Although the calendar calls it spring, the thermometer on the truck reads minus 28 F on this sunny morning a few days after the vernal equinox.
I ride with Knut Kielland, an ecologist at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He invited me to join him for a week north of the Arctic Circle – 66.6 degrees north latitude, about 150 miles from Fairbanks.
We crossed the imaginary line with ease, driving three hours north of Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway, built in the early 1970s to enable construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
Kielland is there to trap live lynx and slip them collars that will allow him and others to see where boreal forest cats roam. In this study by scientists from several agencies in Alaska and Canada, he and others found lynx mysteriously trotted far away from the valley drained by the middle fork of the Koyukuk River. For example, a lynx trotted to the mouth of the Yukon River, another to northern British Columbia.
Kielland is encouraged today because one of his trail cameras outside an open cage trap has a lynx filling a picture frame. Our task for the day is to set the traps using a “concoction” of scent he mixed together, including fish oil and dried beaver castor (a gland inside the beaver that smells surprisingly nice).
As we drive north from the Coldfoot Truck Stop/Restaurant/Motel, Kielland slows the Chevy Suburban near a small frozen creek.
“Keep an eye out for something that looks like a bear,” he says. “A musk ox hangs around in these woods.”
And there it is, a brownish-white mass amid living and dead spruce trees. Although it is 100 meters away, the muskox can be seen digging into the ground with its cloven hooves, possibly feeding on vegetation under the snow.
Although he first came to Alaska to work on a musk ox farm near Unalakleet in the 1970s, Kielland says he has no idea what this animal could be doing in the forest if close to all the big trucks transporting goods to and from the oil fields north of us.
Muskoxen are creatures of the tundra – many of which are found on the North Slope, just 60 miles across the Brooks Range. Wiseman locals have suggested that this musk ox may be a solitary bull hunted from the rest by a more dominant one that stayed north with its harem.
Survivors of the last ice age, muskoxen are enormous; even the females weigh a quarter of a ton. The creatures disappeared from Alaska possibly in the late 1800s, but professionals from the US Biological Survey imported 34 of them from Greenland to Alaska in 1930.
Of this hardy stock that lived and multiplied on Nunivak Island off the coast of southwestern Alaska, biologists transported 51 to Barter Island in 1969 and 1970, and at the same time another 13 near of the Kavik River, about 100 miles west of Barter Island.
This musk ox from the northern forest near Wiseman is likely related to these pioneer creatures. In the early 2000s, scientists documented grizzly bears battling, killing, and feeding on far northern muskoxen, reducing their numbers.
Maybe hanging out in the forest by the road is a good way to avoid the one predator that would mess up a musk ox (although grizzlies and black bears still hibernate). We drive by the lone animal with the unsolved mystery.
A little further north we see a hillside lobe of dirt and drunken trees slowly flowing towards the highway. It is one of 23 “lobes of frozen debris” identified by UAF and state agency scientists. Since I last drove through this area in 2017, workers from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities have diverted the highway from a boreal drop that has seeped more than 30 feet each from two last years.
Scientists describe the flows as a landslide in permafrost. They strike now, at the end of winter, snowy tongues reaching the dark green forest.
Next week I’ll describe the lynx living with Kielland, and the project he’s involved in that has revealed so much about the wildcat that roams furthest from the equator.
Since the late 1970s, the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has provided this column free of charge in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science editor at the Geophysical Institute.