Andy Von Duyke, a wildlife biologist whose work helped rescue the imperiled great blue heron colony in Lino Lakes, has gone far afield to pursue his latest research, to a place even colder (most days) than Minnesota: Barrow, Alaska.
Barrow, population 4,300, is the northernmost city in the United States, 330 miles above the Arctic Circle. It has one stoplight, buildings on stilts to protect the permafrost beneath, and foot-tall trees. It’s as flat as North Dakota and there’s no road out.
“Tourists come for a day to say, ‘I’ve been to Barrow. It’s the end of the world,’ ” Von Duyke said.
Although the residents are mostly Inupiat natives who hunt to provide food, Barrow is a research hub, with a median household income of $87,000, about $20,000 above the Alaskan median. It’s a young town with a median age of 28, six years below the state median. The cost of living is outrageous, Von Duyke said, noting that gasoline costs $7 a gallon; milk is $10 a gallon.
Von Duyke, who was home last week to visit family in the Twin Cities, now works for the North Slope Borough wildlife department. A borough is equivalent to a county and North Slope covers an area the size of Minnesota. His department monitors caribou, polar bears, whales, seals, fish and other animals, which are still a major food source for the local Inupiat people.
“Our job is to collect enough data so [wildlife] can be well-managed and conserved for sustainable harvests,” he said.
Von Duyke worked during the endless night that began when the sun set about Thanksgiving and didn’t come up until Jan. 24. Although Barrow’s winter average high temps are below zero, Von Duyke said he enjoyed noting that Minnesota temperatures this winter were often lower than Barrow’s.
Focus on hard-to-catch seals
His research, which began last June, focuses on seals that give birth on ice packs, and seeks to understand how they live, feed, migrate and may be affected by receding ice or other changes. The first step is netting the seals, tagging them with signal-emitting transmitters and releasing them.
“They are hard to catch,” he said. “I was happy to catch three” ringed seals.
The ringed is one of four types of ice-associated seals. Von Duyke said he would like to tag the other three varieties: bearded, spotted and ribbon seals. “I am researching all four if I can catch all four,” he quipped.
He said the seal crew includes Inupiat co-workers whose experience is very helpful in melding traditional seal hunting techniques with newer equipment and methods.
Co-worker Billy Adams’ experience was handy last July when they were catching seals around a five-acre chuck of ice. Von Duyke heard a loud thundering sound from below.
“The ice floe started to break apart. Billy said, ‘We got to go. Now,’ ” Von Duyke recalled. They scrambled to their boats and got away. They watched as a huge ice mass on the floe snapped off and rolled into the Arctic Ocean.
What took him there
So why does Von Duyke work in Barrow?
“It’s tough to find a job in wildlife biology,” he said. “I found this Barrow job and it sounded awesome.”
He said he likes the sense of adventure living in a place where caribou and arctic fox occasionally wander past his window, and he’s come within 30 feet of a polar bear (and always travels armed in the field). He reads Jack London’s Alaskan tales and collects books about Minnesota explorers, such as Will Steger, Lonnie Duprey and others.
“I was always intrigued by these explorers,” he said.
The downside is missing his wife and two daughters, ages 11 and 14, who have visited him in Barrow. “It’s a hardship being away from my family,” said Von Duyke. He said he calls his wife, Betsy, daily and e-mails pictures to his kids of his work.
He spends a lot of time after work in Barrow writing his doctoral dissertation on the moose ecology on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, where he spent time doing research. His master’s project at the University of Minnesota was figuring out why herons in the Lino Lakes rookery were rapidly disappearing, and then helping revive them by keeping raccoons out of their nests.
His current work isn’t his first in polar reaches. In 1999, he took a construction job at Palmer Station, a U.S. base in Antarctica. He drove heavy equipment for five months and got hooked on an old love — wildlife biology — while living with a couple of marine biologist researchers.
Von Duyke said the most amazing sight he’s seen in Barrow is spring and fall hunts during which the Inupiat paddle out in sealskin-over-wood-stave boats to pursue bowhead whales. “They paddle right up to the whale and harpoon it,” he said. The harpoon is attached to a line and float. Then hunters shoot a shoulder-mounted “bomb gun,” invented in the mid-1800s, that fires a foot-long bullet.
Afterward, the whole community shares the whale meat. “It is probably the happiest time of the year” for the Inupiat, he said. “It’s like Christmas morning.”