Extreme Excavations: Alaska & Australia
Alaska Part 3: A Tundra Cliffhanger: 'Now what?'
By Sonya Senkowsky
Editor, Alaska Science Outreach
As we leave the Arctic camp, I look back at the white plaster package perched on the crumbling bluff. It looks like a ridiculously large egg. It might survive that way for a year, but could it survive two? As permafrost melts, landslides here are common. For all we knew, the entire bluff could sledge off and tumble into the river tomorrow.
It’s too noisy onboard the helicopter to talk, but Tony and I pass notes. He’s glum. “All trip I was waiting for the Arctic to kick my a--,” he writes. “… The Arctic finally kicked by forcing us to leave the jacket.”
“Now what?” seems too sensitive a question. During a refueling stop in Bettles, we talk about other things. But back in Fairbanks, after beers and dinner, there’s an unexpected call from Tony: We’re going back. The Army will try again.
Again, we meet at Ft. Wainwright at an ungodly early hour. Tony is in good spirits, which he proves by invoking his first love baseball. “God,” he says, “I love to come to bat at the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line.”
But the previous day’s events had sobered him. The strap whipping past Aaron and Pete could have been deadly. In the day we spent in Fairbanks, Tony heard horror stories of a beheading caused by a snapped cable. This time, he announces, no one is to go anywhere near the cable or jacket while it’s being winched.
We return to the tundra with more plaster, and the guys glop the stuff on the crumbling jacket. While we wait for it to dry, the Army team considers the situation. The jacket is heavier than we’d originally estimated more like 2,200 pounds than 1,500, says Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brandon Stites that’s why it broke the cable. It was a good training lesson. This time, they’ll use a cargo net to lift it. Then they’ll fly it across the river to a sandbar where we’ll winch it into the chopper on flat land.
Stites’ careful approach and the clear commitment of the soldiers install everyone with confidence.
The plan goes like clockwork. First the winch gently rolls the jacket back onto the cargo net. Then, a Chinook gets into position, hovering above the quarry, its rotors blowing hurricane-force winds on a soldier grappling to attach a line from chopper to net.
The package lifts into the air, crosses the river and is set down, gently, on the bar. Cheers are drowned in the helicopter racket, but our work isn’t done. After we ride to the bar, we use the combined power of winch and sweat to push and pull the massive object on board. Whoops and handshakes mark the victory, but only for a moment. And then it’s time to go this time with exactly what we came for.
That night, Kent declares the expedition “the most amazing fossil extrication in North America.” The others agree.
“Failure was not an option, and we didn’t fail,” says Tony. “We soared.”
Sonya Senkowsky is a freelance science writer and editor of Alaska Science Outreach. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this story first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Heartland Magazine in August 2002.