A letter out

Part 15, a compilation and expansion.

7 July

I woke to rain and so stayed in bed until it ended – at about 0200. It was mild and almost balmy out (well, I’ve been here a while, 40ºF feels balmy). I wandered around the colony. It is dead quiet, there is almost no wind and the birds are not moving much. Got some food and then started banding. Not such good luck today. 5 birds, 2 previously banded. I guess that’s ok really. I banded the female in the Tango Echo site – named after yours truly for establishing such a pathetic nest box – I banded her K/OBr- Cobra for me also, year of the snake, you know. I think it fitting. More than one person would think me a snake. Speaking of which – I wanted to write a letter to XXX and will put it following this page. I may even get to Barrow to Xerox it when the ice breaks.


Dearest XXX,                                             7 July Cooper Island

It is somewhere around 0 dark thirty in the am. I just opened a bag of Smartfood popcorn (which arrived as packing material in a care package from Vermont) having a bit of tea and patiently waiting until my rice and lentils take an edible form.

It seems I have quite a bad influence on the weather. January through April were unusually dry. May and June were unusually wet. The average annual precipitation for July fell in the first four days. Needless to say, it has been a bit damp. On the fourth, 1/10 of the year’s precipitation fell – 0.61 inches. It was 34ºF. The wind was about 15 mph. The next day the rain stopped and the wind began again. It was 30 mph with gusts up to 40. Tent-bound again. I keep thinking that it will get warm (it’s all relative, 45º would be fine) and I was told it never rained on Cooper Island…

I’ve been here almost six weeks, except for eight days, I have been alone. I haven’t gotten back to Barrow yet. My expeditor (Dave) snowmobiled out the first week I was here – hence the letter you hopefully got earlier. George came out for a week, he went in to do some paperwork and then couldn’t get back out. Using the Search and Rescue helicopter to get here and a charter plane to get back to Barrow (a charter plane that happened to be in Barrow but is otherwise in Deadhorse); he was gone. I have been blissfully alone.

Have you ever had the wind knocked out of you – if you’re hit in the solar plexus or dive into cold water – when the first oxygen hits your lungs and you breathe deeply there is that feeling of exhilaration and lightness – that’s how I feel these days. The suffocating weight of the last few years of my life is gone and I am breathing deeply again. Life is good.

There was a huge ice push on the north shore of the island the other day. The wind was mostly west and I don’t know what else could have caused such a push but sheets and blocks of ice, some 4 feet thick, piled up on the beach. Pushed in from behind they plowed into the sand, rode over one another and built walls. They are impressive, these piles of ice. In some places the walls are 35’ and 40’ high, all moved slowly, but perceptibly, into place, piece by piece, almost silently, building and then settling into an immobile, impenetrable fortress against the sea. What I notice the most is that mysterious, surreal, ethereal color that they hold. It is so intense and, when seen deep in a crevice between piled, jumbled blocks, it fairly jumps out of the blocks and into the air around me. This color juxtaposed against a sky so gray it is almost violet, that bruised color of dark clouds on a bright but sunless day, makes for an incredible waking dream of time and motion. It is beautiful.

The Brant are on their nests. As are the long-tailed ducks. The male long-tailed ducks began rafting on the far side of the ice push. They leave their mates when they are certain the eggs will hatch and go off to molt and feed. Hundreds of them have begun gathering, though they are not yet flightless. The Baird’s sandpipers are still on their eggs; beautiful pyrimidiforme (or whatever that word is), four to a nest, eggs. Best of all, the Arctic terns. I only found one nest but the eggs are glorious in color and texture, even if the texture is only in the mind, from the color and the splotching. The terns themselves are fabulous. Much like the wolf in the mammalian world, the tern, in my mind, is the loper of the bird world. It moves with no effort whatsoever. Ever so nonchalantly gliding along. Barely even ruffling a feather, certainly not expending any energy. That black leading edge marking progress across the sky. The long forked tail, holding tight in a line until it stops to hover and then splaying open to show a perfectly symmetrical rounded V. I watched them do a courtship flight many times. I don’t know what it’s called. I don’t care. It was stunning. The two birds fly vertically, holding the exact point on the ground and moving straight up until you almost can’t see them and then they wheel on a wingtip and glide away. And they talk all the time. I know when they are here.

Last week I saw three Stellar’s eiders and eight spectacled eiders. The common and king eiders are regular company. There are also pectoral sandpipers, Parasitic, Pomarine, and long-tailed jaegers (all very cool birds), a lone horned puffin, which I caught and took photos of (poor beast), ruddy turnstones, Sabine’s gulls, Red-throated, Yellow-billed, and Pacific loons. The Pacific loons are incredibly elegant with their checkered back and silver-gray head. The Red-throated has by far the best call and the Yellow-billed is impressive for its size.

The Arctic poppies and potentilla are all in bloom. The poppies are brave little things. There was a day of 28ºF and freezing rain last week. Every flower stalk was coated in ice and each bud hung heavily with the weight of the ice. This week they are all opening, holding their own against the wind and cold. Their delicate, pale yellow petals never cease moving and turn with the light. The potentilla stays low and tight to the ground, clumps of bright yellow against the sand and gravel. There is even one marsh marigold that I found. Just one.

A few weeks ago I found polar bear tracks. The first track I found was larger than any bear print I had ever seen. Then I realized it was the cub’s track. The mama’s track was as wide as my foot is long, a good dinner plate-sized print. Last week I found bear scat about 200 yds from my tent. It was fresh. That big ol’ bear probably walked right by me while I was hiding from yet another wind storm – another 25-30 mph Southwestern – He kept right on going though ‘cause I haven’t seen him. Much to George and Dave’s relief and my consternation.

I radio in to Barrow every day and talk with Dave. He’s got me signed up for the whale census next spring and he and George have me set up for another tour of duty on Cooper Island next year. Dave is the expeditor for BASC (Barrow Arctic Science Consortium). He sets up all of the scientists from everywhere with gear, solves all of their sampling problems, invents things and generally makes their lives much better. He created the perimeter alarm system for my camp. He introduces me, via radio, to all of the people wandering through his shop. I have a whole host of voices that I know and that watch out for me at a distance. For 20 minutes or so a day I have coffee with them and hang out at the water cooler. It’s actually pretty great. Dave also radio patches George through so we talk business while he is in Seward or Seattle. Dave collects my mail and sends me treats (all of twice there has been a trip in or out of here). He takes care of me. That’s about the speed of relationship I can deal with just now – 20 minutes a day at an unbridgeable distance.

The ice is almost out of Elson Lagoon – I guess some folks back in Barrow have got their boats in the water. The ice pushes here over the last week have blocked me in more than I was a month ago. The north shore is 30’ high and a couple of hundred yards deep. The south shore stayed as a flat sheet but I can only just see the edge where the ice ends and the water begins. Eventually when the lagoon is boatable and the island is clear, George will come out for a few days and I will go in to Barrow for shore leave. Then back here to deal with chicks.

The busy and harried mating season for the guillemots is over. Egg laying is almost done, there are still a few clutch initiations trickling in but the bulk is past. Now I mostly get to sit back and relax. I have been banding a lot of birds – while I’m not really thrilled about bird banding (especially in its least productive form where you just catch and band everything) I see its utility – George has been banding here for 30 years. He banded a chick in 1975 WOGy (white orange gray) who returned to breed in 1978 and has returned every year since. Without color banding how else could he learn about that life? Who would have suspected they would live so long? That’s pretty amazing, really. Anyway, the worst part of the job is pulling feathers for trace metal analysis. It just hurts me –they flinch sometimes but I think it bothers me more. They are really beautiful birds. Although they just look black at a distance their feathers have a brilliant green sheen to them that is striking. And the scarlet legs and mouths are intense. They are not particularly graceful in the air or on land, even on the water, though I imagine they dive/swim beautifully. They often land on land as they do in the water – their feet touch and they belly flop straight into the sand. Youch. In the water they belly flop and dive in one motion.

There is a quality of distortion to the air and to distance here that I haven’t quite figured out yet. Distances change relative to light and air quality. Some things that are side by side seem yards apart at a distance and things that are quite far apart seem virtually on top of one another. From my tent I often see the guillemots walking across the beach and they look like people strolling along on the sand. Very odd, this distortion.

On rare, clear days, when there is sun and the ice is sublimating and there are heat waves, the mirages on the edge of the horizon are astounding. There are walls hundreds of feet high all around. A bird flying on that horizon seems just a bird and then it turns on a wing and becomes a giant. I can see Barrow, or its mirage really, 25 miles away. Individual buildings stand up on the horizon and are identifiable. Icebergs and floes loom on the edge of sight as large as freighters and then some.

And conversely, when the fog rolls in, the more usual state, it slides right up to the edge of the bay by which I am camped, making it look, quite convincingly, that just there is the edge of the world and a step beyond would be into the great void.

So, I haven’t yet taken off my long underwear, for that matter, I haven’t changed my long underwear. I last had a shower on 28 May. There is sand in my food, in my clothes, in my bed (did I mention that I hate sand?). I have heard no news or weather in weeks. I’ve blown out all the fingers in my liner gloves and I haven’t had a decent cup of coffee since I left my Aunt’s. Luckily, thanks to the sympathies of George and my Aunt, the scotch is holding. I am supremely content.

I do hope you have recovered from the meeting hell you were earlier enduring. And I expect you are thoroughly enjoying your peaceful summer. Please have a pint at the People’s Pint for me. Mmmmmmm. That does sound good…

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