We are dodging icebergs at twenty-five miles per hour. From the bow of our eighteen-foot Zodiac, I try to make sense of the ecosystem I’ve come here to investigate: northern Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coastline. But my customary visual bearings don’t seem to be serving me here in Alice’s Arctic Wonderland, where even the most fundamental rules of spatial arrangement have been upended. I see liquid lying over land, tundra hovering in midair, and chunks of ice floating several feet above the sea. I strain to delineate boundaries between water and sky, solid and gas, near and far. Where I expect borders, I find continuity—gradations of color, shifting shapes, and fluid forms. Reflections are sharper than the objects that make them, forcing me to question which way is up.
As we slow down to make a turn, I study the nearest iceberg like I would a puzzle piece, attempting to snap it into an orderly universe—the universe I am used to, the one I thought I lived in. But just as I do so, its contours morph. Its gently sloping side becomes serrated. From its flat profile emerges a third dimension. Shaking my head and intentionally blurring my vision do nothing to organize the landscape. I decide that I’m having an ice-induced hallucination.
In an effort to anchor my perceptions, I focus on the steady, comforting hum of a 115 horsepower Evinrude at full throttle. It lulls me into a half-sleep, an eerie liminal state in which I melt into my surroundings. My surroundings are, themselves, melting because we are in the Arctic. Northern Alaska is one of the parts of our planet that has begun to experience the tangible effects of human-induced climate change. Of course, the primary cause of human-induced climate change is our species’ use of fossil fuel-powered internal combustion engines, like the one I’m sitting next to. In addition to delivering me to this trippy northern netherworld, it emits carbon dioxide, the gas that has changed everything. It has affected the amount of ice that surrounds our boat and the nesting behaviors of the birds we are here to study. It has affected weather patterns, storm cycles, migratory routes, and the speed at which extinctions are occurring on this planet.
I’d been looking forward my time in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge since a cheery government employee called to tell me I’d been granted a Voices of the Wilderness artist’s residency. She asked me if I wanted to accompany a group of biologists to this rugged and remote parcel of land I’d first heard about as a teenager, when I spent the summer of 1989 hiking and kayaking throughout Alaska. With no hesitation whatsoever, I bought a ticket to Fairbanks and blocked out a two-week chunk of August.
An hour into our six-day research trip, however, I’d already begun to feel both a mind-bending disorientation and a disturbing complicity.
“Here? They build nests here?” I exclaim. After some video game-like high-speed iceberg avoidance, we emerge into a zone of open water and land at our first gravel bar. I look in astonishment at a flat, featureless, and lonely landform composed of nothing more than an accumulation of half-dollar-sized rocks. This is the kind of terrain where female common eiders—the migratory waterfowl we’re here to study—build their nests.
“She’s sitting on her eggs—right up there, by that group of glaucous gulls.” Will stands at the console of our boat, peering through his binoculars.
“Okay. Noose or net?” Elyssa asks from her position in the back of the other Zodiac.
“Noose, I think. This island is too narrow for the net. If I approach from the lagoon side, I think I can get her.”
“Cool. Bridget, can you pass the noose pole over to Will? And grab the banding kit.”
Elyssa Watford, Will Weise, and their US Fish and Wildlife Service crew spend their summers looking for common eider nests. Their mission is to gather data about female eiders’ nest site selection and the birds’ physiological responses to their nesting choices. Although I’m technically a “visiting artist,” I’m really just an extra set of hands and eyes. Only 1500 or so people experience this 19.5 million-acre preserve every year. I’m thrilled to be one of them—especially one that has the potential to do some good, to further our understanding of this species and the environment it occupies—so I’m more than willing to do whatever grunt work is assigned to me.
Without an ice barrier for protection, a big tide—or even a moderate storm—could wipe out this sand spit, along with the shallow depressions in which these birds lay their three or four sage green eggs. But these precarious sites have advantages which, for now, outweigh the costs of migrating all the way up here to northeast Alaska from the eiders’ more hospitable home waters: the Bering and Chuchki Straits of southwestern Alaska, where they spend all but three months of their year. The main benefit of this site is access to the all-you-can-eat invertebrate buffet that the Beaufort Sea becomes during the long days of the Arctic summer. Newborn eiders need only walk a few feet towards the water to get their first meal of mussels or clams.
This advantage might not last, however, as weather patterns shift in the Beaufort Sea.
“Typically,” Will says, “we’ve got the polar ice cap breaking up and creating large flooding events and near-shore storm surges in August or September.” That’s after the babies have fledged. “But, these days,” he continues, “we’re starting to see more of that earlier in the season, like in July.” Earlier and more powerful storm surges make laying eggs by the waterline riskier. To avoid the threat of swamped nests, it seems likely that mother eiders will start choosing to bed down in higher, dryer areas. Because these areas are more exposed to the frigid Arctic winds, they’ll require the birds to burn more calories to stay warm. Elyssa, a masters’ student at the University of Alaska, is working to understand how these different nest site choices might affect the birds’ metabolic processes. In other words, she wants to know just how much harder incubation is going to become as the effects of climate change increase.
Because of its low-lying topography and proximity to the North Pole, this ecosystem is showing evidence of the effects of climate change earlier and more dramatically than others. According to a US Fish and Wildlife Service handout I picked up back at the Fairbanks office, “The Arctic is warming at a rate almost twice the global average.” This is largely due to ice-albedo feedback—a fancy name for what happens when light-colored ice melts away and exposes darker earth. The white stuff reflects heat, but the dark stuff absorbs it, exacerbating the warming and melting effects of the sun once ice no longer covers the ground. The same little booklet went on to say that the area in which we’re traveling—Alaska’s North Slope—is expected to be 12.5 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) hotter by the year 2100. In order to survive, the creatures that dwell in this constantly changing landscape will have to adapt to radically different conditions.
At some point, breeding in the Arctic might not work for common eiders. “That’s the biggest reason these birds are considered vulnerable,” Will tells me, as he unscrews the lid to a red plastic gas canister. I flinch when the smell of benzene hits my nostrils. We’ve already burned through a tank of gas. “If those islands change and disappear,” he continues, “well, that’s where they nest. Who knows if they’ll find somewhere else to lay their eggs or not.”
To predict what the eiders might do, Elyssa needs data. To get data, we’ve got to brave the iceberg-strewn Beaufort Sea. Our six-person crew left Kaktovik, an Inupiat village of 250 people, in two motorized inflatable boats stocked with eight large containers of fuel. We have multiple dry bags full of minimally-invasive data collection tools, lightweight tents, propane stoves, canned and dried food, and buckets in which to deposit and carry out our human waste—equipment aimed at keeping us self-sufficient and reducing our impact on the land.
A lot of resources have been invested into preserving the notion that our actions don’t affect this ecosystem.
After ten minutes of motoring, I’ve been transported from the no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts process of data collection—the world of boundaries, boxes, measurements, and thresholds—to the borderless, oscillating iceberg dreamscape. I peer out from behind my polarized sunglasses, squinting at the fuzzy conjunction of water and land. At 70 degrees north latitude, where the world hovers between liquid and solid states, the horizon is not a line but a zone. Quantum physicists might call it a “field of probability.” The land and sea collide with the sky somewhere in the range of my sight, but unearthly mirages make it impossible to determine exactly where and when that meeting occurs.
I’ve seen mirages before, in the desert southwest, when the asphalt heats up and ripples my windshield view. The illusion lasts for a minute or two; then my conventional reality reasserts itself, and the highway falls back into place. Arctic mirages are altogether different. Every visible landmark—hillock, ship, iceberg, building—appears to float untethered in the sky. No matter how fast we go, no matter how close we get to these objects in our sight, they resist settling back into their expected arrangement. I gaze at the weird and warbly horizon until I can no longer tolerate its oddity.
“Fata Morgana” is the lyrical term used to describe mirages that occur at extreme latitudes like northern Alaska’s—mirages that distort objects so drastically they become unrecognizable. If the phrase has a Medieval ring to it, it’s because of the reference to Morgan La Fay, infamous sorceress, student of Merlin, and half-sister to King Arthur. She was said to lure sailors to their deaths with visions of ghost ships and phantom landmasses.
This optical illusion requires the presence of a thermal inversion, which is to say, a condition where the temperature of the air close to the Earth is colder than the temperature of the air above it—the opposite of what is normally the case. It also requires the existence of an “atmospheric duct,” a horizontal layer which essentially traps light waves, causing them to follow the curvature of the Earth rather than travel linearly. Some waves are reflected, some are refracted, and some are focused. The process distorts, displaces, and inverts images in ways similar to a prism or a cut-glass pendant in a sunny window.
On the Beaufort Sea, conditions are ideal for the production of Fata Morgana. The preponderance of ice keeps the temperature of the Earth’s surface uniformly low while the brightness of the sun warms the air above it. The temperature affects the light, and the light affects my vision.
My vision is the sense I rely upon to make sense of these peculiar surroundings. It’s unnerving to think that it might not be trustworthy.
While Elyssa assembles the equipment needed to measure, weigh, and draw blood from the mother eider, Will walks slowly in thigh-deep, 38-degree water. He’s shed his Mustang suit, the foam-filled, full-body, electric orange safety garment that each of us wear on the boats at all times. Theoretically, these mobility-reducing getups will keep us afloat if we happen to fall overboard. Under them, we’re wearing waterproof fishing waders, and, under those, several wool shirts and fleece jackets. This layering system is required to maintain a reasonable body temperature while working in a windy, rainy environment where the ambient air temperature hovers between 35 and 45 degrees.
As Will approaches the nest where the female sits incubating her eggs, he extends the ten-meter telescoping rod they refer to as a “noose pole,” a term that I eventually embrace, despite its morbid overtones. It’s a device originally designed for carp fishing that the team has jury-rigged for the specific task of catching nesting eiders. Female eiders look nothing like carp; in fact, their coloring is rather dull. While male eiders sport striking black and white patches accentuated by electric orange beaks, these ladies look a lot like their distant cousins: female mallard ducks. Both share plumage that celebrates the world’s infinite variety of tans, beiges, and browns, providing them with camouflage. Eiders are much bigger than mallards, however. The average female weighs about four or five pounds, a size Elyssa describes as “halfway between a duck and a goose.” I peer at the mother eider through my binoculars, thinking how much I’d like to hold her. She strikes me as beautiful and powerful, and I think that it must be magical to experience her presence through a physical connection.
I watch as Will dangles the end of the pole over her head and slowly lowers the circle of monofilament towards her beak. When he slides the tool towards himself, the noose tightens around the duck’s neck. I shudder, even though I know he’s using only the amount of force necessary to keep her from getting away.
If Will had startled and flushed the female, we would have moved in towards the temporarily motherless nest to collect data on both its placement and the status of the eggs it contains. We’d pick up each one and look through its shell to estimate the age of the embryo inside. We’d mount a camera nearby to capture a few days of footage of the mother’s incubation. We’d stick a fake egg—one that encloses a tiny microphone wired to a recording device—into her nest to measure her heart rate.
But since Will’s got a live mother in his hands, we have the chance to collect more intimate information about her—data obtained through mouth swabs, fecal samples, and blood draws. The results will yield information about the birds’ metabolic processes, fueling Elyssa’s master’s thesis on the eiders’ physiological responses to their nesting choices. Her conclusions will contribute to our pool of baseline data, allowing scientists to quantify the degree to which human actions are affecting the eiders’ lifestyles. Of course, the idea of “baseline data” in an ever-shifting reality seems as useful as my attempts to fix icebergs into an orderly visual arrangement. And, I can’t help but notice that every bird on this sand spit—not just the eiders—has taken to flight for the duration of the time we spend on shore. The cacophony of their disgruntled squawks is overwhelming.
Nearly everyone knows that sea ice in the Arctic is on the decline. Many of us have seen pictures of polar bears stranded on isolated floes, and some of us may have heard that sailing the infamous Northwest Passage has gotten substantially easier. The entire 900-mile route from the Beaufort Sea to Baffin Island was ice-free for the first time in 2007, and, in 2016, the first cruise ship successfully navigated the entire journey.
Sea ice has always undergone some melting during the summers when the sun is most powerful. How much melting is directly related to how much sunlight it reflects. Because of the ice-albedo effect, about half of the solar radiation that falls upon sea ice is radiated back into the atmosphere. The other half is absorbed. While this absorption rate is less than that of ocean water, it’s enough to liquify the ice. If sea ice is blanketed with snow—a highly reflective substance—it absorbs less solar radiation and takes longer to melt. If that snow melts, however, the puddles of water that remain absorb additional heat. The more heat the water absorbs, the more it melts the sea ice, producing more water—which in turn absorbs more heat, which produces more water. You can see where this is going. Scientists call this a “positive feedback loop”—a phenomenon in which changes to a system are amplified, increasing instability. Sea ice melting is a quintessential example of this, and it’s accelerating dramatically in the Arctic right now.
I’d heard all of this many times; but, until I looked at actual graphs, the severity of the situation had not quite hit me. Scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) have been tracking Arctic sea ice coverage annually since 1978. When their data are plotted, they show a distinctive downward trend—at an angle that, ironically, resembles your average intermediate ski slope. In raw numbers, Arctic sea ice in September of 1979 covered about 8 million square kilometers. In 2012, the area had dropped to under 4 million square kilometers. That’s like cutting the country of Brazil in half over a thirty-five-year period. Based on their models, the NSIDC scientists concluded that, “Arctic sea ice extent will continue to decline, the eventual outcome being an essentially seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean.” An ice-free Arctic Ocean strikes me as an oxymoron. If the emblematic icebergs melt away, we will need a new way of thinking about that body of water. We might need to give it a new name.
Nomenclature aside, there is no question that the boundaries of Arctic Ocean travel will expand. Ships will enable us to fish areas that have not been fished before, drill for oil in places that were previously inaccessible, and deliver tourists to scenic locations that have, until this point, been visited only by well-meaning researchers in big orange flotation suits.
“Do you want to hold her?” Elyssa asks. I shake my head. I don’t feel ready yet. Yes, I’m afraid of hurting her, but there’s something else holding me back—something about having such a personal and direct impact on this wild creature. A logical voice inside derides my decision: “Everyone else on the crew is touching her; what’s another set of hands?” But they are convinced that we belong here, that the good we’re doing outweighs our intrusions into their lives and homes. I’m less sure, and my uncertainty has me trying to locate this dubious ethical boundary.
Will grabs ahold of the mother eider and nestles her into his lap in one smooth and efficient move. “Then pass me two bands,” Elyssa says to me. She crimps them loosely, one around each leg.
“Please.” She grabs the tool, opens it, then closes it down—first around the bird’s lower leg, then across the length of its beak, then along its head. “Tarsus 61.5. Culmen 51.9. Head 127.8.”
“Good. 2040 grams.”
“Envelopes for the feathers?”
“Yeah.” She pulls a few from the mother’s head. “Nest ID and band number on the envelopes.”
“Got it. Ready for the swabs?” I ask.
Each of these procedures has a distinct purpose. The banding enables future identification of these birds—not just by Elyssa and Will, but by other scientists who might spot them. The measurements create a reserve of information about nesting females’ “normal” sizes and weights, and the fecal and mouth swabs allow testing for disease. The feathers—all of which will molt later this summer, when the hens are busy raising their young—are retained for genetic and isotope analysis. The blood samples Elyssa extracts will be assessed for chemical compounds that yield information about the birds’ nutritional status and levels of stress during different stages of incubation, the twenty-six-day chunk of time these mothers remain seated on their nests.
“The fact that these ladies fast and sit on their eggs 99.5 percent of the time—for twenty-six days—is just wild to me,” says Elyssa. “It’s amazing that they are able to starve for that long and still hatch their babies.” This phenomenon is called “capital breeding.” While eiders are not alone in employing this strategy—desert tortoises are well-known for it—the extreme duration of their fast is unique in the bird world. The longest time the mothers will spend off of their nests is the time it takes for us to poke and prod them.
Elyssa’s lips purse as she sinks a needle into the eider’s neck. I know she’s successfully performed this procedure hundreds of times, and I understand her explanation for why it’s necessary. Still, I feel uneasy, and I wonder if she does, too. The mother bird squirms in Will’s arms, her webbed feet pedaling in the air, as though, with the right amount of effort, they might propel her away. After a few seconds of struggle, she settles down. I watch the syringe fill with her blood—dark red, like mine. She stares at me through tiny, distant eyes.
At the end of our second day of motoring, when we pull into Demarcation Bay to establish a base camp, we spot a double-masted ketch anchored out in this protected harbor near the Canadian border. I don’t believe my eyes; not only am I seeing human beings in this remote corner of the world, I’m seeing them aboard an old-school sailing vessel, one we immediately dub “the pirate ship.” That night, the erstwhile pirates come to shore in their dingy to make a driftwood bonfire on our beach. We join them in their smoke-induced mosquito-free zone, and they invite us aboard their ship, the Infinity, for dinner the next day. In addition to seeing the visit as an opportunity to explore the inside of this mysterious non-petroleum-powered craft, we’re excited to dry out, warm up, and eat someone else’s food.
After answering questions about eiders and Zodiacs and bear camping protocols, we scarf down freshly baked bread and steaming lentil dahl with the Infinity’s twenty-two crew members—all of whom are volunteers and some of whom have no previous sailing experience. This “cosmopolitan cast of characters” (their term) is led by Swiss captain Clemens Oestreich, who lives aboard with his wife and two young children. As we shed a few of our layers, they outline their mission: to raise the “EarthFlag” on the ever-shrinking Arctic ice cap. Captain Clemens explains to us that the ocean-blue flag depicts the “seed of life,” a sacred geometric symbol of unity and balance, and that it has been proposed to serve as a banner for our planet. According to the EarthFlag Foundation, who created the design and granted its rights to the commons, the symbol is “a reminder that everything is interconnected.”
One of the crew members darts out of the dining hall and comes back with the flag stretched wide in his arms. I’m immediately struck by it. Unlike national flags—symbols of independence, borders, and separation—this one feels inclusive: seven interlocking white circles coming together to make one elegant, symmetrical emblem. The crew plans to raise the flag on a totem pole carved by residents of the island of Vanuatu, in the South Pacific—the area they’d embarked from six months and over 6000 miles earlier. They hope that by filming and distributing a documentary about their adventure, they can highlight the need for interdependent, multinational behavior and decision-making to reverse our planet’s environmental trajectory.
I sit silent on the wooden floor. They’re crazy, I think to myself. Crazy, but inspiring. I wonder if anyone will buy their film, if anyone will watch it, and if anyone will shift their outlook as a result.
The whole time we are camped in Demarcation Bay, the Infinity’s crew sits offshore monitoring various ever-changing models of iceberg distribution in the Northwest passage. They plan to wait until the sea ice has broken up enough to allow them to make eastward progress towards their goal, well aware that warming air and water temperatures in the Arctic—direct fallout from our climate crisis—make their mission possible.
Since we’ve set up all of our “incubating eider cams” and placed all of our heart rate monitors—the objects I have come to think of as “imposter eggs”—Elyssa decides that we should survey some outlying sand spits for active or recently abandoned nests. “We’ve got about 30km of motoring ahead of us,” she says from behind the gas tank. “Go ahead and layer up for the ride.” I yank my neckwarmer up and tuck it under the lower rims of my sunglasses. Then I pull all three of my hoods over my head and close my eyes.
After some amount of time—who knows how long, since time, like light, seems to bend and curve here—the steady rush of icy images gives way to blackness, and some part of me recognizes that I am asleep. Or maybe not asleep exactly, since I am still sitting upright with my multi-mittened hand grasping a lash strap, but certainly not awake either; I am beginning to see people and places that are nowhere near me in the physical world. A friend from home floats through my awareness, followed by a vision of my brother as a toddler, a scene from my high school cafeteria, and the line of palm trees I can see from my bedroom window at home. They are like holograms, existing in multiple dimensions. While I can’t say I am “used to” this mind-bending sensory space, I am learning to relax into it and open myself to its insights.
When we arrive at the six-kilometer-long, 100-meter-wide spit, it is enveloped in fog. We spread out and begin to walk, each person about 30 meters from the next, staring down at the ground in search of the telltale circular depressions that indicate eider nesting activity. When I look across the sand at my companions, I cannot tell them apart any more than I can distinguish one female eider from another; we all wear the same light brown waders, carry the same hefty backpacks, peer through the same black binoculars. I continue walking in a straight line, parallel to but distant from the others’ trajectories, growing weary from the penetrating frigidity of the wind. When it dies down, I become aware of the distinctive sound of rushing water, making me wonder if I’ve been transported again—this time to one of my many trips down California’s American River or a stretch of the Yampa in Colorado. But this is not a hallucination; as I look to my right, I see icebergs coursing by like rush hour traffic. They are rolling landward with the tide, riding a current as constant as the Green River’s flow through Utah’s Desolation Canyon—only I am not in Utah or California or Colorado. Or am I?
With every hour here, I doubt the reliability of my perspective more. Not only are my traditional binaries—up/down, liquid/solid, sky/sea, awake/asleep—failing me, I’m uncertain about my measurements of time and space, about the lines that govern where I end and where another creature begins, about what we are accomplishing as a team and what we are accomplishing as a species, and about how we might get out of the mess we continue to make.
From further up the spit, I hear an unusual guttural sound. It starts as a low rumbling and builds to an almost piercing rattle, shocking me back to the beach where I stand. I know that sound all too well, from my many years of living in eastern Idaho. “Sandhill cranes!” I scream, proud to finally have beaten my professional birder companions to the punch. I’m also relieved to know a familiar creature is somewhere nearby. We all gather by a pile of driftwood and watch the three elegant birds strut among the rocks, dancing in and out of the chilly fog. Their gait is predictable, their red eye patches and tapered beaks somehow comforting to me. We stretch our backs and share what’s left of a one-pound bag of M&M’s, by far the most colorful objects for miles. A chill comes over me when the cranes take off for some other remote beach. We’re the only vertebrates around, again. For a moment, I’d felt like I wasn’t so out of place.
I stuff a granola bar wrapper into the pocket of my waders and return to solitary walking. For the rest of the day, we find nothing else but hoof prints in the sand—caribou tracks. “Why are they here?” I ask, wondering the same thing about us. We’ve been walking for over three hours and have yet to find a nest. “There’s no food for them. No fresh water either.”
“They’re fleeing from the hordes of mosquitos up on the tundra,” Elyssa says. We’ve been doing the same thing; when the wind died down the previous night, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the tent to pee, for fear of returning with ten to twenty bites from my one minute of flesh exposure. The permafrost—the layer of frozen ground that forms the base of the Arctic earth—is melting along with the sea ice. As the disintegration of the land produces more standing water, will the bugs get worse? It’s hard to imagine that being possible. Will the caribou be able to reach these pest-free Shangri-La’s when the water level rises? Will these sand spits even exist?
When I stretch out in my cozy down sleeping bag for the night—with the tent netting zipped tightly shut against the whine—I find myself wondering if I’m surrounded by eider feathers as I dodge icebergs in my dreams.
Keeping warm with eiderdown is an ancient tradition, thanks to its superior insulating quality. The tiny feathers have extra hooks in their structures that grant them higher insulating capacity than the more commonly used goose down. Birgitta Berglund and her team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology study eider feathers found in Nordic Iron Age (570-1030 CE) graves in an attempt to determine their precise geographic origins and ages. Several Viking-era sagas mention the harvesting of eiderdown as well, so it’s safe to assume that Europeans have been collecting this resource for over a thousand years. The Inupiat and other Alaskan indigenous groups have done so for at least that long.
These days, an eiderdown duvet goes for upwards of $6000. Most of today’s commercially-harvested eider feathers come from Iceland, so those blankets are transported around the globe in fossil-fuel burning airplanes and cargo ships. These vessels produce emissions that contribute to the warming trend that melts the sea ice and makes it harder for the eiders to occupy the breeding grounds where they produce their coveted down. If my sleeping bag is made from imported eiderdown, I’ve helped to displace the birds we’re here to study—in an effort to keep them from being displaced. My heart sinks. I know that every one of my purchases has a ripple effect that I don’t often see. Thanks to this Arctic perceptual upending I’m living, those effects are now staring me in the face.
Despite the warmth and comfort of my -10-degree bag, sleep, like land-sea borders, can be elusive in the Arctic. In the summer, the sun never really sets; instead, it crosses the sky like a long-distance hiker traversing the coastal tundra. At 2am, when it’s cold enough that the bugs have gone into hiding, I unzip the tent door to the sight of the big orb hovering above the water, casting a dusky orange pallor over the peaks of the Brooks Range that lie in the distance, far beyond our tents and boats. We don’t see this kind of glow often in the lower forty-eight, although, as the composition of the atmosphere continues to change, we might be witnessing more reddish tones on the horizon very soon. I think about the last sunset I saw at home in Santa Cruz, sitting on Cowell Beach after surfing until I could no longer see the incoming sets. Maybe it’s the twenty-four hours of light that are throwing off my cycle, or perhaps it’s the general blurring of boundaries that’s eroded even the frontier between wakeful consciousness and whatever state it is that I plunge into every night. Regardless, I find myself lingering in that fuzzy liminal zone, thinking about what we’re doing here.
Seven degrees Fahrenheit. Four degrees Celsius. This is the average global temperature change the planet will experience between now and the year 2100 if our species makes no significant lifestyle changes. Those numbers will be doubled here in the Arctic. Our continued use of fossil fuels and our general consumptive habits will cause a warming trend that will almost certainly precipitate two feet of sea level rise and the extinction of 40-70% of species on the planet. One of those species might be the common wider.
Our little team is trying to prevent that, by cruising around in gas-powered boats, wearing petroleum-derived polyester layers, eating prepackaged meals cooked over a stove fueled by disposable metal butane cartridges, and interfering with the eiders’ daily lives. I close my eyes, unable to fathom the degree to which I’m woven into this mess, unable to get a grasp on how I might be able to extricate myself from culpability, unable to see the obvious or easy solution that I want so badly to exist.
In response, I burrow back into the safety of my one-person mummy bag and try to maintain the illusion that I am doing good here, that the positive effects my writing might have will offset the resource investment required to get me here. That the data we collect will be used to help these birds. That all of this running around the globe trying to understand eiders, melting ice, and storm cycles isn’t just another attempt to impose human control over forces that are much more powerful than we will ever be.
For our last night in the field, we move camp to Anglan Point, a former DEW Line site. “DEW” stands for Distant Early Warning, the program established by the Department of Defense to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War. Once upon a time, there was a radar station here, but it was dismantled and hauled away on a barge, along with many tons of contaminated soil packed into giant orange plastic bags. The reclamation process left a wide and flat area of impact—a perfect campsite for a group of eider researchers headed back to their home base. I am relieved when Elyssa assigns me to set up camp while she and a few other crew members go out to retrieve the last of the nest cameras. These tasks are familiar rituals for me—tying trucker’s hitches to anchor the tents, connecting the fuel tank to the stove, heating water to fill thermoses—and they ground me for a few moments, until I remember that I am camped at a Superfund site, and I look up to see the tundra floating above the water yet again, another Fata Morgana horizon.
There is another DEW Line site in Kaktovik. It’s still being used, and a DoD employee remains on guard inside the futuristic-looking globe that sits in the center of town. Since it’s the largest human-constructed object for miles around, we will use it tomorrow to guide ourselves back to the gravel bar that serves as the local marina. For me, the presence of these Cold War relics hovers somewhere between spooky and quaint. Many people once thought that our biggest threat was the massive country on the other side of this melting polar ice cap; indeed, some still do. Others have come to realize that the threat is the melting polar ice cap itself. And, unlike the former Soviet Union, this threat is one that permeates borders and boundaries, entangling all of us in its pernicious web.
After this week, I’ve become more and more convinced the immediate and pervasive threat of climate change will need to be combatted with perceptual overhauls, not missiles and bombers, incremental policy initiatives, or even more science. Still, we maintain the illusion that we can hybrid car, carbon tax, and cap-and-trade our way to back to the lifestyle we’ve grown accustomed to. As I lift my mosquito headnet to sip my hot cocoa, I squint out at the water, straining futilely to make out a clear boundary between the sea and the sky. I wait for the rest of the team to return, listening for the reassuring sound of their motor.
A few months after I return from Alaska, I notice a photograph of the pirate ship in Elyssa’s Facebook feed. It is a repost from the Infinity’s own page, one they’d been filling with snippets of video in anticipation of what will be a Discovery TV series called “Expedition to the Edge.” Spectacular drone footage reveals the ship docked at the edge of the polar ice cap. The camera then zooms in on the team hoisting the EarthFlag on a raised mound of ice at global warming’s Ground Zero. Apparently, they had smooth sailing through the Northwest Passage after leaving their mooring in Demarcation Bay. A smile spreads across my face.
I follow a chain of links to the Infinity’s website. There, a photograph of the bonfire we shared on the beach serves as one of their banner images. Another is a picture of a polar bear, with a quote by architect and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller superimposed over it: “We are not going to be able to operate our spaceship Earth successfully unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common.” I sit back in my office chair, struck by how succinctly this quote sums up the perceptual shift Clemens and his crew want to inspire. I learn from the website that Clemens, having succeeded in the north, plans to next raise the EarthFlag as far south on the planet as possible and needs money to do so.
Is this how we move forward? Or is this just another example of our species’ colonization of the planet? “Probably both,” says the voice shaped by my Arctic-induced perceptual shift. I can’t help but root for this expedition for its lofty ideals, cooperative values, and adventurous spirit—all of which I share. And yet, here we are again: human beings pushing into places I’m not sure we belong, affecting living and non-living things in ways we both can and cannot measure.
When season 1 of their Discovery series is made available in September 2020, my heart sinks at its description: “A rag tag group of family and friends quickly learn the price of adventure when a voyage with friends unravels into a life-or-death crisis forcing all hands-on-deck.” Human drama sells. The need for cooperation in the face of a global environmental crisis does not.
According to the Infinity’s website, the crew planned to leave for Antarctica in the summer of 2021. A dive into their social media feeds in September 2021 reveals that they’re still docked in Amsterdam, fundraising.
Back in the boats on our final high-speed glacier dodging run to Kaktovic, my brain soon tires—first from attempting to force the elements into the orderly arrangement my brain prefers, then from the process of relinquishing control. I gradually let myself slip into the psychedelic reality of Beaufort Sea boating once more. As disorienting and disruptive as my petroleum-powered space-time travel may be, I have come to wonder if the slippery scene around me might be a preview of our immediate future in a rapidly warming world.
Quantum physics has revealed that nothing has ever really been separated from anything else, although our collective Fata Morgana—the perspective that sees bordered nations, individual species, and isolated ecosystems—tricks us into thinking otherwise. We—and, by we, I mean human beings, non-human beings, non-sentient beings, and even the forces we cannot see or understand—are all inextricably intertwined, we are told. Like it or not, our thoughts and behaviors are waves that can’t help but interfere with the billions of other ripples we swim through.
As town comes into sight, my unreliable eyes have lifted the giant dome of the old DEW station up and off the surface of the Earth. Thanks to Fata Morgana, even the largest and most expensive structure in town has been uprooted and subjected to renegotiation. While the motor behind me thrums, the level in the gas tank ahead of me plummets, and our emissions rise to join the canopy of greenhouse gas molecules that keep in our planet’s heat, it occurs to me that this word—“renegotiation”—is somehow critical to my understanding of this place, this planet. We could renegotiate our relationships—with each other, with the land, with the ice, with the eiders. We could also renegotiate the way we see the world by seeing the whole instead of the parts. We could choose to act as though we were strands woven into an exquisite multi-dimensional artwork—one that has never before existed in this form and will never look exactly the same again. We could unite under a planetary flag that represents all global residents, human and non-human alike. Maybe this is the first step—acknowledging that our current everyday reality is an unsustainable illusion. When we can see through new eyes, perhaps we’ll see new solutions. Or perhaps we’re stuck with a species-centric vision, sharpened by hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection favoring human dominance. I don’t know. What I do know, or hope, is that radical challenges to our established perspectives—ones that, like the Arctic landscape, force us to negotiate the discomfort and disorientation of fluid boundaries—might offer some kind of way through. Or over. Or around. Or beyond.
About a half-mile from Kaktovik, details finally come into focus. The DEW Line’s spherical building is actually anchored to the tundra. The boats are tied off to shore, at least until a storm surge washes away their moorings. There are no polar bears roaming the island where a whale carcass sits leftover from last September’s hunt; although, next month, the iconic creatures will wander ashore in search of the food they can no longer find on the shrinking sea ice. Normality appears to reign as I help unload the boats before sprinting to the bunkhouse. I’m anticipating a glorious hot shower and a delicious meal of vegetables flown in on the last bush plane from Fairbanks. I will soon be clean, dry, well-fed, and on my way back to my day-to-day life in coastal California. There, I will ration water, watch for record-breaking wildfires, worry about the disappearance of my favorite beach, and witness the ongoing decline of the monarch butterfly population—all while continuing to drive my car to the market where I can buy organic apples grown in Chile. When I look at my life from the right angle, I see mirages everywhere.
As we pull up to shore, I realize that I never ended up holding a mother eider. Everyone else did; they cradled them and plucked their feathers and drew their blood and released them again and again. I looked into their eyes and held their eggs, but I didn’t make direct contact. When I stop to tally up the myriad ways in which my actions affect these birds, it’s clear that our lives are intertwined. My intentions were good; I just wanted to leave them alone, untouched by humanity. Or by my humanity, anyway.
As if that were possible.
Bridget A. Lyons is a writer, editor, and explorer living in Santa Cruz, CA, the unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe. A graduate of Harvard University, Bridget holds an MFA from Northern Arizona University and has had previous lives as a middle school teacher, wilderness guide, yoga instructor, energy bar maker, and graphic designer. Her work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Catamaran, Cold Mountain Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Hawk and Handsaw, and other journals.
The research described in this article and the author’s experience were funded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Portions of this essay were first published as part of the post “Chasing Eiders: A Week on the Beaufort Sea with Arctic Refuge Bird Biologists” on the blog U.S. Fish & Wildlife Alaska: Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Photos by the author.