbing some vital gear, and saying goodbye to Margaret, he introduced me to the vechicle which would be our only method of transport for the next couple of days. Fortunately, it was a Ford 4x4 and seemed much more reliable than the small machine that took me to the Arctic Circle a couple of weeks ago.

After doing some brief shopping at the nearby garage, (which for me included a Dr Pepper and a packet of sweets for the journey) and giving the truck an extra boost of gasoline, we were on our way. As I said before, the Dalton Highway is the only road north and so the long 250 mile journey might be seen as slightly boring if you've already done it once before. Not at all true though. Whilst the route may not change, the views out the window certainly do. I was amazed at the landscapes even more than I had been when I first ventured up here a couple of weeks ago, possibly because I was in a front seat this time. It's certainly more rewarding being in the front passenger seat; you get more of a panoramic view of where you're heading to.

We stopped for a bit, along the highway at a spot not necessarily marked as being particularly special on the map. However, it gave me a chance to get up and close to the recently snow dusted spruce trees.

Travelling on some more, with determination to reach our Bed and Breakfast at Coldfoot before night fall, Ronald and I talked a bit about each of our backgrounds and pondered just how we could manage the Frozen Debris Lobes to prevent them from causing a large economic cost to Alaska. Later on, we started to listen to an audio book- Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island. For me and my love of the British Isles, Ronald couldn't have chosen better. Bryson, through his own satircal way, discusses a trip around the British Isles that he made about 10 years ago. How lovely it was to travel, surrounded by some fantastic mountainous landscapes, whilst listening about some of the places that remain close to my heart (and always will). I smiled when Bryson mentioned his trip through the south of England- to places such as Lyme Regis, Chesil Beach, and on to Lynmouth, Penzance, Newquay, and Exeter. Although Britain is so far away from Alaska, for the first time since I arrived, it felt so close, and I will purchase the book at some point.

Sunset was upon us, and we were very close to Coldfoot so we didn't stop, but instead I got the best pictures I could from the truck.

The sky was now red; these mountains I thought looked like dollops of Strawberry Icecream.

Coldfoot is a small settlement, and probably can be better classed as a 'services stop' for the truckers and lorry drivers that pass every day and night. It offers very little for the tourists, but for Ronald and I, it was adequate for a couple of night's stay. Our accomodation was clean and although the rooms were very warm (and very dry) the shower was one of the best I have experienced on this scholarship. Our breakfast and dinner for the weekend would be here at the Trucker's Cafe, conveniently named as this establishment serves the truck drivers 24/7. Men in oil stained jackets sat, with large burgers and sodas; legs outstretched, and very relaxed. I settled for a large BLT and chips, which was just large enough.

We headed to the room, for our first night's sleep. It seemed strange; here in the next bed was a professor and doctor of Geological Engineering, but we were getting on like 'old mates'.

Saturday arrived, and the first thing we noticed after emerging from our accomodation, was this lovely dawn scene. It wasn't particularly cold, although perhaps I enjoyed the refreshing feel of a -15 degree C breeze after spending the night in a very hot and dry room. We breakfasted fairly quickly, (I got my Buttermilk pancakes as seems to be the tradition for me these days) and we set off for a full day's study of these Frozen Debris Lobes.

On the way, we came across not waterfalls, but Ice-falls! Seriously, they do exist!

Frozen Debris Lobes might be causing destruction to the Brook's Mountain Range, but they do not take away the breathtaking nature of the surrounding landscape. How best to describe it? A paradise? A blessed wilderness? As the sun was peeping up, it made so many east facing flanks gleam.

We parked in a layby, just in front of Debris Lobe A, where most of our measurements would be executed at. The temperature by now was very low, but I had come prepared. In total, I had four layers on my top body, aswell as a hat, a scarf and some very thick gloves Ronald had lent me, plus three layers of trousers, and two woolen socks on each foot. Perhaps I was a little overdressed? Soon, we were off, hiking amongst the forest. Among the vegetation I could name was White Spruce and Fir, but believe me, the forest was dense; we fought our way through the bushes, and over fallen tree trunks. With so much gear to carry, I lost my footing on a tree stump, and fell to the floor in a embarassing fashion, cutting my hand in the process. (My second injury of the scholarship).

Our first measurements were using a new piece of equipment to me, called a gyroscope. Put simply, it's a tube with a spinning wheel and measures orientation. We anchored this by way of a tube down a borehole, some 70 feet or so. Taking measurements every foot or so, using a special data logger, I was put in charge of writing the records down, and helping with dis-assembling the equipment while Ronald levered the gyroscope down the borehole. Glycerol is used to reduce the friction between the borehole pipe and the gyroscope wheels as it makes its descent into the ground, and can get everywhere- even over Ronald.

After making our first recordings, we trekked higher up on this debris lobe. The hike was difficult, on uneven mud based terrain, and across frozen lakes. But it was a great experience; to be in and amongst the wilderness of the forest. Whilst Ronald fiddled around with the equipment, I managed to get a high profile shot of the ice crystals. In the vastness of the Brooks Mountain Range, sometimes the small things are just as inspiring.

One thing that is common with frozen debris lobes, is that they cause irreversible destruction to vegetation. Split trees are common, as pictured below. Although this is not good news for trees, we can use these for evidence of lobe movement, and can take cores to see how old the tree was when it died, thus estimating how far the lobe has travelled since that time.

We were now very high up on the lobe, and on a rocky outcrop, could see over the forest canopy below, the morning band of mist over the braided rivers in the distance, and all before the Brooks Mountain Range in the background.

Amongst such lush vegetation, our measurements stood at a standstill; Ronald needed information that was on his email and without internet, we couldn't really progress further. So, he decided to head back in the truck to go to the nearest settlement with internet, Wiseman, to get into his emails, and offered me the chance to go hiking.

Hiking. Alone. I had mixed views about this proposal. But I knew that if it went successfully, it would be one of the most memorable hikes I probably will ever do at this age, and so I took his bear spray, some chocolate bars, and we decided to meet back at 4:30pm. If it was 5:00pm, and I hadn't made it back, he would come looking for me. Although most of the bears have gone into their dens to hibernate, there was always a chance I would see one. His last words to me were "Don't run from a bear" and off he went, into the truck. I suddenly wondered about whether he would ever come back. But wanting to make the most of my time alone, I started to hike, deeper into the forest; deeper into the wilderness.

Knowing it was more safe to make noise so as to not startle a bear, I started shouting out loud all my knowledge on permafrost. But after a while, this was getting silly, and I found that I was not concentrating on where I was going, and just on what I was saying. So I remained quiet. Bear Spray in hand, I continued. Without a map, and with only my own gut instinct, it was very easy to get lost here, but after fighting through the forest understory, I emerged onto tussock land. Here the trees were much more sparse, and walking was much easier. I stood here for a bit and took in the majestic nature of the landscape.

After wandering a bit further, I realised I could see the road, and so made my way to it, and waited for Ronald to return. Indeed he did, to my relief. We updated each other on our adventures, and progressed on with our recordings. It was getting late now; time was slipping by ever so quickly. The Sun was starting to set; Ronald and I took full advantage of the light and took as many photos as possible.

With every measurement taken, we put all the equipment back into the truck. Ronald suggested that we could take a trip up North to see the Atigun Pass, a truly spectacular section of the Dalton Highway, where avalanches take place. Atigun Pass also crosses the Continental Divide that runs all the way through Alaska, the US and into Mexico. I cannot express just how wonderful this place is. This view is perhaps my most favourite in Alaska, that I have had the good fortune to set eyes upon so far on this trip.

Soon we entered a zone of pure whiteness; a still and silent land, where the only sounds came from the crunching of snow as we made our way through the stuff. In some places it was knee deep.

Suitably frozen, we hurried for the truck to defrost, and made our way back to Coldfoot. The end of such a fantastic day was made even more beautiful, with some of the best Northern Lights I have ever seen.

We indulged in watching this magical spectacle, before having dinner, and retiring to bed.

Sunday arrived, and a long trip back to Fairbanks awaited us. Making an early start, in what seemed to be pleasant driving conditions, we eventually found ourselves confronting snow showers. Here is a typical front; high pressure conditions meet low pressure conditions. We expected quite a heavy snow shower, and snow caked roads, but funnily enough, it was only snowing along the edge of the front. After we travelled through this curtain of snow, we found ourselves back to dry condtitions.

There was only one more stop to make on our journey back to Fairbanks. Ronald had to collect some more data from another investigation, along the Dalton Highway. It didn't involve long hiking or fighting through forests; instead, it was over in about 10 minutes, and before you could say 'Dalton Highway' we were back in the truck on the way to Fairbanks.

It was just after 1:00pm that we arrived back in Fairbanks, and I spent the afternoon at the hostel catching up on the email and sorting things out for next week. The next few days will seem like an anticlimax to what I've just experienced, but rest assured, I have more field trips coming up. Whether they're as exciting and breathtaking, we will have to wait and see. But for now, I'm back in Fairbanks City-safe and sound, dry and warm- and ready for what I hope will be another rewarding week.


  1. well i'm stunned! this trip must have been the best of your lifetime so far, absolutely amazing scenery and that just from the photos that acompany your exciting blog.

    you sure have guts mate to wander the wilderness on your own, full respect to you.
    large well done to the the kind people involved to get you on board for the trip.

    stay safe!
    ol codgers

  2. Best blog about auto transport. Must share with others.