9 May, 2002
Wiseman & Coldfoot
Today was a day to attempt a resurrection of our original plan. We had initially planned to head up to Toolik Lake much earlier last week. Part of that trip would include a side trip to Wiseman where we would search for Cucujus and other insects as well as download data from a data logger left there in September. Of course the weather last week changed our plans when snow closed the Dalton Highway. To get started at Toolik, we then postponed the side trip to Wiseman on our way north with hopes of making our visit with our return trip south. As is often said, "The best laid plans . . ." Our first obstacle on our return trip was new snow and a severe avalanche warning. The Atigun Pass through the Brooks Range Mountains had received more than two feet of new snow in the previous twelve hours. The Alaskan Department of Transportation was trying valiantly to keep the road open and while slow and nervous, we did in fact make it through the pass.
We made it through the pass just in time to hit the mud on the south side. The recent snowfall and warming temperatures created conditions that are not ideal for a dirt road. We were often slipping and sliding through mud that was hubcap deep on the Excursion. In many ways I think the mud was as treacherous as the snow.
While we fought mud almost all of the way back to Fairbanks, we did get to see a nice variety of wildlife. Just north of Wiseman a lynx crossed the road just in front of us. Spruce Grouse, Caribou, Moose, Hawks and Snow Buntings were all on our list of sighted species for the day. We also made our side trip to Wiseman. The data logger and collecting areas were not accessible but the stop gave me a very good picture of a small town in the interior, wild areas of Alaska. Wiseman is a town of less than 50 residents. At the turn of the century, Wiseman was a booming mining town of several hundred people. Today, Wiseman is more a collection of small mountain cabins and houses than it is an actual town. All of the houses have small main sections that are built low to the ground and are actually partially buried in the ground. The soil around the foundation gives the home a very nice and very important insulation value. Many of the homes have a trapdoor in the floor of the kitchen. These trapdoors lead to a storage cellar that is dug out of the soil beneath the house. It is waterproofed (mostly) against the soil moisture if an area is without permafrost. These small cellars provide cold storage for food during the long winters. We visited for some time with a local trapper named Jack Reakoff. Jack grew up in a town near Wiseman and has been in this area for his entire life. Jack is mostly self-educated and I can easily say is one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met. His understanding of the local ecosystems and wildlife is deeper and more complete than that of any college professor I have ever met. In addition to trapping, Jack also assists with the education of local residents. I hope to talk with him more about schools and education in these outlying areas when we return in September. The few stories we were treated to in our hour long visit made me want to hear much, much more.
Upon leaving Wiseman, we battled mud for the next six hours before hitting a paved road outside Fairbanks. I have never been so happy to find a patch of asphalt as I was at about 7:30 last night.
Tomorrow we have scheduled a conference call for our Real Audio broadcast and we will sit and try to summarize much of the data we collected. Then it will be time to start packing and preparing for the trip home. I do not look forward to the long flight, but I do very much look forward to the greeting I will get from my family at the airport.
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