Every couple of weeks, if you didn't already know, I get the opportunity to leave Fairbanks and join a research project taking place 200 miles north of the city, within the Brooks mountain range. We're specifically studying the movement of these relatively new geographical features called Frozen Debris Lobes, and some are very dynamic, moving up to an inch per day. Effectively, land movement is not a new phenomenon; after all, the planet changes this way and that, every second, of every minute, of every day. However, these debris lobes pose a threat to the nearby Dalton Highway and more significantly, the Trans Atlantic Pipeline. Ironically, after man put in place these two money-making structures, it's left up to man to sort out the resulting choas that they bring. And so we were off; Professor Ronald Daanen and myself, in a 4x4 truck, left the university Friday afternoon, loaded with what seemed every piece of equipment that the university owned.
The journey from Fairbanks to our base camp, at Wiseman, is somewhat of a long journey as there is only one way there, but having said that, it means that I- the lucky passenger- can see the transformation in the scenery, week to week. For instance, this weekend offered more snow-scapes than I had been greeted with, only a couple of weeks ago. It's amazing to see just what survives the snowfall and what doesn't; some trees, furthermore, suffer stunted growth due to the weight of the snow. A strong snow flurry, and deep snow, can uproot whole trees, so every now and again you notice a few 'drunken' trunks amongst a landscape of perfectly healthy upright Birches and Hemlocks.
After some good progress on the road, on Ronald's part mostly, we arrived at Wiseman; our base camp. It's the closest settlement to the lobes, about an hour away, and offers a selection of very agreeable cabins. Exceedingly inkeeping with the true values of nature and wilderness, the cabins are rustic; constructed out of pine, and offer a selection of facilities such as a gas stove, a TV, and round the clock heating. Yes, these services may sound obvious, but that's because they are taken for granted; here on the periphery of wilderness, it's only a bonus to find these amenities.
An early start on Saturday morning meant that we retired to bed early, and after what seemed like only five minutes enveloped in the cosiness offered from a Wiseman Lodge Bed, the alarm clock sounded, and we were up again. Not that I complained about a 6:00am start; today would be another fantastic day, I was sure of it. Funnily enough, it was. Want to hear why?
Well, the day wasn't as sunny as a fourtnight ago; indeed, the sky was a wash of grey and the sunrise wasn't exactly that sublime. However, an overcast day didn't withdraw from the majestic nature of the landscape. Today we wanted to take a lot of DGPS measurements, (basically, measurements that log the exact position of a certain point on Earth) and to do this, we had to set up what's known as a base station, beside the creek.
We decided to split up for the morning; Ronald would proceed with taking recordings from the gyroscopes and he left me to take the DGPS pole and record where exactly the perimeter of the lobe was. This was quite fun, but very hard work in some places, especially where trees had fallen and the only way through was by climbing up on them and clambering over. From where I was taking the measurements, I was also treated with the most beautiful vista. It's funny; the lobe causes such destruction- and it does, believe me- and yet in and amongst this abolition, from it, nature seems peaceful and pristine; the landscape seems to be in equilibrium.
It was when I was surveying the surroundings that I suddenly heard it. At first, it sounded like a large horn from a lorry that was somewhere in the distance. But this one singular long note was not a horn; it was a howl, and slowly but surely, this one howl turned into a couple, and then a few, and before long, a whole chorus of howling cries were circulating the valley arena. Well, my heart started to pump because I knew exactly what it was, and wolves were not the best animals to encounter on your own. Aware of this, I started to make a very quick hike up the lobe, and went to search for Ronald. I eventually found him, and we both agreed that it was a pack of wolves somewhere across the river. To my surprise, Ronald then started to imitate the howling and began a series of notes; I was impressed to be honest at the accuracy, although it didn't seem recognisable and we didn't hear another note from the wolf pack, for the rest of the day.
For the rest of the day, we worked together. Our task-ambitious to say the least- was to hammer metal stakes and attach data loggers to them, in transects all over the lobe. When a stake was hammered into the ground, my job would be to use the DGPS to track its position. Sometimes, we swapped roles: I would be on bush-wacking duty and on the hammering, but this seemed more exhausting.
Throughout our work, creating these transects, we encountered quite a few Retrogressive Thaw Slumps. Basically, ice rich permafrost thaws and causes a mud slurry, which consequently flows down slope to the base. They're quite indicative, therefore, of where permafrost thaws which can tell us a lot about what's happening with the lobe.
We worked past sunset; these transects were taking a bit longer than expected. It wasn't long before we were wearing head lamps to guide our way through the thick vegetation, and it was at this point where the work was starting to get exhausting. Great relief, therefore, when we reached the truck and started to make a steady journey towards Wiseman. It turned out we had actually spent about 10 hours at the lobe, and I think even for the most passionate of geomorphologists, this length of time out in the field was enough for one day.
Sunday arrived. We had scheduled a long trip to Deadhorse (basically the northern coast of Alaska) which would take in itself 6 hours, to plant a transect of data loggers in the ground, before heading back to Fairbanks. This wasn't a project related to the frozen debris lobes but did concern permafrost and so I was interested nonetheless. I have to admit that I was also looking forward to travelling all the way to Deadhorse; it would mean that I would have travelled from the tip to the toe since my arrival here at the end of August.
We set off in clear conditions with perhaps the odd cloud here and there. That soon worsened though as we headed north; the sun hadn't yet risen, but you could see that the dawn sky was getting darker and darker as we neared the Atigun Pass. As soon as we reached the pass, we hit a raging snowstorm, with a really dense flurry heading North East. We even drove past a recently slumped avalanche; indeed, this was turning out to be a risky journey. From exiting the pass, and back now on the other side of the mountains, visibility was not improving, and through the radio, we were hearing reports of trucks coming off the roads northbound. Ronald finally made the decision not to proceed, but to instead, place the data loggers in a tundra region, on a lake called Galbraith.
I cannot begin to describe just how white the landscape was; how pure the scenery was. I have never experienced such a landscape. Panoramic nothingness surrounded us as Ronald and I headed off to the site. Ronald went on ahead and managed to get a head start, whilst I followed in his footsteps. As the snow was knee deep, it was crucial to step in the tracks Ronald had already made, and the words "mark my footsteps" from Good King Wenceslas came to mind.
Planting the data loggers was not difficult work. Each metal button glued onto the stick is programmed, and can store data which can later be read on a computer. It's a fantastic piece of engineering if you ask me; gone are the large and bulky data loggers to be replaced by small metal buttons.
From observing Ronald make the final touches to his transect, I turned around and saw figures in the distance. Well, at first they looked like bears, but they were moving closer and squinting as to not get snow in my eyes, I realised that they were indeed Caribou. My first wild Caribou sighting here in Alaska; another one to add to the list. They didn't seem threatened by two obvious red coats, and stayed in a group as they made their way across the tundra.
We started to head back to the truck, which just looked like a minature toy from a distance. The snow was getting deeper, and from knee deep, it began to reach waist deep. I had never experienced so much snow, and wading through it will certainly be something I will remember for the rest of my life.
Having reached the truck, it was now a long journey to Fairbanks but since we had not dedicated ourselves to Deadhorse, we were naturally ahead of schedule. It provided therefore many opportunities to stop to take photos and also made the whole 'going back' experience less stressful. Over the course of our journey, we travelled over several creeks, but I couldn't resist not getting a photo of this particular one; dedicated, of course, to my Dad.
We were making our way back to Fairbanks, through mulitple snow flurries; some of it quite bad in places. Driving into a layby to let a larger lorry pass us, we received a radio message from the driver, who thought it might be "in our interest" if we checked out the rear passenger tyre. Well, you can guess what happened next. I went outside, amongst the thick snow storm, and made out through quite low visibility, a tyre that was well and truly punctured. Ronald couldn't believe it; I couldn't believe it, but adjusting to this almost unreal event, we both got out the truck and set to work to change the wheel. Well, I must confess to being innocent to the procedure regarding tyre changing, but after watching Ronald, I think I've got the idea. The whole process wasn't costly in time, but it did punctuate our journey unnecessarily and the weather wasn't a help.
After crossing the Atigun Pass, we were blessed with sunshine. The mountains now gleamed, the recent snow sprinkled flanks polished, and we both had to apply sunglasses! Chandler Valley was a spectacle. I had seen this valley two weeks ago at sunset, but in the full light of day, the whole experience was boosted. There's something about the sunshine that allows you to pick out every detail; every crevasse, every joint, every rocktype.
The excitement continued up in the air, aswell. We were blessed to have some really lovely cloud formations to watch as we made our way back to Fairbanks. The first is orographic, and we were lucky to find it propped up above this mountain. Cloud science isn't one of my expertise subjects so it's hard to be exactly sure on the second, but it's once again evidence of a diverse sky.
I have just one more field trip to the Brooks Mountain Range, in two weeks time. Until then, I'm going to try and reflect on the weekend just gone; after all, there's quite a lot to reflect on, as you can see!