Digging up dirt in Northern Alaska: What happens when geologists take over the North Slope

“Our friends say we’re on vacation,” laughs Dolores van der Kolk. The activities of the day prove far from it. She’s sitting on a folding lawn chair along the Colville River in northern Alaska. Our location is a scant few miles from the most remote spot in the largest state in the union—more than 80 miles from the nearest town.

Our “vacation” was 29 days living in tents on gravel bars in the great outdoors of northern Alaska. This was not quite a holiday for most, despite the panoramic scenery of North Slope tundra, the occasional caribou and grizzly, and the fact that the sun didn’t set for the most part. It is a workplace of unparalleled beauty.

Van der Kolk, 32, is on the North Slope for the seventh straight year, and her husband, Peter Flaig, is notching his eighth. He finished his doctorate in 2010 at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and she’s working on hers as part of this project. They’re both geologists at the University of Texas-Austin, but every August they doff the desks and head to the bluffs.

“We’re old school,” says Flaig, 43. “We’re still field geologists.”

Their job is looking at rocks, rock faces and stratigraphy in rivers and shorelines—65 million- 90 million-year-old rivers and shorelines to be more precise. We found them on the sides of 200-foot tall bluffs that tower over the Colville for 60 miles, south of the Arctic Ocean by about 70 miles and about 350 miles north of Fairbanks. They go by the romantic names of Shivugak, Ocean Point, Uluksrak and the much-less-so Schrader Bluff. Through those bluffs runs the ancient Prince Creek formation where dinosaurs roamed and left their bones behind. In that we would find the Liscomb Bone Bed and the Kikak-Tegosiak Quarry—the world’s largest concentration of polar dinosaur bones. Flaig’s forte was looking at sediments where the bones were, while van der Kolk’s interest was marine sediments and trace fossils.

In those shorelines we would find evidence of critters and clams that were hanging out at the bottom of what was then an ocean and are now part of the fossil record. A few million decades earlier further up the bluff we would find trees and dinosaur footprints and bones.

The work part of the day was getting there—and then holding on.

Because the bluffs have overseen the erosion of the tundra for the past several thousand years, their contents are easily viewed by the geologists. Ravines caused from water running off the tundra from above for eons almost uniformly creviced the rock face. The outcrops glisten in the sun; white layers of sandstone crystals grab the light while continuous black lines of coal, yellow lines of sulfurish rock and goldish-orange-brown lines of sand run along the hillsides to an endless horizon to the north. In the sun, it they look like shining mountains. The well-defined parallel layers look from the distance as if someone had drawn them. An occasional disruption in their straight-line progress can be spotted from the base of the bluff.  “Dinosaur footprints” van der Kolk called them.

The cliffs are easy to get to by water, which was our commute to work each day. The Colville runs fast, shallow for the most part, and really cold. Draining Brooks Range snow and glacial ice from the south, it’s a winding blue artery cutting through the green of the tundra. The banks during our stay were about a half-mile apart. Fourteen-foot inflatable orange Mercury boats with 25 horsepower motors were the vehicles. Water levels were quite low at times and dragging the boats upstream was a transportation mode for a few days. Good thing we had waders.

But then there’s the hiking and climbing part. That’s what separates these field geologists from their wine-sipping counterparts behind big-city computer screens analyzing data, or those that do helicopter fly-bys and call it adequate research. Backpacks are filled with first aid kits, samples, satellite phones, ground-to-air radios, camera gear, flood and water. So the traveling wasn’t light.

Pete and Dolores, being the old hats at this that they are, seemingly hop over the rocks and mud-covered hillsides with a decided lack of trudging. This was not a sport for smokers, as going up was a vertical face at times, pulling ourselves up with the help of the handy Maddox pick. We had to work where the rock was exposed and it would take some precarious footwork to get there.

I’m not one for looking down from high altitudes, so it was easy for me to climb, since I would be looking up for footholds. Going down was a different story, trying to keep the momentum from tossing the body down the mountainside.

Dolores was the bellwether as to whether a route was good or not. When we heard “sketchy” it was time to look for another way. That usually meant that the footing was either too steep to gain a foothold or of the consistency of fine gravel—“popcorn” they called it. Slipping down that stuff meant there wasn’t much keeping us from hurtling down the hill with dangerous and uncontrolled abandon. On a few occasions the rushing and frigid water of the Colville was waiting at the bottom, its churning waters moving menacingly as a warning that the footing should be precise. But a controlled slide down the popcorn was a fleet and fun way down.

After getting to the desired layer of sand to study, the geologists became more like goats, at times digging mud ledges the width of their feet to form an ad hoc platform to dig samples or measure sand–at the same time balancing their gear and keeping it from falling off the bluff. In the rare event that it fell it was my job to go back down and get it. They had to work.

While pinned to the side of the hill, van der Kolk and Flaig would trade finds and compare. Standard conversation was over the quality of the sand—whether it was fine, very fine, siltstone, hummocked, or even “fine grain hash.” Samples were bagged and hauled back to camp.

It is a sweaty profession.

My job after the geologists were embedded in their hill work was to watch for bears. Grizzlies tend to roam the North Slope, as evidenced by the tracks we saw at most work sites—some recent, some not so.  Satisfied I had the most scenic view of the tundra stretched before me, I’d settle down with my .357 holstered to my chest and enjoy the view.

No bears bothered us on land but the zodiac boat bid a hasty retreat after running up on three of them crossing the river one afternoon. The bears’ intentions were to get out of the river where we were about to pull in to go to work. Mama bear turned and growled a warning as we approached the 30-foot range with reverse at high rpms. We didn’t go to work there that day.

Generally after eight or nine hours on the slopes, retirement to dinner with the Coleman stove was the reward. A lot of water turned into freeze-dried backpacker meals from that stove, but there were also what we thought were gourmet delights of pizza, salmon cakes and pesto. Fire-roasted grayling appeared one night courtesy of my fishing pole.

Our kitchen tent on the shores of the Colville looked like some space-age orange and white mountain dome tent seen on the slopes of Mt. Everest, which is what it was. With no trees to hide behind, the tent we used to cook and converse in needed to be sturdy and staked down enough so it won’t blow away in what can become 40 mile-plus winds in a matter of minutes. And we would need that stability at several points during our stay.

The weather didn’t really add to any discomfort, except perhaps when fall blew in during the last week, turning the day into a windy, rainy, 40-degree walk-in cooler. We dressed in layers, from long johns to rain gear. Our fearless field geologists couldn’t work in the rain, since the bluffs would turn into a mud slip ‘n slide making ascent impossible. Those two days we spent hunkered in the kitchen tent studying the previous days’ work on laptops, reading, or sitting around sucking up our coffee and tea supply.

The geologists weren’t without their technology. At one point, there were four laptops, six cameras, support batteries and a gas-powered generator as part of the gear. A key camera piece was something called a “GigaPan.” This computerized robotic panhead and camera sat on top a tripod and, after the program was set, would create a high-resolution panorama one frame at a time, up to 380 pictures. It would take about an hour to do its thing. The result was bluff photos down to the minutest detail—perfect for studying back at home and for poster size or power-point presentations.

The GigaPan is no ordinary camera. Coming in at a price tag of around $10,000, it was carried in two Pelican cases weighing in at around 35 pounds apiece. Carrying that valuable cargo miles over gravel bars and through willows was a challenge that was never mentioned in the brochure. Imagine carrying a steamer trunk over rocky, ankle-twisting terrain that could break an ankle without malice. Days spent with the camera at first were a treat, since it also meant lying around while the camera did its thing and not having to traverse the cliffs. But once the camera had to be carried over the tundra, the task came with a feeling of dread. Hoisting the cases up on top of the head like some villager going to a well for water seemed to be the least painful way to travel with them.

We were joined by two other geologists after 20 days, Steve Hasiotis of the University of Kansas, and Annie Miller, a UT-Austin graduate student doing her PhD. work on hydrogeology. They were fresh and clean from the city as they got off the Cessna on our humble gravel bar.

Hasiotis, 49, is considered to be the world’s foremost expert on the continental of trace fossils, known as ichnology, the study of tracks and trails animals leave in the sediment. He could identify an trace fossil and most bones within seconds, noting at once in picking up a sliver of rock less than an inch long, “it’s a piece of the back of a baby dinosaur.” I didn’t doubt him. After all, what did I know?

Steve would walk around the shore picking up rocks as if he were a beachcomber. “This is a footprint. This is a rib bone,” he’d call out with the excitement of a treasure hunter with a big find.

Miller, 30, on the other hand, got a taste of what the harsh realities that North Slope Alaska can do to a person and that there is no margin for error. She broke her fibula four days into her 11-day stay after slipping on a muddy slope. We thought it was a sprained ankle after examining the bruising and consulting the wilderness medical handbook so she rested for a couple days and toughed it out walking for a few days thinking it was a sprain. Getting to the North Slope is not an easy or cheap project and she had to get her work done for the PhD since she knew she wasn’t coming back.

It was a stark reminder that we were indeed in the middle of nowhere.

We flew out of the slope off our gravel bar using four flights of a small Helio Courier airplane in a driving wind and rain storm, watching as the snow was moving in. From the air the scenery remained a landscape of beauty that was not harsh, but winter was coming, our time was up and we had to go.


2 thoughts on “Digging up dirt in Northern Alaska: What happens when geologists take over the North Slope

  • October 20, 2012 at 3:25 AM

    Well done Doug! I’m almost envious! Vacationing on the North Slope! Although … I spent my summer at the beach. Don’t know if I could spend that much time out there and I definitely am not capable of scampering up and down cliffs, not without stairs. Great story Doug!

  • October 17, 2012 at 12:33 AM

    Thanks for putting together this great article, and thanks for being such a fantastic and instrumental part of our team. We certainly COULD NOT have done it without you!! By the way EVERYONE should try Doug’s pesto field pizza…it was AWESOME!

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