Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Down the Dalton Highway...

The mid-afternoon flight from Anchorage to Deadhorse was, from my perspective, an outstanding flight. I was fortunate to have a window seat. I learned several years ago that a good way to witness ecosystem diversity in the Arctic is to first see it transition before your eyes. The boreal black spruce forest that surrounds much of Anchorage and Fairbanks gave way to open shrub lands. We went up and over the Brooks range, and then onto the ice-rich tundra as we neared the town of Deadhorse. Much of the later stages of the flight paralleled the Alaskan pipeline. Surprisingly, despite traversing more than 600 miles of wild Alaska landscape, the flight took only 90 minutes.


Molly, from the Toolik Lake Field Research Station, picked five of us up at the airport. Luggage was packed, snacks were distributed, and we headed south on the Dalton Highway. The van bounced along the largely gravel road for roughly 130 miles. Molly has worked at Toolik Lake for 3 years and knew the road well. We passed various sign posts that I had read about; Franklin Bluff, Happy Valley, Imnavait Creek, and finally after three hours, Toolik Lake. In that time we saw several red foxes, a dozen muskox, and several hundred Caribou. We also drove alongside the Alaska pipeline at several spots along the way. It helped that Rich brought along his copy of a just published "Land of Extremes" book that serves as a natural history of the North Slope. It also helped that one of the co-authors, Alex Huryn, was in the back seat of our van. John Hobbie, the other co-author is staying in the Weatherport tent with Rich and I at Toolik Lake.


Among Arctic scientists the Toolik Lake Field Station is legendary. This is where many, many scientists and their students have pursued their careers. Toolik Lake is managed by the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The terrestrial ecosystems here are classified as dry heath and wet sedge tundra with enough topography to have streams, larger rivers, and lakes. All are studied in one way or another by hundreds of scientists each year. We will learn more about the research conducted here over the next few days.