May 9: Elson Lagoon

Rotten Ice Team in Barrow

The Rotten Ice Team. In height order from tallest to smallest: Shelly, Bonnie, Karen, Julianne, Carie, and Monica. Photo by Carie

After all the time cooped up working hard in the lab, another field day was a literal breath of fresh air. But first we had to wait over an hour for our bear guard, who had slept through his alarm because he was out partying the night before because a large female bowhead whale had been caught by one of the local native whaling crews. We passed the time by packing up the sled, telling field stories, and taking increasingly silly photos.

Loading the sled

Loading up the sled with equipment. Photo by Carie

Waiting Montage

Entertaining ourselves while waiting for the bear guard to arrive. Photos by Julianne & Carie

Karen on the sled

Karen gets the show on the road. Photo by Carie


The team, two to a snowmachine, on our way out to Elson Lagoon. Photo by Julianne

We were so anxious to get out on the ice when he finally did arrive, that we didn’t discuss where exactly we were going with the bear guard (who was also supposed to be our guide), and it quickly became clear that he didn’t quite know where to take us. We wanted to get out into flat ice on Elson Lagoon, a large, shallow lagoon to the Northeast of Barrow which was to serve as our insurance policy in case sampling rotten ice later in the season did not end up being feasible on the Chukchi Sea. Without GPS coordinates to navigate to, our guard wasn’t quite sure what to do with us. After asking, “Elson Lagoon? That’s the one over that way, right?” He took us to the beach, and stopped.

Karen: “We want to get out toward the middle.”

Bear guard: “Where?”

Karen: “Like a half mile out, and away from freshwater input.”

He took us about 200m and stopped again.

Karen: “I think we need to get farther out.” Another 200m.

Karen: “Ummm, do you think it’s deep enough here?”

Bear guard: “Yep.”

Karen: “Does it get any deeper?”

Bear guard: “Nope.”

On Elson Lagoon

On Elson Lagoon. Photo by Julianne

So we unpacked the sled and started drilling, and after putting on the extender on the drill core, quickly drilled into mud, a mud geyser spurting out where normally seawater would gurgle up. The ice had frozen all the way to the muddy bottom of the lagoon. After working with the pristine, perfect ice of the Chukchi, this stuff looked gross, with a brownish sediment layer on top and a muddy, crumbly bottom. The ice felt more porous and slushy, more “rotten”. But it was easier to drill and work with, and where the Chukchi sampling day took nearly six hours, we were done within three at Elson Lagoon.

Elson Lagoon Coring

Left: Shelly hits mud in Elson Lagoon, “Yuck!” Photo by Carie
Middle: A core piece with Monica for scale. Photo by Carie
Right: Carie, Bonnie, and Monica taking measurements on some very muddy cores. Photo by Julianne

Work Montage at Elson

Working at Elson Lagoon. Clockwise from upper left: Carie takes measurements on one of the cores; Bagged core horizons; Karen, Bonnie, and Julianne drilling a core for temperature profiles; Carie taking notes; Our core barrel and other core drilling and measurement equipment; Bagged core samples melting in buckets. Photos by Julianne & Carie

It helped that it was, at least by Arctic standards, a beautiful warm day. I was able to take notes without gloves on, didn’t need to drive with my heavy parka (Shelly let me drive the snowmachine this time, wheee!), and we enjoyed the blue skies and lack of wind. We joked as we worked, passed around chocolate and cookies, and ribbed our bear guard (as he dished it back at us).

Shelly with the turkey basters

Shelly showing off our Very Scientific Sackhole Percolate Collection Apparati. Photo by Carie

Chocolate Break

Carie and Bonnie take a chocolate break while processing core pieces. Frozen chocolate is hard to eat! Photo by Julianne

Elson Drill Scene

The Drill Site at Elson Lagoon. Photo by Carie


We decided to build a monument of the discarded core pieces that we wouldn’t be taking back to the lab for analysis. Photo by Carie

It also helped that Shelly is a superhuman core-drilling machine.

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We celebrated the lovely day by taking a trip into town—leaving the historical NARL naval campus where the lab and scientist housing is located for the first time since arriving in Barrow—to get dinner. Bonnie made reservations at Arctic Pizza, which despite the name served everything from Chinese food to fish and chips to gyros to jambalaya, and of course pizza, and we sat there with views of the iced-over Chukchi sea to eat.On the way home, we noticed that one of the homes had a small flag on the roof, which we had been told marked the home of a whaling captain whose crew had landed a whale inviting the community over to partake in eating fresh whale meat. The yard—a pile of snow—was covered in moving box-sized chunks of whale skin and blubber, frozen from the cold. There was also a pile of whale tongue and whale steaks, a burlap bag filled with the whale’s liver, and another containing half of the whale’s heart. We talked to the captain and his Caucasian wife for a while about the whale, the hunt, the meat, and the traditions surrounding it. Members of the community would come by, take away chunks of meat, and help load it all into permafrost cellars to keep until the spring Nalukataq blanket toss festival, when the captain would distribute traditional muktuk to the community. As we drove away, we drove past another yard where half of the whale’s fluke was laying out on a sled along with other unidentified bits and pieces. The Barrow community has a quota of 22 whale “strikes” per year. So far Barrow crews had struck two whales, two of which were lost, the other two were in the process of being divided up and stored. Lost whales—such as a recently-struck whale that was “swallowed” by ice before the crews could pull it up to bring it back to town—sometimes bloat up and ferment and emerge later as the ice melts as coveted “stink whales”, which are then hauled up and divvied up as a special delicacy. It is striking that an activity that would seem horrifying in another context (whaling, of an endangered species no less) seems completely natural in this place where marine mammals have been one of few sources of food for native cultures for centuries.

The Rotten Ice Team in Barrow

Walking in town. Photo by Julianne

Top of the World

The Rotten Ice Team at the Top of the World. Photo by Julianne


Whalemeat frozen in someone’s snowy yard in downtown Barrow. Photo by Carie

We decided to not do another post-field processing-until-2-am night, and had a more relaxed evening that night, intending instead to get an early start and go at it fresh the next day


King Eider

A flock of King Eider ducks fly overhead, having just returned to the Arctic from their more southerly overwintering grounds. Photo by Carie

Karen Icehenge

Karen enjoys a zen moment next to Icehenge. Photo by Julianne

Baleen Palm Trees

Palm trees on the Elson Lagoon beach made from whale baleen. Photo by Carie

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