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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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PROJECT CHARIOT PART IV: The Rewards

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In 1966, the AEC finally published "The Environment of the Cape Thompson Region, Alaska," a 1250-page report that Ed Thomas reckoned was the most comprehensive environmental study of a given region ever undertaken.

In the second year of Project Chariot, John Wolfe had asked Thomas to assist in reviewing some of the biological programs underway at Ogotoruk Creek. Ed was just two years away from retiring as Curator of Natural Science at the Ohio State Museum, and he was thrilled beyond words by the offer for it meant the fulfillment of a lifetime ambition of going to Alaska to study the flora and to see some of the most spectacular birds in the world on their breeding grounds.

Thus it was that in the late summer of 1960, Thomas joined the staff at Ogotoruk Creek and was soon observing "Lapland longspurs, savannah sparrows and ground squirrels gleaning right at the edge of camp." He was also greatly impressed with the camp, which had been nick-named Camp Icy Meadows.

In his Columbus Dispatch column he wrote that he was quartered in a Jamesway hut with an insulated, wind-proof roof. The structure contained eight cots and was heated by a stove. He described the food as "unbelievably good," and that there was a shower and wash room with hot and cold running water, and that there was six-hour laundry service.

On one occasion he accompanied John Wolfe, and David Johnston, of Wake Forest College; Allyn Seymour and Howard Smith of the University of Washington on a six-mile boat trip across an stretch of the Chukchi Sea to the famed bird cliffs.

At the cliffs, they joined a crew of men under the direction of George W. Cox who were camped at the base of the cliffs so they could study the birds on an around-the-clock basis. Thomas relates that they followed a path to the top of the 600 to 800 feet high cliffs where they could better view the ledges being used as nesting sites by the thousands of birds.

Common and thick-billed murres were the most numerous species present, followed by kittiwakes, and lesser numbers of horned puffins, guillemots, glaucous gulls, and pelagic cormorants.

On other forays, especially when he and his companions ventured into the interior, he observed yellow wagtails, wheatears, and blue-throats. In a thicket of dwarf willows, they found nesting white-crowned sparrows, redpolls, and willow warblers.

Once they flushed a covet of willow ptarmigan, watched hawk-like parasitic jaegers "cruising over the tundra," and observed a wandering tattler that a member of their party had banded a month before. And, always, Thomas admired the tundra, describing it as "a lush, green pasture, softly tinted with shades of buff and gold and lavender."

On a flight to Point Barrow with Wolfe and Seymour, the group saw herds of caribou from the air, and when they landed they saw an Arctic loon, snowy owls, Arctic terns, old-squaw ducks, a pomarine jaeger, pintails and, out at sea, great flocks of eider ducks. Thomas was especially taken with a small flock of Sabine's gulls which they encountered. He described them as lovely things with contrasting black and white wing patterns, pinkish breasts, and snow-white, forked tails.

One day back at base camp in a fierce wind, he found a pair of bar-tailed godwits and managed to inch his way to within 30 feet of them. "The birds were apparently unwilling to take wing in the strong wind and, at the same time, Ed was having trouble holding the binoculars to his eyes. "And so I sat down," he wrote, "and braced my elbows on my knees and was surprised to find the wind much less violent at that level." He called it an experience of a lifetime.

Thomas mentioned that there were four other Ohioans working on the environmental impact study at Project Chariot. He met Nicholas Holowaychuk, professor of agronomy at The Ohio State University, who was in charge of the soils study, but H. R. Finney of the Ohio Division of Lands and Soils was not in camp at the time of his visit.

He did, however, meet James H. Pietro, of the Ohio Division of Lands and Soils, Thomas recalled. Shortly before he left the camp, he also ran into Kaye R. Everett, of the OSU geology department.

There's no use second guessing the motives of all the people connected in one way or another with Project Chariot. In the case of Ed Thomas, as I have mentioned, I believe he was totally thrilled with the opportunity of visiting the remote Arctic coast to study its natural history and, like many of the other participants, I'm sure he put a lot of faith in the soothing assurances of the atomic scientists and bureaucrats of the AEC.

John Wolfe, on the other hand, was chief cook and bottle-washer for the entire project. He was understandably impressed with his job, and certainly maintained a reasonable degree of loyalty to his superiors as well as to the project itself. Whether he had any misgivings about the means and the ends of the project is a matter for conjecture.

I also suspect that anything that could even vaguely be identified with the political left was anathema to many of these well-meaning people. Don't forget that the years we are talking about were at the height of the cold war.

And there were all those beautiful birds . . .

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