Parts 3 and 4: decade shock and Cooper – 101

Part 3.

The following excerpt was actually written upon my return to the lower 48 but it so amazed me that I have to share it. Back to the regular Arctic programming next time. Honest.

“I am going through cash like crazy. I had a few minutes of panic this evening when I filled my gas tank and it was $13.”

Whoa. That’s not just a different decade but a different universe.

Part 4.

The early days on Cooper, sky, sand, and bear alarms. 1 June 2000, continued.

Cooper Lagoon emerges

It is 6 am. I have been up since midnight. It started to rain at 1. It is about 33º. I am lying in wait, camera ready, oatmeal strewed, for one of many snow buntings and one white-crowned sparrow. I consumed about all of the hot liquids I can tolerate and am considering switching over to the scotch. So what if it is early morning?

The rain patters on, the tent is steamy. Of course, the steaminess of the tent is detrimental to my hopes of any good photos since the lens is in a constant state of fog but I have lots of time and may as well feel like I am working at something.

The other day in Barrow, I was fooled by the sky. The pack ice stretches from shore away to the west. The low clouds reflecting a small lead out on the water gave the illusion that the ocean was open just offshore, that after a couple hundred yards there was open water, not just pack ice. There was nothing distinct about any of them (sky, water, land), flat, contourless, contrast-less. Unbearably desolate in that flat, grey light.

I’m not sure how this always happens. For someone like me, who can talk a mean streak, I do always seem to fall into company with those that can outdo me in their sleep. George can talk. Among all the other bits of life that he can cover he has 30 years’ worth of summers on Cooper Island. He talked about coming out this time of year and setting up the tents 50 yards out on the pack ice, not knowing it until the ice started to break up. Having matches dropped from a plane, they spontaneously ignited on impact. Finding a polar bear sleeping behind one of the nest boxes he was checking. Having a black guillemot line up and explosively shit into his face, a fluid stream of digested fish rapidly-propelled, as he was inhaling to blow the feathers out of the way to check the cloacal opening. It goes on. He is disorganized and, after 30 years of doing this, still seems to need to prove himself. “I don’t need to clean the pot, I just figure out what I can cook that will complement what’s left in the pot from the last meal.”

Since he was only here for a couple of days he slept in the cook tent. Before his snow machine was 100 meters from camp I began emptying everything out so I could dump the 45 lbs of sand he had imported to the tent’s inside. His goal, he said, was to have enough sand in the tent to be able to drain a pot of hot pasta directly onto the floor of the tent by the end of summer.

I hate sand. Some people get into their tent to get out of the wind. I get into the tent to get out of the sand. I like it under my bare feet. I like it on the beach. I hate it in my tent, in my food and my bed. This is a man who left here with a cell phone, a hand-held two-way radio, a GPS unit, and a personal locator beacon to find his way back to Barrow, but won’t bring a shovel to the island because it is too technologically advanced. Egad. He’ll be back 12 June.

There are three cabins I can see from here without binos. They are six miles away across the lagoon. George says at times you can see caribou walking on the bluffs to the east of the cabins.

I collected four dead birds, two male and one female common eiders and one male king eider. Apparently done in by an owl – short-eared, maybe snowy. The feathers are magnificent – soft as eiderdown, thick, and luxuriant. The birds just happen to be missing all of the flesh in their breasts and on their necks. The wings and bodies are untouched otherwise, the meat carefully excised with hardly a feather ruffled, pun quite literally intended.

There is a rather ingenious bear perimeter alarm set up around the camp. A rattrap wired to a car alarm with a plastic plug set under the trip wire. When the connecting cord that encircles camp is pushed out of line the plug pops out and the alarm sounds. A bear meandering into camp is not likely to step over the cord to avoid the hated car alarm. There have been a lot of bear sightings and a few encounters this year. One bear has been killed. I sleep with a loaded shotgun and carry pepper spray. As I wander farther from camp for longer periods of time I will carry the gun with me. They say slugs are effective on charging bears.

Snow bunting


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