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Anchors Aweigh | Freedom!

Anchors Aweigh

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I left home at the age of nineteen when I enlisted in the U.S. Navy. It was my introduction to politics and corruption. I also learned a lot about human nature. I quickly learned that people who speak out against corruption will find themselves alone in a sea of sheeple.

I’m neither proud nor ashamed of my military “service.” I enlisted in order to study oceanography, only to discover that I was lied to. I spent the next four years monitoring submarines as part of the Navy’s secret SOSUS program.

On the positive side, I got to see three corners of North America, attending boot camp in San Diego, school in Key West, Florida, and my first duty station at Argentia, Newfoundland.

Key West, Newfoundland

The Navy took me from sunny Key West to the fog-shrouded beauty of Newfoundland. (Argentia, Courtesy the jam nightclub / Newfoundland, Courtesy Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism)

In Newfoundland, we worked in windowless buildings, and the work was tedious at best. Outside, it was often foggy. Yet I loved Newfoundland, with its bleak yet spectacular landscapes and seascapes and friendly people.

Newfoundland is surprisingly similar to West Dakota. It’s remote, isolated and distinctive, with no really big cities and little industry. The people are close to the land (or water) and often have hard lives. But Newfies, as the locals are nicknamed, are among the nicest people in the world. (Not until decades after I left Newfoundland did I learn that some locals detest the nickname “Newfie,” preferring “Newfoundlander” instead.) Like West Dakota, Newfoundland has some awesome blizzards.

Argentia was the site of a huge military base during World War II. When I was stationed there, I lived on one of the upper floors of “The Q,” a building that housed only officers during World War II. In 1974, the Q was virtually a city inside a building. From my window, I had spectacular views of sunsets and winter blizzards.

The isolation and harsh working and living conditions nurtured a camaraderie that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. I had more friends at “Arg” than I ever had in high school or college or any time since.

West Dakota and “The Rock,” as Newfoundland is nicknamed, are both in transition. The depletion of cod torpedoed the latter’s main industry, while much of the Great Plains region is losing people as farmers’ children shun an often hard lifestyle in favor of the big city.

My next and last duty station was Pacific Beach, a very tiny community near Ocean Shores on the coast of Washington State. It wasn’t as isolated as Newfoundland and didn’t share the same camaraderie. But it is a beautiful area, and it was a choice place to end my military career, as I felt my future was in the Pacific Northwest or Alaska.

While stationed at Pac Beach, I went on my first backpacking trip (in Olympic National Park), climbed my first mountain (Mt. Rainier, at 14,410 feet Washington’s highest peak), and saw my first rock concert (the Doobie Brothers, in Seattle).

Freedom! ˆ


The year 1978 was probably the best year of my life. Sick of the military, I saved my leave so I could get discharged early. I decided to celebrate my freedom by traveling. After being discharged around Christmas (1977), I spent some time back in South Dakota, visiting relatives and working on a farm for a month.

With daily temperatures hovering around -20°, it was the most brutal work I’ve ever done. What do I mean by brutal? I’d get up at 5 a.m., go outside and walk out into the pasture to fetch the milk cows. Milking them in the extreme cold was grueling; we often sought relief by sticking our hands in a pail of warm water sitting on a heater.

Picking up a fifty-pound bag of feed was even harder when it was frozen to the ground. The cows couldn’t drink until someone chopped a hole in the ice on the water tank.

We didn’t eat breakfast. We didn’t eat anything at all until noon. Then we ate ravenously.

After lunch, we went out and worked until late in the evening. Then we ate a huge dinner and went to bed. We had no time or energy for anything else.

Westward Bound ˆ

After surviving a month of subzero weather, I drove to Bellingham, in northwestern Washington State, and registered for college at Western Washington University. Next, I drove south to California, taking the scenic Highway 101 along the coast.

I visited friends at Centerville and Point Sur, California before flying to Hawaii.

If you’ve never been to Hawaii, I hope you get to visit some day. Even the island of Oahu is fabulously beautiful. The islands of Maui and Kauaii are widely considered more beautiful still. I flew to Kona, on the west side of the “Big Island” of Hawaii and climbed to the top of Mauna Loa, one of Earth’s biggest mountains.

The climb up Mauna Loa is a long grind, but the view from the summit is worth it. On the way up, I stopped at a cabin as the sun went down. A group of geology students on a field trip were descending the mountain, but one of them had a medical emergency—probably altitude sickness.

His companions pulled out flashlights and formed a human chain stretching up the mountain. The lights were eerily beautiful in the subtropical alpine night.

The next day, I set out alone. When I was near the summit, I took off my heavy backpack. Relieved of the weight, I started running and jumping towards the summit. It was a big mistake, because I got hit with altitude sickness myself. Descending the mountain the next day wasn’t a lot of fun, but I survived.

I then hitch-hiked around the south side of the island to Hilo, a beautiful city on the east side of the island.

Africa! ˆ

From Hawaii, I flew to Seattle, hitch-hiked to Nebraska, took a train to New York City, then flew to my next destination. I knew this might be the last travel extravaganza of my life, so I wanted to go some place very special. The two places I wanted to see most were the Himalayas and East Africa. Of course, the main attractions are the mountains and wildlife, respectively. I figured the Himalayas will be around forever, but I wasn’t too sure about Africa’s fauna.

When I walked out of the plane, I found myself on another continent for the first time in my life, one that would prove both exotic and unexpectedly familiar at the same time.

If you ever get a chance to visit Kenya, there are two things you must do — visit a national park, and go hiking outside a national park.

Tourism is a very important industry in Kenya, and the parks are well managed. You can watch and photograph all kinds of wild animals until you’re bored. And, believe it or not, you will get bored. It’s kind of like being in a zoo, except you’re the one in the cage; people generally aren’t allowed to get out of their cars in Kenya’s national parks.

Hiking outside the parks is a different story. You probably won’t see many animals, but when you do see them, it’s a very different experience. Tourists aren’t allowed to carry guns.

So, imagine hiking through the African bush, unarmed, when you suddenly come across a paw print made by a lion. Your pulse will quicken, you’ll breathe a little deeper, and you’ll become much more alert.

I remember seeing some lions in a national park. I was amazed at how hard they were to see, hidden in the brown grass, very close to our vehicle. But I have fonder memories of the lion tracks we stumbled across one day.

While camping outside one night, we could hear lions roaring in the distance. Lions are the only animals that can be compared to thunder.

I only saw one elephant, but I remember hearing some elephants cracking fallen tree branches as they snuck away from us unseen. More amazing was the evidence of elephants high on Mt. Kenya, Africa’s second highest peak. I also remember stampeding a herd of buffalo in a thick riverside forest. We froze in fear, not knowing what direction they were running. Fortunately, they ran away from us.

Another amazing thing I discovered is that there’s more to Africa than savannas teaming with wildlife. Kenya’s landscapes include forested hills, arid deserts, and sandy beaches that reminded me of Hawaii. The higher grasslands near Mt. Kenya reminded me of West Dakota.

The interactions between wildlife and landscape can be dramatic. I remember looking into the vastness of the Great Rift Valley, covered with black dots. The black dots were wildebeest. Listening carefully, I could hear an eerie moaning sound drifting on the air — the sound of thousands of animals going about their lives as they’ve done for thousands of years.

Yet another surprise was the people. Kenyans are very diverse, ranging from Westernized city dwellers to spear-wielding Masai who herd cattle in the bush. Everywhere I went — from Nairobi to Mombasa, from the arid Frontier District to the Arabic island of Lamu — the people were very friendly. I was struck by the irony that an African visiting the U.S. would probably want to avoid many areas of the country that are littered with racists and kooks. Africa struck me as much safer.

Mauna Loa and Mt. Kenya

I climbed to the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa (above, left), one of the world’s biggest mountains, and to about 14,000 feet on Mt. Kenya (right), Africa’s second highest peak.

School Days ˆ

My adventures came to a temporary halt when I began taking classes at Western Washington University in Bellingham in the fall of 1978.

Bellingham was paradise compared to Seattle, where I now live. Yet I still found school a little disappointing.

I was a lousy student in general, and how was I going to get a science degree when I absolutely sucked at math? On top of that, the social scene was actually bland compared to Newfoundland.

Still, Bellingham was one of the nicest places I’ve ever lived, and its relative nearness to Alaska would prove convenient.

I played a lot of soccer, mostly at Cornwall Park, and a little hockey.

It was also in Bellingham that I discovered dance, sonething almost unheard of in West Dakota. Eventually, I would take classes in ballet, modern and jazz. However, it was as frustrating as it was exciting. Your body just can’t do what you want it to if you don’t start taking classes when you’re six years old.

I spent one year at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, where I played more hockey than soccer. I then returned to Bellingham to finish my degree in applied ecology, graduating in 1983.

It was in Bellingham that I picked up my future business name, Geobop. One of my best friends was a music major who performed with a jazz group. They called themselves the Geobopological Survey Team.

North to Alaska ˆ

In the spring of 1979, I cut my first year of college short to work at a fish cannery near Naknek, Alaska. It was my first trip to what for me seemed a magical state.

After the cannery operation was over, I visited nearby Katmai National Park. The highlight of that trip was a backcountry journey with park ranger Bud Rice.

Back at Brooks Camp, I met a Japanese tourist named Michio Hoshino. He was an extremely likeable guy who was really devoted to wildlife photography. Little did I know that our paths would cross again or that he would soon be at least somewhat famous.

From Katmai, I traveled to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where I spent a couple weeks. From there, I camped out for a few days near Denali, North America’s highest mountain. I then rode the ferry through the Inside Passage to Seattle.

I spent much of the next summer working as a volunteer in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The primary focus was a dall sheep study conducted by refuge biologist Michael Spindler in the Brooks Range. When the study was over, however, I was sent to the coast to help a graduate student named Jim Levison, who was studying waterfowl. You can read a little about the study here.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Background photos courtesy Lisa Hupp, Flickr, public domain.)

I returned to Alaska in the fall of 1981 to attend the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. I was surprised to learn that the Japanese tourist I had met at Katmai, Michio Hoshino, was a student there. His photography was also making him a rising star. I believe he had been published in National Geographic at this time.

The following summer saw me working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) in western Alaska, operating out of Bethel. It was my first paid job as a wildlife biologist.

I worked for ADF&G again in 1983, this time primarily at an outdoor fish hatchery in Prince William Sound.

Many people would have given their right arm to have a job like mine. However, I appeared to be stuck in a rut, working only in fisheries. I wanted to do more work with mammals and birds. I also wanted to expand my horizons and maybe even work on some projects outside Alaska.

After the 1983 field season, I got a job as a volunteer assistant on a sea turtle study in Maruata, Mexico. I then spent the summer of 1984 working for the National Park Service in Grand Teton National Park. I moved to Seattle that fall.

However, I soon returned to Alaska as a seasonal biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

I spent a summer studying seabirds in the Semidi Islands, a group of islands between Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Islands. Another summer took me to the Aleutian Islands, which is the most remote corner of Alaska.

I spent the summer of 1988 at Nowitna National Refuge in central Alaska, spending most of my time on a white-fronted goose study. The refuge operates out of the village of Galena, on the Yukon River. You can read a little about that project in the Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge’s Annual Narrative Report.

The next summer took me to the Aleutian Islands. I spent most of my time supervising a field study on the island of Amukta, though I also spent some time on Buldir and a tiny island named Aiktok. That field season is described in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge’s 1989 Annual Narrative Report.

Two refuge personnel were killed the following January when their boat capsized after getting caught in a sudden snow squall. Though tragic, that’s part of the job. It’s precisely that element of risk and danger that makes the wilderness so exciting.

Whale Blind

At Barrow, I observed migrating bowhead whales from icy perches like this one. (Courtesy Minerals Management Service)

Towards the end of my career in wildlife biology, I spent two seasons working on a bowhead whale study out of Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost community in the United States.

Needless to say, that was an exciting experience in an exotic location—the Arctic Ocean.

We spent most of our time camping on the frozen sea, dividing our time between standing watch and sleeping. It was very cold, bleak, and monotonous, yet it was also stunningly beautiful.

I had never driven a snowmobile before, and there’s no more thrilling place to drive “snowgos” than the Arctic Ocean.

I have fond memories of prospecting for drinking water. After seawater freezes, the salt apparently begins leaching out of it. Therefore, older ice is often drinkable. The trick is being able to recognize it, a trick I never really mastered. No problem, I just broke off pieces of ice and tasted them until I found freshwater ice.

One of the highlights for me was being approached by a polar bear. As I recall, there were two of us, and we fired shots to prevent it from getting too close. On another occasion, one of the crew was attacked by a polar bear in camp. He miraculously survived after someone shot the bear. I was unhappy about missing the action.

However, the ultimate highlight was coming upon two bowhead whales trapped in an ice-enclosed pool while accompanying Cornell acoustic researcher Chris Clarke. Never in my life had I been so close to whales!

One really mysterious thing that still lingers in my memory is the sound made by a certain species of seal when underwater. I can only describe it as something from a science fiction movie. I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember offhand what species of seal it was.

Maybe I’m just an idiot regarding seals. One day, I noticed the brightly spotted mukluks worn by one of our companions, a local Eskimo woman. I asked her what kind of leopard they were made from, and she replied, “Oh, those aren’t seal. My mom went to Africa and shot a leopard.”

Bowhead Whale and Polar Bear

The mighty bowhead whale rules Arctic seas, while the polar bear rules the land … er, ice. (Bowhead whale By Bering Land Bridge National Preserve – bowhead-1 Kate Stafford edit, CC BY-SA 2.0, Source)

So what are the highlights of my sojourn in Alaska?

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was probably the most spectacularly beautiful work site I’ve ever known. I saw my first wolves and a muskox there. The most exotic locales I visited were Katmai National Park’s Valley of 10,000 Smokes (where I saw a wolverine), the Aleutian Islands and the landfast ice of the Arctic Ocean off Point Barrow. The combination of wind, rain and fog made the Aleutians the most challenging environment, with sea otters, active volcanoes and World War II memorabilia as added attractions.

I’ll never forget my first encounters with a wolf, caribou, dall sheep, and muskox, all in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, along with my first polar bear and bowhead whale (Barrow), and first wolverine and brown bear (Katmai).

Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge was a treat because of the numerous wolves that inhabited the area. It also introduced me to the fossils of Ice Age mammals that are so abundant in parts of Alaska.

Northern Amazon ˆ

But the biggest surprise was Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. I was initially dispirited because of the extraordinary bureaucracy in the main office in Fairbanks, as well as the refuge itself, which was simply bleak. As the name suggests, the Yukon Flats is an enormous flatland on the south side of the Brooks Range. After flowing through a mountainous area, the Yukon River spills onto this forested plain, turning it into a vast swamp.

In the Land of the Midnight Sun, the water soaks up sunlight, slowly heating the entire area. The hottest temperature ever recorded in Alaska is 100° Fahrenheit in Fort Yukon, the largest community in the Yukon flats.

In other words, the Yukon Flats is HOT and muggy, with hordes of mosquitoes. It’s essentially one big swamp — and not a terribly picturesque one, with the stunted trees one would expect so far north of the Arctic circle.

My first trip to the refuge itself ranks as one of my most miserable experiences in Alaska. We spent most of our time huddled inside a flimsy building, as bored as we were uncomfortable. My last trip was even harsher.

Two of us were sent out to survey waterfowl. To navigate the wilderness, each of us pulled a lightweight plastic canoe. We would have been most comfortable wearing nothing but shorts. Instead, we wore rubber hip waders and long-sleeved shirts and head nets to protect us from mosquitoes. We carried fairly heavy backpacks, with binoculars slung around our necks and shotguns slung over our shoulders for protection from bears.

We also had to pull our plastic canoes, which frequently got jammed between the stunted trees. We could take off our T-shirts and wring out what seemed to be enough sweat to fill a water bottle. And that still wasn’t all.

The woods were filled with at least two kinds of hornets, one which nested in trees, the other on the ground. The tree nesters were the worst, because their hives always seemed to be at eye level. I never knew I was in trouble until I heard a buzzing sound just inches from my face, inevitably followed by a sting. Freezing and searching in vain was a mistake. I learned to instead run away as soon as I heard that warning buzzing.

One wouldn’t want to seek safety in the swamp water; I recall a pond that was teaming with leeches. One day, I heard a tiny sound and looked down to spy a small frog with one leg nearly severed by a dragonfly nymph. We also discovered a bear trap — with a severed bear’s toe. The Yukon Flats can be a truly hellish place.

To my surprise, I enjoyed that trip, which turned into an adventure. The hornets were small, and their stings really weren’t that painful. We were also fortunate in that the Yukon River ran through our first plot. We could jump in for a refreshing swim, and the mosquitoes weren’t such a nuisance when a slight breeze wafted along the riverbank.

Nor was the Yukon Flats as ugly as I had at first imagined. The woods were threaded with extensive flower patches, typically curving along former river channels.

The final touch was fire. As I recall, Yukon Flats is the most heavily burned area in Alaska. We saw several fires from the air, and one was burning uncomfortably close during our last day on the refuge. The alien vegetation, insects and smoke suggested a different planet or period of time. I would not have been terribly surprised if a dinosaur had come crashing out of the woods.

Rising above the smoky arctic Amazon in a helicopter is one of my last memories of Alaska.

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge (Photo on left courtesy Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; other photos courtesy Yukon Flats NWR, Facebook)
* * * * *

It’s hard to choose a single best experience or favorite place from my experiences in Alaska. Camping on a hill carpeted with blueberries near Wonder Lake, with a priceless view of Denali (Mt. McKinley), is something I’ll never forget. Cruising the Inside Passage aboard an Alaskan ferry is also an unforgettable experience.

Southern Adventures ˆ

When I was young, I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than studying wildlife in Alaska. But there was a catch: winter.

Alaskan winters are long, cold, and dark, and, to be honest, I was usually a little burned out after camping out all summer. I loved the outdoors, but returning to civilization after spending four months in the wilderness was exhilarating. If I took a full-time position with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or some other agency, would I spend the entire winter doing paper work? Hopelessly spoiled, I had other plans.

One way to extend the field season is to move south. One winter, I worked for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Florida, mostly studying manatees.

Ironically, the closest I ever came to freezing to death was probably in Florida. I was on an uninhabited island (St. Vincent Island) in northern Florida, near the Alabama border, in winter. I think it was Christmas Day when the area was struck by a sudden cold snap — and trees literally snapped as the liquids inside them froze. Fortunately, my boss got his jeep started, and we raced across the island and got a boat ride to the mainland.

Another summer took me to the Pacific beaches of Maruata, the most spectacularly beautiful of Mexico’s states. Jaguars once roamed Maruata’s white sandy beaches. However, a highway had recently been carved through the area, and a thriving community of people who liked to eat turtle eggs and meat posed a problem.

So I spent my time helping out with studies designed to increase our understanding of green sea turtles. I also got to participate in a night beach raid, accompanying a group of Mexican Marines. Another memorable experience was an encounter with a prehistoric monster — an enormous leatherback sea turtle that crawled up on a beach to nest one night.

I worked for a guy named Kim Cliffton, one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. A biologist and airplane pilot, he would have been right at home in Alaska. But his talents didn’t end there.

A former armed forces boxing champion, Kim was the only biologist in the world who wrestled sea turtles at sea. A typical day began with Kim jumping in his plane and flying an aerial survey. Then he’d jump in a boat and go wrestle sea turtles. He also participated in law enforcement activities and sometimes had to travel to other cities on diplomatic missions — or just to buy groceries. Of course, he spoke Spanish.


The remote beaches of Maruata were the scene of arribadas (mass nesting events) starring the green sea turtle (left). However, the most memorable turtle I’ve ever seen in my life was an enormous leatherback sea turtle (right). I had seen pictures, but I wasn’t prepared for the real thing. (Background photo: Maruata Beach (Michoacan)” by Erasmo Perez is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)

Kim also introduced me to Andean music. He had a recording of some songs by a group with an exotic name that began with the letter Q. One particular melody haunted me long after I left Mexico. Some thirty years later, I tracked it down. The song is Susurro (“whisper”), and it was recorded by a Chilean group called Quilapayun. The most famous member of the group was a man named Victor Jara, someone I would come to appreciate after I awakened politically.

My fondest memory of Maruata is of a night on top of a steep promontory overlooking the beach. I climbed to the top and discovered I had two companions — a goat and a huge iguana. A lightning storm out at sea put on a spectacular light show as I lay there, waiting to fall asleep.

* * * * *

From Maruata, I traveled to Santa Rosa, California, where I took a law enforcement course designed for park rangers. I was amazed at how interesting law enforcement is. The course was intense, with classes lasting late in the day, along with cliff and whitewater rescue classes.

But I was confused, still undecided about what I wanted to do with my life.

During the summer of 1984, I varied my routine by working for the National Park Service in Grand Teton National Park, wyoming. when my stint was finished, I moved to seattle, where I planned on studying aviation. After all, if I was going to return to Alaska, I wanted bush pilot credentials.

* * * * *

Wildlife biology can be a very lonely calling, especially in Alaska (though never as lonely as the big city). Sadly, two of my best friends were killed in Alaska-style accidents, though ironically not in Alaska. Tim Patton (who I worked with at Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge) was riding in a plane flying from Alaska to the Lower 48 when it crashed in a blizzard in Idaho. Michio Hoshino was a Japanese photographer who was becoming famous when he was killed by a bear in Kamchatka (in the Russian Far East).

Michio and a Japanese television crew were visiting an area frequented by numerous brown bears to film a TV special. One night, Michio reportedly decided to escape a crowded cabin by pitching his tent outside, figuring the bears were too gorged on salmon to bother him. Tragically, he was wrong. Ironically, I’ve done several stupid things, involving both bears and airplanes in Alaska and elsewhere, and lived to tell (or not tell) about it.

So, there were no strong human bonds tying me to Alaska. In addition, I was obsessed with being independent and therefore self-employed, and I knew achieving that would require more stability. Yet I still saw my future in Alaska when I moved to Seattle.

(My biography is continued at “Seattle”)

‘’—“” Barrow: 1983-1984; Christopher W. Clark — http://www.north-slope.org/assets/images/uploads/J__Acoust__Soc__Am__2000_Clark.pdf



Polar Bear Tracks

Left: Bowhead whale fluke; Right: Polar bear tracks (Courtesy Dr. Christopher Clark and Subhankar Banerjee, respectively.)