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If anyone had seen my erratic progress across the open tundra they might have assumed me possessed. Thankfully, rolling hills of glacial sediment hid me from the view of what little civilization hummed nearby at the Toolik Field Station. Careening from one burst of beauty to the next, I was reveling in the gorgeous rainbows that autumn (i.e. late August) had flung across the landscape. Scarlet carpets of alpine bearberry clustered around boulders. Thickets of dwarf birch sported leafy little doilies in gradients of red and orange. Willows claimed the most vibrant, glossy yellows for their own adornment, but sneakily retained all my favorite shades of green as well. Blue and purple found their homes in the berries and leaves of bog blueberry. Camera in hand, I raced to create a lasting record of my amazement.
I aimed my camera high as well as low, since the colors at my feet spread clear out to the horizon. I’m no stranger to the magic of fall. From the river bluffs of Northeast Iowa, to the pastoral hills of Vermont, the cranberry fields of Maine, and now the red maples of Northern Wisconsin, I gravitate toward places with a kaleidoscope of seasons. Autumn on the Alaskan tundra was a whole new spectacle, though. With ground-hugging shrubs—all of them circumpolar species that grow around the top of the globe--instead of tall trees, it looked like the land itself was drenched in a rainbow swirl of melted crayon.
At my feet, wiry brown lichens clutched droplets of melted morning frost in their twig-like tips. Kneeling down to photograph them, I was soon lost in the miniature world of reflections contained in each drop. It’s not a good idea to be too enraptured by the foreground in grizzly country though, so after a bit I stood and scanned my surroundings carefully. A northern harrier floated by looking for voles. Nothing else moved.
So I moved. My purported destination for this walk was Jade Mountain, which still loomed a good distance away. As I neared the edge of the small knoll, something caught my attention in the swale. Brown. White. Skinny. A bull caribou stood with his rump patch toward me, his neck craned around to investigate, and his tree-like antlers towering above. I held my breath and snapped the shutter over and over as he stood on alert. When a sudden movement startled him into a trot, three smaller bulls followed him out of the vale and over the ridge. What a thrill!
Caribou were actually the official reason I’d come here, to the Toolik Field Station on the North Slope of the Brooks Range. My research partner, Tessa, had driven down to the snowshoe hare research site near Wiseman to pick me up a few days before. Since then we’d been cruising up and down the rough gravel of the Dalton Highway between Toolik and Prudhoe Bay looking for caribou.
Of the 32 caribou herds in Alaska, four of them have their calving grounds on the North Slope. Tessa and I were studying the Central Arctic Caribou Herd. Their population plummeted from a high of about 70,000 animals in 2010, to 22,000 in 2016. Hunters, hunting guides, and pilots noticed the population decline before it showed up in the wildlife manager’s data. Scott Leorna was already doing his master’s project on the caribou, so he added a citizen science component to his research to figure out how the hunters knew.
Scott worked with web developers to create a smartphone app that the public can use to record caribou observations in the study area. In order to calibrate the app and gauge the effectiveness of the public in spotting caribou along the road, he conscripted several pairs of fellow graduate students from the University Alaska Fairbanks. They and other volunteers drive through his study area at no more than 35 mph with the sole goal of seeing every caribou along the road. That 132-mile journey takes more than 6 hours.
Tessa and I saw varying numbers of caribou on each of our five sampling days, and they were mostly solo or in small groups. As I learned, “herd” is a relative term. The animals gather in full force only on their calving grounds, and drift off to other feeding areas for summer, fall, and winter. The population decline that this herd has experienced is pretty normal. Just like with snowshoe hares, when numbers get high, like in 2010, their forage quality declines, birth rate slows, and predators increase. What’s unique about this herd is that ever since the Dalton Highway was built to access the oil resources at Prudhoe Bay, these roadside caribou have become an increasingly important resource to both resident and non-resident hunters.
Bumpy roads and tired eyes notwithstanding, it was a fine gig for a volunteer. In addition to caribou, we spotted red fox, short-eared owls, golden eagles, and muskoxen along the road. I exclaimed every few minutes about the stunning beauty of the fall colors, and, on the one sunny day, snowcapped mountains rimmed our view.
Tessa earned her undergraduate degree in wildlife management from UW-Stevens Point, is dating a Minnesotan, and has even been to the Boundary Waters. We had much in common.
Visiting the Toolik Field Station had been on my bucket list since I first started planning my trip to Alaska. Run by the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks with support from the National Science Foundation, it is a hub for scientists (my superheroes) who are studying the Arctic. In addition to long-term datasets, labs, and equipment, the field station also provides researchers with gourmet food, rustic housing, a beautiful sauna, and high-speed WiFi.
Plus, it’s nestled along the shore of beautiful Toolik Lake, among the prettiest fall colors I’ve ever seen. Possessed? Sure I’m possessed—by an overwhelming sense of wonder at and gratitude for the experiences I’ve had.
Emily was in Alaska for the summer! She’s home now, but has more stories to tell. Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog: http://cablemuseum.org/connect/.
For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.