Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Only touch dead birds with your right hand

This morning I hiked out to lake 395 and passed by a dead owl. 

Thinking an owl talon would make a pretty cool talisman, I pulled out my Leatherman and cut off one of the feet. An impossible number of plump maggots erupted from the severed limb and I dropped the rotting bird on the tundra.

Then I remembered that I had a big gouge in my hand from falling into the Copper River last week. The greasy forgotten-turkey smell on my hands made me wonder where else my open wound had been.

I'm up at Toolik with an Australian film crew shooting a documentary on tipping aspects of the climate system. Yesterday we sampled and shot the Stinking Bluffs, a 100 foot tall eroding permafrost cliff and I stuck my hands into the 50,000 year old mud. Since I lived through H1N1 I wasn't too worried about the mammoth flu or other Pleistocene plagues.

Then I looked back at the wriggling bird carcass and realized that it wasn't even an owl, it was a Northern Harrier - a cool bird in its own right, but no owl.

 After rinsing my hand off in the lake I went over to the Kuparuk River to sample some ice-wedge degradation that Mike told me about yesterday.

While I was looking for the best place to collect water, a bull caribou trotted over. He came within 20 yards (which surprised me since the Slope is crawling with bow hunters right now), sniffed my draft and ambled away towards the road. After filling my bottles I saw that the bull had stopped traffic in both directions crossing the Haul Road between two trucks of hunters.

"I guess that was the last video anyone will ever take of that one," I mourned, hoping I wasn't the cause of his arrowy death. To my surprise, the two groups of hunters just sat there, neither side knowing who should take the shot (plus you can't shoot from the road). The bull walked calmly between the bumpers and onto the tundra on the opposite side. Once he was walking away, the "it's getting away" instinct shook the hunters out of their stupor and they piled out of the pickups like maggots out of an owl's leg. They gave chase but the bull immediately and effortlessly put 100 yards between them. He tilted his head back in that caribou way and looked really please, as if he was thinking, 

"I hope some cows saw that."


  1. ben, this is rich with information (Aussies filming global warming--a geologically swift-moving film!) and tension (will he die? is it an owl?) and unexpected plot (will the carribou charge? will the hunters shoot each other?).

    nice work.

  2. I had a similar experience with a walrus I thought was a whale. That rib bone protruding looked so sterile and sun bleached...how was I to fathom the quantity of maggots that would flow forth upon extraction?