Field note from Cape Espenberg

On the weather-beaten beaches of Cape Espenberg, on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, a large field camp supports a tribe of researchers working on ridges pushed up by storms over the millennia, ridges rich with buried archaeological material.  PI John Hoffecker (University of Colorado) leads the effort to resurrect the history of human occupation in the area, an undertaking requiring up to 29 scientists and students on site at a time.

PFS staffers Kenet Nicholls and Rae Spain keep the field camp running day in and day out. Kenet recently sent us a note. In addition to describing the “stark magnificence” of the place, he offers a glimpse of the daily routine of one managing a large research camp in remote Alaska.

At 5:15 a.m. my ritual begins: roll off the cot; don Carhartts, boots and hoodie; grab binoculars; step out of the tent. I scan the beaches and dune ridges for wildlife. Ursus Arctos?  No sign. Good. No rogue bachelor musk oxen looking to make trouble, and mama fox (whose species has a high incidence of rabies in the Arctic) has yet to appear. Just wind-blown coastal dunes, deteriorating sand ridges, delicate flowers fighting for a moment to bloom and spread their pollen.

All’s clear for the 150-meter hike to the kitchen yurt.

First priority: high octane coffee for the cook (me!) and my house-mouse, who will arrive at 6:00. Get the ball rolling for the current crew of 18 eager souls. Hash browns on to soak—check; bacon in the pan—check. Eggs whipped to scramble, toast on the rack.

It’s looking good when in walks my cohort, Rae Spain, sister of spices, princess of picante, culinaire extraordinaire, here to save my bacon (sometimes literally). Rae sweeps in and makes every breakfast look easy.

After breakfast, our archaeological crew—Alaska, Nebraska, Quebec, California, and Paris (Mon dieu say no more!)—is ready for another day of excavating ridges four, five, and six.  PI John Hoffecker, full-time archaeologist and part-time stand-up political comedian, checks in before heading out to the site. Delightful man.

Mid-morning, Rae takes command of the center of the universe—la cucina—while I tend to trash, outhouses, and general camp necessities. Those done, together we fire up the water system. (I am still unclear as to whether it was designed by NASA or the Simpsons. There are so many components, gadgets, dials and knobs, but it works brilliantly.)  

Darting ground squirrels and delicate foxes entertain us throughout the morning. Just before noon Rae and I make our 10-minute walk to the dig sites to deliver soup and hot chocolate. We’re always welcome visitors! Half of the crew stays on site for lunch, huddled inside the Russian bug tent, while the other half comes home. It’s a warm and brief reunion.

2:00 p.m. Rae kicks open the throttle on the kitchen machine, this time with me in the side car helping her. Mexican, Italian, Ethiopian, Indian—the woman is a fat man’s dream. From a Number 10 can and a handful of spices I’m convinced she could settle small nation’s wars.

Mid afternoon and early evening, Rae and I take turns with half-hour strolls on the beach, collecting our treasures, later to be identified by the scientists. “Oh, of course—that’s the left tibia of a pregnant mammoth. . . .Ah yes, that’s obviously the third vertebrae of a Pleistocene horse, not seen in these parts for 12,000 years. . . .”

Right! I’m speaking English 101 in a room full of Latin scholars.

Silence falls every evening for the first 10 minutes of dinner as weary archaeologists savor their meal after a day of being battered by wind or consumed by mosquitoes.  After dinner, some hit the lab tent to process the day’s finds while others play chess or backgammon or read impenetrable papers by icons like Giddings, Anderson, Mason—or Hoffecker.

9:00 p.m. I retire to my tent to read my book and slip silently into a dream state, waves crashing on ice sculptures piled on the beach.