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Ideas Crystallize

Journal Entry 5: Monday, June 30th, 2008, 1:30pm

NIMIUKTUK RIVER SANDBAR, BROOKS RANGE, ALASKA– Another solid day of sampling and mosquitoes. We are sampling areas documented in repeated photographs over time that show both expanding shrub patches and stagnant shrub patches. The knoll in the comparison photos (in my last dispatch and below) is similar to the one we camped on upstream. Again, at the top, we stumbled upon an ancient cache.

Old and new photos, showing the locations of today’s sampling. The left circled area is an expanding shrub patch; the right is a stagnant one.

All of the good viewpoints in this landscape seem to have considerable evidence of ancient inhabitation. For novice archaeologists such as ourselves, the evidence usually comes in the form of rock piles (caches or cairns), organized rocks, and lush vegetation amidst dry, alpine communities. The rock piles were typically caches for storing food, or cairns for corralling and hunting caribou. The organized stones are usually evidence of old fire circles or tent tie-downs. The lush vegetation indicates fertilization, perhaps resulting from discarded food scraps, campfires, or other human activity. The timelessness of these locations can be quite inspiring.

The science is crystallizing gradually, as our sample size increases and we begin to recognize patterns. The stagnant shrub patches – those that haven’t changed since the 1940’s photos – have been leached of calcareous deposits, and host acidic plant species and large tussocks. On the other hand, the expanding shrub patches are host to non-acidic vegetation, and are devoid of tussocks. This is an exciting preliminary finding, and one that could potentially be extrapolated over large areas, should the lab results agree with our field observations.


Tussocks, for those who haven’t hiked in this area, look like mannequin heads with afros, and they cover most of the landscape. Balancing heavy loads through fields of afros and clouds of mosquitoes contributes to our deteriorating state over the course of a day. This is remote wilderness science, and it often times progresses at the temporary expense of your sanity. I’m logging-out under another ancient cache and another midnight sun.

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2 Responses »

  1. This is good stuff Ken! It’s great to see what crazy adventures your up to!

  2. Would you accommodate a request for a wide angle shot of the stand of poplars at the confluence of the Nimiuktuk and Noatak Rivers? Oh.. if only we could predict the weather (did I mention I’d prefer blue skies in the photo?). It’s raining, foggy & frigid at Toolik Lake. I hope your itinerary includes wiggle room to take a rest day if the weather isn’t favorable for paddling.

    I’m enjoying your dispatches. Your preliminary findings are fabulous!