The Abandoned North: Part IX – Reintegration

Waves

Waves on the Bering Sea

The Tiglax, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife research vessel, is contracted for the duration of our work on Amchitka Island. However, we have no weather delays, and our long days allow us to finish our field work about a day ahead of schedule. This affords the boat’s crew the opportunity for a short break before they pick up the next scientific team. After loading the ATVs and other gear onto the boat from the dock, the Tiglax heads back to Adak Island.

Me and Danika

Me, Danika Marshall, and the Aleutian Weather

At first, all is well. I had applied a scopolamine patch to prevent motion sickness early in the day. It was doing its job admirably, as it had on the voyage out to the island days before. As the boat comes out of Constantine Harbor into a growing storm, those with more sense have already retreated to their bunks, but I go up to the wheelhouse to chat with soon-to-be-captain John Faris (Captain Billy Pepper will retire at the end of 2016) and enjoy the ocean views. At first, the waves are about 6 feet (2 meters) high, and they are all coming at the boat from roughly the same direction. So far, so good. As the Tiglax approaches Amchitka Pass, the swells grow, and they begin to pitch the boat in random directions – front to back, side to side, and everything in between. It is not a huge storm, but it’s big enough for me.

Motion is greatest at the top of the boat. With no warning, the boat lurches, and I am hit in the stomach with a surge of nausea. I stagger down two flights of steep nautical stairs, grip the handrails in the narrow hallways, and make my way back to my bunk in Stateroom #4. After lying down, I feel better pretty quickly. The scopolamine is valiantly doing its job holding the nausea at bay, but it doesn’t give me any good sense. As soon as I feel well, I head to the galley for dinner. It’s not a smart plan.

After storm

Adak Island after the storm

As the night wears on, the waves grow, and we all run a real risk of being pitched out of our bunks onto the floor. That never happens, but I roll from side to side like a bottle in my bunk for most of the night. It is quite a challenge climbing down from the upper bunk and finding my way along the hall to the bathroom, all the while being slammed into walls from various directions. At this point, I am questioning my desire to ever climb aboard a boat again, but by morning, my seasickness is gone. We approach the port of Adak under clearing skies and calmer waters, though I doubt any of us got much sleep. While most of the team stay in their beds, I enjoy breakfast and coffee with Craig Goodknight, who was the only passenger to experience no seasickness at all during the voyage.

Mt Moffett

Mt. Moffett comes out of the clouds on Adak Island

The team spends the night at the Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse in Adak. Fish and Wildlife employees do a lot of research in remote locations, and some wildlife refuges maintain bunkhouses for them. Earlier in the summer, we had all stayed at a bunkhouse at Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge in northern Colorado while we took our required ATV training course. But the house on Adak is a little different. Because it is so remote, guests  bring food with them, but they don’t tend to bring it back out. The kitchen cupboards are filled with all sorts of canned and boxed food, and there seems to be a historical collection of noodles. There is no way of knowing how long various items have been there, so I suspect that the foodstuffs accumulate faster than they disappear.

Rat traps

Trust me, rat traps are a good thing

One thing is for certain … the pasta collection gets no visitors who are rats. Fish and Wildlife takes rat control very seriously on the Aleutian Islands. Historically, seafaring vessels brought invasive rats to nearly all of the islands, and where there are rats, there are fewer nesting birds and other desirable, native species. Fish and Wildlife has worked hard over the years to  eradicate rats from as many islands as possible, restoring valuable native ecosystems in the process. While I chuckle at the rather obvious rat trap arranged between the refrigerators at the bunkhouse, I appreciate that it’s there.

Bald eagles

Eagles perched on Adak’s beach rocks

During our short stay at the bunkhouse, Danika, Craig, and I take the opportunity to walk the length of one of Adak’s beautiful beaches. There we see plenty of life, including a pair of bald eagles who are not particularly wary of us. Patches of blue sky appear overhead from time to time, revealing the slopes of Mt. Moffett and even the top of the more distant Great Sitkin, hovering like a disembodied head over a layer of  misty clouds.

We board the flight to Anchorage late in the morning but find that the flight from Anchorage to Denver has been delayed.

Disembodied head

The peak of Great Sitkin

 

We have all been up for a long time when we finally make our connection to Grand Junction. It will take some days for me to feel normal again.

On my first day back in the office, a co-worker who was a member of one of the monitoring teams in 2011 asked me if I was having trouble “reintegrating.”

This was a perfect description. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized it. I’d been vaguely troubled, distracted, and mildly ill since I’d returned. Some of my discomfort was residual dizziness from the scopolamine patches, and some was general haziness from jet lag, which I seem to be prone to, especially when traveling from west to east. But some of it was actually reintegrating.  It wasn’t easy to transition from such a strange, remote wilderness back into my  familiar, everyday life. Evidently, it happens to a lot of people who have made this journey. The Aleutian Islands are a beautiful, haunting place. I still feel their pull, like a mysterious gravity, a quiet tide.

Hulten

A marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) resting on Hulten’s flora of Alaska. During my adventures, I spent late nights in the stateroom aboard the Tiglax identifying the plants I’d seen on Amchitka Island. This image is a fitting ending to the story of my adventures there.

The Abandoned North: Part VIII – Amchitka Island: Natural Beauty on a Small Scale

Shoreline

Amchitka Island shoreline

Some of the first things I notice when I arrive at Amchitka Island are all of the coral-reef colors of anemones, sea stars, fish, and kelp that can be seen below the dock in Constantine Harbor. It reminds me that the Bering Sea is a richly diverse place in spite of harsh conditions on the  surface.

Nootka lupine

Nootka lupine

There is a lot of natural beauty here, but it isn’t like the stark, volcanic mountains, waterfalls, or wild ocean spray of many of its neighbors. This part of the island is quite flat, although there are small mountains in the distant wilderness area that I can’t glimpse through the heavy clouds.

Board

A tiny ecosystem on an old sawn board, with an urchin shell ornament

 

Amchitka’s beauty is on a smaller scale: flowers, lichens, mosses, birds, and urchin shells. Whole communities of mosses and other tiny life forms are even developing on the tarmac. On the island’s soils, in low areas that have been undisturbed for at least a few decades, thick pillows of peat have formed, with their own complement of plant life.

At higher altitudes, the ecology becomes more complicated. In these exposed areas, winds dry out the soils and plants, creating bands of miniature shrub communities built around crowberry plants that alternate with with bands dominated by tundra grass. Neither is considered to be a climax community by ecologists because the bands shift over time, a constantly morphing patchwork of slow-growing life. Different still are the verdant ecosystems near the ocean. There is huge diversity here, if you stoop down and look closely enough.

Runway

Bryophyte communities growing on Amchitka’s abandoned runways

Mooring

Plants along the shoreline near a rusty battleship mooring

One of my favorite experiences on Amchitka Island was witnessing flocks of Aleutian Canada Geese. They look like miniature replicas of the large flocks I see migrating in Colorado, complete with their striking black and white heads. But these have white collar feathers, and their honks are higher pitched. Every time I hear them, it makes me smile. Aleutian Canada Geese were listed as endangered in 1967 but upgraded to threatened in 1991. They recovered enough to be delisted in 2001. In the early 20th century, trappers brought nonnative foxes to the Aleutian Islands to expand the fur trade. These foxes decimated the nesting grounds of the geese. Lots of people worked to remove the foxes from the islands and relocated populations of the birds. These included efforts on Amchitka Island, where the geese were once extinct.

The human footprint since the 20th century on the Aleutian Islands is heavy and undeniable. But, here as everywhere, nature eventually creeps back into the works of human beings. My trip to Amchitka Island has reaffirmed for me the need to continue to attend to the remote places, the need to help them heal. Maybe they are the most important places of all.Chimney