TundraA treeless area between the icecap and the tree line of arctic regions, having a permanently frozen subsoil and supporting low-growing vegetation such as lichens, mosses, and stunted shrubs.
The Northeast Science Station (NESS) is located about 30 miles south of the Arctic ocean just off of the Kolyma River. The station is located above the Arctic circle, 68 degrees north of the Equator right in the midst of a boreal forest full of larch trees. That's where we have been doing doing all of our field work, until today. There was an extra seat on a boat trip up to the TundraA treeless area between the icecap and the tree line of arctic regions, having a permanently frozen subsoil and supporting low-growing vegetation such as lichens, mosses, and stunted shrubs. to visit a few sites and take terrestrial samples, so I took advantage of the opportunity, never expecting how the day would end.
The trip required three small 60 horsepower boats full of researchers and equipment. The crew of one boat would be staying overnight and sampling an additional site the following day. Each boat carried 3-4 researchers along with a driver from NESS. The day started out smoothly with nice, calm winds and moderate temperatures. We stopped after about an hour and a half at a spot where we could see the edge of the treeline. After this point we would not see any more larch trees because we were leaving the boreal forest and entering the big, open, flat space of the tundra. The weather this far North is what is responsible for a landscape that is hindered by low temperatures and short growing seasons. The size and magnitude of the area is extremely difficult to capture on film, but is awe-inspiring to see it in person.
After a three hour boat ride we arrived at a fishing camp located right on the bank of the Kolyma River. The camp is functional, but nobody was using it during this part of the season. Nikata and Sergey Zimov know the owners of the camp and the group that was spending the night planned to take advantage of the vacant cabin.
Shortly after landing, we headed off to our first site -- just a small ride downstream towards the Arctic Ocean. The site was a 15-minute walk up the steep river bank along a decent-sized snow field that opened up to the TundraA treeless area between the icecap and the tree line of arctic regions, having a permanently frozen subsoil and supporting low-growing vegetation such as lichens, mosses, and stunted shrubs.. There isn't a tree in sight to obstruct the view so it seems like I could see forever. At this point, the Kolyma is close to the ocean and the river is so wide that I can hardly make out the shore on the other side. There are high mountains off to the East and the ocean to the North. Everyone had a job to do and so we got to work. At the site we had people harvesting vegetation, taking soil samples, measuring tussocks, taking thaw depths, and even flying a drone for large-scale imaging.
When the sampling was finished a handful of us followed Nikata on a 20-minute hike down into a series of side channels for a little Arctic Grayling fishing. The hike took us across a large snow field on the north slide of the cliff and through a field of tussocks and cotton grass. I’ve fished in a lot of spots, but this one was unique because of its far remote location. I actually had a hard time concentrating on my line as I couldn't take my eyes off of the extreme landscape, but was quickly brought back to reality when a beautiful grayling tightening the line rising for my fly.
Expect the unexpected
The trip back started off predictably enough. The winds and sky did not look threatening and the two boats going back to NESS headed upstream. But, after 40 minutes into our trip, we noticed that our boat was taking on a lot of water. More than what our bilge pump could handle. Our captain stopped the boat to assess the situation and realized that we had a substantial leak! Moreover, it needed more work than we could give it on the water. We flagged down the other boat and made for the closest shoreline where we could safely beach the boat.
It was determined that this boat would not make it all the way back to the NESS so we used some pieces of driftwood and pulled the boat onto the beach. We improvised a new plan: the eight researchers got out, unloaded the gear and the drivers went back in one boat to retrieve the third boat at the fishing camp. That meant we were stranded until our captain returned.
In the meantime, we assessed our situation knowing that the boat drivers would be away for at least an hour or two. So we rounded up all of our food and water, made a fire and patiently waited, but prepared for a potential overnight stay. After an hour or so they returned with the other boat meant for those staying overnight.
We reloaded the boat and headed back and that's when things got interesting. The weather quickly turned for the worse and the waves in the mighty Kolyma rocked our boats relentlessly. Our experienced captain kept everyone calm and constantly assessed the water and the situation with our safety as the number one priority. He used his knowledge of the river and took many side channels that were narrower and better protected by the wind. The expected three hour ride turned into almost 7 hours in the boat, but we arrived safely back at NESS at 3:45 am. Thankfully, we have 24 hours of daylight here in the Arctic because trying to navigate back to camp successfully in the dark might have ended quite differently.
Train for all circumstances
Prior to this trip PolarTREC teachers spent a week at an orientation in Fairbanks, Alaska. During the orientation we had many alumni speak to the group about being flexible, prepared, calm and to expect the unexpected when it comes to working in the field -- especially in such remote areas. My research team also took a weekend-long Arctic field training course to help prepare us for anything the Arctic can dish out. Well, we certainly had a chance to test out what we learned on the ride home from the TundraA treeless area between the icecap and the tree line of arctic regions, having a permanently frozen subsoil and supporting low-growing vegetation such as lichens, mosses, and stunted shrubs..