Snowy owls and Zorba the Greek, another week in the Arctic

Part 17, a new epic

17 July – Cooper Island

While in Barrow, I went out with the snowy owl crew for nest checks on the tundra. The snowys are beautiful. The chicks hatch asynchronously – some nests had barely mobile chicks and chicks running and hiding from us. We banded a few older ones. We weighed dead lemmings at each nest, tried to find each chick, and tried not to get bombed by the dad. Some of the males were aggressive, others just noisy – barking and hooting at us. Females with smaller chicks did a distraction display – an impressive scene with a bird that size. The tundra is beautiful, rolling, pockets of water and hummocks. It was, by far, the nicest day since I’ve been here. Beautiful, clear, and blue. There was a good wind but still fabulous.

Later with the snowy crew, we went to Point Barrow, the northernmost spot in the US (there is one more northerly place in North America in Canada). Then continued out to Plover Pt. No bears, alas, but we flushed a guillemot on eggs from under a plane wreck.

The next morning, the weather was no good for boating, and I spent it on email, puttering. Then went out again with the snowy crew. They were trying to catch an adult owl to fit it with a transmitter backpack. I stayed well back from the work as there were already four people there. They looked like a S.W.A.T. team. The owl never came to the noose trap – a cage w/ a live lemming and nooses tied all over it. They tried to catch the same bird the day before. I think she was smarter than they were. I wandered around to look at flowers and plants. We moved to another site and went through the same routine. No luck. I sat in the sun and watched. It was another clear, blue day, though the wind was a lot stronger.

The weather changed the next morning. Gray, cloudy again but the wind died down, and Dave and I decided to make the Cooper Island run; we left ARF about 1600. We loaded the boat, put it in the water, and headed east. The water wasn’t bad and the weather was good. It was good to be home. Such as it is.

Dave and I unloaded and hauled all the stuff to the tents. He had coffee and headed out again. I watched until he was just a speck and then turned and walked up the island to the tundra patch. One of the tern chicks is dead. I couldn’t find the other one but the parents were attentive and watching it from nearby. The Sabine’s chick was also dead. The Brant are all gone. There are a few long-tailed ducks around still, but it is much quieter than when I left. The guillemots are about the same.

I stayed up until 0500 – 23 hours –before a four-hour nap then got up for nest check. I was able to stay awake until radio call at 1:15 and then died. Slept until 2200. Had a great night – it was 40º, almost no wind, the air was clear –even though it was cloudy – and I could see the bluffs and the mainland well. I caught eight cohorts, two previously banded, and two newly banded. George was much pleased and impressed. I’m slowly working that list down. If I have just a few more good, mild nights I’ll have all of the breeding birds banded. It is almost time to start looking for chicks and then I guess I’ll be busy.

The fog rolled in this morning, and now it’s raining. Surprise. Dave said it rained there all night, so, I’m lucky really.

I saw caribou on the tundra when I was doing nest checks with the owl crew – I almost forgot to add that. There were two grazing calmly by a big pond. Lots of water out there, ponds everywhere and just endless pools between hummocks. I took lots of photos. I hope some of them turn out well.

What will I do in the fall?

18 July

It began raining yesterday as I finished nest check. I slid into my tent, went into hiding as it were. I slept for 12 hours. It was still raining when I dragged myself out of sleep and made an effort at starting the day. It was 0300. I climbed into the cook tent, ate the last of the winter sausage and apple curry I made the night before and drank good strong coffee.

I finished reading Homer’s The Odyssey today and began Zorba the Greek. Oh, that it was as Zorba lived. After three months he remembered his work and said he must go to attend it. Sophinka responded,

I will wait one month; if you don’t return, I will be free. As will you.

…I calculated my stakes. I thought it interesting, to say the least, that I would leave the world I know to spend a summer alone on an Arctic Ocean island but am leery of the trap a man may set to get me into his bed for one night. Or worse, for longer. The pure and utter suffocation I felt at the end of my relationship is enough for me to know that it will be some time before I get involved to that extent again. It will be a lonely pursuit and a lonely life, but for me, it will perhaps be a more fulfilling one.

“I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul.” Perhaps I have done this. The quote above and the following are from Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis: “No, I don’t believe in anything. How many times must I tell you that? I don’t believe in anything or anyone; only in Zorba. Not because Zorba is better than the others; not at all, not a little bit! He’s a brute like the rest! But I believe in Zorba because he’s the only being I have in my power, the only one I know. All the rest are ghosts. I see with these eyes, I hear with these ears, I digest with these guts. All the rest are ghosts, I tell you. When I die, everything’ll die. The whole Zorbatic world will go to the bottom!” Alexis Zorba


Alaska, Barrow, Cooper Island, Arctic Ocean, The Arctic Circle, snowy owl

Snowy owl chick takes a stand.