The eye of the storm

Part 22, A storm is coming in

9 Aug

The wind finally dropped off this evening. It was strong earlier in the day – 30-35mph. WooHoo! I spent a lot of the day hunkered down in the tent. It was nice this morning, almost clear, mild, and not too windy. By 1200, the wind was screaming, and it was dark and grim. It didn’t actually rain though. I read, finishing the Northern Woodlands and also read my current book – Memoirs of a Geisha.

After the wind died, I went for a long walk along the beach to the west. Watched some birds, thought, picked up stones and bones, looked at the ocean, listened to its rhythm, laughed to myself, and just was. I watched a sailboat go by out on the edge of the horizon. I think it was a sailboat – what else could it have been? I thought, “who would be crazy enough to go sailing in the Arctic Ocean?” And I laughed – who would be crazy enough to spend a summer alone on an island in the Arctic Ocean? Indeed.

The peregrine was in the colony again today, both this morning and this evening. This morning, the Jaeger chased it out – the Jaeger doesn’t want its food source damaged. I see the results of the Jaeger and peregrine pressure as some chicks have lost weight and many more are only barely maintaining. It could get grim in the next few weeks.

Arctic, Alaska, Cooper Island, Barrow, The Arctic Circle, climate change, weather, hurricane, storm

A satellite image of the 2000 Arctic hurricane over Alaska and Cooper Island.

13 Aug

Yup, another pile of days gone by, last I wrote it was a calm, mild evening. The following morning (10 Aug) started reasonably enough. Cool, 15–20 mph wind, out of the southwest. I radioed Dave and was ready to start the usual routine for the day. Dave told me the day before that there was supposed to be a big storm but nothing materialized so when he told me another big storm was coming through I didn’t think much of it. Then, almost as soon as we were off the radio, the wind picked up and didn’t let up. I decided to wait it out and, if it didn’t die down, give the birds the day off – and me too.

The door to the cook tent blew out around 1030. I checked on the Tango Echo site to make sure it hadn’t collapsed in the wind. I had trouble walking, and I could barely breathe – the pressure of the wind against my chest constricted my lungs limiting inhalation. As I walked, head down, gasping, I looked up to see a juvenile Arctic tern at eye level next to me trying to work into the wind. It was going backward and settled to the ground as soon as I passed.

Assured that the nest site was as secure as it could be given the conditions, I turned my back to the wind and flew to the tent. The antenna went down as I approached camp. The only big pot I have, the one I use to carry water, also took flight across the island. I gave chase for a minute and then just watched it roll and bounce, up, over the bank, and into the Arctic Ocean. Gone.

I gathered up field books, some food and drink, and the radio and went to my sleeping tent. The wind was ferocious. The cook tent was being battered, and the door was blown. George’s tent was holding its own but also taking some abuse. My tent was bowing and pulling but still relatively well set. I piled in. I read all morning, but I had to lie down because there was no room for me to sit up – the walls of the tent were trying to meet, and I was getting squeezed out of the middle.

It rained and snowed off and on, the tent walls were wet, as was the floor. I moved things around and piled them up to keep them out of the water. I jammed my sleeping bag into the only dry bag I had. I was getting dripped on. My parka was wet. I had to lie on my back because the fiberglass tent poles would smash into my hip or kneecap if I tried to lie on my side. Now and then a wave of sand or grit would hit the tent. I stuck my head out occasionally and could see the sand blowing across North Beach. There was a lot of flying debris – plywood, and boards. I was not exactly comfortable in my soggy tent eating my fourth peanut butter and jelly sandwich of the post-stove day, but I was happily reading and mostly content. I didn’t feel in danger. It was just a wicked storm.

About 1900, after 10 hours of this, I heard a helicopter. At first, I thought it was a trick of the wind, but no, there was the even steady beat of the rotors. I stuck my head out the tent door to see them coming in, low from the northeast, into the wind, ready to land. They set down right in front of the tent. I frantically tried to zip the tent door closed again as I saw the wave of gravel from the rotor wash coming at me. FIghting the wind-disfigured zipper, I barely pulled it closed as the tent lurched from the impact. I pulled on my boots and went out to meet the search and rescue technician jumping from the chopper. We met in the middle, he yelled into my ear, “There’s a storm coming in.” “Coming in?” I thought to myself. You mean it’s not already here? I was to go back to Barrow with them. Okay.

I grabbed my pack, threw in camera and binocs, bird book, this book (i.e., my journal), and the book I was reading, added my toothbrush and laundry – the important things – and was gone. Within about a minute of their landing, I was on board, buckling in, and we were taking off. Cool ride.

The island was getting pounded. They didn’t offer me a headset, but I grabbed the nearest one in time to hear the pilot say, “Flying plywood, great.”  It was chaos. Waves were crashing against the north shore, eating into the bank. The pond in front of the tent was no longer a pond but had become part of the lagoon.

We went southwest into the wind and then swung east along the coast to a fishing camp. The camp boat was up against the beach, grounded on its side, not in a good way. We landed in front of the cabin and picked up just the kids.

We were across the lagoon, following the shoreline when terror struck me. I remembered that I left a half eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich on top of the radio case. I imagined it stuck to the wall of the tent, sticky and slimy forevermore. But far worse, I committed the worst possible sin for a field biologist. I remembered my laundry, and left the field books, full of the summer’s data, in a neat stack next to the radio case and the half-eaten sandwich. My stomach turned. This crew already risked their lives to get my sorry ass off a desolate, forsaken island. No way I would ask them to go back. I watched the tundra roll away beneath me.

The ride was beyond description. Over the water the waves were tight and all white capped. The cat’s claws on the water’s surface were delicate given the force of the wind, and the foam was in perfectly parallel lines into the wind. The wind in the grasses and on the ponds of the tundra was gorgeous; wave after wave ran through the grass.

There were birds everywhere in the air – jaegers, terns, gulls, phalaropes, Brant – even a flock of snow geese on the ground. I’m not sure if they were just scared up by the chopper or if they were out cruising. Half a dozen caribou ran beneath us. The tundra was broken into polygons and ponds – beautiful, soggy, mosquito-ridden land. Snow was scudding along the ground, blowing, and driven across the tundra beneath me in white sheets.

The helicopter was also wild. The wind pushed it – the way a car skids sideways in the snow, the chopper skidded in the air. Driven by the wind the tail slid sideways, and several times I noticed that although we were moving forward, there was also lateral movement.

Landing in Barrow, Craig met me; he made the call to have me come in, concerned that the island, which is only 9′ above sea level at the highest point, would be washed over by waves and I would have nowhere to retreat. He thought I would be angry at being called in and asked how it was out there.”Fuckin’ awful,” I said but laughed and recanted. I didn’t feel in danger or need of rescue but made it clear I was happy to be in Barrow – where I could stand upright and eat something other than peanut butter and jelly.

We drove around town to check out the storm. The road to NARL and ARF was closed – washed out by the surf. They were working frantically to keep the road between Browerville and Barrow open, piling sand up with dozers, hoping it wouldn’t wash out. The wind and waves were phenomenal. It was quite the scene.

I had a shower and spent the night on a comfy air mattress… Aaaaah. Three showers in three weeks. That’s crazy.

By morning, the storm subsided, and the road crew had the road open again. Craig took me over to the ARF. I got a lot of hugs; they told me that they were laying bets on whether I would pop my PLB (personal locator beacon – an emergency distress call that alerts search and rescue that you are in need of help) but decided that was no good because they knew I wouldn’t. The final story: sustained winds of 56 mph and gusts in the 70s. Highest Gust: 79 mph.

So, I went beachcombing with the folks from ARF, cut off a seal’s head (for the skull to go to the research collection), saw lots of birds, and found a baby seal working its way across Point Barrow. We grabbed it by the flippers and carried it to the water. The day was incredibly cold and raw; we went as far as the boat launch before turning back. Back at ARF, everyone pitched in with ingredients and help, and we made two giant dishes of enchiladas.

Yesterday was just as cold and raw and nasty, and snowing steadily. Craig was ready for a boat trip, so after a huge preparation scene with a ton of people, we got it all together, loaded the gear, including a new tent, got to the boat launch and decided it was still too rough and windy and yukky. Retreat. Plan B.

Somewhere late last night, after crashing at the ARF, Craig called to see if I was ready to go – it sounded like he was 50/50 for going then or in the morning. I was 100% for the morning. The thought of facing the camp in the middle of the night was too much – I would have been compelled to clean it up with zero sleep. We didn’t go, but orders were, be ready by 0700.

Checking out the Lagoon in the morning, we decided it was a go. The boat trip was wet and rough; the seas were high, it was grey, and sleeting/snowing. We saw murres and a puffin and lots of Sabines. We followed the archipelago east and then cut across to the south to avoid the currents in the cut between Tapkaluq and Cooper but went too far east on the coast bypassing the island. It was cloudy with little horizon so easy to misjudge, we figured out our location, and working back to Cooper, landed on the west end of the island.

The camp was trashed. The cook tent blew 10’ or 15’ and was lying on its side open, full of sand and water. The tarp stayed with its stakes; the tent blew out from underneath; the fly was shredded. My tent blew about 20’ and was stopped, it seems, by the 5-gallon water container and the munitions box full of banding gear that I tied to the fly. It was thrown around a bit, and the poles were bent but mostly functional. George’s tent is badly worn but stayed more or less where it was, and the fly is shredded.

We set up the new tent, and the antenna. Craig radioed Dave. I emptied my sleep tent into the new tent, resetting the old tent as the new cook tent. Everything in my tent was thrown around, but it wasn’t too wet or ruined. The abandoned sandwich flipped and stuck to the radio case. The forgotten data books were all there and intact. Phew.

Craig had to leave before the wind picked up and I was, again, on Cooper alone with a lot of cleaning up and general mayhem to contain. I worked on the tents for a while. There was a chick hiding in camp, I figured out where it belonged, and returned it forgetting that George said not to return chicks to their nests – oh well, I only did that one. I ate and then walked the colony.

There is a lot of damage and dead or missing chicks. Serious carnage. All I did was take inventory. Tomorrow I will collect dead chicks and fix what sites I can. Another chick walked through the camp, and I saw a third paddle across the little cove on the Bay in front of camp. George also told me if the chicks aren’t getting enough food they will walk away from their nest site. Wow. There were about 40 chicks that were just gone from their nests. The predators, the storm, and the snow have taken their tolls. I finished rebuilding camp – well for the day. I walked to the other end of the tundra patch this afternoon. There was evidence of the waves washing over the island at the narrowest point, a whole new wrack line, and all sorts of new stuff on the shore. One of the giant tanks moved by the ice push is about 100 yds from where it was – the surf is roaring, and it is cold again. Summer is long gone, and winter is well on its way. Enough, I must sleep.