LARAMIE, WYOMING– During last week, the weather steadily turned from cold and overcast to warm and sunny. On the first day of good conditions we launched in the morning and captured a bear shortly thereafter. After the capture we were nearing Deadhorse in the helicopter to refuel when a warning lit for the main rotor transmission. We had no problem getting home, but then we were grounded until we could get a new transmission and an additional mechanic for installation. It was frustrating to have waited out bad weather only to be grounded as the skies cleared. Mechanical problems are difficult to avoid; we already had needed a new battery and a door repair. Our second helicopter returned to refuel as well and we made new plans: we would continue capturing from a single aircraft, with reduced personnel and gear. We kept essential gear but reduced sampling equipment to a minimum. Unfortunately we did not encounter another bear that day. The parts and mechanic were on the next flight to Deadhorse and amazingly, the new transmission was in and the check flight was completed by mid-afternoon the next day.
Temperatures climbed into the 30s and 40s (Fahrenheit) and the skies continued to clear, allowing us several long days of excellent flying. Tracking conditions had been poor because sunlight becomes quite flat with low overcast skies, making it difficult to see tracks. Clear skies and direct sunlight made tracks easier to see. However, after several days the warm temperatures began to melt out all tracks, making it difficult to distinguish fresh tracks from new tracks.
We captured several sows with cubs, and an adult female and an adult male that were most likely a breeding pair. As we have all season, we fitted some of these bears with GPS collars which periodically record time, date, location, ambient temperature, bear activity, and salt water immersion (as a record of swimming). This data is stored on the collar and it is transmitted to satellite twice per day, allowing us to track the bear in real-time. We will use these collars to locate bears for recapture in the fall. For the possibility that we may not be able to recapture some bears, the collars are programmed to release in November and fall off the animal.
During this last week, I thought about how brutal this environment would be for any living thing that was not prepared. The sea ice and tundra is a beautiful, intriguing area, and I really enjoy spending time here. However, I know I am out of place. For example, I usually carry some kind of emergency fire-starter while doing field work (thankfully, I have not used it). But here, there is almost nothing to burn – some driftwood pokes out of the snow along the coast, but there is nothing on the sea ice. I enjoy cold, snowy regions and I have spent a lot of time doing winter field work and skiing, and the Arctic is quite different than anywhere else I have been. The environment makes the cultures which have thrived up here all the more interesting.
Sea ice breakup continued. One day we flew about 140 miles northeast of Deadhorse to look for bears and on the return flight, we encountered a new lead of open water that looked to be over a mile wide – it had opened that afternoon. Our pilot calculated the ice in the area was moving about a third of a mile per hour.
Our last flight day arrived quickly. We flew in the morning but did not find any bears, then returned to Deadhorse to begin packing up. For over a month, I had woken up every day prepared to fly and to work with polar bears and it was surprising how quickly everything changed. We broke down all of the lab equipment, packed it into crates, and cleaned the living space. Over three days our research team departed on the daily flights to Anchorage. I was the last to leave on Friday evening, turning down the heat in the living space, turning off the lights, and locking the doors behind me.
I landed in Anchorage for an overnight layover and it felt like stepping into a different world. The northern coast of Alaska is treeless and it was still coated with ice and snow, while Anchorage, on the south-central coast, seemed to be teeming with green trees and summer warmth. From Anchorage, I flew to Seattle then Denver, took a bus to Fort Collins, and finally got a ride to Laramie. I am glad to be home.