Reflections on a summer researching sea ducks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

By Jessica Herzog

There’s something spiritual upon realizing how small of a piece you are in the puzzle of the natural world. I first discovered this during my field season when I looked out our plane window and saw a lone caribou traversing the flatness and trenches of permafrost polygons in Alaska’s Canning River Delta. She must have known exactly where she was going over these landforms I had only read about. She knew her purpose in this remote land, while a part of me wondered, what am I doing here?

I was working with the Student Conservation Association and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, finding as many cackling goose nests in the Canning River Delta as possible. Our goal was to deploy game cameras near them and find out who (be it fox, glaucous gull, or jaeger) ate the eggs. 

That feeling of smallness struck me often. Once, I was hiking in chest waders across lumpy tundra and wading through moat-like ponds that surrounded the geese’s nest islands. Then, almost within reach of the nest islands, I was slipping on the ponds’ icy bottoms and grasping for air and patchy surface ice to stay on my feet.

Cold, dark water worked its way into my waders, seeped through my coat and down my legs, but we weren’t done working. For the next few hours, the most powerful wind I had experienced made me abruptly aware that whatever it screamed for with face stinging howls it would have. With blustering boldness it took my embarrassment, the pond water off my clothes, and almost every bit of my body heat. In those hours I was no different than the goose down the wind pulled from depredated nests and blew like fluffy tumbleweeds across the seemingly endless tundra for hundreds of breeding seasons.

Yet the most affecting realization I had was near Kaktovik, Alaska. Our goal was still finding nests and deploying cameras, but the bird of interest was now the common eider and the predator list included the polar bear. I was driving a 16ft zodiac inflatable boat in the Beaufort Sea to reach the barrier islands where the eiders nest. Looking across the water, my eyes met seven shades of blue and watched the colors gradually flatten with the sunlight into a backdrop of seamless water and sky. Teal, scoters, and eiders crossed the expanse together in their usual V formations and the mist still danced on the edge of my peripheral vision as it had most mornings before. But there I was, an orange Mustang Suit speck encapsulated in vast blue-grey eeriness, the landscape mirroring itself and I reflecting on impermanence. No one from my family yet visited this place and there was no way to know how many other people have been lucky enough to witness true wilderness. Though this landscape morphs all the time, I knew it was changing now more than ever. I was unsure of how deep the frigid water surrounding me was and had no way of knowing how many more years until that water would no longer be studded with icebergs floating gently on the surface. But during that moment I knew: beneath those waters and in that land there is and always will be a mosaic of life, time, and breath. Throughout my field season, I shared those qualities, my experience, with a fascinating piece of our world--the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I offer a heartfelt “Thank You” to Audubon Alaska, the World Wildlife Fund U.S Arctic Field Program, and the Student Conservation Association for the financial support to field my internship position. 

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