I sit by the fire in my slowly warming cabin and listen to the trees blowing in the wind of changing seasons. It is 7:09 am and still dark outside. The sun won’t rise for almost another two hours. This time a month ago, near solstice, there were three hours more daylight, and in August we had seven more hours of light and not a thought of cold temperatures or the looming winter around.
Up here, summer flies by like a fast-moving train, people bustling about and sometimes not even stopping to sleep at night. Fairbanks, only one degree of latitude south of the Arctic Circle, has no darkness until late August. We forget about the stars and the moon, and know that since summer is so fleeting we must not let a moment go by wasted. We take full advantage of the availability of liquid water, of daylight, of thawed soils, of green plants and especially the flowers to identify them by. The nights start to get darker in August and sometimes we forget to appreciate them because we’re still so busy working, and in our little spare time, harvesting meat and fish for the freezer. I had to force myself to stay up late to watch the best aurora of my life in early September because I was so tired from hauling a Sitka black-tail deer off of the top of a mountain in Prince William Sound and all I wanted to do was crawl into my tent and sleep. Dragging my sleeping bag onto the tundra awarded dancing beams of red and purple across the giant Alaska sky, not a man-made light in sight.
Once the meat is put away and the gardens are harvested and the last of the kale is wilting away in the hard-freezing nights, all of Alaska takes a giant breath in and out. For us field technicians, our data is collected and starts to get entered into machines and filed away. Summer is over, and winter is here.
Now that the summer field season is officially finished, I have time for one last note of reflection. I have not had much more than a spare minute or two to think about writing for the past three months. I live in Fairbanks, and was drawn to this internship because it offered me more chances to explore this great state and gain experience doing lots of different work and make connections with various agencies and organizations. The majority of my summer was spent on soil surveys with the NRCS, but I also worked on AIM (Assessment Inventory and Monitoring) projects with the Alaska Center for Conservation Science, and mine reclamation monitoring on placer mines and forestry and weed monitoring with the BLM. I hacked through permafrost with a sharpshooter shovel in frost-wedge polygonal tundra. I identified countless new asters and brassicas on the Bering Sea-influenced alpine hills on the west coast near Unalakleet. I floated 30 miles down a Wild and Scenic River to survey soils, and measured trees in a historic Yukon River town.
One highlight of the summer was spending a hitch rafting down the remote Beaver Creek in interior Alaska accessing floodplain and terrace communities to map for the impressive undertaking of a soil survey that will cover 35 million acres (that’s the size of the state of New York, folks). We piled our sling-loaded gear onto a 14-foot raft and used small lightweight inflatable packrafts to cross sloughs and beaver ponds to get to the hard-to-access areas of the survey, and slogged through miles of willow thickets and tussock-ridden terraces. Floating serenely down the river secure on our rafts, we were playfully chased by a black bear and a surprised grizzly snorted and scuffed the ground at us, standing up on its hind legs before turning and galloping away through the willows.
My mentor, Eric Geisler, and I spent a few days in the Fortymile region of eastern interior Alaska accessing targeted AIM sites on pristine creeks by helicopter. The project is in conjunction with the University of Alaska’s Center for Conservation Science and the sites we sampled will be used as baselines for monitoring placer mining on Jack Wade Creek near the small town of Chicken.
As the fall colors on the sub-arctic tundra were peaking, I spent three days canoeing to popular campsites in the Tangle Lakes near the Denali Highway surveying for invasive weeds, which fortunately have not spread from their isolated territories around the boat ramp and road-side campgrounds.
After all of the leaves had senesced, two other CLM interns and I traveled to the historic Yukon River town of Eagle, once the gateway into Alaska’s gold rush, to inventory timber resources and fuel loads in the cold frosty forests surrounding the town.
Over the course of this five-month internship, I’ve worked with some amazing people, learned valuable skills, and traveled and gotten to know intimately some of the most incredible wild places on the planet. I have helped collect ground-breaking data in never-before-surveyed parts of the state. I have grown to understand the incredible importance of the relationship between soils and vegetation. I have assisted in an effort to establish monitoring protocols to preserve Alaska’s streams from degradation due to improper reclamation after gold mining. And I have made connections with incredible folks all over the state.
Now, as ice encroaches from the banks of the creek by my cabin and grows ever outward from the sticks and logs half-emerged from the water, my thoughts turn south towards travel, relaxation, and reflection. It is the season of pot-lucks, hotsprings, evenings at the brewery, and the last few afternoon bike rides when the sun takes off the morning’s chill. Soon I will travel to see friends and family “Outside” Alaska, and explore new mountains and rivers in South America. Time to plan spring ski trips and summer canoe trips and eventually, what to do next summer. Who knows where next spring will take me, but if it’s anything like this summer, I know I don’t have to worry.