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7 May, 2002

The Toolik Experience

As I write today, I just want to mention that an Arctic Ground Squirrel is taunting me just outside the lab window. This time of year, the males are above ground establishing their territory. He sits on a rock about 20 yards from the lab and twitches his tail like he is trying to get my attention. I have been trying for three days to get close enough for a picture, but he has been much too quick for me. Their coloring is so good for this environment that I cannot get a good photo from this distance. As I snap a picture from the lab, he seems to just disappear into the tundra on the photo. I guess its just another part of the Toolik experience.

I've been hearing about the "Toolik experience" almost from the time I arrived in Alaska. Hearing it described gives one an impression of both awe and trepidation. Looking back over my days here so far, I can now say that I have some familiarity with many aspects of the life experience here at Toolik. I survived the non-heated room and the howling Arctic winds. Today as the snow and ice has begun to melt, I learned about the Toolik mud. Toolik mud is everywhere . With the ground frozen just a few inches below the surface, the water has no where to go, so all the melt water from the covering snow and ice sits on the surface making a giant mud bog out of the top few inches of soil. Waterproof boots are an absolute necessity.

Last night I experienced some of the aspects of life at Toolik that keep some people coming back here year after year. About 8pm last night the camp staff fired up the sauna for the first time this season. The Toolik sauna is the preferred way to get cleaned up here in camp. In the summer, the idea is to sit in the sauna as long as possible, then soap up in the adjoining room and finally plunge into the very cold waters of Toolik Lake to rinse off. Having the lake frozen this time of year requires some adjustments to that plan. So instead, a barrel of water is placed inside the sauna room and a large pan of water is placed on top of the sauna heater. When ready, you mix a bucket of water to a temperature you find acceptable and step outside onto the deck overlooking the lake. You pour water over yourself, soap up, and then use the rest of the water to rinse. The challenge is in getting back inside before the water on the deck freezes. Slipping on a frozen, rough plank deck while bare-bottomed could be a very painful experience. As a personal observation, I can say that I never realized what a wonderful luxury it can be to wash your hair.

As I was washing up on the sauna deck, I noticed that a beautiful magenta color was building in the sky. After drying off and getting dressed, I got my camera and waited in the lab until the sun began to set. Part of the Toolik experience is the overwhelming beauty of this place. I've seen hundreds of sunsets on beaches, in mountains and many other places, but the sunset last night was the equal of any of them. After looking at my photos, I don't think the pictures do any justice to the grandeur that I actually experienced. I wish that you could all see the Arctic sunset as I have.

Our excursions onto the tundra today resulted in a new beetle discovery. We found a relatively large beetle that species that is unknown to anyone in our team. We have preserved several specimens for identification back in Fairbanks and we are running tests to determine the levels of anti-freeze protein within the beetles. In our very first test, we froze a sample of sixteen beetles at a temperature of -100 Celsius. All of the beetles produced an exothermic release of energy to confirm that they had in fact frozen. Upon thawing 14 of the 16 beetles survived and began moving about. Freeze tolerance is a pretty amazing phenomenon to watch. Within 15 minutes of being removed from the supercooler, the beetles which I had just seen be frozen solid, returned to normal activity.

Within the next few days, we will be determined the exact cold tolerance levels of these new beetles and their survivability in extremely cold conditions. Tomorrow, I will also have the opportunity to observe the only other project currently ongoing here at Toolik. That project involves the hibernation abilities of the local Arctic ground squirrels. Maybe tomorrow will finally be my chance to catch my little rodent tormentor on with a photo.

This is the Toolik Lake station from the distance of the Dalton Highway.

This is the dorm trailer. My home while in Toolik.

These are the "facilities" at Toolik. Where I learned that you can quite literally freeze your butt off.

This is a photo of our lab trailer at Toolik. The Toolik site has six lab trailers that must meet the needs of as many as 100 people in the summer.

This trailer is the winter quarters. Due to the time of year, we eat all of our meals in the kitchen of this trailer. All 20 of us currently at Toolik.

These last two pictures show some of what makes Toolik Lake such an amazing place. This one is the Brooks Range with the light from the sunset.

This is the sunset at Toolik Lake. This was taken at 11:45 in the evening.

Dash a little closer.

This is Tim Martin. Dash is in the jar being anesthetized for his evaluation.

In this photo, Tim is fitting another squirrel with a new radio collar.

This is Dr. Steve Oberbauer of Florida International University, discussing cold tolerance in plants with Dr. Brian Barnes.

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