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25 July, 2002

July 25, 2002

RRRRrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Yes, the sound of a helicopter! At 11:30 this morning, the 2 person helicopter arrived at Camp Olak, we loaded my personal gear, I climbed in, and by 12:30 I was waving goodbye to Rebecca, Yumiko and a place I've grown to love.

With the whirring of the chopper blade above our heads and the roar of the engine behind our seats, we lifted off the ground and flew over the land I had been walking on for the last 7 weeks. As I looked out the mist-covered window, I saw how our air caused the cotton grass and pink plume flowers to bend slightly. We moved over lakes and marshes I had walked around and through. I saw ridges I enjoyed following, caribou trails left though the tundra grasses, red-stained ponds now dried with a crust of animal tracks across their surface, and some of the remaining birds I have come to know. I could see the loons dive and swim under the clear lake water, glaucus gulls roaming the skies in search of prey, tundra swan pairs moving north, and a golden eagle soaring through the air it seems to own. We watched a red fox zig and zag beneath us, unable to determine what the threat above him was. I saw the whiteness of caribou bones and antlers, troughs filled with stagnant water, rivers with exposed sand bars. I witnessed the tundra from above, rather than from within.

As I flew over, it was amazing at how much of the tundra I have come to know. The names of birds and the calls they make. The land formations - polygons, lakes, marshes, rivers, troughs - how they were formed and how that formation affects the water and plants to be found there. I feel I have a better comprehension of the big picture, of how predators and prey interact in a somewhat vicious, but more so, balanced manner; of how the weather directs the life activities of the plants and animals, and how this far northern geographic location directs all else.

I've had the chance to see the arctic tundra up close - to smell it, to touch it, to watch it. This seemingly desolate, barren wasteland is truly so alive. With its apparent harshness and toughness, it possesses fragility or delicacy I've not seen anywhere else. The climate, plants, animals, and even decomposers are so tightly interwoven, each with its own unique adaptations for survival in this environment, that the entire system is fragile and at risk. As I walked around and flew over the tundra , I saw human impact. I picked up occasional pop cans, Styrofoam and left over research equipment. I saw empty oil and fuel barrels left in piles, broken sleds left to decay and seismograph tractor track imprints left from explorations done years ago. Even in this remote area, humans have made their mark. Although I am not saying that this mark is destroying the natural balance, it is still a mark - it is this beginning of our reaching and exploring that now worries me. I have come to love this area - both for its harshness and its delicacy.

Throughout these seven weeks, I have learned so much, it is difficult to summarize or to put into words that are understandable, that will show the depth of my feelings and the excitement for this opportunity I've had. I've learned much, as I've said above, about the arctic tundra. I have learned much about the science process, at least in relation to field research. I recognize the dedication, determination and commitment scientists must have to gain the knowledge we utilize in decision making. I can now see more clearly how science skills of questioning and observing can be developed, and hope to successfully bring that vision with me into the classroom. And with all of that, I have had the opportunity to learn more of myself - my limitations and potentials, my interests, and my weaknesses.

I believe the tundra and camp life taught me three valuable lessons - how gratifying it is to share, how worthwhile patience is, and how simply happiness can be found. As the summer began, the things I missed most were the little things - a shower, a toilet, clean (really clean) dishes, electricity . The man-made things. Although I am glad I do have all those at home, by the end of the summer, those weren't the things I was missing. What I missed most was my family and friends. When I thought about what I would do first when I got into Barrow, on the top of my list was to make phone calls to those people. Yes, I did shower right away and wash some clothes and go out to supper with food served at a table while I was sitting on a chair with a back, but it was the contact I was able to make that was the best of all. That was when I felt happiness!

That may be part of the importance of sharing. While I was basically by myself each day, walking and working, I began to realize how the tundra shared itself with me. Animals would get so close - birds landing on a tussock just 2 yards away and calling out, caribou walking within 10 m of my tent, foxes poking their heads from their den openings to look or come out for a stretch. They seemed willing to share their home with me - and it was their sharing that made me become more appreciative of their presence. The evenings shared with our group made the day's end more complete, as we exchanged stories and thoughts with each other. And then the chance to read emails from all of you - knowing that people were sharing this and themselves with me - that made the experience complete.

Finally, watching how the tundra gradually came to life, how plants and animals were patient with the seasonal changes, how they waited patiently for their time to blossom or flourish - that is the value of patience. If one would get too hurried, rush into life haphazardly, the rewards of life would not be obtained. I know I said many times how it seemed to be a race out here, and that is true, but the plants and animals waited patiently at the starting line for just the right time to begin that race. Although I witnessed and felt this lesson, this will be one that will still take time for me to truly demonstrate. While I tried to utilize my learning the last 10 days of waiting, I'm not sure I succeeded by arctic standards. I believe there was improvement - I sometimes slowed down when I walked to take closer looks, to take in a deep breath of the fresh air, to just appreciate where I was at that given moment. I will continue practicing patience so that I may someday reap the rewards of life, too!

In addition to thanking the tundra for the summer I've had, I also want to sincerely thank the TEA program (especially the help of Arlyn Bruccoli) and NSF funding. More personally, I'd like to thank Robert Suydam of the North Slope Borough for taking the chance on me and this program, Rebecca McGuire, for allowing me to ask millions of questions and for trusting me to do the work she saught, and Yumiko Uchiro for teaching me what hard work and selflessness really are.

As I prepare to sleep tonight, in a building with sounds of machines and people, with artificial heat and darkness, I will include in prayer and thought, my hopes. My hope to never forget the sounds, sights, smells and lessons of the tundra, and my hope to share my learning, as a teacher, with others.


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