Geojunkets: a geologist returns to Fairbanks, Alaska (Part 1)
Jesse Garnett White (USA)
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” Jiddu Krishnamurti
My Great Grandfather and his son both gave me some advice at a very young age. “Never trust anyone that won’t look you in the eye when they shake your hand” and “It’s OK to pick up hitchhikers while travelling the road”. These are all positive suggestions that have proved valuable both in the States and abroad.
I’ve made a number of interesting decisions in my life. One I never thought I’d make was moving back to Alaska. I’ve told colleagues, dozens of friends, family members and myself, “I’ll never spend another winter in Fairbanks.”. Learning the lesson of ‘never say never’”, while travelling into the past and future simultaneously has been interesting to say the least. When a friend of 26 years heard the news, he said, “You can’t escape Covid-19, Jesse.” I completely blew that off and forged ahead.
Since returning to Alaska, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a lot of good folks, meet new friends, network, and travel around the interior and Alaska Range. I was blessed to work as a contract geologist at an open pit mine in both development and exploration roles, assist mom-and-pop miners with permitting, create an LLC, and work at what I consider the best pizza place in Alaska.
Winter temperatures dipped below -50oF and snow depth at the cabin reached four feet in total. At the time of writing this article, it’s a sunny, beautiful and balmy -30oF below, with an aurora forecast of 5. With over 12 hours of daylight and still below freezing, break-up was at least another month away (mid-April).
Prior to the move, I was living in Stanwood, WA, working as a Licensed Geologist on geoengineering projects and at a pizza joint on Camano Island to boost my income. I spent nearly every morning walking forest trails or wandering the beaches of Puget Sound. In the forest, I’d wander over glacial scour covered in temperate rain forest, dotted with moss covered glacial-erratic. The hikes were an exercise in the ups and downs of glacial scour and kames.
When on the beaches, I’d study the Pleistocene, glacio-fluvial sedimentology and stratigraphy of bluffs hundreds of feet high and the Holocene beaches beneath them. The beauty of the sedimentology was ridiculous, with superb examples of both large- and small-scale soft sediment deformation, including ball and pillow and flame structures reaching tens of feet in height. Channelisation and extensive stacks of glaciomarine drift, advance and recession outwash, and marine deltas was the storyline. Mass wasting of bluffs was typically associated with faults, substrate slip and/or tidal erosion.
Those days were splendid, as I’d often see whales breaching, seals frolicking amidst otters, herons wandering the shallows, and bald eagles catching their lunch. Even during the later days of early Covid-19, there were a few of us walking the beaches. Many conversations lasted for an hour or more, but more often than not, I was totally alone on beaches that people were walking daily a few months earlier.
In the afternoons and evenings, I rocked the pizza joint. The stories I could tell you about delivering pizzas across Stanwood and Camano during Covid-19 is an entirely different article. I published some of those stories in the local rag, The Crab Cracker.
Fellow geologists and I viewed numerous homes and outbuildings crumbling off bluffs or already at the base of slope. We worked to protect new builds from the same fate. I can’t count on two hands the number of beach staircases, fence lines, decks, outbuildings, docks, pilings, and entire homes we observed being wiped away by chemical and physical erosion. All for the view…
As of 2021, Washington State has made building in areas of potential liquefaction and tsunami impossible, and rightfully so. On some of my beach walks, I met with homeless folks living just above the high-tide swash zone. I’d discuss with them where to move their driftwood log homes or tents to stay out of trouble and essentially become invisible. In some areas, there were old hippies that had homesteaded the beach with homes built almost entirely out of driftwood. One guy had the most impressive do-it-yourself rip-rap builds I’d ever seen composed of driftwood, metal, rocks, and spray-painted dishwashers and refrigerators.
The geoengineering contract work fell off drastically in Island County when everyone began staying home and tightening their wallets due to Covid-19. However, in April 2020, an opportunity at a large open pit mine outside of Fairbanks arrived on the internet job boards. I was hired through a temp agency and so it was back to Alaska. I put in my two weeks’ notice at the pizza joint, sold my vehicle and most of my possessions (short of a few geology books, camera gear and a backpack full of clothes), and flew to Fairbanks.
Flights were rare, but I managed to get a one-way ticket on Alaska Airlines, after which a two-week quarantine was required. At that time, the Canadian border was closed to most domestic travel and the Alaska Ferry System was all but shut down. I’ll never forget being in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the rigmarole involved. The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was more vigilant, the airport was scant with masked travellers milling around, and the flight had less than 50 people on board.
Following the evening sun, the views out the airplane window of Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca, coastal British Columbia, insular and coastal ranges, Southeast Alaska, the Wrangell-Saint Elias Mountains, and Alaska Range were spectacular. Viewing reflections of clouds atop yellow, gold and grey-blue inlets, passages and debouche of the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine rivers of Southeast Alaska made the flight time pass by quickly (Figs. 1 and 2).
Through openings in the clouds over Kluane National Park, I was fortunate to see a number of glaciated mountain peaks (Fig. 3) and the Kluane and Donjek glaciers (Figs. 4 and 5).
Over mainland Alaska, the views of Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve followed by the Alaska Range were superb. While descending into the interior, the taiga, Alaska Range, and the Johnson, Delta, Little Delta and Tanana Rivers reminded me of the rural life I was moving back to (Figs. 6 and 7) – the American Siberia.
Return to Fairbanks
Upon arrival and after gathering my luggage, I was whisked away to a hotel for two weeks of quarantine. Keep in mind, this was two days before George Floyd’s death and the initiation of riots and looting across my country. I spent two weeks in quarantine watching the country implode on television, cooking excellent food delivered by local grocery stores, talking with friends on the phone, and meeting other folks in quarantine. During quarantine, I completed MSHA training, watched from a distance as my family and country fell apart, and waited to get back to work.
The sun was rising at around 4:00am and setting near midnight during quarantine and the hotel allowed outdoor walks into the surrounding birch forest, which I did twice daily. The mosquitoes were brutal, but the walks were worth it. I would arise around 5:00am to wander into the forest, take photos and breathe the fresh air. There were places along the trail where young, sun-starved dead birch trees were bent over by heavy snow. Flowering trees were blossoming and Equisetum (horsetail) was popping up everywhere on the forest floor. Pollen gathered in beautiful shapes along the shoreline of a small lake along the trail (Fig. 8).
The folks I met in quarantine were travelling nurses, geophysicists, geologists and military contractors, some of whom were out of quarantine and others not. All lovely people that I will never forget as we all helped each other along. Each of us knew the gravity of the domestic and global situation, and discussed it at length nightly in the parking lot. We’d talk about the state of things and our personal go-forward plans.
Most of us were glad to be in Fairbanks with the exception of an army contractor, who was an hilarious curmudgeon that couldn’t wait to get out. He was a total character who drank copious amounts of hard liquor, leading to one evening where he fell down a flight of stairs head over heels like a rag doll. I thought he had broken his neck, but he just popped right up, walked back up the stairs, refilled his spilled drink, and came back down to talk about the day.
Life in Fairbanks
Once out of quarantine, I purchased a vehicle, rented a room in town and joined a few local social media groups interested in hiking, plant identification, mushroom collection, fishing and trading goods. While in those groups, I made one new friend (Marilyn) who was interested in heading out, but most folks were afraid of leaving their Covid-19 bubbles.
I moved into a studio attached to a home where, up to 14 days in a row for 4 months, I would leave at 5am, return at 6pm, then read and write about geoscience while cooking dinner and watching television. The nightly news was difficult to watch, so I spent most evenings watching local public television programming focused on world travel, cooking and even Bob Ross, who said, “I think there’s an artist hidden at the bottom of every single one of us”.
The daily drive to the mine was a never boring 45 minutes. There were excellent changing views across the taiga-covered metamorphic terrane, often smothered by clouds, adorned with rainbows, hammered by massive thunderstorms or devoured by heavy fog (Fig. 9). Some mornings, the fog was absolutely soaking wet. It would move so quickly across the road, I’d have to pull over because I couldn’t see ten feet ahead. Hitting my hazard lights, unrolling the window and turning off the engine, I could hear the dew dripping off spruce needles and yet, there was no sway in the woods.
It was nice to be in the woods with with a lovely lady I met, called Maralyn. We collected morels (a type of mushroom), king boletes (another type of mushroom) and blueberries. I drove multiple times to the Livengood area for morels from a 2019 forest fire scar. On a single occasion, we went there together to collect morels around Livengood and atop Amy Dome. By the end of the day, we were covered in soot to waste level with a few pounds each of beautiful fresh morels.
On one occasion, I drove myself, Marilyn and new friend, Nicola, to go blueberry picking on Murphy Dome. We hit the mother lode of blueberries coming home with a few gallons each. It was a lovely day during which I just laid down in the tundra picking blueberries as we all talked, laughed and enjoyed the sunshine (Fig. 10).
By early June, I was back at the mine. It was great. The mine had changed significantly since my last stint in 2005. It was deeper and wider, with expansion plans (Fig. 11). The tailings pond was behind an enormous rock dam. There was also a massive, inverted granite heap-leach pile with another in the works, and extensive waste rock piles. I got straight to work logging core with other geologists and geotechnical personnel, followed by working with Reverse Circulation rig crews, heavy equipment operators, surveying, trench mapping, flagging new drills, and soil sampling. I also worked with the dewatering crew on a few occasions. During those times, we’d stop work to watch the blasting crews detonate pit benches.
Some of my friends call me the Wildman and for good reason. I am a nature boy at heart and absolutely love being within it. The good folks I worked with, sights, smells, rock and plant identification, and blueberry, and chaga and other mushroom picking were all extracurricular highlights of working in the field. In some areas of the forest, the air was so clean and intoxicating it boggled my mind.
I collected numerous species of edible and non-edible mushrooms including: Angel wing (Pleurocybella porrigens), Aspen scaber-stalk (Leccinum insigne), Bear’s head (Hericium abietis and Hericium coralloides), Birch bolete (Leccinum scabrum), Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus conifericola), Crested coral (Clavulina cristata), Early false morel (Verpa bohemica), Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), Gemmed puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum), Golden chanterelle (Cantharellus formosus), Gray fire morels (Morchella tomentosa), Hawk wing (Sarcodon imbricatus), King bolete (Boletus edulis), Sickeners (Russula emetica), Shrimp russula (Russula xerampelina), and Spring false morels (Gyromitra esculenta) (Figs. 12, 13 and 14). Many nights after work, I would sauté up piles of birch bolete, king bolete and bear’s head in butter, salt and herbs. I’d pile them on Yak steaks that I picked up in Delta Junction, AK.
I enjoyed trench mapping, from the surveying and flagging, to excavator work, mapping and sampling (Figs. 15 and 16). Tromping across the spongy moss and lichen covered forest floor amidst black spruce was like sinking into a thick wet sponge. Coworkers and I sighted in the trenches using a precision Brunton compass and handheld GPS, flagging trees along the way. The forest changed subtly in areas of thicker permafrost and I had to change a few survey lines due to permafrost and flowing streams.
On multiple occasions, my coworker and I had to alter trench surveys because they crossed flowing streams, steep slopes and, ironically, one line that crossed an access road. I couldn’t believe how the first trench turned out, the second trench was gorgeous if you like folded and faulted schist, and the third I never saw completed for numerous reasons including slope angles and permafrost.
The excavator I worked with was such a hoot. We had excellent conversations, both professional and otherwise. He described excavating through permafrost like sliding on cow shit. The first trench was 20 feet wide, terraced 6 feet deep and 1,500 feet long. The upper portion of the dig was stable and completely intact, but further downslope after excavating through a layer of permafrost, things rapidly deteriorated. The trench immediately began to melt, break down, completely collapse in areas, and then flow down the trench as an ice block, rock, soil and mud flow. A large erratic delta flowed into the forest for a week. It was impressive in its capacity to move through the tussocks of tundra and black spruce.
The collapse was occurring so quickly that I couldn’t map much of the lower 500 feet. The trench wall was actively flowing or had already been covered. Coworkers and I dug through the sluff to get samples from the bedrock. We mapped joints and structures in folded and faulted quartzite and various types of schist. The parasitic folds were impressive. In some places, the trench mud was knee deep and I’d find myself thinking of WW1 soldiers battling from the trenches.
Alder groves that had developed after fires were so thick in some areas that traversing grids was akin to walking through spider webs. Numerous times with shovel in one hand, GPS in the other, and a backpack full of rocks, soil samples, raingear, food, and water, I’d get stuck in alder thicket with both feet completely off the ground. Much of the time, I could only hear my coworker as we pushed forward. Sight distance was often only in the order of feet (Fig. 17).
Working a grid pattern in one alder thicket, a coworker and I were monitored by a bear for multiple days in a row. We never saw it, but located scat, root digs, a caribou kill site and even got a few good whiffs when upwind. I hated pushing though the thickets because I could only see a few feet all around and we were making a lot of noise. Walking into a burn scar where larger birch had survived the flames, I noted that hundreds had been snapped in half by wind after an ice-storm. Directly below, in perfect lines, their canopies creating a wicked maze of taiga hopscotch. That’s when a draft of wind from downhill and the stench of that damn bear reached my nose. It was deep, dank, sour, and smelled of rotting fish. I asked my coworker to get out her bear spray as I reached into my backpack for mine.
That’s when we realised we’d both left our bear spray in the truck a few miles down the hill. When I heard a few snorts and rustling in the alders, I started banging my shovel on a fallen birch as the alder thicket swayed side to side towards us. We bailed through the burn scar towards a known ATV trail, then followed it downhill towards the truck and safety.
On another occasion, while walking back down the hills to the truck, I found a lynx skull. Wolves had eaten off its muzzle and much of the soft bone, but left everything else intact (Fig. 18). Not half a mile further down, I found a moose skull together with rack (Fig. 19). I packed the skulls in to the truck and, back at the core lab, I put them on the top of the fridge.
There were mornings in the spruce forests where beams of sunlight exposed dripping spider webs coated in dewdrops that crisscrossed the scene in every direction. We encountered moose, spruce grouse and small game on numerous occasions. One morning, in a muddy excavator track, we followed the wolf that had followed the yearling moose, until coming across scat and the smell of death.
Reflections on man-made lakes and tailings ponds were absolutely surreal, with backwaters ruled by moose, beaver and oddly, butterflies. Some days were buggier than others, with the worst being gnat swarms. They would be so thick I couldn’t breathe in through my mouth. By the end of the day, my nostrils, skin, sweaty hair and beard were coated in them. It was a grime slime.
On a few occasions, a coworker and I staked pad roads, pads and drilling locations in thick spruce. What an adventure that turned out to be. We staked and flagged everything only to realise late in the day that we’d forgotten to face the borehole stakes at angles for azimuth. So, we re-staked all of them in half the time.
Reverse Circulation drilling and sampling was fun, and the rig crews were good people. One rig got stuck in the mud and I had to shut down drilling on one occasion due to lightning. Sample catching is wet muddy work. Coworkers and I sampled every five feet into rice bag-lined, five-gallon buckets for up to 1,000 feet. Views from rig pads in this area were especially nice F(ig 20). There was an old dredge in the river valley and the rolling terrane was green and lush.
Leaving the mine
I left the mine in September for multiple reasons, after enjoying many excellent times with good folks. But in the end, it was a slog. Covid-19 stress levels were high, and there was a build-up of safety problems among other things, which led me to leave the job.
Out of work for about a month, I wondered what I was going to do next. I applied for a job working in a mining camp for a junior exploration company, but it wasn’t a guaranteed hire. It was going to be four weeks on/two weeks off with harsh Covid-19 protocols. At the same time, I applied for a job at a local pizza joint and was hired within a week. What a blessing and awesome job, where fantastic people and a most excellent community gather together. It has given me the opportunity to network with fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter pilots, Search and Rescue teams, Alaska State Troopers, wildlife biologists, geologists, geophysicists, heavy equipment operators, miners, truckers and mechanics.
Numerous mining companies are operating throughout the state of Alaska and the field season is in full swing. Returning to Alaska has been a challenging but fun adventure and I look forward to what the future brings. Stay tuned for another Geojunkets.