Alice in Tundra Land

Saturday, August 29, 2009

That was actually not my last day at Toolik.

As it turns out, we decided to stay an extra day to finish field work and to give us more time to pack the truck. We made that decision on Thursday, so Friday the 21st turned out to be my last day at Toolik.

Once we had decided that, we didn't feel so rushed and frantic, and my last day turned out surprisingly well. Although it mostly consisted of packing the truck during the day, another camp T-ball game was scheduled for 8:30 Friday evening, and I got to join in.

Camp T-ball consisted of any number of staff, students and RAs per team, using the camp pad between the carpenter's shop and the dining hall as the playing field. Out of bounds were where the towers (outhouses) and residential buildings began, and bases were made from old truck mudflaps. The T-ball apparatus itself consisted of an orange construction cone with some kind of pipe stuck through the top, onto which a largish foam Nerf-like ball was placed for hitting with a hollow plastic bat. Rather than the usual 3 outs, there were 5 outs per side, and after both sides had a few beers the outs and score counts got rather random. It reminded me of the kinds of games I used to play in the street with my sister and brothers and our school friends outside our house growing up in Chicago (minus the beers). At that time of year at Toolik the game was played basically during a two-hour sunset, after which true darkness came on and the temperature dropped. We all went inside the dining hall to warm up, and I stayed to chat with people, something I usually didn't do when a full day of work awaited the next day.

I would have been perfectly content to end my last night this way, and was pleasantly surprised when I was told some people were going on a boat ride on Toolik Lake and I was welcome to join them. As an RA for tundra vegetation studies, all of my work was carried out on dry land, and though numerous opportunities to swim or boat had presented themselves all summer, the fact that I have zero boating experience as well as zero swimming ability meant I'd had pretty much no interaction with Toolik Lake during my stay.

We left just before dark, and the clouds to the west had parted revealing the last of what must have been a magnificent sunset. The air was quite cold and the boat traveled through the water at a speed that was just a hair's breadth from scary, but since I had spent the entire summer with the guys who'd invited me and had seen far dicier situations turn out for the better, I accepted the beer that was handed to me and took a sip without failing to notice that the far shore seemed to leap frantically into view. We stopped for a few minutes at a tiny island on the far shore before racing home, banking the boat at an incredible angle. Scott, the camp's carpenter and overall mechanical guru, sat in front like some mad expedition leader, insisting we all stick a finger into the water to feel the energy of the boat propelled through the water by Shelby, another of the camp's mechanics as well as its fire marshall. I declined, as the air was plenty cold and only magnified by the sight of the Brooks Range looming white across the lake. We got back in one piece, and though it was no doubt just a lark for the guys, for me it added a much needed dash of excitement, and something to always remember.

But I think they knew that. This is how the people of Toolik are. Generous to a fault, talented as they breathe, hard working, and always ready and willing to have fun.

When we left in the morning, they, and the remaining RAs, were there waving to us goodbye.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Today is my last day at Toolik.

We leave tomorrow morning, an 8 or 10 hour drive down the haul road to Fairbanks. I will stay the weekend with my employers at their home while I look for apartments. So far I have zero appointments to view apartments. They keep getting rented. It's hard to secure an apartment when you're several hundred miles away and can't beat other potential renters to the punch by getting an earlier appointment. You can only send an email expressing interest and hope they haven't rented by the time you get back to civilization.

On top of it we still have fieldwork to do this afternoon. I'm less than thrilled by that, I was hoping to have a day of relaxation, take care of personal business, do some sketching and such. I have to help finish not only the field measurements but the packing of the rest of the lab. Last night I came back from gathering samples to find everyone in camp playing a lively game of T-ball. I would have loved to join in but couldn't possibly have done that with my employers working away in their lab until 10:30. I've been on the clock a lot here. Sigh. I'm ready to leave and yet kind of sad about it, trying not to beat myself up about whether I could have had more fun instead of keeping my nose to the grindstone and trying to be good.

You only get one chance to do whatever it is you do. So I guess whatever you've done it's best to be OK with the result and move on.

I will miss walking on the spongy, springy, often wet, fragrant tundra. The many hours I've spent on a clear day walking alone through this landscape surrounded by its vastness, happily distracted by its unique and endless detail, were some of the best I've ever known. It's weird, but the other day I went up to one of my favorite spots and told the land how much I love it and how much I will miss it. This is the thing I fell in love with, so dumbly and blindly, with no hope of it ever returning my love.

So now that I've said my goodbyes to my dear tundra, I can't wait to get home and see my dear husband and family. It will be brief, because in a week from now Joe and I say goodbye to our friends and family and drive up to Fairbanks. It seems I've succeeded in figuring out a way to be near my beloved wonderland.

In truth, I'm still scared. But it's OK to be scared and go through with it anyway.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The mission is over!!

What a great sound, the helicopter coming into the pad. Right at dinnertime too!!!

Our friends must be so hungry. They will have a great dinner tonight.

Finally, the clouds have lifted and the rotors are spinning. They are taking off to bring Sarah and Casey back to camp.

I hear the helicopter now. We can actually see it from my boss' office in the lab. He's just left the pad.

Good luck guys, come back soon!
They are ok. As of lunchtime they spoke to Mimi by satellite phone and were hunkered down playing cards in their tent. We can still see fog obscuring the view of the mountains west of Toolik Lake.

Bad weather this morning.

At 7 am rain and thick fog. They will have to wait just a little longer.

At breakfast today people were still able to make jokes (they're missing some good desserts, they should have taken a raft etc). I suspect this is just a way of coping, of saying out loud: everything's still OK.

I'm a born worrier, and though I don't want to make it worse than it is, I'm starting to find the jokes a bit irritating.

I think because it could have been any one of us. So every hot cup of coffee, every mouthful of hot food, has a different taste in my mouth today.

He's Back--Again!!

He's coming!

He descended so, so slowly in the near dark, and Mimi shone the headlights of her truck on the pad for him to land.

The rotors are in low rotation now. I imagine they will be shut off shortly.

This is what I mean about a backbone of steel. This is not the kind of job for everyone.

I imagine that he feels as badly as the rest of us about the other group, and knows he's the only one in camp who has the ability to rescue them. It has to be a heavy thing.


The first group are all back.

This is as much as can be done at this point.