That everything-under-control sense is a bit of an illusion. I learned that firsthand in August 2006, when I joined Australian filmmaker Ruth Berry on the first "Arctic Dinosaurs" filming expedition. With each passing day on that journey, it came home to me more fully, more chillingly, just how inhospitable and potentially deadly working in such an inaccessible locale can be. How completely city-dwellers like myself relied on the expertise of the pilots, guides, and seasoned field researchers on the expedition. And how one wrong step—like the one I made at one point while inching across the face of a mud-slick cliff 20 stories above the river—could mean disaster.
That particular moment, which was emblematic of the potential perils we faced, and anyone faces, working in a place like Alaska's North Slope, reminds me a little too literally of a tightrope walker high above, say, Niagara Falls: Everything is fine until it isn't, and then you're in trouble.
That feeling of hanging on the coattails of people who actually knew what they were doing in such an environment began right at the beginning of the expedition. Our goal was to join paleontologist Tony Fiorillo and his team at their fossil dig site on the Colville, but there's not so much as a dogsled trail across the tundra up there, much less a highway. Our route would be by air and river.
In Fairbanks, as Ruth and I, along with a film crew and a wilderness guide, loaded the 12-person, single-engine plane with our tents and supplies, the pilot told us what lay ahead. We would fly north for several hours, then pass through a notch in the Brooks Range and land in Inupiat Eskimo territory on the North Slope. We were told at takeoff that if the weather was overcast at either the notch or the landing site, the pilot would have to turn back. Flying with low visibility through these 9,000-foot crags would be, well, ill-advised.
Later, as our little plane neared the Brooks Range, my heart sank—it was totally socked in. But our pilot simply said, "Oh, hell, I've done this before," and flew right into the cloudbank. Soon enough we landed at the settlement—which was also socked in. So why the pilot's preamble? I wondered. His slightly bemused expression offered a clue—I'd just gotten the classic greenhorn treatment. Still, it was the first of many instances of feeling a bit like I was walking a tightrope.
The boat trip
The settlement, perched on the edge of the Colville River, is called Umiat. Little more than an airstrip, a fuel dump, and some World War II-era Quonset huts, Umiat serves as a kind of base camp for oil prospectors, geologists, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) operatives. For us it was the launching point for our transport to the fossil dig site—an 18-foot, flat-bottomed boat powered by a small outboard and loaded with several 5- or 10-gallon gas canisters.
The day would have passed in relative comfort if the boat had had a roof. But it was open to the four winds, and as we began to head downriver—which meant, counterintuitively, traveling due north towards the Arctic Ocean—we quickly began to bemoan the lack of a proper enclosure. For four long hours, as we motored the 50 miles or so to Tony's camp, we huddled under tarps against a maddeningly steady, freezing rain that buffeted us the entire trip. Wasn't August in Alaska supposed to be warm?
I suddenly felt the thin support under my feet give way, and I started to fall.
Despite the discomfort, it was impossible not to be astonished by the tall cliffs and arrestingly barren landscape that surrounded us. And by the knowledge that in that vast, unbroken, arctic wilderness, someone had actually come upon dinosaur fossils. Aside from thinking of dinosaurs as warm-weather creatures, I thought that either Tony Fiorillo had been incredibly lucky—like winning-the-lottery lucky—or dinosaur bones must lie everywhere on the North Slope, in such profusion that he had only to decide to look for them in order to find them.
In fact, Tony told me later that he located his dig site simply by riding downriver, as we were doing, and looking for rocks in the cliff faces that matched the kind of rocks at the Liscomb bone bed, a site along the Colville that was the first dinosaur fossil bed discovered in the Alaskan Arctic. When Tony finally did spot some of that rock, crumbled in a pile at the bottom of a cliff, he found dinosaur remains nearby. It was that easy.
"Easy" was not the first word to come to mind when we finally arrived at Tony's site and looked up toward the dig. (The site is called Kikak-Tegoseak, in honor of two local Inupiat families.) It turns out that Tony's rocks had eroded out of the very top of one of those cliffs. His quarry was 300 feet above the river—a football field in length, more or less straight up. The only way you could get there was by climbing 200 feet up a steep, muddy ridgelet and then inching across the cliff face on a ledge just a few inches wide, your face occasionally pressed up against the dirt. I have a mild fear of heights, which didn't help.
Remember that "one wrong step" I mentioned? Well, this is where I took it. Maybe I was thinking about our cameraman, Paul Warren, who, with our bulky film camera in his backpack, was alarmingly top-heavy. Or maybe I was wishing I'd brought rubber muck boots like Tony had rather than my hiking boots, each of which was by then encased in about two or three pounds of mud and had zero purchase. Or maybe I was wondering how I'd stop my body, if I slipped, from tumbling and sliding all the way down that 200-foot slab of melting ice-cream cake and into the icy water.
Whatever, I suddenly felt the thin support under my feet give way, and I started to fall. My right hand shot out, grabbing frantically at the wall. Somehow it latched onto a thin branch or root, which was busy fighting its own battle with erosion and gravity. Miraculously, this humble twig held long enough that I was able to find firmer footing. Staring then with a kind of sick fascination at the hypothermic water below, the adrenaline pumping through my veins, I couldn't help saying to myself, "All this just for some old bones?"
Yes. That's the answer that came readily to mind when I safely reached the site and saw what was being unearthed there. For in the rain-loosened permafrost at my feet, Tony and his fellow paleontologists were finding the fossil bones of 70 million-year-old dinosaurs. Big ones. Altogether, they uncovered eight genera among the hundreds of fossil bones, including the Triceratops-like Pachyrhinosaurus and the 30-foot-long, 40-ton Edmontosaurus. There were also meat-eaters, small ones like the 150-pound Troodon and big, top-of-the-food-chain ones like Gorgosaurus, a T. rex lookalike.
It was truly one of the saddest moments in my life when I saw that helicopter take off without us.
I realized that only time separated us on that windswept bluff from the living dinosaurs, which now remained only as rocks. They were here. Gazing around at the harsh, impersonal tundra and the braided river far below, I felt that the fascinating but intellectually remote story of life on Earth had suddenly become real, palpable. I felt overwhelmed, truth be told, even a little frightened. There was so much at hand that was simply vast, unknowable, almost alien. It was as if we were excavating among the planets....
Such wistful musing didn't last long. We still had to get down that cliff at the end of the day. We still had to camp that night on a frigid gravel bar jutting into the river. (The BLM wouldn't allow us to camp on the vulnerable tundra atop the cliff.) And we still had to be on our guard for grizzlies. "If you have to get up in the middle of the night, whistle so you don't startle Mr. Bear," our ex-Special Forces guide had warned us with a wink. What about in my tent, the one with the flimsy walls and roof? I wondered to myself. Should I whistle all night?
Finally, we still had to get back to civilization. It was bad enough that the weather turned nasty again just as we were setting out in that same accursed open boat. But I for one hadn't foreseen the radical difference between heading upstream rather than down. As luck would have it, a recent rainstorm up in the mountains had caused a torrent of water draining out of the Brooks Range to raise the Colville's level, which ratcheted up the speed of the current. It soon grew so strong that, as a glance at the riverbank revealed, our boat, even on full throttle, barely moved forward. Plus, every five minutes or so, we had to pull up to a gravel bank and shut down the motor so our guide could hop out in his waders and clear the impellers of the floral debris that kept clogging them. The wilderness, by that point, had become more foe than source of inspiration.
And then we ran out of gas. That one wrong step at last? Fortunately not. Our balky satellite phone behaved, and before long a helicopter arrived with a 20-gallon drum of fuel. It was truly one of the saddest moments in my life when I saw that helicopter take off without us. Can't you take me? I thought in unabashed self-interest.
The trip downriver had been four hours; the trip back up was 16. We didn't arrive at Umiat until midnight. After a few drinks to warm our deeply chilled selves, we collapsed into well-deserved sleep. When we finally flew back to Fairbanks, I thought to myself that, by and large, that had been one of the most uncomfortable and hair-raising experiences of my life. Didn't look like it on screen, did it?