Barrow, Alaska, USA
Dear Mum and Dad,
Well this will be my address for the next six weeks…………………..”
This was the start of my first real field trip to the arctic. I wanted to work on mites and I wanted to work in the Arctic, so for my Ph.D. thesis I chose ‘Biodiversity of Acari in the North American arctic’ as my topic. I had a grant from NSERC that covered tuition and living, but no travel funds, and so relied on arctic connections I had made during the Workshop in Fairbanks in 1973. Professor Steve MacLean of University of Alaska was one of the Principal Investigators at the IBP site at Barrow, and he needed mite expertise. So, he funded my travel and accommodation in the Alaskan arctic for 7 weeks and $1000 and a copy of the arctic bible – Hueltén, E. 1968 ‘Flora of Alaska and neighbouring Territories’. I would identify mites from the three sites they were working on that summer, teach two summer students and basically be the Research Assistant - I was set.
I spent the first week in Fairbanks and it was a surprise. Work on the Valdez to Prudhoe Bay pipeline was in full swing and Fairbanks was a frontier town with construction workers flush with money everywhere. Accommodation was in short supply and that being built was inadequate. Students not in residence and many workers lived in shacks in the forests around Fairbanks, poorly constructed and many without windows, water or indoor toilets. I had a place in Residence and so was among the really lucky. Also, I had a pass to eat at Residence, a relief as food costs in Fairbank’s supermarkets were at least twice those in the “Lower 48”.
The gravel haul road from Fairbanks to Prudhoe had just been completed and I write home that “some people from college set off this morning to be the first to try and drive it as it’s the first road link between Fairbanks and the Arctic Ocean”. Although the scene in Fairbanks had all the glamour and weirdness of Gold Rush Klondike students loved it and wanted to live there forever, including a girl from Hawaii. “Dad you’d love it and probably appreciate it better than I; I’ve never come across such a feeling that no matter what you do, nobody will think you odd. Yesterday going by a room in Residence a fellow had an enormous turbine on his floor with bits of it and grease over bed, chair and every available space.”
I finally got to Barrow on June 13th; the main IBP site was snow covered until then. The IBP experimental tundra site was close to the Navy Arctic Research Lab (NARL) and so labs and accommodation were at NARL. NARL was magical for a student. There were few women researchers, so we had hotel-style accommodation, which I shared with one other and bathroom facilities were shared. And to make sure those Navy types were content, NARL had wonderful dining facilities. Naively I had thought I would be on field rations and had brought Vitamin C tablets with me – NARL had 5-star dining.
The area around Barrow is almost flat tundra with the highest point being at about 10m above sea level. From that height you can see everything moving in the IBP research area. It was a favorite viewing spot for ornithologists, who would laughingly tell me when and where I had taken a pee on the tundra. We had 24 hours of daylight, so “Things to do at Barrow are work, walk the tundra, eat, sleep. As there is no TV or radio, most of us researchers work and walk the tundra. We start about 8AM and go through until 12.30AM, and there is a great sense of camaraderie; some of the ornithologists stay out on the tundra 24 hours. One student who uses the lab. occasionally was with the Peace Corps in Tonga, another usually spends his summers as a boatman on the Grand Canyon rafts; another works with grizzly bears. I’ve read and get excited about these things, written up in the National Geographic – and here are the actual people that do the work. They just took 2 fellows on the first flight to Meade River, the study site which is 60 miles south of here – if they can land they’ll come back and take me. They have to land on tundra and it’s started to thaw so that’s a problem with landing and taking off. There’s a good chance that I’ll get trips to other places from here to collect mites, depending on the pilots. I’ve already signed a sheet saying that I won’t sue them if I’m injured on a flight.”
My first flight to Meade River was incredibly exciting. It was a small Cessna and the pilot flew at about 100m. the pilot “a real smasher” took the plane all the way from horizontal to vertical so I could take pictures of the unchanging tundra! And yes, the landing strip was fairly churned tundra – quite a sight. Meade River camp was my first experience of an organized field camp – there were 12 permanent residents for the summer months, including a full-time cook. There were 2 sleeping trailers – males and females ostensibly segregated; 2 lab. trailers, a kitchen/dining trailer and an outhouse. Washing facilities were the freezing cold bog pools. There was a generator for the labs, and the occasional hot water jug. The atmosphere of a field camp like Meade River is extraordinary – a sense of being in this together, and shared interests. One student (now a famous ecologist) brought a few of us on a botanical/geological survey of the Meade River area, another (now a surgeon) knew all the vegetation. And visiting PI’s shared their enthusiasm for working on Tundra Productivity with us – the WHY of our being at Meade River. I needed 260 litter bags sewn and cajoled all, students and PI, to a post-dinner sewing bee. The plan was that I would spend 2 days at Meade River each week and then return with samples to process them at Barrow, but fog conditions at Barrow and/or landing strip conditions at Meade often upended such neat plans.
Returning the first time to “Dirty old Barrow with remains of the DEW line everywhere and at least a mile walk to get away from telephone poles” was a bit of a come-down. But coming in on the plane “the pilot flew us over the ice which is piling up in pressure ridges along the coast to see the seals by their holes – just a fantastic sight. The one big thing about Barrow is being able to wash! Just missed a flight to Wales the western-most part of Alaska, blast. I have found that to get anywhere you have to be on good terms with the Expeditors – college students and local Inuit that work at maintenance jobs, truck driving etc. – they are a great crowd. It was just fantastic getting your letters. Don’t worry Mum, no matter how you write NARL it arrives here. Barrow town has just 2000 inhabitants and after that there is just NARL. The postman and I are good friends – because I’m one of the few females and so he remembers me.”
29.vi.1975; “I was at Cape Thompson last Thursday for an hour. About 6 of us flew in a Twin Otter – very comfortable. The flight there took about 3 hours, but unfortunately it was mostly cloudy and so we could only see the pack ice breaking up occasionally. Topographically Cape Thompson is a bit lime Bray Head, but there is only a gravel landing strip and 3 Quonset huts. It’s a beautiful place, surrounded by hills and facing the pack ice. Five fish and game researchers work there – I got my samples on a lovely hill covered with flowers.”
6.vii.1975 “Mum no need to worry, there is no chance of me getting cold, especially when I go outside I’m bundled up in my enormous, standard-issue, NARL down parka. Last week I got to Cape Simpson about 40 miles along the coast from Barrow. We flew in a Single Otter, which chugged along like a Model-T Ford. The pilots were testing it out and took their wives, kids and me along because the next day they needed to carry 2 tame reindeer down to Meade River for an experiment. US Secretary of Defence – Schlesinger – was here at NARL last weekend birdwatching. His room is just around the corner from us in the Lab. and he was finally pointed out to me by some of the ornithologists who are travelling with him pointing out birds. He’s a ‘lister’ so, as biologists, they were not immensely impressed with him.
A wind the other night blew the sea ice into enormous 15m piles against the beach. Behind that the ice is beginning to break-up but you can still walk out about 100m safely hopping from ice-flow to ice-flow. We climbed the ridge yesterday and went out on the sea ice. It’s so smooth after continually walking on the tundra and so warm with the reflection of sun on ice. And so from sunny Barrow where you can play on the ice on the Arctic Ocean on July 6th, Millions of love.”
13.vii.1975 “Went down to Meade River last Monday where it was 15C. I put mosquito repellent on all over but forgot my hair and when I touched it found it caked with mosquitoes and blood. They flew 2 reindeer into camp for grazing experiments, so there are more people in camp, and they have rigged up running water 100m from camp. I was meant to leave on the Wednesday, but the plane was delayed until Friday evening so I had ample time to go for long walks on the tundra, identify plants and in general get a more complete feel for tundra ecology. On Friday flying back the pilot was flying very low and slowly over the tundra, consulting a map. I thought he was lost, but one of the other passengers told me his son was camping down there – somewhere – and he wanted to throw him a coat!”
16th July “Just back from my first pipeline trip. We flew Barrow to Prudhoe in a Single Otter. – the pilot flew very low, so we could see all the Inuit villages along the way and hundreds of caribou. We landed in Prudhoe in incredible fog, so that we were literally skipping between oil wells in the plane. It’s horrible and desolate around Prudhoe - given over to one thing – oil, though the caribou graze like cows on the grassy patches between the oil wells. We set off by truck for the Toolik Lake pipeline camp which is about 120 miles south of Prudhoe on the pipeline road and in the foothills of the Brooks Range. There is a checkpoint, just like a border post, before you get on the pipeline road. The pipeline itself takes the most direct route between Prudhoe and Valdez, but the road winds, with offshoots every so often to the pipeline, so that we only saw the pipeline in snatchers. It’s like an elongated construction site with massive machinery everywhere. The Haul-road is gravel and enormous trucks passing by at speed send up a dust screen for miles.
Toolik Lake is in the Foothills of the Brooks Range and is like parts of Connemara. The aquatic researchers from NARL have a field camp here with tents, and a caravan used as a lab. and for food storage. However, the caravan was gone, because a grizzly had ripped into and through it and had rampaged inside. Well I’d thought I’d seen it all at Meade River, but I’ve never seen anything like the mosquitoes in the upland tundra here at Toolik. There isn’t a square inch of my body unbitten. They go up your pants, into boots, bite through clothing and you hang onto urine and faeces until the last minute and even then you can’t avoid bites on your bottom. The camp is on a ridge to get the last bit of the wind, but even then we ate them, drank them and every time we opened our mouths to speak a few would fly in. But the scenery, flowers, tundra was just beautiful. We flew out of Galbraith Lake pipeline camp in a Cesna 180 packed to the gills with my samples back to Barrow.
23 July “It was funny leaving Barrow, where the ice was just breaking-up on the ocean and to arrive in Fairbanks where it was 30C. We saw the bridge they are building over the Yukon as part of the pipeline road, at present they go over the river in hovercrafts. When they eventually turn that road over to the State it will be an incredible drive to do – Valdez to Prudhoe.”