Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Life At Toolik

Emily Stone is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She’s on a 16-day science journalism fellowship at Toolik Lake through the Marine Biological Lab (MBL).

We’ve been here almost a week, yet I’m still surprised by the same two things each morning when I walk out of my tent: I can see beautiful snow-covered mountains over the buildings from the front door, and I have to go to two separate spots to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom.

A weathered sign informs visitors about Toolik.

A weathered sign informs visitors about Toolik.

Life at Toolik is shaped by the remoteness of its location. This means that it attracts a hardy crew who don’t mind being dirty and in close confines for weeks on end because they realize how lucky they are to be here. And it means that it’s incredibly expensive to ship supplies in and waste out. Hence the lack of flush toilets in camp.

It costs so much to truck out wastewater that we’re given water rations. Instead of toilets, there are three sets of outhouses, dubbed “the towers,” which are raised above large collection tanks with three separated seats each.

The Toolik "towers," aka outhouses are stationed at three points around the station.

The Toolik "towers," aka outhouses are stationed at three points around the station.

There are no sinks there, just dispensers of hand sanitizer. A trailer in the middle of station houses the washeteria, with sinks, showers and laundry machines. We are limited to two, two-minute showers a week and one load of laundry every two weeks. A sign on the washing machines says that each load of costs $22.50.

Most people use trips to the sauna to clean up in lieu of regular showers. There are separate men’s’, women’s’ and co-ed hours and the sauna is down a slope at the edge of station where it’s hidden from view for modesty’s sake. The sauna has a window in it that looks out over the Brooks Range. A drum of slightly heated water on the deck is available for washing and rinsing, and most people chose to jump in the lake before or after washing.

Living quarters are mostly half-moon shaped tents that sleep six, though we’ve got only four in ours. The only furniture inside are cots. There are a few metal-sided dorms with double rooms, which I haven’t seen. Most of the labs are in trailers, though we’re working out of a tent similar to the one where we’re sleeping.

My tent, which I share with four other women, makes for cozy lodgings.

My tent, which I share with four other women, makes for cozy lodgings.

The dining hall is a center of activity. The food has been amazing. Tonight was Indian, last night paella. They leave leftovers in a fridge and you can help yourself to those or the array of cereal, candy bars, fruit and extra homemade dessert anytime you like. (We had to give our weights before a helicopter ride yesterday and we all rounded up.)