Dear Guildenstern

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 28, 2015

Neighborhood walrus. Photo by Roger Topp
Neighborhood walrus.

I saw a walrus I could have hit with a snowball. We are talking about a walrus. Weighs a ton, more than a car. It’s huge. But it was also close.

We were parked. Mike maneuvered the spotlight to light him up a little with the edge scatter. He only seemed more interested. Everyone was chanting, “Get up on the ice. Get up on the ice.”

It was still early morning, the horizon just a thin line of blue, and we were already cheering on the play’s perfect moment. The walrus remained in the water.

The ship’s searchlight. Photo by Roger Topp
The ship’s searchlight. Photo by Roger Topp

The ship’s searchlight is intense, an eight-inch, collimated cylinder, like a laser, thick as a flagpole, a robot giant’s broom handle, sweeping mechanically across ice and water. The walrus was hanging around through a good part of the night, said Mike, close enough, consistently enough he spots it quickly when it surfaces again.

Over breakfast Sam and I come up with a plan to follow up on Brandon’s test of an under-ice camera with a simple rig derived from recent advances in selfie-stick technology (Chance et al., 2011). What begins as pure, joyful, aesthetic design devolves quickly into a a discussion of how the camera can be employed semi-scientifically to gauge ice thickness via light transmission. It’s not the first time in a week I’ve wished I’d cobbled together a stereo video rig for this journey. If it happens again I’ll likely have to inquire what the machine shop can cook up in order to mount a couple of the GoPros.

Camera being lowered into an ice core hole.
Camera being lowered into an ice core hole.

The best feature I’ve found for the newest GoPro’s 4k video mode is the fantastic latitude for image rotation and cropping. Take the center 50-70% of the frame and you get an HD image with very little lens distortion. Put two bodies side by side (and they can be put very close together, the intraocular distance is darn perfect), and you get binocular vision that can be processed for 3D (Experiments, 2015). For once a post-process digital zoom that isn’t outright evil… But what can you do? Any effort following this line of aesthetic inquiry will no doubt be perverted by the forced labor camp of science. If you are going to hang with scientists, they are going to figure out ways to sequester art for the sake of better describing the world, as if a sequence of sunset, cirrus, floating-point derived jpegs could ever be as revealing as a temperature-salinity profile (Method, 1971). It’s not a bad thing when a chance idea at a opportune video angle becomes subjugated by the interests of science and engineering.

When we start to move the boat, the walrus moves alongside until we start pushing into fresh ice. Got a few photos off despite low ambient light, high iso, and reflections from one of the navigation consoles in the window. It’s not poetry but it is proof of life curious. Zooming the image on the camera-back, I can make out the texture of the animal’s skin, and someone aboard can no doubt estimate his length and weight out of water, with or without the EXIF metadata. My aforementioned resolution to spend more time on the Bridge got jumpstarted this morning.

Broken ice seen from the floe.
Broken ice seen from the floe.

Turns out all that bumping around and closet door and drawer rattling last night was us meeting ice we could not handle. In this case, a rubble field, ice previously broken and pushed back together by the vagaries of wind and ocean currents. We want ice that’s a approaching a few feet thick, but we want it to be flat — and consistently approaching a few feet thick. Then we can quantify the power output we need to cut our way through it — or at some point, not be able to. Ship performance testing. When we come to that wall, we need to back away and find a route around. Last night, retreating from the ‘log jam’ took a little time wiggling back and forth, using finesse and force to knock the wedge out from under that door.

At the moment we’re not trying for the Polynya. We can probably get in there by going around one rubble field and between others, but the winds have been blowing consistently from the north for a while now. If they change direction, they could quickly push the currently spreading ice-edge floes back together, potentially capturing us in an area it could take us a Spring to escape. Perhaps I overdramatize? Perhaps not.

This morning we’re maneuvering among floes and getting into position for the 3rd ice station. Going to try that under-ice video and image the algal covered butt-side of the ice. And maybe snap some portraits of the boat, just because — sun. Wondering if the coin toss is going to come up heads again.

It was tails, but this probably had something to do with human intervention dear Guildenstern. Got to take control of your destiny. Got to pay attention to conditions and change them. Adapt. Speak your mind. Listen. Think new things. Influence. Be influenced. When someone says the ground is moving, shut up and take a pause. This might be important…

Sam Laney ice coring. Photo by Roger Topp
Sam Laney ice coring. Photo by Roger Topp

We spent a bright couple hours on the ice. Finally some ship photos with the sun at our backs. Cameras like light, especially ones sunk under 20 inches of ice and drifted snow. The water down there is ‘antiseptic’ clear. Sam refers to it as ‘drinking water.’

The crew checks the ice.
The crew checks the ice.

I’ve sent a video /toshore compiling some parts of 3 days ice coring activities. It’s tiny but that’s bandwidth across the high seas net. For the moment only the ship can re-watch in HD. In the clip, from under the ice, we can see the coloration of the algae and variations in ice/snow thickness (if not infer precise values). A piece of gaffer tape helped point the camera in the right direction (Forethought, 2015). We see the coring drill penetrate the ice sheet, the shadows of people walking in daylight. The camera’s microphone picks up some crazy, whistling creaks from the ice and even a bearded seal off in the distance. Detritus floats quickly past the lens. There’s a significant current moving under the ice — or is it the ice moving over the water. We’re at sea. Everything is moving somewhere. Perspective is all.

Ice Corer seen from under the ice.
Ice Corer seen from under the ice.

Ann mentioned soon after we got off the boat that she could feel the ice moving under her feet. I said I thought that was just from spending time on a ship, a residual inner ear and gut sensitivity. But we stopped, stood still, waited, and watched the distant parts of the floe. Could have been my eyes playing tricks on me, but it sure looked like those mountains (ridges) were moving up and down (very slowly) like waves coming into a beach. While we were waiting for our under-ice camera holes to be drilled, I set up a video camera and aimed it at the horizon. Best use of a tripod all voyage (so far).

The ice floe undulated under our feet as ocean swells passed beneath it. We could feel it while we stood there, just, but in time-lapse you can see the entire sheet of ice flex as it rides the ocean. Of course enough energy, enough ocean swell, and the ice begins to break apart, snapping at the weak points, the ridges, the seams where smaller pancakes and polygons have been glued together to form the greater floe.

If I get a chance next station, I’ll put up a camera parallel to the swells for what might be a better shot, but I’ve sent the current video /toshore, documenting the ice swells in real-time and 10x time-lapse. Perhaps from the camera data we can figure out the wave height, or maybe not. Should have used a 3D rig. I don’t think Scott is imaging a big enough area from atop the Bridge to see the waves. Should have recorded heading data so we know what direction the underwater camera was facing during the video. I can just about picture it thinking back, the pattern of the holes, the position of the ship and the sun and the orientation of the slot (2 holes) we needed to get the camera down. I can just about picture the direction of the current—.

The crew and Sikuliaq
The crew and Sikuliaq

There are better ways. That big machine off behind us. The Sikuliaq might look like it just sits there, idling, waiting for us, but it’s ingesting data all the while, packing it, storing it, archiving it. Its hydrophones are recording just as Sue’s are, its temperature probes, its gyroscopes and GPS. Our cameras on and under the ice show us a few wondrous things, but by no means express the rigor of scientific measurement. I find that comforting.

Note to self: Next time we try to animate sea ice at the museum, we model it as a flexible semi-surface-conforming membrane, not a stiff board (Topp, 2017). It is affected. It has effect. Oh, that would be beautiful. What’s that they say, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction?”

Truth is still stranger than fiction.

Roger Topp and Sikuliaq
Roger Topp and Sikuliaq

Out on the ice, Ann made a snow angel. Perry laid down in the ice flow and watched the clouds and listened to the bearded seal on Sue’s hydrophone. A small crew led the way beyond the science perimeter, testing with Perry’s ice-sticks so I could photograph the ship from off the bow. Ethan would have guided me out a quarter mile from the boat had I put a lens in my pocket to make the trip necessary. He was disappointed. I was too, but with the ice heaving, that was all right.

After the science, the Captain gave the crew liberty and most everyone took the opportunity to walk down the gangway to freedom, kick drifts, take photos, and chat in threes and fours between the four flags. Elliot asked which way the bar was. Turn left and keep going, and going, and going. Remember your galoshes. Orange suits. A no-go perimeter. It looked like a ‘prison yard.’ A strange, different kind of liberty, still trapped within the story.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

 

A Day in the Life

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 27, 2015

Boat and crew. Photo by Roger Topp
Boat and crew. Photo by Roger Topp

‘Eight o’ clock, got out of bed dragged a comb across my head.’ Except it was 7:30, getting up was more like getting down, and I most certainly do not have a comb with me. I’ve determined the ‘one’ thing I forgot for this trip was a hairbrush. Groggy like a sailor low on water.

7:45. Breakfast. Just like at home, I have to go a few dozen feet to find it. Unlike at home, I don’t have to climb any stairs — yet. Unlike at home, the trick is to try and avoid the sausage and the eggs, the bacon, the hash browns, the French toast, the Wisconsin maple syrup, the cheese danish.

Yogurt and fruit, Yogurt and fruit. I have a feeling tomorrow’s a bacon day.

Orange juice. Coffee. “No thanks, maybe tomorrow,” when Tony offers to cook me up an omelet.

8:00. Find a camera. Remember where all the new images from yesterday are still awaiting copying and backup. How many GoPros need downloading? Charging? How many are ready to go? Check the lenses. On the wall monitors, the wide-angle cameras are picking up the blues of early dawn. Make sure a hat and gloves are in the bag. Shoulder the bag. Climb four flights of stairs to the bridge. Think, ‘I really wish I could have brought the Fitbit (sorta, kinda useless without open Internet). Talked to Mike about where we drove last night. Mike’s on the night shift, having breakfast while we’re having after dinner snacks. He shows me how our course matched the leads and ice edges (which look to have shifted NE as we have drifted SW while parked for the last half dozen hours). When you shift it with your mind’s eye, the curves and angles match up nicely to the satellite image from the day before. It’s not as bad a trying to navigate to a friend’s potluck using a map that’s somehow shifted to the left by about 10 miles.

Mike equates our night transits to driving down the Parks Highway from Fairbanks and pulling off in someone’s driveway for a couple hours to catch a nap before continuing on down to Anchorage. Same thing. He drives the boat until our ice pilot (who has been awake all day) needs sleep, pulls off, cuts our own short driveway, and holds position until morning when he can tell us about all the crazy stuff he saw staring out at the ice all night long.

Bering Sea Sunrise on March 27, 2015. Photo by Roger Topp
Bering Sea Sunrise on March 27, 2015. Photo by Roger Topp

8:30. I set up one video camera to capture the rising sun and shoot a round of panoramic photographs every ten minutes until the ship is moving. I take care of some file management four floors below and roll my eyes when I think about that just what I shot this morning will now take a couple hours to copy and select and process and file. Then back to the Bridge to shoot the dawn (and the stiff breeze) now the sun is up.

9:30. The ship is on Alaska time, which is not local for this part of the Bering Sea. Sunrise and sunset happen just when they are supposed to, but our clocks are off by several hours.

9:50. Carin updates the Board of Lies. Pre-ice meeting is set for 12:00. 12:30 it’s science in ice. I’m on the list. Two hours to get ready.

And like that it’s 23:50. The day has evaporated in net and CTD casts, meals, computer work, and our second ice station. A bright sunny day, but the Bridge keeps parking the boat so our station puts the sun on the stern and port side, which means we’re on the side looking back at the boat — and into the sun. We only work the ice on one side of the boat. Off the stern is water and off the bow is potentially fractured ice less safe to cross. Probably also helps the Bridge to keep all the orange jackets together on one side of the boat (the side with the gangway) in case of emergency evacs. I have a request in to park facing East or Southeast next time. I’d leave this to a coin toss but if we get into a surreal run of ‘heads,’ that’ll just create tension and drama.

Sunset over open water. Photo by Roger Topp
Sunset over open water. Photo by Roger Topp

It’s late. I don’t want to look at the clock. Starting to hit some heavier ice now were transiting towards St. Mathews polynya. This time of year, this is out best chance to see bowheads and let Sue catch them on the hydrophone. The rest of us will be using our eyes.

Thin ice. Photo by Roger Topp
Thin ice. Photo by Roger Topp

Sue put her hydrophone down her own private hole at the far end of the ice station this afternoon, but heard naught for animals. Just the ice. The ice makes a lot of noise if you stick your head down and listen. Or better yet (because who remembers a towel for a day on the ice (funny you should bring this up (I’m not naming names (I’m sure just to dry off instruments)))), a hydrophone. Sue went out at a distance from the rest of us because the ice acts as a giant drum head and a bunch of little people walking on it and drilling in it produces a lot of noise. There’s something crazy special about humans and exploration — where we can be all the way out here and setting up a nice simple system for keeping everyone together and maximally safe, and then Sue or Rob or the Captain, or Perry or myself, or anyone comes up with a slew of good reasons we need to go out a little farther, and be alone, away from the group and ship. Of course I want to take pictures from far afield. Rob needs his virtual clean room for trace metal analysis. Sue has the perhaps the most poetic of reasons. No people. It would be better if the boat and everyone else just motored on out a ways (miles) and came back for her later. Not that she’s suggesting that. Separation from the ship is high on the list ‘bad things’ while working an ice station.

I can imagine what Sue hears down her hole. A couple years ago I was able to kneel on fast ice (stuck to the coast) and listen to the sounds of shuffling feet — just a couple dozen feet from a hydrophone hung offshore of Barrow, and the grind of snow machines from a ways off. Sounds like someone rubbing bricks together a foot from your ear. Objects in hydrophone are farther than they appear.

Alice Orlich not measuring ice floes. Photo by Roger Topp
Alice Orlich not measuring ice floes. Photo by Roger Topp

No snow machines out on our neighborhood-sized ice floe today. One driveway. One parked boat. The scientists took their samples and the crew trained and auguring holes for ice anchors. The day was bright and sunny and folks mugged for the camera. We discussed our ‘plans’ for hoisting the picnic table, the deck chairs, and the barbecue out on to the ice (no, we would not use the barbecue). We think it might make a nice picture. “This is why you want to be scientist!”

Sam laughs and then says, we don’t want to make it look too much fun.

We were on station for a short enough time we didn’t use an ice anchor. Just spun the port side prop slowly to keep us in the pocket. Half a dozen hours of the day. A short stop.

Lorena Edenfield and Alice Orlich measuring ice thickness along a transect. Photo by Roger Topp
Lorena Edenfield and Alice Orlich measuring ice thickness along a transect. Photo by Roger Topp

Somewhere in the day, I put together a five minute compilation of ice breaking footage. Probably not even the best bits, but at times, the laptops were threatening to chatter themselves off the bench, screens flapping like perimeter flags in a gale, keys dancing like water thrown onto a hot skillet. Advanced work trying to keep the mouse steady on the edit point. Mouse pads even harder to control where they click, how far a packet of photographs get moved. I’m going to find strange things in odd folders for the next week. Sent the video to shore. More soon.

Bed tonight as the boat is shaking like a really long series of aftershocks, rattling like pair of marbles in a tin can. We’ve started to do more than turn ice floes into shattered dinner plates — we’ve started to make ice cubes, chunks almost as thick as they are across. They clink about in a tall glass of ocean, but the sound underwater must be like sledgehammers making cobblestones.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

Fish and Dentistry

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 26, 2015

I’ve never been one to fish, which is terrible considering I always order the surf over the turf. “Always the fish,” I said yesterday to Matt, our cook, about choice of meals on Sikuliaq. But my guess is fishing’s not so different from standing on the bow with 10-20 feet of painter’s pole, a goPro strapped to the end, and extending it out to see down where the ship is breaking the fresh ice. You spend your time in paradise and maybe come away with something for dinner.

Roger about to go fishing.
Roger about to go fishing.

Today’s video was okay, but the pole wasn’t far enough out. I’ll try and stick the thing closer to water/ice tomorrow. The shape of he bow makes it hard to see round to where the hull meets the ice. Sikuliaq is designed to break ice, which means she’s designed to ride up on top of the ice, crushing it underneath her weight as she goes. She does this well, moving forward or backwards. Which, yes, got a little creative when we were reversing at speed today. Will see how that video turned out tomorrow.

Sikuliaq Bow, Tip of the Spear.
Sikuliaq Bow, Tip of the Spear.

Couldn’t take a break from taking pictures so I took a break from working with them on the laptop. Caught up on some of the week’s earlier video and so missed seeing a pack of walrus we passed by. No dearth of cameras though. Lots of great pictures came out of that sighting and have made it back to the mainland. I know a couple can be seen at Brandon’s blog at icefungi.wordpress.com.

Mid-water trawl recovery.
Mid-water trawl recovery.

Since we’ve found some wide leads and polynyas, thick with birds and hopefully fish, we put a couple nets in the water today one after the other. We in put a mid-water trawl, looking for juvenile fish an inch to two inches in length.

They didn’t catch anything this time. The Van Veen and the Haps Corer were both temperamental but brought back samples, more animals that really didn’t want to see the light of day.

Ethan and Ann retrieving the benthic core.
Ethan and Ann retrieving the benthic core.

That’s why we have a machine shop, an electrical shop, an electronics shop… When it breaks we have to fix it. No going back because we need a bolt or a really long selfie-stick. The wood-working tools, though, are stored in the van, and the deck in most weather serves when the crew needs to make a box, a work bench, a park bench, a swing set, or an ice anchor.

Important to note that we also have a hospital. I have a couple bruises from hitting one shin on a cofferdam and another on something I don’t remember what, and I’ve seen a couple bandaged fingers walking around (with electrical tape naturally). But I doubt “Ship Medicine” will make it as a TV pilot. Still it sounds pretty high-tech in there, meaning that hospital. I haven’t seen it but John or Adam said something about the hospital’s automated help system or something. It has a fancy name/acronym. I’m pretty sure it does things like say, (audibly) “Step One: Connect electrode A to the…,” if you suddenly find yourself with a patient, or maybe it’s just a dedicated sat-phone line, but if your mind wandered during the safety briefing back in Dutch, it could sound more like we have the auto-surgeon from Prometheus onboard.

I made a joke to my dentist last month about perhaps us finally taking care of that problem tooth before I went to sea (the one that’s been complaining since October). The joke was that the Captain would likely need to be my dentist if I had a problem out here. Not sure if it really would be the Captain, but it would need to be one of the crew and — yeah. My dentist agreed quickly, and suddenly all sorts of appointment slots became available. Modern medicine suddenly felt modern again. X-rays were delivered. Phone calls happened. My travel schedule seemed to matter more than office hours.

We took care of the tooth (removed that money-pit!) allowing a little bit of time before the cruise in case there were any post-op problems. Brought antibiotics with me just in case, not knowing when my jaw would stop aching — for a week and a half, right up to Dutch Harbor. The flight into Dutch was fine, but the Horizon Air turboprop to Anchorage made two attempts (blamed it on another plane — but we’ve all heard that one) to land and I swear the cabin pressure was changing the whole time. My sinuses were not up to it — but all good on getting to Dutch. All moisture, all happy to be there. Like visiting a spa. I haven’t thought about it much since, but Carrie reminded me in a email yesterday, asking how my mouth felt. Maybe I just don’t grind my teeth on ships. Maybe this was the life for me. Ah, nostalgia.

Sunset over sea ice.
Sunset over sea ice.

I told my dental-surgeon-person that I really wasn’t nostalgic (about losing my tooth). I was in the chair and she was going into an explanation about how all other options were really off the table (the patient’s dead Jim), and I interrupted because I just wanted to cut the sorrows to a minimum, get it out right there, get back to work, and give me the maximum number of hours between extraction and the boat leaving the pier.

Funny how a tooth feels like a small thing and yet the hole left behind feels like it could hold two of them. Let’s not get into why we can’t just leave the gap — because the teeth and bone are moving parts in check…

Sikuliaq Bow, Sea Ice Nursery.
Sikuliaq Bow, Sea Ice Nursery.

These are the things you (I) think about standing watching the ice floes crack and split and be pushed together. The little foot-width green-black ribbons of water are not melt-water streams you could splash across. They are opening. They are closing. They are 60 meters straight down. It’s easy to imagine the ice as just another snowy stretch of (very flat) tundra. But imagine walking across the ice and breaking through — just for a second — just one foot, one knee, one leg. How quickly you’ll snatch that leg back, sensing all that sudden space beneath it, like it could get lost down there while still attached to your hip. There’s a lot of world under the ice to swallow it up. And the cold numbs fast. I think about what will happen to our track after we are gone. Areas will freeze up. Areas will welcome summer. But every time we take a floe and make two floes, both can move independently. A small cut, a healing, or a great big gap?

I did see the oral surgeon a second time so she could do her best at a, “Still aches? Ok,” optimistic thumbs up, have a good trip, “Here’s my number, call me Sunday before you leave if there’s a problem.”

No problems. No worries. Another day of Arctic Odyssey. Surreal. Today, instead of walrus I saw Alice measuring ice thickness while we were underway. Pictures later, but it was sort of a cross between puppeteering and arcade asteroids. Today I learned that a dinoflagellate cyst is basically a gobstopper with jazz hands. I did get to see a seal hauling itself over ice, mad to get away from this crazy, tech ship. I saw my second sunset in two days, but this one was over water so, dull. Oh, hardly. That’s a heck of cold wind when we’re making way. Step outside. Snap. Snap. Snap. Step inside. Repeat to taste. I learned that pecan pie is the easiest pie to make and that the secret to polenta is cheese, milk, cheese, butter, and more cheese. Now, a cooking show? On ship. I’m sure it’s been done.

Clear skies means 250m resolution MODIS satellite images.
Clear skies means 250m resolution MODIS satellite images.

And concerning cheese. Rumor has it we might be looking at our second ice station tomorrow. Time for coring to turn another floe into Swiss cheese, and then, well, drive a ship into it, smash it up, and fish in the holes we’ve made. Salts, trace metals, Plankton, juvenile fish, benthic worms. Small, important stuff. We’ve been out here a week with two to go. Hard to imagine we’re just getting started.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

On the Ice

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 25, 2015

Sikuliaq moored at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015.
Sikuliaq moored at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015. Photo by Roger Topp

This was the “big day.” The first time Sikuliaq puts scientists on the ice.

Ice Coring at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015. With Sam Laney and Brandon Hassett. Photo by Roger Topp
Ice Coring at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015. With Sam Laney and Brandon Hassett. Photo by Roger Topp

The ice was ~14 inches thick. The sun was cooperative.

Research Sam Laney is with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Brandon Hassett is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Sikuliaq moored at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015. Photo by Roger Topp
Sikuliaq moored at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015. Photo by Roger Topp

 

Ice Station Juha

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 25, 2015

Tonight we’re transiting. Lying in my rack on the 01 deck, this is something like sleeping/reading/typing on a very narrow bed bolted to the inside of a shipping container made of aluminum suspended by a crane in a windstorm consisting of cannon-shot bowling balls. We’re not swinging about per se, but we are being pushed side to side with seeming deliberate meteorological force. On this deck, crushing through ice 12 – 16” thick at about 3.5 knots also sounds a whole lot like a windstorm, with all the hail you can pack into it. Who doesn’t like a good storm when you’re dry inside a box made of steel plates?

Ice Station Driveway. Photo by Roger Topp
Ice Station Driveway. Photo by Roger Topp

Today I solved the mystery of the locked door. Didn’t stop me from locking Perry out of the stateroom this evening, but at least we both know exactly why our door keeps locking ‘itself’ — and locking one or the other of us out of the room. “This never happened to me before,” I told him couple days ago. Meaning, this is my third stateroom on the same boat, but first time even realizing there’s a button to lock the door on the inside. Thought maybe I’ve got a strange of way of gripping the lever handle this time out. We don’t have keys. We are not meaning to lock the door at any time of day or night.

Because two staterooms share a common head, Perry was able to use three doors to get into the room instead of the one. I was up in the rack, and because it’s a contortion (while under attack) to get down, I was waiting to see if he could navigate the three doors before getting down to help him with the one. “Roger, You locked me out of our room!”

“And yet here you are.”

He goes back into the head. I tell him he’s welcome to use the front door. He says, “Yes, but I have to use the bathroom.”

This makes sense. Earlier I noticed and showed him the error of our ways. The door button is suffering from cabin fever — and getting depressed by the wall when the door is pushed back. The door, when opened all the way, pretty much bangs right into the door to the head. I found the dent. Before he left to head back to the Bridge, Perry conducted his own investigation and found where the now missing doorstop had broken away. All mysteries explained.

But that wasn’t all that happened today.

The Sikuliaq in the ice at Ice Station Juha. Photo by Roger Topp
The Sikuliaq in the ice at Ice Station Juha. Photo by Roger Topp

We had our first ice station. Ice Station Juha, named after our Finnish ice pilot, Juha Varis. We spent the night in our tiny, half ship-length self-made canal, moored with an ice-anchor. Ever had one of those Paddingtonesque coats where the buttons are basically little sticks on a loop that you push through the eyes and when then turn they hold fast? Yep, basically like that. Perry led the way on the ice last evening, probing for weaknesses with an ice stick. Ethan followed with what looked to be a five foot length of 8×8 timber. That was our buttoning down for the night. By 10:00 this morning the crew had re-lowered the gangway and reflagged a safe perimeter for the scientists to work within. Didn’t stop the Captain, Alice, and I following Perry (this is key) out beyond that to get a good look at the ship from out beyond the bow. Perry is Yupik from St. Lawrence Island. He knows walking on sea ice.

Alice and Perry measuring ice thickness. Photo by Roger Topp
Alice and Perry measuring ice thickness. Photo by Roger Topp

Within the flagged perimeter, Alice and Perry ran transects, drilled holes, and measured the ice thickness. Rob took cores and collected water for a trace metals study. Brandon and Sam took cores to measure salinity and temperature in order to gauge ice strength for Evan and algal habitat for Brandon. Evan and I walked around taking pictures and distracting the bear guard. Ethan stood as bear guard, and up on the Bridge at least a couple observers stood bear watch — even if we were a little far south to see much in the way of bears. Sorry, no actual bears. It’s a good thing.

Sam and Brandon drilling cores. Photo by Roger Topp
Sam and Brandon drilling cores. Photo by Roger Topp

The ship looks good in ice. I like how the new lead behind the ship started to freeze up overnight, the rubble knitting itself together again, kinda like a bone graft, the bits of ice teaching the water in the in-between how to crystalize and seal around the wound of the ship. I like how the sun decided to come out and stay out all day. Just got back down from sunset (22:00) on the Bridge. One seal, two walrus, clear skies, and a mind-numbing number of photographs in just the short hour I was there. That star made the cleanest exit I have ever seen in my life, melting and then shrinking, orange, to a point and then gone. The sunrise this morning wasn’t bad either.

The Sikuliaq in the ice at Ice Station Juha. Photo by Roger Topp
The Sikuliaq in the ice at Ice Station Juha. Photo by Roger Topp

I like how there’s ice on three sides of the ship, that the boat’s a knife stilled mid-cut. I like that I got a picture of the Captain looking back at the boat, a picture of Perry pretending he had snagged a fish in one of the auger holes, a picture of Bern with Herculean cloud rays coming off his shoulders, a picture of the ship with what looks one of the science crew hauling it across the ice by the mooring rope, a picture of the ship with the nameplate in focus. The big, 36-frame spherical photo turned out well, and a whole lot of else went perfectly as well. I haven’t had time in the last 17 hours to take even a look at the video. The laptop (yes, that intrepid laptop) is chugging through some of it now. Still transiting in the morning, so provided the weather looks dismal (it won’t. It’ll be perfect I just know it), I’ll do some catching up.

rt_blog_133

Now. Navigating by Radarsat, somewhere in the Bering Sea south of St. Mathews. We’re looking for some good leads that will let us bear north and move more quickly. Parking in a floe is all well and good, but the ice field is moving southwest at about 1 knot and taking anything not under power with it. The better ice is north. So we drive on into the night.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

 

Poetry is More Important than a Working Laptop

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 24, 2015

Roger Topp with game face on.
Roger Topp with game face on.

You have to watch out for water when you are on a ship, because really, water gets everywhere. In Puerto Rico the humidity was so high it collected in the ceiling of the Main Lab (from a ventilation duct probably) and dripped down onto the floor and splashed a workbench. And when I say dripped, think collected puddle of water on surface where surface suddenly tips, like ships do, and all the water gets caught up in the excitement and goes to some new place fast and unexpectedly.

I have this sudden image/memory of a run of cold water going down the back of my neck — but I can’t quite figure out where the water’s coming from.

In the Caribbean, the department laptop was on one of those benches just a couple hours beforehand. Luckily it escaped catastrophe and remained safe for the rest of that cruise.

At the outset of this cruise it was revealed to me one of my dry bags (ferried down the lumpy road from Seward) had been thoroughly doused with sea water. Bit of an issue with a valve not being closed after repairs in the Wet Lab. No harm done, not because it was a dry-bag or an advertised “Wet Lab.” More that airport baggage handling has long since caused the “dry-bag” certification to be revoked.

Except for some level of embarrassment for the crew at having to unpack a bag with potential “underwear” inside (false alarm) to dry things out, nothing was damaged. And let me just say, this crew is professional — I would not have known anything had happened – so well was the repack – if someone (Carin) had not said something.

So today — I was outside this afternoon diligently working away in my office on the fantail when a great jet of water took out the department laptop. These things are unfortunate, unexpected, and they are rare, but they happen none-the-less, and in 3s. The deck crew was oblivious, busy, suited up against the 30 knot wind, and hard-hatted under the cranes. Strange — given there were no hosepipes in evidence at the time and we’re definitely becalmed in a sense of a lack of immediate open water.

I was oblivious too, because while I was outside where the water should be, the laptop was “safe” in the Main Lab (yes, that lab), and as I said, the boat wasn’t rocking – at – all.

The imagination’s “jet” of water was later refined down to “at a guess” three good squirts with a water pistol. Steve left me a note. The errant blast of (sea?)water stuck from one of the water supplies in the lab. Steve was definitely in the vicinity. Lucky too. The patient was treated with isopropyl and has been incubated in a space bag with desiccant. We were not required to unlock the hospital, and I am confident we will see a full recovery by morning. I will have to ask Steve if it was seawater that struck our “currently resting” department laptop. It SHOULD be seawater. I would prefer it, even if the salt makes a recovery more difficult. It can handle it dammit! Because poetry is more important than a working laptop. When things will end, they should end well. When stuff changes direction, there should always be a tease that everything could come back around. Chekhov’s gun, Murakami’s field well, white whales. Everything returns to the sea.

Typing as I am — now — is no strange magic after all. I have two laptops with me. I have back-up everything (never know when a dry-bag may be discovered storing water on the inside) — even after I throw the pair of jeans I’m currently wearing in the trash tonight. The hole in the crotch went from nothing to all encompassing in half a day. I brought 3 pairs. This happens to everyone right?

And I expect the laptop will pull through. I am hoping it had time to finish rendering the one-minute video of the ship breaking ice before the emergency shutdown — and I’m looking forward to sending that video to the shoreside server tomorrow. See! Now, if you see the video, it’ll mean so much more.

Grease ice. Photo by Roger Topp
Grease ice. Photo by Roger Topp

Poetry is more important than a lot of things. Like if I hadn’t quit oceanography 20 years ago, it’d be no big thing to be out here right now. Sure, new ship. New opportunities for exploration, big deal for the university —but 20 years returning to the near-very-thing that brought me to Alaska and UAF in the first place? That’s special.

Actually, I came to Alaska to work on acoustical oceanography, specifically a project to calculate ocean temperature using sound transmitted over long distances – like ocean basins. You know, acoustics! That was the key word in my letter that caught the eye of my to-be advisor. I wanted to work with sound. He had a new grant-funded project. And…as happens it went nowhere because turns out use of such noises in the water could ill-affect marine life. So, changing tacks, I did current meter research on data collected under a polynya west of Greenland. Never saw that polynya, but I thought about it today as we cruised around a big puddle in the Bering Sea ice field. Pleasant day’s sailing back and forth. We dropped nets and attracted gulls that must think the Sikuliaq is one poor fisherman. They can’t quite figure out how we got so big catching nothing bigger than a bath toy (and that was the jelly no one was interested in).

Benthic worm (upset). Photo by Roger Topp
Benthic worm (upset). Photo by Roger Topp

We cored! Twice! and pulled up a worm who vogued for us (who is really pissed off in the picture I am told — kinds sorta sticking his tongue, teeth, and throat out), and a couple of stars who were lucky enough to be captured intact atop a foot-deep, six-inch diameter cylindrical core, and ultimately unlucky enough to be captured by a scientist named Ann Knowlton, who said I could just leave them on the bench after taking their picture. She would subsequently, “Take care of them.”

Sea stars. Photos by Roger Topp
Sea stars. Photos by Roger Topp

They were a pleasant pair, all waving their arms about for a while and then quieting down remarkably, but — I digress.

Today I most appreciated seeing the grease ice. That’s the looks-blurry sheen collected into windrows on our puddle polynya. That’s baby ice-sheet, still conforming, stretching magically over the larger swells but completely damping the smaller wind-waves. It’s completely out of focus, coming into being. Hurry up kids. Spring’s already got most places.

Grease ice and gull. Photo by Roger Topp
Grease ice and gull. Photo by Roger Topp

So, it HAS been a good day despite a biting wind and the surprise (sea?) spray indoors. A good day thinking about previous cruises (3) and previous walks on sea ice (3), and living in tents for weeks at a time (3), and the number of new books read in February (3), and the number of other scientists sharing my head (3), and the number of empty chairs around this table. Despite the evidence of at least one of my previous lives, I’ve never really been into numbers. I mean, linear algebra is a trip and who doesn’t appreciate quaternions, but fluid dynamics is just ugly (okay, and elegant in a way). You pretty much have to set up these (doubtful) equations which are mostly (totally) partial derivatives and Greek (totally hazed), and then rationalize away most of it into something manageable/solvable. I’ll take a few kind words over that any day. Still, it’s sweet to be out here again. Watching textures on the surface of the water, admiring the sea birds for just not worrying about the windchill, capturing a setting sun! In the tropics, the sun sets every day. Here, things are thinner, greyer, more blurred, stretched out — seasonal.

The Board of Lies
The Board of Lies

Station #5. Ice Station Juha. Breaking news. The Board of Lies says I’m on the ice tomorrow. Hasn’t steered me wrong yet. I’d walk the ten feet and take a picture of the Board, but I’m too comfortable. Instead, thanks to the inflight entertainment system, I’ll just pull it up on the 2nd laptop (the one for words, not numbers) and take a screenshot. I’d stick a leg in the picture but I can’t quite reach out far enough and still hit the crazy function key three-finger combo.

Answer: It was seawater. The universe is just.

— Roger Topp (feeling exclamatory tonight!)

March Madness

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 23, 2015

The Bridge, running in the dark.
The Bridge, running in the dark.

The important thing is that I finished reading that book yesterday and I have a fair shot of cutting my way through the next one in the remains of March. In the book the good guys won the day and the solar system, and I think we will too. Teams were picked, alliances made, battles fought, players sacrificed. I think the next book is going to be a bluesy love-story, which figures.

I’m pretty much color-correcting every photo I’m shooting, pulling it out of cloudy, Arctic blues and gifting it as much warmth as I can get away with. Then we’ve got those orange jackets, black and orange suits. I can work with that. They may not be spacesuits but sometimes it’s worth running outside with just a coat and not having to wriggle in and shuck off a shoulder-tight shell every half an hour.

Headlight at dawn.
Headlight at dawn.

Video off the bow before dawn. Fleece in a gale. Temperature 20F and a 25 knot wind just when we’re sitting still. I grabbed a hat and gloves after that one. We made way slowly with a single headlight. No tailgates and no one stopped us for having a light out. By about a 10:30 I noticed a bright blob of yellow in the sky behind us. I decided it must be the sun. First good peek in a week. Before that I was just glad it wasn’t raining, and location considered, the weather has been very good.

More light, and the shallow pressure ridges get shadows — sort of, if you push the contrast. I recorded more sound from below and outside, found a leeward railing to hang the shotgun mic over, maybe about twelve feet from the water/ice line. The ice doesn’t crack like glacier ice, like gunfire. The consistency is more like sponge-cake than melba toast. The GoPro does a great job of capturing (in 10x quicktime) how cracks radiate from the ship’s bow as we press forward. Little grey lightning strikes race off in front of us and then split open like a bad rendition of fault-line tectonics.

The Main Lab, not watching the game.
The Main Lab, not watching the game.

If anything gets lowered to the center of the earth today it’ll be iron hard and hard to damage. A railcar wheel is rigged to the load-handling system. A Van Veen grab is slated for the working deck. It’s comical seeing a tiny grab hanging from the A-frame. Feels like we could have brought a smaller boat, but the grab means we can do science while testing whether or not we can keep an instrument safe from ice. Typical with over-boarding gear, the getting in and the getting out of the game is where things change the quickest, and problems arise and a cast is intercepted.

rt_blog_090Scratch that. We found a nice sized lake so we put down, in addition to the Van Veen grab, a Bongo net, the CTD, and an ROV. So, yes, the day got busy and long. Most recently, the Bongo net went in about 20:30. Went down vertical, then came up vertical, not the most productive way to cast a net, but in the Arctic it’s how you do. Ice-fishing, for plankton, on an ocean. Big boat to catch the tiny, important stuff from the bottom on up.

Scratch that. Caught a big old wyrm (sp?) with the grab. Three grabs. That took a while. That was cold, the arctic mini-blast coming over the starboard gunwales. That was a lot of hose-pipes and jets of sea-water spraying about the place. Mustang Suit and Xtra Toughs. These are your friends. Cameras are all nicely decorated with salt speckle. The grey mud, the bivalves, the worms, the stars, the amphipods, rinsed and then collected in mom’s Tupperware. The big buckets, the screen boxes… We caught some part of a jelly with a bottom grab. The Van Veen is truly indiscriminate in who it picks to win.

Catching benthic critters
Catching benthic critters

Somewhere out there March madness is happening. It’s something to talk about when we’re not talking about the sea strainers and how often they need to be unclogged. When we were in Puerto Rico, we were close enough to shore to get a 4G signal and pipe that from a phone to the 50” TV in the main lab. Where we are now, there’s not so much as a lonely, distant scream in the dark of a signal.

rt_blog_093The engineering department carts ice up from below decks in the freight elevator — in 5 gallon buckets and a garbage can — and tosses it overboard where the gangway goes. “Back to where it came from.” There’s a small pile of brown and white slush on the lip of the deck, not dirt — algae, but it probably looks like snow melting off the yard where the kids are playing.

Another meeting today. There are actually a lot of meetings generating a fair amount of paperwork. For a change, I get to skim the icing off the top of the schedule. My one for the day was sitting in on the figuring out goals and teams for ice operations, who can auger holes or take ice-cores for whom. Who can be a second pair of hands, who can pull 12 cores within a couple square meters, and who needs a hundred-meter line of equally-spaced holes? Who needs a map out a pressure ridge, measure it and then mark it with red Kool-Aid so the ship can maneuver away and, under thrust, destroy the floe, a known quantity? Who needs a foot of ice to do science and who needs two feet of ice to test the ship’s performance? Who needs the freshest, most distant water in a virtual, outdoor, maritime cleanroom? Who needs to be out of the ship’s shadow so he can collect photons under the ice? Who DOESN’T suggest a good picture of the ship in ice could be taken out in front of the bow, where all the cracks begin? Who needs the port side to the ice so he can dance in front of the 3D mapping cameras? What will that look like in Oculus Rift? Who’s going to fire up the barbecue to bait the bears — and because, somewhere a game is on and you know we have hotdogs in the freezer.

Launching the ROV.
Launching the ROV.

Oh, and we did the ROV test run. Little yellow submarine. Scratch that. Light levels were low and steering difficult. Not the fault of the PS2 controller. More likely: cold hands from trying to play a console game in an Arctic wind tunnel on a screen smaller than we had for Dave’s Atari. And one tends not to play Halo in heavy gloves. This is why we dry-run these things in a grey puddle, have a quick go, practice, and get ready for the game. And go back and re-read the manual after dinner.

Scratch that. I’m not going to get to read but a page tonight. No, not a manual. Heaven forbid. Murakami! A bluesy Beetles brand of Mixed-Metaphor March Madness. Laundry is done. Time for bed.

Sun over the Bering Sea
Sun over the Bering Sea

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

Spring Breaking

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 22, 2015

The Bridge in the morning.
The Bridge in the morning.

Oh yes, at some point yesterday I took a shower, and I shaved and I read a great many pages of a book, probably about the time we tucked out tail between our legs and got back out into open water while the engineers put their thinking caps on.

A week of 14+ hour days, not counting before the trip, it felt like a tiny, little weekend for a few hours. Might be the last for another couple weeks.

Snow on the picnic table.
Snow on the picnic table.

This morning, photos of the picnic table with its dusting of snow, a blue pre-dawn horizon, and the warm yellow light of the Baltic room spilling over the crew-made cofferdam. It reminds me of gates on a lock. The ship and crew have seen enough of those this year.

Carin holds a meeting to discuss the upcoming ice operations, specifically to put together a document on procedures, safety protocols, best practices. The crew shares what they’ve seen on other ships. The use of tested safe perimeters, bear watches, bear guards, rescue swimmers, maps designating who will be working where. Writing on windows who’s off boat, mustering to count heads and faces before we pull up stakes.

“If you let scientists wander they will be stupid,” and it doesn’t take stupid to fall in a black hole. Even experienced ice warriors can find themselves in very cold water. Will we get people on the ice using a small boat, a man-basket, a gangway? If one crane is holding on to the gangway, can the other one reach across the deck to lower heavy gear a safe distance away from the ice edge? The port side is better for deploying a gangway and offers better visibility for the Bridge cameras, but if we’re port side to the side, we can’t run the LHS and CTD at the same time as the ice ops. Should we consider parallel ops? “It all factors into risk management.”

The ships reamers help the ship carve the right-sized channel.
The ships reamers help the ship carve the right-sized channel.

Ice operations can last from a couple hours to several (or many) days. What is the ice party required to wear? Float-coats, self-inflating collars, shirtsleeves, helium balloons? Overheating can be as much an issue as hypothermia and frostbite. Who will have radios, locators, GPS units, air horns, pepper spray, ice-sticks, knives, forks from the mess? What emergencies can the bridge broadcast with the ship’s horn? One long blast for a sighted bear, “Will everyone kindly and slowly move back on board.”

Lots of short blasts for a problem with the ice, “Everyone get back here now!” Ring the ship’s bell as redundant in case the horn fails?

Will I find enough time to finish reading this one book and still get a second one in before the month ends as required by resolutions made a long time ago by someone who hadn’t at that time planned to be in the middle of the Bering Sea for much of March and a bite out of April? What do calendars mean out here anyway? A calendar would say it has turned Spring. Probably has — other places. We’ve just driven into a field of ice hundreds of miles wide and flatter than the Great Plains. Today is 0322. That much is important. It’s a first step in keeping the data straight. John’s been writing code in the analytical lab since he woke up. The ship’s job is to ingest data, package it, file it, archive it, and make it available here, there, now, later. He’s building and improving the system as we go.

Not that it’s not important we’ve gone over the equinox. The time of year tells us where whales might be, that a big, bulgy walrus might be a big, bulgy, pregnant walrus, that ice we’re looking for is still farther north

With the sea chest water supply a now well-managed risk, we power up and we drive into thicker and thicker ice. In the bow stores, the ice-crushing music builds to a thunder and evaporates like a mist. For a few moments the light slap of water is almost drowned out by the washing machine next door. I make a note I might/should do laundry soon. We’ve hit a lead, a cut in the ice where the open water is lake water but grey to black. It won’t take long, ten, fifteen seconds and bam, we’re cracking through ice 6, 8, 9, 10 inches thick. Amidships, the ice peels away from the reamers the way cake frosting cracks away from the knife.

The ships reamers help the ship carve the right-sized channel.
The ships reamers help the ship carve the right-sized channel.

I could spend half the day in the bow stores below the anchor chains, recording the sounds of steel smashing its way through frozen ocean — but I’m jumping between firing off remote cameras (and retrieving them), file managing of my own, shooting with the telephoto from the Bridge, shooting with the big glass off the fantail, checking to see what I screwed up earlier, avoiding the ice slick on the deck beneath the work boat, braving the apparent wind as I swap the latest remote cam from the bow rail with a fresh body, battery, and pinkie-nail memory chip.

Tomorrow, drink more. Find more ice.

The Z-drives get fancy.
The Z-drives get fancy.

But for now, we find a sufficiently hardened piece of ocean to go from regular drive mode to practicing letting the z-drives get fancy. Driving through the ice at speed, the Sikuliaq cuts a channel a little wider than the boat, the margins the thin grass shoulders on a country road, or the forest canopy cut neatly square by the largest, frequent trucks. But that’s how the other icebreakers roll. The Sikuliaq has a trick up her z-drives, rotating them so that the props, normally facing forward (it’s a puller not a pusher) point at each other, so directing most of their energy to port and starboard. Just enough power still carries the ship forward at a crawl, but the side-force of the thrusters tears the ice apart. The ship makes not a country road but a parking lot, a roundabout, a four-lane highway. Sikuliaq is an Inupiat word for “first year” or “young” ice. Because there is so much less multi-year ice left over the pole, more and more of what covers the ocean seasonally is this first year ice. This is what the Sikuliaq is designed to work in.

This global class ship can sail any in the world at most times of the year, but its design is king where we are right now. Funny, my body suddenly feels like it’s 0408 and not 0322, swaying on sea legs like we’re on dry land already. Somewhere southeast of St. Mathews Island, we’re hardly moving at the end of a road of our own making.

The brown is algae.
The brown is algae.

Glass of cold water from the mess before going to bed. I have to drink it slowly. Too cold, surprising as the ice machine is broken, a small thing that was not designed for the high seas. At least it gave up the ghost after the ship left the tropics. Now we have to suffer to put a dip net over the side. Luckily Brandon is there to scrape off the algae for ‘experiments.’ In the mess, I read the latest posted notes while nursing the water. I’m taking mine neat. The whiteboard says time-sheets are “due today (for submitting tomorrow).”

The Captain’s note also reminds the crew “FYI” Friday was a university ’holiday.’

Funny that. By which I mean, that’s just fracking hilarious.

Written by Roger Topp

Ice Edge

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 21, 2015

Bridge with marine mammal observer and pilot.
Bridge with marine mammal observer and pilot.

Somewhere in the early hours this morning the rolling damped down to a quiet lullaby. Funny how that wakes you up.

The CTD is extended out into the pre-dawn.
The CTD is extended out into the pre-dawn.

We’re at the M4 station. At 8:00 we put a CTD in the water. Out there in the pre-dawn the ice is close. Black skies turn a deep blue before the CTD is back aboard and we’re ready to run more engine and thruster tests in open water. We will drive into the ice until we get to about 3/10ths coverage. Then we will repeat the tests. Then drive farther. Then test some more. See what sort of ice we have ahead of us, see how well we can turn round, see where the design weaknesses are.

The CTD resurfaces on recovery.
The CTD resurfaces on recovery.

This is where we’ll see if our rolling-hull and big, club-like, 360-rotating, fuel-inefficient props do what they say on paper. Drive through a couple feet of ice, stop, and spin the ship 180 right there in our track. When we do that, don’t think of it as pushing with the bow, think of it as leading backwards with a pair of hand-held Cuisinarts under the fantail.

The bow just rides up on top of the ice and crushes it under our thousands of tons weight. The props chop it up into little pieces. No other operating icebreaker can do this. The big boys are powerful with their jet engines and ramming speed, but they go straight in and make big, wide turns. The Sikuliaq is high schoolers pulling donuts around the baseball diamond in mom’s Plymouth — on ice.

Pancake ice and life rafts.
Pancake ice and life rafts.

Impromptu meetings in hallways as we approach the ice. An AB is filing away at something near one of the water-tight doors. The ship is new, so there are thousands of things to make right and it’s a huge, complicated, ocean-going machine, so there are a hundred things that need fixing from last week. There’s an announcement on the PA. We’re about to go through some ice, a thin outer line, a remnant, a thin skim of pancakes loosely collected, melting, being slowly broken up by the wind and waves.

Driving through the pancakes sounds just driving through slush. Think late night driving, windows closed, blizzard, wipers on panic, a heavy-wet-northeastern snow where the tires leave rut walls six-inches deep and your wheel wells fill with ice thick and sticky as crystalized honey. As we drive on, the patches become thicker, denser. The Sikuliaq drives into a patch, then drives back out in an S-turn. The ‘line’ of cleared ice looks like someone has run off the road in the blizzard. Bob says, “Yes, check off that box.” Rob reminds him it doesn’t count, “if you can swim through it.” It doesn’t count until “we can’t sit here talking,” the noise of the ice on the hull is so loud.

Two walrus in Sikuliaq’s wake.
Two walrus in Sikuliaq’s wake.

Perry spots a party of walrus while we’re stopped and spinning the boat around. Where we are, the ice is knitted together, sewn like a quilt and the threads are tiny ridges of snow caught in the joining of the plates where a long, steady wind has swept it. At first Perry estimates perhaps ten walrus in the group. Later it’s clear there are twenty-five or more. The ice here is too thin, too broken for them to haul themselves out. All we are going to see with the binoculars and long, telephoto lenses are tiny heads bobbing up and down in a lead, like a string of tiny black beads along a dark thread of water between ice and ice.

Pancake ice with Bridge.
Pancake ice with Bridge.

Still pancakes, only heavier and unmoving until our thrusters kick them away from the stern the way you might clear a deck of autumn leaves with a garden hose, trying to get under them, flipping them backwards. We kick out a pocket big enough to deploy an instrument through and leave the test at that. We continue to move forward. The ice here is heavy enough, tight enough now, we no longer push it out of the way. As we pass through it, water spills over the plates, cracks it close to the boat. Out a few tens of feet, in small black pools between the plates, I can see the water slosh as our wake runs out under the surface. The ridges of snow are streaked like a desert trying to form dunes — East to West like they have held their orientation for days or weeks.

We are stopped for a moment when a pair of walrus decide to use our path as a lead, a breathing hole. Less than a hundred yards in our wake. We have proof. They disappear in a couple seconds but are caught by more than one camera. They can hold air for ten minutes or so. A crowd waits on the deck behind the Bridge but no one sees where they surface.

View from the Bridge.
View from the Bridge.

We stop. We drop a net to collect some discolored sea ice. Brandon collects algae from the melting ice and begins a culture in the lab.

A meeting of the science team. All the fun and games have fouled our sea chests and limited the water getting to the engines. Nothing is overheating but it’s a concern. This is slush we’re driving through, the sort that clogs wheel wells and you have to stop the car and knock out the blocks of ice before they act like parking brakes. We will pull out of the ice and let the slush melt back out of the intakes. We drive backwards slowly, like we’ve gone too far down the wrong skinny, country road.

There are no straight lines in nature.
There are no straight lines in nature.

A quiet moment in the evening as we turn and leave the ice for the night. In the galley monitor, some of the equipment on the working deck appears to have gone white. It’s snowing. The deck’s heated so it settles only on the buoys and bumpers — and the train wheels and Van Veen grabs, palettes, and lumber, picnic table, the van and the man-basket. There are three short lines of snow on the big hatch to the hold below the working deck. That part’s not heated. The lines look the width between floor joists and remind me of similar lines I once watched fill with snow on the flat, first-story floor of an unfinished house, my house. These things are a work in progress.

Tomorrow we will look for some heavier ice and give it another go.

Written by Roger Topp