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The Home Stretch

Journal Entry 16: Thursday, August 7, 2008

COLVILLE RIVER, ALASKA– The science has reached the home stretch now, as has the entire summer’s field effort. We got a break in the cloudy weather last night, and sat around a fire labeling sample bags and weighing/organizing samples. Today, another long day of sampling, and tomorrow, we only need to execute some exploratory sampling before packing up and floating down for the pick-up. Yeehaw!

Greta, Ty, and Ben organizing, weighing, and labeling samples next to the fire.

Journal Entry 17: Sunday, August 10, 2008


We awoke to a headwind several days ago and the last section of floating down to Umiat – which we anticipated to be the metaphoric victory lap of the trip – was, in fact, just another lap.

We landed and deflated the raft at Umiat, a remote logistics outpost with a couple dozen workers, most from Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC). Greta and Ben walked the half-mile from the river to the camp, and they returned with a truck driven by an Inupiat guy I knew from my high school days in Fairbanks.

Not exactly.

As before, in the village of Noatak, we are again camped at the end of the runway in Umiat. Abe Stein and the rest of the small crew at Umiat have been very welcoming, allowing us to hang out in heated buildings and utilize the internet connection and solitary phone. On a walk one morning, Greta and I saw a large, lone black wolf, purportedly the Alpha of the pack.

Umiat is a fitting end to our journey, because the old aerial photographs that we’re using to guide our sampling were actually flown out of Umiat in the late 1940’s. Back in those days, Umiat was a Navy base used as a staging ground for geologic reconnaissance and resource exploration. Not too much has changed. Again, the U.S. is at war, and again there is considerable oil and natural gas exploration staged out of Umiat. Now, though, the logistics are being run by an Inupiat outfit (UIC), instead of the military. Amazingly, a dozen or so of the old military Quonset huts still remain here, and the old two-storey tower near the runway has a fresh coat of paint.

I think this plane is called a “skyvan,” and you can see why. Also note the old (but operational) Umiat runway control tower, next to the “Wien” (an old name in Alaskan aviation) Quonset hut.

These expeditions seems to end in stages, making it hard to clearly delineate a point in time when we can all breathe a sigh of relief. One sigh comes when the sampling is complete, one when the boating is complete, one when the flying is complete, and so on and so forth. Our work won’t truly be done until we have some substantial scientific figures and can make those available to a broader audience. So, at the end of each stage is a small sigh of satisfaction and a recognition of the road that lies ahead. At least this next stage will put an end to the persistent food and (now) beer fantasies!

Joking aside, it is Day 18, and we are down to <2/3 liter of fuel and a few freeze dried meals, so the clock is ticking. Umiat is stocked with food, but lunch is $40 and dinner is $60, so hunger is knocking on the door. We had the option to fly out from any gravel bar on the river, and in spite of the outrageous cost of food, we are grateful for the safety net.

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One Response »

  1. Neat story, I like finding remote and obscure places on google maps and searching for pictures to see what it looks like there. In this case I spotted umiat airport on a map and searched it and I found this great website and your interesting story. I’d love to go on an adventure like that someday.