Sunday, October 25, 2009


The storm is finally over! Peak wind speed topped out at 62 mph. The last night of the blizzard we were watching TV and it felt like a miniature earthquake because everything was shaking (couches, chairs, beds, etc) from all the wind. We've made it out two days in a row now, but we still haven't been able to find our last bear. One more day of looking and we'll probably have to call it quits.

I think that one of the most interesting things about this project is all the time you get to spend in helicopters. If you've never ridden in one, it's a real trip. The helicopters that we've used on this project are from a company named Prism based out of Wasilla, AK. Whenever we go out looking for bears, we take two helicopters. One helicopter has a pilot and usually 2-3 people from USGS that actually dart the bear. The other helicopter has a pilot and usually two people (one of whom is me) from the University of Wyoming to take all our measurements. On this particular project we mainly used two different types of helicopters: a Hughes MD-500 and an A Star AS350 (we also used a Robinson 44 one day). When looking for polar bears we usually fly 100-200 ft. off the ground at a speed of 60-80 mph. Usually we can fly for about 2-2.5 hours between refueling, the MD-500 that I rode in most of the time has one 50 gallon tank and an external 30 gallon auxiliary tank. It's really amazing how maneuverable the helicopters are, our pilots can park them into some pretty tiny spaces or more often, zip right in for a close shot at a polar bear.

Aside from our project, Deadhorse is teaming with other helicopters. There are oilcamps and rigs all over the North Slope that either don't have roads going to them, or only have ice roads in the winter time. So helicopters are quite useful for ferrying people and smaller loads of cargo to and fro.
I took this picture about 3:30 in the afternoon walking back from the hotel gym. I think this was like day 2 of the blizzard. Needless to say, visibility was poor.

The wind was finally starting to die down when I took this picture. I'm sitting down in the middle of the path outside our back door.

Every night the pilots put sleeves over the helicopter blades so that ice doesn't build up on them. We had to do a little shoveling to make this helicopter operational.
The day after the blizzard, 2F. I'm standing in the middle of the driveway leading up to our house.

Deadhorse is really dependent on the airport for supplies and getting all the oil workers moved around. Snow removal is obviously critical, and these were some pretty big time machines.
I'd love to know how much that scoop full of snow weighed.

This front-end loader didn't even have a bottom on the scoop, strictly made for pushing snow.

Me all decked out in my flight gear. Two things: you definitely want to wear ear plugs and those helmets are incredibly heavy, especially when you're craning your neck around all day looking for bears.

We filled our helicopters up at fuel caches stored in Kaktovik and Point Lonely. Unfortunately, the fuel tank at Lonely is self service.

This is the MD-500 helicopter from prism. The white tank underneath it is the auxiliary fuel tank, 30 gallons. This helicopter also has emergency floats, for use over open water. I could tell you that Magnum P.I. had a helicopter just like this, but I'm pretty sure that no one other than my dad would get the reference. It looks pretty sweet, and has a price tag to match: $500,000.

This is the ASTAR 350 that the USGS folks flew in. It's quite a little bigger than the MD-500, and worth more too: $2,000,000.

The USGS crew put these flashy antennas on to track bears that have radio collars.

Helicopters aren't very exciting unless you have some pilots around. Pictured on the right is one of the best, Paula.

Joe and Bruce: these two were our pilots for most of October. Occasionally you can trick them into doing the hard jobs, like weighing cubs. Joe plays a mean game of fussball and Bruce is from New Zealand. I think Bruce is the first person I've ever met from New Zealand. The accent from Flight of the Conchords is totally legit (Dana Petersen photo).

Chuck only flew for us one day, but it was totally worth it because we managed to capture our only male polar bear that day. Chuck raises Angus cattle in Montana when he isn't flying around Alaska, so we had some good chats about beef cows.

I think if left to their own devices, helicopters can be kind of a rowdy bunch. It probably helps to have a mechanic like Gaylen around to keep an eye on them.