26 March 2009
I have arrived in the booming metropolis of Pevek, a small mining/port town on a bay off of the Arctic Ocean. We've been here for 3 days now and are settling in for a few more before taking off for the Lake. Our travels so far have been quite interesting...
Upon arrival in Moscow, we met Marianna, our Moscow host and project "guardian angel". Apparently, she has made many arrangements and pulled many strings to make this project possible. She works for the Russian Academy of Sciences, which has been a large logistical supporter of this project. In Moscow, we also met up with the rest of our group. We now total seven: Four Americans including one middle school teacher from North Carolina and a curator from the final core storage facility, two Germans who will be dropping data loggers into the boreholes to measure various physical properties of the sediment, and one German-Canadian who is an ice engineer and in charge of the stability and strength of the ice. We are a cheerful and flexible group, which is turning out to be a very good combination, as we are ending up with a lot of free time to spend together....
Our visit in Moscow was brief, but eventful. Marianna arranged for us to visit the US Embassy for a short presentation on the project. The event was very well attended and everyone was extremely excited to meet us. Even the Ambassador came for a bit, and said a few words in support of science and international cooperation. Then we got on the plane again for a ~11 hour flight to Pevek - across nine time zones, but still in the same country!
The flight from Moscow to Pevek runs once every three weeks. It is primarily used by mining companies to bring workers back and forth. The rear seats were full of supplies, groceries, and cargo, and the front of the plane was mostly men, some liquored, all bundled for work on the north coast.... The scenery out of the plane window was whiteness and flatness, forever. We made one stop in Sergut for a midnight refueling and arrived in Pevek the next midday.
Pevek is a fascinating place. The surroundings are gorgeous - situated on the frozen bay, with large hills all around, and an island not far off shore. However, the town itself is a pit. I'm relieved that I'm not here in the summer, since most of the mess is now covered with snow. Having been through Bosnia and seen the remnants of the Balkan wars, I thought I had seen the most depressing cities I would ever see in my life. At first glance, Pevek tops all. It strongly resembles the Balkan cities in architecture (mostly concrete), and is decomposing in a way that resembles those bombed out and bullet pitted buildings of past war. The difference is that Pevek has not seen war lately. The city started in the 1930s with the development of gold mines in the area, and reached its peak population in the 60s and 70s at around 10,000 people. Now there are less than 3,000, and most buildings are abandoned to the elements. If there are inhabited buildings, they are hard to spot - mostly you look for the telltale bag hanging out the window - this is the freezer. Most homes leave a window open in a room closed off with a blanket for a refrigerator, and hang a couple of bags outside to keep frozen items.
But the bright side of Pevek is the people. Even though their city looks like it has been through nuclear war, the people dress as though they are headed out for a very fancy dinner in Moscow: Fur coats, huge fur hats, HIGH heels, leather purses, etc... If you find a store - very hard to do since the buildings look abandoned from the outside and there is very little signage - the interior is very thoughtfully decorated, clean, and hospitable. The residents seem to take personal care very seriously, and leave community property to the dogs. As someone at the lake said "Pevek is a slum whose inhabitants define high fashion". Very apt. As I'm here longer though, I can see the strategy for the high heels - there is some serious ice grippage needed on these sidewalks, and probably the heels work as well as an ice pick...
Every day we eat an afternoon meal in a mining company building. We walk into what looks like an industrial building, complete with junkyard, metal gate, guard dogs, etc. But upstairs there is a room with a very sparse kitchen and a table set for seven. There is a woman who cooks for us every day and the food is delicious. It's greasy and heavy on the meat, but very good. When we're done, we pass large wolf-like dogs in the hall who are waiting for our leftovers.....
I'm glad for my very limited Bosnian vocabulary, because there are many Russian words that are the same or similar - even if I can't understand the alphabet. Although, I have not yet heard any Pevek village music... I'll have to ask around.
Well, that's the news from Pevek. We are all very excited to get to the lake, and should be going by early next week. Until then, All the best, Addie.
ps. A reminder to check out Tim Martin's blog (the teacher) - he's updating regularly with lots of pictures!
31 March 2009
Lo! Greetings from lovely Pevek once again...
We are becoming known among the locals. All of the shopkeepers now know us as the bright-red-parka-clad westerners who come in and point and buy up all of the fruit and water. Its amazing what can be accomplished with sign language. We had a very interesting visit at a consignment shop in town, whose owner invited us in for pivo (beer) and Japanese dried fish crackers. We stayed for over an hour and had great conversations in neither English nor Russian....
I have actually come to rather like Pevek. For certain, it is a town of polarity (not just because of its latitude)... the fur coats among the coal dust, the brand-new fancy school next to the abandoned and decrepit apartment buildings, the seven enormous port cranes and giant coal pile against the stunning arctic coastal backdrop. And of course the dinner dogs - at first they look like flesh eating bloodthirsty wolves, but are really just looking for reindeer stew leftovers, a nice pat on the head, and somebody's face to lick... usually Jochem's - he's the vegetarian in our group. :) Its funny how being in a place for a while lets you ignore the ugly stuff and concentrate on the positive - which, I imagine, is how all the residents of Pevek are able to survive here.
We leave tomorrow for the lake. we've received our balok assignments and it looks like the ladies' balok will be comfy-cozy with up to four of us squeezed in at a time. I'm also learning more about what my days will look like from Kristina, who has been on drill rigs like this before. I am assigned to the night shift (which is not much different from the day shift when there's 20 hours of daylight!). There are two shifts per day, 12 hours each, while drilling is happening. The hope is that drilling will continue non-stop until the beginning of May! On each shift, there is an American drill operator assisted by a few Russian drillers and two core processors (me included), who will help with packag! ing the cores. The Russian drillers are learning how to use the drill rig because, once we are done with it, this drill will be donated to the Russian Academy of Sciences (Far East Branch) for use in future Russian projects.
On Sunday, we took a lovely hike to the top of the mountains that surround Pevek. From the top, there are really great views of Pevek and the bay. Long after dinner walks like these have helped with digesting dinner as well as keeping our bodies primed for the work we have waiting for us at the Lake.
Thanks to all of you who have sent notes along... I really appreciate hearing news from home - even if its full of spring gardens, crocuses, birds singing and all of the things that I won't see for another while yet.... but that's ok :)
5 April 2009
Greetings finally from Lake El'gygytgyn!
Apologies in advance for minimal photos - I have to keep these posts very small...
After a gorgeous helicopter ride via Billabino to pick up drill parts, we are finally here! As we flew in, the helicopter took us over camp, out over the rig on the lake and back into camp to land. We could see everyone gathering at the landing spot to welcome us (the photo is my first view of them through the helicopter window). Since they've been waiting without work for days for our helicopter to come with the parts, they were very anxious to see us! We got in at 2pm, had a ~20 minute pow wow with the folks taking the helicopter back to Pevek, and then waved goodbye to our connection to civilization.
I arrived on Wednesday, and it is very very early Saturday morning. I am writing from the night shift on the drill rig. There are two shifts a day, with crew changes at 8am and 8pm. There is still a substantial amount of darkness at night here, but it is decreasing rapidly. Its mostly dark by about 11pm and starts to get light by around 5:30am. The work is sporadic depending on how drilling is going, how much core is recovered, etc. Sometimes we're working pretty steadily to process cores, and sometimes we have long stretches of free time. Like right now. When there is core coming up, the science team is responsible for cutting the cores into sections, sampling and preparing smear slides, capping, taping, and labeling the cores. Its pretty interesting, and I'm learning a lot about how lake cores are collected. I'm also learning a ton about large drilling operations. Tonight, we're helping the drillers to mix mud. They use the mud to inject into the hole to keep it open and free of sand so that the coring tools can go down more easily. And during the day, our German data logger friends who travelled with us from Pevek will be dropping logging tools down into the hole to measure various physical properties. In order for them to make their measurements, the hole must stay open and clean... hence the mud (clear as mud?).
During the time that I'm not at the drill rig, I've mostly been sleeping - trying to get my body used to the night shift schedule. But I've experienced some of the finer points of camp life. Camp is on the lake shore, about 7 km from the drill site. We take a bus or a vezdahut back and forth from the rig to camp every day. Camp is made up of about 18 baloks on either side of "Gutov Avenue". 2-4 people sleep in each, plus one for the office, one for the kitchen and dining room, and one for the banja. Everything is very comfortable and clean, the food is really good (if repetitive), and the view is spectacular. But the banja is our luxury. It is a three room building with increasing heat from one end to the other. In the first room, you change your clothes and get ready to wash. In the second, there is hot and cold water and wash basins to wash yourself or your clothes. And the third room is the wood/coal fired sauna. When it is officially running, it is way too hot for me. But after several hours of cooling, it is quite pleasant. Yes, the banja makes it all worth while.
I have mostly gotten to know the folks on my shift. I don't see much of the day shift: only during crew changes. But the night shift is an interesting crew. We consist of an American drill operator and his two Russian assistants, plus three on the science team (including me). We are also visited fairly regularly by two Chukchi men who live in a balok next to the rig and drive the vezdahut when we need it. Early this morning, they brought in a few fish from the lake and began to serve them raw to everyone in the rig. I was not feeling particularly gastronomically adventurous at the moment, but it was an unusual encounter, for sure! Its very weird to work nights. I still can't get it into my head that when I wake up for breakfast, most everyone else is winding down for the day. At my breakfast table, I'm asking others - "so, what did you accomplish today?" When I have supper, other people are wiping the sleepy grits out of their eyes.... I'm sure some of you are familiar with this feeling, but its new to me.
Well, another morning and it's time for bed. It is coldest this morning since my arrival... still, a balmy -25 F! Stay warm y'all -
11 April 2009
Greetings from the night shift again. It turns out that the science team has a lot of extra time on the rig these days. We help the drillers with what we can - mixing mud, cleaning up and organizing tools, running the wet/dry vac to keep water on the floor from turning to ice, etc, etc. But we also spend a lot of time entertaining ourselves. Besides very studious activities such as reading up on my organic geochemistry and working on my thesis proposal, :) we play cards, dance to electronica, tell jokes, play yahtzee, take pictures, and run outside to monitor the night sky. The moonrise has been phenomenal, as well as the amazing light it casts over the lake all night - and last night, the aurora made an appearance! With the brightness of the full moon and the light from the ever setting/rising sun on the horizon, the stars are not very impressive. But, aside from stars, there is plenty to watch out there these nights.
Kristina and I have learned a great Russian card game called "Durak". It took a while to grasp, since we learned it from Zhenja the vezdahut driver, who has no English. But after a couple hundred rounds with lots of sign language, I think we're finally getting it. The point of the game is not to win, but to avoid losing. For the one who loses becomes the "Durak", or the "Fool". So far, I am well acquainted with that role. (Photo: Fools Addie and Vladi)
It looks like coring activities should pick up in the next couple of days. A helicopter arrived yesterday bringing our next drilling crew and a new mud pump, and a convoy of trucks arrived with a container full of dry mud. After some down time dedicated to thawing frozen water lines and setting up the pump, we are back to drilling! It is still slow going, but we are getting core....
During the slow time, we on the night shift got a night off...this meant that we were able to take advantage of a few sunlit hours (when we would otherwise be asleep) to go for a hike around camp. Kristina and I went with Tim Martin up the slope of the crater toward the rim. Up on one of the benches, we could more easily see the geography of the lake. It is really hard to tell from down below where the lake ends and the shore begins, but a crow's eye view affords a much clearer picture. The wind has blown much of the snow off of the hillside, so we were also able to see what the ground is made up of. Mostly it is loose gravel with very small low-growing plants. But most exciting - we found a few shards of impact glass! This is glass that was formed during the meteorite impact from extremely high temperatures and pressures. It is shiny, black, and slightly translucent. Very cool!!
Our night off also gave us the opportunity to meet some of our fellow camp mates who work the day shift. Several people kept us company into the night with a little help of vodka and beer, and we traded songs and stories. Grisha, a professor from St. Petersburg who has been here at the lake since October, graced us by belting a few traditional Russian love songs. I was struck by the similarity to the Bosnian sevdalinka. I asked if it was a happy or a sad love song, and he replied that in the song the woman is dying and the man is grieving. Of course...it could be no other way.
So it has been a fun-filled week at Camp El'gygytgyn. In a few days, we will say goodbye to eight of our team, since many of them have been here for almost the duration of their Russian visas. Tim Martin will also be leaving, which is very sad since we are so grateful to him for his detailed daily blog and endless energy. If you haven't looked at it already, I highly recommend Tim's blog (even though I haven't been able to see it yet!). The ICDP blog is also being updated daily right now, with details on drilling activities and technical updates.
Thanks so much for all of your notes and warm thoughts. Reading emails from home feels sort of like curling up in front of the wood stove...I can feel the warmth from here! :)
19 April 2009
Greetings from a slightly quieter "Camp E"...
Eight of our team left a few days ago, including three of our drillers, two of the science team, our German down hole data loggers, and Tim the science teacher. We miss them terribly, but some of them have been here for almost 3 months!! So, it's time for them to go home. Here's a photo of the whole group.
It has been an eventful past week in this winter-hinterland. The most exciting event was finally encountering the impact breccia! This is the first evidence of the meteorite impact below the lake sediments. It has been a mixture of hard rock, red sand, and very angular gravel. The current theory is that this material was blown out of the hole at impact and fell back in as a hot, smoldering mess. Some of this material is very rough on the coring tool we're using, and after a few days of drilling into it, we need new parts. Some will be coming on the next helicopter, but there is also a mining company nearby that has a few. This is a Canadian company based in Pevek, and they have been extremely helpful and generous with parts, pumps, and other supplies that we've needed throughout the expedition. So, we should be getting a shipment tomorrow. Meanwhile, we wait...
Waiting means that Kristina and I have switched to day shift hours so that we can help with daytime activities. Tonight we will attempt to get back to a more nocturnal schedule so we can be ready for drilling to begin again. Yesterday we spent most of the day chipping ice from around the base of the drill rig and hauling the ice chips to the edges of the ice pad on a big sled. The crew was working to jack up the rails that the rig sits on to make sure that in a few days we'll be able to move it to another spot on the pad and drill another hole. It felt really good to be out in the sun and working hard - down to my sweater! (Ahhh, vitamin D is a good thing.)
Today Julie, Kristina, Zhenja (the vezdahaut driver), and I took a trip to the other side of the lake. There is a cabin on the southern shore that is used by hunters and other lake visitors, and it was used one summer six years ago as a science base. Julie and a bunch of others came out for 3 or 4 months to monitor various lake properties through the unfrozen season. A weather station was installed next to the cabin to collect various meteorological data. Our task today was to dismantle it. With lots of help from Zhenja, we were able to take almost everything above the ground out, which required a lot of shoveling and snipping of wires. Zhenja's dogs, Gerda and Boss played around us, stole a bandana and chased each other, and then ran beside the vezdahaut all the way home. I got to sit in the front with Zhenja - what an awesome ride! It moves across the snow so smoothly - apparently it can go in water too! But it's a rough rig. The wayback is pretty smoky and there aren't exactly seats. It looks like a work in progress - all welded and wired together with seemingly significant panels and parts hanging loose and flapping with the wind. It's also brimming with tools, which makes me think that 1) it could break down at any moment, and 2) Zhenja would be prepared to fix it then and there. It was a great trip and a gorgeous day (+1 C!), but we're hoping there won't be many more like this because it will cut our drilling time short if the ice starts to melt.
I have been under the false impression that this place is lifeless during the frozen months. It just seems so inhospitable to any warm blooded critter that doesn't have a nice warm balok to crawl into - or a banja in which to suffer the hottest @!#% temps ever recorded. Turns out, I was very wrong. The other day we went for a walk and saw a Wolf!! It was keeping a healthy distance, but keeping a very close eye on these new lake residents. We ran across its pawprint too - Giant. As big as my hand! We also saw some caribou prints and a white bird. Yesterday, while we were moving ice, there was a blackish bouncy animal out on the lake. I'm still not sure what it was - maybe a silver fox, or what a few people have referred to as a "racoon dog" (whatever that is - wolverine?). According to Grisha, we can look forward to caribou sightings as we get closer to spring. Apparently, we are on their spring migration path and thousands will pass through very close to camp in about a month. That will be a sight... I hope we're still here!
This next week we'll be attempting to recover as much of the impact rock as we can. (Photo: Kristina and Vladi during "hard rock" coring.) Then the plan is to pull out of this hole, move the rig a few meters, and poke another hole to try to duplicate the lower section sediment core that we have gained since my arrival here. We'll drill until the beginning of May or until we run out of drilling mud... whichever comes first. It feels like I haven't been here long, but the end is already in sight!
As I'm signing off it is beginning to snow - I guess that means it's below freezing again, phew. Tootaloo, Addie.
21 April 2009
Things are moving very slowly here these days. We're still waiting for parts and mud (as usual - it's amazing how fast we cruise through mud), and it looks like the mud will arrive tonight by truck convoy and the parts will arrive by helicopter on Thursday or Friday. So, that means that we won't be able to start drilling again for a few days yet. Therefore, camp is full of a whole bunch of underproductive scientists and drillers. This translates to a lot of movies, walks, banjas, coffee, photoshop projects, and sleeping. So far today, we've already watched Crocodile Dundee parts 1 & 2, and its only early afternoon.... are you jealous yet? Its very odd to watch Mick Dundee, in his amazing tan and snakeskin vest, fighting crocs and Columbian drug lords while I'm sitting in the vast wilderness that is northern Siberia...
Free time at camp has also given me a chance to pontificate more deeply on life at Camp E - and to put my reflections into blog form. It astounds me every time I walk down "Main St." to the dining balok that this place exists as it does. Here we are, in one of the most remote places on Earth, enjoying comforts that rival even the barn at 268 Turners Falls Rd. We have warm baloks, relatively comfy beds (if you don't mind FIRM), internet and phone connection, endless coffee and tea, three very full meals a day, a splendid view, smiling faces, movie nights, the banja, and walks. That said, there are plenty of things to be missed (not in any specific order), such as a heated bathroom, a bathroom with a seat and a neutral smell, good beer, the wood stove, spring peepers, not having to put the giant parka on to go to the kitchen for a snack, fruit, popcorn, (too many other food items to list), banjo, lambs ... I think I'll stop before I get too nostalgic ... The funny thing about camp is that unless its an unusually warm day, we hang out inside. This means piling into the office balok, which is very small, or holing up in our sleeping baloks. Walking through camp can seem very lonely and desolate when the wind is blowing and the temps are cold. It is also pretty noisy with generators and vehicles running, and often quite smelly when they burn garbage - especially the bathroom garbage. Here we are in this vast expanse of a place, and most of our time is spent inside very small confined spaces - be it balok or drill rig. Which is why it feels so fantastic on the nicer days to bundle up and get out and walk. Even just a 1/2 hour walk from camp, and it almost disappears into the landscape. This place is so huge and overwhelmingly white that our row of accommodations (and the key to our survival) is very quickly reduced to an insignificant blip on the lake shore.
Mealtimes are definitely the highlight of camp life (as they should be). I am very impressed by the food here. For certain it is repetitive - at every meal you are posed with the question, "rice or macaroni?" Beyond that, there are no choices. You get rice or macaroni with some sort of meat and sauce with lots of butter. I have discovered, to my delight and the cooks' endless amusement, that there actually IS another choice: gritchka (buckwheat). This option is not offered to the non-Russians because it is thought that we won't like it. But I do - and the ladies in the kitchen giggle every time I ask for it. Each meal starts with soup, which is often leftover meat and potatoes in a delicious broth. The second course is a bowl of grain, meat, and if we're lucky, there's kupusta (hot or cold sauerkraut). The sauerkraut often has carrots and lots of onions in it. The meat varies between fish, beef, chicken, tongue, and patties of an unidentifiable source. Often, I have a hard time guessing the meat source. One evening, I was sure I was eating fish when I was informed that it was actually kangaroo - I'm still not sure that I believe that one. But usually, it all tastes good enough that I don't need an ID. Better to enjoy rather than question, right? And it feels like I'm getting an authentic Russian cuisine experience.
Speaking of authentic Russian experiences... I'm realizing that there is a theme to temperature extremes around here. We may be in a very cold place, but the Russians seem to (over)compensate in a few different ways. My realization began in Pevek when I took my first shower. You would think that, in such a cold place, there would be a limit to the hot water availability. You would be wrong. Pevek tap water is like running your hands under a whistling kettle. You could make tea straight from the tap! In the shower, you have to turn the cold faucet to full blast (a trickle) and the hot faucet half a millimeter to mix it just right. And if anyone in the building uses the sink or flushes a toilet, you get scalded. A cold shower is unpleasant, but bearable. A hot shower is not even bearable. As Joey the driller observed (and I quote), "That (bleep) is hot enough to (bleep)ing peel the paint off a (bleep bleep)ing car!". This philosophy definitely extends to the banja here at camp, which is so hot that during official "banja time", I stand outside the hot room with the door open and the sweat just pours off of me. I can't possibly step inside, for fear of instant 3rd degree burns and simultaneous heat stroke. It's like walking into a house on fire. I have to wait two days for it to cool down enough to be enjoyable. And bathing is not the only experience for which Russians demand extreme high temperatures. It extends further to their hot beverages. I swear that there is some additive to every water source that increases the boiling temperature to about 300 F. When the kettle boils and I make my tea, it takes about an hour for it to cool down to a temperature I can stand to put in my mouth. This makes breakfast a very long process. So, I wonder - maybe all of this extreme heat makes it possible to exist in such a cold place for a lifetime? Maybe the highs and the lows average out to something reasonable? I wonder if I would ever get used to it....
Well, I hope I have provided a small taste of the details of camp life. The relative warm weather seems to have brought about more wildlife sightings. I saw a small bird hopping around camp the other day, lots of little scurrying tracks in the snow, and a big black raven (?) out flying over the lake. The blackish bouncing animal sighted from the rig has been identified as a wolverine, and its tracks have been seen on the hill above camp. However, today the wind has picked up and the weather is much colder. I hope the critters have all found a sheltered place to wait it out.
Thanks again for all of your notes and reactions! It's great to know that people are so interested in what we're doing here. As of today, over half of my trip has passed. That means I still have a lot more to experience, but I'll also be on my way home in a flash!
Ta Ta, Addie.
27 April 2009
Greetings from a blustery El'gygytgyn morning...
Wow. The weather just over the course of our last shift shows how quickly things can change around here. Going to supper (breakfast) last night, I was out comfortably in a sweater and a vest. It was sunny, no breeze, no clouds - a perfect evening. Then, as soon as the sun set a wind picked up, and it has been accelerating ever since. I went out to the outhouse at the rig this morning, and I could barely see it in the blowing snow! I had to zip my parka ALL the way up, which is quite suffocating if not absolutely needed. But I needed it this morning. I braced myself against the wind and peeped through my fur-lined peephole and trudged toward bladder relief. I hope that the bus from camp makes it across the snow dunes this morning...
We are busy again here at the drill rig on Lake E. The mud arrived, the parts arrived, and we have continued drilling the breccia. A new member of the team joined us on Wednesday (with the needed parts), Dr. Christian Koeberl from Vienna, Austria. He is one of the PIs of the project and specializes in impact rocks. The hard rock coring has been a very neat process to be involved in. Unlike the sediment cores, which are collected in "clear" plastic liners (rather opaque when you are looking for some sort of texture or structure to the mud), the rock cores are taken in splits. Splits are half metal tubes that split apart lengthwise when they come out of the pipe, leaving the rock completely exposed and ready to be transferred to a core box. It is the science team's job to open the splits, collect the rock into labeled boxes, keep it oriented, and with as little breakage as possible. The rock itself is a gorgeous light blue-green with chunks of red, yellow, white, and dark brown and black. There is a lot of metamorphic texture with swirls and stripes and melty-looking-bits (technical term). According to Christian, some of the chunks in the breccia were heated up to such high temperatures during the impact that they were completely melted and were captured in the breccia as molten blobs before cooling to their present state. It's a pretty wild and dramatic picture to imagine - great for GEO 101 students. Usually, geologic processes are explained in terms of thousands and millions of years, but this all happened in a matter of seconds!
I've enjoyed the change of pace from sediment to rock, but things develop fast around here, and we are on to the next phase of our drilling plan. Back to the sediments...
Not surprisingly, we are going through our last shipment of drilling mud at an astonishing rate. So in order to preserve some for the final drilling push, we've stopped the hard rock coring and are pulling pipe out of the hole tonight. Tomorrow, we will attempt to move the drill rig - not far, maybe just 10 meters, but far enough to get away from the zone of disturbance around the previous three holes (all within a couple meters of each other). Once the rig is moved, we will drill down to collect a replicate core of the bottom half of the sediment record. We're all crossing our fingers that the rig move will be successful. An attempt will be made to keep it entirely intact and just "shove" it a bit with the dozers. It should be an interesting thing to watch. However, I will be sleeping in preparation for the next night of starting a new hole!
After this shift, I will sleep well. Tonight Kristina and I helped to load some of the drill pipe to a big sled outside the rig. We stood outside for 3 hours and stacked 3 m pipes as they were handed out to us through a little hole in the rig wall. It was great. We've been itching for some exercise and heavier work - and we got to test out ALL of our extreme cold weather gear!! It was actually quite warm while the sun was still shining, but after sunset the wind picked up and the temperature dropped and it became very nippy. Cold enough for an appearance of the "dead squirrel hat", as Kristina calls it.
As I write, Joey the driller announced to us that he has pulled the last bit of drill pipe from the hole, only to find that eight pieces are missing from the bottom of the string - including the very bottom piece, which is really important for drilling the next hole. After some radio deliberation with folks at camp (rousted from a deep sleep), we are headed back into the hole to retrieve those pieces. This means many hours of running all the pipe back in, trying to thread back on to the missing pieces at the bottom of the hole, and pulling it all back out again. It will set us behind, but it is unclear what we can accomplish without those parts. And we are out of time to wait for new parts to arrive. I trust that the day shift will examine all of our options and come up with a creative solution. As we say here at Lake E: "If it isn't one thing, it's another". So very true...
If I take one thing home with me from this experience, it is that a positive, "can do" attitude can take you a long, long way. I have only been involved in this project for seven months peripherally, and in the details for just over a month. But in that time, I have been constantly surprised at how gracefully and effectively Julie and the other project members tease out solutions to every problem. Any reasonable, "realistic", or superstitious person would have given up on this project long ago. Ultimately, this is why Lake E has not been drilled before now. It sounds like it has been a never-ending, stress-inducing, psychotic thriller of a logistical battle to finally get a drill rig and a bunch of people out here actually on the ice and poking holes in the mud. From funding and budgeting issues to Russian customs challenges, to unexpected drilling problems, each new situation has posed its own seemingly insoluble riddle. Eventually, Julie says that she will write a book about her adventures, and I think she should.
But the inspiring part is how the project members deal with all of these hurdles. In spite of being constantly reminded that "it can't be done" or "it's totally impossible" or "things are different in Russia" (which is true), Julie and the other PIs maintain that there is a solution to be found for each unique problem. Even just in the field work that I have experienced, it seems that every couple of days we are faced with a problem that easily could be our last - without more mud or without that one drill part or another pump, there is no way for us to continue. And yet, in the middle of remote Siberia, having spent over a year arranging for transport and customs clearance of all the other equipment, we somehow manage to get the parts, the equipment, and the mud we need to get drilling again. It is phenomenal that we are even here, living in relative comfort at Lake El'gygytgyn. But that our drill rig, which was designed for (but never operated in) very remote and extreme cold weather conditions, is proving to be functional - and that we actually have sediment and rock to show for it - is extraordinary.
I think the moral is persistence, perseverance, and positive thinking.
Fingers crossed, Addie.
30 April 2009
Greetings from a slightly glum Camp E,
The decision was made this morning that we are done drilling. We went out with a bang, so to speak (don't worry - no injuries!), but sooner than we had planned. The rig move went great - it was accomplished in less than a morning, involved very little cleanup, and required only three dozers. The crew moved the container holding the generators first, and at the last minute (finding two large melt holes directly beneath the generators) decided to move the rig away from this weak point and toward the north by 7 meters. Everyone was very excited that the move was so brilliantly successful. We spent a half day cleaning up the platform and the ice pad while the drillers started to put in the casing for the new hole. That night, the casing was set and large diameter pipe was "tripped" into the hole (3 meters per joint of pipe). Yesterday, the smaller diameter pipe was tripped in. On last night's shift, we inserted small pipe to the depth at which we planned to start coring. At this point, we had to trip out the small pipe in order to switch the tool at the bottom, and found that we were missing 30 pipes from the bottom of the string! We put the pipes back in with a tool at the bottom that helps with "fishing" pipe out (see Joey modeling the tool), but when it came back up, 12 more pipes were missing. And the bottom few pipes were bent completely out of shape and a chunk was missing from the bottom. After deciding that the missing small diameter pipe was a lost cause, we started pulling out the larger diameter pipe. We got it halfway out, only to find that the last 40 pipes were disconnected from the string and lost in the hole!!
The drillers are perplexed on this one. Needless to say, usually the drillers take their pipe home with them, they don't leave it on the job site. Many ideas were flying this morning, including thoughts about the ice itself having moved during the last big wind (!), or the casing going into the sediment at an angle, or accidentally hitting the unretrieved casing in our previous holes, or etc., etc. The most compelling being that we were inadvertently poking holes into the sublacustrine lair of the cantankerous and peckish GYGY monster, who had finally had enough nudging and prodding and was ready for a lustrous luncheon. Apparently, there have been other instances when metallic scientific instruments have been violently pulled to the depths of this lake... now known as "Lake Eater".
Until last night, we were feeling very hopeful and optimistic about this last hole. It would have been awesome to be able to recover some more good core material covering that bottommost interval. But, as the funding agencies wrote in response to the news this morning, we have a lot to be grateful for and proud of for the work accomplished on this expedition. It ended in a way that we did not expect, but we knew that starting a new hole was risky and uncertain. And it is probably not a bad thing to start packing up a little early. So, somewhat glum but slightly relieved, we are all shifting our direction and some of us are redirecting our shift (switching to daytime work hours).
On a very happy note: I saw CARIBOU today!!! Sorry for the tiny dots in the picture - I swear they are caribou... They have started to migrate across the lake in gigantic herds. This morning there was a seemingly never ending group - maybe 300-400 - crossing in single file. A steady stream of lanky legs - some short and playful, some tall and purposeful - all stopped in the center of the lake to rest for a bit, and then moved on toward the west. A spectacular sight.
6 May 2009
Greetings from a much lighter Lake E...
These last few days have been jam-packed with activity. Once we decided that we were done with drilling and started demobilization, we had to work quick to get everything off of the ice while the weather held. Luckily, we had fantastic weather - sunny, still, and beautiful, with a light "warm" breeze from the south. If the weather had changed during tear down, it could have made for a seriously miserable experience. Not only was everyone working outside with no shelter, but we had rig parts scattered across the pad waiting to be put into containers and transported back to camp. One good blow, and snow drifts easily could have covered it all up. So, we are very thankful for our good fortune.
We got the entire drilling platform cleaned, packed up, and mostly off the ice in only three days! The first day was spent cleaning the platform - mostly scrubbing the drilling mud off of everything. That drilling mud got everywhere - I'm sure I've got a good layer of it lining the inside of my body too, from the looks of the rig. The second day, we got immediately into tear down mode. Russians, Germans, and Americans alike were crawling all over the roof of the platform pulling screws, tossing roof panels, and tearing down the tent like we were afraid "GYGY" might appear any second ready for another monster-size iron supplement tablet ... By the end of the day we had the roof and the walls all packed up and were watching the crane and the dozers do their magic with all the heavy stuff - the rig itself, mud tanks, big tool box, casing pipe, work bench, etc. The third day was mostly spent organizing the smaller pieces. Most of the detailed organizing and inventory will be done here at camp now that everything is off of the ice, but we were able to get most everything into the right container and ready for the long dozer trip back to camp.
After three days of working in the sun and the cold, I was completely whooped. I could probably have slept for three days straight. While the cranes and the dozers finished up with moving the big stuff back to camp, I stayed at camp and helped load the helicopter that came to take Christian (the impact rock scientist), Jerry (the drilling supervisor), Volker (the ice man), plus all of the rock cores back to Pevek. So, we are a much smaller crew now, but our remaining tasks are smaller as well.
Ice man Volker (there are two Volkers here) has put Kristina and I in charge of checking his ice measurements now that the ice pad is free of heavy equipment. This involves drilling holes through almost 2.5 meters of ice and measuring the thickness of the ice and the freeboard. The freeboard is the distance between the top of the ice and the level of the water, and it will change as more or less weight is put on the pad. On the artificially thickened ice pad, we always had positive freeboard (the lake water below the top of the ice), but if we drilled outside the edge of the ice pad the water would flow up out of the hole, which is called negative freeboard. Taking freeboard measurements is how Volker determined the response of the ice pad to the changing weight of the rig. If more mud was delivered or if pipes came out of the hole to be stored on the platform, then there was more weight on the ice pad and the freeboard on the pad would decrease. We were always well within our safety range, but he checked these measurements religiously. Now he is curious to see how quickly the ice pad will rebound now that all of that weight is off of the ice. Since he has left, we will take over.
I know many of you have been asking whether the abrupt end of drilling means that I will come home sooner? Not so. The planes from Pevek are few and booked solid. So even if we could get tickets on a sooner plane, it would be the one that left yesterday. The next plane is ours, in two weeks.
The next 9 days should be relaxed and interesting. We are helping Pavel, the Russian PI, with inventory of all of the parts and pieces. Everything will get shipped to the Russian Academy of Sciences (Far East Branch) in Magadan, Russia but will go via Pevek and Vladivostok. The containers must be inventoried correctly, or the shipping process may be seriously delayed and complicated. We are also enjoying continued fabulous weather (+5 C today - now we welcome it!) and more caribou sightings on the hills behind camp. I'm walking around camp in my crocs, and everyone is spending much more time outside lazing around in the sun (photo of the German post-doc Volker, me, and Kristina on the roof of our balok). This afternoon we will get another helicopter with the arrival of two radio media folks. They'll stay with us until the end to catch some interviews and sound clips of what we've been doing over the last few months. Too bad that the rig is down, but I think we'll be able to give them some good sound effects...
Hopefully, we'll also get in some hikes to the crater rim, a few more games of Durak, more caribou sightings, maybe a BEAR sighting (apparently they have been spotted on the ice!), and lots of laughter. Its funny how a situation like this always brings out bathroom humor. Perhaps it is the primitive living conditions that bring conversations back to the most basic things in life - food in, food out. Maybe it is the high proportion of men with too few women to check the conversation (though I doubt it). Likely, it is just that bathroom humor seems to "follow" me wherever I go. Zhenja, our nighttime card buddy, likes to play jokes on Kristina and I - and poop is a joke that transcends language boundaries. One night on the platform he brought us a handful of small shiny black things and offered them to each of us separately. To me, he drew a picture of a caribou doing its business. To Kristina (on the same piece of paper), he drew a picture of a sunflower dropping its seeds, as if these were flower seeds to eat! Of course, she was not fooled into trying one, but we did cut one open just to be sure (definitely not food) as Zhenja giggled at us in his understated way....
Just a reminder for those of you that are looking at the ICDP blog: In addition to the image of the day, there are also weekly reports in three languages that are posted with pictures and a summary of the week's activities. These are a more comprehensive view of the science and drilling activities throughout the project. So if you are interested, be sure to check those out!
11 May 2009
A final greeting direct from the "White Lake"...
In the Chukchi language, El'gygytgyn means "white lake". And it is certainly still living up to its name here in mid-May. We'll be boarding our helicopter to beloved Pevek in two days, so this may be my last post from the lake. It's a good thing we're leaving too, because this morning I found out that we are out of butter... I don't think we could survive here long without an ample supply. The cooks put it in everything, and most of us heap it on our bread like cheese - who needs long underwear when you've got saturated fat?? This last week has been relaxed, but with steady tasks involved in cleaning up around camp and getting the containers packed and ready for shipment. A few days ago, we went out to the ice pad again for a final cleanup and to collect the snow fences and the bamboo poles that were lining the ice road out to the site. Now that the wind is blowing again today, we would be hard pressed to find the road again without the poles! The drifting snow so quickly erases any evidence of our presence.
A couple of days ago, we took another trip to the cabin on the southern shore of the lake. Our purpose was to find another piece of the meteorological station that Julie, Kristina, Zhenja, and I had dismantled several weeks ago. At that time, we were able to dig to the ground and unscrew all of the available parts, but we left any cables that went into the frozen ground, as well as the frame that stretched out along the ground for 3 meters in each direction. We went back to collect another piece we had forgotten - the tipping bucket, which is a device used to measure rainfall events and amounts. It took most of the morning to find it. The project involved digging a series of 3-4 ft deep holes through very compact snow to locate a cable. Russian shovels suck in snow and we have all but destroyed our only decent aluminum snow shovel. We finally found the elusive tipping bucket, but not before digging many holes and trenches and following false cable trails. Oh, and I also got to ride on top of the vezdahut on the way back to camp...!
After the tipping bucket adventure, we explored the cabin and the beach. The cabin looks sort of like a cozy well-kept hunting cabin that might be found in the north woods (minus the woods). It has a couple of bunks, a long dining table, a cooking nook, and the funkiest wood stove I've ever seen. The funkiest part is that there is no wood in the area for 80 miles in any direction! So the wood for it has to be flown in, or found from disintegrating outbuildings, or scavenged from the cabin itself... seems a bit backward to me. There is also a well-stocked workshop of tools and a beautiful glass veranda, which was quite warm, even on an overcast and windy subzero day. The cabin is used by hunters and whoever else comes through the area. It sounds like a man from Pevek built it and maintains it, but it is free to use for anyone who can get here. It has a fantastic view of the lake, and sits very close to the outlet river. There are also a lot of leftover dry and canned goods from the expedition in 2003. Vacation spot, anyone?
Accompanying us on our digging and ice chipping adventures are two very nice people from a radio program called "Soundprints". They mostly follow us along during the various tasks that need accomplishing and they take sound recordings of interesting sounds and ask us questions. They are particularly interested in uniquely "Lake E" sounds, like equipment rattling around in the containers, or the vezdahut approaching and fading away, or drilling ice holes, or footsteps on snow, or the dining hall hubub... It is really interesting to find out what they are noting and what they think their audience wants to hear. Its hard for me to consider how to set up a radio show about something that seems so visually stimulating, but they obviously have a lot of experience and ideas which help them guide their audience in visualizing this place. They are constantly reminding us not to use the words "this" or "that", but actually describe the thing that we are pointing to, so that the audience is able to see it too... so hard to remember. It is a lot of fun to have them here, and it also helps me to work through my own personal closure around this experience as I find the words to explain it to them.
Today we performed another activity that meant a lot to me in the way of closing this experience: We hiked the crater rim. Ever since my first hike up behind camp with Tim Martin and Kristina, I have been looking at those mountains and wanting to see what is on the other side. I knew it would be at least a half day's hike to get to the top and back, and today young Volker, Kristina, and I took on the challenge. It was not the perfect day, very overcast and windy, but we could see to the other side of the crater, so we went for it. It is so amazing to see the crater from high up - even just from the foot of the mountains, it really starts to resemble a bowl-shape. But from the top of the mountains, the crater is obvious. And looking over the edge of the bowl is incredible! For weeks, I have seen only this lake and the mountains that surround it , but now I have seen beyond my immediate world... Beyond the mountains, there are MORE mountains!! From the top of the highest peak, we were in the clouds and couldn't see much, but the ride down was quick and gorgeous all the way. We mostly followed caribou trails down the steeper sections, and slid on our butts through the snow patches. It feels good to have conquered the crater rim; I don't think I would have felt right getting on the helicopter without that view. The photo shows our view from just below the peak - yes, those are my boots at the bottom, and you can just pick out the vague blog that is camp in the background.
I am having very mixed feelings about the rapid approach of this last helicopter ride, and saying goodbye to the lake and camp. On one hand, I am super excited to be making the trip home; but on the other hand, it will be very sad to leave this amazing place. As comfortable as we are here in this camp with our electric heat and internet access and 3 hot meals a day, there is a simplicity that I will miss. My tasks have been very basic and straightforward these weeks. I haven't had to make a lot of decisions, I don't use money, I've barely glanced at a web page, and the phone doesn't ring. I miss my routine at home, but it is neat to have such an intense break from it. It is also a wild feeling to know that we might be the only people (or the largest group of people) for over a hundred miles. We are responsible for every function in our little community - food, entertainment, work, emergencies, communication, shelter, washing - there is no one else to rely on, and every person plays a role in making this a happy group experience (in 3 languages, no less!). And then there is the landscape. The contrast of the mountains and the immense flatness of the lake are a sight to behold, for sure. But what I love is that each morning, it all looks different! From one day to the next, it feels like you are on a different planet - just from a change in the weather. The clouds move in and out, the wind blows from the north or from the south, sometimes the sun is shining but the wind blows so hard that you can't see anything but shadows and sparkling snow! I have always loved extreme weather, and this is the place to soak it up. During my last days here, I'm trying to internalize as much of this place as I can.
16 May 2009
Greetings once again from Pevek, fashion capital of Chukotka...
After a lovely helicopter ride on a beautiful clear day, we have arrived and are biding our time until our plane comes to take us back to Moscow. Pevek continues to be a hub of entertainment for the 13 of us. Our group consists of the remainder of the science team - German, Russian, and American, as well as our patient doctor from St. Petersburg. He has been at the lake since January with little more than a couple of scrapes and some back aches to keep him busy at his practice, which is good news for the expedition, but makes for a boring gig for the doctor. He has spent a lot of time (sport) fishing and reading these months at the lake. I think he is very excited to be heading home.
After an emotional goodbye to the dogs, Gerda and Boss, we got on the helicopter. Our departure was very ceremonious as the rest of our Russian camp crew (who are staying at the lake to break down the camp) and the vezdahut drivers saw us off with lots of smiles and hugs and trilingual "thank yous" and "good byes". They stayed at the pad and waved the helicopter over the mountains and away. The copter was full to the brim with people and their belongings - I stowed myself on top of the baggage and took a restful nap, lulled by the noise and the heat inside that strange bird. We took three Russian drillers and one cook with us in the helicopter and dropped them off at their apartments in Pevek.
The first night, we had supper at Pevek's only restaurant, the Ramoushka. It was a celebratory night, and we enjoyed our first non-camp meal. For some of us, it had been only 6 weeks, for others it had been almost 5 months! I chowed down on kapusta (cabbage salad) and, several helpings later, felt much restored. For the next couple of nights we went back to Gutov's junkyard, where the lady with the wolf-like dogs cooks delicious, if oleaginous, food for us. But tonight was the real treat: Vladi and the doctor cooked us a high class meal right here in our dormitory. Buttery potatoes and pork chops with caramelized onions and parsley and orange garnish. yum. We were all saying that its the best and most normal (to home) meal we've had since arriving in Chukotka.... it makes me excited for Dan's home cookin'.
We are enduring the sights and smells of Pevek - especially noting the differences since the last time we were here. Now that the snow has mostly melted, it has exposed all of the trash and debris that fill the streets and the alleys between buildings. I am realizing now that the snow provided such a clean and disinfecting blanket over the town, and now that it's gone, springtime Pevek looks even more outwardly horrifying than in winter. However, despite the trash and smelly ambiance, the town feels much more alive than it did in March. People are out walking the streets to soak in the sun, kids are playing on their bikes, grubby street puppies are playing in the trash, and there are enormous seagulls everywhere! These are a good reminder that we are on a bay to the Arctic Ocean, which is frozen yet, but there are some inlets that are starting to thaw - and we won't be taking any ice walks during this pass through Pevek... too risky.
We are quite a posse as we negotiate the sidewalks (utility corridors) of Pevek. Negotiating may be an understatement, since many of the sidewalks are elevated several feet off of the ground and have gaping holes where a tile or two are missing, or where the posts holding them up are bent to a dangerous angle for gaining a foothold. Wheelchair accessibility does not seem to be a major issue in the city's grand plan. The shop ladies recognize us by now, and are either happy to see us, or brace themselves for a lengthy and confusing transaction. The residents defy the mud and trash in the streets and continue to wear their high flashy boots and fine spring jackets with fur ruff. I feel very underdressed here.
Last night, we went to "The Iceberg", Pevek's own billiards club and movie theater, which is the nicest building in downtown Pevek. They have two regular pool tables and a Russian Billiards table, which is at least double the size of an American pool table. Plus, the balls are bigger and the pockets are smaller! Needless to say, it is a long game. We took up three tables for about 4 hours and drank lots of beer. Tonight there is an 80s & 90s dance party starting at midnight, which may seem late, but the sun is still above the horizon at midnight (note photo) - so it actually feels pretty normal to be heading out...
Signing off, from the sleepy town that never sleeps. I will definitely miss this midnight sun...