What the Fog?

It is 8:16 a.m. and we are grounded. If I were to walk outside, I would not be able to see more that 15 feet in front of me. The fog is that thick. There is a low-pressure system off of the coast that is supplying this warm and moist air that hangs stagnant over us. Until it lifts, we cannot fly or drive. So what can we do? Plan. Write blog posts. Sleep in the ‘dark’ (it isn’t sunny outside). Wait for the fog to clear so that we can start our day.

Over and out,


Why Helicopters?

Four kilometers may not seem like a significant distance if you think about walking it around town or on a hiking trail. Four kilometers is approximately, 2.38 miles. An average hiker could walk this in about 45 minutes. However, in the Alaskan tundra, 4 kilometers could take about 3 hours to hike.

Here, the terrain is riddled with lumps of grass (tussocks) that have 12-inch-deep troughs surrounding them. These troughs are often filled with squishy moss (usually sphagnum), that makes them feel even deeper. Between the tussocks and troughs, walking through the tundra can be treacherous and slow. On our second day sampling moss in Cape Krusenstern National Monument, it took us about 45 minutes to hike 1 kilometer through this terrain to get to a plot. When you are trying to complete vegetation surveys on 6 plots in one day (which can take between 1.5 and 3 hours each), hiking time becomes a real concern.

Enter the helicopter.

We are using a helicopter to access our more remote study plots and reference sites (areas are likely not impacted at all from the Red Dog Mine). These remote sites are amazing for two reasons: 1) we do not return from work covered in fine dust that had flown off of the haul road, and 2) lichens are abundant. Between the scavenger hunt for new lichens, the fun helicopter rides, and superb cookies from the mine, these days of fieldwork have been amazing.

Today wraps up our fifth day using the helicopter, and we should have completed all of our remote plots in two more days. After almost a full week of working with the helicopter, we now have the hang of it. We often “hot load” (load and unload the helicopter while the rotter is still on) in order to save time. And even though we no longer gasp with excitement with each new view and swooping turn, we still thoroughly enjoy it!

Stay tuned for Kali’s story about why she loves helicopters!

Over and out,


P.S. Kali says that helicopters are “rad”.

Hot Loading

Wednesday and Thursday were long days. After getting ready to leave around 8 a.m. on Wednesday we saw that the valley below, where all of our plots are, was blanketed by fog. This was no weather for flying, as number one, the pilot has to be able to see the ground to land. Then we tried to drive in with the red dog truck to still get some work in, but come to find out that the road was in “yellow” meaning no vehicles other than the concentrate trucks (ore trucks) are allowed on the road due to low visibility. We were grounded! No work possible. The fog did not let up until around 1 p.m. at which point we rushed to get in a full days work. Other than getting up early, working late is no problem in the arctic—the sun never goes down! We worked until about 10:30 p.m. getting back to camp at 11:30 p.m. I think I can say we were all dead tired. Thursday was a bit better, the fog let us start around 10 a.m., only getting to camp around 9 p.m. And finally the last couple days we have had early start times providing earlier returns.

Over the last week we have gotten helicopter travel down. This includes all cotton clothes (high melting point), a fire proof flight suit (nomex), a park service inflatable life vest equipped with survival gear including a personal locator beacon and finally a flight helmet to be able to hear and talk during flight.

Our time to finish a plot is getting shorter and shorter, from better plot gear organization as well as “hot loading” meaning loading into the helicopter when the blades are running.

I am finally getting the hang of and remembering to call Denali dispatch with the satellite phone each time we depart and land in the helicopter. And now avoid accidentally calling Bering Air—the helicopter company instead of dispatch…woops.

Tomorrow off to the reference or control plots in southern Krusenstern National Monument for 2 days then we’re done with all the helicopter sampling!!!


Patrik and the Ship

Today was a big day for the three of us. In fact, it’s what we have been waiting for. We woke up to thick fog that almost ruined our plans – but with motivation we set toward the Port to start sampling. In our two groups, we sampled two plots and then Peter got the call – Patrik, the Swedish pilot, was on his way in the helicopter (aka “the ship”). A helicopter – in Alaska – in the Tundra. This is the day we have been waiting for. Elisa and Kali were sent off  to one of the 4000 m plots with Beth and Peter close behind and set off to another 4000 m plot. Helicopter rides are where it’s at, especially with a fun but safe pilot. The doors are strangely light, the ride surprisingly smooth and the view is what one would expect – breathtaking. Each group encountered diverse plots today, rich with bryophytes and vascular plants. This pleased the lichen enthusiasts (let’s be honest—us nerds).

Although each day we may feel any combination of sore, sweaty, tired and itchy (mosquitoes seem to be starving here), I believe that I can safely say that we are humbled to be in such a great place studying such fascinating things with such a great team. Also, the group of folks that work at the construction camp, where we are staying, has been so extremely helpful and welcoming to us. We seem to stick out a bit – we get asked a lot where we are from. We are slowly getting the truck traffic lingo down, though—so from our muddy truck and from far away – some may even mistake us for miners!


Getting Comfy with the Mosquitoes in the Tussock Tundra

We have now had two days to sample in the field along the haul road. Today we walked all the way out to 1 km for a plot, it took about half an hour to get there because of walking through the tussock tundra. It is extremely hard to walk through, with your choice being either a hole to step in or a grassy bunch which is not stable, good thing all the “ground” feels like a couch when you fall.

Thank god for our bug jackets, they have made the clouds of mosquitoes manageable. Today we also split into two teams, with Kali and Beth trading off between myself and Peter. I think we are finally getting into a groove figuring out the most efficient sampling methods.

Tomorrow we start our first day of helicopter sampling. We will be leap frogging the two teams as the pilot can only take two passengers at a time. Hopefully we will get many plots done and start to see more lichen diversity!


Arrival at Red Dog

On Saturday the 8th, we took the smallest plane any of us had ever been in to get to Red Dog. It was about a 45 min flight that was breathtaking, we saw the Alaskan arctic from the sky! So many bodies of water everywhere. Now we’re here at Red Dog! Things are going well, today while getting trained on the vehicles we saw a female grizzly bear with two cubs! Fortunately this was from the car.



Sleep Deprivation, Sled Dogs, and Bear Spray: Adventures North of the Arctic Circle

Yesterday, Beth, Kali and I departed OSU to begin field work in Kotzebue, Alaska. Kali and I were envious of Beth’s ability to fall asleep in both cars and airplanes. We were fortunate to have window seating on both of our flights, and saw the Alaska Range filled with countless cirque glaciers.

We were greeted by Peter Neitlich at the small airport in Kotzubue, aka “Kots”, where he showed us the uniqueness of the town. We took a stroll along the water and had a nice, hot dinner. We continued walking after dinner and went to the Kotzubue High School where we watched Qatnut. Qatnut is a trade fair and a gathering of Inupiat dancers from the surrounding Arctic villages. It was great to get to see some of the local culture! They were quite the dancers and drummers.

We were told about how the full 24 hours of sunlight would be difficult to adapt to—and how correct that was! We all woke up to the sled dogs across the street howling, and were surprised to find out that it was 2 in the morning, despite the sun shining through the cracks in our window. After a night of restless sleep, we woke up and got right to work, after coffee—of course. We began by going to the cache to gather the gear for the project. We packed and labeled the gear, and got to “play” with the equipment that we will be using in the field. We also got to pick up our helicopter flight equipment! This was definitely a high-point for some of us.

Midday, we realized that it was time for us to make sure that we were best prepared for bear protection. We selected a spot to practice using bear spray. Peter led the way in showing us how to be experts. After each of us got our turn to spray, we realized that each of us had some capsasin residue that got onto our persons! Kali started sneezing, and I jumped in the shower. We washed our clothing from that experience… hopefully we got it all, and won’t need to use our new-found bear spraying skills in the field. We just ate dinner and are finalizing the plans for tomorrow morning. We fly to the mine at 8 a.m.

Elisa (w/ Beth & Kali)

Alaska Bound!

Red Dog is the largest zinc mine in the world. It is situated northeast of Nome Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle! The mine has been running year long since 1989, where raw ore is transported from 75 km inland to the port, with the last 32 km of the haul road passing through the Cape Krusenstern National Monument. Metal levels and impact to the surround area are of interest and have been previously measured twice by using moss tissue and lichen diversity. Elisa Di Meglio, Kali Melby, and Beth Rutila began the third round of sampling on July 7th, which will be detailed in this blog through photos and journal style entries. Enjoy!