Shared Experiences – Photography and Notes from the Field
N. Pole to S. Pole 4
Unique travel onboard a research jet from Colorado to Alaska, Hawaii, Rarotonga, Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tasmania, Australia, Saipan, Midway Island and back to Anchorage and Colorado. This was the fourth of five pole-to-pole trips of the NSF GV on the HIPPO project.
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.