Night of the CTD

August 17

Last night we cast the CTD for the 100th time this cruise, and then kept on casting. The rosette went out the baltic door again and again against a background of ice floes and water so still, the ripples of the submerging cage were the only things moving on the surface. They made lasting impressions.

But excepting a few liters of collected water where we saw the chlorophyll levels to be the highest, and excepting where the ship’s acoustics saw the zooplankton scatter in the cage’s wake—and scatter wider when the VPR strobe was flashing, the CTD is a passive observer, describing the fundamental characteristics of the water from the surface to the bottom: changes in salinity, changes in temperature. Sharp changes in the column’s properties over depth indicate independent water masses that have remained in character over great distances. The drum on the winch is loaded with 10,000 meters of cable. Last night we needed only 300, but beneath us a relatively shallow sea, there are clear layers, from the fresh summer meltwater to the Alaska Coastal Current, Pacific water, and off the shelf, in the depths, Atlantic water.

The photographs below are of CTD casts aboard the Sikuliaq in 2014, 2015, and 2018, in the North Atlantic, and the Caribbean, Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.


You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

Because Gliders

August 4, 2018

What? Do you think one ocean is much like another? Not even the same sea is the same sea one day to the next. The moment you get happy with the weather, it turns on you. The moment you think you’ll arrive on station as planned—because the northward flow is adding knots to the ship’s speed, and because the ship is bullying the wind—that same wind has brought the sea ice south out of the high Arctic and made a rubble field of your study site. The Sikuliaq is ice capable, and that’s a technical term. It can cut through several feet of ice if it needs to. It can clear out a small lake or a giant fishing hole so that work can be done, until you remember that the ice too, is continually moving, changing, that the landscape beneath the boat is running one way at the same moment everything feels calm and stable up top.

When one instrument is in the water, another is prepped and waiting. The researchers revise their programs, check the grease on the moving parts, check the charge on the batteries, and prep the nets. Up on the bridge, we spot whales.

Oceans are hard places. They are cold and salted. They are hard on machines. When you put a thing in the water, you have to be prepared never to see it again. Spacecraft have it easy. Falling to earth, or to the bottom, is easy.

I contacted Robert a month before the cruise. He’s a busy guy, what with the radio station and the podcast and who knows what else. I’ve known Robert for 20 odd years, which means I didn’t know him when I was still an oceanographer. I left him a message saying I was headed back out to sea aboard the Sikuliaq. I had stuff to talk about. He sent ahead his first question.

“Why another voyage?”

Robert knows I’m finishing a book of nonfiction and it has something to do with travel and architecture and theatre and sport. Repeat visits are important, and returning to the old life is a mainstay. But, the cruise aboard the Sikuliaq will occupy the whole of August. That’s a long time for a quick poke around a ship for old times’ sake. But Robert’s good at asking questions. He should be a scientist too. It’s the right question.

Another voyage? Because it’s been three years since I was aboard the Sikuliaq. Because the ship-side 24/7 is its own sport and architecture, because I like leaving the day job behind. Because I need to feel again the thrill of leaving port, of spending the night before—watching lightning out at sea, yet a different sea, and walking back up the ramp or down the ramp and pondering how it matters whether the sky is southerly and dark or northerly and stupid bright. Because I like making things—and someone said just recently, living on a research ship is like living on a factory floor—one that is in constant motion, even if at times that motion is blissfully slight.

Because I ultimately like getting off a boat and being disturbed that a thing such as a cup of tea, set on a table unattended, does not immediately break the tenuous friction of the counter-top and slip to the edge and the tiles below. Because I want to find it inexplicably odd the fluid in the cup is not a measure of how much the world is moving.

Because science—even though I’m not a scientist anymore. Robert’s questions led to more questions, which is how it should be. His first question I knew. My first answer I knew. After that, things got interesting. They ran down corridors and got swept up in the prop wash. They glowed. They burned holes in the soft spots. At length, I answered them. Then, more questions.

Because now we might go places I could not have dreamed, or places so familiar I’m astounded by how fresh they feel. Because I love the process, I told Robert. Because every now and then we have to take our instruments and go to a place we can’t predict a damn thing. Yes, I’m talking about marine science, and other things. Expeditions are like this. Carry a knife and a flashlight—Instagram when you can.

Because sometimes I just want to stand at the rail and look out at the ocean.

Because I haven’t been on a bona fide research cruise since 1995. The five other subsequent sailings were either ship trials or a ship ferrying the party to remote islands.

Because I sleep really, really well on ships. Because I will have at least one epic dream when the world is not still. Because I’m still living down the nausea of ’95.

Because there is science aboard I haven’t seen. New nets, big nets! New tools on the CTD, a new mission, and moorings! Lots of moorings to be picked up and to be let behind. Even the familiar tools are noon to a sunset in a different scientist’s hands.

Because I’ve never seen a glider deployed.

Because gliders.

We hung a glider in a UA museum exhibit a few years back, but our budget couldn’t afford even the rental of a pretty but gutless demonstration shell for the year we needed it. We built a rough model instead.

Now I’ve seen the real deal in the water, waited as it dialed Fairbanks, got instruction by telephone, and dove beneath the waves to disappear for months. We expect the glider will surface regularly and find an Iridium satellite, pretty much just to report on the weather down there. “Cold. This is how cold. Salty. This is how salty. This is where we are on the map. Barrow Canyon is a might bit breezy. Oh, and there is definitely a chance of whales to the east.”

The Third Mate drove the landing craft, with Ethan, Kate and myself aboard with the glider. We motored away from the ship so the glider could operate a pair of test dives while we were still close enough to retrieve it, and while the ship was far enough away not to interfere. The photographs do the operation justice. Kate and Ethen mounted the wings and tied-off the sled so that couldn’t be lost to the sea today. The glider slipped down the nylon and into the water. It bobbed with its tail in the air. This is where the radios are located.

The sea was calmer than expected, and at one point the sun came out. After each test dive, we spotted the glider’s bright-yellow hull and wings when it returned to the surface. We drove around the Sikuliaq a couple laps to take photographs.

The glider does not have a engine. It steers by shifting the weight of its batteries; it moves forward by making slight changes to its buoyancy, allowing it to dive and to resurface. Because it is shaped like a glider, it glides forward with any change in depth. The batteries will last several months in the cold ocean.

The machine is equipped for physical oceanography, measuring depth and temperature and salinity as it goes. Glider AK-06 is fitted with a hydrophone on the nose. As it travels north, it will listen for whales. It will telephone home what it finds.

In the meantime, the Sikuliaq is off northward ahead of tiny submersible, and we will return to port long before its mission is done. If all goes well, the glider will beach itself in Barrow—or be picked up by a small boat later in the fall, before the sea ice finds its way back to shore.

To follow the R/V Sikuliaq, find @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook and @arctic_WFFF on Twitter.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

Transit / Transition

August 3, 2018

We thread the strait through the northern summer twilight, coming east of Little Diomede, which from 25 miles away is visible like the tip of a thumb to the base of the nail, sticking up from the water, and seems as tall as the island is wide. On the other side is Big Diomede, which we cannot see at the moment. A great many things run invisibly between these two islands, not least of which is the Russia – United States border.

I was last aboard the R/V Sikuliaq in 2015. April. The sea ice was thick enough south of St. Matthews we never ventured nearly so far into the Bering, much less now, sailing the Chukchi Sea north of the Diomedes and Bering Strait.

Things are different now. Whereas the sea ice in April stretches far south into the Bering, in August we’re week by week approaching minimum sea ice extent, that point in mid-September when the annual summer melt and general ice retreat is beaten back by the scheduled coming of another winter. The ice is not far north of us. We can see its rough edges, via satellite, at the moment lying atop the northern part of our study area. So, we’re torn somewhat. Ice can inhibit some of the science, but everyone wants to see it. Working in the seasonal “first-year ice” environment is what the “Sikuliaq” was designed to do. And who doesn’t love the mere present evidence of sea ice as we blaze our way through the 21stcentury?

The ship different now. Since I was last aboard, it’s transitioned from a period of trials. There are miles on the odometer, and the sea is tough on these things we put into the water. You can weigh rated shackles when they come back from a year in the water and see clearly if rust has got inside.

Where my writing and photo editing desk stood two years ago in a corner of the Main Lab alongside the Ultra-low freezers, now there’s table tennis. The net is taught and rolled about the clamped ends to allow for the narrow playing field. The table surface is a bare-bones 4×8 sheet slowly polished by use. Even the lime green center line, made of label tape, has been here long enough to show wear.

Of course, I’m only aware of the surface details—and only those things that have clearly evolved this decade. There’s a 3D printer on which Ethan has already rendered spare parts in solid, no-void ABS, at sea, and thus saved science. Last year, Steve asked me for a digital model of the ship so that now the ship could print, in effect, make smaller copies of itself. It won’t float, I thought. The model we got from the architects back-when was full of hole. Even so, we worked up the geometry and simplified the deck machinery for an interactive exhibit at the UA Museum. The model was 7-inches long, and floated on a clear acrylic sheet twelve-feet above the floor. Museum visitors could work a joystick to lower a similarly 3D printed CTD rosette on a thread for a winch cable. The distance to the floor was a scale mile of aquatic darkness lit with club lights.

After the yard work, the Sikuliaq’s anti-roll system now makes for a smoother, more comfortable ride than before. By pumping water between tanks in the hull, the ship better maintains level. Upstairs from the Main lab, the lounge now resembles a lounge and not a second cantina. There’s a gaming table crafted aboard ship. There are a pair of couches set for movie watching. The TV has been moved away from the corridor wall and lowered, now less like a platform for PowerPoint and training videos and more like something someone could fall asleep to, while a film plays to the end, rolls credits, and plays the star-spangled banner. The lounge is carpeted, and there’s far less chance, now, we’ll come back tomorrow morning and find all the café chairs piled in a heap and lashed together against the port wall, the paint scratched, on the inside, by the latest storm.

The ship’s had a new paint job. The ice-like, arctic blue of the lower hull has been re-imagined as something deeper, richer, and oceanic. I’ll get used to this, though I’ve been grumbling these last few years how the new look has rendered obsolete all the photos I took of the ship set in the ice, the crew in orange and black—and black and orange suits dotting the frozen ocean, the ship steady as if set-up on blocks in a dry dock. She cleans up nice, but the sea is hard. The rust comes back.

The working deck and the Baltic Room are now a logistical puzzle. The non-skid shows the wear of work been done, and the ship has jobs beyond ours already aboard. There’s a van up on the front deck below the bridge, and the working deck is loaded with containers, three of them, two stacked, and a landing craft we will use tomorrow to put the glider in the water. The remainder of the working deck is either necessarily clear for the next deployment or loaded with framed- shipping crates and shrink-wrapped palettes waiting their turn to be mobilized. The starboard working deck is an array of mooring anchors. At something like $500 a pair, iron railroad wheels are a choice mass, pre-drilled at the center, uniform in gauge and weight—to start with. We should never see them again once they go into the deep.

The coffee and juice machines have taken their turns and been replaced to meet the developing crew’s needs. This morning, my coffee tastes a little like battery acid, but I’m not being critical of the hospitality, or the herculean effort the modest Bunn CW series puts out day and night. I think perhaps, I haven’t washed my cup since the last time I went somewhere. I am not entirely sure where I was when I did use it last. My tin cup isn’t particularly suited for boats. It does not seal and it is not especially wide at the bottom. Nor does it come pre-glued to a sticky pad. But it is the cup I’ve taken places, even if it doesn’t feature in photographs like the kites I travel with. It’s nothing special, but it is consistency while the adventure changes one year to the next. The cup is typically clipped to a backpack, so it can rattle where I go. On ships, it fends for itself. I remember when I bought it. 2013. June, sneaking up on the end of the month. I was looking at a week and more on the Yukon, driving downstream some 500 river miles. So, the tin cup has borne Cretaceous silt, and whiskey, and has probably been used to collect pretty colored pebbles, and camera parts, and the shells of ancient marine mollusks. The cup is only washed with whatever goes into it next.

Today, the ship is in transit, so we can begin the first real work tomorrow, before transiting again. In the meantime, equipment is prepared and all the logistics are thought through. Some equipment has been used before, others are brand new. It is the nature of science and marine science. Improvements can always be made, and issues will always come from all directions as every watch is a cascade of deadlines. We adapt. The ship adapts. Everyone has a plan B, should there be sea ice in our path, should the strobe on the VPR develop a mind of its own, should the glider’s Iridium phone suddenly not test-out, surrounded by all this thick steel.

If I drop my tin cup in the drink or if it gets lost from one deck to the next, I have brought a second one, a new one, one that will no doubt have new issues. Only the sunsets are perfect at sea. At some point, I’ll pull the new mug out from the drawer I’ve stuck in it, swaddled by t-shirts—probably when the laundry runs low and I need those t-shirts—and we’ll get its traveling days begun. Doesn’t mean the old one will be relegated to storing carabiners and leathermen, or pulled palette nails, but something fresh out of the slip can use the beating and the wear. This is what these things are designed for, new recruits under extreme circumstances. Even a coffee cup needs a hard breaking-in. Let’s see if it takes a liking to boats, and see how the coffee tastes after the weekend.

To follow the R/V Sikuliaq, find @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook and @arctic_WFFF on Twitter.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

Mobe Day

There are sunflower seeds at the bottom of my sea bags. No, pouring them out is not an hourglass’s measure of how far-too-long it has been since I last used the bags. The seeds are likely a sign I need to build shelves, or tidy the store room such that the cats can patrol effectively. In the interim, some instinct-driven red-backed vole has packed a heavy lunch for some event or a voyage it didn’t dare to imagine, as they do, but when they consider carefully the unknown, they never go anywhere.

We drive out from the hotel in four truck loads and begin to mobilize the ship’s onboard labs. Crates and cases and boxes are pulled from the container fixed to the working deck. Delicate instruments are unpacked, and pairs of boots, and the foul weather gear that was loaded and shipped months ago.

Everything is tied down or made easy to reach in a lashed bag or a tray screwed into a tabletop, from microscopes to extra pens and lens wipes and laptop adapters. All the lab surfaces are perforated with threaded inserts so that expensive machines can be anchored with bungee and parachute cords. In the lab, anything left to rock and rattle within a tray is just one more noise in a place busy with the air system, the engines, the winches, the gurgle of the sampler pulling water from the science seachest. Upstairs, the staterooms are much quieter. Hardware put into drawers is padded with clothes, else the sliding and the rolling things knock the tin insides through this week and next week and the week after that and the week after that. If we’re not careful, over time, this can drive a person mad.

I exaggerate, but once everything seems secure for leaving port in the morning, we eat dinner on ship and walk back out along the muddy jetty in twos and threes, past the airport and then down Seppela Drive into town. About two miles to the center of things. Squalls come and go. The NOAA boys from the Fairweather offer us a ride. Steve checks out the back of the van to see what sort of room there is, to help with our excuses. We want to stretch our legs, even though it has begun to rain again. I tell Steve, walking to the bar is neither here nor there, but walking home again, to the ship, is something I’ve come to look forward to.

From the back deck of the Nugget Inn, we can see the Sikuliaq’s upper decks on the far side of the bouldery jetties. The ship is tied up just west of us. To her stern, the NOAAS Fairweather is flying flags for the admiral in town, and the Korean icebreaker, the R/V Araon, is waiting just off shore. We think it will take our spot when we leave tomorrow. This is Alaska. This is Nome, so there are folks in t-shirts on jet-skies racing just off-shore. There’s a fist-fight behind us on the shore road, which Mike watches silently. Those of us with our backs turned are none-the-wiser. Later, he says he really didn’t want to interrupt what we were talking about just to gawp. I suppose that’s us, quiet observers with a big boat.

Phil brings part of a second round from the bar out onto the deck where we blink in the low, northern sun. Alaska, in summer, so no one needs walk back to the boat in the dark. We discuss past expeditions and who has sailed with whom and when and where. We wonder what the weather will be. The satellites see ice over some of our stations, but there’s an equal chance it will be driven north as the winds change to the east. Will there be swells? Will the ice still be there when we need to collect our moorings? Will the glider behave on its test dive, and will be confident we can let it dive again out of sight so it makes its own months-long journey to Barrow? We talk about the ship and how it has evolved. We talk about seasickness. We talk about the vagaries of itinerary at sea.

Here’s what to know about a ship: it’s trying to kill you. Watch where you put your feet. Watch where you put your hands. Here’s what to know about seasickness: it’s your inner ear telling your body, for some reason—probably due to an evolutionary cock-up—that you are being poisoned. Food in your stomach is a good thing. Hydration is a good thing. Dry crackers are great. Coffee and other greasy foods spell trouble. Ginger works. When you do get sick, and everyone has their limits, it’s the worst thing in the world, not unlike an adult’s inexplicable and seemingly sudden revulsion for rollercoasters. Celia says she’d rather catch the flu. The best thing, of course, is lying down. Lying down makes everything better. Lying down takes the motion of the ocean and turns your nightmare into a hammock. It’s not a solution though, because we’ve only got the boat for a few weeks—and every hour counts. There’s science to be done on deck, and you have to get up anyway, to eat and keep the stomach busy. Busy is good. Busy is probably the best thing to be.

The Nugget Inn and bar was built because Alaska Airlines wanted a swell place for their customers to stay in the remoteness of the north. Now, both the Inn and Nome have been here awhile, perched on the state’s western coast. Kate says she stayed here not so long ago—she can’t remember the project off hand—says the floors have gone soft. And that balcony out back looks sketchy like a homemade moon rocket looks sketchy. The engineers among us are impressed by the turnbuckle wire reinforcement, strung out to the end of the flying 2×4, more by the attempt than anything else. Turn away. Have a drink. Look back out to sea. Carin gets a text from home. Sounds as if her cat captured a mouse and was found on the bed trying to eat it.

Later, we learn the crew can sing karaoke, and the odd few can play pool and eventually finish a rack. And when they turn up, we know the crew of the Fairweather hasn’t got a chance, even if they’ve a shiny white van in spite of the jetty mud. So, we’re good at before parties.

At Montreal, I wandered back to the ship with the cook. At San Juan, we closed the bar and fell the brief way back down the hill to the Navy docks. At Dutch Harbor, we hiked between the Grand Aleutian and the heels of Ballyhoo. At Nome, the sun is up and there is gold dust in the mud between the treads of our shoes.

Nome was once the largest city in Alaska, back at the turn of the century when the gold rush was here and not yet shifted to upstart Fairbanks. Mining barges large and small now litter the banks along Port Road. We can’t find a crane near large enough to put some of these hulks, even unfueled, back into the water. To the west, we can see a bucket dredge in the distance, silhouetted against the setting sun.

To follow the R/V Sikuliaq, find @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook and @arctic_WFFF on Twitter.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

This is Not About That, Not Yet

August 1, 2018

The ship’s not here, yet, so this is not yet about the ship. And the rain, in Nome, at times lands sideways. This is not about the rain. Sometimes it rains when you are waiting for a ship. For the moment, the swells onshore are clearly large enough to keep the ship at sea, and the puddle in the road intersection below the hotel is bidding to become another significant body of water. Trucks bury their tires to the rims. Waves lap at the ragged sidewalk.

I live in the North most of the year, when I haven’t contrived to get away and remind myself the world is large and connected and changing faster than we can begin to describe what it is to be a system—now. Deep breath. This is not about the science, not yet. I live in the North—so I can expect the quiet, grey days, the pause, and I know where to find the green in them. Here, in Nome, the green stretches away from the coast in a seemingly endless roil broken by the odd lava flow and scattered granite tors. At the Parks Service office, a ranger reads the nearest villages off a map, in case we have a truck. We do have a truck, but everything is hours in any direction. And we think the ship will dock soon, once the swells lie down. Then, even after the ship arrives, we have days before we reach our primary study area, north in the Beaufort Sea. This is not about that.

This afternoon, we haunt the hotel and the cafes and the gift shops, the bakery and the restaurants. All the old signs are weathered, the paint a peeled skin, but we don’t need to know what they say anymore. When a port town achieves maturity, the sidewalks become worn in. Subtleties in the grade guide us to the places that are important and usually steer us clear of places we have no business opening the door. But this is not yet about the places we didn’t go.

This is the day the cast assembles, and to a large extent airport currents bring people together naturally, because everyone is flying in from the four corners. Like magic, we cluster outside the gate. We see friends and colleagues we haven’t seen in a year, doing something commonplace as waiting for a plane. The airport is a natural corridor of comings and goings, and more often than not, a place of gathering. Later, of course, the pub becomes a green room, that most gregarious of places.

This is my fifth time waiting for the Sikuliaq, the fourth time I’ll board. I was lucky to be there at one beginning, waiting for the shell of the giant machine to be dropped into the Menomonee River. That day in October, it rained like mad, and the guests of honor had trouble breaking the champagne against the underside of the ship’s hard nose. The bottle slipped from their fingers and fell from the gantry. Our shipyard hosts ran back to the trailer and pulled another from the case. In the end, all the good photographs were taken, and everyone shook hands and water as the ship pushed its first and largest displacement across the river.

The expanse of the sea is deceptive in its seeming uniformity, but we’re guided to our places on the stage. Infancy is rough like early rehearsals. We don’t need, nor necessarily want them to go too well. But ships and towns mature. Weathered wood and rust stains are evidence of the best of repeated performances, poor copies only if you think of them as copies, as something similar to what has gone before—which is to say, nothing is ever routine, but only, gradually worn in. Nothing can be trusted when new. A cruise is an imperfect performance and an expedition is something else, a traveling show, a motley crew, and we haven’t got to the karaoke yet. This is not about that.

The second time I found the ship, Montreal became an extended run of settling into cafés and watching all the people, the summer groundlings, file past. At some point each day I’d walk back to the hotel to say I’ll have the room another night, if it’s available, if that’s okay? “The ship’s not in. She’s held up in the Lakes.” She was a new thing then.

I expect I will dream tonight, because I do, every time, at the start of a cruise. Although, you can’t rush these things. The dream might play coy and wait for the ship to arrive, or for the sea out of sight of land. But I think I’ve been too long now not at sea. I’m convinced the imagining already pushes at my subconscious. The dream, a dream, at the beginning of events, has become inevitable. Now I’m impatient for it, because waiting, because I like sleeping at sea, because the beginning of an expedition is a defining thing. The vision will be important to remember, insight born of a rocking vessel, a rumble of engines, and the scream of a winch at all hours. The dream will be a mix of what has come before—and where we are going. Dare I say, this too is an important part of the adventure, where even a nightmare is instructive.

The Sikuliaq was framed-out in Wisconsin, but she’s been built of years working at sea. In the early days, while she edged her way across lakes and through locks, Montreal was a week of Sundays. I wrote about the buskers and played piano on the street in front of an old church. I checked the maps for the ship’s progress. I emailed the office and was told she’d made it through the St. Lawrence. “No,” I said. The ship’s position was not a secret. The office was reading a schedule already a week late in the making.

Mere months later, the ship’s arrival in San Juan was an exacting scene professionally directed. Kelsey and I saw the ship appear on the horizon and watched her drive past Fort Morro. We filmed the right to left pass in a single take and then returned to the hotel, our other cameras and the resident cats. We collected our bags.

Arriving in Dutch Harbor the following Spring, the Sikuliaq was equally well on schedule, though that would change, once we began grinding ice in the Bering Sea. Before the ship arrived, while she was still bumping down the energetic chain, I spent a night at the Grand Aleutian. I wandered down roads to see the old bunkers and the gun emplacements—the new dream for that expedition already scribbled into what passed for a journal. And the next morning, the agent shuttled us to the ship. Nome is a little like that, now. Between the squalls, I shamble past store fronts and weather-beaten signs and cue cards—again surprised my notebook fits in my rain jacket pocket and that I haven’t done even this bit of stage business properly in far too long. The ship is on the horizon by dinner. As we eat, stretched out at our table for twenty, we can watch it out the windows, broadside, biding its time. Tomorrow, we will drive to the dock and there she’ll be, a gift brought in on the tide, nose pointed back the way we’ll go.

*To follow the R/V Sikuliaq, find @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To chart the course and interact with this August 2018 expedition to the Beaufort Sea, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook and @Artic_WFFF on Twitter.


—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.


You spawn in a bar next to a second, freshly minted character. You don’t know where in the world she lives, but she is here now. She buys a drink. You buy two. She passes hers to you. You return the favor twice over. She tells you she likes the description of the bartender. She teaches you how to look. She shows you how to look at yourself. You’ve poofed into being with a dagger and 10 gold pieces in a purse on your belt. The purse is closed. You ask how you have a dagger and she has a sword. “Random,” she says. Then she admits she stole the sword, successfully, from you, about thirty seconds ago. She left you the dagger because you bought her a drink. You try to steal her socks, but apparently she is not wearing any. “Drink up,” she says, “and let’s go kill something.” She does not seem to care what.

Not all friendships are born in publics, bars, and gardens—and when you spawn side by side with your impromptu, serendipitous date, sometimes the room needs to be a cathedral—or a bookstore—or a road junction where three cross and ten feet into the weeds there are two bodies half hidden. If you inspect them you find they are dressed exactly like the both of you. Sometimes you are sitting in the back of a horse-drawn coach traveling between towns. You can stop the driver at any time. Sometimes you inhabit the back row at a festival where a woman is singing ballads and two jugglers are about to set a man on fire for volunteering before they become famous and really get their act together. Sometimes you order coffees instead of whiskey, cheese curls instead of unshelled peanuts. Sometimes you find yourself on a boat, or at a hostel. Grab a night’s rack. Scout a deserted building. There are square feet missing, and you’ve all but forgotten how you came here. Sometimes you must build the room first. Then the furniture. The table is a supporter. The table has a top. The top can be removed. The table is a container. It contains a drawer. The drawer is a container. It is opaque, closed, openable, locked, and cannot be taken. The lock requires a bronze key. The key is in the drawer.

You remember your name and learn how to do simple things, like picking up a stick, lighting a lamp, and opening a door. Sometimes breakfast is served, and the fire has crisped the skin of a rabbit. Coffee and yellow light warm the hollow between the trees and the rock. And sometimes you chat into the long hours at a table in a restaurant that stopped serving ages ago. You’ve been playing games with the beer mats and the spoons. The window panes are frosted, and you can’t open the front door without bruising the shoulder of a homeless man who thought it his turn to warm the dry tiles. Everyone apologizes. Everyone means it. “We’re going to remember that,” you say, on the way to the car. “Yes,” she agrees.




The previous year, the seas were too rough to land on the volcano. We explored other islands: Little Tanaga, Atka, and Adak, of course. We went to places overflowing with life when our plan had been to search carefully for the even the smallest signs on the near barren slopes of the active mountain.

The following year the seas were impossibly calm, and at night we watched a blue bioluminescence trail in the prop-wash and wake of the Fish and Wildlife boat. We landed at both Kanuji and Kasatochi, the old and the new. Kanuji has been worn to a cinder held together by grass and guano. We don’t know how old she is. Records in the soil are confused; there is always an island, somewhere, remaking itself against the more casual zeitgeist of the planet.

Kasatochi, heavily weathered since the 2008 eruption, still maintains its skirts, a broad pancake of clastics and ash cut by gullies and beaten by the surf. A forest here is lupines and dew. An animal, any animal, an insect flying by the nose, is something to be captured and cataloged. The microcosm does not survive. The sky and the sea flush across its edges, carrying migrants: driftwood, plastics, a skiff with an outboard ferrying the curious, auklets who don’t care what the island looks like now. They know which flank is home.

—Thanks to the US Fish and Wildlife Service; UA Museum of the North Entomology Collection (Kasatochi, 2016)