My shuttle did not consist of a handful of eager young scientists happy to chat about their research and travels to wile away the ten hour drive. Instead, there was a semi-comatose Coldfoot truckstop staff member catching a ride north, a young but mostly silent professor from the university who answered my questions in monosyllabic grunts that did not invite further conversation and a quiet young firefighter from Ester who works maintenance at the field camp year round and would much rather have been driving himself north in a company rig. It was a long, silent and at times uncomfortable ride. Although the road wasn't bad south of the pass, the last forty miles were some of the worst washboard I'd driven on. I was sliding all over the road at fifteen miles and hour, rattling everyones fillings out. It went on and on, and the thick fog only made the distance drag out. My exhaustion from trying to stay awake in the silent van and manhandle the vehicle through the ruts and bumps overcame my elation at finally adding a few more numbers to my latitude bragging rights.
[dusty sign]Much of that exhaustion was allayed by walking into the mess hall and smelling the sweet tang of dahl and lintel masala. I could have closed my eyes and opened them in a hole-in-the-wall off of Devon in Chicago. But I was on a tiny research station perched on the tundra north of the Brooks range, looking across a few tables of young scientists in various stages of grime accumulation and beard growth (water conservation dictates relegates showers to two minutes, twice a week) - although the statuesque Danish scientists were somehow above it all in their perfect 'natural' make-up, trendy boots and close-cuts coats. On the far wall was the requisite push-pin map of resident locations, a "vegetarian sign-up!" for meals (the list consisted of three quarters of the camp) a reminder to never, ever leave the premises without signing out and taking bear spray, a typed note about registering the GPS coordinates of new research plots, and a scrawled note on the black board announcing "There is a VIRUS IN CAMP: Wash Your Hands." The back windows overlooked a deck, the ice-filled mass of Toolik Lake, snow-dusted still-brown spring tundra and the miles and miles of thin plank walkways put up over the years to allow researchers access to their plots without destroying the delicate plants.The opposite wall was a mess of shelves carrying candy, cereal, fruit and refrigerated leftovers bearing the warning "NO FINGERS. Get a spoon." Summer camp for grown-ups. Smart ones.
I was shown to my room in the heated quarters currently occupied by the few early-season researchers and students. Tents were already set up for the influx of researchers due to hit in the next few weeks. Although winter staff can dwindle down to a handful, the research station houses over a thousand researchers for the brief Arctic summer between June fifteenth and August. Toolik doesn't advertise itself. There is nothing but dusty "Toolik Lake" sign on the road, and a mailbox. The research station is a mile away from the highway, and hardly noticeable. This is not a place for people who don't belong.
[deserted tent city]
[still-icy toolik lake]Nobody spoke to me after a quick orientation by a camp manager. I ate by myself, shuffled off to my room, called Peter and went to sleep. The next morning dawned just as foggy. I had wanted to get an early start to make it back to town before Sarah's flight arrived that evening, but the LTC office said I needed to wait until at least eight thirty to leave, just in case somebody decided they needed a ride. I poked around a little bit with the camera, but the midnight sun was doing nothing to the fog bank hanging over the research station.
[research station in the distance - blends well]
I got a few pictures as I drove away, and a few more on the drive south. Once nice thing about an empty van is that it is much easier to stop for quick pictures or decide on a twenty minute nap beside an icy river. I talked much more to myself on the drive south than I did to my Northbound passengers the day before. It was a nice drive, with a stop in Coldfoot for lunch and an unexpected run-in with a friend at the Yukon River. And best of all, I got back to Fairbanks just in time for Sarah's flight.
[pipeline & brooks peaks]
[sukakpak - deadfall mountain]