As the manager of a seasonal research camp on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Tim Knudson has seen his share of caribou. They routinely parade by as he and his research teammates work out on the tundra.
But nothing compared to the day that more than a thousand wandered by at lunch.
Tim and a colleague had worked all morning, methodically searching for nesting migratory birds. They took a break and nestled into the spongy green tundra to eat their lunch.
And then…there they were, just 200 meters away, an entire herd, trotting effortlessly over the tundra, drawn forward by some unknown force. It was magical.
As the season unfolded, caribou proved frequent visitors. One evening, Tim and a couple of teammates captured a selfie with the herd. “To have that experience,” Tim said, “is pretty cool.”
Many other remarkable aspects make this place special for Tim: the setting, the people, the wildlife and the gratification he gets from his work.
AN AMAZING LANDSCAPE
The camp sits on the edge of the Canning River on the coastal plain of the refuge. The Brooks Range abruptly emerges from the tundra on the horizon south of camp. A weather port serves as dining hall and general hang out; a large tent houses their scientific equipment; twelve smaller tents are for sleeping, plus there’s an outhouse of sorts. Bear fences protect it all, except for the outhouse.
From camp, you can see animals going about their daily business of living in the wild. An ermine frequently scampers through camp on missions to collect rodents for her kits; its den only a short distance from the weather port door.
“It is a harsh environment, but a beautiful place,” Tim said. “Being from the Lower 48 and growing up with corn and soybean fields all over the place, with cities and towns everywhere, this place is untouched by us.”
“Just seeing such wide-open landscape is special; getting to work in it is even better,” he said.
On a clear day, a visitor can see for miles. The vegetation is diverse, but doesn’t grow above the knee. There are no trees. That reminds Tim of the Midwest prairie back home. While it might look easy to hike through, the water soaked, soft tussocks present a challenge. “It takes a lot longer to walk a mile here than it does in other places,” Tim said.
When he arrived in early June, there was snow on the ground and ice on the lakes. He wore a stocking cap and gloves most days and kept hand warmers in his pockets. He was surprised at how fast conditions changed, but how long it took for the land to turn green. “It was pretty brown for most of the summer,” Tim said. It wasn’t until July that the green really started to show up.
THE ENTHUSIASTIC TEAM
Tim’s colleagues were college students on fellowships, or volunteers. Some were Alaskans, others traveled up from the Lower 48. All were young, full of enthusiasm and energy. “You get to spend a lot of time with a very small group of people that you don’t know very much about,” Tim said. “You just get to know each other on a different level.” For Tim, making personal connections with these like-minded people in this wild place is a pleasure.
The team included Maria Berkeland, an Alaskan on a fellowship, who worked as crew leader for the fox research project. Patty Eagan, Maria’s friend from Alaska, who volunteered to help Patty. Sarah Hoepfner, an Alaskan who had worked on the bird project last year, served as crew leader this year. Samuel Vassallo, also on fellowship, came from California. His passion for feathered creatures drew him to the bird project. Aaron Yappert from Colorado volunteered on the bird project and described it as his “dream job.”
FEATHERED WORLD TRAVELERS
The team worked tirelessly on their bird and fox projects. From mid-May to the end of July, the sun doesn’t set. The long days meant they had hours and hours to traverse the tundra collecting data, the only other distractions being conversation, reading or writing in journals.
Tim calls himself a bird nerd. When he first came to camp, he wasn’t familiar with a lot of the local species, but was excited to get to know them. He would visit their nests, see the various habitats they preferred and observe their different behaviors. To him, the birds all seem to have distinct personalities.
He also knew they had flown to the refuge from six different continents. Seeing them in their breeding plumage, knowing they came to this region to breed and raise their young was thrilling for him. Even more than that, he realized that people all over the world enjoy seeing these same birds — whose lives begin here on the refuge, right in front of him.
Spending so much time out here on the tundra provides many opportunities to see wildlife dramas.
Maria had trail cameras out at each of her fox research sites, including at an Arctic fox den with several kits. One day she noticed a fracas had occurred at the den. She took the data card back to camp, inserted it into a computer and began to watch the videos. What she saw amazed her. The camera had captured a wolverine digging at the den while the mother and father foxes nipped at its tail.
Wolverines are powerful animals that can weigh up to 40 pounds; Arctic fox weigh about 10 pounds. The wolverine was visibly annoyed, while the foxes relentlessly nipped at its tail. Eventually, the wolverine gave up and left. The whole team watched the video, riveted by the unfolding drama.
One afternoon, Tim was in camp alone and saw another drama unfolding in the distance a couple hundred meters from one of the teams. He grabbed his handheld radio and called out to them, “Are you guys seeing this?” Another team saw the herd of caribou running towards them and heard Tim saying on the radio, “There is a wolverine chasing one of the caribou.” As the caribou herd fled, a calf got confused and ran in the opposite direction of the herd. Eventually, the herd disappeared over the horizon and the calf was left frantically running around looking for them.
“Every day, you just never know what you are going see,” Tim said.
HOW THIS BECAME TIM’S WORK
Growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Tim didn’t get to experience wilderness much as a kid. He remembers that he always enjoyed being outside. Some of the best times were up in the Northwood boreal forests of Minnesota with his brother and dad, hunting and exploring. “I really enjoyed times on the lake, things like that,” he said.
He followed his older brother up to the University of Minnesota, Crookston. Uncertain of what he wanted to do, he sampled many different classes, eventually focusing on wildlife management.
For job experience, he often worked as a research volunteer. In 2010, after his junior year in college, he took a volunteer position at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge to work on a Kittlitz’s murrelet project. That decision proved life changing.
“I spent over 70 days out in the middle of the backcountry… I had interactions with nature that changed my life,” he said. “It set me on a different path.” The murrelet project became his master’s thesis.
Now he’s in his eighth summer of working remotely in Alaska. He says each day validates the decision to pursue his career. He sees special places, meets and works with incredible people who care deeply about these same places. And, he always has unique experiences with wildlife — like watching a caribou herd meander by.
A TRUE TREASURE
Beyond the sheer thrill of being in close proximity to all kinds of migratory and resident wildlife, Tim identifies another value to his wilderness sojourns. At Canning River, as at other remote research sites, he finds he is able to “step back from all the noise” that comes along with busy, modern life.
“I think that’s why a lot of people come to visit the Arctic: to get away, to quiet the noise,” he said.
That solitude can take some time to settle into. After a few days in camp, “things kind of fall away,” he said. “You start to enjoy and feel at peace out here.”
He believes that has considerable value and wants the opportunity for others. “It is important that it be here for future generations to enjoy,” he said.
Tim knows that not many people get the chance to visit the Arctic Refuge. The journey is long and can be expensive. Nevertheless, he believes the place is important for humans to know. His hope is that, through shared research, the world will come to understand the refuge and its wild inhabitants as he does: “It is a thriving place.”
This story was written by Andrea Medeiros, Public Affairs Specialist, Alaska Region.
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.