Arriving at a new field station is always a bit overwhelming. As I unpacked my suitcase in my newest field home, disoriented and jet lagged, I decided that taking a nap would be the best possible use of my time. I threw my sleeping bag on top of the nearest bunk, and climbed into it to hide for a few hours. I was almost asleep when my attention was caught by the strangest noise: a sort of rolling honk. Still in the sleeping bag, I sat up to stare blearily out the window – and realized that the sounds were coming from a pair of large birds just across the river. “Oh, emus – how cool,” I thought to myself happily – and promptly closed my eyes again.
I woke up hours later, still disoriented (and probably drooling). As I looked around the rough wooden walls, it took me a moment to remember where I was. A glance out the window revealed a vista of white: flat, empty, snow covered land stretching to the horizon. Right, I remembered: Alaska – specifically, a tiny field station in the western part of the state, between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.
But then…how to explain the emus?
When I finished undergrad, I decided to take at least a year off from school (and real life), and spend it getting as many field jobs as I could in the coolest places I could find. Alaska was at the top of my wish list of destinations. I had several highly romantic (and highly unrealistic) notions about Alaska. I pictured tall, rugged, untamed mountain ranges standing blue against the horizon, rivers crashing down waterfalls into secluded lakes, and – of course – glaciers gleaming under the never-setting sun. I was determined to do fieldwork in this iconic wilderness.
So when I was offered a job as field assistant to a PhD student studying shorebirds in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, I jumped at the chance. I immediately headed out to buy the Lonely Planet guide to Alaska, and eagerly leafed through looking for information about my destination. If I was surprised (and a bit alarmed) to find that Bethel – the town closest to the field station – wasn’t even in the guide, I was even more perturbed by the general information about the YK Delta region: you won’t get there, and there’s no reason to, so don’t worry about it.
Perhaps that should have tipped me off that the situation might not be exactly what I was expecting. But my arrival at Kanaryarmiut Field Station (pronounced Kanaugiak, for those who are curious) still came as a shock. As the helicopter descended towards the station on a cold winter day, I stared in consternation at the flat plain below me. If I squinted at the horizon, I could just make out the silhouette of a far off mountain range – otherwise, it was just a flat sheet of snow as far as the eye could see.
I was bitterly disappointed. Admittedly, I had been told that the land around Kanaryarmiut was a combination of tundra and lowland meadow – but that information had somehow failed to penetrate my excited daze. Of course, it didn’t help that I’d come there directly from a field job in Hawaii – or that when I arrived, the field station was buried under a layer of snow neck deep.
Better people than me would recognize the beauty of the tundra instantly. But I was cold, cranky, disoriented, and very, very let down. I wanted mountains, I wanted lakes – I wanted dramatic, iconic Alaskan scenery, not this dull and dreary landscape. And so appreciating the quiet splendour of my new flat home took me awhile.
Working on the tundra also posed a number of unique challenges. For one thing, it made catching birds very difficult. Trapping the shorebirds involved placing an open net around their nests, and waiting nearby, hidden under camouflage netting. Once the birds had settled down to incubate, we’d pull the string that would release the net, allowing it to close over the nest. Unfortunately, birds are not stupid, and even camouflage netting doesn’t do much to disguise the only bump on the tundra for miles – so we often had a pretty long wait.
Then, of course, there were the sloughs to contend with. These were dotted about the landscape: patches of wet grass that looked like nothing more than puddles – until you stepped into them, and realized the hard way that they were several feet deep. For some reason, fieldwork is not as much fun when you’re soaking wet. But slowly and steadily, the tundra won me over. It took awhile, but eventually I realized that the combination of dry tundra and wet meadow was anything but monochromatic. I started to notice the all-encompassing sky – which made the sunsets among the most dramatic I’d ever seen.
It also dawned on me that the treeless, open landscape allowed for incredible encounters with wild animals. From being dived-bombed by long-tailed jaegers, to being rushed by a hissing mink protecting its booty (a headless Canada goose corpse), there was no shortage of wildlife drama. At one of our sites, an American golden plover pair nested right by the entrance – every time we passed them, they would try to lead us away from the nest with their convincing broken wing displays. And dotted about the tundra like landmines were willow ptarmigan nests. These birds blend in so well with the landscape that it was almost impossible to see them until you were about to step on them – at which point, they would explode upwards with a squawk, often releasing a riot of fluffy chicks to run in all directions.
But you’re probably still wondering about those emus.
At dinner the night after my sighting, I casually mentioned seeing a noisy group of very large birds. (Obviously I wasn’t going to tell my coworkers that I thought I’d seen emus in Alaska – there are some things that a fledgling ornithologist should never admit.) The response was instant: I had undoubtedly seen a group of sandhill cranes.
At first, I was unimpressed. Unlike their relatives, whooping cranes, sandhill cranes are quite common birds. But later that evening, as I watched the pair across from my window scoop up mud and preen it into their feathers (to generate their rust-coloured breeding plumage) , I changed my mind. It’s hard to watch cranes for any length of time without being struck by their elegance – not to mention their unique calls.
And in the end, my experience in Alaska was a bit like those sandhill cranes. I thought I was going to see something exotic and showy. Instead what I got was a common bird (dipped in dirt, no less) – that turned out to be so much more amazing than I had thought. Over the course of those few months, Alaska certainly taught me a lesson. The flat plain of the YK Delta lacks the obvious drama of those iconic Alaskan mountains. But if you look closely, there are subtle dramas everywhere.