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April 11, 2005

Alaska, Part 2: Toolik Lake

On Sunday, Andrew and Max and I drove to Toolik Lake. Max is a technician for Jeff Freymueller, a geodesist up at UAF. Max came along to resurvey some sites for Jeff that he had surveyed last year to study tectonic motions. Andrew and I were headed to Toolik to change out a receiver up there and practice a few things that Andrew (and Lael) will be doing this summer.

Toolik Lake is north of the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountain range in Alaska, on the North Slope. The North Slope is the low-lying area between the Brooks Range and the Bering Sea. It is cold and snow-covered in the winter, and full of flowers and animal life in the summer. I have yet to see it in summer, but I have no doubt that it is incredible.

The road up to Toolik is the Haul Road, which is the road that runs along the pipeline all the way up to Prudoe Bay.

It's a rough road, but the scenery is nice.


[Evening sun in the Brooks]


[Pipeline in snowy valley]


[Winter on the North Slope]

I didn't have an internet connection up in Toolik, but I did jot a few thoughts down while I was up there. They go something like this:

It’s white, and smooth, and gentle, and cold. It’s very, very cold. It’s not very cold compared to colder, but it’s still cold. Very cold.

The hills (gentle, white, smooth) look empty, but are not. Likely within my distant view are lynx, wolves, caribou, wolverines, or foxes. There are tracks that look like dog tracks near the winter science hut, but since there are no dogs allowed we debated after dinner over what may have made them. Rich, the camp manager, saw small bird tracks today. We have to note any sightings of small birds or ground squirrels, he said, because the ecologists studying them want to know when the first ones appear. The birds come north over the divide and the squirrels come out of their winter burrows, where they’ve been hibernating for months. The ground squirrels spend two thirds of their lives sleeping, and their bodies reach temperatures below freezing--and then come back to near-normal body temperatures every two weeks or so, not by waking up to conciousness but by waking the mind and dreaming. So the current theory goes. This is the kind of thing that’s being learned here at the Toolik Lake Field Station.

Unlike in the Antarctic, there are delicate-looking brush reaching up out of the snow cover. There are land animals. And, unlike my Antarctic experience, here it is getting dark. It seems a special treat to see darkness in a place like this. The world here is still waking up, coming rapidly out of its dark winter. The sun sets around 9, and the sunset continues slowly and laboriously until around 11. Last night, for the first time ever, I saw the northern lights. The aurora borealis. I didn’t even stay to watch it long, my eyes dry and straining and my body shivering in the cold, but I saw it, and I was fascinated, and I hope to never forget it. And I hope to see more. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, a sci-fi shape-shifting, a glowing curving migrating display of light across the sky, arcing up over us from one horizon to the other. In Anchorage, the aurora is usually seen in the northern part of the sky, as it circles the poles, but this far north the lights curve high across the sky overhead, touching down behind.

Nutty to think my Antarctic friends who kept themselves down south are watching the nights get longer as quickly as the days are here, and are observing the aurora on the other side of the world. Hi, Antarctic friends. I hope you’re warm, and happy.

Posted by beth at April 11, 2005 11:04 PM