I Prayed Bernoulli Was Right!
Sunday evening I flew out to Noorvik, a village located just north and west of Hotham Peak and south of the Brooks Range along the Kobuk River. The pilot was interesting and new to me (Irish perhaps?). We began our take off on a lesser-used runway. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable I can be with change until found myself flying with this new-to-me pilot on an unfamiliar runway. I looked out the window towards the wings and struts, comforted by the familiar rivets of this particular plane. I prayed Bernoulli was right.
The flight in all honesty was fantastic! We took off in a southerly direction and parallel to the shore which gave an excellent and expansive view of the Kotzebue Sound. Except for about one mile of open water along the shore, the sea ice stretched out unbroken until, in the distance, there was nothing left to see but an even larger expanse of the Arctic Ocean sea ice.
Further upriver and east, tundra water is a dark tannin color, the color of deeply pigmented and dried, rusty moss. The thawing waters stretch out in this color, with a broken patina of frozen waxy white on top. In this betwixt state, many of the rivers and tundra lakes look like large leopard skinned agates spilling out across the flatlands.
We landed in Noorvik the way the birds do…with a slight hesitation just before setting the legs down. The pilot came in at such an acute angle I began to wonder if we might run out of airstrip before the plane came to a complete stop. Our pilot floated in like a crane. We had plenty of room.
At the airstrip, I was greeted by one of the Health Aides who carried the key for the place I’d be lodging in (the home of a colleague). There was a note written on the envelope inviting me to make myself comfortable and avail myself of the homemade yogurt, mixed fruit and freshly picked cranberries (lingon berries in my own Swedish tradition). I did as bid, and then set out to village work.
A couple of hours later, and in need of a break, I pulled out a bird book, walked down to the river with my binoculars and took another close-up look at Alaska.
The paths down the hill are sandy, wet in the low areas, with many signs that 4 wheelers on their way to the water went ‘round (thus widening the puddle), or had been stuck in the muddy trail. I had to walk tippy toe in the mucky parts or by clinging to the tough and pliant willow whips while keeping to the narrow and grass tufted margins. A couple of times I decided to take a more direct route, through the drier brush. In the thicket, I found broken paths about the height and breadth of a large man. I chose one path heading the general direction I wanted to go then began walking easily through the pre-cleared tunnel. Within a yard or two of the entry, the willows unexpectedly gave way to a wider clearing, perhaps a 6′ x 6′ space littered with bolus moose droppings.
A Moose‘s bedroom! I felt somehow invited, but also intrusive, as though the occupant would soon return and want to rest without company. I checked to make sure the scat was actually dried and old, then ventured on with confidence. I hoped to catch a better glimpse of the songbird that seemed to be following, yet also eluding me.
I must have wandered into the Moose’s living room at that point. So many animals live at the edge of water here. I happened upon a pond full of Equisetum or Horsetails (a plant species of prehistoric origins) and several wetland birds, more moose scat (fresh this time), and recent hoof marks. I hesitated and proceeded with more caution, but as any diehard birder would do, I came to my senses and stepped boldly forward into the kitchen as it were, hoping to catch “just one more bird” for the lifetime list…. even if it meant the end of that lifetime. What a way to go!
I survived however, and by the river’s edge, where the brush opened to powdery sand, I sat overlooking a small cove, a nearby bank, and low-lying flatlands across the river. Here a flock of Sandhill Cranes called out in sounds described by some to be between those of a French horn and a squeaky barn door. I watched as a group of about 17 of the giants took to the air, necks outstretched and leading the way over the Kobuk River. I wondered where they were going so urgently this sunny midnight.
With that signature moment, and a suddenly cooler breeze, I headed back to lodgings and sleep. I stopped to take one last look for the small and nondescript bird, this Virgil to my Dante. As though to bid adieu, the bird posed in full view not more than a few yards away. By binocular I could see the crimson spot on its forehead, the only distinct feature on this otherwise unremarkable creature. This tiniest chakra identified my little friend as a female Common Redpoll. I could call that a day.
There were more sightings in Noorvik, between working moments and up until my return flight. I waited out at the airstrip, binoculars in hand, chatting to residents who came to pick up cargo or passengers.
The way home was by Cessna 207, possibly the smallest of the Bering Air fleet. Only the pilot and I were aboard for the trip back to Kotzebue. What a gorgeous view though! Tundra swans stood out like the fuzzy white spots on dotted swiss skirts. Flowing rivers coiled and tapered to nothing. It was as if someone had mixed two batters, one dark, one light, then swirled. We passed back over the leopard skin agates and pelts, back over the cracked and rusty tundra, the waxy and granite waters, back to the fragile gravel spit we call the Baldwin Penninsula and home.
Gidget met me at the door as she always does. She wags so excitedly I have dubbed her the Helipup and my home, the Helipad. She nearly takes off as I lift her up for a proper greet.
It feels good to be here. Life is good.
Near or far, simple or complex, bird-by-bird, in fair exchange, I’d love to hear about the details of YOUR life. How do you learn to land softly in a bumpy world? Nothing is ordinary when we look with wonder.
More tomorrow then…
Jennifer and The (small but large hearted) Arctic Chihuahua