Update from Alaska

Ben Copp

Nome, AK

July 28th

The helicopter we’re flying in is a Bell 206 Long Ranger.  It seats 7, in the same way a VW bug seats 5.  There have only been three of us so it’s perfectly comfortable.  As the day goes: we pick an area and a few sites to visit, somewhere between 8 and 10 and head out to the furthest one and work our way back.  Fuel and weight are our limiting factors.  We’ve only got about 3.5 hours of fuel and as frequently as we power up in might be less.  When we arrive at a site we look for a suitable place to set down and begin our survey.  The surveys are simple and painfully unscientific.  Laurie (my mentor) and I stand side by side and envision a semi circle.  Within that area we consider the amount of cover of preferred lichen and the percent use of that lichen.  We record these percents within classes, take two large steps and do it again.  What we’re looking for are signs that the lichen has been grazed on or steps in the lichen.  When it’s hot and dry the lichens crumble under foot and hold big prints, and when reindeer or caribou eat they pull out clumps of lichen but only eat the very tops and drop the rest.

I’ve been in a helicopter once before but here I am spending loads of time flying around rural Alaska, where there are no roads or people, only the occasional sign of human use, a cabin or a two-track, for a week.  It’s awesome.  I have a flight suit and a helmet and gloves, which make it bad-ass and get to see bears and reindeer and musk ox and hopefully some moose from the air.  It’s a seriously good adventure.

Yesterday we got into a bit of a mess.  We flew early, getting out to Tom Gray’s Range about 100 miles east of Nome.  There were clouds around, some of them low to the ground but easy to fly around and avoid.  We got to our sites, 10 of them.  Ate lunch on the top of a hill, picked blueberries after surveying, generally having a great time despite a constant mists and chilling wind.  It wasn’t comfortable working but always fun.  I found a big moose antler at one of our sites but it was last year’s and had been gnawed on by some critters and torn apart so I left it to the tundra.  Even in the rain it’s great to be out on the tundra, better in the sun of course but the rain seems to accentuate the colors of the white and green lichens, red and blue berries, green mosses and grasses.  The complexity is hidden in just a few centimeters above the ground – it demands a close look.  Every site is a little different.  Some and boggy and wet, with high tussocks and lots of lichens and blueberry bushes, while other are in saddles or on hilltops that have been cleaned of lichens and turned mostly to rock.  The blueberry bushes are in a fully ripened state.  I’ve found that the little ones that are close to the ground and in a harsher place have the most berries.  When it’s boggy and wet, when the bushes are big and green, you have to pick one by one.  It’s the hardy little bushes that carry the most berries.  But back to the mess.  We were at site 10-05, our 10th site of the day and destined to be our last.  We wanted to make it a shorter day because the previous two had been long and it had been raining all day but we had made good time and I had a softball game to make.  We were up in a saddle working with the wind and mist to our back and finished quickly because we were getting cold and wet.  It was only about 45 deg.  We finished our assessment, took some measurements, and got back in the helicopter.  There were no blueberry bushes to keep us there any longer.  As we power up a thick cloud came and knocked down our visibility so we can only see the ground below us and nothing ahead.  We set back down and wait a second before trying again only to have the same result.  This time we powered down and waited for a good opening.  We sat and watched the cloud move past, rain thickening and thinning, the peaks to either side coming and going.   We got glances of trees below, the valley, maybe the river, but none long enough to make a run for it.  Calls went out to dispatch, still on the ground weathered in, 50 miles straight line from Nome, middle of no where.  I napped, ate, got cold, peed, ate, thought I see an opening, no.  On and on. We started to make plans.  We only had enough fuel to make a straight line back to Nome, which with this weather was unlikely.  If we did get off we might be able to make it back or at least follow the Council road back.  That’s the best option.  The second option was to fly to Council, only a few miles away and have the mechanic drive out and meet us.  The pilot could only work so many hours in a day and as that time approached option three, which was spend the night in the helicopter seemed more and more likely.  We relayed our options to dispatch and sat tight for more hours.  There was no making the softball game now.  It was 9:00pm – just about of 5 hour mark.  As we made the second to last call into dispatch, giving them our options, setting a time to talk in the morning, and all but giving up we get a little clearing.  Nate, the pilot, powered up and Laurie and I put things away and prepped for take off.  The clouds cleared out of the valley and we lifted off and flew down below the soup that had stranded us.  We found the road to Council and began to follow it towards Nome.  The going was slow, still clouds everywhere and a low ceiling.  As the road climbed a hill and we followed it we reentered the mess of clouds and rain.  Now flying 20 feet above the road, going 20-30 miles an hour we couldn’t make it back to town.  I could read mile marker 56 as we passed by- 56 miles to Nome, no chance.  It was now 10:30, just 10 minutes from the pilots shut down time, so we set down at the side of the road powered down, put a call into the mechanic to drive out and pick us up, and sat tight.  The wind was up again and so was the rain.  I could see my breath inside the aircraft.  It took an hour and a half for the truck to get to us, and eventually we were home.  A warm shower, some proper dinner, and bed.  I didn’t get to bed until 2am, but that didn’t matter.  I wasn’t in a helicopter on a hillside or still on the road to Council.  I was back and able to sleep in.

Tomorrow we’ll do it all again.

Photos of it all are here:


Reindeer Handling

July 8th

Today, this morning, we finished handling the Davis herd.  The process is one not easily put to words but I will try to recount as best I can most of what it involves.  It started weeks ago when we fixed the corral.  I thought some of the repairs to be over kill but some proved insufficient.  We then went out searching for deer to start pushing towards the corral.  Just getting the animals into the corral takes a weeks work, little rest, and mile after mile of rough and wet tundra.  But eventually and not without trouble we filled the corral.

It’s amazing to see these animals up close. A few of the boasted large fingered racks, still covered in velvet.  Large shovels grew out from one or both sides to form a plate between the eyes.  Being so close you could hear grunts and heavy breaths.  They are just loosing their winter hair.  Large clumps lay on the ground and hung off their side.  The deer circled, not stopping, moving like water in a whirlpool.  Antlers clicked and clanked together with a light rain-stick sound.

It was now 8:00 pm.  I had changed out my wet boots and socks, eaten some sandwiches and sausage and cheese, the sun was high and I was eager to work.  The process of getting just one deer through the corral processed is not easy.  The herd but first be split, a large group going into the “barge”, and then three smaller pockets funnel down to two squeeze chutes with a team at each.  At 8:30 we moved the first group through the barge and loaded the pockets and the first deer began to move through the chutes.  Here’s how it goes:

There’s a door at the end of the chute that connects it to the last pocket where there are maybe 12-15 deer waiting.  And the deer don’t wait calmly.  They churn and swirl, jump 10 feet high and smash the walls of the pockets.  Any loose wood comes off, deer try to squeeze through the slot between the doors, people are calling for deer, hair is flying, deer and coming-its a rodeo.  One deer at a time is pushed through the door and enters the first part of the chute.  There’s a small floor to walk on with diagonal walls coming up.  Deer don’t walk one foot in front of the other so having little room to walk on slows them down.  At the end of this there is a squeeze chute and a small mass of people.  As the deer are ushered down the ramp to the awaiting party they moved slowly and tentatively.  Then, usually just as they get to the end they bolt and someone, typically three people, have to be there to wrestle them and hold them down and close the chute.  The chute doesn’t hold them, it still take two to prevent an escape.  After a few dozen you get a groove.  I learned that If I grab the near antler and hook the nose with my forearm and pull the deer’s head towards me and then back holding it by the lower jaw it’ll arrest it quickly.  Once controlled the deer, in our case, is sexed, notched in the ears, tagged with an ID number, weighted, vaccinated, dewormed, bled, occasionally dehorned and collared.  The whole process goes very quickly when orchestrated well, though not when the animal is kicking and jumping about.  We would castrate a few of the mavericks, which involves releasing the deer from the chute while one person, me, holds the antlers and head and as soon as it’s clear, throwing it to the ground and holding it there as someone, Greg, makes two slits and removes the testicles.  Then the trick is to get up before the deer does, not always easy.  This went on all night, holding deer, fixing collars, calling out “maverick female” meaning a female that hasn’t been processed before, or “Davis bull,” a bull that already has a tag and notched ears.  Everyone’s got a job, clipping antlers and rubber banding the stumps to stop the bleeding, writing notes and data recording, counting the deer released.  The rodeo continued, two chutes working quickly to get the deer in and out.  The whole Davis family was there, more excited than usual as the herd hadn’t been handled in five years.  It was a homecoming of sorts, high spirits and laughter, jokes always at someone’s expense.  The sun rolled across the sky moving west to north and slowly stepping down.  It was still warm but not hot when we reached our grove, people tired, less laughter, work became a chore and then labor, but the sun kept us awake and working, not to mention the hundreds of deer to go.  At sun set, at 1:15 am, it wasn’t near the halfway mark.

Animals continued to come, hair flew everywhere, blood and grit and grime covered every hand and face and shirt, pain increased or just continued.  Energy reduced talk to just what’s necessary, the night continued.  Every deer that comes through and more so with the ones that fight hard or have to be taken to the ground tolls you body what feels like years.  Fingers, knees, feet, hands take a beating hour after hour.  Fawns were moved with the rest of the deer until the last pocket and then moved into a separate processing area.  I don’t know what went on in there, other than now and then one would mistakenly come through the chute and I’d pick it up and carry in into the pen and have one of the kids straddle it until someone could tag and weight it.  Everyone did his or her part.  The sun rose and still we worked, taking blood and vaccinating and collaring.  Pausing only to dry our hands of saliva and blood before the next deer came through.  Now and then, maybe four times through the night we would take short breaks while the pockets were refilled.  Some would get food or go to the bathroom or fall asleep.  It didn’t do much to help exhaustion.  Then the last of the deer were loaded into the pockets.  One more big push and that might be it.  On we went.  The same for every deer but not every deer was the same.  As the morning gained a footing the deer got more anxious to join the rest in freedom and would move more quickly down the chute and hit my body harder as they came to a stop. The largest ones came last as they had been able to avoid the first loadings. The last fifty or so took tremendous effort to restrain and process. At last it was the last deer.  Same as the rest, no easier.  And it was off, 452 deer, it was 8:30 am.

I fell asleep on the truck ride home.  Every joint and muscle had been beaten.  I had been kicked and bucked and now bruised and in so much aching pain.  I was limping and holding my arms in each other.  My hands had been pummeled by antlers and teeth, they were bloody, covered in saliva and grime.  My clothes destroyed.  I washed myself, surveyed cuts and bruises and assessed each limb.  Finally I slept, just enough to recharge for my softball game and regain a normal schedule.  It’ll take at least a few days to undo last night’s destruction, though it’s likely I’ll handle again within a week.  But that was done and the gargantuan effort was well worth it.  Each scar meant the job had been done and the Davis herd was once again in business.


Sure enough a week and a half later I was off to another handling.  This one was done a bit different and with a whole lot more deer.  Briefly:  there was only one chute, the corral was in terrible condition, and instead of 450 deer there were about 1500.  It’s hard to say exactly because the wind and rain picked up so much in the middle of the night we went to take a break and part of the corral blew down and after only 500 deer the rest of the herd escaped.  Instead of sending one deer down the cute and having it arrive at a squeeze chute they sent three at once and three guys would each grab one and half ride half wrestle it to the ground.  It went more quickly but was much more tiring.  We didn’t have to process them the same way either, just tag and cut the antlers and let them up.  It made for faster work but it was a miserable night.

Photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/bacoppvi/Alaska?feat=directlink

From Nome, AK

Blog 1

Selected log excerpts:

Day 1

May 27th

This is Amazing.  Leaving Anchorage, from sea level, fields of mountains rise .  Out and expansive.  Going north, an eastern sun checkerboards the slopes white and black.  Sharps ridges and steep slopes provide the contrast.  The sun is just rising.  From 30,000 ft they are nothing but sheep.  Mnt. Mickinley shepards the flock from far above.  May still looks like winter.

The sheep disperse.  Pebbled lakes star the flats, rivers add stripes.  The hand that made these was not concerned with order.  This feels like the frontier.

I am changing my unknown to my discovered.

There are 17 people on my flight to Nome through Kotzebue, 1/10 full.  It’s weighted down with the necessities, food, goods, mail, someone’s new bike.  There’s no other way.

We fly up, over the Yukon River, through the interior, just past Nome and into the arctic circle.  Am I supposed to feel anything other than the novelty of so-far-north?  Above the Seward Peninsula, the Kotzebue sound is still iced and cold.  This is the Arctic Ocean.  The land stretches out brown with frostbite.  Kotzebue lies at the end of the longest coldest finger-no roads to the mainland.  Few depart at the Alaska Airlines hangar, their breaths tell the temperature.  US mail and cargo is unloaded.  Only 11 continue to Nome.This is still winter.

Leaving Kotzebue I see the town’s length, shorter than the runway and only three blocks deep.  I’m told Nome, just 30 minutes south and west, is a fraction larger.  Before we get high above the clouds that have formed in the ‘warming’ of the day, we’re south of the circle and above the Seward Peninsula.  A snow-blanket full of spring holes covers tundra, hills, mountains, and blurs the coastline.  There are no trees, little life.  I will get a second spring.


Day 2

May 28th

I’ve been here in Nome for 36 hours.  Like any experience that comes with a place it is hard to put to words.  A first description I would give would only be a first impression unto you and thus temper the rest.  Each detail is only part of the whole, and the order they come is no particular indication of importance or significance.  That being said, I like Nome.  The people I have met have been nice.  They smile and say hello, wave from their trucks, shake your hand well.  As a point of reference there are only 3,500 of them, most are native Alaskans.  Children are everywhere, on bikes, playing basketball, walking unaccompanied.  As for the adults, most are busy, walking here or driving there.  Few sit and watch.  There are tourists, not many of them but they come for the birds.  I don’t know much about the birds but I’ve heard there are a lot of them, and there must be because this is a very long way to come.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has a satellite campus here in Nome, known as the Northwest Campus.  In some regard or another I will be working with their Reindeer Research Program and the BLM, but how is not yet clear.  I’m living in the University Bunkhouse, 208A East Kings Plaza, for the moment alone.  There are three bunk rooms and master bed room with, what I would suspect are, Greg Finstadt’s belongings (more on him after I meet him).  There are maps on the wall, guns in the closet, couches, pots and pans and a fridge with, until today, little more than reindeer medicine in it.  It has been well lived in and as long as there’s kitchen and a bed its good enough for me.I’m excited here.  Now that I’m here there is nothing to lose by being fully here.  Exploring town, discovering all of the new, living everything is fun.  Nothing new is ever dull.  I’m enthusiastic about being here.  This is not just a work experience, it is an Alaksa experience, a too-far-north experience, a new-place-and-people experience, a learning experience, a living experience.  The work I will do will constitute a significant part of my time here, but it is just a fraction.  While I’m tentative to predict anything, I’m certain of this.


Day 8

June 3rd

And just now, finally, I’m starting to get an idea of what I’m going to be doing.  From what Greg says it’s a terribly daunting task.  Greg’s been here for ages;  there’s no one better to introduce you to the herders, make you understand the place and teach you everything you need to know about the ecosystem than Greg.  He lives this and loves sharing it.  The BLM is responsible for assisting the reindeer herders in generating range management plans and it sounds like they’re having me start it because no one was qualified and felt up to the task.  No one has made one before for this area so I’m walking on new ground, and no one wanted to make one which tells me I need to watch my step and look for all the help I can get.  Laurie (BLM) has asked me to generate three plans for different herds but Greg says he would be more than happy with just one.    With the amount of material that’s accumulated on my desk today alone, piles of pressed plants, Federal handbooks, textbooks, and other reading material that I have to get through and know and understand by the end of the month, I’d say my job is daunting and finishing just one plan would make me very proud.  So, in short, I’ve got a hell of a lot of work cut out for me.

As for Photographs, I know family and friends would like visuals to put their imaginations to rest but they will be posted in some time.