Thursday, July 2, 2009

Building Character: Things I do for work

Someone is making coffee. I can hear it through the faux-pine paneling of our broken down trailer. The turd grinder is happily grinding away in the yard, filling the broke-down septic tank in the compound. It's 4:30. The bad kind of 4:30. The am kind. My field partner gets up at the ass-crack of dawn everyday. At least he makes coffee. I roll over because I will not get up until 6 to be ready to leave at 7. My other field partner joins him at 5 am and they chatter about all things soils. I lay there, the sun streaming through the old sheet I tacked up on the window. Summer field season mornings are beautiful and a drag.

I roll out of bed and pull on my 5-day funky field clothes (I wear the same outfit everyday on my trips because I don't care): thrift-shop, patched Gramicci pants, Patagonia base layer (in the poor-choice color of ultra-stainable lemony yellow), t-shirt, and pink bandanna. I stagger to the bathroom and pray that the toilet flushes and won't back up due to the sub-standard septic system. --Oh, that septic system? It's installed on a terrain where the water table is at about 2 feet for most of the year. Not exactly sanitary. But, hey, it's Yakutat! I pour myself a cup of coffee in the totally inadequate demitasse-size cups in our trailer. The sky is a non-committal high overcast, it could go either way. We hope the clouds burn off and it's sunny but we could be in for a deluge. Who knows? So you pack for the rain.

Lunch is in the pack, rinse out the water bottles (one is full of dirt and dead mosquitoes. How'd that happen?), unplug the Trimble Nomad from the charger, pull on damp waders, crawl in to the surplussed USFS green Ford with the leaky front gas tank. Drive.

Out the road or to the airport, it varies. Let's say we're flying today. So off to the WWII era hanger at the end of the Yakutat airport. Meet with the Helicopter manager and get briefed on the cluster of a schedule. We get to fly out first (we ostensibly have priority over the gigantic, disorganized sling job nearby). Don the Nomex prisoner-orange flight suit, lifevest that comes in two sizes XL or XXL (I choose the XL), flight helmet, gloves and place the nomad in my pocket. Make sure the shovel, auger, rifle and field pack with survival gear is loaded into the pod below the Hewes 500. Haul myself into the canvas and steel seat in the back of the aircraft. The pilot, Brad, is cordial.

And we're off. The mist and low clouds give way to miles of open bog, dark forest, dunes, glacially-fed streams bent by longshore drift. We fly along the pristine beach all the way to Dry Bay at the outlet of the Alsek river. A few sealions are visible against the milky green water. Glacial silt sifts and moves giving the waves a softness and depth. Arcpad tracks our progress on the little Nomad. The little target slides down the shore at 110 knots, just like us.

Dry Bay. We fly over our forested unit, unable to see anything but the thick, bright green between the blue-gray spruce. We find an old, uplifted estuary covered in Myrica Gale and buck bean. After landing we waddle forward of the Hewes and remove our orange garb, load the rifle (away from the helicopter) and gear up for our slog. I carry the shovel, my field partner carries the rifle. Into the woods.

Devils club leaf.
This is the first time I felt I lived in a rainforest. The devil's club averaged 8-9 feet tall with ropey salmonberry filling in the spaces in between. Both have thorns that tear and scrape my waders and raingear. Each little spine seeks out the soft pads of finger tips and the never-idle knuckles. We are swimming in brush, rarely touching the ground.

The first stop. Rain has filled up all the voids in my mosquito headnet so I can't really see what I'm doing. It's ok, as long as I'm moving the little buggers keep their distance. Digging, digging, digging in soft aeolian sands and uplifted beach sediments. At least the digging is easy today. Down, down, down to 40 inches. lean back, avoid sitting on something sharp. Something that could puncture $300 waders. I dig out my little trowel and seamstress tape. poke, scrape, taste, describe the spodosol developing on this dune-influenced beach ridge. They are beautiful reds and grays. Identify the plants: Sitka Spruce, Devils Club (Oplopanax horridus), salmonberry, enchanters nightshade, forest violet, stink current, sitka alder. Pack up. Move on.

It takes 15 minutes to walk 150 meters.

Saw away the veg to make a space to dig. Dig. Describe. Fill. Have a snack. Repeat.

Until 1500. Start hiking back to the LZ. get a call at 1520. "We're not going to make a 1600 pick up, will be closer to 1700." shit.

Get to the lz at 1545. Stand around and discuss the geomorphological process that built the feature we just traversed. Breathe the slightly stagnant air inside of headnet. It stopped raining so we dry our our jackets. 1615. Dig another hole to see how deep or shallow the mineral soil is below the organic. It's about 20 inches. Terric Cryohemist. Sticky blue glacial silt sucks at the sharpshooter. (Razorback, of course.)

1630. Begin looking at the plants. The lupine has caught a perfect raindrop in the base of its 5 leaves, it shines like a jewel. Stands of white bog orchid. Little creeping cranberry. 1645. Poppa-Echo-Echo (pee) behind a willow. 1700 the no-see-um hordes arrive. They swarm my waders, face, hands, neck. Crawl down my shirt. Tiny prickly bites on all the warm parts of my body. Oh, they're in my hair. 1702. Begin pacing, hoping that the movement distracts them. How do moose live in this?

1735. "51Victor landing Dry Bay." They pick up the other crew to shuttle them to the end of the road. We're next. They're coming. They're here. We get to go home. 1805 putting on the sopping wet nomex suit. Running to the helicopter. Getmehome. Getmeouttahere. Nomorebugs. Pilot and manager make cracks about blood loss and whatnot. I am humorless. Fly over the forelands. I can't even admire its beauty. The perfect glacial ridges. The shifting icebergs in Harlequin Lake. Nature sucked today. Screw the bitey, prickly, slick outdoors.

1855. Home. Shower. Dry socks. Food (only what it takes to fill my belly with something warm and salty). Piss and moan. Key out the plant community. go to bed.

Repeat.

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