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Science Underway in the Tundra

Journal Entry 10: Sunday, July 27, 2008

COLVILLE RIVER, ALASKA– The four-person crew for this second float of the summer is led by Greta Myerchin and myself, both veterans of the first trip (Nimiuktuk/Noatak) and familiar with the science and wilderness protocols. We’re joined by Ben Gaglioti, a graduate student in biology and master of Arctic vegetation, and Ty Spaulding, an undergraduate biology major at University of Alaska Anchorage with an obsession for wolves that is revealed in sprawling tattoos.

Our first sampling site and campsite. Yes, this is actually a river, not a lake, as it sometimes seems.

The new crew quickly became familiar with the sampling protocol, and science is underway in the remote Arctic tundra. We are sampling in locations where old and new photographs of the same landscape show that changes in vegetation have occurred in certain areas, while others are unchanged. Specifically, we are interested in comparing plant, soil, and environmental properties between areas that have changed and those that have not changed. Because we seek to generalize about large parts of the Arctic, we are floating across Arctic Alaska and sampling where this ‘repeat photography’ is available.

After one day of field work, we broke camp in the morning and loaded the raft to head downstream. Besides abundant bird life, we saw a lone bull musk ox on a sandbar and observed him through binoculars before continuing.

At the end of the 11-hour float – on the last corner – we faced the monster of all headwinds and actually had to get out of the boat and “line” the raft downstream against the backward-flowing surface current. “Lining” is where one or two people walk in shallow water, pulling the boat by the bow line, while another person uses a paddle to keep the boat from beaching. The windstorm crescendo-ed as we broke camp in the meager protection of shrubs, and we experienced the strongest summer windstorm of my time in the Arctic (thankfully, from inside our sturdy tents).

Today was a successful science day, and we are all tired. I get the sense, for better or worse, that there will many long days of science, and many long days of boating.

The old photo is from 1949, and the new one is from 2001. Our second campsite is just off the left-hand side of the photo, and we spent several days traversing and studying the facing slope pictured.
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