Easter Sunday

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
April 5, 2015

Arctic Odyssey: Voyages of the R/V Sikuliaq, on exhibit at the University of Alaska Museum of the North
Arctic Odyssey: Voyages of the R/V Sikuliaq, on exhibit at the University of Alaska Museum of the North

As one does on a holiday, I lie on my bunk reading a book. Second half of the novel. It’s hard to put down, so I read it out of my right hand and with my left I record the ship as it bucks back and forth through thick but broken ice. Everything creaks and rattles just the way you want it to when making a sound recording. Later I walk about the ship capturing sound from the Bridge and the corridors, the watertight doors and the heater in the Baltic room. I point a microphone at nearly anything that will make a sound while we still have ice bumping against the hull. Tomorrow, it’ll be ocean again and all the sounds will be different.

There are 48 people on board and Ann has made bent-wire rabbits for everyone. There’s candy too. There’s always candy. It seems to be a staple for field research whether you’re on a ship or camping along side a river looking for dinosaurs. Snacks, candy, and condiments. Also doesn’t hurt to observe a holiday in some form. It sets the day apart and passes the time while you’re working on getting from A to B.

For dinner there’s lollypop lamb and mint jelly and chocolate cake for desert. Better enjoy. Rumor is there’s 25-foot seas to the south. We’re heading east so we can turn into the swells at an advantageous angle. Someone’s going to be seasick on the way down. We’ll try our best not to make it everyone.

Sea Ice broken up by swells coming from the South
Sea Ice broken up by swells coming from the South
Sea Ice broken up by swells coming from the South
Sea Ice broken up by swells coming from the South

Visibility is still low but the ice is beautiful. This is our last chance to see it for a while. The ship will return to the ice later this summer/fall. It will need to go as far as the Beaufort and the Chukchi Seas to find it. I won’t be seeing sea ice for some time.

Took very few pictures today, but I wrote a bunch and I finished the second book of the trip. Apart from that, a very quiet day making sure gear is tied down.

25-foot seas? Well, I’m going to enjoy this in retrospect. Welcome to Spring in the Bering Sea. This is the part we don’t talk about in the exhibit. Amid the discovery and creativity, exploration and observation, there’s getting there and sometimes that means staying in your bunk most of the day — and literally hanging on for a bumpy ride.

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

The Whole Truth

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
April 4, 2015

Sea ice fracturing
Sea ice fracturing

This is my day for making stuff up, as if I don’t already make everything up. No, I’ve been good. This non-fiction thing is cool, but tough. We were laughing about newspaper articles today, or maybe it was yesterday, or perhaps it’s a couple days from now. And I made the comment I always make when it comes to newspapers, or TV newscasts (which I never watch unless I’m in them) — because they get it wrong. They always get it wrong. Every time a topic comes up that I know something about, I know they get it very wrong. I have to be happy if they get the gist alone. By extension, I can’t trust any of it — this thing they call non-fiction.

So I probably shouldn’t pick-it up as a day job. Oops. But in the spirit of never getting things all the way right, I shouldn’t waste words going through the errata, nor attempt to fix errors in the blog once I get to shore and can edit the postings easily. Little things. Like we’ve been catching brittle stars, not sea stars. Like midwater is one word (unbeknownst to M.S). That the “lemming” sighting was, once the photos were analyzed, probably another bird in the owl’s claws. Then there’s sorting the odd Eric from the odd Scott, and perhaps we’ve not caught just one fish but eight, and one of those by the ship’s sea strainer!

To make you feel better, we are talking about a guy (me) who will change a character’s name mid-chapter because suddenly something else sounds better or helps me better remember a night on a boat in a bay and margaritas and… — consistency can usually be rediscovered later. So maybe there are couple extra people on the boat who don’t exist? No. I’ve been good. Can you settle for mostly true — because something can never be completely true. I’d go as far as to say we wouldn’t actually want it to be. Because, really, seeing is believing. You don’t learn about lost Atlantis from a book do you? You have to go there. So, find a boat. Run away to the sea. It’s better than the circus.

Warning. I spoke with Captain Hoshlyk concerning the issue of dentistry and he just sort of grimaced and admitted, no, there’s not much we can do besides break out the pain killers and the antibiotics and wait till we can get you back to shore. Which, now we mention it, turns out he does have one crewmember whose having issues with a root canal. I know the feeling! (could be a wisdom tooth, but I’m not a journalist and I pull a face at the thought of fact-checking after midnight). Let’s name the crewmember Iain Payne and leave it at that.

I especially like the concept of the Board of Lies, and I’m pretty sure the concept has been borrowed from other ships. It gets right to the bald truth of things, the fallacy that we’re dealing with knowns here. I carry two or three ‘notebooks’ with me while I’m traveling. The laptop. The phone. And an eight and a half by eleven hardbound, narrow-ruled notebook. I title each and every one of these so their battered selves can go on a shelf afterwards. The current one is titled Mostly Lies 4. Once upon a time I carried around two of these things, Mostly Lies and Mostly True. The first was for fiction notes, the second for day jobs. Stopped that practice, partly because of shoulder pain (in a bygone age of bulky laptops) but mostly because Mostly True was both no fun to write in, and an exercise in grotesque self-delusion. So just the one now, and everything goes in there. Perhaps the next one will just be called the Book of Lies. Be done with all pretenses.

I keep hoping I’m going to see one of our coring holes in the middle of a polygon of ice as it floats sadly by, doomed by its independence. The bits that make up this shattered sheet are thick. A few days ago we would have been walking on it without question. Now the swells from the south have done their worst. We’re late to the party. The game of Forbidden Island is well and done. It’s a desolation in jigsaw pieces and we can’t find a single edge.

Today the ship feels like a ship again, rolling and pitching in tune with the sea. We expect it will even more feel like a ship tomorrow as we begin to leave the ice behind, when the steady stop and roar, stop and roar becomes the odd lonely clunk of a chunk of wandering ice.

A small octopus
A small octopus

We caught an octopus today, with a Van Veen grab. A claw from the sky plucked it up along with worms and shellfish and muddy bottom. I took pictures of the scary beast in a pan of water and then again as Lorena held it in the palm of her hand. It wasn’t feeling well after that, so Ann put it in the refrigerator where it would find temperatures closer to what it was used to.

A good way to end the cores and the grabs and the nets for the cruise. A baby octopus from off the mud in the Bering Sea, a hundred meters below the water’s surface. Cue the Beatles.

An octopus in the hand
An octopus in the hand

Now everyone has begun to secure gear and that means packing for the trip back to Dutch. I can’t pack up the camera gear yet, but I pulled its disparate bits back together in one or two key places aboard and did pack my boots and the Mustang suit. No doubt the trip home is going to be as memorable as every other part and I’m sure I’ll have something to say — though maybe not as much. You can only hope.

Eric, Lorena, Bob, and Brandon are making Easter baskets out of Dixie bowls, plus-sized coffee filters, and strips of ruled paper. And yes, someone crossed out the word Easter on the Board of Lies and wrote in “Springtime” instead. Oh, the truth is weighty, contentious thing, fantastic, and complex, and dangerous.

Some of the science team make Easter baskets (clockwise from the man in the hat: Eric Wood, Brandon Hasset, Bob Beardsley, Lorena Edenfield).
Some of the science team make Easter baskets (clockwise from the man in the hat: Eric Wood, Brandon Hasset, Bob Beardsley, Lorena Edenfield).

The crew decorates the baskets with Sharpies. Always plenty of Sharpies on a boat. Board of lies. Indelible ink. Lorena asks if I’m going to decorate one. I usually say no to such things (it’s a vulnerability. I shouldn’t have a license to drive or to use colors), but this time I say ‘yes.’ I make a pattern in the bottom that’s something like a fractured ice floe or a really difficult game of asteroids. I draw the ship casting a line through the gaps. It ends abruptly, gone to some other world we know next to nothing about.

Sounds as if folks have been happy for all the photographs shot on the trip. Several people and organizations have already approached me for permissions use them in reports and presentations. That makes me happy. Yes. Yes. Use. Use. Credit the museum. It’s good to know they have value and can be used to promote ocean science and education. The ship is something for the university to be proud of.

For me a photograph is just a note, a reminder, like the blog, an excuse and a whip to get me to lay enough words down, as truthfully as appropriate, to make a sort of nodal network (thanks John for your descriptions of this) that will somehow encode everything else that can’t be put explicitly in words. I am completely confident the right synapses will fire at the right time. I laugh (sort of — Perry’s sleeping) while writing that, because at some point I will have the pleasure of decoding all of these notes and remembering all the other parts of the story, about all these crazy people who like to work on boats and on ice. I’ll probably change some names and I will undoubtedly call it fiction, or the whole truth, because they are the same thing.

This is my day for making stuff up, a holiday among holidays. I began making stuff up on April 4th, 1986. I was 14. Can you really put a fixed date on such a thing? I did. I wrote the date at the top of the first page. It was loose-leaf paper so there was no notebook to give a name to. The novel length story had a name (yeah, for some reason I’m not going to share that). In the story there were people I knew whose names hadn’t been changed, because who was going to read it anyway? And there were ships sailing the high seas, and dragons coming out of the ocean spray. Everything returns to the ocean. It’s a grand thing to be on the water again and writing something about it, and it makes me smile that the reality is far crazier than I could have imagined. It’s not lies, really. It’s just not the whole truth. It can never be.

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

Good Friday

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
April 3, 2015

I got some sleep last night. Given it’s 8:30 and the lab is near empty, others are also getting sleep, or the 01:30 science station last night knocked everyone out. My head is just far too clear this morning, like it’s bruising for a challenge.

Carin just erased half the Board of Lies. The dominant words are now ‘TBD’ and ‘Maybe’. ‘Weather depending’ also figures prominently. I stepped outside a few minutes ago and the wind is gusting, the snow is blowing, and visibility has dropped like a fog. The ship has started to roll in a way, that if I didn’t know better, I’d say we are sitting in open water (but then we’d be rolling a whole lot more). Once every five minutes we jerk against something. Feels like a mooring rope, sounds like a Coliseum’s worth of ice and the audience is screaming for us to try and cut our way out.

I am strangely awake this morning. Annie must have swapped the coffee I normally drink for an espresso and a (insert your favorite energy drink here (because I wouldn’t even try the ones called ‘Battery’ in Finland last year (just on a lark, because when in other lands…))).

Sea ice mosaic.
Sea ice mosaic.

Outside the ice is fractured like it’s been sat on by an earthquake, like it’s been fed (insert your favorite energy drink here), and not unlike the small windrows mosaics I shot from the Bridge yesterday afternoon, only on a much, much larger scale. The ice swells are significant, and the big reason the ice sheet has been shattered like someone dropped a pan of toffee on the way out of the galley.

The day’s not even started but as Rob put it first thing, “The weather won.” It’s already won. The best we can do is look for a decent floe and perhaps the weather will have shifted a bit when we get there, or tomorrow, or the next day. Who are we kidding? We can still work off the boat, but the weather will keep us off the ice. Instability, low visibility, the fact the toffee pan is bending with the eight foot swells I don’t need time-lapse or my imagination to see. Everything is moving again.

The warning on the Board of Lies is to start securing everything down. Upstairs a sign in the mess says, “That swell in the ice means it’s going to suck. Saturday, Sunday tie everything down. Monday, Tuesday transit to Dutch.” This boat rolls and the winds are picking up. As long as we’re surrounded by ice, things are tempered greatly. Reminds me again of airplanes and turbulence and air pockets and careening through space. Even better — an old wooden roller-coaster where you get jerked and rattled side to side without the kindness of the machine banking into the turn, which would soften the blow, lead you to believe it was meant to do this.

I will miss this next week. I will miss it when I set my coffee down on the table on the back deck of our house in the forest and stare at it, not trusting the moment, because something’s wrong, and my inner ear will wonder how the liquid stays level and the mug doesn’t slide right off the table for no apparent reason. Not everything needs to have sticky feet or a non-slip pad to keep it in place. The table does not need a lip to keep cutlery from skittering off to the other side of the kitchen. All the walls do not sport handholds, and you can load up your arms with laptop and book and coffee mug and open the front door with your free pinkie because the door doesn’t weight 300 pounds, requires muscles to lock, and won’t come swinging back at you suddenly because gravity is changing directions like a confused compass needle.

rt_blog_264All the once solid floes have seem to have been ripped apart by the winds and the swells. Everything is jagged tiles for the last two hours. Are we looking for a good floe? Yes, but there’s not much hope right around here. Maybe if we find a place the swells haven’t gone to work on so effectively. To the east. Deeper into the fleet.

The weather loosens tongues. Suddenly everyone’s free to talk about home. A week from now many of us should be trying to catch a plane out of Dutch Harbor. Questions. Who made sure they already submitted for the Permanent Fund Dividend? Who already did their taxes? Who is flying out the day after we are (supposed) to get back? Everyone knocks on wood. There’s getting back to port on time. There’s being flights that day. There’s making connections. You can’t really think about it too much. Three weeks, even four weeks at sea for those starting from Seward, and this is when you most want some guarantees that things will go smoothly at the end — no lies, no TBDs — and yet what happens now is as much at the mercy of the elements as every gone before, maybe more-so, coming at the end. We had some very nice days.

We’re still a week away, but the wind and weather have shut down most science today, forcing everyone to think a little more about being tired, about being tired with a new book, the latest card game, preloaded laptop movies, Sewardopoly, Rock’em-Sock’em Robots! A day of not working the deck and the Bosun says he feels just as tired. You know the weather’s a little socked in when Liz and Sue are checking email in the Main Lab and are not on the Bridge looking for birds and seal and walrus and whales.

The ice out there looks like bad, cracked skin, but the great big snowflakes are pretty, whipping across the deck and melting on the windows.

Terry gives the science team a tour of the engineering control room.
Terry gives the science team a tour of the engineering control room.

Terry, the Chief Engineer gives us a tour of the platforms below the main deck. We have to wear earplugs but Terry’s done this many times. He makes himself heard. The spaces on the platforms are tight but you can see how everything can be got to, valves and sensors changed, pumps and motors taken apart and replaced. Everything is labeled and numbered. Reminds me of a Terry Gilliam movie. “Have you thought about your ducts?” I’m certain all these ducts and pipes are necessary aboard ship. Mostly certain. The labels have a calming effect when Terry mentions there are 130 miles of wiring inside the 261’ vessel. We talk about it afterwards at dinner.

Brandon Hassett and Rob Rember walk between two of Sikuliaq’s four diesel engines.
Brandon Hassett and Rob Rember walk between two of Sikuliaq’s four diesel engines.

The engineering department aboard ship (8 people) take care of something akin to an apartment building (so starts the analogy), with air-conditioning and heat and domestic water plumbing — add seawater plumbing and waste management (incinerator) and sewage treatment and a power plant (4 diesel engines) and propulsion (motors and thrusters (3)) — and potable water production (up to 6000 gallons per day) — with all the at sea ‘can’t afford to head back to port just because such and such doesn’t want to work today’ maintenance. When there’s an issue with one of the engines, you take it offline, crank it up on the lift and fix it. That little problem with the sea chests clogging with ice we saw earlier in the cruise hasn’t been an issue for a week because of a work-around involving buckets and hoses and an unplanned redirection of heat within the ship. When the ship goes into the yard a proper solution will be found but for now, the staterooms, the labs, the mess, are all just a little bit warmer than they would be otherwise. The mission goes on. Yay, tomorrow’s a weekend and a holiday.

rt_blog_262
Watching a movie in the lounge/conference room.

Things will be different in the morning. We hope. The entire ship is like a bed in a cheap motel. Or Terry’s got a diesel-powered hot-air popper in the basement. The kernels are hammering against the floor. Where there are movies there’s popcorn, and during the credits the chairs in the lounge all start sliding one way and then the next.

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

Try Again in 29 seconds

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
April 2, 2015

It’s a Thursday so, some things I remember from —

My first time at sea: 

Nothing. I was less than a year old and crossing the Atlantic on the QEII.

My first time working at sea:

Getting sick a lot in the Gulf of Alaska.

Thinking how small a boat feels when rolling on the ocean

Being woken up as we clunked our way through glacier ice.

My most unexpectedly awesome moment at sea:

Being stranded on an ice floe while the pilot fixed the outboard.

My worst experience at sea:

Trying to watch a movie on a ferry between Wales and Ireland, at night after a day of hiking and driving and no sleep. The movie was Chicken Run.

Sikuliaq seen from net near Puerto Rico
Sikuliaq seen from net near Puerto Rico

My first cruise on the Sikuliaq:

Smelling the ocean as the boat moved into saltwater for the first time.

Watching the sonar resolve images of the Andrea Doria as we ran donuts over the wreck site. Leaving the computer lab to go up on deck and look down at the unrevealing water where the wreck lay.

Hearing and recording a church choir sing as we passed by on the St. Lawrence River at night.

Sikuliaq sonar imaging of the Andrea Dorea (North Atlantic)
Sikuliaq sonar imaging of the Andrea Dorea (North Atlantic)

My second cruise on the Sikuliaq:

Watching the Sikuliaq come past the fort on its way into port.

Heat, humidity, humidity, and more heat.

Sunset after sunset after sunset after sunset.

Sikuliaq, sunset, and sea ice.
Sikuliaq, sunset, and sea ice.

My third cruise on the Sikuliaq:

Sea ice!

Sea ice!

Sea ice!

Different every time. Today, there are patterns in the palm-sized pieces of ice collected into windrows on an otherwise quiet lead. The mosaic of shattered tiles reminds me of a bathroom floor that needs finishing.

More fishing. More benthic coring. More temperature and salinity profiles of the water column. Doing the same thing over and over again, sometimes until you get it right, sometimes — because that’s the nature of the riddle. Sampling in multiplicity. Square mile upon square mile of sea floor and grabbing at it on square foot at a time. How many grabs gives us a good idea of what’s there? Sometimes you need come up with the same result time after time — until you don’t.

Isaacs-Kidd midwater trawl catching a jelly.
Isaacs-Kidd midwater trawl catching a jelly.

Put a net over the side for an hour to capture animals small as a pea, smaller even. How many hours of towing at what depth gives us a good (and what does ‘good’ mean) idea of what lives in the water column, along the ice edge, down near the bottom, or right up at the surface? Repetition is necessary because we don’t know what might find if we go about looking systematically, intelligently. Who knows what we will find a couple days from now.

We had burgers again tonight. Salad again. Pizza has been had twice. I think we’ve had salmon a couple times. I’m not complaining, but we notice repetition. In two days we’ll have spaghetti for the second time and the yogurt will run out. It’s been a true friend many a cruise breakfast, the yogurt, and I will miss it once things change.

I upgraded my phone a few weeks back. I let the old one, like my tooth, go easily. Past due, and with all the trips this Spring and Summer I wanted a little more capability/capacity. A good idea. The phone’s camera took most of the images from the first couple days in Dutch Harbor and when I first stepped aboard the ship. The phone part isn’t any use at sea (and hit and miss in Dutch) and the wireless, not so much either. On ship, I can reach my daily allocated personal bandwidth cap in about 10 minutes playing Wordhero while all the other applications I can’t be bothered to disable struggle to ping me notifications. Forget actually checking Facebook and email. You know you’ve been cut off when your last poor game still puts you at the top of the leaderboard like no one else has been playing. But still, it’s mobile computer number three and you can check the Board of Lies, the ship’s satellite map server, and our course and heading before getting out of bed — if you can get past the security!

About a week into the cruise the phone stopped asking me for my fingerprint, accepting only the backup password. Nothing I could do would persuade it to accept anything but letters and numbers. Well now, didn’t realize I was supposed to remember this password, because, you know, fingerprints (does it work for toes too (we shall have to experiment)). Throwing in random, oft-used password variants didn’t go so well, and giving up I pretty much put the thing in a drawer for much of the trip.

Then we got into the last week of the cruise and I started thinking about wanting to make phone calls once we got to port. So, with renewed clarity of thought after the fiasco with the decaf coffee, even the timed lockout before the next round of guesses couldn’t keep me from methodically running through iterations of my half-dozen greatest passwords. Between the rounds I read a page out of a book. I figured there was no way I was being TOO creative when creating a password I never really expected to use. It had to be something simple for me to guess at. I knew this thing was going to be forgotten when I put it in there. I knew THIS was going to happen. So what was it? ‘Try again in 29 seconds.’

And there you go. Try, try, try. Read a page of a book, try three more variants. Read another page of a book. Before I was through a chapter it pays off. Almost disappointing really, being methodical, but it works. Suddenly something different happens. Something’s been unlocked, and you find yourself staring at the screen, at first confused the keyboard’s gone away. At this point the machine should welcome you back, or welcome you to enlightenment. Something more than a “Oh, here you go. Have a dashboard.”

What did I just do? Oh yeah. I should write that down. But no. This might be the one password I remember for a good long while. In the meantime, fingerprints!

Isaacs-Kidd midwater trawl coming to the surface.
Isaacs-Kidd midwater trawl coming to the surface.
Isaacs-Kidd midwater trawl at the surface.
Isaacs-Kidd midwater trawl at the surface.

And jellies, because science happens too. Ann puts down her book when it’s her turn to do a round of benthic grabs. Eric and Lorena put down the cards when it’s their turn to run the trawl net. And the nets seem to catch jellies more than anything else. Not saying they aren’t important to the system, but annoying if you’re just trying to get at the smaller stuff. If you come up with nothing exciting in the net, you have to sit out much more than half a minute. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to put that net back in the water come evening, or more likely the next day. All the science on ship takes its turn. We can’t lower a grab at the same time we trawl a net, and we can’t move from CTD station to CTD station when we’re spending a day coring on the ice. We have 25 people in the onboard science party. Subtract the 4 marine techs and the 3 outreach/observation/pilot folks (myself included), that’s still 18 crew with at least 12-14 independent research goals.

So, it helps not to go in blindly. When the opportunity comes up we have plans and clear ideas of what’s gone before. If you are cunning and a little bit lucky you have a phone call to make when you reach port.

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

April Fools

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
April 1, 2015

There is a polar bear in the wet lab.
A polar bear in the wet lab.

As soon as Perry’s feet hit the floor, he’s calling my name and trying to spin me some yarn about my “laptop is smoking,” or I’m needed on the Bridge or there’s a Polar Bear on the ice or in the wet lab or the corridor or something. I’m not having any of it. I’m not awake enough to believe the Internet’s dead — really dead, because the latest upgrades went terribly wrong and it’s not just that we’re holding the ship on the wrong heading and the main mast is blocking the antenna’s view of the satellite. Now, if he told me he had discovered the password to my cell phone he might have got an eyelid open.

Bearded seals
Bearded seals

We’re stuck in the ice and there’s a polar bear on the working deck, a gang of walrus partying it up on the bow, and Eric is putting on his drysuit to go down and sharpen the ice knife. Today our Internet gets a 4x speed boost courtesy of the geosynchronous satellite and NSF fleet-wide upgrades. We’re talking Mega bits, small (b). It’s April Fools, but this last one might actually be true once we exit OIT crisis mode. It’s also true that for all the nets we’ve put in the water tis cruise, today is the day will we catch our first fish, whole bunches of amphipods, and krill. The Bridge crew also spotted our second bowhead whale and I was up there when we pushed our new super highway though what must have been suburb for bearded seals. One per floe and leads for picket fences.

Eggs for breakfast and I’m eyeing the warm pineapple turnover with the cherries on top — suspiciously. I think it is breakfast. Back at the museum you can come in early on the first if you don’t want your office pranked, and you can avoid the break room and the always tempting and always to be avoided fresh box of donuts you will find there. Linda is always the most innocent looking. Always the one to blame. We’ve replaced your regular donuts with something that just tastes wrong. It’s those you least expect that you have to watch out for.

No one’s believing anything Perry says this morning, but the ‘polar bear in the wet lab’ warning has some traction, despite my thinking the wet lab is not the best place to contain the scariest of predatory animals to walk or swim these parts. I mean, you can hear it banging on the bulkheads, the web lab locker has most of our weather gear. There are very official warnings posted in the mess, and usually open doors are shut and posted ‘no entry.’ Still, we’re all sedately sitting in the mess, sucking down first and second coffees while the ‘thing everyone (secretly or not) most wants to see’ is pawing at the watertight doors.

There is a polar bear in the wet lab.
A polar bear in the wet lab!

Before going downstairs I grab the laptop and the novel I started reading yesterday. Once in the main lab, I stare at the computer for a few minutes, not feeling really inclined to write anything or work on some of the video. I could start taking pictures, or not. Sunrise is still half an hour away.

Finally I get around to checking out the bear. And there it is. Fantastic, but I’m mostly asleep so I have to go back to the lab to get my camera. Put it to my eye. Put it down. Take the lens cap off. Put it to my eye. Put it down. Turn it on. There. Waking up.

I’ve been dragging all day. Our ice station was relatively featureless, but for once we disembarked on the port side, which meant an opportunity to take pictures of her majesty from her other, less photographed side. The business side of the superstructure, with the drains and the stains. Still, the ship encased in white is a pretty sight, sitting up there like that in the middle of a bright, tired-eyes ice desert where no ship should be. The thin line of water of in the distance just serves to separate the snow from the sky.

Sikuliaq with port side gangway to nowhere.
Sikuliaq with port side gangway to nowhere.

Early afternoon and work needs to be done on the starboard side crane. This requires the port side crane to get a man in a basket up to the knuckle to repair a hydraulic leak we’ve been watching for a week. So a couple hours not moving, not operating on the ice, not doing science over the side.

My head was hurting so I retired to my bunk, tried to read (for about 10 seconds) and then tried to fall asleep. It’s an art on a boat in the ice, with cranes and winches and work being done. Woke up for dinner (not that I really slept), supposed that at some point one does have to rest, and turns out I wasn’t the only one. Apparently this was the day for naps, for thinking, “How long have we been out here? How long have we left?” Jonesing for port. Jonesing for something.

Sea ice as continents.
Sea ice as continents.

At some point the sun came out yet again, but just seeing it in the monitors made my head hurt more. “The calm before the storm,” said Perry. It was. It was beautifully calm outside. Shooting from the deck out behind the Bridge was comfortable without a hat or gloves. More ice for continents. Endless maps. I could see water in the leads with nary a ripple. Reminded me of seal-hunting in the ice, in the Beaufort, one June, when the only disturbances to the sea were caused by our boat and the light drizzling rain.

Now, we were in for yet another great sunset. The forecast is for 35 knot winds the next couple days. This could mean many things. I treat the sunset like it might be our last for a while.

Over 22:30 coffee, Second Mate Mike and I have a brief discussion about some ideas I tossed around in my head earlier before falling asleep. If I WERE to jump over rail the and take off on foot across the ice, what are my chances of escaping if the ship were to try and pursue and run me down. 8 knots over the good ice, half that over anything substantial, poor turning radius (this is the ship), especially in ice, but the potential to create all sorts of AOE hazards in the form of cracks ahead of the boat. I on the other hand could keep up a 4-6 knot pace for hours over a light snow. We each had very specific strengths under specific conditions. I suggest the boat should make a wide circle and cut me off on a piece of ice a half mile wide. Then slice and dice. Three feet of lead and I’m not crossing it. Mike agrees, we’d do donuts, but “Take Perry and you’ll be fine.” He shakes his head laughing. “This far into the cruse, I’m not surprised you’re having these sorts of dreams.”

I disagreed. “Oh no, I was thinking this while I was awake,” I said. Hypothetically.

Alice Orlich and Eric Wood measure ice thickness.
Alice Orlich and Eric Wood measure ice thickness.

We were talking about dreams at lunch today. I haven’t had any I can remember since that first night in the hotel in Dutch Harbor (I wrote about it but left it out of the published blog, you know, because I don’t share everything). But Alice tells us about hers from last night. Turns out I was in it. She was working on stuff. I was filming. She and I (and I have to really paraphrase here (because lunch (or was it dinner (yesterday was so confusing)) was pizza and it was very good)) were diving, I think, around the ice floes, as one does (in dry suits I hazard to guess) but we weren’t working off the ship. We were working off a surf board. I suggested a Polynesian long board might have been appropriate (over lunch, not in the dream (the sort of day where you suggest edits to someone else’s dreams)) and I gather that all was going well dream-wise until the orcas turned up. At which point it may or may not have turned into a nightmare. The rest is fuzzy, whether in the having, the retelling, or my ability to listen at that point before my forced afternoon nap. April Fools is a little like the Halloween of Spring.

So, yes Mike, “This far into the cruise…”

In other check-list type news, I was finally able to sound record Brandon playing Seth’s banjo in the Main Lab — while some heavy ice was breaking against the hull (you have to do this sort of thing secretly and then confess to it later (oh and Carrie, just to confess another little thing — that bit where I dry boiled the kettle one night before leaving for the ship — I actually did it two nights in a row, so now you know)). So a major score for the day.

And before I forget and by way of punchline, Mess Attendant Annie had her own confession to make at dinner. Up until 14:00 she had been replacing all ‘the coffee we usually drink’ with Folgers decaf. Death stares from the coffee drinkers. Smug looks from those with alternative (and we know you have them) drug habits. My head was still hurting, but at least I knew then from what carafe my pain had been served.

There might need to be a reckoning, but in the meantime night is falling after yet another sweet sunset, and I’m going to schlep the laptop up to to the Bridge where Mike will be driving us into the am. He might need the extra eyes to watch for moose by the side of the road, because you just know it’s not going to be a polar bear.

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

Maps of the World

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 31, 2015

Thinking of Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends and his observations of a child’s need to make maps describing their world, territory, neighborhood, backyard.

Mike Stewart, Elliot, and Steve Roberts at the windows, plotting a course by radar and high beams. Photo by Roger Topp
Mike Stewart, Elliot, and Steve Roberts at the windows, plotting a course by radar and high beams. Photo by Roger Topp

Exploration. Adventure. Discovery. Growing up. The need to know. The need to go beyond the ear shot of parents. The need to get into trouble and find a way out again. I’m thinking, not for the first time, that for some people at least, map making never ends. It takes many forms. Exploring a new cave system in China, building a better model of a crater on Mars, mapping where the critters live at the ice edge, where they find homes in the ice. We always want to know where and what this place is. We want to look down on it as if it too were map that could be folded into a pocket and brought out again when we need to find treasures.

There is magical satisfaction in correlating radar images with satellite images with what we see out the windshield. This isn’t typical ocean going and the ship isn’t an eleven year-old’s bicycle, but it can get us almost as far.

Sam carries a chunk of ice back into the lab. It’s just small enough for the gallon-sized ziplock bag. He carries it carefully, like a prize, like a boy finding a cool rock in the wilds of still-undeveloped suburbia. There are a lot of other rocks in the forest but this one is a good one and we know where it came from. We have a map even if it keeps changing on us, because it keeps changing on us.

rt_blog_231When the ice is new and thin, inches to fractions of inches, looking down on the landscape from the Bridge is looking down on the winter country from 30,000 feet. Everything is a map of coastlines and ridges, inlets, coves, valleys and towering ranges off into the distance. Then you look up to the horizon, and there’s heavy ice and the scale goes up by an order of magnitude, and you realize you’ve been looking at only a model of the real world, a doomed little continent, plate drift and uplift. Summer is coming. The heavy, older ice is crusted with snow, the ridge lines are a complex tale of violent histories. The mountain ranges do not run north to south or east to west. They corral and honeycomb great plains and fiefdoms.

When I remember exploring the edges of my neighborhoods it was never a matter of mapping the streets, finding the extent of a park or a surviving plot of woods between a ball-field and a stream, a school yard and a farm. They were always too big anyway. It was only ever to find a small place, out of the way, where the rocks and the sticks and the trickles of water could be imagined as worlds in miniature. Maybe because that sort of map felt temporary, private, changeable. Or may I could throw rocks at it. Make a splash. Save a stick. Divert a flood.

 

Sea ice as maps and landscapes
Sea ice as maps and landscapes

It’s easy to look down at the ice-sheet and see worlds. Here, now, the laptop perched on the non-slip pad on the windowsill, starboard side Bridge, I can type and look almost straight down at coastlines and folded mountain ranges. A little farther out, Pangea is awaiting breakup.

Instead of pushing our icy debris under the thin, clear sheet, we’re pushing it under. The cloud of ice is a jagged, billowing fog spreading under a sheet of frosted shower glass. I imagine how that will refreeze and create a delicate habitat, a fortress of short-lived knives canyons and caves.

If past Septembers are any sign, all the ice this far south will melt prior to the Autumn Equinox. The animals that depend on the ice will move north. Next winter new maps will grow and be dashed against each other, build continents and fracture into tiny islands to fade away or be trod underfoot by a ship looking to explore.

rt_blog_225Nighttime. Home by midnight. High beams all the way, knuckles on the thrusters, navigating a channel between the floes. Wait! “Where the heck are we.” The computer can give us geographic coordinates to a serious number of significant figures, but any maps made before yesterday aren’t going to be of much help. We are a stomper of ice floes, a minnow darting between terranes of frozen ocean — and the last good picture from above was from the Aqua (satellite) earlier in the day, where the clouds had already begun to obscure the image like a hand trying to clear wet snow from a windshield, leaving yesterday’s sharp edges blurry. Everything has shifted, rotated, widened, narrowed. The streams have broke their banks and a new neighborhood has gone up overnight.

We stop the car, making a little pond of emotion and halogen light. The snow settles here like it does anywhere else. Get out of the car. Stare up into the night and the snowflakes settling on your face. Put an instrument into the water because the world is deep as it is wide. It’s not distance. It’s how much you have to push through to sink closer to the unknown. The horizons are dark whether they are forests or ocean. But here — here we are. Still. Ah. “There we are.” We go that way. Bring a handful of cookies up from the mess. What tunes do we have? We come through this lead here, turn right, follow that edge, skirt that heavy stuff there — until we find that polynya, if it’s still there, then directly across from it is our floe. We park and take a look in the morning.

Load Handling System deployed in a quiet, ship-made polynya. Photo by Roger Topp
Load Handling System deployed in a quiet, ship-made polynya. Photo by Roger Topp

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

Pressure Ridge

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 30, 2015

Ship seen from the ‘headstone’ along the line of the performance test. Photo by Roger Topp
Ship seen from the ‘headstone’ along the line of the performance test. Photo by Roger Topp

Washed my clothes at the ship’s Laundromat / sound booth.

$2.00 a load, and a quarter for every 2 minutes of dryer time. I knew ship time was expensive, but… maybe I’m exaggerating. Nothing much to report about the laundry room(s) on board (no, we don’t have to pay per load), except perhaps the washers, which (and Bern warned us about this at the outset of the cruise) once you select your type of wash, you’ve committed. No going back. No opening the door because you left a lens cap in a pocket. The thing commits like a downhill skier or an episode of your favorite TV show. Until its 34 minutes are up, you’re not going anywhere.

Sue Moore at the hydrophone hole.
Sue Moore at the hydrophone hole.

The laundry also doubles as Ann’s sound booth. Ann has made a few pre-printed signs. When we start crashing through ice of a hardness, she grabs the right one and goes to the laundry room where she has a good place to post it where she can record it as video as the ice in question crashes against the hull. “Listen! This is HARD ice.” Anything hitting the hull will completely drown out any dryers in use.

Another bright day on the ice. With the new snow, I find it slippery for the first time. Right off the gangway I have to regain my balance. I warn John that it’s slippery, only because it’s the first time it has been so. I wonder if we cleared this particular flat patch whether we could skate on it. I have a feeling it’d be too soft — but it’s a thought. Not that I skate, but I did notice someone’s hockey stick in the Baltic room. I take extra care as I seek out the safety of harder, older snow. I sprained an ankle my first winter in Alaska, on lake ice, trying to learn to skate, by myself. Had to hop back to the university my x-country skis over my shoulder, and using the poles as a crutch. Twenty years ago. I still remember big parts of that long slog back up to the Ridge. No pressure. Just have to get back before you get to cold, that’s all. Later that night, once a doctor saw it, he said I probably shouldn’t try to walk on it for (a few months? I remember the color of the light in his office better than what he said.) If I ever want to do competitive sport again, I’d let it heal. That’s the sort of warning that makes sense to me. You want to walk again. Listen up.

So, ice and dire warnings. The ankle’s never been the same since, but we adapt, and living in Fairbanks, you learn to walk on ice, you learn to take the right kind of steps, ones you can just about tell yourself you can pull back from when necessary.

I’m not against committing. Far from it, but it’s good to recognize that moment the next step is going to make a strange difference. I haven’t thought about that journey home in many years, needing to get somewhere, barely equipped to do it, knowing I was going to make it but cursing a lack of people on the trails, cursing that I hadn’t thought everything through. Maybe I’ve been a little more cautious ever since? No. Back to the ice. I take chances, just not with my ankles, if you ever see me hesitate to kick a ball before doing so.

Measuring ice thickness as seen from underneath.
Measuring ice thickness as seen from underneath.

A bright day, first day everyone felt hot inside their Mustang suits. First day I took off my gloves and left them in my pocket. Light flurries where we were, but by the look of every horizon, more snow was on the way. John recorded the sounds of the ice operations, the chatter, the “man, I’m boiling”’s while I tried to blindly capture Alice and Lorena’s measurements from the underside of the ice. We use a neat, little, brassy tool perfect for the job, Paddington’s buttons again, but these buttons know how to collapse like a utility knife when you want to get them back through a two inch hole six feet long.

The target at the end of the performance run.
The target at the end of the performance run.

The regular ice station was only the start of the hours we spent at that floe. We moved the boat a little farther into the flow from the station, and then using the basket to get back to the ice, Evan, Mike, Alice, and Perry set up a transect along the ship’s current axis, measuring ice thickness and hardness along a route the ship was going to take going forward. There were a couple ridges in the way of the ship, and hitting these known quantities at speed was going to provide data on ship performance. They painted a dotted, red line on the ice so the pilot could see it, ending 284.3 meters away in a X-marks the spot. Three football fields, not a quarter mile but felt like it with the toddler-toppled block-fort topography that needed crossing.

 

Perry Pungowiyi, Alice Orlich, and Mike Neville measure the ice for the performance test.
Perry Pungowiyi, Alice Orlich, and Mike Neville measure the ice for the performance test.

The reduced visibility. The intense silence. Out there we could hear the ship, three fields away, but it sounded very quiet and very distance. Somewhere along the line someone wrote ‘UAF’ in the snow, in paint, and off to the side, scraped letters less visible, ‘Nanooks.’

The ice along the line was anywhere from 10 to 20 inches thick and then 2 to 3 times that where the ice sheet was rafted. We could see this on the underwater camera earlier at the station, the chipped edges of ice sheet driven under others, welded together, thickening the floe. The ice sheet is relatively peaceful at the moment, but at some point earlier in the Spring there was a lot more energy running through here — wherever here was. Now there are significant built-up ridges, chucks of ice like eroded Saracens, places where the new snow has drifted to a couple feet deep, and one place where after drilling it’s clear that spot is below sea level.

The Sikuliaq making its performance test run at the heavy ridges.
The Sikuliaq making its performance test run at the heavy ridges.

My boot goes down like I’ve stepped in a hole and comes back out like it’s been half-caught in mud. I wait a moment for the sting, but either the slush is slow or the boots are tall enough. There was still ice, hard bits, blocks, down there, somewhere, and nothing got twisted or sprained. On one of the ridges Alice measured an ice thickness of 9 feet or more — with voids, or this would have been beyond the ship’s capability. Climbing over the ridges going out was overly cumbersome in the work suit with bag and tripod and four cameras. A sled might have made it easier.

At least we were going to leave three of the cameras and the tripod behind on the ice. Three cameras in two positions, aimed at recording our retreat to the ship, the basket carrying us back aboard, the swells running through the ice floe, the ship reversing so it could make a run at the line and the ridge and the cameras — at speed. On the video you can see a pulse of dark smoke leave the stacks as we get underway. As we reverse, the ice knife (below the waterline) leaves a mark in our path in the shape of an arrow. By the time we hit the ice, Juha has the ship up to 10 knots. There were no guarantees we would be able to keep the ship to the path. The ridges in the way were picked because they would test the ship’s performance and as such they could very easily change the ship’s course.

Backing up to make a ‘high-speed’ run at the ridges. The ice-knife has cut an arrow pointing the way.
Backing up to make a ‘high-speed’ run at the ridges. The ice-knife has cut an arrow pointing the way.

On the betting table, it was difficult to see the odds for the debates and binoculars, cameras and doubts and ‘how are we going to get them back’s and the Third Mate asking for all four engines to be brought online. All the people were back aboard. Not all the gear. Most of the predictions seemed to incline to at least one of the cameras being driven over by the ship. It’s quite possible were going to be okay with that. I shouldn’t say what happened. There’s a video after all…

But we got video back from two of three cameras. The third got cold feet and a bad memory but has since recovered and has been ordered to take it easy.

The nearest camera to our line, the one we thought would most likely get wet or get run-over was fitted with a waterproof case, a float, and a line pulled off (far?) to the side and staked into the ice. Even if the camera went in the water, even if it went under the ship, we had a chance to get someone on the ice to drag it out again. The biggest camera was on a tripod, a somewhat safer, drier distance away, but from the Bridge hitting one camera or the other seemed like a very minor adjustment in course, or a slight deviation decided by the thick pressure ridges.

A successful commitment, a calculated risk, the right kind of step. Which of course only means we’ll have to try it again, perhaps with a camera under the ice as well, closer to the line. We’d fly a drone, but sometimes there are more rules out here than in Washington. So if we don’t hit something with the ship and have to drag it back from out under the hull, we’re just not trying hard enough.

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

Grey Days

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 29, 2015

Grapes from the Galley
Grapes from the Galley

We are more than half way through our cruise and the food’s running low. Last evening Annie told us there were no more chips. She’s from Wisconsin so I suppose chips doesn’t include Cheetos, because those appeared today as usual. But this morning she put out a single grapefruit. Carin snagged it immediately, saying she was going to save it for tomorrow. She also said she would give half to John the Bosun. I think she hopes in turn he will share his grapefruit knife. This could be our last grapefruit until we return to the hot, sunny coves of Dutch Harbor. Or perhaps another single grapefruit will appear tomorrow? Mysteries in the grey.

I don’t trust the grapes anymore, and there’s a sneaky huge amount of cake and cookies and muffins, and pastry, and cinnamon rolls, and ice-cream bars always within hands reach. So, maybe food’s not running low, as there are always 2-3 options for dinner and they all must be tried — so someone’s compensating for something.

Fulmars over sea ice.
Fulmars over sea ice.

This afternoon I was recording the hull breaking ice from over the starboard upper gangway when I saw a seal high-tailing it away from the boat. It was only half a ship’s length away and the camera was two decks uphill. The seal was booking. I think I’ve shot fewer photos today than any other day at sea. That’s all right, I’ve caught up on other things. Been making sound recordings and this evening after dinner, to compensate I did go up to the Bridge and shoot fulmars as they buzzed the boat. I understand they are related to albatross so what could go wrong.

Seal running away from the boat.
Seal running away from the boat.

It’s not the most comfortable spot to record sound, putting my arm and a mic over the steel gangway (because it’s cold and my coat is a half a boat length and a floor downhill, but the starboard rail is in our wind shadow today. So while elsewhere else the wind is shouting, “What the hell are you doing out here?” on the lee side the snow drifts down without a care in the world. It settles on my microphone just the way it’s supposed to collect on a friend’s fur ruff as you walk a lake shore in fall. “It’s all right,” it says. “Winter’s coming and it’s okay.” By morning the snow will have collected and there will be ice on parts of the deck.

So, I missed photographing that seal, but this seems to be their neighborhood, so there are many others. We keep catching them out on the ice, scaring them into a high speed, floppy sprint away from the boat.

I also missed seeing the snowy owl this morning. The observers on the Bridge noticed it because it was being mobbed by a hooligan gulls. It had an animal in its claws. Fur. A tail. A lemming? I fully believe the animals were happy to get into a tiff over the only low-salt meal in twenty miles. Perry tells us about the time the wolves scared a small herd of caribou across from Russia to St. Lawrence Island. Stories of seeing fox tracks on the ice, following the bears. Wolverine. Looking for food. Trying not to be food.

We talked about the ‘outside’ world a little today. Plans have to be made for shipping gear back from Dutch, back from Seward. Who needs what when? How long will it take? There’s a rumor of a disaster somewhere. Someone’s looked at the news. It’s only rumor because, really, no one’s asking for details. We’ve trekked out into the ice, trying not to think too hard about the world back on shore. Nothing else is happening out there besides baseball scores. Or it basketball? So hard to tell. Right! Baseball starts soon. I think that’s the most beautiful piece of ephemera I’ve heard in a while. A nugget of information that means nothing. I couldn’t care less about baseball season. So that works for me. That’s news. John says this is one of reasons he likes to be at sea.

Of course family’s different. Any bit of information from Carrie is cherished. I hear that William (<1 yr) has begun to be the climber we knew he would be. He pushes milk-crates and cars about with sound effects. For months we’ve used a couple chairs turned on their side as a barricade between living room and library. I understand he’s figured out the holes between the briar legs are bigger than they need to be. Kaelin (<5yrs) is reading Tintin this week. Adventure! Precious, I’m listening to ‘Uncatena’ by Silvan Esso as I write this. It’s been my favorite song of the Winter. I think, yes, it is the perfect song for grey skies and long distances.

Several of the crew have said their wives, husbands, friends, colleagues have read the blog. “It’s good people know what we do.” This is a very different part of the world. It’s a different experience for me, writing about events as they happen, editing the same day — deleting all things I really want to say… Haha. When I write this much, it’s usually fiction — and I take weeks anguishing over paragraphs before posting stuff to that blog. Link redacted. I’m on a boat, in tight quarters, and cannot get away quick enough if anyone reads something.

Look over there! Another seal thinks we want him for dinner.

rt_blog_208As we make our way slowly through the ice, in the galley I take pictures of Matt chopping vegetables for taco Tuesday (on a Sunday). I should take pictures of the food every day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner all excellent. Matt apologizes for the seafood pasta, polenta, and zucchini side not being the most photogenic of dishes. Tony got it right with the bagel bar earlier, and Matt knows how to hold out fish salad on pita for a camera. So, potentially more food porn later. Already I could probably give a slideshow just on ship cuisine.

Full stomach. Back up to the Bridge where the day has been good to me so far.

The Bridge’s windows angle out, allowing you to look down around much of the boat. More sea ice, sheet after sheet mottled by pancakes about the size you could eat, if only just one or two, sheets so thin when the boat pushes them aside the pieces cut into each other. A coin is tossed. One sheet becomes a knife, the other paper. If thicker, maybe a quarter to half an inch, and if the ice is smooth as glass, the pieces shatter like crockery and scoot across the ice sheet like a thousand hockey pucks kicked by a boy across a road on the way to school. Behind the pucks, a thin fan of water, foaming at the lips. Sometimes the overflow and the energy of our displacement crack the sheet like a windshield battered by Spring gravel. Tiny white streaks race through it like lightning, flash brightly for a moment and dim to a dark hairline.

Sea Ice
Sea Ice

We stopped for our fourth ice station today. The crew got out on the ice to set the anchor and promptly came back aboard as massive cracks began to open in the floe. Even though boat had cut a fresh driveway, it was rolling as if in open water. The swells were significant and you could see from the working deck the ice rise and fall in waves, opening up new cracks the longer we waited. No ice station today. We drive on into evening, heading towards established stations on the 70m isobath. As Carin said over dinner, “We’re switching from relative to geographic coordinates.” Less floating in the grey, more paying attention to the hard world underneath.

Before night fell, Liz saw three belugas from the Bridge, first a white calf and then two (greyer) adults just behind. Quick. Then gone. We we were in a tight lead with ice all around. We watched for them after we had passed but saw nothing more. Everything out there today is shades of grey, but the height of the Bridge and the fulmars and the ice sheet made for some fun, moody photos, like I had an assistant quick flipping abstract backdrops behind the sporting wildlife.

Bowhead whale
Bowhead whale
Bowhead wale (enlarged photo)
Bowhead whale (enlarged photo)

Oh, and Sue spotted our first bowhead, swimming towards the east across the surface of a great, wide lead. I should mention that shouldn’t I? Despite all the work on Arctic Currents these last couple years, this was the first bowhead I’ve laid eyes on. Enlarging the photo, we see a nice, big, fat hump is clearly visible behind the blowhole. It’s a poor replica for being there, but a big whale, in good shape, and definitely well fed.

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

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 to shore 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 to shore, 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)