I almost had a bath

Part 10. The ice is loosening its grip on the island, the bossman comes to call, after fifteen days I almost take off all of my clothes to bathe in the semi-freshwater Pasta Pond.

15 June

Well, I almost had a bath. It is clear and beautiful with only a little wind – but enough for me to say, well, I’m not really that grubby… 15 days? Nah, not such a long time without bathing.

I could hear the ice melting. Amazing. This morning, ever so early (well, I didn’t get up until 0200 having overslept my alarm again by 2 hours…). I was doing the rounds, it was bright, only a few scattered clouds shadowing the land and very still, no wind. I walked around Little Guillemot Pond as I do sometimes and stopped at the ocean’s edge. I could hear nothing except the sound of the ice melting. As the ice warms, the weak spots give and a piece of ice unexpectedly becomes buoyant in the surrounding water. The ice warms and gently falls in on itself. I could hear that. It is a very delicate and lulling sound, not the melodic, tinkling sound of waves washing up on coral beaches that you hear when snorkeling in tropical places, instead, a more subtle tone. Infinitely less tangible.


So, I’ve solved all the world’s problems. Time for sleep. It has been great sleeping these last few weeks. I almost always sleep through the night (or day as the case may be). I have been dreaming a lot every night. I often remember pieces of my dreams when I wake up. Once I get out of bed, which isn’t easy since it’s so cozy, I am awake and moving. It’s great to be alive.


I want to explain the angle of the sun, but I don’t know how – let’s see in the night and north it looks like this:

Alaska, Cooper Island, The Arctic Circle

In the night and the north, the position of the sun looks like this. The path dips close to Earth and then slopes up again, never dropping below the horizon.

In the day, it looks like this:

Alaska, Cooper Island, The Arctic Circle

In the day, the sun follows the curve of Earth to the South.

It doesn’t actually go overhead, but shadows get relatively short – my shadow right now, at probably 1500, is my height exactly. In the night, there are several hours of Ross’ light and the shadows, my shadow, is about 20’ long. It’s pretty cool.

I am sitting on the block in front of my tent. I have my shoes and socks off (YEAH!), and I took off my wool pants so just have my long underwear bottoms on, no hat or gloves, my long underwear top, and a sweater. Downright civilized I would say. It still gets darn cold at night and my fingers and toes get cold but the days are fabulously nice when the sun is out. The sand is very toasty on my toes. I still might have a bath…

16 June

Well, no baths. I could use one but am hardly anxious to go out in the freezing wind. The air is not warm but tolerable. The wind and the water are chilly brrrrrr. George finally made it to Barrow. Now he can’t get to Cooper Island. The plane that can land here needed a new engine and so is in Deadhorse for work. They don’t expect it back to Barrow until Monday. No big deal for me. It is great being here alone and, although I would like to get mail, I have no great need to see anyone. I have a pile of letters to go out and several rolls of film whenever an exchange does take place. George and I talked by radio. He is all excited about the birds and can’t wait to get out here and start working. He has gotten a third tent – a 4-man tent- so there will be plenty of space when he’s here. Maybe we’ll put the cook stuff in the new tent so we can both easily fit in it without food and science junk.

Today I went to each sub-colony and sat and watched to see who was copulating where. They were much more subdued than on other days and seemed to be more concerned with sex than with me, which was fine as it made my job much easier. My task over the next few days is to determine how many are in each colony, breeders and non-breeders, how many of each cohort, if possible, and how many unbanded birds there are. I guess our immediate job upon George’s arrival will be to band as many unbanded birds as possible. After that, I will be weighing and measuring eggs. It seems like July will be a month of casual observation and, I hope, a lot of time to read and write and draw and be. Not that this past few weeks have been so terribly busy.

After radio call this morning I went for a walk through the tundra. The Brant are all on their nests, and I chased several off before I figured it out and started seeing these utterly prostrate bodies strewn about the place. They simply look like a chunk of old peat or exposed mud. It is quite good how they completely flatten down over the eggs. One nest I looked in had four eggs. The nests are all fluff filled and look cozy. The long-tailed ducks have been squawking like crazy over the last few days. I saw two males having quite a tussle this afternoon. The one sat on the other’s back – like mating guillemots – and held him underwater as long as possible. This particular fight went on for 10 minutes, mostly on the water. If the offender tried to get away and take off across the water, the other would catch it and dunk it again. When he finally did take off the other flew after it and harassed it wherever it landed. Brutal. There are about eight gazillion pintails. Well, OK, maybe not so many. But they do seem to be everywhere. There also seems to be a disproportionate number of males. Perhaps the females are already incubating? There was an influx of long-billed dowitchers and red phalaropes today. The same two turnstones are around. I would like to see a black turnstone; I’m not sure they are here yet. The long-tailed Jaegers are back. There was one or two yesterday, and today there have been a few more. They are more graceful flyers than the Pomarines and the long tail, of course, is appealing, but I think my loyalty stays with the Pomarines.


Watching the guillemots copulate is something. They head bob and strut a bit then the female usually lays flat and begs – as a chick for food – head raising and lowering and crying all the while. The male then steps on her back and rhythmically thumps his feet on her back, mostly balancing there, sometimes opening his wings to maintain and only for a few short seconds do they copulate. Sometimes the male will step sideways or turn a circle on the female’s back, and half slide off, before rebalancing and centering. He might copulate with her two or three times in the course of one encounter. Afterward – I find this particularly amusing – the male will spread and flap his wings and stand tall on his spindly legs. Aaaaah that was great. Boys, did you see that? The female usually steps aside and settles into the ground to rest. She seems to be the one to decide when the whole event is over, though the males initiate the coupling more than the females.

18 June

Well, in mid-entry on the 16th a helicopter came up the beach, louder and louder. It went past the camp, coming in from the north to land. George piled out. After having thought that I would be here another couple of days alone, I suddenly have company. So, we fought our way through the day’s census and figured out all the bits that need to be dealt with. I hadn’t entered the daily data in the 2000 breeding bird book because I thought he only wanted the final pairs’ data there so… we slogged through each day’s pairs, color bands, and maraudings. Egad. How painfully brutal. I felt as if I had done no work at all given how many times pairs changed and I misidentified colors. But we managed to get through it and did another day’s census based on what we were missing.

We seem to miscommunicate a lot. I’m fairly relaxed in my specifics, George analyzes and picks apart statements to figure out why and how I’ve decided something. Although he accuses me of having lumped everyone into categories, he seems to have done just that with me – a judgmental misanthrope. I do show my more negative side, or perhaps the defensive side when we are together. Basically, I hear: do it in whatever way works best for you “…but the deal is, and it’s no big deal, what I do is…” So, I am told it’s OK to do whatever suits me, but I am made to understand that the preferred form is the way he does it and maybe I ought to just do it that way. Rather than telling me straight out this is how it should be done, I get, outside the quotations, here are some options, just don’t exercise them.

OK, enough. Generally, he is a good person. Obviously scattered, yes, and the neat little camp I created is now strewn with stuff, open crates and boxes, groceries everywhere. He said he was sure we could come to a mutually suitable agreement about our communal cooking space, i.e., he rebuilt it to his satisfaction. I am now glad for the company; I will be happy when he is gone again and have my solitude back.

Anyway, with George came my mail and packages! The two boxes of books I sent myself, letters, notes and crosswords, and a big box packed with fabulous things: bags of Smartfood (good packing material), curry paste, garlic, butter cookies with chocolate topping, bars of chocolate, snips of scotch and brandy, pretzels, dried fruit, moisturizer, on and on. Yummy. Coconut milk, hot sauce, almonds. Holy cow.

19 June

It’s late, almost 1700. I’m not tired but have to be up at 2200. It is a beautiful, warm day. In the 50s –it was almost 60º in Barrow today, a record.

We did the census, went through all of the notes and pairs and nests and figured out the holes and confirmed pairs. It wasn’t as tragic as yesterday. And it is warm and beautiful.

I washed socks and underwear in the ocean. The Bay of Jaws is opening up rapidly, and the sun is unmerciful. It will no doubt be free of ice in a day or two. I do hope the weather holds. I could live with the shame of spending the only warm summer in the Arctic 🙂

I moved my tent out of the runway and reset the perimeter bear alarm. George and I had discussions on the philosophy of family law.

The first, and perhaps only, horned puffin arrived today. A rather splendid creature. I guess puffins are aggressive toward the BGs, however, and the colony birds spent some time chasing him away. He is mateless and several hundred miles above his breeding grounds. Poor guy, all spring revved and no one to show off to. Alas. I must sleep.

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