Monday, May 10, 2010

Part Deux

It was a moment of pristine peace and serenity that would not last long. In that last half mile of ground that stood between what I had provisionally termed “William Wallace Ridge” and camp, my legs finally failed me. When I got back to my tent, I waited until no one was looking and then collapsed onto my knees, unzipped my tent hatch, fell face first into the prior day’s underwear, rolled over, pulled my legs inside the tent, ate a handful of Advil like they were candy, and promptly fell asleep.

Some time later, I woke up to discover that the rest of our party had returned. I was amazed that I had Aaron had not woken me as he climbed across me to get into the tent. I would later find out that Aaron had discovered that our tent was equipped with two entry/exit flaps, one on each side, which meant those previous half dozen extremely uncomfortable egresses were wholly unnecessary. I felt pretty stupid. We ate dinner, which was comprised of a tacos and beans. I made myself a cup of chai from powder, which I made too strong, as much to my delight, there was a layer of delicious chai-mud to be had at the bottom of my cup. Dishwashing was accomplished by dunking the dining implements in the frigid waters of the Kongakut, then scouring them with biodegradable soap and scrub pads, and then dunking them in the river again. I volunteered to be dunker-in-chief, based on the logic that my ample layer of blubber must also be extant on my hands, and would therefore provide me with a level of protection from the goose-bump raising water. Following our meal, we retired to our tents, where more sleeping was in order. On the way back to Casa Mack and Aaron, it dawned on me (no pun intended) that it was 12:00AM, and I could see my shadow. I paused just long enough to take a picture before I continued to hobble across the untamed Alaskan tundra.

Some hours later, I was awoken not by my bladder, nor by the results of combining several quarts of hearty reindeer stew and sleeping encapsulated within a mummy bag, but by the Little Tussock That Could growing underneath my back. In a rare moment of humility for me, I decided to let Earth win this round, and clambered out of my tent, donned my sandals and jeans, and followed my stomach over to the kitchen.

I should mention here that weather patterns had come to replace celestial movements as a means to track the passage of time. What we call mornings south of the Arctic Circle saw the tops of the mountains, hills, and at certain points, even William Wallace Ridge shrouded in dense fog. Cooler temperatures always accompanied this fog; during the mornings it was cold enough to make me wish that I had worn my sweatshirt, instead of leaving it in pillow mode, but not cold enough for to regret wearing sandals. By noon, the fog would burn off, leaving us open to bright, cheery, but thermally ineffectual sunlight that would either remain until the wee hours of the morning, or else be obscured by the wind-drawn banks of clouds that sometimes arrived in the late afternoon.

It was on this day, too, that the mosquitoes that we had been warned about started to appear, but the little bastards would not truly become a problem until the third day. This delay in their attack was fine with me; on our hike to the dome, I had accidentally crushed one of my two bottles of DEET in my pocket, saturating my jeans and all of their contents, and reducing my load out of bug repellent by half. A word to the wise: DEET is powerful stuff when it comes to repelling bugs, but it is also powerful stuff when it comes to devouring anything made of plastic. My Swiss Army knife, an eighteenth birthday present from my best friend, was riding in the same pocket at the doomed bottle of DEET, and would meet an untimely end as its plastic furniture was chemically modified into black chewing gum. The knife would eventually become so sticky that it stuck to the inside of a pair of shorts I put it in, which caused problems when I attempted to wear those shorts through airport security in Fairbanks, completely unaware of the lethal contraband that was stuck on the inside of my cargo pocket.

After a breakfast of granola/trail mix type stuff (and the rest of the brie when no one was looking), augmented with outstanding, unfiltered coffee that was blacker than night and stronger than Stone Cold Steve Austin, we were treated to a scene that would become one of the highlights of my trip, as Barb attempted to prepare Steve, Tim, Ryane and Aaron for the hike they intended to take to some remarkable land feature they had spotted earlier. She gave them a satellite communication device, (which Aaron was warned not to use for ordering pizza deliveries); extra bear spray, and then demonstrated how to make a Conga line, should they have to cross a swiftly flowing stream. My comrades sidestepped clumsily around the kitchen, hands on one another’s hips, with expressions ranging from mortification (Ryane) to bewilderment (Aaron) to bemusement (Tim), in such a way that you could be forgiven if you assumed that they were Special Olympians rehearsing for a synchronized swimming routine. Their sincere attempt at maintaining a façade of choreographed grace came to a screeching halt when Barb, in an attempt to realistically demonstrate the possibility of line member being pulled away by the current, threw herself in a vector that took her in an opposite direction from the rest of line, and directly into the ground, while maintaining a death grip on Aaron’s hips. Chaos ensued as limbs flailed in ultimately fruitless efforts to maintain balance, boot-clad feet raised small dust clouds as they tried and failed to regain footing, and Barb took Aaron’s pants with her as she dove earthward. In a show of compassion and solidarity with these brave adventurers, the rest of us took pictures as fast as we could when we weren’t doubled over laughing. In fact, Scott was so moved by their interest in safety and subsequent deep embarrassment, that he dedicated himself to catching the entirety of the episode on video.

As much as I wanted to accompany the rest of the crew on their hike, I knew that I had not recovered from the previous day’s excursion and would only slow them down. Besides, after four years of college I only had a little dignity left, and I didn’t want to spend it on Barb’s Conga Class. So, I opted instead to participate in a solo activity that kept me in camp: Extreme Sleeping. Truth is told, despite my commitment to reaching my goal of several hours of uninterrupted REM time, I couldn’t fall asleep easily. The Conga Line incident still had me giggling like a Japanese schoolgirl in a Hello Kitty store.

When I woke up, I felt a strong urge to go forth and take my first wilderness dump. So I sprang out of bed, yanked my pants on, and waddled as quickly as prudence would allow to where we kept the folding military-style entrenching tools. I spotted the high visibility orange tie that Barb had wrapped around a bush to denote the location of the latrine, and set off toward in a bow-legged sprint. Upon arriving at the bush, I spied several stacks of rocks on the ground and unnatural formations of sticks that just had to be Steve’s work. Like a cross between pagan symbols and flags in a minefield, they were there to tell you where not to dig. I found a spot that seemed relatively untouched, thrust my spade into the ground with the strength of the truly desperate, and wailed in despair as it clanged off of the permafrost a few inches down. Throwing modesty to the wind, I got on my hands and knees, and with my pants around my ankles, exposing me the chilly breeze, I clawed a bowl shaped depression into the tundra. I completed my work none too soon, and learned the true meaning of relief as I hovered over my hole. Then I looked up. The afternoon clouds had rolled in, and sunlight was peeking through the thin spots in the marine layer. It looked like the backdrop of a religious painting. Then it started to rain.

I scurried back to my tent, a much happier camper than when I left, despite recent events. Unwilling to venture forth from my dry and relatively warm abode, I sat alone in my tent, reveling in the soothing sound of rain hitting the fabric and the remarkable scent of unwashed scrotum, and did some deep thinking.

I certainly went on that trip biased against any sort of exploitation of ANWR. My science and public policy class had seen this. To their credit, Dr. Frisch and Dr. Denton made a concerted effort to present the issue in a way that examined the background of the Refuge, looked at both sides of the page and encouraged the students to make their own decision. That bit of apple-polishing out of the way, I would like to state here for the record that they were absolutely ineffective in obfuscating how they personally felt about climate change in general and the threats facing ANWR in particular. However, anybody who has ever felt strongly about a given issue will agree that it’s hard not to advocate your own point of view. To be entirely honest, I can’t fault Scott and Amy for their strong feelings nor their abject failure to walk the narrow path of neutrality, not because I am a saint (far, far from it), but because they were, and are right. For me, a city slicker who has always felt hemmed in living in Southern California, where travelling in any direction will inevitably lead you into an endless sprawl of “civilization,” the value of ANWR was apparent to me after walking around it for only a few minutes. I may hate tussocks with a burning passion, and the mosquitoes may be vicious and plentiful, but this place is a bastion of all that is pure and good and unspoilt by human interference. Maybe one of the last. It is home to animals of every description, many so highly evolved to survive in that forbidding landscape that they can survive nowhere else. Even the ubiquitous, despicable tussocks deserve a bit of respect; they’re lumps of grass older than I can hope to be around for, and they’ve done it with growing seasons that are only weeks long, temperature swings that would be normal on the Moon, and pissant college kids trampling them down. ANWR is worth preserving at any cost. It is one of the few places I have been where I have able, despite being a typical angsty twenty-something at war with myself, to find my own piece of heaven and peace of mind.

When the rain stopped and I had finished plumbing the depths of my mind, I followed my stomach back to the kitchen like a bulbous, fleshy divining rod. After perusing the bear cans for delicious snacks and filtering myself some more water with the Infurio-matic ceramic pumps, I watched the rest of the group descend into camp through my binoculars. Amy had donned her all-rubber pants and jacket, and now resembled the world’s first janitor in space. While I was waiting for them to get back to camp, I discovered that ANWR was home to a breed of fat, slow, and arrogant ground squirrels. A word on ground squirrels; I hate them. They are filthy, disrespectful little vermin who are liable to eat your entire two-week supply of Cheez-Its if given even the slightest chance to do so. I learned that on one of my family vacations to a Millerton Lake, in the Sierra foothills. I have done terrible things to ground squirrels. Things I am not proud of. But some things are beyond the pale, and must be avenged, and the outright theft of Cheez-Its is one of them. Still, I realized that I was on their turf, and that if I harmed the little bastards, Scott and Amy would make good on their threats to leave bacon in my backpack and summon the bears. More to the point, despite their girth and their unfamiliarity concerning humans with wicked intentions, they were still faster than me. And I had no string, milk crates, sticks, or any of my Grandma’s seasoned oyster crackers to use as bait. So I contented myself with chasing them between their many burrows and taking pictures of them. Jennifer Moss, you would be proud.

All the hiking had made my fellow campers hungry, and so we set about making dinner, which was an approximation of vegetable curry. I was given the challenging task of cutting up a couple of onions, a head of cabbage with a paring knife. To my credit, I only stabbed myself once. After dinner, we stayed up and talked about a variety of subjects with Scott and Amy, which, predictably, was one of the most fun parts of the trip for me. Topics ranged from the strict rules those who lived in the dorms were faced with to the campus politics, to Olean, the zero-calorie fat substitute that, according to the FDA, causes “anal leakage,” and I have used as an electrical power tool lubricant with great success. My legs may not have been in pain anymore, but as hard and as long as I laughed, my abdomen certainly was.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lessons Learned

While I do consider myself a morning person, setting my alarm clock for 2:00 a.m. crosses the line. When the noise jolted me from my sleep, I did however switch from the unconscious to the conscious fairly quickly as my mind registered that soon I would be boarding a plane heading to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as part of a class offered at California State University Channel Islands. We were about to spend six days to study the impacts of climate change.

A few short hours after waking I watched the world transform beneath me. Familiar mountains covered in chaparral disappeared and the view shifted to much larger features like Mt. Shasta, Mt. Olympia, Denali and long stretches of valleys, filled with verdant rivers, lakes and streams without any homes, roads or even one bright neon backpacking tent dotting the landscape.

Over the past 50 years, Alaska has warmed at more than twice the rate of the rest of the United States. The impacts that global warming is having in this area are numerous. Villages are being relocated due to sea-level rise, glaciers are melting, and permafrost is melting. Climate change is pushing many species in Alaska towards extinction – including Alaska spruce, polar bears, arctic fox, caribou, beluga whales, and numerous migrating bird species.

After spending one night in Deadhorse, we boarded another plane for the Barter Island - located just off the North coast. Barter Island is four miles long and two miles wide at its widest point. As its name suggests, the island was used as a trading center for the native Inupiat people up until the nineteenth century. During the Cold War, the U.S. military built an airstrip and a listening and communications station here, of which remnant structures are still in place. Several families established homes near the airstrip and in 1971 the city of Kaktovik was incorporated.

Once we landed on the small airstrip, we caught a ride to the famous Waldo Arms Hotel. Waldo Arms is the best (and only) hotel in Kaktovik. Walt and Merlyn, whom own and run the place, are the classic Alaskan couple. Kind, warm, and welcoming – yet you couldn’t help but get the feeling that they were as tough as environment that surrounds them.

Our hungry group of six college students and two professors were happy to see that their little kitchen was open and taking orders. As we ate our sandwiches, Merlyn warmly offered little bits of informatin about the changes she has noted over the last fourteen years that she has called Kaktovik home, including the excitement over a new glacier that was recently discovered on the island. Scientists have been using the Waldo Arms Hotel a a home base to study receding glaciers in the Arctic for several years.
Last year a storm exposed an unknown glacier on the island. Scientists believe that this ancient ice, being exposed for the first time in thousands of years, might foreshadow a period of extreme loss of land along Alaska’s northern coast due to warming temperatures. The rate of erosion along Alaska’s northeastern coastline has doubled over the past 50 years.

I knew that Merlyn was a wealth of information, and as our group prepared to head back out to the airport to make one last flight before settling into the our camp in the refuge, I quickly scanned my head to think of at least one question of importance to ask her before we departed to spend five days camping in the Refuge.

“Merlyn,” I asked, “if there was one thing that you wished that visitors here would learn here in Kaktovik, what would it be?”

After thinking a bit, she said that she hoped visitors would realize that if they truly want to protect this special place, they needed to change the way they live back home.

I find it ironic that after the spending previous day and a half of flying in awe over the large expansive wilderness that seemed to have no end, the world suddenly felt very tiny. I was on an isolated island in the remote Arctic Ocean, and yet this place is tightly connected to the decisions and habits of people all over the world.

It is difficult to limit our impact in today’s society. The planes that take us to these beautiful destinations take their toll as they emit tons of CO2 into our atmosphere. Our daily lives are filled with all kinds of environmental dilemmas – how to work and school, how far the groceries we buy have to travel in order to get to my table, and what bag to use to take those groceries home. All of these can be connected to the black gold that lies up in the Arctic Refuge – and the people that live there that rely upon a healthy ecosystem.

For me, climate change now has a face. The days spent in the Arctic that followed meeting Merlyn were filled with other encounters - porcupine caribou, grizzlies, ptarmigan and Arctic Tern. I spent time in the remote Arctic Village with members of the Gwich’in nation, whose very culture is sustained by the migrating porcupine caribou herd. But Merlin's answer to my question stayed with me. While I am still challenged to make the right decisions on a daily basis, I now have an extra incentive. I have a clear image of Merlin and this delicate and wondrous place that I know is hanging in the balance.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

ANWR: Part I

Let me start by answering the question that anyone and everyone who noticed I was gone for ten days have asked. The trip to ANWR was amazing, and I had a blast. This is where most people lose interest and go on about their business, having duly noted my return.

But if I let them, and let you do just that, then CSCUI wasted a great deal of money flying my compatriots and me up there, and I will have wasted my time, and worse still, I would disappoint Dr. Frisch and Dr. Denton, who did not even once attempt to feed me to the bears. So, lend me an ear as I briefly recount my adventures in the far north as part of the first (and hopefully not the last) CSUCI Arctic Expedition.

When I heard about the trip during the first meeting of my science and public policy class, I was overcome with excitement. I think I was the first person who turned in an application, which I had hastily written (and revised several times) the very night it became available. Drilling in ANWR is a focal point for the economics vs. environment debate that has been ruminated on for the past twenty years. The issue is certainly much larger than a chunk of undeveloped land in Alaska, but ANWR is a test case without peer. I wanted to go, to see, and to experience not only the place, but the people who live around it and in some cases depend on it; to hear their stories and thoughts, in an effort to temper and better establish my ideas and positions on the issue. It was the chance of a lifetime.

For me, prep for the trip really got started back in February. I didn’t know if I had been selected, but I just had a feeling, and I acted on it. There was gear to purchase and arrangements to make at work and with family, but more importantly, when the word did come through that I had been chosen to go, I was in no state to go traipsing around the Arctic. I’ve never been blessed with an athletic body type, and holiday excesses in months prior (you could describe my eating habits as “indiscriminate”) in combination with the bulk of my life being spent staring at glowing rectangles of various descriptions had taken their toll. My weight had ballooned to a hair over three hundred pounds, and the only upper body workout I was getting involved shoveling more consumables into my gaping maw. And then there was the issue of smoking. A habit I had picked up out of boredom more than anything was now standing in the way of the exercise I needed to get in better shape. I knew I needed to stop. After all, there would be no place to get smokes in ANWR, and there was no way I was going to litter ANWR with my butts, and I was not, I repeat not, going to haul around icky cigar butts. Oh, and I understand that smoking will kill you. My work was cut out for me. After a last meal of sorts at Burger King, I swore off “bad food.” Over the next few months, I would consume a diet of uncooked spinach, edamame, turkey, light Italian dressing, and ketchup. I even switched to light beer. I went to the gym; hit the treadmill, lifted weights to increase my sloth-like metabolism and got over feeling self conscious as sweat poured off of me in front of people who clearly slept at the gym, ate protein powder straight out of the can by the fistful and worked out in excess of twelve hours a day. I smoked less, and chewed gum more. I spent weeks finding boots that would fit me, and ordered and returned two pairs before I found something that would work. It was like that training montage from Karate Kid. All that was missing was the cheesy eighties music, with synths and mindless crescendos, playing in the background.

Fast forward to early May. It’s the end of school, and as per usual, finals week found me attempting to pack half a semester’s worth of work into a the space of a few harried days and sleepless nights. Throw in a full work week and final logistical preparations for the trip, and you begin to understand why the only way I could get through it all was by riding the crest of a wave composed of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Several months of work was very nearly undone by the excesses of that week. Thankfully, school ended before I could complete my self destruction, and I got back on the trolley. After our group met at JJ Brewski’s two weeks before departure, I got sick, and subsequently recovered, probably because I consciously overdosed myself on vitamin C to the point that my bloodstream was acidic enough to etch steel. Every night, I laid out my gear, and packed part of it, in anticipation of June the Fourth. I couldn’t wait.

As I left work late on June 3rd, I knew, even as I slammed the door and saluted the building with one finger, that I was not going to get any sleep before my call time in the wee hours of the morning. Sure, I was packed, and sure, I could use the sleep, but the pre-trip jitters weren’t going away. I went home, checked and re-checked my gear. Downed a beer, and I smoked what was, to this day, my last whole cigar (I had moment of weakness on the Fourth of July). My parents had agreed to, check that, demanded that they drop me off at CSUCI, which was very kind of them. It let my roommates off the hook for 0300 drop off time. We were the first to get to campus. A few minutes later, Tim pulled up, and informed me that Channel Island’s Finest were maintaining their vigilant defense of campus shrubbery from the vagaries of public urination, even at three AM, even when school was not in session. You have to respect their dedication. As the rest of our group filtered in, bleary-eyed and unkempt (I failed to recognize Ryane for several minutes), we realized that we were on the wrong side of the bookstore, and relocated to where Dr. Frisch and Dr. Denton were waiting for us as fast as our unsteady legs would carry us and our 40 pounds of gear. As our departure time approached, and then passed, Aaron was nowhere to be found. I still contend that he was taking a few extra minutes to ensure that his moustache was policed and in top form. I was, and am, fascinated by and jealous of his moustache. I wish I had the ability to produce such facial hair above my jaw line. But, I digress. Eventually we all piled into our shuttle bus, and took PCH down to that bane of travelers, LAX. On the way, we started getting to know each other in a way that our prior meetings never really allowed for. We discussed the lives we were temporarily leaving behind, what we were looking forward to in Alaska, and coconut crabs, which I had developed a strange interest in after seeing a picture of one at work earlier that week. In contrast to all of my previous experiences at LAX, we managed to find our terminal and disembark from our van in a timely fashion. Check-in proceeded forthwith, and we moved onto the TSA checkpoint, where my belt buckle set off the metal detector twice, and I was finally waved through by a disinterested federal employee. A six dollar iced coffee from the terminal Starbucks later, I found myself alternating between sitting with Lisa and Steve, shooting bull, making sure that Tim had brought playing cards, and peering out of the terminal windows into the pre-dawn light that illuminated the lines of the 737-900 that would take us to Sea/Tac International. I don’t even remember actually making my way down the jetway, or taking my seat on the plane. If you told me that I had skipped my way along and whistled “It’s A Small World,” I would have no choice but to believe you, and I wouldn’t be surprised. I waited, heart racing, with, I am sure, a stupid grin cracked across my face, for that gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring howl of turbines spinning up and the roar of jet blast that would propel us into the wild blue yonder. When it finally came I felt as relieved, and as happy as I had felt in months. We were on our way.

Changing planes at Sea/Tac was fairly routine. At this particular airport, outlying terminals are connected by a nifty little subway system. I was unprepared for the acceleration the first time our train left the station, and almost faceplanted before a timely drop-step allowed me to regain my balance. I was almost sure I saw some eastern seaboard smugness and amusement flit over the faces of Amy and Scott. We were airborne again in under an hour. The flight took us out over Puget Sound, and I enjoyed what I think were the Cascades as I consumed my first airborne alcoholic drink. Rum and Coke at 32,000 feet is quite a treat.

When we landed at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska, I was blown away by several things. The first was the sheer size of the place. Maybe actually walking from the plane to the terminal at tarmac level gives you a distorted perception of size, but the ramps, taxiways, and runways seemed to dwarf even the 747s that lumbered around on them. Second, I still cannot get over the fact that the people of Alaska named such a grand airport after a convicted (and yes, subsequently acquitted) felon. But there it was, in three foot high letters in front of God and everybody. The Ruskies probably saw it when they were attempting to peep on Sarah Palin and lost their fur hats laughing at ze silly americanicanski imperialist dogs and our lack of tact. Also, there were stuffed animals everywhere. Think about that for minute. You get off of a three hour flight, with a burning desire to inspect the airport lavatories, and the first thing you see is a pair of nine-foot tall stuffed polar bears who look like they have a burning desire to relieve you of your skin. I nearly wet myself. I decided I needed a beer, and I was more than happy to shell out $8 for a twenty ounce Sam Adams at the airport Chili’s. Samuel Adams, always a good decision. I had just finished sucking the suds from my stein when they started boarding our third and final flight of the day. Another 737, this one bound for Deadhorse, Alaska. This was apparently a combi-layout, which was unfamiliar to me. Only the back half of the cabin was outfitted for carrying passengers. We were, as Scott put it, in steerage, an even lowlier form of cargo than whatever palletized wonders occupied the forward fuselage. I didn’t care. I had legroom! This was a flight regularly chartered by BP to shuttle their workers to and from Prudhoe Bay, and apparently, roughnecks travel in style. Or, at least business class. Moreover, the cabin was half empty. I had most of a row to myself! After 36 hours of uninterrupted consciousness, I almost fell asleep. But then I remembered that I was 30,000 feet above the ground and moving at six hundred miles an hour. Sleep just wasn’t in the cards.

It was just as well, because even with my eyes open, I had maybe five seconds of warning before we landed in Deadhorse. For reasons still unknown to me, I had not experienced the tell-tale cochlear pressure changes, and there is no fence and no outlying airport type facilities at Deadhorse. I noticed painted asphalt whizzing by my window at impossible speeds and then felt the familiar jolt of main bogeys hitting runway. We disembarked, and I was immediately relieved by the chill and crispness of the Arctic air. I breathed deeply, filling my lungs. We had arrived.

The terminal was, to put it politely, quaint. It smelled like the inside of a full ashtray, and its occupants seemed a little weary of bunch of college kids who clearly weren’t from around there. There was no ride to the hotel, so we all walked the half klick from the airport to the Arctic Caribou Inn, our accommodations for the night. This was my first taste of the roads in Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay. Just like everything else in that place, the roads are purely functional, with a minimum of effort expended on their construction and maintenance. Apparently, as long as filthy F-350s keep rumbling along the loose gravel ribbons, BP doesn’t care. I eventually came to the conclusion that the gray muck that filled in between chunks of road gravel was the substance behind the overall gray hue of everything in Deadhorse. It was the pallor I associate with the face of an exhumed body; the definitive shade of lifelessness, despair, and desolation. That about describes that Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay. I found it fascinating, if only because I have rarely witnessed such an appalling scene. If there is an end of the world, a great precipice where the sea cascades into the vacuum, and ships sail into oblivion, it is located in Prudhoe Bay.

The Arctic Caribou Inn turned out to be a collection of shipping containers stacked end to end, with exposed wiring. However, it had a room with a bed that could I drape my exhausted frame across, and a shower stall that boasted two water temperatures: iceberg meltwater and condensed brimstone steam. After we stowed our gear in our rooms, the group set off on foot for the general store, which turned out to be a few miles down the road. It seemed like fifty. Every step had the gravel and road muck slurping at my feet. The cold and wind made my nose run, and the sheer flatness of the landscape was overwhelming. As we walked, the number of Ford and GM trucks that rumbled by led me to wonder how our domestic car manufacturers ever got in trouble. Enormous and enigmatic pieces of mobile construction and drilling equipment lined the road, most of it rusting into the ground in the salt air. I was convinced that Amy had gotten us lost when we spotted the enormous blue building that housed the general store and post office. The general store was a colorful place, with off-color memorabilia, an extensive pornography collection, and Carhart merchandise galore. I bought a few post cards and mailed them; cruised the hardware store while everyone else attended to business. They actually had a nicer selection of screwdrivers than Home Depot. It was sometime around this point that I realized that the locals looked at me differently than the rest of my group. I fit in. I struck up a conversation with a guy about my age. He was surprised to learn that I was a tourist from California, and not a roughneck who was just at the start of a two week hitch up at Prudhoe Bay.

“You’re clean-shaved,” he said, “you just get back, pardner?”

“No,” I admitted, “just passing through.”

“Just passing through? Where you from?” he said, quizzically.

California,” I said, “I’m up here on a school trip.”

“Oh, I see. What are y’all studying?”

“The effects of climate change on the Arctic.” I said, tentatively, fully aware that I was about to talk global warming with an employee of BP.

“’Bout drillin’ in ANWR an’ all that?”

“Actually, that’s exactly where we are going.”

“That’s cool. Yeah, I can’t say I’m for drillin’ out there. Last thing we need is more competition. Plus, we got all kinds of natural gas to get up here, if we could get a deal with Palin going to put in pipeline.”

I was flabbergasted. It was so candid, and so unexpected. I need several seconds to recover. By the time my brain was re-engaged, he had completed his business, wished me safe travels and left with a nod.

We took a shortcut across a parcel of land clearly marked “NO TRESPASSING” on the way back to the Inn. I was too tired to worry about it. After we arrived, I managed to clean myself in the shower between spastically wrenching the spigot from side to side in an attempt to find a tolerable water temperature. Pursuant to that, I met up with the rest of the members of the group for dinner. The food was pretty good, and it came in quantity. I was in heaven. Fish, rice pilaf, and reindeer stew that was so delicious and hearty that I think I had fourths. This would later come back to haunt my tent mate and I. Tim discovered the blueberry pie, and proceeded to devour several pieces of it, with a look on his face that suggested perpetual orgasm. This would become a running joke for the rest of the trip. After we bussed our table, and I plowed into a low-hanging beam for the second time, Steve and I went back to our room, where I watched maybe a minute and half of TV on our 13” unit, which got Fox News, an evangelical channel, and a smattering of other familiar content before I succumbed to the sweet release of sleep. It was midnight, and the sun streamed through our window like it was high noon in Phoenix. I didn’t care. Steve didn’t either. We slept the sleep of the dead.

Seven hours later, I was awakened by my cell phone playing the theme from Starship Troopers as an alarm tone. I am such a nerd. I threw on my clothes, grabbed my parka, donned my hat, shook Steve awake and dashed off to the mess hall to make sure I didn’t miss out on whatever amazing fare the chefs had prepared for us. I was not disappointed. I was, however, disappointed with the news that we would not be going swimming in the Arctic Ocean, due to the fact that the ocean was frozen over. We would also be forgoing the movie part of the Prudhoe Bay tour, because one of the two turbines that supplied the town with power was down, which had plunged the inside of the hotel into semi darkness. I slammed my head into the low hanging beam again, to the amusement of several oil workers who had been enjoying their coffee. I swore out of pain and embarrassment.

After breakfast, we all piled onto a charter bus that was already half full of septuagenarian oil field adventure seekers. The drive out to the security checkpoint was deceptively quick. The driver regaled us with tales of bear encounters. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the endless expanse of dead grassland. As the sky and ground touched at the distant horizon, their color gradients became so difficult to distinguish that you could not pinpoint where the line between earth and heavens actually was. We drove past pump houses, manifolds, a gas disposal flare, and miles upon miles of four foot wide pipes. We saw the “camps,” huge, semi-mobile accommodations for the workers that seemed to be composed of blue paint and yet more rust. We drove out to a spit of land that extended like a finger into the Arctic Ocean. The wind that attacked my face as I walked out to touch the sea was indescribably cold. As I touched the ocean through a small hole I found, I was secretly glad we weren’t going swimming. Once the novelty of walking around on top of an ocean had passed, I trundled back to the bus, and found a new appreciation for breathing air that did not cause icicles to form in my lungs.

We didn’t have much time to spare when we got back to the Arctic Caribou Inn, as we had less than hour until check in time back at the airport for our flight to Kaktovik. We stole what food was left at the buffet, packed up, and moved out as one. I have always been able to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of desolation, and maybe I would have been able to do so in Deadhorse, had it not been pockmarked with human constructs and edifices that were so very clearly there for the express purpose of raping petrochemicals from the bowels of the earth, and nothing else. Even though I was leaving the reindeer stew behind, I was looking forward to seeing what Barter Island had to offer.

The Frontier Air terminal at the Deadhorse Airport was about the size of a bathroom in a swanky restaurant. Scott commented that he had been in nicer bus stations. Luckily, we weren’t destined to be there for very long. We boarded our Cessna Caravan, a regional plane that was designed for pygmies, and propeller buzzing (very loudly for me, as my skull was in direct contact with the fuselage bulkhead) we clawed our way skyward, and headed east along the coast. The scenery during the flight was amazing; out of one side of the aircraft you could see the vast expanse of the coastal plain, and out of the other you could see the rich bluish hue of sea ice and craggy pressure ridges rising above the ice sheet. Barter Island itself was surrounded with odd orange and green blooms of some kind. As we landed, I saw a DEW line radar installation. The airport at Kaktovik consisted of a fairly well compacted gravel strip and a single dilapidated hangar. We were met by a trio of well worn pickups, which took the supplies that the plane had brought, as well as our group, back into town.

We arrived at the Waldo Arms, which is the best hotel in Kaktovik, albeit by default. The building next door was a garage with a faded sign on top that read “Barter Island Social Club.” The outdoor décor consisted of some propellers (which I later discovered were whale vertebrae) a snowmobile sitting atop a mound of dirt, skulls of various animals, and a decrepit barbeque. I was, as usual, hungry, and so I bought a $12 cheeseburger from the lady behind the counter, who was the cook, hostess, and receptionist. I saw this as an opportunity to get some more “local flavor” and thoughts about the purpose of our trip. Much to my chagrin, this lady was not nearly as forthcoming as the guy in the Deadhorse General Store. She was better at dodging questions and taking the path of least resistance than Donald Rumsfeld. The only thing I can say with any certainty is that I don’t have a clue what she actually thought about drilling in ANWR. However, I noticed that many of her long term residents at the hotel were scientists doing field research, so I have to imagine that, from a business standpoint, she would have to be in favor of preserving the pristine land that kept the scientists coming back. Then again, maybe that’s wishful thinking. I guess we’ll never know. She did make a mean cheeseburger, though.

I spent about half an hour surveying the town from the top of a dirt and snow mound outside the hotel’s bunkhouse. The pervasive color was gray, although it was a slightly different shade from Deadhorse. The dwellings were ramshackle, but looked cozy and somehow inviting. Some had fresh coats of paint on the eves. There was a church. I felt more comfortable than in Deadhorse. People braved perpetual darkness and -100 degree temperatures in the winter to live here. This place had soul.

Our next move was back to the airstrip, where we waited for the first Heliocourier to arrive and collect our first group of three to fly into ANWR. We didn’t have to wait long. The helio arrived, and much to my surprise, it was not a helicopter, as the name originally suggested to me. As it turns out, a heliocourier is a small plane that was developed by the military during the Cold War for short take offs and landings from unprepared strips in support of covert operations. While it is no longer the Cold War, and this wasn’t a covert operation, I would soon understand the value of such an aircraft in ANWR. Amy, Steve, and Tim crammed into the little plane, and they took off in a span that seemed no longer than thirty feet. I was speechless. I wanted it to be my turn. I had about two hours to wait.

Happily, those would not be lost hours. While we waited for the plane to return from dropping off our first contingent, we walked to the Whale boneyard at the end of the runway. I got to lead the way across the sea ice. After all, where I can safely tread, so can everyone else. Apparently, the natives in Kaktovik are allowed to take three bowhead whales a year for sustenance. A little background on the bowhead whale: these things can grow up to sixty feet long and weight 130 tons or more, and are the most long lived animals on the planet. In 2007, one was killed in Alaska and it was discovered to have the head of an explosive harpoon embedded under the blubber of its neck. Upon examination the projectile was determined to be of a type manufactured in New Bedford, Massachussets, circa 1890. Even standing among the remains of these creatures, you really got a feel for their size and power. I could fit my entire body through their eye sockets with ease. The ribs were almost as tall as me, and I could not, straining as mightily as I could, move them. Seabirds circled, looking for any leftover scraps, calling out mournfully into the crisp, empty Arctic air. It was eerie and entirely otherworldly. I was almost glad to be on my way.

After trekking back across the ice and back down the gravel runway that led back to what passed for a “terminal” through bitterly cold wind that made my nose run like a spigot, we ran into the man we were supposed to meet in town; Robert Thompson, who I remembered from the movie “Oil on Ice,” which I watched as a part of a primer for the trip, and incidentally, I would recommend to anyone who wants to get the flavor of the ANWR debate in film form. We spoke for with him for a few minutes before he departed with the photographer he was taking into the Refuge. By that time, the helio had come back for its second load. As much I as I wanted to stay and see the cliff erosion, which would have made for interesting conversation with my soil scientist father, I decided to hop on the second flight.

I sat up front, next to the pilot, because there was no other place where I would fit. Even so, I noticed that my knees ended up touching knobs marked “LEAN/RICH” and “THROTTLE.” Now, I have no idea how to fly a plane, but I do fix small engines for a living, and those knobs both sounded like things that, manipulated incorrectly, would drop that little plane out of the sky like a stone. As with most days, I had woken up that day with a strong desire to see the sunset, so I sat very, very still for the duration of the flight. In the backseat were Lisa and Ryane, who seemed much more comfortable despite the lack of legroom. At any rate, we rotated around to the flight line, the buzzing of the nine-foot wide propeller became a roar, and a skip and a jump later, we were airborne and skyrocketing toward space and a rate that nearly brought up the subject of that cheeseburger, if you get my meaning.

After we leveled out, we were treated to an hour long flight that took us back over the beautiful coastal plain, and then further inland, over endless tundra and the occasional group of hills. Everything was ducky until I realized that our pilot intended to land his bird on a strip of gravel that looked about as wide as my driveway. I sat up as straight as I could without pushing my head through the top of the fuselage, swallowed deeply, and actually said a prayer. Closer it came, closer and closer, but instead of growing larger with decreasing distance, the runway stayed very small. And then the landing gear hit, we bounced, and our pilot’s hands were suddenly a blur as he managed to stop the plane before we ran out of runway. It was as exciting an experience as I have had without loosing any blood. We piled out of the aircraft, unloading our things, and then, I looked around. I was in ANWR, the last great untouched ecosystem in North America, and I found myself out of breath, partially because I was still recovering from the rail-less rollercoaster I had just disembarked form, but mostly because what I was looking was breathtaking in the literal sense. To one side of camp, the Kongakut River lapped very near the top of its banks, as chunks of ice bobbed along in the swift current. To another, mountains rose up to obscure the coastal plain. Opposite that, the Brooks Range loomed in the background. I had to pause a moment to take it all in.

After I had regained my composure, I set about collecting the tent I would share with Aaron for the next few days. At this point, I made a mistake in choosing the real-estate that I laid the tent out on. What was, to my unfocused eye, a relatively flat piece of ground would turn out to be a gently sloped mound that came to a peak right under where my lower back would be as I slept. I doomed myself to a week of futilely pounding at ground before I sacked out; ground that would, by morning, have magically returned to its original configuration. I also found driving tent stakes into virgin tundra somewhat frustrating, but luckily Lisa was right there to help me out. Over the course of the trip, she became something of a den mother to all of us. Non-toxic bugspray? She had it. Need help with dishes? She was on it. Headache? Need an ibuprofen? Lisa’s Pharmacy was open 24-7 and would make deliveries into ANWR free of charge. Thanks to her help and some huge rocks we found and hauled back to ensure that the stakes would not pull out, I had the tent ready for move-in by the time Aaron and Scott arrived on the third and final plane load.

It was at this point I met Barb, our eccentric and entertaining guide. Dressed in green leggings and a high visibility jacket that contrasted sharply with her shock of white hair, she was easy to spot in our “kitchen,” which was composed of sever al buckets, bear-proof canisters and a cook stove. Thinking it prudent to get on her good side, I went over to introduce myself and see what I could do to help. It turned out that I could help by filtering the stream water that Steve and Tim had retrieved from a meltwater-fed tributary to the Kongakut. This task was accomplished at that point, as it would be for the rest of the week, by using small, cylindrical, hand-pumped ceramic filters that produced an infuriatingly small amount of water with every cycle of the piston. Let me tell you this: as with anything you really have to work for, every drop of the painstakingly filtered water tasted like pure ambrosia to me. It was this point, after getting a small workout obtaining water for myself that I decided that it was uncomfortably warm. I changed into shorts and sandals to start a trend that, as a result of warm temperatures and high spirits, would find me shirtless and in shorts, above the Arctic circle, before the end of the night.

It is odd that I should use the word night, because the sun had not set on us, and would not for the duration of our time in Alaska. I noticed the effects of time dilation on my fairly reliable body clock almost immediately, although it would take 36 hours before I had lost track of time to the point that I felt lucky to know what month it was. Anyway, we dined heartily on potato soup and pasta that night, and after surveying the area as a group, we retired to our tents. Aaron and I managed to worm our 6’+ frames into our tiny tent and into sleeping positions that were neither uncomfortable nor too close. I made a ball out of my sweatshirt, wrapped my arms around it, and in spite of the butterflies of excitement that had been multiplying in my stomach since we landed and the sunlight blaring through the thin tent material, I was out in no time.

Fast forward a few hours. It’s dawn now, or noon. Take your pick. My bladder is the world’s most efficient and reliable alarm clock, and this time was no different. I rolled out of the tent, and into my sandals. I rubbed my eyes with my thumbs as I stumbled across the uneven ground until I had ventured far enough away from camp that I was sure no one would be awakened by the pleasant sound of Mack doing his business. I made it quick. The wind had a chill to it, and I hadn’t bothered with pants in my haste. Relieved and back at the tent, I threw on some jeans and my boots and cruised over to the kitchen. Scott and Amy were already up. I don’t think they had slept. Scott was scanning the hills for wildlife, and in no time, he had picked out a small group of caribou making their way across the landscape. We all had a look through Barb’s spotting scope, and I zeroed in on them with my personal binoculars. Scott would prove immensely useful during the course of the trip, as he is equipped with bionic eyes that must be able to see into the infared spectrum, characteristics that allowed him to pinpoint all sorts of interesting things at great distances. Besides regularly picking out caribou, Scott also pointed out the first bear we saw on the trip. Thankfully, the bear was far enough away that he was visible but posed no danger to us. I did not even reach for the bear repellent I had slung from my day pack’s D-ring like a hand grenade, ready to use at the slightest hint of ursine aggression. In due time, the others arrived, and breakfast was served. I kludged a refrigerator together out of a food container and a chunk of river ice. It was decided that we would take a hike to a massive dome-shaped land feature a few miles away from camp. We packed food, and I volunteered to carry water filtration gear, the spotting scope, and the first-aid kit. So started a series of he-man style gestures that, in retrospect were driven by my poorly suppressed hyper-competitiveness. I also felt in necessary to stay at the head of the pack during the hike. I had to make a good showing for the political science department, goddamnit! Sadly, I lacked the level of physical fitness to keep up with Steve, who seemed to levitate across the tundra. I suppose I should stop here and give you an idea of the terrain we were faced with. Once you got a fair piece away from our riverside camp, the ground turned into swampy, lumpy grassland that, in some places, concealed calf-high pockets of snow melt. Apparently, these mounds of bunchgrass are called “tussocks.” Formed by decades of grass growing out of itself every season, they had the appearance of miniature truffula trees. They are a very energy intensive terrain to traverse at best, treacherous and dangerous footing at worst. Tussocks would have my out of shape butt dragging in a matter of hours.

Over hill, and over dale went, snapping pictures of flora, fauna, and in Amy’s case, feces as we trudged toward the dome. After we stopped to eat, I discovered that I was out of energy, but was determined to go on. That determination faltered when I got to the base of the dome, and looked up to see a landscape of false ridges, loose shale and inclines so steep I swallowed hard before I took another step. About half way up, I met Scot, Amy and Barb on their way down, having turned back before the summit. They said it was getting foggy, and that they were heading back to camp. Glad to turn around, and be done with the trek I had been roundly cursing for the last half hour, I fell in with them. We stopped at the ridge that overlooked the airstrip, camp, and the river. I used what was very nearly the last of my reserves to clamber atop a rock outcropping that offered a panoramic view of the scene. I wanted to yell, like William Wallace in Braveheart. I felt so free as the wind whipped around my exhausted body. Maybe it was just the strong breeze, and maybe it was how I felt just then, but I would be remiss if I did not report that a small but tangible volume of salty liquid originating in the vicinity of my eyes did dampen my cheeks before I stealthily wiped it away.