What I Didn’t Get to Say at My Mom’s Funeral

Linda and MomOf her three children, I am probably most like her. I’m proud to be hers, proud to be like her, proud of the spun silver hair I inherited from her, proud of the big, warm heart that I got from her that most people can’t see. I am proud to have attended her funeral and honor her even though I was not acknowledged during the service as one of hers. Neither were her grandchildren or my sister. Mom would have acknowledged us if she could, if only with a squeeze of her small, gnarled hand.

Mom nurtured me, valued me, embraced me even when she didn’t really understand the unconventional thing that was her middle child. She was the last of my protectors, and now she is gone. The whole world is diminished, and it hardly realizes it. I miss her deeply.

Mom taught me how to sew, what a selvage is, and a bolt, and a seam. She stitched her love into my childhood shirts and shorts and dresses. She stitched love into my children’s beautiful costumes every Halloween when they were little. These costumes held such love and creative power that her granddaughter became a costume designer, and her grandson became a builder of worlds.

Mom taught me how to cook and how the power of food, lovingly prepared, could care for people and heal them. She taught me how to wrap hamburger in a ring of bacon and make it as wonderful as any filet mignon. We, her children, dubbed these little creations “gorilla ears.” It made her smile. On rare occasions, her steaks were tough, and my brother would pretend his steak knife was a chain saw. She laughed right along with him. I laughed too — he was and still is really funny — but I remember also feeling a little bit sad because I could sense what was underneath that tough steak.

When Mom patiently showed me embroidery stitches — lazy daisies, backstitches, French knots — she encouraged me to turn each piece over. You want the back to look as neat as the front, she’d say. Even though nobody can see the back, you’d know that there was a knotted mess back there, and you wouldn’t want that. She taught me that the underneath matters. I’ve been able to see it ever since, often to my peril. I later realized, with children of my own, how much of her went into those dinners, even when the steaks were tough.

I knew that before she met my Dad, she played the piano and composed award-winning poetry in high school. I never got to read any of her poems because she didn’t think enough of them to keep them, but I did get to cherish the little notes she’d send in my lunchboxes and inside greeting cards after I had moved far away. The curve of her handwriting was full of love.

Mom had an eye for good art. She came from poverty but was more cultured than those who were bred to it. I treasure memories of her and me at the Denver Art Museum, discussing French Impressionists, what she liked about certain pieces, what was just too weird. I am no Picasso, but I offered her a choice of my oil paintings once, and a little grin broke out on her face as she chose what we both knew was the best one.

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She was musical and literary and creative and brilliant, but she was content to defer to the light of lesser people. She was content to let them take the stage and the credit, content to cover her light with the proverbial bushel basket. Because I could see underneath, I could see that light. I would have been nothing but another arrogant narcissist without her. She made me into a human being. She gets all the credit.

Her light was bright like a supernova, but it never burned because she never shoved it at anyone, never allowed it to blaze except through the slats of that bushel basket. I didn’t always let her know that I saw her light. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t show her often enough how precious she was and how much I recognized and valued her.

There was a fierceness to her that can only be called purely Irish. Growing up, we all believed that there was a streak of English blood in her father, from whom she inherited the Mudd name. But when her sister discovered in a search for ancestry that every drop of Mom’s blood was Irish, I was not surprised, and neither was she. At her funeral, I wore a pin she gave me years ago: Erin Go Bragh! (Long Live Ireland!). Few knew it was there.

Mom once told me that she could see what her soul looked like. It was a small, clean little room, simple and well swept, bright and quiet and well cared for. My first painting was of such a room. It hung in her house for a long time. When she died, I didn’t have the heart to keep it.

Linda's painting (first good painting)

Mom knew how to love people, not in spite of their flaws but because of them. If she liked someone, she was warm like a cup of hot cocoa. If she didn’t, she could be colder than space. She was never loud about it, never obvious, but if you were spaced, you knew it. Mom was a Grand Master of passive aggression.

She was tiny and beautiful and held a universe of marvelous, hidden things inside her. She deserved a host of angels singing at her funeral, the best choir in the world, a crowd of thousands grieving her loss. But she would have been content with the single, beautiful voice and piano, and the COVID-exhausted priest’s simple prayers and eulogies that she had.

I miss her. Someone, somewhere needs to know this. You didn’t know her, but she was important. I miss her.

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A Balance Between Dark and Light

Gothic Christmas Ornament
My daughter made my new favorite Christmas ornament, a balance of light and dark. (She sells these on Etsy at  JailerCostumeShop).

In the cold, starry darkness of Winter Solstice, life’s breath becomes visible, vaporous music. The body’s tropical warmth pushes back against the chill, sustaining life. Fingers’ frigid ache is a reminder of their worth. It’s both the longest night of the year and the promise of returning light, completely both, without contradiction — my favorite day.

Why is Winter Solstice my favorite day of the year? Why the longest night, not our other solstice that bears the longest day? Maybe it’s because I was raised with an overabundance of light. Maybe I didn’t have enough opportunity to celebrate the sacred darkness. I’ve noticed that many of us were brought up on a steady diet of light-stories and were taught to avoid, exclude, or even fear the dark. Seeking a better balance, many of us begin to search out dark things, especially in the winter. Take Krampus, for example.

Krampus is a Christmas demon celebrated in parts of Europe, the dark counterpart to bright Saint Nicholas. In Austria, on Krampusnacht (December 5), people dress up as the part-goat, part-human creature, romping with horns and long tongues among crowds of people, whipping them with little birch switches. Krampus is rapidly gaining popularity in the United States. 

The origins of Krampus are thought to be a Pagan ritual designed to dispel the ghosts of winter. In old Scandinavia, Yule was the solstice time when the ghosts of the dead were believed to return, so people left out food and drinks for them overnight. Yule ghosts evolved into one Yule Ghost, and eventually into Krampus. The American Santa Claus comes mostly from St. Nicholas, but not completely. There’s a little Krampus in Santa, too. Krampus bells, which announce his arrival, bear an uncanny resemblance to sleigh bells. Does the custom of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa come from feeding the ghosts of Yule? 

Consider that Santa is said to put coal into the stockings of naughty children, while Krampus leaves birch sticks. Why do we have such dark customs at Christmastime? Is it to frighten children into acceptable behavior? Is it to teach them that there are scary things out there? It’s hard to navigate through a world that’s too safe because we can’t learn what to be wary of. Or is it to remind us that life isn’t fair? After all, if you’re out on Krampusnacht, you might get smacked with a switch, even if you’ve done your best to be good. But there could be a balance here, too. Coal and sticks are both fuels. Both can be transformed, with a spark of will, into light.

There is a hazard in dwelling too much on dark things. Those of us susceptible to depression can vouch for this. But there’s also a hazard in dwelling too much on the light. Light is beautiful, but only when it’s real and not a veneer that comes out of desperately avoiding the dark. As a child, I heard a lot of light-stories, most of which aren’t even true. At Thanksgiving, we were fed turkey and cranberries along with light-stories about how there was nothing but joyous feasting between the Pilgrims and the Indians. The light-stories left out Europe’s disrespect and disease, genocide and grave-robbing, ungratefulness and self-righteous destruction. Light-stories remind us to chin up, always look on the bright side. Everything will (magically) be alright. With this steady diet of light-stories, no wonder there’s so much violence, so many dark-stories howling to be heard. The more we deny the darkness, the more it grows out of control and crushes in around us. And how are we told to respond? By looking on the bright side, of course.

I recently heard a podcast by Sam Yang on feeding the “gray wolf.” He tells a parable where a Cherokee elder describes two wolves inside him — a light one and a dark one — and the wolf that “wins” is the one he feeds. Sam points out how this was a bit of cultural appropriation. The actual Indigenous story was about feeding both wolves, not just the black or white one. If a person only feeds light or the darkness, there will always be a war between them. They are two sides of the same thing, and you need to feed them both so neither wolf gets hungry.

On this Winter Solstice, I invite you to embrace both bright Saint Nicholas and dark Krampus. I invite you to honor the holiday gifts and lights as well as the loneliness and want that always swirl around with them. And I wish for you the gift of the Winter Solstice: that beautiful balance between the dark and the light.

The Old Red Bike

This year for my birthday, my husband, Joseph, reunited me with an old friend. I’d been wanting to ride my bicycle to work, but the years had deteriorated it to the point I couldn’t ride it anymore. Instead of finding a new bike, Joseph had my old friend restored, and he gave me a lot more than just a way to work.

Joseph understands that there are memories in my old red bike’s chrome-moly frame. It was made before most people knew what mountain bikes were, before these machines had titanium stems or shock absorbers, before my young dreams of adventure in mountains, deserts, and forests turned into old memory.

Some of my memories are still on its fire-engine-red frame, so Joseph asked that the frame not be repainted.

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He understands that I still love the sticker from Alamosa Schwinn Cyclery because it takes me right back to the frigid February day in 1984 when we newlyweds spent everything we had to order these wondrous new “Rockhoppers.” Some of the rusted little pits in the paint must have come from rides in the South San Juan Mountains, where I collected samples of the flora of Colorado for my early botany classes at Adams State College. Some must have come from the gravel roads of the San Luis Valley.

Some of the pits, too, must have come from pebbles and sand at the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. We arrived early in the spring of the bike’s first year and asked the park ranger on duty where we could ride. He asked to see the Rockhoppers because he’d heard of them, and he admired them as he told us that the best place would probably be the four-wheel-drive roads at the park. Who could have guessed that the Canyonlands would soon become one of the great mountain bike meccas in the United States?

Joseph knows I love the California licenses adorning the frame below the Schwinn sticker because they are memories of California. There, I studied botany in grad school at the University, and I rode my red bike all over the Berkeley Hills and beyond. During those years, we had no car, so I even rode the red bike to the grocery store.

Joseph remembers how I pedaled this bike all over trails in California until I became too big with our first child and had to switch to hiking instead. He remembers how we mounted a baby seat on the back so I could take that little child, Kerry Joseph, riding. We explored trails along the Missouri River in South Dakota until I grew heavy with our second child, Lorien Rose. Not long after, back in Colorado, she was the little one on the back of my old red bike while Kerry rode alongside.

I rode to work at a plant nursery when the children were small and to my job as an ecologist as they grew older. I rode in the desert, in places with names like “Rustler’s Loop” and “Widowmaker” and sometimes in the mountains through groves of pine and aspen. This bike saw some wildflower-filled miles near the black bears and coyotes in the Ponderosa forests near our home northern New Mexico, where I tried — and failed — in a career as a schoolteacher.

These days, I need to be reminded to surround myself with the things I love. I need to remember that more adventures are possible. Joseph understands. This is why he restored my old red bike for me, taking care not to paint over any memories in the process.

 

Total Eclipse of the Sun

Yesterday, we got back late from a long drive – or was it a short campout? – to a wild place in the middle of Wyoming. We had gone there like hundreds of others to witness the total eclipse of the sun. I had chosen the most remote place I could think of under the band of totality: the Gas Hills, thirty miles or so north of Jeffrey City. Jeffrey City swelled decades ago during the uranium boom but is now nearly a ghost town. The road north is all dirt and gravel, with ruts that challenged the abilities of our rented sedan.

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The light looks like early evening, but the shadows look like midday a few minutes before the total solar eclipse in the Gas Hills of Wyoming

On the drive up, we stopped at the visitor’s center in the small town of Baggs, Wyoming, and the docent there told us that Thomas Edison had witnessed the last total eclipse in the area in 1918. It was on this trip near here, she said, that he came up with the idea for the incandescent light. She looked skeptical. So did I, but I now understand how a totality could spur the mind of a genius in such a way, so I’d like to believe it’s true.

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The moon’s darkness approaches from the west

Nothing is ever exactly as you think it will be. No photo or video can really capture the experience of a total eclipse of the sun. It felt like the air temperature dropped ten degrees as a chill set into my hands. There was a scattering of stars in the midday sky, and crickets started to sing. The moon’s diffuse shadow engulfed us from the west as the sun’s light blinked out and in an instant, my solar viewing glasses went completely dark.

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No photo can completely do it justice, but this is the best my iPhone could do

Pulling the glasses away, there was the corona, an iconic image high in the sky. What had been over my head but completely invisible to me for the past fifty-plus years was now revealed. It looked like a crown of vapor, a thin, glowing mist, immensely beautiful. It was a glimpse of a star from the heavens as it sent off its molten gases into space, but it was also oddly familiar, as if this image was somehow carried in human DNA. After only a couple of minutes, it was gone. One of the moon’s huge craters revealed a flash, followed by a sliver of searing light along the sun’s rim. The moon shadow’s darkness raced away to the east, and it was like late evening again. The crickets went silent, and three antelope in the distance went back to their grazing.

Within the hour, the day had fully returned, and we were – along with thousands of others – headed south toward home. The drive back was complicated by traffic, and we didn’t get in until after 11:00 pm, but the ancient dance between the sun and moon was well worth a little trouble.

The Upcoming Totality

A few of us are headed up to Wyoming today. The weather forecast is favorable to see the total solar eclipse tomorrow morning! It will be my first opportunity to see a totality.

Even if you are outside of the totality, nature can still put on a good show. During the eclipse in May 2012, the totality passed south of us. We looked through a pinhole camera at an image of the eclipse projected onto the sidewalk in front of our home. The real surprise came when we turned back toward the house, finding it bedecked with little eclipses!

Shadows of eclipse on the house

The points of light created by gaps in the canopies of trees can serve as pinhole cameras and create quite a beautiful display. I wish all eclipse seekers and travelers a safe and happy day tomorrow!

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

The Abandoned North: Part VII – Amchitka Island: Military and Nuclear Devices

Rommel stake

World War II-era Rommel stake on Amchitka Island

We have all enjoyed breakfast and dressed in waterproof, cold-weather gear before we arrive on the deck of the Tiglax. The crew has already used the boat’s crane to lift gear, including a bunch of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) from the deck to the ancient military dock. The size of the dock is appropriate for battleships, not for research vessels, and my question about how we’ll come ashore is answered right away as the crew attaches a nautical man lift to the end of the crane. Basically, we’re just a little more cargo to be unloaded. I prepare myself for my first trip in a man lift. It turns out to be fun.

Man lift

The man lift in operation

During World War II, when the island was used as a forward base in the campaigns to retake Attu and Kiska Islands, a road was built for access to various military facilities. The road runs the length of the 40-mile (64 km) long island and is called Infantry Road. In 2011, during  the previous Department of Energy monitoring trip, full-sized vehicles were used to access the monitoring sites. Since that time, earthquakes and storms have damaged the road, making it passable only by ATVs. To get to the farthest site, it is necessary for us to ride over 25 miles each way. The temperature is in the low 40s (4-5 °C), it is raining, and there is a brisk  wind. I feel like a popsicle by the time we arrive at “Drill Site E” to begin our monitoring.

Lunch

Me, Stephen Pitton, Craig Goodnight, and Danika Marshall eating lunch on Amchitka sheltered from the wind

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife  Service published a fact sheet that might help a reader get better acquainted with Amchitka Island. Most of the structures associated with World War II campaigns, Cold War nuclear detonations, and  Relocatable Over-The-Horizon Radar (ROTHR) facilities were removed during cleanup in the late 1990s. What is left is a treeless tundra, filled with the austere beauty of lakes, bogs, and mist. Much of the mountainous northeast end of the island, beyond Drill Site E, is designated wilderness. The remainder of the island is part of the wildlife refuge.

Paul

Team leader Paul Darr on the Amchitka tundra

That said, plenty of evidence remains of the military and other federal operations that once took place here. The lines of disturbance can plainly be seen on satellite photos. Some  structures remain, including a toppled officer’s club, an aircraft graveyard, a 2-mile-long (3.2 km) runway, and thousands of Rommel stakes poking up through the blankets of peat. Rommel stakes were used during World War II to make up wickedly simple defense lines. They are made of sturdy, rounded bars of iron, and the top is sharpened to a point. Loops were made in  the long, iron stakes themselves, and the loops were used to string lines of razor wire. Stakes like these are still being removed on more populated Aleutian islands, but they are visible across the landscape of Amchitka.

Left: The disintegrating wing of a World War II aircraft graveyard near Constantine Harbor. Right: The remains of an officer’s club from the 1940s. This building stood intact until only a couple of years ago. Now, only the chimney still stands. The island is slowly leaning back towards wilderness.

Long Shot

Monument describing the Long Shot detonation

It is hard to imagine how much effort went into planning and executing the three underground nuclear detonations on this island. The first was called Project Long Shot, conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1965. The second, Project Milrow, was ordered by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1969 under chairman Glenn T. Seaborg, after whom the radioactive element, seaborgium, was named. In 1971, AEC concluded its underground nuclear tests with the largest in history, Project Cannikin. All of the detonations required weeks to months of drilling time and the construction of temporary villages to house the engineers, scientists, and workers.

Cannikin, the largest and deepest, needed a bore hole about  7.5 ft (2.3 m) in diameter and 6,150 ft (1,875m) deep, although the concrete plug at the top of the borehole is about 30 ft (9 m) wide. It feels strange standing above the sites, wondering what the eerie detonation chambers far below are like. Nobody really knows, but the detonations were expressed on  the surface, most notably at Cannikin. It is interesting to note that the international environmental activist group, Greenpeace, got its start protesting the Cannikin detonation. The fishing boat they used to voyage to Amchitka was named the Greenpeace.

Cannikin lake

This lake formed only after the detonation of the Cannikin device

Our work on the island is close to the detonation sites, so we visit all three. For those that are interested, film of these and other events has been declassified and is available on YouTube (Long Shot, Milrow, and Cannikin).

The Abandoned North: Part VI – Arctic Seas

Kanaga

Kanaga Island from the Tiglax

My time on Adak Island comes to an end with the arrival of the Motor Vessel (M/V) Tiglax (also known as the Research Vessel [R/V] Tiglax). The Tiglax (pronounced Tec-lah, meaning “eagle” in Unangam Tunuu) is a boat used for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientific research. It serves the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which contains many of the Aleutian Islands. This summer, as in the past, Fish and Wildlife has kindly provided passage to Department of Energy contractors for our Amchitka Island scientific monitoring.

Tiglax

The Tiglax from the dock in Constantine Harbor, Amchitka Island

The 120-foot Tiglax was built in 1987 for Fish and Wildlife and has been working hard ever since. The captain, Billy Pepper, and five other crew members work hard as well. In fact, I can’t recall a time aboard the boat when I don’t see the cook at work. She conjures up handmade dishes like pesto-and-blue-cheese-stuffed pork roast, seafood linguine, and  blueberry pastries, all on a tight government budget, in a tiny galley, and with very little waste. I am an avid home cook and foodie, and I am impressed by her efforts in this remote place to keep both crew and passengers happy and well fed.

Flotation suits

Craig Goodnight and me in flotation suits during the muster drill

Anyone who has taken a cruise aboard a ship will be familiar with the muster drill. Similar to the health and safety briefing given before all of the government contract work I have ever done, it familiarizes the passengers with the boat’s emergency procedures. In this case, it consists of what to do if there is trouble on the  Tiglax and we have to abandon ship. The vessel is well maintained, and the crew is highly experienced, but I can’t help but think, as I try on an insulated survival suit that will keep me alive and afloat should the unthinkable happen, “This is the friggin’ Bering Sea!”

The weather is beautiful, and the sea is calm as we depart for Amchitka Island. The Tiglax will be our home during the voyage and also while we are working on the island. We share the boat with several other teams who also have work there. One is from Fish and Wildlife, who have work characterizing one of the few old structures standing on the island.

Dani on Tiglax

Danika Marshall on top of the Tiglax

The other is from the U.S. Geological Survey, who need to do maintenance on seismic monitoring equipment. Our voyage will take about a day. I spend most of the daylight hours outside, drinking in spectacular views from a perch with some of the other passengers on the top of the boat. Much of the night is spent crossing Amchitka Pass, a patch of open ocean where the waves grow large. I am jolted around in my bunk but manage to get a decent night’s sleep anyway. The first mate, John Faris, has spent the night at the helm, as he does every night during the field season. My experience on the Tiglax gives me even more respect for people who make their living on the Bering Sea. I’m not sure it’s a life I could thrive on.

Left: The corridor outside State Room No. 4 on the Tiglax. Right: I choose the top bunk

Porthole

The view from the port hole by my bunk as we voyage to Amchitka Island

A peek outside the still vessel before coffee and breakfast reveals glassy waters and a massive, old military dock in Constantine Harbor, Amchitka Island. We have arrived safe and sound. I am ready and anxious to get to work. Now I just need to know how we’re going to get ashore. The smaller docks are in shambles, and the shoreline doesn’t look gentle with its dark volcanic rocks. The tide is out, and that ancient dock is towering above the top deck of the boat. Soon, we will find out.

Dock in morning

Early morning in Constantine Harbor

The Abandoned North, Part V – Flora and Fauna

Buttercups, stonecrop, and wild daisies

Empetrum nigrum (crowberry)

Crowberry

Aleutian plants are generally small, unlike the monster-sized devil’s club and thimbleberries that festoon Alaska’s Inside Passage. The Aleutian Islands are at latitudes mostly south of the Inside Passage, so they should be warmer, and the plants should be larger, right? But they’re not. Both parts of Alaska have a maritime ecology, but the Aleutian Islands are far more exposed, mostly to wind but also to constant cold. Although they have no permafrost, they are covered in tundra, so there are a lot of peat bogs and dwarf plant communities. The islands have what ecologists might term “low energy systems.” But there is nothing low energy  about the abundance of flowers that are now blooming on Adak Island. Each time I see a new species, I figure out what it is and fall in love with it.

 

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Arctic willow

There are many species in common between Adak and Amchitka Islands, so getting acquainted with the local wildflowers will help  me with my botanical work on Amchitka. Back home in Colorado, I am somewhat notorious for interrupting hikes in favor of “botanizing.” Things are no different here in Alaska! My botanizing adventures result in a lot of notes and photographs, and among my favorites are those of the the  full grown arctic willows. They are elegant, twisted little dwarfs, decades old but only inches tall.

Along numerous trails on Adak Island, the crowberry is in bloom. I have always wanted to see crowberry, as it’s mentioned in what is still my favorite television program, Northern Exposure. There will be no berries on these plants for months yet, so I can’t try one,  but  there is an abundance of other wild foods on Adak Island in the early summer.

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Hiking across the tundra on the way to Lake Betty

On a hike to Lake Betty, we find fiddleheads, which are the curled, emerging leaves of the ostrich fern. Craig, Danika, and I nibble a few raw, then I pick a small handful to cook later. They are marvelous, much like the variety of fiddlehead I grew up with in Maine. I also know that all violet flowers are edible, so I nibble on a couple of those as well. They are mild and sweet, and a tiny bit flowery. I wish I could meet a member of the Unangan people who would be willing to show me what else I might be able to sample.

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Craig and me nibbling on fiddleheads

Edible plants are not the only reason I would love to  become acquainted with the  Unangan. Their ancestors are believed to have lived on these islands for at least the last 2,000 but possibly up to 9,000 years. The Aleutian Islands, and the wild seas that surround them, are among the most formidable places on earth. I have a lot of respect for people who have lived here for so  long and who continue to  persist in spite of the adversity and atrocities brought to their home since long before the 1940s. They are certainly among the hardiest and most capable of people, with a history and culture that I would love to know more about.

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A chiton

Among the biota samples collected for monitoring by the first Amchitka team last month are the traditional Unangan foods of reindeer moss, chitons, and Dolly Varden. Reindeer moss is a type  of gray-white lichen, which I am reluctant to taste raw but don’t know how to cook. Chitons are dark, prehistoric-looking sea creatures. I find one on the beach and pick it up, only to have it curl up slowly on my glove like a pillbug. Obviously it’s still alive, so I toss it back into the sea, wondering what something like Eagle on Adakthat could possibly taste like. Dolly Varden is a native species of trout. I dined on a lot of trout as a young person in Colorado and usually feel like I’ve had enough of it, but Craig, who wielded a  fishing-license, caught an extra (the others went into a sample bag as background samples for the monitoring). It was a delicious, firm fish that I would gladly eat again.

One of the most astounding things about the Aleutian Islands is the diversity of wild things. Bird life is abundant, especially eagles, gulls, cormorants, and a variety of shorebirds. It is here that I see my first puffins, the Arctic answer to penguins, although puffins fly relatively well, unlike their southern hemisphere counterparts. They have cute, stout bodies and heavy,  colorful beaks, both of which give the impression that their wings can barely keep them aloft.

Pack of sea otters in Clam Lagoon

Sea otters in Clam Lagoon

A cruise around Adak Island’s Clam Lagoon is a treat. We see groups of Northern sea otters, flocks of sea birds and shorebirds, harbor seals, and bald eagles. On the beaches around the lagoon are thousands of Pacific razor clam shells. On other beaches around the island, I find the shells of butter clams, mussels, sand dollars, and plenty of barnacles along with washed-up kelp and enormous amber-striped jellyfish. People don’t always think of the North as an abundant place, but the Aleutian Islands are rich with life everywhere I go.

Barnacles and friends on the left, a huge jelly washed up on the beach on the right