On the sunny morning of June 17th, 2015, I departed from the cozy green hills of Antigonish, Nova Scotia (after tripping on the laces of my new hiking boots and bruising my hip) for the far-away fairyland of Toolik, Alaska. My 39 hours of travel from start to finish included 1 car ride to the Halifax airport, 5 flights taking me across and up the continent (Halifax-Toronto-Vancouver-Seattle-Anchorage-Prudhoe Bay), 1 missed connection, 1 beer on Air Canada’s tab, 1 lost bag, 1 Vancouver airport overnight “sleep”, 30 minutes in Secondary Inspection at US Customs, and 4 bumpy hours in a passenger van (the Toolik Taxi) down the Dalton Highway (or Haul Road) – a road featured on the reality TV show Ice Road Truckers (see seasons 3-6). I could write a blog post about only those 39 hours, but I won’t do that to you.
This is what the Prudhoe Bay area looks like from the air. Permafrost polygons are pretty cool!
The “town” (read: unincorporated community comprised of temporary oil workers) is called Deadhorse, and the population is somewhere between 25 and 3000 depending on how you count (permanent residents vs temporary workers). Deadhorse is a stone’s throw from the Beaufort Sea and is also the closest glimpse of civilization to Toolik Lake Research Station – a slow, four hour drive south of Deadhorse. At long last, I had reached my destination!
Toolik Lake Research Station is a wonderful place to do arctic research. In true arctic fashion, there are no trees and plenty of tussock-y hills. During my stay at Toolik (June 18-July 24), “arctic” also meant sunny – not once did I experience darkness. By the time I left Toolik, the sun was only below the horizon between about 1:00am and 3:00am. Sadly, this also meant I didn’t see a starry night nor did I get to witness the Northern Lights while I was there. However, this did mean I fully witnessed the midnight sun and an 11:30pm rainbow – not something you can get at my usual 45˚N. When asked about the mosquitoes, I insist that there were plenty. However, these arctic mosquitoes seemed to be big and slow, and were only bothersome when you had exposed skin. My summertime Toolik experience allowed temperatures ranging from 2˚C at nighttime to a very hot (for the Arctic) 26˚C. Summer 2015 in Alaska was very dry, with only 4 days of rain over my 5 weeks. It didn’t snow while I was there, but I hear it snowed on August 5th!
“Camp” as the research station is known is made up of permanent structures, trailers, and WeatherPort tents on a gravel pad beside Toolik Lake. These buildings include a dining hall, community centre, shower module, labs, and accommodations. My personal accommodation was a small, green WeatherPort tent – 8N. While I was at Toolik, the population at camp fluctuated between 65 and 105 people – most from the “Lower 48”, or contiguous United States.
Due to its isolation, it is very expensive to haul out wastewater from Toolik to Prudhoe Bay to be treated. As a result, water conservation at camp is very important. Each person at camp is allowed two 2-minute showers per week. This seems shocking at first, I understand. However, Toolik residents are encouraged to bathe at the lake. This may seem slightly overwhelming since it is an arctic lake, but the sauna right beside the lake makes lake bathing incredibly enjoyable. There’s even a slide!
In all honesty, I don’t know if I will ever again eat as well as I did while at Toolik. The kitchen staff work incredibly hard and are always whipping up delicious meals despite the remote location. Highlights included Alaskan king crab legs and filet mignon for the 4th of the July celebrations, 6 flavours of homemade ice cream in the freezer at all times, homemade bread, and a candy/chocolate bar shelf. You have to work hard to avoid the “Toolik Ten”!
While not “doing science” at Toolik, the community likes to get together for some fun. Saturday evenings are spent with bonfires, karaoke, and trivia. If you can afford the time off from fieldwork, Sundays are spent taking spectacular hikes, often in the nearby Brooks Range.
At this point, you may be wondering why I was at Toolik (besides to eat delicious food, bathe in an arctic lake, and go on glorious hikes). Well, I was doing science, of course! My main task was to take CO2 and H2O flux measurements on 24 plots. These plots have been fertilized with varying levels of nitrogen and phosphorus every year since 2006. My work is trying to see the effect the different levels of fertilization have on the carbon exchange between the soil, plants, and overlying atmosphere. Other measurements I took included photosynthetic active radiation (PAR), air temperature, soil temperature, soil moisture, and thaw depth. To measure the CO2 and H2O flux, I used a 70 by 70 cm plexiglass chamber and an LI-840a – an infrared gas analyzer. On most field days, I had different volunteers help me, as a 70 by 70 cm chamber isn’t fun to maneuver on your own! Preliminary results look interesting – keep an eye out for a future publication!
After 840 flux measurements and 5 weeks at Toolik, I eventually made the trek back to Nova Scotia. The return was slightly less eventful than the journey there, but I managed to leave my purse (and passport) on a bus in Anchorage four hours before my flight to Vancouver – retrieving my passport was an adventure in itself, but I made the flight with plenty of time to spare!
I will always look back fondly upon this trip to Toolik – it was certainly an unforgettable experience. A big thank you goes out to Dr. Sue Natali for making it possible for me to dance under the midnight sun while doing a bit of science on the side!