Cooper Island, Alaska, June. 21, 2010 — The last 20 miles of my 2000 mile trip from Seattle to Cooper Island is always the most exciting but also the most unpredictable. Alaska Airlines has two flights a day into Barrow so not only can one pick the day one wants to arrive but also choose a morning or evening arrival. One can arrange that leg of the journey months in advance and know that the timing will be very close to the original plans. However, when people ask how long I will be in Barrow before getting out to Cooper Island, I tell them that I hope to get out in the week following my arrival. This year even that target was almost a bit too optimistic. I was reminded again that Cooper Island is more inaccessible than remote and feel very lucky to be out here now given the chain of events that kept me in Barrow from the twelfth to the nineteenth of June.
In the weeks leading up to my departure from Seattle my main concern about the trip was the fires in the Alaska interior decreasing air quality in Fairbanks, keeping people indoors and temporarily closing the Alaska Highway. Having lived in Fairbanks for seven years, I have many friends there I see on my way north and was hoping that unhealthy air and a smoky overcast would not be part of my visit. Rain subdued the fires before I arrived so all went smoothly in Fairbanks, but upon arriving in Barrow I remembered that an appreciation (rather than a fear) of the unpredictable is an important part of enjoying one’s time in the Arctic.
I first had an indication that this year might be interesting when I saw Cooper Island on the approach from Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse and was surprised to see extensive areas of snow cover in the area of the colony. A record amount of snow in the last nine months and a cool May and early June meant that snowmelt was much delayed compared to recent years. Atypically high winds and regular patchy fog had both local Inupiat and visiting researchers talking about how unpleasant the early summer was. The weather (a combination of high winds and fog) was the first thing that prevented me from flying out to the island once I was ready to leave. But after the environment began to cooperate, it was technology that caused further delays. The only truck that can deliver unleaded aviation gas had equipment problems and could not fuel the helicopter. Parts were “coming up from Fairbanks”. I was not alone. A survey of Steller’s Eider and Spectacled Eider was grounded due to lack of fuel. In addition to not being able to get the fuel out of the fuel truck there were questions about the quality (apparently due to the fear water had gotten in a tank) so that even when fuel could be delivered we would have to wait for the results of tests. As last week began I was packed and ready to go and rather certain I could get out to the island before the first guillemot egg was laid. As the week wore on I started to wonder if I would be able to get out for the first hatch — and also what I would do in Barrow in the interim.
My cabin on Cooper Island
Last Saturday, thanks to a weather window and the kindness of some very good friends in Barrow, I was able to get out to the island on an aircraft using fuel that was available. Guillemots lay their eggs about two weeks after gaining access to their nest cavities when snow melts, and as of today (June 21) no eggs have been laid. Compared to recent years this is a very late start to the breeding season, but is a predictable event given the record snow fall of last winter and the late snow melt. While monitoring guillemots nests for the first egg and censusing adults to see how survived the winter, I am unpacking gear from the cabin and setting up the Cooper Island “infrastructure” (connecting wind and solar generators to the battery bank, erecting an antenna for VHF communications, collecting snow for drinking water) . In recent years all field seasons have had an interesting ending with guillemot chicks starving due to lack of food or being killed by polar bears and puffins. I was not expecting an interesting beginning to this field season, but clearly this is a “different” year weatherwise and it will be interesting to see what that means to the guillemots, puffins, polar bears and other wildlife that live on and visit Cooper Island. I will be posting next when the first egg arrives and then at least once a week over the next few months until guillemot chicks leave the nest in late August.