|Journal Entry: Day 13 - June 30, 2006|
A little too enthusiastic about my images my 12th day in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge carried over to the 13th, staying up until 2:30AM again reviewing and working on them. It was tough not to. Reviewing, sorting and rating images until I was too exhausted to stay up any longer I went to bed.
Waking up at 6AM I was very groggy. The long hours and constant activity of hiking and carrying my gear around seems to be taking its toll on me. Not just waking up from the sun, my body was also telling me it desperately needed relief... as they say... nature calls. Getting up in a hurry, think fire drill, I had to negotiate around a very cluttered tent containing my computer gear (laptop, solar charged battery, CF card cases, camera, etc.) Outside it was raining which made me nervous as I needed to pack up all my camera and computer gear and many of my bags were outside over night.
Once back in the tent I prepared three copies of all my images for three separate bags for my trip to Kaktovik and beyond. A copy of all my images from the trip was kept on my CF cards, an image backup device and external hard drive. The image backup device was stored in a Pelican case, the external hard drive was kept in my waterproof camera bag and the CF cards were kept in my jacket pocket. By the time I finished backing up and storing my images it stopped raining so putting everything away was easy. I tried to get breakfast, cold cereal, but by the time I got to the kitchen the milk was gone. I opted for two rye crackers to hold me over until lunch.
I rushed to break down my camp as the group needed to have everything packed and ready to go for our morning flight to Kaktovik. The logistical challenge for the morning was not just getting everything packed, but transporting our gear 3/4 of a mile across the river to the runway. At 7:30 we had everything packed and were on the river. Once across the river we unpacked the rafts and deflated them so as to get them on the plane to Kaktovik.
Tom, a very particular pilot, was flying us out in groups of 2 and 3 depending on the amount of gear placed in the plane. First to fly out was Art, Karel and John. While waiting for Tom to return I passed the time taking photos, but I missed out on key bird and macro photos as the weather started to deteriorate rather quickly. Due to the unpredictability of the weather it’s not uncommon to become stranded while flying out. Groups are often split up in such cases. With the weather quickly becoming overcast and windy I began to worry if this might happen.
After an hour and a half, the weather holding, Tom flew in and I was designated as part of the second flight out. We loaded the plane with as much gear as possible, but in the process Tom dumped out my souvenir water (to explain... a very weird hobby of mine is to collect water from remote areas I travel and have intermittent water parties with friends sampling and comparing water while sharing stories of visiting the remote locations it was taken from). In addition Tom made a fuss over my "small" camera bag that I was going to hold with my camera in it. In the end the bag was put in the cargo hold and I held my camera through out the flight. The difference in space taken was negligible but his reasoning was for safety. The 3 and 4 seat bush planes don't have much room, so the ability to get out quickly in an emergency is key.
I ended up flying out with Sean and Nicole. Bob, Chris and Laurie waited to catch the next flight out. Sitting in the front of the plane I had a great view in front of me and to the side. The flight out was really interesting to me as we flew rather low above the arctic coastal plain. The details of the land could clearly be seen, polygonal tundra land formations, braided rivers, a view of the coast, fog rolling in, etc. We eventually approached Kaktovik, a barrier island at the very northern edge of state that is also the most northern settlement inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Kaktovik was a jaw dropper. I was amazed at how remote, dingy and cold it was. Pack ice was only 1/4 to 1/2 mile off the coast and it was hard to believe I stood at the northern edge of the continent.
Once off the flight we had to weigh our gear. The weight is used to calculate the fees for transportation to and from Kaktovik. Just in case you're curious the gear on our plane totaled 450 pounds. As we moved gear around it was hard not to notice how cold it was. Although we only flew around 50-80 miles north, the temperature was substantially cooler. The wind passing over the arctic ice kept temperatures in the 30's on this overcast summer day.
Ed, an employee with Frontier Air (and as I later found out several other companies), picked us up and took us around town and to the Waldo Arms Hotel. On the drive from the airport to the hotel Ed shared a lot of information about local and regional current events. He informed us how Alaska politicians circumvented the protections afforded to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by leasing out land off the coast for oil exploration (loud sonar would be used to find pockets of oil beneath the sea floor driving away if not harming sea life critical to the survival of the villagers of Kaktovik) and the dismantling/toxic clean up of the Air Force base on the island. Hearing what policies were impacting this small community was rather alarming. If sea life were being impacted off the coast of California, Oregon or Washington by oil exploration millions of people would know. The same being true for a military toxic clean up that could impact a community’s drinking water. I'm not sure if 10's of thousands of people at best were aware of either of these issues.
Kaktovik was quite a sight. The hotel also was a jaw dropper. It required pictures to describe. I knew words wouldn't be enough. The hotel was a bungalow worn down from years of harsh conditions. Outside a colorful hand painted sign on a 4 foot by 5 foot piece of plywood identified the building. Next to the entry way was an ashtray and a picnic table covered in animal skulls and bones (moose and whale it seemed). Walking into the building you had to walk through a small covered hallway and up some stairs. Once inside a musty smell hit your nose. To the left was a coat rack and straight ahead was a living room like area with several musty chairs and couches with very outdated fabrics covering them. The walls were covered with photos of bears, whale harvests, whale baleen, maps and local photos. On one wall a large map of Alaska was visible with a large pin placed where Kaktovik is located. A large bookcase holding hundreds of books, likely used to keep people occupied as they wait for their flight or pass time during the long 9-month winter, covered the other wall.
After putting down my camera bags I ordered a $10 cheeseburger. I was starved. While waiting I hit the bathroom and couldn't believe how I looked. I hadn't seen myself in a mirror in nearly two weeks... scruffy and tan I looked like another person. After the shock of seeing my appearance I passed the time looking at all the photos on the wall. Once my burger was ready I sat down and ate with Sean. Next to us was a 2-person team of Japanese reporters documenting the anniversary of Michio Hoshino's death and on the other side of us was a group of local schoolgirls passing time.
Following lunch a movie was put on (VHS tape on a very small TV), but I opted to walk into town and take photos.
Life in Kaktovik is amazingly different. Although it was a "summer" day temperatures were in the 30's (Fahrenheit). The sky was grey and fog was moving in over the arctic ice cap just off the coast. Homes or bungalows, which are quite small, are raised 2-4 feet off the ground. Some homes have heated plumbing to keep water running the majority of the year. The town is really only 2 - 3 blocks by 3 blocks. Most homes comprise 2/3rds of this area. Many are very small and worn from the elements. Culturally and no doubt impacted by the elements non-food related refuse is placed in each homes yard. Refuse that would attract wild animals like polar bears are placed in severely rusted trash bins intermittently placed along the street. Cars, old vending machines, broken snowmobiles, etc. pile up on most everyone’s yards. Many people also keep hunting trophies on or around their house. One house I walked by had a decaying moose head with antlers near the front entryway.
Clearly members of the town are not visibly wealthy, but many drive ATVs or trucks around town. I found this ironic considering the town is only roughly six blocks in area. Many homes had idle snowmobiles parked in the front. I would imagine most of the year having a vehicle would be helpful if you didn't want to walk in heavy snowdrifts and -50F temperatures. My guess is the state dividend, paid out from the states share of oil drilling fees/licenses, gives many here in Kaktovik a much-needed economic boost.
As I walked around I had a wide spectrum of feelings; I was saddened that conditions were so hard and poor for natives braving this tough environment, I had many flashbacks from being a young kid in Alaska due to seeing trailers and dogs similar to those I grew up in/with, and seeing how the prolonged exposure of man to this sensitive environment has scarred/harmed the land. Sickly looking wildflowers popping up between industrial machinery, oil filled puddles only 100's of yards from the town water reservoir, and rusting machinery spread about the landscape painted a picture in stark contrast to the pristine wilderness that I had the fortune of taking in the previous 12 days. On one hand I ask myself even now, "Who am I to critique their arctic way of life not having endured it year round?" but on the other I'm amazed that resources aren't more strictly protected around town to keep drinking water clean and the town clean of refuse. No doubt the presence of year round permafrost and limited access to the sea from the ice makes it difficult if not too costly to manage waste in a fashion most of us are accustomed to. Compounding the impact to the island environment is the waste, some toxic I would imagine, from the Air Force base, a relic of the Cold War, which is in the process of being scaled back if not decommissioned.
While strolling through town I saw many average activities including young kids riding bikes through puddles, kids at the playground, a dad bicycling and towing his young child behind him, the volunteer fire department running drills at the local school, etc. Although there were a few things going on for the most part it was rather quiet. Having made the rounds through town I realized it was time to check in at the hotel when my hands were nearly numb.
On the way back to the hotel I noticed the airport was no longer visible due to fog. I got back and let Art know. After talking to Art and the hotel staff I found out there needs to be 1 mile of visibility for planes to land. With visibility diminishing we began to worry if we'd be stuck in Kaktovik due to the fog. With a delay possible Art, John and I walked out to the airport to pick up computer gear in the event we got laid over. It was questionable if we'd make it out. Once back to the hotel I checked images, but got side tracked when a wireless network came online. I let my wife and family know I was OK, as I had been completely out of reach the entire length of the trip, and let them know where I was.
We got word our flight was 10 minutes away. No one knew if the pilot would land or head back due to the weather. Everyone got his or her gear together and we all headed out to a school bus to be driven to the airport. It was raining cats and dogs. Once in the bus we were told the flight wasn't in yet. We waited 5 to 10 minutes and then were told against all odds the plane landed. At the same time we were also told there would be limited space for supplies and some items would have to be left for a later flight. Once at the airport we raced to find our gear in an open-air storage area while it continued to rain heavily. Everyone cycled back and forth to load baggage on the plane. Most stuff got on the plane. After I made sure my gear was on the plane I boarded the 16-seat plane. The take off was rough, but we quickly rose out of the rain clouds and I could see the coastline of the island, pack ice and a higher altitude view of the arctic polar cap.
During the flight to Fairbanks I and everyone else fell asleep for some amount of time. Everyone was tired on some level. At the airport we parted ways with Nicole who was flying out to Anchorage that evening. It was a bummer to part ways. I learned quite a bit from Nicole on the trip. The rest of the group took a shuttle back to the hotel we stayed in before departing to the Arctic. At the hotel, a real hotel by modern standards, I brought my gear to my room, unpacked and showered quickly. I met Art, Sean, Karel and John in the lobby. We took a taxi over to Lemon Grass restaurant to have dinner with Bob, Chris and Laurie. Interestingly our taxi driver on the way to the restaurant was insane and left many of us scratching our head in amazement to the conversation he had with us while he stuffed his face with what seemed to be a double serving of fast food. The conversation was random and some how intertwined Mike Tyson, Alaska and random current events. Surviving the taxi ride over to the restaurant we met Bob, Chris and Laurie. At Lemon Grass, a great Thai restaurant, we had a huge dinner and reminisced about the trip. Bob gave us a lift back to the hotel in his truck. Again good byes were tough as Bob, Laurie and Chris were great guides and educators.
Back in my room I continued to unpack, signed a waiver for the show and returned borrowed items to John and Art. Exhausted I tried to muster up the energy to plan a day trip to Denali National Park for my last day in Fairbanks. My planning didn't last long as I was way too tired. I laid down on a very comfortable hotel bed to rest and ended up sleeping for 11 hours. I never did make it to Denali, one of many reasons to return in the future.
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