Field notes from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge

By Research Assistant Ludda Ludwig.

This was my 6th summer of field work in the Arctic, but it was the first time I’d tried to do research while camping. Even though the Arctic is always remote, we’d had research stations to support us in the past. I was used to not showering, long hours in the field, and the 24/7 daylight. But research stations have some place to return to with beds (usually), a cook and hot food, places to sit indoors, and labs. This time we slept in tents, cooked for each other (dehydrated meals and lots of summer sausage and jerky), and pooped in a bucket. I’m no stranger to camping, I even camped a summer in the Arctic as a teenager, but it’s different when you’re trying to work and do research.

I spent one day drilling for permafrost in the rain and wind. I worried about the rain making our cores thaw faster before I could get them cleaned, wrapped, and in a cooler. The wind blew away my aluminum foil and it was too wet for sharpie labels. But then we hiked our equipment and samples back to our tents and there wasn’t that mental relief that comes when you step into a lab to store samples, clean equipment, and prep for the next day. Instead we had to figure out how to keep our permafrost cores from thawing before the float plane came back. We ended up storing our permafrost in the permafrost, or at least right on top of it. I dug a hole, laid the cores down on the frozen ground, and covered it back up in a thick insulating layer of moss. Later, when the coolers of frozen samples were float-planed back to Bethel, they were stored in the walk-in freezer of a Chinese restaurant until we came back from the field.

With the samples safe, next was cleaning the drilling equipment. I waded out into the lake to rinse everything, and with no chance of it drying in the rain just hoped things wouldn’t rust. I’d gotten back from collecting samples earlier than the rest of our group and set about checking on our camp. The shelter we set up over our poop bucket had blown down. Our screened-in mosquito-free tent we used for cooking was threatening to take off with the wind. Our generator for recharging batteries was being rained on. We could run it under the rainfly of our one communal tent, but then we couldn’t use that space with the fumes.

It took about an hour to boil water, by which time everyone had trickled back into camp. We huddled against the rain inside our bowed screen tent eating rehydrated spaghetti. Somehow everyone was smiling. We’d had a good day. We talked about all of the exciting features we’d come across on the tundra and hypothesized about what stories the data would tell. Most of us agreed the spaghetti tasted fantastic (as food does when you are starving). We bickered over M&M rations and strategized about how to fill our coolers with samples while still being able to use them as seating.

We had sunny days and rainy days. We had 30 mph windy days and completely still days with clouds of mosquitos. And always, everyone was positive and excited to be there. We collected more samples than we thought we could. We fell into easy rhythms and teased each other as only people who have spent 24/7 with each other can do. I feel like I am only just beginning to know this landscape, and I left with so many more questions about the ecosystem than I had when I arrived. I can’t wait to return.

Photos by Chris Linder.