Thursday, April 18, 2024
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ColumnistsPeter Nelson's TravelsPeter Nelson's travels - Alaskan notes, part 2

Peter Nelson’s travels – Alaskan notes, part 2

by Peter Nelson

I liked the great money I was making up north, and had made some good friends on the geophysical crew, so I decided to keep going with them.  With the coming of warm weather, we couldn’t work up north any longer, so the outfit was switching to marine prospecting off the coast of Korea.  Instead of walking along the icy ground in our heavy parkas, we jugheads would be trudging along in diving suits at a depth of 1,000 meters.  [OK, another lie.  All the work was done electronically from aboard ship.]

So we shipped from Homer, in a vessel slightly more seaworthy than the Try Again!  It even had ample decks for strolling about while musing on fate, as we nautical types are wont to do.  But, two days before we sailed, I got a letter from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, inviting me to join their archaeological field crew that very summer.

Hmmm.  What to do?  I can stay on the ship, making huge bucks listening to sonic signals from the briny deep while cruising in the Sea of Japan, eating wonderful exotic cuisine prepared by professional cooks, then in my off-time, lying in my cosy bunk reading comic books and listening to more Tammy Whinette (sic).  Or, I can leap ashore like a rat deserting a non-sinking ship, hitch up to Anchorage, then on up to Fairbanks, where I’ll be flown even farther north than I was last winter.  There, I’ll camp out in the middle of nowhere, living in a tent under 24-hour daylight, cooking my own impoverished freeze-dried meals on a tiny, unstable camp stove, and earning a paltry student wage.  Furthermore, I doubt that we’ll have any comic books or country music!

Easy choice!

I jumped ship, and was in Fairbanks, knocking on the door of the university Anthropology Department 24 hours later!


Was our camp as scenic as the Sea of Japan?  Maybe not, but it was pretty close!  Takes a bit of getting used to, sleeping in a thin-walled tent with 24 hours of sun shining in brightly, but hey, who needs to sleep in the summer time anyway?

We camped beside an old indigenous archaeological site discovered last summer, and I refreshed my digging, recording and surveying skills.


As you can see, even at 69º N, summer days are pretty warm.


But since the northern summer only lasts about 6 weeks, all forms of life have to rush their reproductive cycles.  The flowers have to grow quickly, blossom quickly, and desperately hope to attract a passing insect so their pollen gets harvested.  There are no trees, of course.  Mammals give birth quickly and nurture their young through the endless summer days, hoping they grow strong enough to make it through the seriously endless winter night.  But what’s the most desperate form of life in the entire Arctic?  The mosquito?

Those little buggers make your life a complete misery if you dare leave your tent without every inch of skin coated with N,N-diethyl meta-toluamide!  (Even beneath your clothing, because a mere shirt won’t slow these blighters down!)  I’ll never forget that long and awkward chemical name as long as I live!  Once a week, we were choppered from our remote camp to the nearest outpost of “civilization”, a company camp composed of 20 portable trailer units linked together.  There, we were treated to the most lovely NON-freeze-dried meals, got to see a movie, got to sleep in a real bed for a night, and best of all, had a SHOWER!

Enjoy it while you can, mate, because the FIRST thing we do upon leaving the helicopter when we’re back at the dig is to slather ourselves with more DEET.  C’MON!  I just got CLEAN, and now I have to coat myself with this oily goo again?  You think I’m exaggerating about how many mosquitoes there were?  Unfortunately, I lost the photo, but one of the other diggers took a shot of the back of my red jacket once, and you could barely tell what color the jacket was!  The entire jacket was COATED with swarming mosquitoes.  I heard that they’ve been known to kill caribou — driving them to leap off a cliff in their misery!  The little devils are frantic to find any source of warmth and carbon dioxide.  Those are the triggers that lead them to a source of blood, but it also leads them to form clouds over other things, like our supper being heated over that scrawny little cookstove.


I`m sure I ATE more mosquitoes that summer than most people see in a lifetime!


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