As our final week in Alaska draws to a close, I want to talk about our living conditions and daily life on the job. Living in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is remote and in some ways primitive, but I personally find the living conditions here quite comfortable, especially when compared with those of your standard camping excursion. We live in a camp consisting of two compounds, each surrounded by electrified bear fencing that keeps us and our food secure. The only other structure out here is our bathroom, a small three-sided plywood structure with a field toilet. We got extravagant this year and added a plywood floor – major innovation on the Canning.
Our personal tents are nice and spacious, and they each fit two people. They are equipped with more than enough places to hang your wet socks every day, and they offer great protection from the strong wind and sideways rain that occurs so often here. One interesting twist about camping here, especially in the bright yellow tents that we use, is the 24-hour daylight. When in your tent, days and nights seem to blur together. I have woken up at 3AM here thinking it was time to start the day, only to check my watch halfway through. Luckily, the only consequence to being wrong on that front is more sleep!
The second area has two tents, the large cooking tent that comfortably holds six people and is tall enough to stand in, and the data/office tent, where we keep our various pieces of equipment and enter data. The cooking tent has a large vestibule where we do dishes. Some of our food is stored there in our two coolers, and the remaining food is stored in bear-proof containers inside the main tent. Most of the containers are large metal drums segregated by food type, such as breakfast items, pasta/baking supplies, trail mix materials, and last but not least, chocolate. We normally have some sort of granola or oatmeal breakfast, a sandwich-type lunch in the field, and then a hot dinner once everyone has finished their daily work and returned to camp. Cooking is done on a little two-burner camp stove, and common dinners here are stir-fry, burritos, pesto, curry or occasionally pizza cooked in a little stove-top oven. We have no worry of going hungry here. When people arrive to or leave from camp, we get a resupply from civilization. This gives us a chance to eat much-coveted fresh fruits and vegetables for a short while. On most mornings and evenings, we hang around in the cook tent, since it has the nicest chairs, lots of room and food within arm’s reach.
The office tent is not as large as the cook tent, and we are usually only in there when preparing to head out in the morning and when entering data. The walls are lined with tote bags filled with equipment for the bird banding we do, various forms and sampling gear for marking nests, and assorted electronic equipment. This tent is very good at keeping its heat, making it a nice place to hole up on a cold day or do some data entry after dinner. This is where we record information about the nests that were found that day, sort out the nests to be visited tomorrow and complete many other essential tasks.
The whole camp is situated on top of a small bluff rising about 25 feet above much of the surrounding tundra, an area where puddles rarely form under the tents. This spot also provides us with an expansive view and lots of opportunities to see wildlife. This year we ended up seeing close to 40,000 caribou pass by and through the study area on their annual migration, almost entirely in a single one-week period. One herd of about 2,000 passed right through camp, parting around the tents and continuing without a care. We also see quite a few Arctic Fox, and of course many birds.
Our camp is located along the western edge of the study area. It is neither too far nor too close to any one place that we visit daily. It is two miles from the southern end of the study area and a little over one mile from the northern and eastern boundaries. During our 8-10 hours in the field each day, we have been averaging 7-9 miles of walking. Much of this time is spent trudging through marshes in our hip waders. It feels great at the end of the day to change back into comfortable shoes.
Camp life is wonderfully simple in many ways. It lacks the complications and chaos that we are so used to back home. You get up, collect data, come back and enter it, rinse and repeat. We are lucky to be a part of this pairing of science and the natural world.