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Back to Boreal

Celebration 2014 starts tomorrow.  Every two years, people gather from all around Alaska to celebrate Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian culture. Social media’s been thrumming with the festival’s preparation. I’m sad I won’t be there now that I live in Fairbanks, but I hope you’ll follow along as it gets underway.

I feel like coming back from hiatus never works well when you start off announcing you’re back from hiatus. Nevertheless, I return with an update, a brief update, but I will bring more topics of substance in the coming weeks.

I’m working at the UA Museum of the North in Fairbanks now. Back to Fairbanks, back to boreal, from rainy Juneau. I’ve been back here a little more than a year now. As digital media producer, I don’t get to go out into the forest quite as often as when I was a field assistant at the university, but there are still plenty of adventures to be had. I have a quick couple highlights for you then I’m off to work on another, longer post.

I’m working on a radioplay. PoLAR Voices is our new mystery-adventure podcast — episode 6 is out tomorrow. Our team’s been running all around the world (Helsinki! San Francisco! New York!) to gather sound for this multi-year project.

The museum is a partner in what’s called a climate change education partnership — but climate change education series just doesn’t quite encapsulate this new show. It’s part documentary of the people who live and work in the Arctic and the changes they face, part fictional story revolving around a small mystery that becomes something much greater. Again, a team effort: my supervisor Roger Topp writes it, and my officemate Hannah Foss illustrates, and I edit it. Roger and I also gather sound, and, well — if you know any of us, some of the voices in there might be a bit familiar. Excited to hear what you think, it’s also on iTunes.

We finished an exhibit. “Arctic Odyssey: Voyages of the R/V Sikuliaq” opened in May, and I’d recommend you check it out if you happen to be in Fairbanks. UAF’s shiny new research vessel Sikuliaq is traveling to icy Arctic waters over the next year, and the exhibit follows alongside it.

The exhibit includes a first-person look aboard the ship, several science-inspired games, oceanographic instruments, researcher interviews and historic footage of past university ships. It’s also only open for a year. I can’t quite fit it all into one sentence or one picture. Just, go check it out. To be clear, my part in this exhibit was quite small, and I admire the experience of those who worked around me. But still, it’s very special when you first experience something so big and complex form over the course of the year. I may be biased — but hey, I have written about the museum in similar light several times before. I love this job.

We pulled together a series of web video interviews with UAF researchers for the exhibit that explains more about working at sea in the Arctic.

And there’s also a time lapse of our team putting the exhibit up.

Oh! I’d talk more about the museum, but honestly, our Tumblr says it all, Theresa Bakker does a great job with it. Go see for yourself. Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop recently reblogged us. Yeah, that was cool.

Well, I’m off and writing the next post — expect before next week is up. Until then, follow along on Twitter.

It’s good to be back. And I’m excited to hear what you’d like me to cover. What have you been up to over the last year? What adventures are in store this summer?


Sabbath at the Shrine, sea lions in the pews

The island of the Shrine of Saint Therese.

The island of the Shrine of Saint Therese.

Orcas guided me through elementary school. I dreamt of variations on a theme: friendships with orcas in unexpected places, such as a lake or a school swimming pool. Today, I watched that dream come to life — and swim away.

“The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky” by Ellen Meloy opens on the Colorado Plateau. The narrator is in her element – she knows not only every color to expect and when to expect it, but what scientific processes lead to each hue and shape. This is knowledge of a place borne of love, habit and obsession. She describes it as a mixture of sensory cues that create homesickness in their absence.

I understood this homesickness when I came upon Ben Huff’s photos of the Haul Road at the Alaska State Museum. My brain thinks “hills” when it sees the area north of Fairbanks, but after living in, studying and working in these hills, I know them. Or, at least, I know how their many parts fit together better than I understand the foreign mountains around me now. Huff described the Haul Road as horizontal, and Juneau as vertical, and the transition takes some getting used to.

I’ve been bitter toward Juneau and God’s timing because of an unshakeable mood since I moved here. Today, the second sunny day in a row after weeks of wind and rain and snow, was the perfect day to fix that. I wanted to see what others see in this rainy, lonely town.

Yesterday I started “Street Life” in a recent issue of the New Yorker. The late writer Joseph Mitchell seeks to know every street in New York. I have crisscrossed many streets in Downtown Juneau already, but the roads past Auke Bay remain untraveled. I headed north.

I ended up at the Shrine of St. Therese, a Catholic chapel atop a tiny tidal island.

Approaching the shrine.

Approaching the shrine.

An echo this side of the seascape.

An echo this side of the seascape.

The shrine was surrounded by familiar mosses, liverworts, squirrel middens and Christian art. The unfamiliar lay in the tidal zone, so down I climbed. A sign on the way in had warned me that we were in a mixing zone for treated cruise ship wastewater. I needed to avoid eating shellfish or even being in contact with the area. Well, I know better than to eat the shellfish in Juneau, but if sea life is expected to learn to thrive without heeding these warnings, I decided I could spend an afternoon here.

The rocks were covered first in yellow and white lichens, then in seaweed and shellfish. People filtered in and out of the lookout point above. I pulled out “Turquoise” and started reading, but presently the sea lions arrived.

I watched the sea lions until the passerby up at the shrine lookout started shouting. An orca — what I thought to be one, with that dorsal fin — breached once, twice, then swam away. I stopped fumbling with my phone’s camera. It is rare to face a dream, rarer still to catch it on tape.

I dropped “Turquoise” in a tide pool, so I fished it out and we basked in the sun. It was still cold enough that snot blocked my sense of smell and the light wind numbed my fingers.

Snowcapped mountains shone down on forested islets and the bay where I fancied a pod of orcas were hunting. I could see misty pillars as they rose to exhale.

Waves shimmered from there to here and dozens of crows effortlessly crossed the distance between my kin and me. The crows rested in cliffside trees surrounding the shrine.

Later they flew over me again, landing on the seaside boulders, cursing all the way. They ignored me and pecked at the seaweed and barnacles. One crow squeezed a writhing and glistening fish in its beak until something squirted into the sunlight. I no longer wonder which came first — McDonald’s wrappers and Cheetos or the corvid.

A preteen girl came with a big white hat and purple pants. The crows flew away before she arrived at their seaweed-slick rocks, but her approach sparked sea lion curiosity. They came closer, three sleek-yet-lutrine heads bobbing in tune with the waves. She was entranced, as I always was in my dreams and remain today on days like this.

Earlier today, I told my dad that Sabbath is easier for families — and much harder to enjoy when you are in a season of wanderlust. But on this rare sunny day in Juneau, the waves became a choir, the sea lions my brothers and the orca my pastor, teaching me to keep reaching toward a dream so distant yet closer than ever before.

The girl left, the tide came in and I climbed back into the woods, to the Shrine of St. Therese.

A tiny moss forest atop an old railing overlooks the ocean expanse.

A tiny moss forest atop an old railing overlooks the ocean expanse.

Alaskans appreciate algal alliances from afar

Sandy beach at low tide, covered in tempting shellfish crowding around the Treadwell Mine saltwater pumphouse. November 2012.

Sandy Beach panorama at low tide, covered in tempting shellfish crowding around the Treadwell Mine saltwater pumphouse. November 2012.

Juneau is a city of juxtaposition.  It’s enough to make me feel a little confined, now and then, but I see more art in this city every day. I lived in a building that’s made from parts of the old Douglas Bridge. The home is held up by the limbs of a gateway that straddled a channel, one foot on the mainland and the other on an island.

In Fairbanks, you can see what’s coming. The thunderstorm will start just as the workday ends. The temperature will drop to -40. Your car won’t start at least once this winter. The wildfire’s smoke plume billows a safe 60 miles away. You will bleed if you touch the floor in The Marlin.

Juneau uses every available square inch to surprise visitors. Not only do mountains leap from the water, but they leap 4,000 feet over a dizzying short distance. The tide seeps in until wetlands become open water. Wee beasties in the ocean meet with shellfish and contaminate them with an inconspicuous, but not inconsequential, toxin.

That last point isn’t convenient for visitors to Juneau. After all, juxtaposition can be deadly, too.

Have you heard about paralytic shellfish poisoning? I hadn’t. Thankfully, I didn’t experience it, either — I just told a bookstore employee that I’d gazed at the mussels on Sandy Beach. I was looking at a book about harvesting your own seafood. He stopped me short: Juneau’s beaches aren’t the place to forage. If I listened to that free-food instinct, I could get sick, he said. Very sick.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning stems from something called saxitoxin. Saxitoxin is found in some red algae — plant-like organisms that don’t quite resemble algae at all. Red algae can also tint the sea to look like fluorescent blood.

What happens if shellsfish slurp up saxitoxin? They end up fine, but if you eat them, first your lips tingle. Your arms go numb, you can’t move your legs. You feel like you’re floating. In a couple hours, your chest freezes up and you can’t breathe. If the poisoning gets to this point, you die — that could take a couple of hours, or rarely, days.

There’s no treatment, other than having hospital staff help you purge the toxin from your system.

In “Hunting the Mighty Cockle,” Alaska magazine suggested that cockles are safe to harvest in Juneau in late fall and winter, when temperatures are too cold for algae to grow. This isn’t true, although commercial shellfish are safe.

Usually, in Juneau, you can appreciate the beauty of juxtaposition. It’s easy to notice when the temperatures hopscotch around freezing, when your plane flies next to a mountain before landing or when a bear crosses a road. There’s no way for the average person to know when shellfish has bumped up against an alga that makes saxitoxin.

I’ve learned to appreciate the crunch of shells under my boots, a guilty pleasure safe from any chastising bookstore employees.

Lungless lampreys link air-breathers to their ancestors

A fish-like creature coughed and unveiled a key secret about breathing.

Today, University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers escaped the new snow and ice to head to New Orleans for the annual Society of Neuroscience meeting. Their research today centers around a cough about 9 seconds into this video

That shows a lamprey larva ventilate normally through its gills, then coughing. You see, lampreys don’t breathe like we do. They don’t breathe air, and they don’t have lungs. But they are sensitive to carbon dioxide in a way that reminds UAF researchers Michael Harris and Barbara Taylor of amphibian breathing patterns. The nervous system responds similarly in both lamprey coughs and a part of breathing called a rhythm generator. This rhythm generator makes many animals sensitive to carbon dioxide and, Harris and Taylor say, evolved before lungs.

Lampreys don’t have lungs, but they are on the same path vertebrates took to start breathing. Eventually, vertebrates learned how to take in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide. When lampreys encounter carbon dioxide, they cough.

Lampreys in Alaska can grow up two different ways — some are like salmon, living in salt water until spawning in fresh water, and some hang around fresh water their entire lives. Like salmon, they bring nutrients from the sea to land ecosystems. They start out as little ammocoetes — that larva in the video. These ammocoetes filter muddy water through their bodies and store the bits of food they come across. As adults they grow a nasty set of teeth that, if parasitic, they can use to suck blood from a host like a leech. The fresh water lampreys usually aren’t parasitic, and they don’t eat — they rely on the resources they gathered as youth.

I just arrived in Juneau to intern for KTOO. More on that later this week.

Also, speaking of UAF science: congratulations, R/V Sikuliaq, on your successful launch! I created a Storify of social and news media reactions to the launch. What do you want to know about the Sikuliaq?

Pursuing the unexpected: A challenge to go beyond the color walk

Pink fireweed in an old burn off the Tanana River. Genetic anamoly, or expression of individuality? July 31, 2012.

I found yellow! At an old burn off the Tanana River. July 2012.

The place outside your house, or down the road, or across the ocean, is full of things you’ve never seen or noticed before.

How do you seek the unknown?

Radiolab recently featured a post on color walks. Color walks are based on the idea that you notice more when you look for all things that are blue, or red, to the exclusion of other distractions.

This is a great starting point for conquering a pandemic my botany teacher warned me about — “plant blindness.”

It’s hard to see a forest for the trees when the trees mean nothing to you. A forest, on the other hand, is a major geographic feature — an impediment or a frontier. A forest on the horizon forces you to find some answers. Are you trying to get to the other side? How will you? How long will it take?

After taking that botany class, the forest changed from a crowd to a conglomerate of friends. I now stop to greet each kind of plant.

What is with this bluebell? July 2012, in the Bonanza Creek LTER.

Still, that’s just a species — we don’t greet humanity as a crowd, usually. But as I get to know each species, the individuality of each plant shines through. Here is a rose bush that’s taller than me. There is an aspen stressed by drought. Over there is a fireweed with cherry-blossom-pink flowers.

You can seek the unexpected, too, if you know the forest well enough. It’s like when you return to your home town after several years, and the first thing you notice isn’t the airport, the park or the church you grew up next to — it’s that new department store. You know what belongs, so your brain puts a spotlight on what doesn’t belong. I find myself asking questions like “Why is that bird vetch here?” “I’ve never seen that mushroom here before.” “Really? Alaska has woodchucks?”

Back to the color walk, and we’ll see how that exercise ties into the boreal forest.

Imagine you weren’t looking for red, yellow, blue or green. Imagine you weren’t even looking for plant species. Imagine you got to the heart of this exercise – blindness of the unknown. What would that look like? Is that plant a fireweed, or because it is pink, is it a different plant entirely?

This exercise takes the focus off your own abilities — encouraging though color walks are — and places the focus on the forest. What does the forest have to teach you? All it takes is the humility to say “I don’t know what this is.”

Raise your hand if you know what this is. Would you glance over it if you didn’t know? I could tell you, but let’s make this an exercise in using Google to figure out what you see outdoors (or you can scroll to the bottom of the post)

Or don’t. Maybe you just need the geographic feature.

If all you see is forest, there isn’t much you can do but drive through it.

(Third picture from the top is a shy, fertile, spore-producing moonwort.)

Saturday Wrap-Up: Squirrels on the mind

Arctic ground squirrels are Alaska’s Rosetta stone to unlocking hibernation. Hibernation’s an amazing skill to have. It helps us understand how zombies and lengthy space travel could exist. I’ve talked about how ground squirrels avoid heart attacks when putting their body through the jolt of hibernation — a skill humans would like to learn.

“What the Supercool Arctic Ground Squirrel Teaches Us about the Brain’s Resilience” – This week, Scientific American took its readers on a trip across the street from researcher Kelly Drew, to Brian Barnes’s lab.

One of the things Barnes studies is torpor — it’s a sleep-like state animals enter during the hibernation season. As in, ground squirrels wake up in the winter — briefly. This is key to their survival, the article points out. The article journeys into ground squirrel brains and examines individual neurons throughout the winter months.

Yes, it’s a short wrap-up today. We’re getting ready for a trip to Eagle Summit tomorrow. Never been out there, quite excited to see what plants we can find.

Saturday Wrap-Up: Gold, red and swept-away treasures

A soccer ball with Japanese writing, which came from a school in the tsunami zone and later washed up on an Alaskan island. The ball was found on Middleton Island in March, and more debris is headed for Alaska. (Photo by David Baxter via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Happy weekend! Glorious and sunny here in Fairbanks, but the clouds are starting to roll in. For today’s Saturday Wrap-Up, we’re going to take a break from the boreal and travel around the state to see how the summer is going for treasure hunters.

Crew will attempt to recover millions from Southeast Alaska shipwreck – A 1901 Gold Rush-era shipwreck is at the top of the salvage list for the state. Up to 3,000 shipwrecks litter the coastline, and lucky Ocean Mar, Inc. gets to look for gold on the SS Islander off the coast of Admiralty Island.

Excellent news for the treasure hunters in all of us, but closer to home, the red gemstone of Alaska’s rivers and dinner tables isn’t doing too well this year.

Dismal king salmon returns across Alaska stokes fear of a crisis – Empty nets keep returning to homes in Fairbanks. Salmon runs have been terrible this year. It’s too late even for a late start, but the late ice might have had something to do with it, according to this Dispatch article (from Suzanna Caldwell, formerly of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner). No matter when the first pulse does come, it looks to be a disappointing year.

And for those who find treasure in trash, we return to Southeast Alaska…

Scientists kick-off first NOAA-led survey of Southeast beaches for tsunami debris – The first wave of debris from Japan’s tsunami last year is hitting Alaska shorelines, according to Ketchikan-based SitNews. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists will cruise up and down the coasts of Southeast Alaska to survey what items made their way to Alaska. Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski asked President Barack Obama and NOAA for funds to clean up and track the debris. Up to three billion pounds of trash will journey to Alaska, Begich said, cluttering the state’s coastal ecosystems with plastics.

What’s happening this summer in your life? How does Alaska reassert its power over you each summer — and, should you face it, what treasures does it hold?

Scientist storytellers bridge the gap between life and textbooks

When I’m listening to an engaging story, I prefer to look away from the storyteller. Part of this is due to my poor hearing in crowds — I subconsciously turn my ear toward the person. I admit it’s also a lot easier for a story to engulf me if I’m not staring at the narrator. The best stories don’t require the expressions and hand motions of their tellers. I don’t want to be in the present, at the party, I want to see and touch and hear what the storyteller weaves for me.

Jad Abumrad of Radiolab fame appeared in a Big Think video to explain audio’s power over video.

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Stumps trump time travel by revealing decades in one glimpse

A stump bares its tales before and after death through rings and decomposition, May 26, 2012.

A conk sprouts from an old stump, May 26, 2012.

Your neighbor dies. No one knows why. With family consent, pathologists perform an autopsy to find the cause of death – be it a poison, allergic reaction or chronic malady. People you see every day look fine on the outside, not drastically different now than yesterday, or last year.

Between what you see and what doctors see is a scalpel, a cut, a way of making the unseen seen. What we cannot see is free to swell unchecked. Autopsies allow doctors to travel into the past and see how time, exposure and chance treated a person.

Place a hand on a stump of an old tree. If you walk your fingers ring-to-ring, you can explore and sidestep where (and often when) branches start, fires scar and fungi flourish. Here, as with humans, you can see what brought the tree down.

You can time travel with trees, visually and musically, and you and I likely have more access to stumps than cadavers and time machines, anyway.

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I give a few mosses their name tags and get a diploma in return

I found the strangest packet of tiny mosses while identifying — many species were half their regular size.

I’m done. Graduated. No longer a student fumbling through science and journalism — though I don’t know how to work through things any more now than I did last week.

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