Riding the bumps of the far northern trail

Ben Jones of the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage works on a broken snowmachine on a frozen lake not far from the Arctic Ocean. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

A field camp for scientists studying arctic lakes pitched on one of the lakes they are studying. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

Ben Jones of the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage works on a broken snowmachine on a frozen lake not far from the Arctic Ocean. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

A field camp for scientists studying arctic lakes pitched on one of the lakes they are studying. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

A sick snowmachine awaits rescue here on the snow-covered ice of this boot-shaped lake. After an 85-mile journey from our last stop at Umiat, one of the Ski Doo Skandics sputtered to a crawl a few miles from our intended campsite here.

The loss of one of their essential research tools has not stalled the trio of scientists traversing Alaska’s North Slope to poke shallow holes into its frozen lakes and soil. Thanks to his satellite phone, trip leader Ben Jones of the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage has another machine on its way from Barrow. Two men on snowmachines are sledding it about 150 miles across the great coastal plain to us.

Chris Arp’s broken machine is one of a few not-in-the-game-plan events during the first seven days of this three-week journey across the Big White Empty between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. The ecologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Water and Environmental Research Center noticed his snowmachine was pulling to the right just a few hours after leaving our starting point at Toolik Lake one week ago. After an impressive group repair on a factory weld gone bad, executed in a breezy grove of dwarf willows, Chris coaxed the snowmachine to our planned stop at the oil exploration/research camp at Umiat. There, a mechanic spent nine hours making it like new.

Then, after a blue sky day of snowmachining from Umiat, the machine faltered near where we are camped in Arctic Oven tents on the surface of this lake that’s frozen to the bottom. Ben and Chris tried to repair the machine but found the problem (unrelated to the Umiat fix) was beyond their considerable stash of parts. Then came Ben’s call to Barrow, where teammates making a similar science traverse had a snowmachine available. That Ski Doo is now on its way here over hours of rider-punishing wind-bumpy snow. If the replacement doesn’t arrive today, there will be another plan.

Working out of a village or a research station would be more convenient for the three scientists who invited me along on their trip, but in an effort at self sufficient science they choose to pull tons of gear in two plastic sleds that trail 30 feet behind each machine. From above, we look like four snakes slithering across a white desert.

The guys cut the engines at places like this — an almost-undetectable-in-winter lake on a white prairie that spills north to the Arctic Ocean. Camping here is like setting up a tent on Mars, except for moving black dots that turn into striking red fox, a few graceful caribou kicking at snow and, at night, the piercing lights of nearby satellite oilfields.

On days like yesterday, when Ben, Chris and Guido Grosse spend some of their time troubleshooting equipment rather than drilling and dipping for water samples on arctic lakes, an observer wonders: why absorb the battering of concrete drifts and go three weeks without a shower when there are easier places to work?

“So we can learn something new,” Ben said while sitting on Guido’s cot in the propane-heated interior of an Arctic Oven tent. “It doesn’t seem right to look at a few places (on the massive chunk of Alaska north of the Brooks Range) and extrapolate over the whole region.”

On this trip, Ben, Guido and Chris will stop in four unique and far-flung settings to check the same variables on a few dozen lakes that are a good sample of the thousands that pepper the flatlands here. Snowmachines and sleds are the transport method of choice because they are cheaper than shuttling gear by helicopter or ski plane and they allow for travel in bad weather.

There is also the fun and adventure of it all. Sharing frigid, terrible, fantastic trail miles has sintered an enviable friendship among these three. They are accumulating stories of gnawing frozen tent dinners together, crashing into one another in flat light and the glory of blue-white days when they feel like the only people on Earth.
The aches in their throttle thumbs and skin that peels from their darkened faces weeks later adds color and depth to the data they see on computer screens back in the office.

“You kind of get hooked on it,” said Guido, who flew to Alaska from Potsdam, Germany, where he works for the Alfred Wegener Institute. He got his first taste of this wide-open country as a researcher with UAF’s Geophysical Institute, with which he is still affiliated.
“There’s always bad times when you think, ‘Why am I doing this when I could be home with my family?’ But a few days after coming home I start missing it out here already.”

Right now, as I type this within an orange tent while seated on an Action Packer, Ben, Guido and Chris have driven the remaining machines out of earshot, following their GPS units and memories to their study lakes and dried lake beds. I hear only the hiss of the stove’s blue flame and — just now — the plaintive cry of an arctic fox who is lounging on a rise that marks the rim of this lake.

With luck, tonight we’ll hear the distant whine of a new snowmachine driven from Barrow. Tomorrow, it will replace Chris’s hard-luck machine in our caravan. With the studies finished here at the “Fish Creek” region, we’ll motor northwest across frozen lakes, ice-wedge polygons and sand dunes to Teshekpuk Lake, the largest lake in Alaska’s arctic. “Tesh” is one of Ben’s favorite places in the world.
On its northern shore is a 50-year-old research cabin he has been restoring. There, we’ll regain the comforts of a hard roof, satellite internet and a maybe a nice long steam bath.

Next week, I’ll write of the special place Ben has resurrected on the wild shore of Teshekpuk Lake. I’ll follow that with my reflections of being a stranger in a landscape like none other. You can also follow the trip at alaskatracks.blogspot.com and Arctic Lakes blog.

Original publish date: April 17, 2014 |Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

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