Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Lake House Sketch

Last weekend some friends invited us to visit their lake house for the day.  I had never been invited to a lake house before and was excited to see the house and lake, and to do all the water activities.  We lucked out and the weather was absolutely beautiful.  When we arrived at the house we got the full tour.  My friends had actually built the house themselves and it was beautifully decorated with my friends' artwork and photos from their scuba diving trips.  After the house tour we got a tour of the lake by boat.  We then used the jet skis and attempted to water ski.   George was the only one who made it up on the knee board.  We also went for a swim in the lake and the water was deliciously warm. 

After a day on the water we gathered for appetizers and drinks on the back porch and listened to our friend tell stories.  And finally we ended the day with dinner and dessert.  I can't remember the last time I scheduled a day of fun and relaxation like this.  It was so nice to be with friends in such an incredible setting.  I am now determined to have more days like this.  Days spent with no other purpose than to chat with friends and relax.  Lately I feel a strong need to slow down and concentrate on only what is in front of me...  to pay attention to all the lovely details of life that one can only notice at a snail's pace.  And when I do this there is always beauty, peace or joy.

“Just slow down. Slow down your speech. Slow down your breathing. Slow down your walking. Slow down your eating. And let this slower, steadier pace perfume your mind. Just slow down…” – Doko

Thank you to Anne and Freddie for a wonderful day on the lake!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

My word for the year was "openness" and I had no idea how much that concept would be tested when I agreed to go on a trip with my husband to Alaska.  By "openness" I meant that I wanted to be open to all that came my accept both the "good" and the "bad" with a welcome heart, or at the very least, with an observant curiosity.

So last year when my husband told me he had the opportunity to go to a remote region of Alaska on a bush plane with Xavier Expeditions and I could go too,  I kept an open mind.  At first I thought I would let him go the first year and see how it went.  But then I met the other professor and he was not only a fellow bear biologist but was also interested in Native American spirituality...that was when I decided to go.

So in early August, George and I (plus 13 Xavier students and Dr. Chartrand) boarded a plane heading to Fairbanks, Alaska.  We spent one day (and two nights) preparing for our trip, buying groceries, etc. The next day we headed out on the Dalton Highway which connects Fairbanks with Deadhorse, near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the Arctic Ocean.  If you are planning on traveling this route and are renting a car, be aware there are only two car rental agencies that allow their cars to be driven on the Dalton because of the rough conditions. 

As you can see from the photo above not all of the Dalton Highway is paved.  I learned from Wikipedia that it "is one of the most isolated roads in the United States" and "anyone embarking on a journey on the Dalton is encouraged to bring survival gear."  It has also been featured on the "BBC's Word's Most Dangerous Roads".  The Highway was actually better than I expected, although it was definitely slippery in places where it had rained. Here is a short video clip from our truck.

One of the fun attractions along the highway was a rest stop at the Arctic Circle.  We had fun posing by the sign that states we had entered latitude 66°33′.  The Arctic Circle "marks the northernmost point at which the noon sun is just visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun is just visible on the northern summer solstice.  North of the Arctic Circle, the sun is above the horizon for twenty-four continuous hours at least once per year (and therefore visible at midnight) and below the horizon for twenty-four continuous hours at least once per year (and therefore not visible at noon).  The position of the Arctic Circle is not fixed; as of 21 August 2017, it runs 66°33′46.8″ north of the Equator. Its latitude depends on the Earth's axial tilt, which fluctuates within a margin of 2° over a 40,000-year period, due to tidal forces resulting from the orbit of the Moon. Consequently, the Arctic Circle is currently drifting northwards at a speed of about 15 metres (49 feet) per year." (Wikipedia)

Our first destination was a tiny town about 6 hours north of Fairbanks, called Coldfoot (so named because early settlers got "cold feet" when they got there and turned around).  I read somewhere that the population is 35 in the summer and 10 in the winter.  The town mainly serves as a truck stop to truckers driving oil rigs to and from Prudhoe Bay.  The other main service in the town is the airport.  Below you can see "Coyote Air" which is the company we used to fly to our final destination.

When we pulled in, there were three hunters sitting around the building who informed us the pilot was backed up three days due to bad weather.  They told us he wouldn't be back until later and we best head over to the truck-stop to eat.  Needless to say we weren't very happy to hear that news.  We hung around a bit hoping the pilot would come back but eventually headed over to the truck-stop.

Next door to the truck-stop was an adorable post office.  I sent my family post cards because I thought it would be fun to get mail from the Arctic Circle.

After filling our bellies with surprisingly good food from a truck-stop in the middle of nowhere, we stopped by the airport where we were happy to hear that we might be able to fly out the next day if we drove a couple more hours north to the Chandalar shelf.  The pilot's son was going to drive up with us and that way our flights would be shorter.  We ended up camping in the Coldfoot campground that night.

The next day the drive to the Chandalar shelf was stunningly beautiful and we were happy to see our little plane fly into sight.  The plane is a de Havilland Beaver and was built in the 50s.  It has been described as "arguably the best bush plane ever built"(Wikipedia).  The seats are removable and it can seat 2-6 people.  Because our group had 16 people we had to take three trips.

Below is a video of our take-off.

And here is a video of our plane leaving us in the Brooks Range.  It is pretty amazing how quickly it can take off.

“It was beautiful, ...but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scored you clean
so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.”
― Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child

I took a ton of video and photos from the plane but they don't do it justice.  The plane ride was truly stunning and I enjoyed every second of it.  I also enjoyed meeting our pilot, Dirk.  He was a wiry fellow with an intriguing personality...definitely someone who you knew had a ton of fascinating stories and who had had his share of adventures.  I wish we could have talked with him more.

George and I were on the last flight to camp and when we got off the plane we were greeted by all the students wearing full-on mosquito nets.  But our tent was thankfully already set up for us and we proceeded to help set up camp. 

As you can see below there weren't many trees on the arctic tundra.  So instead of hanging our food we put our food in a "food tent" a little ways from camp.  We ended up using the area around the tent as the "peeing grounds" so as to deter anyone interested in our food (mainly bears).

In hindsight, we should have been more worried about the smaller mammals.  The only one to break into our tent was this little guy.  We not only found a couple bread bags bitten into but we were also rewarded with a little arctic ground squirrel scat in the food tent.  George took this amazing photo through the scope with my phone.

Below you can see our fire circle.  You can also see the women are sporting the pushed-back mosquito-net "do".  The mosquitos were really only bad at certain times of day when there was no breeze.

The first day was relatively relaxing.  I walked around the rocks near camp and photographed lichen.  But around 5 o'clock someone mentioned we should hike to the glacier across the way.  When I looked over at it I thought, "That is a good 8 hour hike!".  But there was only perennial light with a couple hours of twilight, so I guess it didn't really matter.  So everyone booted up and we headed down to cross the river.

But the river was not so easily crossed that evening.  It was wide and composed of about 6-8 streamlets.  We ended up taking our boots off and putting on our crocs and crossing several streams.  The water was FREEZING cold and I couldn't help but yell out expletives every single time we crossed (not surprising considering the river was fed by glacial streams).  But we finally reached a sandbar where we couldn't find a crossing.  The stream was too deep and swift and it was getting pretty late.  So that night we turned around and headed back to camp. 

The next morning I woke up not feeling so great with a terrible dry/sore throat.  George suggested it was just from sitting too near the smoky fire and not getting great sleep.  I told myself he was right and got my boots on ready for our big hike.  After breakfast we headed out again.  Below you can see all 13 students and 2 professors in the middle of crossing the Ribdon River.

After crossing many cold, cold streamlets we finally made it to the other side of the river. Relieved to be across we were greeted by a VERY steep and slanty hike next to the glacial stream coming down from the glacier.  I am not sure if it was me being terribly out of shape or if it was the cold I was starting to come down with, but I very quickly started to fall behind.  Hiking on tundra is hard is like walking on sponge that sinks down under your weight...sort of like walking in mild quick-sand.  At one point I stopped to catch my breath and could feel that horrible feeling of having overdone it.  My legs were shaky and my breathing was maxed out.  I told George I was done and that they could pick me up on the way back.  He told me I had to keep going (we didn't have bear spray).  We finally caught up to the group as they were trying to find a crossing on the glacial stream. 

Everyone had crossed but George and I and I didn't like my options.  The stream was too strong and steep to wade through and the crossing required hopping from one wet rock to the next.  At times you had to ricochet off one rock and use all your strength to propel yourself onto the next tiny, slick-looking rock.  I consider myself a seasoned hiker but I have never been fond of hop-rock-river crossings.  My main concern was that my leg strength was gone...but somehow I pulled this old girl together, mustered all my strength and attention and rather un-gracefully made it across.

After crossing, we again started up another steep, angled grade.  Another student wasn't feeling well and she, George and I slowly, slowly made our ascent as the other students climbed on ahead.  There were three peaks.  A lower flat peak, and two higher peaks closer to the glacier.  There were numerous times when I didn't think I could even make it to the first peak.  George finally left us and made it to the first peak.  The other student and I rested and then rested some more but we finally met George at the first peak.  Below you can see the view back towards our camp.

While we were recovering at the first peak we could see the other students like tiny ants making their way toward the higher peaks.  Strangely we could see the other professor coming back towards us.  When he finally got down to us he said, "Well, this has never happened on a trip before...but I lost the satellite phone."  At that point I was so tired that it didn't really sink in what that meant.  But we told him we were going to start heading back to camp and we would keep an eye out for it.

As we started hiking down the mountain the other student started vomiting and it was at that point that I decided we weren't going to re-trace our steps looking for the phone, but we were going to take the most direct, easy route we could find.  After an hour or so we finally reached the big river.  Being in the river basin was the only time you couldn't see a far distance due to the thick willows.  As we made our way through we found some extremely fresh bear scat full of berries.  Being a bear biologist I am normally quite excited at the thought of bear scat...but in that moment it was not the thing one wants to find.  We were not only tired, but we didn't have any bear spray and I have to admit I felt wary and nervous.  At that point I started to feel like we were in the movie, "The Hobbit."  I felt like the journey was going on forever...we kept crossing cold stream after cold stream but there was no option but to keep going. 

Finally after eight hours we returned to camp.  That night I was expecting to sleep really well even with the midnight sun.  But as fortune would have it I barely slept because I started to have cold chills up and down my spine.  At some point I "woke" to my neck aching terribly and I couldn't get comfortable no matter what I did.  I sat up for some time and eventually nodded off slumped over.  When I woke up the next morning there was no question...I was sick.

The next day it was too hot to sleep in the tent so I drug myself to a small hill overlooking our camp and spent the whole day sketching.  All parts of me felt achy and sore but it helped to try and focus all my attention on drawing a patch of bearberry that I happened to be sitting next to. 

The following two days I didn't leave the tent.  It was an odd feeling to spend so much time in daylight in my tent.  I longed for sleep and was so happy when it came...but much of the time I was awake.  It felt like I was being forced to witness myself and this sickness whether I liked it or not.  The days seemed endless because they were.  It felt like an eternity of drifting in and out to the sound of students laughing by the fire, George bringing me food, and fits of fever.  I would be freezing cold and put George's sleeping bag on only to wake up burning hot.  But the whole time I knew there was no way around this...I had to go through it.  No pilot was going to come and rescue me from my yellow-tented prison.

There were interesting interruptions I have to mention.  One night I heard the students saying, "Look at the moon."  I pulled myself out of my feverish stupor and looked out the tent window to see a full moon which proceeded to skip sideways along the mountains before slipping below the horizon.  Another night I was abruptly awakened to a student yelling "Dr. Farnsworth, there are porcupines!".  Again, I was up quick as a flash and we were able to put the scope on two adorable porcupines.  I would have stared at them all night but that night was cold and I was happy to get back to my warm sleeping bag.

Another rather unwanted "interruption" was having to go to the bathroom (and I don't mean number 1).  I dreaded when I had to use the "poop bucket."  Even the small hike up the hill to the latrine caused my lungs to ache.  Plus the whole time you were doing your business, mosquitos and flies would swarm your bum...but you just had to sit there and finish up.  And on top of all that the bucket was rather unstable so you really had to concentrate on not falling over.  Once you finished and got your pants back up you still had to take a pile of dirt, open the bucket lid again, and throw some dirt in the hole.  On the bright side, I can't imagine I will ever have a more stunning view from the lieu.

One day I finally learned to keep taking Advil and George and I went for a walk to some beautiful rolling knolls across our the little stream where we got our water.  (I have failed to mention that one of the funnest parts of the trip for me was dipping my water bottle in the stream and drinking it straight up.  It was cold, delicious and probably the cleanest water I will every drink.)  Below you can see the 360 degree views were stunning.

On our final full day I was still feeling surprisingly bad and there was an intense wind storm that made sleeping in the tent impossible.  (In the back of my head I was also worried it was going to make landing a plane impossible too).  But I just needed to move my body so I lugged myself out to lay near a gigantic rock about a quarter mile away.  The hike was not uphill but my lungs felt like I had knives in them.  When I reached the rock I thankfully collapsed into it and was glad to get a break from the wind.  As I sat there I felt strangely happy to be exactly there in that moment.  Yes, I was sick as a dog, but that couldn't stop me from appreciating the excruciating beauty around me.  The landscape held me and I was part of it. 

“A wonderful gift may not be wrapped as you expect.”
― Jonathan Lockwood Huie

The final morning, we were hoping against hope that the pilot was on his way to pick us up.  We were supposed to call him on the sat phone to tell him what our weather was but sadly our phone was probably deep in the Ribdon River.  Everyone packed up their sleeping bags and pulled up camp in hopes that we would leave that day.  I packed up my belongings but fell asleep in the tent waiting.  I awakened to the sound of someone yelling "Dirk!".  I have never been so happy to hear the sound of plane engines in my life.

“As the glow of the cabin windows turned to flickers through the trees and then to black, her eyes adjusted and the starlight alone on the pure white snow was enough to light her way. The cold scorched her cheeks and her lungs, but she was warm in her fox hat and wool. An owl swooped through the spruce boughs, a slow-flying shadow, but she was not frightened. She felt old and strong, like the mountains and the river. She would find her way home.”
― Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child

It was a long day flying back to the Chandalar shelf, eating real food in Coldfoot and driving the Dalton Highway back to Fairbanks.  That night my fever finally broke and I started to develop one heck of a smoker's cough, but I could tell my ordeal was over.  The next day was my birthday and even though I sounded like I could cough up a lung, we went to the Large Animal Research Station (LARS) to see musk ox and reindeer.

After LARS, George dropped me off at the Museum of the North.  I really enjoyed the art gallery there in addition to seeing the natural history displays.  If you ever get a chance to go it is worth a visit.

As I said in the beginning I think this trip was about learning to be open to what comes my way.  I didn't want to be sick, but that was what was being offered and there was no other choice on the menu.  I have learned that much of suffering comes from resisting what is.  The fact was that I was unwell in a stunningly beautiful location and there was no changing it.  No matter how badly I wanted time to move faster, it wouldn't budge.  The only choice was to surrender and I think this trip was trying to show me how to do it, if not gracefully then at least not begrudgingly.

“Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”
― Eckhart Tolle

A big thank you to Dr. Chartrand for allowing me to go on this trip and to Dr. George Farnsworth for keeping me alive.  And a big thank you to you if you actually read this whole account!