I've heard them called whistle-pigs. Or bear milk duds. Marmots are responsible for the piercing whistles that burst out from boulder piles along many an alpine ridge. They are the fuzzy, chubby guinea pig-like rodents, posing on rocky ledges. They are almost unreasonably cute. And we spent our whole trip searching for them.
Of course, the marmots were only a footnote. We walked and packrafted for three and a half months, tracing a line of 800 miles along the shore of Cook Inlet with our two-year-old and four-year-old children. Cook Inlet is the heart of modern Alaska. It has Native villages and Russian villages, hippie towns and tourist traps and Alaska's biggest city. Cook Inlet is our home. It's also home to oil rigs and natural gas plants, coal mine proposals, wind turbines and tidal power proposals not to mention endangered whales, abundant bears, salmon and melting glaciers. Lastly, it's home to most of Alaska's population, and hundreds of miles of nearly unpopulated wilderness.
And, quite likely, coastal marmots.
Why did we care? Truthfully, I wasn't sure at first.
Hig: "There's a researcher who's really excited about us looking for coastal marmots around the inlet. Says our trip is perfect for it."
Erin: "Is there even any such thing as a coastal marmot?"
Hig: "Well, I know there was one that lived at White Rock Beach when I was a kid, but I always thought he was kind of a fluke."
Erin (shrugging): "I guess we can keep our eyes out."
We forgot about them through the sandy bluffs of the Kenai Peninsula, and the vast marshy mudflats of upper Cook Inlet. And by the time we started seeing the ground squirrels in Ursus Cove, I'd given up on seeing them at all.
It's hard for adventure to make time for science; Hig and I have worn both hats before. And while we observe and learn a tremendous amount on each of our journeys, it tends to be far more qualitative than quantitative. It's hard to take careful measurements if you can't afford the weight of the tools, and need to get around that next point before the tide rises. The goal of getting everyone from A to B in one piece takes priority, and every additional goal (writing, photography, science, video) has to fight for its place. Even on this journey, we had some failure mixed in with our success working on another ASC project -- taking water samples from glacial rivers in permafrost regions under circumstances where we couldn't get them back to the appropriate lab in time to be analyzed.