Day 0: Dalton Highway to Toolik

My usual musings on life as a young woman will be brought to a pause to share with you a great adventure I have embarked upon.

I left Fairbanks this morning to make the 10-hour drive to UAF’s Toolik Research Station at 283 mile Dalton Highway, also known as the “haul road”, that was constructed to assist in building the pipeline in the 70s. Continue north for several more hours to reach the coast and the Prudhoe Bay oil operation. I rode up with a few other young researchers. It was pretty quiet in the van. The road was dirt, bumps, moose, mud, big trucks, sparse dwellings, 35 mph.

I was very happy in the van. I had a thermos of coffee, good reading material, and plenty of amazing scenery to leisurely digest. Lots of wonderings were rolling through my mind. I had been reading an interview with Craig Childs, author of Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth, where he discusses how insignificant we humans when considered within geologic time. We’re all familiar with this perspective, of course, but he put it in a new way for me. An archaeologist he was once working alongside shared a claim that in 60 million years there will be no evidence whatsoever of our civilization in the fossil record. I mean, this is 60 million years we’re talking, but really? Nothing at all? This really struck me. About how insignificant we are. About how the entire history of human grandeur is a little speck of nothing that will inevitably be undetectable.

So I was pondering this as I was looking out at the vast interior boreal forest as it transitioned to the vaster northern tundra, and I would see a fireweed or a little patch of scraggly spruce, and think, the forest is so humble. The tundra is so humble. It is growing in such wild abandon, for what? For whom? It blossoms and dies without our knowledge or approval. It produces abundantly in the face of enormous insignificance. Alaska is so huge, so lonely. Most of Alaska continues on without our knowing anything of it.

And now here I am, in the middle of that nothingness, at Toolik Field Station. It feels a bit like being on the moon, although there are huge snowy mountains to the south, a medium-sized lake, and tundra as far as you can see. Little boardwalks like zippers allowing researchers access to their projects. The mosquitoes here are, without exaggeration, the worst I have ever seen in my life. Young scientists meandering about. Weather Port tents, a mechanic shop, a big kitchen building, bathrooms on stilts, labs. The sun so bright, even now at 10:48 pm.

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The chefs that Toolik hires are pro. The rumors are true. I had a beet/quinoa/lentil burger, Mexican rice, fresh pico de gallo, za’atar chickpeas, and a gorgeous salad with Alaskan blueberry vinegar upon my arrival. They make their own kefir.

I went for a little hike to stretch the van muscles, happy and tired. It is unbelievably gorgeous here, Alaska at its most incredible beauty.

Tomorrow morning, after breakfast, I will set out with Victor, my research buddy. Victor is 23 and spunky. Victor has been here before and knows the drill. I’m really here to just get my feet wet with squirrel captures and the life of a field researcher. This is all Victor’s project, his squirrels. The squirrels we’ll be capturing are all females living in marked burrows. They already have special data-recording collars. From what I gathered, we’ll drive 10 km south to the Atigun site and hike up to the burrows. Once we find a female, we’ll lure them with a carrot into a large Mason jar. A combination of isoflurane and oxygen will be pumping into the jar, putting the squirrel to sleep. After removing the squirrel a tiny respirator mask will be secured to their snout with the same anesthesia mixture flowing through. We’ll do collar updates and take other measurements. I’m not sure what happens next…do we wait for the little squirrel to wake up and then it sleepily wanders back to its burrow? What if the female in question has babies? These questions will all be answered in time. Victor and I will be gone from breakfast to dinner from tomorrow to Tuesday, looking for the ladies.

As we approached Toolik earlier this evening, I started seeing the little furry animals, standing sentinel alongside the highway or hopping across the tundra. They are ridiculously cute, and I unscientifically squealed whenever I saw one. I’m sure they’ll be just as cute with the mini gas masks.

Tonight I hope to sleep well. The tent is warm, the sun is streaming in, and it is quiet in our remote tundra camp. I have the Weather Port to myself, for now. It’s nice to have a sanctuary within the newness of this all. I’m grateful for my happiness and health and peace. May it last these six days.

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