July 15, 2012 Swimming in the Arctic Ocean
Four of us loaded into a truck and drove roughly 100 miles north on the remaining portion of the Haul Road to the town of Dead Horse and the Arctic Ocean. We were prepared for a day of wildlife viewing with binoculars, a spotting scope on a tripod, and field guides in hand. We stopped roughly 45 minutes outside of camp to look for a Gyrfalcon that we were told was in that area. After a few minutes of scanning an outcropping off the highway, Amanda located the gyrfalcon with the spotting scope. The field guide described this massive bird as "our largest and most powerful falcon." It stands almost 2 feet tall with a nearly 4 foot wingspan!
Continuing north we spotted a few short eared owls, a northern harrier, and a few snowy owls! The landscape was changing significantly as we headed away from the foothills and towards the coastal plain. Franklin Bluffs provided an interesting contrast to the flat landscape as we continuously scanned the landscape for musk ox, but had no such luck. We were later told by another group of Toolik people that they had spotted some just off the road a while after we went through the area. We did however spot a lone caribou.
We had to sign up for a tour to get all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Prudhoe Bay is the largest oil field in the U.S. and the beginning of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. Only authorized tour buses and employees can enter the oil field. Security precautions require that all tour participants submit a driver's license number 24 hours in advance so that a criminal background check can be run. We loaded a bus with large windows and our tour guide gave us a detailed explanation of the oil field and its history. We did stop to look at a caribou, and a wide variety of birds, including several snowy owls, some tundra swans, and some snow geese.
Our tour made its way to a gravel patch on the Arctic Ocean. Our guide led us over to show us some bear tracks. We didn't see any bears on this day, but grizzlies frequent the area. It was a beautiful day, mostly sunny and 51 degrees Fahrenheit! The water was 45 degrees Fahrenheit! We were not likely to ever get a better day to swim in the Arctic Ocean, so we took advantage of the situation and went for a very brief swim. It really wasn't as cold as I expected it to be. The sea ice was far enough out that it could no longer be seen from shore. The bay was also very shallow for a long distance with a fair amount of sun shining down. This was an experience I will not soon forget!
We spotted another Toolik truck as we returned from our tour. We rarely get out of camp where our face-to-face world consists of roughly the same 80 people, but we were very excited to see two familiar faces from camp! It gives you a sense of the type of community that forms when living in a setting like this. We drove to the end of the Haul Road into the town of Dead Horse. Permanent residents range between 25-50 people on most census records. The town is really a series of housing modules,a general store, some oil industry buildings, and little else. We made the obligatory tourist stop at the general store for some souvenirs. Carolyn's team needed some transparent tape, but she decided to hold off when she saw that four rolls cost $20.00. You tend to pay more for things when they have to be shipped to such remote locations.
We continued to look for wildlife on the drive back to camp, and made a stop to set up the spotting scope for a memorable view of a snowy owl. The low angle of the sun on the clouds towards midnight cast an ominous light on the foothills. We were very happy with our day only to see a fox running alongside the driveway with what looked like 2 ground squirrels in his mouth as we pulled into camp. It was another great day in the Arctic!