Where: National Petroleum Reserve, northern AlaskaWhen: June 17 – June 28 (Caribou Calving Season)Who: WCS Scientists – Joel Berger, Jodi Hilty, Kent Redford, Steve Sanderson, and Steve Zack
Over the next 12 days, during 24 hours of daylight, WCS scientists will trek across the remote and vast Alaskan Arctic. Embarking on their journey in Anchorage, the team will travel through Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, spend days rafting up the Utukok River, and eventually arrive in Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States. Their mission? To evaluate how to best conserve Arctic wildlife in the midst of climate change and the region’s expanding energy development.
Detailing the adventure and the conservation issues at hand will be Steve Zack, WCS coordinator for the Pacific West program. As the scientists explore the landscape and encounter wildlife—caribou, wolves, grizzlies, raptors, wolverines, songbirds (and mosquitoes!)—Zack will document the expedition for the New York Times' Scientists at Work blog. Stay tuned as his submissions are posted below.
June 18, 2010, 2:41 PM by STEVE ZACK
Steve Zack, left, with WCS colleagues Kent Redford, Joel Berger, Jodi Hilty, and Steve Sanderson in Anchorage
While packing the waterproof “dry bag” with clothes and supplies from my duffel, I find I am missing the bug hat. I have the right clothes and layers to keep me warm and dry across changing Arctic conditions, but finding the bug hat represents the difference between being sane and insane on warm windless days. It is a baggy net of sanity.
We are at our Anchorage hotel in advance of our journey. Eleven of us, nine eager folks like me and two guides, are preparing for our raft trip down the Utukok River into the Utukok River Uplands Special Area of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
Read more from the New York Times >>
June 22, 2010, 11:08 AM by STEVE ZACK
We woke up to a dense fog that hid even Meat Mountain to the east (yes, Meat Mountain is the name). As it was our first morning on the Utukok River, we hadn’t yet got into the rhythm of breaking camp, floating rafts, and moving on. It took us until 11 a.m. to get on the river. By then, the sun had broken through and we moved along fairly efficiently in our two 16-foot rafts.
We passed close by a dozing grizzly bear on the right bank. As we floated by, the bear lifted its head, but seemed uninterested. After we passed, it roused and slid down a patch of ice, slowing its descent with its front paws.
I had my tent staked down in five places when the gust arrived. The tent erupted up and away, a billowing yellow monster bouncing over Steve Sanderson and heading down the alley of others setting up their tents in the wind. Branden, one of our two guides, tackled it to submission before it disappeared up the Utukok.
We had a day of wonders.
A long-running joke with my nieces, Allison and Lindsay, is that a mistake involving caribou is a “caribou-bou.” Our caribou-bou is now clear. We missed the massive migrations of the Western caribou herd in Alaska by two days. We’ve seen recent tracks everywhere, as well as those of wolves and grizzlies.
The caribou apparently migrated to the coast early, and then clear, warm weather brought an early influx of mosquitoes, so the caribou left for cooler conditions and snowbanks that had not yet melted.
Eleven-plus hours on the Utukok River today. Slow going. We left our Archimedes Ridge camp at 9 a.m. and now are set up at a willowy encampment some hundred yards away from the river. It has been windy, often very windy, for the past four days. Today was cloudless and fairly warm by Arctic standards, perhaps 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This desiccating wind coming from the north has made our rafting slow. We made perhaps 15 miles today with constant paddling. We averaged less than two miles per hour. Moving forward in the Arctic is a constant challenge.
We stopped for a break on a river bank to rest and to find a quiet site for a satellite radio interview of one of our group, Steve Sanderson, the head of the Wildlife Conservation Society. During the interview a grizzly approached from a nearby hill. I and others were taking pictures of this gorgeous bear — golden brown shimmering in the sun. The interview continued as the bear approached within a hundred yards before it abruptly stopped and reversed direction. It was unclear whether it saw us or smelled us.
We arrived at our final camp by midday in a landscape connected by land with Siberia during the Pleistocene; land separated from the rest of North America by immense glacial fields.
We paddled for a few miles. Tomorrow the bush planes will take us to Point Lay and then to Barrow. We are camped in a pebbly beach suitable for bush plane use among the last small uplands before the Utukok River enters the coastal plain to the west.
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