Tag Archives: Cape Espenberg

Field note from Cape Espenberg

Kenet Nicholls and Rae Spain keep the Hoffecker field camp running smoothly. Photo: Claire Alix (UAF)

On the weather-beaten beaches of Cape Espenberg, on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, a large field camp supports a tribe of researchers working on ridges pushed up by storms over the millennia, ridges rich with buried archaeological material.  PI John Hoffecker (University of Colorado) leads the effort to resurrect the history of human occupation in the area, an undertaking requiring up to 29 scientists and students on site at a time.

PFS staffers Kenet Nicholls and Rae Spain keep the field camp running day in and day out. Kenet recently sent us a note. In addition to describing the “stark magnificence” of the place, he offers a glimpse of the daily routine of one managing a large research camp in remote Alaska.

At 5:15 a.m. my ritual begins: roll off the cot; don Carhartts, boots and hoodie; grab binoculars; step out of the tent. I scan the beaches and dune ridges for wildlife. Ursus Arctos?  No sign. Good. No rogue bachelor musk oxen looking to make trouble, and mama fox (whose species has a high incidence of rabies in the Arctic) has yet to appear. Just wind-blown coastal dunes, deteriorating sand ridges, delicate flowers fighting for a moment to bloom and spread their pollen.

All’s clear for the 150-meter hike to the kitchen yurt.

Small tents dot the landscape at Cape Espenberg. The white, Western Shelter kitchen tent is in view in the distance. Photo: Claire Alix

First priority: high octane coffee for the cook (me!) and my house-mouse, who will arrive at 6:00. Get the ball rolling for the current crew of 18 eager souls. Hash browns on to soak—check; bacon in the pan—check. Eggs whipped to scramble, toast on the rack.

It’s looking good when in walks my cohort, Rae Spain, sister of spices, princess of picante, culinaire extraordinaire, here to save my bacon (sometimes literally). Rae sweeps in and makes every breakfast look easy.

After breakfast, our archaeological crew—Alaska, Nebraska, Quebec, California, and Paris (Mon dieu say no more!)—is ready for another day of excavating ridges four, five, and six.  PI John Hoffecker, full-time archaeologist and part-time stand-up political comedian, checks in before heading out to the site. Delightful man.

A super star in his field PI John Hoffecker is also a down-to-earth guy. Here, he puts his back into camp set-up back in June. Photo: Matt Irinaga

Mid-morning, Rae takes command of the center of the universe—la cucina—while I tend to trash, outhouses, and general camp necessities. Those done, together we fire up the water system. (I am still unclear as to whether it was designed by NASA or the Simpsons. There are so many components, gadgets, dials and knobs, but it works brilliantly.)  

Darting ground squirrels and delicate foxes entertain us throughout the morning. Just before noon Rae and I make our 10-minute walk to the dig sites to deliver soup and hot chocolate. We’re always welcome visitors! Half of the crew stays on site for lunch, huddled inside the Russian bug tent, while the other half comes home. It’s a warm and brief reunion.

From L: John Darwent and Jennifer Bencze (UC Davis) discuss a field site with PI John Hoffecker. Photo: Matt Irinaga

A team of archaeologists excavates a ridge site. Photo: Claire Alix

2:00 p.m. Rae kicks open the throttle on the kitchen machine, this time with me in the side car helping her. Mexican, Italian, Ethiopian, Indian—the woman is a fat man’s dream. From a Number 10 can and a handful of spices I’m convinced she could settle small nation’s wars.

Mid afternoon and early evening, Rae and I take turns with half-hour strolls on the beach, collecting our treasures, later to be identified by the scientists. “Oh, of course—that’s the left tibia of a pregnant mammoth. . . .Ah yes, that’s obviously the third vertebrae of a Pleistocene horse, not seen in these parts for 12,000 years. . . .”

Right! I’m speaking English 101 in a room full of Latin scholars.

Silence falls every evening for the first 10 minutes of dinner as weary archaeologists savor their meal after a day of being battered by wind or consumed by mosquitoes.  After dinner, some hit the lab tent to process the day’s finds while others play chess or backgammon or read impenetrable papers by icons like Giddings, Anderson, Mason—or Hoffecker.

9:00 p.m. I retire to my tent to read my book and slip silently into a dream state, waves crashing on ice sculptures piled on the beach.

Bugged by Thermokarst Lakes


Ben Jones, USGS, collects information on a thermokarst lake with a water quality probe. Photo: Guido Grosse

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times:  research in the polar regions is not for sissies.

Muggy, buggy conditions greeted a team of two visiting Alaska’s Seward Peninsula for a few days in June.

“Things went really well on the Seward Peninsula. It was really hot and really buggy (see photo) but [that] didn’t deter us from the work. We got all of our sensors except two and were able to sample a lot of lakes,” wrote Guido Grosse.

The team also found some artifacts—a wooden kayak paddle and wooden spears with stone tips. They told the park service about these finds.

The pair were part of (U Alaska) Katey Walter Anthony’s and Guido Grosse’s  NSF-funded study of thermokarst lakes.  The lakes form over permafrost rich in organic material when the top layers melt due to warming and the water, prevented from draining by still-frozen layers deeper down, pools on the surface.  When the water drains through stream channels or other processes, a basin remains that, for a time, supports additional plant growth and contributes organic material, and so on.  Walter Anthony’s team is studying the evolution of thermokarst lakes, focusing on the cycling of organic material freed from the melted permafrost, as the carbon-based stuff breaks down into carbon dioxide and methane (“greenhouse” gases known to trap heat in the atmosphere).

Thermokarst lakes are abundant in parts of the Arctic, and growing ever more so as the region warms, so information about the carbon cycle in thermokarst ecology is clearly of interest.   The researchers were visiting instrument sites installed around Cape Espenberg last year during a big field campaign. In addition to conducting maintenance on their instruments and installing additional one, they took some permafrost samples and sediment cores.

A larger team will return in August, spending about two weeks camping and conducting more extensive sampling activities. Here’s hoping high mosquito season will have passed.

Thermokarst lakes on Alaska's North Slope region. Image courtesy NASA

Thermokarst lakes on Alaska's North Slope region. Image courtesy NASA


Polar Careers (Among Many): Kenneth Nicholls, Camp Manager

Kenneth Nicholls used horses to work his farm in Guatemala, a skill he learned from an Amish farmer while working at a school for street kids in Canada. Photo courtesy K. Nicholls

Someone told Kenneth Nicholls recently that he was “either a well-preserved 95-year-old or a big fat liar,” because no 56-year-old could pack as much living into life as Nicholls has done.

But Nicholls is indeed 56, and he really has helped found a school for street kids in Ontario, fought Apartheid with the African National Congress, used teams of horses to farm in Guatemala and Canada, and led at-risk youth on wilderness trips on five continents, among many other jobs and adventures. This week he heads out on his latest unusual task, managing a 30-person scientific field camp on Cape Espenberg, Alaska.

“Life for me has been too short to have jobs sequentially,” said Nicholls, who tends to hold down three or four positions at once. He also uses several simultaneous first names — going by his birth name of Kenneth in Europe and South Africa where people tend to be more formal, by Ken with family and North Americans who like nicknames, and by Kenet with his indigenous friends who often have trouble pronouncing the “th” sound.

Nicholls grew up in southern Ontario, and as a teenager did the “classic Jack Kerouac type thing” of traveling North America by hopping freight trains and hitchhiking. At 18, he came back home and helped found a school for street kids.

The next year he took a group of boys from the school on a month-long, military boot camp-esque, “tough love” retreat in British Columbia. Nicholls saw the impact the wilderness had on the teenagers who changed their attitudes and took responsibility for their own actions in ways they wouldn’t at home. The experience led to more than three decades of leading youth wilderness trips.

Nicholls spent six years in the 1970s splitting his time between the school, called Twin Valleys, during the school year and leading wilderness trips with a company called Educo Adventure School over the summers in British Columbia. During this time, Twin Valleys expanded and bought a farm next door. The Amish farmer who lived there taught Nicholls to log and farm using teams of draft horses. Nicholls integrated this work into the lessons with street kids, who “had to check their bad attitudes at the barn door” because horses didn’t tolerate disagreeable workers.

At the same time, he was living in a communal house with South Africans and became interested in that country’s history and its struggle with Apartheid. He decided he wanted to experience the place firsthand.

After a few years of trying for a work visa, he was granted one in 1981 when he was 29. He took a job with a company that had hotels in Vancouver, outside London and in Cape Town. His task was to get all three onto the same food and beverage system. He planned to spend six months in England then six months in South Africa. That went according to plan until he got to South Africa and ended up staying 10 years.

Nicholls reconnected with his South African friends who had moved back home and were working with the African National Congress. While working for the hotel, setting up an international arm of the Educo guiding company and establishing his own wilderness leadership development company, he helped the ANC set up schools in black townships around Cape Town. After a few years, Nicholls, who is white, started volunteering as a negotiator for one of the country’s first black unions.

It was a time when Apartheid was causing violence across the country. His friends started disappearing, his apartment was firebombed and his friends, who understood the consequences, strongly recommended that he leave the country.

“The secret police of South Africa did not take kindly to liberals,” he said. So in 1991 he left for England. But his connection to the country was strong and he returned in 1994 to work with friends connected to Nelson Mandela’s presidential campaign and to run more youth trips in the wilderness of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. He soon became the international program leader for Educo and was doing training for the company around the globe.

In 1999, Nicholls moved to Educo’s office in Colorado to be closer to his aging parents in Canada. But, true to form, he didn’t sit still for long. In 2005 he went into semi-retirement and moved with his then wife to the farm she had carved out of the jungle in Guatemala. There he revived his horse skills and used them and oxen to work the farm, which he expanded to include a bed and breakfast.

When the economy soured, the life of a Central American farmer became untenable and he came back to the states in March. Friends who work at the South Pole suggested he use his wilderness skills in science support and told him to contact Polar Field Services about work. That led to his eight-week job as the field camp manager for a team of archeologists headed up by John Hoffecker from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Kenet, flanked by PFS staffers Erik Lund (left) and Matt Irinaga (right), establishing the tent camp at Cape Espenberg for John Hoffecker's archeology field work. Nicholls will manage the camp. Photo: Matt Irinaga

With support from the National Science Foundation, Hoffecker is investigating what caused indigenous communities that lived in the area from 800 to 1,400 AD to disappear and whether it was linked to a climate change at that time. The camp will include students from several universities as well as about a dozen Inuit elders and high school students who will visit the site. At its peak in mid summer, there will be about 30 people living in the tents along the bluffs of the Chukchi Sea.

Marin Kuizenga, PFS’s Alaska science manager, said Nicholls’ resume immediately jumped out at her.

“What has this man not done?” she wondered. His combination of background and skills will make him an excellent camp manager, she said.

“It’s clear that he can handle remote situations, conflict resolution, and large groups of people. And he could cook,” she said. “He’s a nice, steady, capable person.”

Nicholls has been in Alaska only two weeks, yet he said he liked the place and the people immediately. He’s hoping he’ll find a reason to stay in Alaska after the Cape Espenberg job ends.

“When I find a place that strikes me, I look for 100 other ways to stick around,” he said. “I don’t want to come and go as a tourist. I want to plant roots.”—Emily Stone

Understanding Arctic Evolution

Shelby Anderson, University of Washington Ph.D. candidate in archaeology, seeks to understand why Arctic cultures evolved into complex societies. Photo: Adam Freeburg

In the past 2,000 years, the people living in the Arctic evolved from simple hunting and gathering traditions to complex, hierarchical societies. They organized to hunt whales, developed villages with complicated social structures, made alliances with other groups and had times of peace and war. And they did this living in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments. Archaeologists have documented those societal changes, but none have yet answered the question: Why?  

Or, in other words, what prompted that social evolution? 

A Dissertation Project 

University of Washington Ph.D. candidate in archaeology Shelby Anderson hopes to develop a good answer. For about three years, Anderson has been studying the evolution of arctic cultures into complex social, economic, and political organizations using an approach that hasn’t yet been applied in the far north. She’s studying pottery

“We have historic records about how people were living in the Arctic in the 18th century, and they had amazing technology, artwork and impressive social networks and structures,” said Anderson. ” We have a faint record, through both archaeology and oral histories, of what life was like long before that, but we don’t really know why the rapid social and technological changes evident in the archaeological record over the last 2,000 or so years took place. I want to know how and why that happened.”  

Walking in their footsteps: field camp at Krusenstern, AK. Photo: Shelby Anderson

Existing records and data show that the populations in the region peaked roughly 1,000 years ago. Populations concentrated along the coast, and then, about 500 years ago, people began dispersing. Less is known about where they went and how their cultures evolved, Anderson says.

Looking For Cultural Evolution Clues: Pottery Lessons

Pottery fragments like these will help Anderson better understand Arctic cultures. Photo: Shelby Anderson

 Like many archaeologists who have teased out complex mysteries about native tribes in America’s southwestern region, Anderson is looking to pottery to provide clues and evidence of growing cultural sophistication. By analyzing pottery shards and “sourcing” them to specific regions, she aims to understand when trade between certain groups started, to trace the trade routes, and to understand which groups controlled access to the land that held the clay.

Scattered pieces of excavated pottery provide important clues to Anderson's research. Photo: Shelby Anderson

“I’m hoping to use pottery as a proxy for understanding if and how groups controlled access to raw material resources, which is a hallmark of more complex social and political structures, and also to understand the movement or distribution of pots and pottery styles, which is evidence of trade, mobility and group interactions.” 

Specifically, Anderson is studying archived and newly acquired pottery collections from Alaska’s Cape Krusenstern, the northern and central Seward Peninsula, including Cape Espenberg, the shores of Kotzebue Sound, and the Noatak and Kobuk River valleys. Working with the University of Missouri’s Archaeometry Laboratory, she is analyzing the chemical composition of pottery shards to hone in on where in the region the clay that made them came from. She will also analyze the minerals used to temper the pots to source these materials. 

Looking at Geography 

A major component of Anderson’s research involves better understanding settlement patterns. Currently, more data exists on coastal populations. But as the people moved inland, the record of their settlements is sparse. Anderson will conduct precision mapping and dating of archaeological features around this region, using these data to better understand regional settlement and population change. 

Painting the Big Picture  

Anderson’s research—now in its final year of fieldwork—will help paint a better picture of the complex, multi-faceted societies that evolved on both sides of the Bering Strait, she said. In the past 2,000 years, the different groups in the region formed strong regional identities that led to marked differences in styles and subsistence and eventually led to the expansion of Thule whale hunters eastward across the Canadian Arctic. 

A Different Perspective on Archaeology 

The relationships, interaction, and evolution of these ethnic groups remain among the most unresolved issues in the archaeology of the region, said Anderson. Often, archaeology focuses on what a population does and looks at cultural products, she said. By contrast, her research looks at why the populations evolved as they did. 

“It’s always fascinating to have long-term data on human behavior,” said Anderson. “My research will be relevant to others studying in the Arctic, as I try to answer bigger anthropological questions about why social change took place.” 

Anderson’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted in partnership with the National Park Service. 

— Rachel Walker

Sifting Through the Sand for Clues of Prehistoric Inuit Life

In the quest to discover more about prehistoric human development and settlement in and around the Bering Strait, scientists have long probed archaeological sites in Northwest Alaska in search of artifacts, architecture, and other clues for how the Inuit culture evolved. Perhaps the most well-known site has been Point Hope, Alaska, one of the oldest known occupied human settlements in North America.

What hasn’t been fully explored in the region is a promontory on the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula: Cape Espenberg. Considered the “last great unstudied beach ridge sequence in Northwest Alaska,” according to Dr. John Hoffecker of the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), Cape Espenberg was a robust Iñupiat community from 1000 A.D. to about 1800 A.D. The cape is the focus of a three-year study supported by the National Science Foundation and co-led by Hoffecker and Dr. Owen Mason, also with INSTAAR. Their project aims to “track change over time to further develop an understanding for the formative period of Iñupiat culture,” said Hoffecker.

The beach at Cape Espenberg today. One thousand years ago, this was the site of a robust Inuit community. Photo by Owen K. Masen.

The beach at Cape Espenberg today. One thousand years ago, this was the site of a robust Inuit community. Photo: Owen K. Masen

“Cape Espenberg was abandoned by its inhabitants prior to the contact period  for reasons that are unclear,” said Hoffecker.. “We hope to recover more information about the people who were there in the late prehistoric times as well.”

Specifically through an interdisciplinary effort with archaeologists, soil specialists, paleoecologists, and other experts, they plan to map the cape’s beach ridges, complete partial excavation of myriad sub-terranean homes, collect artifacts, and sample the soil to better understand how the former inhabitants survived.

Before unearthing clues about the economy, the crew unearths the house. Photo John Hoffecker.

Before unearthing clues about the economy, the crew unearths the house. Photo: John Hoffecker

The crew excavates entirely by hand. After identifying a subterranean home, they outline the plot and get to work. Photo John Hoffecker.

The crew excavates entirely by hand. After identifying a subterranean home, they outline the plot and get to work. Photo: John Hoffecker

“We want to reconstruct their economy,” said Hoffecker. “We have yet to determine if whaling was an important economic component. There are whale bones on the cape, but it is possible the bone washed up there.” (Kotzebue Sound is not a popular migration path for whales, negating any modern-day whaling; whether or not whales traveled a different route 1,000 years ago is one topic Hoffecker and his colleagues will explore.)

One of the many artifacts unearthed during this summer's field season. Photo John Hoffecker.

One of the many artifacts unearthed during this summer's field season. Photo: Owen K. Mason

In addition, the team will complete an extensive map of the area and overlay it with evidence of the former occupants’ lifestyle, as pieced together by the artifacts and information from soil micromorphology they will collect. The team will focus on the period between 800 and 1400 AD, when major climate change occurred in conjunction with a cultural transition in the greater Bering Strait region.

The beach ridges at Cape Espenberg was formed by marine deposits and windblown sand, and its residents built their subterranean houses in sand using whale bone and drift wood to strengthen the structures, said Hoffecker. He and his team spent this summer’s field season surveying the ridges and selecting the main spots for next year’s research, when they will concentrate on ridges 6, 5, and 4. This summer they were a team of eight, and next year that number will grow as they bring a larger crew, camp staff, and students from nearby communities as part of a National Park Service mentorship program that aims to involve local Native Alaskan communities in the project and other scientific pursuits.

This summer was Hoffecker’s first on the cape, and he said the abundant wildlife and remote location often felt prehistoric. After a summer of recon, he said one of next year’s biggest challenges may be dealing with the more modern mammals: ground squirrels, which disrupted excavation.

“They weren’t shy at all,” he said. “They’d burrow into a fresh stratigraphic profile and just mess it up.”