Extreme Excavations: Alaska & Australia
Alaska Part 2: A Grizzly Visits, Our Luck Changes
By Sonya Senkowsky
Editor, Alaska Science Outreach
The morning comes even earlier than planned. Shortly after midnight, gunfire rings out.
“Bear in camp!”
After the bear treads on Tony’s tent, it crosses Pete on his way to the camp toilet, investigates our kitchen, then visits my tent. We’re all awake and shaken. Despite our attempts to discourage it, the bear spends the next few hours rolling in half-burned waste. After the animal proves unfazed by gunshots, shouting and other distraction, Tony and Aaron finally repel it in a surge of primal insight: They charge the bear, screaming, with shovels upraised. It runs away like a scared dog.
BAD LUCK BEAR?
The next day we stay in camp. The bear, which we decide was an adolescent grizzly, doesn’t return, and Tony tries to rejuvenate us with a day of relaxation and fly-fishing. But the mood of the Arctic has changed. Now our days are rainy and our nights cold. Our days are late and long. The bluff, already slick, becomes a mudslide. Still the quarry continues to produce. Kent finds occipital condyle number eight. A picture of the pachyrhinosaurs’ herd behavior, not previously documented in the Arctic, is beginning to emerge.
As the finds continue, Tony’s concern and doubt grow.
“This isn’t going to work,” he confides to me one day. The new jacket we’ve created, at more than 1,000 pounds, is bigger even than the first that Louis had fretted over. Without extra reinforcement, it could crumble under its own weight. And we’re nearly out of plaster.
After one planned chopper visit doesn’t produce a re-supply, Aaron uses the satellite phone to arrange for family members to help by delivering plaster to the Army; it’s possible the helicopters can bring it on the 26th, a Friday. The choppers don’t arrive. But Tony remains calm.
“All the cards have been played now,” he says. “All we can do is do our best.”
PREPARING FOR THE AIRLIFT
In the remaining two days, part of the team digs around the jacket and tunnels beneath it to make room for reinforcing straps, while others take turns hacking out a “road” to reduce the steep rise to the tundra. Instead of plaster, we pack in clay found onsite to fill in gaps. Just maybe we can still bring this monster package back.
Spirits rise. And when the Chinooks arrive Monday, the extraction begins.
The helicopter is positioned at the edge of the tundra, a steel cable connecting it by winch to the package below. For a few moments, the jacket begins to move. But it gets only a few feet up the hill before the cable snaps. A metal buckle from a reinforcing strap whips through the air, just missing Aaron and Peter, who were helping push the bones.
Fast action and steel bars keep the jacket from rolling off the bluff, but it ends up perched mid-slope. After conferring, the soldiers break the bad news: They have no other cables or cargo nets. We’ll have to go home without it.
We board the Chinook.
COMING APRIL 30: Alaska Part 3: A TUNDRA CLIFFHANGER: ‘NOW WHAT?’
Sonya Senkowsky is a freelance science writer and editor of Alaska Science Outreach. She may be reached at email@example.com. A version of this story first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Heartland Magazine in August 2002.