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A Research Cruise in Alaska, 1979
Photos and reminiscences by your About Geology Guide
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My version of Alaska is primarily one at sea level, consisting mostly of its spacious and deserted south-central coast. That is a secret Alaska, one of many but the one that I know.

When I was an editor for the U.S. Geological Survey, I soon learned that the summer research cruises often needed warm bodies: gofers, people to annotate sonar records, drop and hoist sediment corers, photograph boxes of seafloor mud, and so on. I went four times, in 1976, 1978, 1979, and 1982. This article is about my third cruise, in July-August 1979.

Gulf of Alaska map and chart of ship's track during cruise D-2-79. We set out from Kodiak Island (KI) and ended at Juneau, just east of Glacier Bay (GB). PW is Prince William Sound, BG is Bering Glacier, YB is Yakutat Bay. Black line at sea marks the U.S. Economic Zone, 200 nautical miles from the nearest coast. U.S. Geological Survey images.

All four of my cruises were on government vessels, not the gleaming Princesses or the tourist ferries. We worked 12-hour shifts and were not pampered. The crew kept to themselves; engine noise was loud and constant; the ship's playing cards were well-used and its paperbacks well-thumbed, but to me it was still hopelessly romantic.

The work was tedious and meaningful only to specialists. We stared at depth recorders, watching the seafloor rise or fall and breathing ozone to the point of nausea. Or stood on the fantail, hands stiff with the cold seawater, letting down and pulling up cores of freezing seafloor mud of numbing sameness. We tracked our position on marine maps so devoid of soundings that they were practically blank, and unreliable anyway along this coast where whole bays had arisen and disappeared in a handful of decades.

What stuck in my mind was the sea and the shore. My cruises were in the summer months, so there were none of the fierce storms for which the Gulf of Alaska is notorious, just the green-gray water: rarely choppy, sometimes heaving gently in the predawn like molten glass. At night . . . well it really never is night in July. Midnight is merely deep dusk, with only a few stars. Dawn and sunset last hours. I found it mesmerizing, exhilarating; I needed little sleep, and the dramatic lighting of late afternoon and early morning characterized most of the day.

The total effect is quite otherworldly. Added to this setting one of the world's grandest and wildest coasts along one whole horizon, contemplated at length from a downwind deck niche, this part of the globe is a profoundly impressive place. Come see.

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