Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

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The human condition

In the three weeks I’ve been on the North Slope, spring has come. When I arrived, this drive south from Deadhorse to the research station was through a wilderness of white. While I was at Toolik, the geese migrated through. They floated in half-thawed tundra ponds, then moved on north. Now they are here, on the vast, flat coastal plain that slopes imperceptibly northward to the Arctic Ocean.

The land is no longer white. There is still snow, in dirty gray patches, and ice on the Sagavanirktok River. The abruptly-revealed brown vegetation has scarcely started its sprint towards summer green. The brushy willows are barely budding, and there are only a few patches of flowers.

yellow tundra flowers, possibly anemone


Overhead, the sky is gray, and the wind is cold, but to the geese it’s the Promised Land.

Tundra swans on a thawing pond

Tundra swans

Wack, who is quite an ornithologist, points out raptors, owls, tundra swans. Occasionally there is a puff of white feathers among the gray twigs, crime scene of where a ptarmigan met its end back during the winter. But everywhere are the geese. They step, in twos and threes, between the tundra bushes. The birds carry shreds of wet vegetation, swinging from their beaks. Nesting material. All across the tundra, the geese are nesting.

Mile after mile, as we traverse the gravel highway, the geese are out there. Thousands, maybe millions. From an aerial perspective, they would seem endless.

Then an ecological perspective overlays. All the geese are doing exactly the same thing. Building nests. Eating grass. The same thing, multiplied a million times. I think of other species. The willows. The caribou. As species, they all do the same thing. Then I think of humans.

As soon as even a few humans get together, like an ice age hunting camp, they start to do different things. One is better at flintknapping. One is better at stitching the hides. So humans join together in groups, which can do more than the individuals alone.

The hide stitcher frees up the flintknapper to become even better at that job. There is a place for broken humans. A clan member who is blind can still chew the hides, to make them soft for mukluks. Thus, can free up the clan.

We admire animals. Each one is whole and complete. It must be. A broken goose is soon no more. But, as other humans are taking up the slack for us, each of us is incomplete. Broken, if you will. As individuals, that’s not very admirable. But together, it makes us more.

Other species specialize a little. When geese are flying in a “V”, the one at the head of the “V” tends to be a more experienced bird. But that’s about as far as it goes. Individual willow bushes are either male or female, so pollen or seeds. But that’s about it.

Social insects organize to a considerable degree, but it’s hardwired. They don’t come up with new things to do, only on evolutionary time scales. Geese fly in the “V”. They never try squares, or pentagrams.

On the other hand, humans are continually coming up with different things to do. Piling rocks on top of each other. Digging in the ground and sowing seeds. By and by, the things that work free up enough time that some humans can get by doing utterly bizarre things, like analyzing  mortgage-backed security derivatives. And, well, running research stations.

I think of how far this can go. This human innovation and specialization. I thought of it one time I went to the Portland bear bar, The Eagle.

That night it was advertised there were “dancers”. Well, they weren’t really dancing. There was a sheet of plywood laid down atop the pool table, and the two guys were up on that. They were standing, stepping sort of back and forth, side to side, keeping rhythm a little with their arms. I guess that’s about all they dared risk, or the plywood might go flying.

The two of them did look fine. They were big and muscular and hairy, just what the clientele liked. I don’t recall patrons coming up and tucking dollar bill tips in the dancers’ jockstraps, but it was that kind of scene.

I thought, how could you explain such a thing to any other species?

I daydream: On the long drive north to the airport in Deadhorse, we stop for a pee-break along the highway. We fan out across the tundra. I shoulder in amongst the taller willow bushes for some privacy.

Up ahead, what’s that? The branches thin, and I see a little clearing. Quietly, I crouch and peer inside. Two fine ganders are standing on a tussock, stepping back and forth on their big webbed feet. Around them, in the shadows of the brush, is an appreciative gaggle of other ganders. As I watch, one in the crowd occasionally tosses a tuft of edible grass towards the first two. These bob their necks in acknowledgement but for now leave the morsels lay. They flutter their wings a bit, as if for balance. They keep on stepping, back and forth, side to side, on their big webbed feet.

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Ravens and Hunters

The hunter’s story:

I was out hunting on the tundra and not having much luck. Then a raven appeared and led me to a bear.

The bear’s story:

I was out on the tundra. It was a lean time, and I was ready to eat anything. A raven came and led me to man.

The raven’s story:

I was flying around the tundra, hungry. I found two large, dangerous animals; a bear and a man. I led them to each other and waited patiently. However it turned out, there would be soon be scattered body parts and I would get something to eat.

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First day in Alaska

I had imagined that going from Colorado to Alaska in May would be like stepping back to February.  In the Front Range it was apple blossom time. There were tulips, and the pink masses of peach trees. A sorry time to be gone.  Still, Alaska!  The last of the 50 states I had not been to.  I was excited, but worried I would forget something important — enough warm clothes, or protection against the legendary mosquitoes.

It was cloudy up the inside passage, with only glimpses of the ground.  White-streaked mountains jutted above blue inlets.  To land at Anchorage, we slipped below the gray ceiling.  The scene from above bespoke the Northwest, a city on a point among leaden arms of water.  But it also hinted of Colorado, jagged white mountains thronging to the horizon.

The final hop north.  Perhaps the Alaska Range was no more extensive than the Rockies, but it seemed infinite to cross.  Maybe because I had no clue who the individual peaks and ridges were.  Perhaps because I had but the vaguest idea where I was.  I had only a road atlas to orient by.  On the Alaska page, the whole of the state was no bigger than my two hands put together.

I think I got a view of Fairbanks in the distance.  The Yukon River was an insanity of tortured loops and channels, choked by ice.  As when flying over the Everglades, I was fascinated to know what the ground colors meant.  Were the tawny ochers grass, or brush, or some lichenous coating on bare rock?

After chapters and chapters of sweeping valleys and wriggling river courses, the land finally rose into what must have been the Brooks Range.  Here again, the mountains seemed to go on forever, a maze of white ridges and frozen streams, only vaguely draining south.

Around Anchorage, the abundant lakes and watercourses had at least looked like they were melting a little around the edges.  There was ground showing amid the snow.  Gradually, all hints of thawing had dwindled till I looked down on a world of rock and ice.

The mountains were like the highest tops of mountains in the Rockies, far above timberline.  Some of the hollows between ridges now did not go down to creekbeds, but were filled with relatively flat expanses of surface, halfway up to the peaks.  Were those glaciers?  I could see no crevasses or glacial blue. All surfaces were softened by blankets of snow.

Finally, the trend of drainage shifted north.  Shrouds of mist hung in some of the hollows.  Was it blowing snow?  Was it fog, or low cloud?  We passed over lower and lower ridges.  The land below the plane flattened to an infinite expanse of white snow.  There seemed to be nothing alive.  Impossible for there to be anything alive.

The forecast for Prudhoe Bay the night before had been minus 3, and this day not much warmer.  Yet, I stepped out into a brilliant sunny afternoon of slushy pavements.  This land has the same quirk as Colorado, of feeling not nearly as cold as it actually was.

My ride to Toolik was in a truck with staffers from there, some returning for the season, some who’d already been there awhile.

“There were ptarmigan up ahead, on the way in,” the driver said.  I knew what ptarmigan were; a type of grouse that turns white in winter and camouflage in summer.  I’d seen one, maybe two, in the Cascade mountains of Washington state years before.  The birds were so rare to see, I had assumed those sighting represented most of the ptarmigan in the entire world.

By and by the driver remarked, “There they are.”  Spread out across the tundra were what looked like small white bowling balls, or balloons.  There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands.  Close by the road, they were bobbing and pecking like a flock of chickens; eating willow buds, the people said.

Later we went through flocks of ptarmigan, flying.  There were so many it was like dodging the projectiles in some wild video game.

There were geese too, both Canadian geese which I recognized, and a species they called “white-fronted”, which I recognized that I did not recognize.

Musk oxen were the thing to see, I guess like sighting a grizzly in the northern Rockies would be.  Maybe a bit safer, unless you ran into them with a truck.  So, we were on the lookout for musk ox.  “There’s some caribou,” someone remarked, pointing out across the long, rolling hills we were into now, up from the dead-flat coastal plain.  “Or maybe just rocks,” he amended, “There are lots of rocks that look like caribou.

Later, though, there were some definite caribou, close enough to the road to be sure.  Well, not of their age and gender, but for sure caribou.

We came along by an overflowing river.  Rivers have a practice of doing that in spring here.  The river is still frozen, but more water is trying to get in from upstream, from melting snow.  In the broad marshy expanse of little pools among the hummocks there were hundreds, maybe thousands of geese.  Then, around a corner, “Arctic fox,” they said, “It’s already turned.”  Turned, that is, from its winter white to the more foxlike summer color.

So much for this land being devoid of life.  Though we never did get a musk ox.

A herd of musk oxen

We did see musk oxen later. They feel hot and lazy once the weather is above freezing.

About 150 miles inland from Prudhoe Bay, and some 2000 feet elevation, we came to the Toolik field station.  “Camp” they called it.  It was 8 or 9 pm, but the sun still stood like late afternoon.  After dinner of leftovers, and a tour and orientation, the sun still stood like late afternoon.

I kept feeling like I should get settled down because the sun was just about to set.  Then, a long time later, the sun would still feel like it was just about to set.  The clock moved, but the sense time by nature, if it moved at all, was in slow motion.

By next morning, this strange landscape of snowy hills, with the first bare patches just beginning to show through, had come to seem completely normal — as normal as Midwestern cornfields with meadowlarks announcing the dawn.  Hadn’t I always heard the strange, chuckling cried of the ptarmigan?  Hadn’t I always seen the white puffs of them bobbing across the distant ground, in the slanting rays of 4 am?