It is late July, and our adventure is over. The Global tavelers headed back to the home base on July 11th. The Gulfstream took off at 10:15 from Anchorage and headed Southeast, made a low pass over the fjords near Wrangell, another low approach at Watson Lake, another at Bozman, MT and returned to Broomfield, CO.
It has rained minutes before we landed and the GV’s reflection in the wet tarmac was a beautiful sight for the people who came out to greet us home.
In the next day or two I have been a witness to several of my compatriots in travel, wandering around the office building and hangars, looking lost and confused. I have observed that some of them, entering the GV hangar, would notice the airplane and shakily walk to it, arms stretched out, grasp the handrails and instantly regain sense of direction, briskly ascend the air stairs, find their seat inside and start looking at the instrument switches with bright eyes and a smile on their face, feeling the familiar life returning to them. We all just about grew roots in this cabin and seats, and it will be hard to break the habit.
For another two weeks I have seen remote airports every night, sometimes those we have been to and some other times, completely strange; I arranged for transportation, planned flights and wondered which car in the parking lot is mine today, just to wake up as tired as after a real flight. Many other people reported the same state to me in the past; it takes about 2-3 weeks to fully decompress after a four week deployment like this.
But in only three more weeks we will be going on a Global Project again, and will visit some of the familiar, but so unique, places. I hope you come back to join me on that new adventure. And if you are interested – post questions. I will try to be your eyes and curiosity at these amazing places.
Well, it was almost to the Pole. The diversion to the West that we have made on this flight didn’t allow us to go quite as far North as we would have liked, so we only made it to 82ºN. The flight was slightly longer than our average on the Global project but we saw a lot, and a lot of it was so unique that there is probably no other way to see it than to fly the same way we did.
The Chukchi Sea was wide open and free of ice at this time of the year near Point Hope. The weather was overcast and the clouds were at about 3,000 feet when we passed through them and flew, descending to 500 feet, to the West and then turned North, taking pictures of the steep shoreline and meandering rivers flowing into the ocean from the Northwestern shores of Alaska.
For a short while we flew nearly parallel to a wall of fog, which stretched for about 70 miles from SW to the NE. At 500 feet, we eventually flew into it, with the visibility going to zero. The pilots brought us another 100 feet up and here we were, skimming right along the upper boundary of the fog. Unfortunately, the fog meant very little vertical circulation, which in turn meant that we will not see the ocean breathing out the gases we had hoped to measure. Proceeding between 5,000 and 500 feet the Gulfstream flew further north and soon left the fog wall behind, entering clear air. At 71.5ºN we saw the first ice, floating fields, some half a mile across.
The further North we flew the more floating ice appeared, and finally the amount of open water between the ice shields became smaller than the amount of ice. The entire surface of the ice was covered by melt ponds, some gray and some Florida-pool-blue colored, with occasional seal holes (but no seals, unfortunately) visible in some of the ponds from our 500-ft altitude. Even at 76ºN about 40-50% of the ice, by a rough estimate, was covered by melt ponds. The air temperature was 6 to 10ºC at 500 feet above the ice, and slight fog was clearly visible, lifting off the ocean and the larger melt ponds. Truly, the summer has come to the Arctic.
Turning back South at 82ºN and limited only by the fuel reserve, for the rest of the flight the Gulfstream flew a pattern of ascents and descents between 500 and 28,000 feet, reaching 45,000 on the last flight segment. This part of the flight entered the stratosphere. The high latitudes is the place where this can be done with the Gulfstream, for at the lower latitudes the tropopause (the boundary between the lower, turbulent and fairly well mixed troposphere and the fairly stable stratosphere) is way too high to be reached by aircraft other than highly specialized ER-2 or WB-57. The region between the troposphere and stratosphere is very important for understanding the lifecycle of many greenhouse and ozone destroying gases, and crossing the stratospheric filaments and the tropopause always makes the scientists happy.
We flew past Mount Denali, whose upper third was proudly towering over the clouds and the base was not visible (which is very typical; unfortunately, most people get to see the bottom part of this picture, observing the mountain from the ground), and landed in Anchorage after an 8.5 hour flight and a 12-hour-total working day for the people on board.
This is our last day on the project. Tomorrow morning we will take off on the last flight of this amazing adventure and head back to Colorado.
But don’t despair: in only five weeks this crew will be up in the air again for the Fifth, and the last, part of the Global projects. Come back and the author may humbly offer more articles on the places we have been and the things we were so fortunate to see.
July 8. We are having a much needed hard down day today. Thinking back, the hotel in Midway was totally adequate for rest but making it to Anchorage was a better idea: in Midway people would go all out and keep exploring not realizing how tired they are, while in Anchorage by now everything seems familiar enough to where you feel you can afford to miss out for a day, simply rest and do nothing.
In the early afternoon, while just sitting in the hotel room and vegetating without any coherent thought in the head, I got a call from a friend who was in a similar state. After a brief conversation the call of duty took over and we decided that doing something important, like laundry, was our obligation to the rest of the crew, so we pulled ourselves together for that excruciating effort. We also stopped by the airport to make sure we are in the country we think we are in and our airplane is there, which it was, and drove to Lake Hood, an interesting seaplane port right next to the Anchorage International Airport resembling a set of piers for yachts but used for the float-equipped airplanes, and watched float planes take off and land.
Small airplanes are everywhere, parked on the grass, on the lots, floating on the water and sitting on truck trailers like the motor boats in the Southeast. What a lifestyle it must be, to drive up, park your car, start the motor on a small plane and fly away, landing on some remote lake or river with no other people in sight, and fish, or hunt, or just sit by a campfire. When the brain briefly turned on and intervened in the stream of outdoorsy feelings it became painfully obvious that most likely, it is not a colorful outdoor adventure that calls these people to the skies today, they are probably taking replacement hardware, food or fuel to their remote cabins, and will not be sitting by a fireside but instead will be working hard, repairing a leaky roof or a rusty door hinge, or stacking up supplies for the winter. But the heart wanted to see just the romantics of the remote wilderness, so we turned the brains off (again) and left it at that.
July 9. We are back to work, preparing the instrument payload for the flight to the North Pole tomorrow. A plan has been worked out on what to attempt to do during that flight, and at the same time we sketched a plan for the flight to Colorado on Monday, two days from now. The end of the deployment is in sight, and I have a dual feeling: I am glad to be going back, to see my family and friends, to do the favorite things we do together and visit the favorite places again. At the same time the Willowbank kiwis, the rolling waves of the Seven Mile Beach in Hobart, the flame trees of Saipan and the clumsy silly chicks on Midway all come up in my memory as if through a light veil of time, to say good bye, and it is sad to see them all go into the past. These fantastic places let me peek into their fragile soul and gave me an intangible, but unbreakable, connection to keep, taking in return a piece of my heart. Even though I may be gone physically I will never be able to leave these places completely. Sitting here in Anchorage and looking through the pictures from this trip that feels like a dream now, I am listening to the Green Fields track from Piano in Memory, vol. 6 and the music seems to reflect the moment of saying good bye to the green fields of the last three weeks. Here it is:
We are heading back home. Almost back, since by now Anchorage, located on the same continent as our home, feels much like home.
The drive out to the airplane among the dozing albatross sitting everywhere was as unusual as the rest of our trip, with the driver of the first vehicle stopping and getting out several times to carry a sleepy albatross chick from the middle to the side of the road. We started the instruments and prepared for the flight, and I stood outside for a long while, looking at the black sky filled with millions of stars. Now, this is yet another grandeur of the past lost for the city dwellers: the stars. With all the lights of the cities you can hardly see the Milky Way anywhere in the modern civilized world, except probably in a hunting camp high in the mountains in late fall somewhere. But here there were no lights, and the skies showed themselves to me as they did to our ancestors thousands of years ago. From the brightest of the stars with the Big Dipper upside down, pointing to the North Star low on the horizon, to the faintest of constellations that I don’t know the names of, the stars were overwhelming, and easy to stare at endlessly, until your neck hurt.
The airport crew took about half an hour to drive along the runway, moving dozens of birds off the runway to the sides, reporting more of them than usual this time. As people on the island told me, later in the season this chore becomes quite difficult as the chicks learn to fly and keep flapping back onto the runway after they were moved off of it. It is not unusual for airplanes to sustain a bird strike at Midway, hence take-offs and landings in the dark; we were lucky and hit no birds.
We took off in the dark and headed to the Northeast. This direction accelerated the sunrise for us, and as we started to profile up and down the rising sun and the clouds presented to us a multitude of changing shapes and sizes: fantastic sky cities in the distance and highlighted plains; glowing towers of tall convective cumulus clouds; shimmering, feathery cirrus; vast expanses of stratocumulus looking like gigantic folds of fluffy corduroy.
We arrived in Anchorage at about 4 pm local time. Finishing the post flight activities by now is a routine, and people do it on autopilot, just like our Gulfstream finds its way along our routes once the pilots set up the course. Since we always seem to have it in Anchorage I am already expecting some kind of a surprise at the rental car counter, and my expectations are not failed: none of the three of us have a reservation for today. Interestingly, one of us has a reservation for yesterday and the other two, for tomorrow. The girls at the Hertz counter giggle and recall that we were concerned about this when we were sorting out our reservations the last time (isn’t it a bit worrisome when ladies at a rental car counter in another city begin to recognize you?). Finally we get our iron horses, pick up the rest of the crew and the luggage at the hangar and head to the Hotel Captain Cook.
Feeling at home here, we probably look like a bunch of very tired gypsies arriving to a homeland gathering when we piled up our bags in the fancy carpeted lobby upon the arrival at the Hotel Captain Cook, where the staff seem to have become used to seeing our faces and even recognize some people by name. Other guests, mostly tourists and airline crew members, shied away from us a little, probably deterred by the grim determination on our faces to just get the room keys, go inside and disappear from the world for as long as we possibly can.
Traveling East is harder to adjust to than traveling West. When you travel West you just go to bed later every day, which seems more natural. Traveling East, and starting at 2 am on top of it, put me out of commission in a serious way: falling asleep at 5:30 pm I got up, hungry, at midnight and came up with nothing better than going for a burger at Chilkoot Charlie’s at 1:30 am. Trying to sleep for the rest of the night was difficult but closer to the morning the sleep came, and I dragged myself out of bed at noon, feeling I could sleep for the rest of the day. As it turned out, many other people had as bad a time, some not having a good rest at all, unable to sleep for most of the night. It is a good thing tomorrow is a down day and we will not be working on the airplane, hopefully people will get a rest then.
Our 10:30 pm arrival last night was not a strong enough reason for at least two people from our crew to not to get up and out before sunrise. With only one chance at the sunrise on Midway, how could one sleep in? Of course we had to go and explore when the day is just born, the beauty of the land is still fresh and all the unknown adventures lie ahead.
The bright white sandy beach was being just lit by the sun’s first rays, and the albatross were there to greet the sun. The adults were soaring high and swooping over the trees and coming in from the sea to their chicks. The chicks, birds the size of a small goose but skinnier, were everywhere by the thousands, on the roads, on the grass, near the Charlie Barracks hotel, on the beach, in the vegetation, on the sidewalks, on the boardwalks. You could not walk twenty feet without some chicks snapping their beak at you, or backing up clumsily while stretching the neck, peering sideways at you and falling on their fluffy butt and quickly picking themselves up, clacking their beak as if to say, I am not afraid, you just watch where you are going! The chicks were all in different stages of maturity and health, from semi-grown ones to quite small, nearly fully in the brown juvenile fuzz all over them.
The thick growths of irontrees were housing hundreds of terns. These beautiful white birds with large, dreamy black eyes and blue beaks, ending with a seriously sharp points, were flying everywhere and took interest in you if you were to stop walking near the treeline somewhere. The birds would fly very close to my face and hover some 2-3 feet away, making the distinctive “ti-r-r-t” noises, circling, joining up in pairs and flying in a fast arch, just to turn around and come back as if their curiosity got the better of them. This amazing aerial performance would last a few minutes, after which they would lose interest in you and fly away, back into the trees where they would perch on a branch, close their large eyes and momentarily fall asleep just to take off again a few seconds later.
Red tailed tropic birds were swooping in large circles among the trees, sometimes picking up aerial flights or arguments with each other, which caused them to bend and spin in the air, their red long tail feathers spiraling behind them, following their motion as would a trailing ribbon. I noticed that these birds were particularly relentless in chasing others from what must be their territory, for I have seen them chase and dive even on full grown albatross many times. The albatross did not seem to care much, sailing right on where they were initially going but the tropic birds, satisfied that the “enemy” was chased away, would then return to their patrol routes along the edges of the tree growth.
The entire feathery kingdom was dominated by the black, fork-tailed frigate birds. Soaring many hundreds of feet in the air, the frigates looked small from the ground but have a good 10 foot wingspan and a very small body in comparison. Beautiful fliers, frigates circled and glided so effortlessly that it looked like the gravity does not apply to these majestic travelers of the seas.
There were a few much smaller inhabitants of the avian world there, sitting motionless and content on their chosen branch, waiting to grow up and take off on their own. The sun heated up the little guys, making the yellow fluff on their bodies light up like a golden nimbus. I think these are tern chicks but I am not totally sure. Whoever they are, they are totally adorable and I spent quite a bit of time photographing them from different angles.
Inevitably we worked on instruments but finished by 2 pm to allow for the proper crew rest for the o’dark 30′ tomorrow take-off time. The afternoon was spent resting and taking care of endless project-related E-mail that was accumulating disproportionately in our mailboxes. When this important business finally got taken care of people spread out in different directions, and we took a “limo”, the 8-seater golf cart, and drove to the Turtle Beach. Swerving all over the road to steer clear of the albatross sitting everywhere we finally made it to the abandoned piers, offering the glimpse of turquoise blue water, and the beach, on which six green sea turtles were resting. 4-foot long, the turtles lay motionless on the beach, only occasionally turning their head or opening their eyes to take in the blue sea and white sand around them, their home and the only world they know how to live in. With pollution generated by the humans their world is becoming smaller every day, and even here, in the National Wildlife Refuge, the trash was washing up ashore everywhere. We were told by the Fish and Game biologists that all albatross chicks on the island have plastic in their stomachs, and once the volume of that swallowed trash becomes too large they no longer can hold food and starve to death.
You can see piles of bottle caps, baby pacifiers, disposable lighters and other plastic junk in the middle of their decomposing remains. Yet another reminder of how humans manage to disrupt just about every habitat on Earth with their careless way of life, all so much oriented around the disposable conveniences. Every day a worker, driving a dumpster cart around the small campus alone, collects and removes on average 200 dead albatross chicks, most dying from plastic ingestion. Of course with a 480,000 population, nobody can pick up all the dead birds elsewhere, and their remains are seen anywhere you happen to walk.
In the evening we enjoyed a swim in the ocean. The water at 28ºN was a very pleasant temperature, unlike the Saipan’s 30ºC water that almost did not freshen you up after swimming. The pristine white sand of the beach extended for a mile along the shore and for many hundreds of feet into the ocean, and had no rocks or any other unpleasantries on the bottom. We splashed and dove and the feeling of solitude and gentle calmness of the ocean was almost palpable.
In the distance we saw an albatross chick, fighting in the water. When they learn to fly the chicks sometimes land in the ocean, and, inexperienced, can’t properly fold their wings, which then become waterlogged. Once that happens the bird is pretty much doomed as it gets tired and eventually eaten by a shark, or drowns. We watched this one fight, splashing its wings and trying to paddle, making almost no progress to the sandy shore. Going to its rescue would be the typical human instinct but we probably shouldn’t, considering that 14-16 foot long tiger sharks come out in the evening to feed on these very birds. However, after watching the bird for half an hour I no longer could stand it and waded in chest deep water to the albatross. When it saw me approaching the exhausted bird pulled together whatever strength it had and pecked away at my hands, fighting for its life. I distracted it with one hand and grabbed its head from behind with the other, supporting the body and floating it along to the shore, whispering to it the wishes to never get wet again, grow up large, proud and fast, and sail above the foamy caps of the waves for thousands of miles, looking down at this small world. The bird gave up, fought no more and just dragged its six-foot wings in the water like flippers of a tired seal. Once it felt the ground, however, it redoubled the efforts to peck me so, not wanting to stress him any more I let go, and the hapless chick toddled up the sloping beach, dripping water off its feathers. He got lucky this time, and I hope he will become one of the albatross that grace the sky with their seven foot wings for many more years.
The day has ended, and I met its end standing waist deep in the water with the camera, hoping to take a picture of a green albatross overhead. The few that still flew around turned turquoise green in the evening light since the only light hitting them was green, from the ocean water. This turned out a difficult task, and I will try to remember this phenomenal sight and try to photograph it some time in the future, when the sun is down and the luminescent ocean lights up its magnificent seabirds with the last fading green glow.