Things I had to learn the hard way during my first winter in Alaska

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Emily Williams, an Avian Biologist who left her warm home in Florida to work at the chilly (might be an understatement) Denali National Park and Preserve. For more about Emily, check out the end of the post!

I usually scoff when I hear stereotypes or clichés that are used to generalize people that come from a certain state or region of the country. Beyond a personal aversion to phrases such as “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” I am always quick to point out when most people break the stereotypical mold.

As a person from Florida, I am no stranger to southern sayings. I’ve heard them my entire life – and can hold my own in a discussion about the differences between being southern, country, or redneck. While I may be from Florida, I often don’t claim my latitudinal roots because I am easily captivated by topography, cool temperatures, and an absence of urban sprawl. If anyone ever attempts to call me a southern belle or a Florida girl, I am quick with a terse response, usually containing an expletive or two.

But as much as it makes me cringe to say it, I have to admit that the phrase “Florida girl” – in reference to yours truly – couldn’t ring more true than it has over the past few months while I’ve been living in Alaska.

Let’s step back a minute so I can regain some of my last remaining bits of dignity, despite what I just very publicly admitted. Over the past nine years I’ve been doing field work, I have faced a number of the trials, tribulations, and “less than ideal” conditions that characterize a typical field job, and then some. I’ve found myself in the seed tick and mosquito-infested scrub of Maryland, where not an inch of skin was not red and itchy; I’ve (very stupidly) forded chest-high rushing rivers and cascaded down landslides in Manu National Park, Peru; I’ve careened my way driving stick through 5-o’clock traffic in the heart of Brisbane on the wrong (left) side of the road; I’ve slogged through 10-foot tall grass lugging 50 lbs of trapping equipment;  I’ve bartered with capuchins over who would win the revered sheet of toilet paper; and the list goes on.

capuchin looking over the side of the roof

Capuchins were always slinking around our field station in Peru. We frequently caught them stealing our food, in addition to the toilet paper.

In each of these situations, while much of the hazardous, chaotic excitement occurred unexpectedly, I usually felt prepared for whatever might come. Most of my friends and family would use those words to describe me:  “prepared,” “organized,” “plans everything ahead.” Given these particular traits, I usually can pass as someone who knows a thing or two, or at least as someone who doesn’t act like a noob in a new, foreign environment.

Now fast forward to May 2016, when I took a position at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Being an organized, well prepared person, I had solicited the advice of countless locals, my landlords, my supervisors, coworkers, friends, people off the street, etc.

winter sleeping bag and booties

This is a -60◦F sleeping bag I bought as part of my car winter survival kit. You can see it’s huge in comparison to my hiking boot, and stands several inches from the floor. Most guides recommend stocking your car with a sleeping bag in case you get stuck somewhere and have to sleep overnight. The temperature rating should be between -40 and -60◦F to ensure you don’t freeze to death. I also bought down booties to wear for winter camping.

– anyone who knew more than I did about life in Alaska, or more specifically, how to survive the winter in Alaska. Knowing that the winter basically begins at the end of September, I figured had roughly four months to prepare (May – August). I had researched several websites and good sources of information about how to prepare a car winter survival kit – which must contain such essential items as a heat source, way to ignite said heat source, and any number of items that in effect guarantee you won’t freeze to death if you happen to plow into a snow bank/slide off the road and get stuck overnight.

Alaska, as a state and a culture, has won the hearts of many Americans and people throughout the world, as it has been popularized over the last several years by reality tv shows such as “Bush People,” “Alaska, the Last Frontier,” and “Deadliest Catch” . You also can’t understate the important role Sarah Palin played in bringing Alaska to fame. Several of these “reality” tv shows (and Sarah Palin) trivialize and form a caricature of life in Alaska. Yet, many of the shows’ aspects which highlight preparation for cold, snowy winters and long, sunlight-less days and nights are no joke.

Alaska, true to the cliché, is entirely a land of extremes. In interior Alaska where I live, winter lasts for eight to nine months of the year. Days and weeks of -40F are a regular occurrence, and wind chill can cause temperatures to feel like -55 or -65F. (The bikini and board short shots of students in front of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks sign proudly displaying -60F is really a thing.) The landscape looks like a  barren, snowy wasteland: deciduous trees and vegetation are stripped of their foliage, many species of wildlife are hibernating, and everything is blanketed in white. On the shortest day of the year in the Denali area, we receive just under four hours of sunlight. That’s also not to say we don’t experience months of low light before and after Winter Solstice. Even the light we do receive is at less than half mast; the angle of the sun is so low in many parts of interior Alaska that it doesn’t reach over mountain tops, causing valleys and anywhere at low elevation to be largely in shadow.

landscape of Denali National Park

The landscape of Denali National Park and Preserve in the winter can be a forbidding, albeit beautiful place, with subzero temperatures, chilling wind, and heaps of snow. NPS Photo/Jacob Frank

While all the research, advice, and hundreds of dollars spent on equipment could help prepare me to some extent, nothing could actually prepare me for truly experiencing winter in Alaska. Or, for that matter, conducting my first winter field season – in a subarctic ecosystem.

This year the avian ecology program at Denali is piloting a study on Gray Jays – a charismatic denizen of the boreal forest. Unlike most birds, which start breeding in April and May, Gray Jays start nest building by late February. Which means that us crazy folks who study these oversized chickadees (in my opinion) must be out there with them – come hell (frozen over) or high water (or snow).

To conduct field work in Alaska during February, March, and April, one must be prepared for all conditions – be it blowing wind and snow directly to the face, -25F temperatures (give or take another -5 to -15 degrees  with wind chill), freezing rain, or waist-high snow to post-hole in.

Emily in the deep snow

My knees are just above the surface of the snow in this photo. This was before we received an additional two feet of snow a couple of weeks later!

While I have researched and talked to many people about how to clothe myself during subzero temperatures, all the talking in the world doesn’t really help, to be honest. There’s really no way to describe what -30F feels like until you actually feel it. Each time the temperature gets lower I receive a new experience. How could you know what -40F feels like when you’ve only just felt -29F?!

The best way I have learned what to wear in such temperatures is to go outside, suffer persevere through it, and figure it out. One thing I learned while living here is that there are multiple “weights” to base layers. A summer spent working on wind farms in Wyoming, where it snowed until June and could be bitterly cold and windy, still didn’t instill this knowledge. I naively assumed that one wore long johns and that was it – little did I know that there are sometimes 2, 3, and 4 under layers to choose from!

I feel as if most everyone in the lower ’48 told me the best way to prepare for winter is to layer up. Layer, layer, layer. However, what I didn’t realize is that layering can also sink you. Dressing to stay warm for subzero temperatures while also doing strenuous activity is a constant balancing act; one must walk a tenuous tightrope between trying to be warm, but not too warm.

gray jays on top of the trap

Two Gray Jays having a discussion about whether to pursue the delicious bread inside the Potter trap. Photo by John Marzluff.

Field work at Denali during this time of year involves snowshoeing on mountainous terrain that is oftentimes more uphill than downhill – which can quickly cause you to sweat (despite the -20F surroundings!). Working with Gray Jays and trying to find their nests means that bursts of strenuous hiking are broken up by hours-long periods of standing still, making observations.

Emily bundled up with a Gray Jay in her hand

Winter trapping of Gray Jays involves much more clothing than I am generally used to wearing when capturing birds: most days only my eyes are exposed.

Wearing too many layers in such cases can swiftly cause you to become hypothermic, as all that sweat acts to cool your body down. Wearing down, which I previously had been told was the warmest jacket material, only compounds this problem. Sweat can cause down to get wet – so that all the magical insulating properties of down feathers are virtually rendered useless, and ultimately only serve to make you colder.

Another hard lesson I had to learn by living it was that cold temperatures make things freeze. Who knew?! Having never had to think about it before, I left my full Nalgene of water secured in my backpack in the field vehicle one night. The next morning, when I went to grab my bottle, I ended up grabbing just the top lid – the lid had broken cleanly off from the rest of the bottle! The water within had expanded during the freezing process and completely burst the bottle. Of course, as the structural integrity of the Nalgene had been compromised, my pack was now covered in thousands of tiny crystals of ice, which meant that I had to air out (in a heated room) all the contents of my bag. Along these same lines, after a frozen salad incident subsequently concluding in a very hangry biologist, I learned to keep field food (and water!) insulated in my pack.

This is just a small sample of the lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way during my first winter field season in Alaska.

While I have chiefly highlighted the harshness of living and working in Alaska for this blog post, I cannot emphasize enough how amazingly beautiful this place is. I count my lucky stars every day that I have been granted such an amazing opportunity to live and work in a place such as Denali. The good stories full of nights of aurora borealis gazing, cool, quiet mornings listening to birdsong, unexpected encounters with wolves, and quirky Alaska-isms far outweigh the bad.

looking up to the nest in the tree

A Gray Jay nest high up in a spruce tree. NPS Photo/Reina Galvan

While my usual, overprepared self had many growing pains and much knowledge to gain this year, I am sure there will be many more adventures to come for this Florida girl digging life in the Great White North of Alaska.

Opinions on this blog post are my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.

Emily WilliamsEmily Williams completed her MSc degree at Kansas State University and now works as an Avian Biologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s research focuses on dispersal and migration ecology of birds. While her heart still remains with the Grasshopper Sparrows of the tallgrass prairie, she is excited to work among the boreal forests chasing Gray Jays and other arctic birds.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

For more info:

Emily Williams: http://www.aliceboyle.net/BoyleLab/BoyleLab_EJWilliams.html

Denali National Park and Preserve bird page: https://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/nature/birds.htm

UAF swimsuit photo: http://www.photos.uaf.edu/keyword/temperature%20sign

A Thanksgiving meal, right out of the field

We are so excited to welcome Jennifer MacMillan back to the blog today. Earlier in 2015, Jennifer told us about her time spent on exchange in New Zealand. Now she is back, and this time tells us a rather appropriately-timed story about enjoying a Thanksgiving meal, right from the field. Happy Thanksgiving to Jennifer, and all of our American readers/posters! We are so thankful for all of you. For more about Jennifer, see the end of this post. 

Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday. Everything about it is awesome: the food, the family, the fun times. But the main reason I love this day is because I get to celebrate it twice a year.

I have dual Canadian and United States citizenship. Along with other perks, this means I have the pleasure of over-eating on the second Monday in October and the fourth Thursday in November every year.

Since graduating from a Canadian university, I have been working in the States. I am currently in Alaska working for the Division of Agriculture as a Field Technician at the Plant Materials Center (PMC). The main focus of the PMC is the production of native plants and traditional crops. I spend my days on a 400 acre farm where I maintain greenhouses and fields while assisting with the Horticulture Program’s Observation Variety Trials. We evaluate cauliflower, broccoli, apples, asparagus, and potatoes to see how well they hold up in the Alaskan climate.

Our Potato Greenhouse getting started.

Our Potato Greenhouse getting started.

 A bucket of Romanesco that was measured for Broccoli Trials.

A bucket of Romanesco that was measured for Broccoli Trials.

Conveniently, harvest came just in time for Canadian Thanksgiving. Lucky for me, I helped plant pretty much every side dish you can imagine and was definitely excited to collect my reward. Also, the PMC has a staff full of avid hunters so between moose, caribou, and sandhill cranes, there were more than enough meat options on the table. I even helped add fish to the menu!

Small Halibut are called “Chickens”, a perfect substitute for turkey.

Small Halibut are called “Chickens”, a perfect substitute for turkey.

Regardless of where I am for the holidays, I am lucky that I always have a diverse group of interesting and entertaining people around to break bread with on Thanksgiving. No matter which month we celebrate.

Small Halibut are called “Chickens”, a perfect substitute for turkey.

Jennifer is currently working  for the Division of Agriculture as a Field Technician at the Plant Materials Center in Alaska. Jennifer completed her BScH at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, Canada, studying masting in sugar maple trees. She is an avid cyclist and nature-lover.

A day in the life of a field biologist

This week, we continue our theme of remote fieldwork with a post from Mikaela Howie about her experiences studying seabirds in the isolated eastern Aleutian Islands of Alaska.  To hear more about her experience and research, make sure to check out her short film and podcast, produced by Wild Lens!

What does it mean to be a field biologist, really?

It means spending much of your life out of touch with family and friends, having dirt under your fingernails more often than not, and calling multiple states, or countries, home in a given year.  You want to sign up, don’t you?

Ok, ok, so that is some of the nittty gritty of being a field biologist.  But of course, as with any venture, there are positives just as there are negatives.  And for some of us, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Meet the neighbours: Stellar sea lions lounging at Pleasure Cove

Meet the neighbours: Stellar sea lions lounging at Pleasure Cove

Freshly hatched black oystercatcher chick

Freshly hatched black oystercatcher chick

So, what are the positives?  Well, if you have an adventurous spirit, the plain and simple adventure of being in the field should be incentive enough.  But, what about getting to live on an island and calling endangered Steller sea lions your neighbors and watching whales pass by as an evening pastime?  How about witnessing the hatching of a black oystercatcher chick or thinking the spinning vortex of hundreds (thousands?) of tufted puffins flying just outside your cabin is a normal everyday occurrence?  These are only some of the experiences I added to my repertoire during my summer field job on Aiktak island, chronicled in a short film produced by Wild Lens.

Aiktak is a small island of 155 hectares out in the middle of the eastern Aleutians that myself and one other crew member called home for 3.5 months, along with the many field biologists that came before us and those that have followed.  The island itself is home to more than 100,000 tufted puffins, ancient murrelets, leach’s and fork-tailed storm petrels, horned puffins, cormorants, black oystercatchers and glaucous-winged gulls – not to mention the other avian visitors and marine mammals – during the summer months.

A typical day on the island is waking to, not the sound of an alarm, but the ever-present chatter of the gulls and, likely, the pitter-patter of rain or the whiteness of the Aleutian fog.  One key advantage to working with seabirds is there is no need to get up at the crack of dawn like songbird work demands.  Yes, you might get to sleep in but you are probably still a bit groggy from having spent the wee hours of the night mist netting storm petrels for diet samples or capturing  fledging ancient murrelets on film.  But you pull it together with a large breakfast of an omelet, compliments of dehydrated egg powder, a bagel with homemade blueberry jam, and a large homemade latte…again, compliments of dehydrated dairy products.

After suiting up with gauntlets, Helly Hansen’s, and Xtratuf boots, you head out to the first of 20 storm petrel plots where your task is to “grub” in each burrow and use your fingers to determine the status of each nest – egg, chick, or possibly rather upset incubating adult.  You trudge along from plot to plot, making note that the bald eagles are still sitting on eggs, the sea lions are lounging at Pleasure Cove and there is a playful sea otter off the coast of Petrel Valley Cove.

Suited up and ready for grubbing!

Suited up and ready for grubbing!

After a long afternoon of hiking the island, checking up on the storm petrel burrows and trying to locate some more tufted and horned puffin nests, you make your way back to the Puffin Palace, the only accommodation on Aiktak, and settle in to making a good meal and data work.

Home sweet home: Puffin Palace

Home sweet home: Puffin Palace

Many people think that you all you have to eat in the field is pork & beans and canned spinach, and yes, sometimes we do eat these things.  But, one of the beauties of field work in wonderfully remote places like the Aleutian islands is that there are plenty of edible plants to supplement your diet, as well as fishing, of course.  You do need to do your research and bring along a good, dependable field guide to help you sort out the edibles from the hurt-your-stomach berries, leaves, and flowers.  But after doing my homework, one of the greatest joys I have had as a field biologist is seeking out edible plants, and collecting, drying and preparing them to use in our meals.  On Aiktak, we were surrounded by an ever-changing landscape as the season progressed from brown to green to colourful wildflowers everywhere!  Some of our edible favourites were spring beauties (leaves and flowers) and wild rhubarb leaves for salads, fried daffodil buds for an appetizer, and dried seaweed and kelp for pizzas and lasagna.  Yup, we made lasagna while on the island!

Some of the spectacular wildflowers of Aiktak.

Some of the spectacular wildflowers of Aiktak.

...and some of the even more spectacular cooking.  A rock kelp greenling (caught by yours truly), and an edible plant salad of spring beauty, rhubarb, and daffodil leaves with monkey flower blossoms on top!

…and some of the even more spectacular cooking. A rock kelp greenling (caught by yours truly), and an edible plant salad of spring beauty, rhubarb, and daffodil leaves with monkey flower blossoms on top!

Feeling full in your belly and having done the dishes and entered the day’s data, it’s time to do a little self-maintenance down at the creek where the local Aleutian green-winged teals are enjoying the quiet and uncommonly calm evening.  The cold water stings a bit but, using the bathe bucket, you grit your teeth and pour it over you anyway, knowing that the feeling of clean hair and skin will be well worth it as you sip hot tea in your bunk that night.  Some people would not dare to take these cold baths, but it is no secret that I cherish these times.  Yes, a hot shower is a welcome commodity at the end of the field season, but how many people get to say they bathed in the Bering Sea?  I would gamble that any who answer yes refer to themselves as humble field biologists.

A calm moment catching the sunset from Old Camp Beach, Aiktak

A calm moment catching the sunset from Old Camp Beach, Aiktak

Mikaela in action, monitoring murres on Aiktak.

Mikaela in action, monitoring murres on Aiktak.

Mikaela Gioia Howie hails from a European family and has spent the last 10+ years working as a wildlife researcher and obtaining a MS in Biology from the College of William & Mary.  Having lived and worked in many different places, including Alaska, Maine, Ohio and Spain, she currently resides in Bozeman, MT where skiing and fishing are her favourite pastimes.  She is entertaining the idea of returning to school to pursue a PhD in wildlife biology, but who knows what new adventure will entice her back out into the field!  To find out more about Mikaela’s experiences on Aiktak, make sure to watch her film, listen to her podcast, and visit the blog she maintained while on the island. 

The rarest, quietest lessons

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.

Kanaryarmiut Field Station in early spring

Kanaryarmiut Field Station in early spring

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.

Where's Waldo: can you spot the biologist?

Where’s Waldo: can you spot the biologist?

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.

So much more colourful than I originally thought!

So much more colourful than I originally thought!

Sunset over the tundra

Sunset over the tundra

An American mink checks out our study site.

An American mink checks out our study site.

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.

A long-tailed jaeger surveys its surroundings.

A long-tailed jaeger surveys its surroundings.

American golden plover performs its broken wing display

American golden plover performs its broken wing display

The real Waldo: a female willow ptarmigan broods her nestlings.

The real Waldo: a female willow ptarmigan broods her nestlings.

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.