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)


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