Rock and Roll

Sikuliaq Ice Trials

April 5th, 2015

Swells in the Bering Sea
Swells in the Bering Sea

I watch Perry walk down the 01 corridor past the science berthing. He staggers back and forth, trying not to bump into the walls, as if he (and everyone else) has had too much to drink. It’s a dry boat. It’s just the swells, rocking front to back and rolling from side to side. Most times, both at the same time, as if we’re the dregs at the bottom of a glass, being slowly circled about the creases. We get lulled into a routine and then the routine is broken. Amid the predictable rolls there’s a big one thrown in, and this time the whole mattress slides across the pallet. Something you thought has been secure for weeks suddenly isn’t. I point a video camera around the stateroom. The coffee in my mug moves like a sea creature, the life preservers above the closet slide back and forth, the curtains on the bunks drift like it’s finally Spring and the windows are open and the breeze is coming in. The door rattles against its hook and the computer mouse slides clean off the desk. My hat and my raincoat swing back and forth against the wall — and something heavy thumps somewhere on the ship. It might be one of the anchors. It might be something else. The telephone cords swings back and forth and the towels, gravitropic, searches blindly for the center of the earth.

I go outside and take pictures of the swells breaking over the bulwarks of the working deck. I stagger out along the 02 deck, both hands on the handrails, remote camera clipped on to my pants so I can set it up for an hour’s wet shooting while I go back inside.   After I collect it later, I don’t have the energy to see what the photos look like. Maybe next week.

Swells breaking over the Working Deck.
Swells breaking over the Working Deck.

The cofferdam is back up in the Baltic room. Of course, it’s snowing again. Upstairs, Matt is chopping vegetables for dinner, his legs spread wide like he’s about to begin a wrestling match. Cubes of the squash he’s cutting are lost to the floor. There’s no helping them. Tony curses from across the galley. There’s no working in this conditions.

We get into another large roll. I look in my coffee cup. The cup’s about three inches in diameter. The coffee just left a tidemark half an inch high on the stainless steel. That’s a slope of 1 in 3 and nothing out of the ordinary on a Monday in the Bering. I rack my brain for the trigonometry. Can’t figure out how to do inverse tangents on my phone but I know how to try a bunch of numbers (like passwords) and with a little brute force … an 18 (ish) degree roll that time. Ah, the daily applications of math while being tossed about at sea. See kids, math is useful. Math quantifies what your gut already knows.

Matt talks about not changing the galley’s big mixer once he ship goes into the yard. He refers to it as Frank, for obvious reasons I guess, if you know your industrial mixers. Turns out Frank took a tumble on a now infamous roll the ship made when it crossed the Pacific from Guam to Ketchikan. “That thing’s heavy,” says Elliot. “You have to tie it down.”

Oh, it was tied down. The thing ripped itself loose. Now, despite its dents, Frank’s one of the family. Frank has seen things.

Swells breaking over the working deck.
Swells breaking over the working deck.

Just spent the last 5 minutes recording the sound of strange, high-pitched song that seemed to be coming out of the wall and desk in my stateroom. It plays in time with the rock and roll. I hope I can hear it later in the headphones amid the rustle of the coats and the creaking of the bunks and the rattle of a jellybean lost in the desk drawer. I’ve eaten the rest but this one eludes me. Scratch and thump, the mouse takes another flying leap across the room. Perry comes in to get his camera. I ask him if he can hear the song. He can. He can. So there. I’m not imagining everything.

Sounds like someone is loading a dishwasher in the gallery but really there’s no one there. There are not enough dishtowels to stuff between the stack of plates to keep them rattling. The springs yawn, tired as everyone else. The chairs in the lounge are sliding back and forth, restrained only by being bungeed to the floor, the table, and each other. The corridors and the public spaces are vacant. If someone’s out of his or her bunk, it is to use the head or grab crackers from the mess or to stand watch. The only sensible thing to do is to try and sleep through it. I’ll be glad once night arrives and it no longer makes much sense to take pictures.

Standing on the bridge is an amusement ride and a circus. The Bridge wings are the highest, outermost part of the ship’s interior and there you get the strongest rush, the biggest arc through space. Once you know which way is ground, it’s gone and you have to find it again. The Mate on duty does magic, standing at impossible angles to the floor. The ship rears up and plunges head first into a hole in the ocean. Spray explodes around the bow and the science mast and reaches (I think) as high as the Bridge. It really matters which way was up at the time. These icebreaker hulls roll in open water like bath toys. Going back down the stairs you are in one moment weightless and floating, and in the next putting on fifty pounds.

Swells in the Bering Sea
Swells in the Bering Sea

I photograph and film more white caps and storm cells moving across the water. Waves try and sweep the deck and we tack our way slowly south. Perry and I have left our stateroom door open again to prevent problems with the lock. When I get back I’m told my chair tried to make an escape into the corridor. As I sit here typing, Perry’s toothpaste makes a run for it across ten feet of carpet. I wait for us to roll the other way and the tube comes flying back to me where I can pick it up without leaving my chair.

April 7th

About 36 hours later we steam into safe harbor. No one has slept well if at all. We’ve arrived a day before we can tie up, so we park the ship in a cove below the mountains of Unalaska. We’ve got a lot of cleaning and packing to do — and then sleep. Lots of sleep. And showers!

Back in Dutch Harbor
Back in Dutch Harbor

Tomorrow we’ll dock and stretch our legs, having pretty much all the gear already sealed and labeled for shipping, and our carried bags mostly packed for when the fun of catching flights begins on Thursday. The trip’s not over, but it’s a good a stopping point as any. The journey never ends.

April 8th

We’re tied up to the slip. Everyone is smiles. The rental trucks are in the parking lot and Brandon has his boots and backpack on for a hike somewhere, anywhere. The mountains are gorgeous and the snow line has come down since we left three weeks ago. You would think it was fall already.

Come the weekend the ship will leave port and head back to Seward. And from there, the adventures will continue. Thanks for the ride Sikuliaq. I am now going to take a walk on dry land (wet, actually, because this is the Aleutians) and try not to fall over my own feet. Cheers.



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

Journey – Adventure – Odyssey

gulf01Museums do scale very well. We expect a world in a room, an adventure in a box. We go into museums so that we can then look outward. One journey becomes many. In the gallery, we look down at the model of a ship and imagine the impossibly broad ocean stretching out past the way we walked in from the admissions desk, out past our parked cars, farther, past the outskirts of the city.

Fairbanks. Interior Alaskans know about big landscapes and bigger skies. Here is the perfect place to begin a voyage of discovery aboard a brand new research ship, Sikuliaq. It makes no difference the ocean is hundreds of miles away; the Sikuliaq has  decades of adventure ahead, the crew — tens of thousands of ocean miles. Here, at the outset of that journey, the museum will take you across all those miles and through all those years — in the space of an hour, in a room a thousand foot square.


Museums are worlds in miniature, and the UA Museum of the North is a model of the circumpolar north. The best models are those we can get right inside of, something where the walls are part physical and part an abstraction of something much larger, stretching right to the edges of the imagination.

My favorite “models” are old, ruined castles, those tucked away in valleys where so few people visit, you are almost guaranteed to visit alone. These castles are bare bones with nary a standing wall, but they are still complex things, stabilized and sometimes partially reconstructed – where the lines between the object and the landscape are a knit of stone and grass. Here we can stand and imagine the walls as they would have been, the wind as it would have been as the drone of cars on a distant motorway fades to nothing. The sunburned placards on their weathered iron disappear. The protective railings and the wooden ways that make us safe are wished aside. We can walk and breathe and touch. An exhibition should be like that — a collection of protected fragments, not just objects to stare at, but things to imagine — half walls and windows on times and places it is difficult or impossible to visit. The Sikuliaq is like that — a construct of welded modules and instruments and machines and the best of ideas that will take researchers — and us — to those remotest parts of the Earth, those places that exist at the borders of our imaginations. Because what happens there, matters.

Arctic Odyssey exhibition design (looking east).
Arctic Odyssey exhibition design (looking north).

Arctic Odyssey will be the spirit of adventure, the spirit of a machine we experience from inside and out, a physical and a virtual transport. It will be models we experience as much as look at, models that tell stories — in a small gallery, in a museum. These models will take us places. They will tell stories of the sea and make a living space for stories that have yet to be told.

I have not been to sea since 1995, and while it has been more than 18 years, I have a long series of durable memories from three weeks between Seward and Yakutat, aboard the Alpha Helix, the University of Alaska’s prior research vessel.

Pushing ice aside at the bow of Alpha Helix, 1995.
Lowering a CTD cast from the Alpha Helix, 1995.

I remember the morning reveille of ice drumming against the bow, the comforts of the treadmill in the library, the speed at which the Dramamine stores ran dry, the bone-chilling cold of the wind coming across the broken glacier ice in a bay on the Gulf of Alaska. We were a cork in a glass of iced tea, dipping our spoon in, reaching deep to stir the sediment on the bottom — reaching over the starboard rail to grasp a CTD and rosette cage so it could not thunk against he hull before the winch lowered it deep into the fjord.

I remember the wild, rolling sunsets, and the way the world became peaceful again as soon as we drove out of the Gulf and into a bay. I remember the dimly lit CTD control room and the beige desktop computer with which we could queue emails to send back home in a once-a-day burst.

Some technologies have made those days a bygone age, and the remnants of that are exactly the stuff of museums. Other things have not changed in 20 years, and still, going to sea is a big deal. A ship is capable but isolated, advanced but independent. It fends for itself and its crew. It conveys explorers through both calm waters and the most unforgiving environments on the planet. Beyond everything else, the ship is a window on the water. Arctic Odyssey will be a window on the ship.

Arctic Odyssey interactive element design.

traceElements_persp               sonar_persp

Museums do scale very well. All exhibitions seek to touch themes greater than themselves. Arctic Odyssey encompasses a 261ft research vessel, the science of oceanography, and all the world’s oceans. That’s a lot for a room. We will have to imagine the water, I suspect, mostly, but that’s what we do in museums. We enter a framework and then imagine a wider world.


To make that journey, another one must come before – the best of adventures, the odyssey of getting an exhibit made. Those at the museum, the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the Alaska Sealife Center have been revising ideas and making plans for some time now, and yet — there are so many unknowns coming at us in the next eight months. Because really, the Sikuliaq is only just at the start of its journey, but the Odyssey as first imagined is a story of homecoming, and the trials and challenges and wonders of getting there. It took Odysseus 10 years to get home, and on the way, Cyclops, Sirens, Charybdis, … Circe. Advenure is is out there among the odd lands of exhibit design and fabrication. Stay tuned for stories of this odyssey as we bring the exhibit and this new ship home — a prelude, to the making of an even greater story.

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