A Tidal Driven Life – Episode 1

I arrived in Oregon in June, of 2016, having never eaten an oyster, let alone studied them. Since then I’ve learned about their life cycle, importance to the environment, their service as a harvestable resource and have developed the unnatural ability to know the phase of the moon and the times of the low tides. It has been a little over a year since the oysters I’ve been cultivating in Netarts Bay were initially deployed and so it’s time to write a blog post.

The growth has been more physical than mental for the oysters. They’ve gone from a few millimeters to an average of over 5 cm in length. My growth, on the other hand, has been much more mental. I’ve had the opportunity to work with and learn from some incredible people in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, here at Oregon State University. I’ve been extremely lucky to work with my advisor Dr. Alyssa Shiel, as well as Drs. George Waldbusser and Adam Kent on this research funded by Oregon Sea Grant. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with an amazing set of graduate students and who’ve taught me so much in the past year.


So what have I been doing over the past year and why? Read more in the following weeks as the series continues on my website, http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/wensmans/.

—Sophie Wensman

Overcoming Low Visibility and Finding a Way Back to Oregon

The day of our departure finally came, Wednesday August 2nd! Based on our schedule, we would be finishing all work that Sunday, giving us two days to pack and wrap up any loose ends. As it turned out, these two days were invaluable. We were able to collect several more “independent moss collections”, sample three sites which were only 3 meters from the road, take some road/soil collections and finally give Kali time to work on her protocol for her soil sampling. All in all, from the months’ work of data we will have quite a bit to work with!

Now the only question was if we were going to be able to leave on the 2nd. Wednesday came and it was a dim foggy morning, exactly what we dreaded. Time inched along with frequent calls to Peter, with each party affirming their readiness the moment the weather cleared. The frequent question was: “can you see the top of the mountain to the SE of the airstrip?” To which I replied early on, “I can’t see the airstrip”. Things did not look good, we waited around in the TV room with the other people who were grounded by the weather. They had many jokes for us “don’t think you guys are leaving today…hahaha”.

Finally, around 10 am we could almost see the top of the mountain, I called Peter and we set the wheels in motion. He called Rick (our NPS pilot), we called the mine to get a ride with all our gear to the airstrip. 10 minutes later, were standing on the airstrip, I call Peter again on the satellite phone. Things have gone awry, he cannot get ahold of Rick and is not sure if the other pilot has left or not. We realize priority number one, if there is only one plane the samples must be taken out first with one person to ensure they get back to Oregon safely. Two people will need to stay until Saturday if that is the case. We decide Kali should be the one to go. We quickly exchange all contact info for her to be able to return the gear in Kotzebue, and get on the Alaska airlines flight the following day.

After waiting some time with no planes in sight, we are forced to return to camp as our truck driver will soon need to shuttle other people. At this point, no one knows if the pilot will make it there, and we decide to bring all our gear back to camp and unload. As soon as we are almost done unloading, someone from inside the camp comes out and says that the red dog tower said our plane has arrived! We are ecstatic and immediately reverse our actions putting all the gear back in the truck. Once at the airstrip, there are in fact two planes! It seems as if the other pilot did in fact come, and yet we see no pilots? After some time, we realize the pilots are in the red dog tower waiting out the weather and we now gather that the NPS pilot did not come, but the original second pilot who we hadn’t heard from along with a co-worker of his is there. He explains that “he was in the area” and thought he would come by with a second pilot. It now appeared that we would be able to leave, except that the weather took a turn and we only had two flight vests (with a personal locator beacon-PLB). After some confusion about what the regulations are, we found out fortunately that there only need be one PLB per plane-phew! Now if only the weather would clear. Finally, at around 3 pm, after a few instances of the pilots telling us that they might just leave without us- (less problems without passengers) the weather cleared just enough for us to leave!

Kali and Beth went in one plane, and I went in the second and we took off! Away we went, after that all logistical issues were a piece of cake.

Now that we are back in Corvallis, we will each take a well-earned break. After that, there will be much work to do. This will include, organizing all lichen samples and identifying them to species. Once this is done the species lists will need to be updated. At the same time, Kali and I will begin processing the frozen moss tissue samples to eventually begin analyzing their metal contents. I look forward to all the following stages in this project and am excited to say that we completed a successful and fruitful field season all thanks to the tireless efforts of Beth, Kali, myself and Peter. Go Team Lichen 2017!


Loose ends

As with any field work hitch, we have some loose ends to tie up on out last day at Red Dog. Today will be our last trip into Cape Krusenstern. We will collect a couple of moss samples a few meters away from the side of the road, and will visit one plot where our data file seemed to have been corrupted. All of this work should only take a few hours, and will leave plenty of time for us to try and clean all of the dust caked onto our gear, to pack, to eat (it is taco Tuesday tonight!!!), and to say our goodbyes to our new friends around the camp.

I think that we will all miss the beautiful tundra and interesting people of Red Dog. However, we are all very excited to be free of the Red Dog Mining Camp, and of the potential grizzly encounters (we’ve seen over 20 to date).

Stay tuned for another posting about what the next phase of this project will look like!

Over and out,



Rain. Wind. Mosquitoes. You have to pick at least one. Which would you rather?

If you were at all curious, all of us unanimously chose wind.

Over and out,


Vegetation surveys, logistics, and the fear of losing your bunk

During this trip we have participated in a wide array of data collection. The protocol that we use at each of our 104 plots collects several pieces of data. First, each plot consists of a 4 x 8 m area which we delineate with two measuring tapes and we use a staff with a laser pointer to record the heights of everything at 100 laser points! This includes vascular plants, mosses and lichens. This is the “point intercept” portion. Through this type of data collection each species which is hit by the laser is given an automatic 1% cover, the heights of each can help us get an idea of general biomass and health of the site. Second, I or the other lichenologist, Peter Neitlich go through and do a visual “additional species” check. Here we record any species of lichens that were not hit by the laser as well as collect any unknown species which we will take back to the lab for further identification.

At this point, either Kali of Beth have been collecting the general plot info, this includes, slope, aspect, vegetation type, disturbance amount, and percent cover of several vegetation groups (forbs, shrubs, small shrubs, sedges, mosses, lichens and much more). The last part of the plot includes the measurement of 5 samples of 5 species of lichen randomly selected from within the plot: Cetraria cucullata, Cetraria laevigata, Cladina stygia, Thamnolia vermicularis and Cladina arbuscular/mitis. Finally once this is compiled, photos are taken of the plot and samples of the moss of interest: Hylocomium splendens are collected using care not to contaminate the sample which will later be analyzed for metal content to get an idea of what each area is exposed to. With that, one plot is concluded. Whew!

Other than work, there is the second task of logistics. As Peter said “we are getting the authentic Alaskan runaround”. The primary task seems to be arranging to get out of the mine. Due to a summer project of repaving the runway, flights to and from red dog are only permitted on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This doesn’t seem so bad, except that, what if the day you planned to leave and had arranged to have a pilot come before 11 am which is the window for a private plane to land, the weather is bad? Well, then you don’t leave for another 4 days, possibly lose your bed, possibly lose the equipment room where you have stored all your gear and have to re-plan the private flight and the flight from Kotzebue back to Oregon. So the conclusion we have reached, is that we sure hope we get good weather next Wednesday when we try and leave!




Due to the cold climate here in Alaska, soil formation is typically slow. The cold climate slows down decomposition, resulting in large deposits of organic materials (peat). Peat hosts organisms such as moss and lichens and exists above the permafrost layer with mineral soil below. The permafrost layer typically prevents water from percolating downward which can cause wet soil to move and make solifluction lobes! We saw solifluction lobes from the helicopter…they look like melted wax from a candle.

From an engineering aspect, the freeze/thaw patterns in tundra soils can be a hindrance for those who live here. Buildings and homes are typically built above the ground with large poles. As if owning a home and having house projects wasn’t enough… those who live here have to deal with extreme light and dark—but also worry about their foundation sinking into the ground and huge cracks in their roads when commuting. HOWEVER – it’s ridiculously beautiful up here, and they get quite a bit of access to the incredible Aurora Borealis. So right, I get it – and who knows, Alaska could hold my future address.

Arctic soils are so neat. I have been waiting to see and touch gelisols (permafrost soils) since I learned what they were. Permafrost has always interested me and the other day – I had the opportunity to touch it! This was monumental for me.

Not only are they super interesting, but they are a huge carbon sink on this planet. There is important research across the globe investigating potential implications with a warmer climate, thawing of permafrost and release of the stored carbon.

I may add, as the nerdy soil member of the group—I get to use the coolest tools (aka weaponry).

Hasta Luego!


“Port Hopper…Copy?”

On the Red Dog haul road, large haul trucks carrying double loads of ore concentrate fly by every 20 minutes or so. They are a crucial part of the mining operations, and as such, these trucks drive back and forth from the mine to the port day and night, 365 days of the year. They drive through fog, snow, rain, and wind. Even when we cannot. Needless to say, frequent communication is a necessity for the safe navigation of the Red Dog haul road.

To facilitate proper communication, the mine has a central control office down at the port which monitors and communicates with every vehicle that travels along the haul road. This central office is known as the Port Hopper. Why Port Hopper? We have no idea.

Each morning, we start our day by sending a radio message to the Port Hopper.

“Port Hopper…… what is the status of the haul road?”

If the road is green, we are good to go. If it is yellow, we will try again once the fog does not look as thick.

When we leave the camp and drive onto the haul road, we call again.

“Port Hopper…”

“Copy, this is Port Hopper”

“This is pick up 229 with the Park Service. We are traveling south on the haul road. We will not be traveling to the port and we will be stopping along the haul road to work for the day.”


When we hear copy, we can drive south. The road is riddled with pot holes. Red Dog has machines that grade the haul road at least twice a week. If it is dry out, these graders are followed by trucks that spray calcine, a dirt road binder, onto the road. These precautions decrease both potholes and road dust along the haul road. Yet the pot holes still pop up. Depending on the road conditions, it can take us over an hour to drive ~35 miles to get to our sites in Cape Krusenstern.

Along the road, there are radio check points. At each check point, we call over the radio the given check point and the direction we are traveling.

“Buddy Creek South.”


“MS-6 North.”

These checkpoints are often located along blind corners, or thinner sections of the road. They alert other drivers to oncoming traffic.

We also use the radio, any time we come upon road construction equipment. Road construction has the right of way. So we radio in.

“Grader…. This is pick up 229 at mile 15. Is it okay to pass on your left?”

“Go ahead pick up!”

There is a lot of talking on the radio. Needless to say, we are all very excited to start driving normally, where we don’t need to use a radio every minute. Despite this, there is one thing that we will miss: our favorite Port Hopper crew member.

We don’t know is name, but his unique style of communication and intonation brings smiles to our faces whenever we hear him say, “Poooort Haaaaper Goooo,” or “Caaaaaaapy.”

Watch out Corvallis, us ladies are going to return speaking proper radio voice procedure.



Over the Hump and On We Go

Today we are taking our first official break of the trip. It’s been well need as we have been going non-stop since the 9th of July. To top it off we finished our daily five plots yesterday at 5 pm! The day has been filled with mostly sleeping and a smattering of eating, reading and room organizing/laundry. Come tomorrow we will be refreshed and ready to tackle the last round of work—8 more field days!

Yesterday we forded our first river, it wasn’t much, only involved jumping, but crossing through the high willows was the greatest task. Usually bear safety seems fairly attainable as we are out in the open and constantly keep a look out over great distances. The willows however make one a bit more uneasy, who knows what could be lurking! Our solution was of course to make lots of noise and sing “day-o” or the banana boat song. Seemed to do the trick, we had no furry friend encounters and saw a beautiful flower lined steam.

Tomorrow we’re off to continue our work and soon finish the job.


Goodbye helicopter…. hello haul road!

On Tuesday, we took our last helicopter rides back to the mine after completing our reference plots. From now on, Elisa, Kali, and I will be accessing our plots via the haul road, where we will then park and hike in.

This las ride was a bittersweet moment.

Planning our days will be much easier without the helicopter. We no longer are concerned with the height of the clouds, the wind speeds, or visibility. Also, the amount of gear that we carry is reduced to half of its size. We get to stretch our legs and hike through the tundra.

On the flip side, Peter and our helicopter pilot have left us, so now it is just us three. We will no longer have the daily breath-taking aerial views of the Cape Krusenstern from the helicopter. The vegetation and lichens will likely be less diverse, and everything (including us) will be coated with a fine layer of dust from the road. Thank heavens that the mine camp has showers!

These less diverse plots will likely be quicker to complete. Our goal is to complete one group of plots, a “transect”, per day. Each transect consists of 5 to 6 plots. Weather permitting, we will likely be done with the work around August 1st.

Over and out,


Foxes, musk oxen, and bears – oh why

I see that Beth has alluded to the fact that I have a story about bears. Oh, do I. A couple days ago, Peter and I were dropped off at a plot. It was the usual—hot and buggy day on a beautiful Alaskan hillside. Shortly after dropping us off, Patrik swung the helicopter around and flew back to us. This was something new. He informed us of a bear down the way and assured us that he had deterred him to travel in a different direction but to be hyper aware. Patrik left us with his pistol.

We continued working on our plot with a set timer to do a bear check every 5 minutes. All was going swimmingly—we were cruising through our work and making our “funny” jokes. After some time, we felt somewhat confident that the bear had moved on. The binoculars around Peter’s neck were getting in his way. As he expressed his annoyance of the magnifiers—I did a quick scan with my regular old eyes—and sure enough there was the grizzly bear, about 250 m away. I exclaimed a phrase that was definitely not for our grandmas’ ears.

We have been adamant about having an air horn and bear spray on each of us. We stopped what we were working on—and convened for our next moves. Peter watched through the binoculars to have eye on him the whole time, he was in and out of the shorter willows—we loaded the gun and had our air horns ready. Normally, a bear is uninterested in pursuing louder noises, unless it’s a younger bear—younger bears can become curious. Of course, we had encountered a younger bear. We estimated that he was around 2 years old, he must have been ticked off that his mom kicked him out of the den. We blew our air horns. We could see his beautiful, dark face pop up through the willows. He was curious and was slowly make his way up the hill toward us. Noise wasn’t working—so it was time to start backing up the hill. I was quickly gathering the most important things and we started to back up and all of a sudden we heard the whirling of the helicopter. Cue the music…A TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY. We pointed to where the bear was and Patrik flew to chase him off. He later told us that the bear was running ~35 mph and we found out that we were close to and backing up toward his food cache. We were too close to his refrigerator. Upon hearing that—I had a blank stare and an awkward, fake smile. Patrik also mentioned, “…if you shot him in the shoulder, I mean, he still would have mauled you.” Thanks, Patrik, your blunt Swedish “advice” is noted.

Needless to say, helicopters are rad.

I have seen grizzlies, arctic foxes, musk oxen and caribou in my first week of being here. I have become somewhat of an expert of spotting bears from the helicopter. I’ve got an eye for those furry friends. If I go rogue, you can probably find me working with wildlife in the Arctic.

I have had a few very exciting last few days—an equally exciting soil post soon to come.