1 June 2000 Cooper Island, Beaufort Sea, Alaska

Part 2 in a series of journal excerpts from time in the Arctic – **note: photos in these posts are from scanned slides… that desperately needed to be cleaned…

Cooper Island Camp

I never cease to amaze myself. I am comfortably ensconced in a mostly dry, not very large tent on a small patch of open ground on a large, flat, frozen-in island. The land, the water, and the sky look all the same. From the sand and gravel that stretch ten feet in front of the tent the snow begins and goes on until it merges seamlessly with the pack ice. The pack ice, in turn, merges with sky somewhere along an indistinct horizon.

Now that I have found pseudo fly poles for the tent, I sit with my camera on the tripod attempting to lure snow buntings and a hapless white-crowned sparrow to eat leftover rice and a handful of dry oatmeal. They sneak in and disappear again before I realize my chance is gone.

The rain sounds nice but I am glad to be out of it. It is 33ºF, 5:30 in the morning and the sun has been up since 10 May. That sounds funny. It hardly gets any less light at night than during the day – there is a different quality to the light, it is flatter and offers less contrast to the world. Though I have hardly seen the sun, as it has been cloudy and gray since I got here, it is fascinating to see it circle the horizon – the 360º horizon. Yesterday there was an immense, distinct sundog which I praised and was thankful for. It didn’t occur to me that it would bring rain. The mackerel sky tipped me off on that.

So, how did I arrive here? My usual convoluted way. Cool, I’ll go to Alaska for the summer. Indeed. I arrived in Barrow, via Detroit, Seattle, and Fairbanks. It was 20º when I arrived. Not bad for the 28th of May. I guess that is even cold by Alaska standards for so late in the spring. My boss, George, and I stayed at the research facility in Barrow one night. Collected up all the gear we hadn’t already gathered in Fairbanks, bought more food, raided the facility stock room and, with the help of two research staff, piled everything onto two snow machine sleds, piled ourselves on – two driving,  two (including me) standing at the sled back – and set out across Elson Lagoon to my summer home away from home, Cooper Island.

It was interesting to come across the great flat water, the sleds moved across, around, and through the pressure ridges in the ice. It was trackless, with exception of some fox tracks, there were no landmarks, no sun in the heavy sky to guide us, and yet we mostly made a straight line to the island, 25 miles east of Barrow. Flocks of common eiders, low to the frozen surface, crossed the horizon. Greater white-fronted geese talked their way across the sky.

We set up the tents, stowed gear, and set up the polar bear perimeter alarm. The research guys headed back to Barrow. George and I were left on a flat, featureless island.

It was mostly still under snow and, except for a few bare spots, in one of which we set up the tents, it was hard to believe that it was any different than the pack ice on the lagoon. Apparently, one year George actually did set up the tent on the pack ice, not realizing the island shore was 50 yards away. Oops.

George showed me the island, briefed me on what I need to do over the next two weeks while he is away and two days later he took the snow machine back to Barrow. So it comes to pass that I am alone on a barrier island in the Arctic Ocean. Frozen into the lagoon, frozen into the island, and for all practical purposes, frozen into time.

The hapless white-crowned sparrow.

Join me this fall on The Road Not Taken Enough when I go to Svalbard on an Arctic Circle residency Artistry in the Arctic.