Microchiroptera?

At first it was only a couple of things darting about, then suddenly the sky boiled outside the window as thirty or forty more joined them.

Microchiroptera?

                John let us sleep in. It was raining and there wasn’t much to be done anyways.

I got up and the floor was cold through my sock and I waddled stiffly out to the stove where a pot of coffee was brewing. Another kettle held hot water and used it to make a bowl of instant oatmeal.

We had run out of wood in the night and splitting new firewood was a priority of the day. Since I had split a few cords of wood in my time and was comfortable with an axe, I was volunteered.

Many people do not like chopping wood. I did. I liked the feel of momentum building as you arched the axe over your head and used that energy to split wood. I liked the smell of the wood, the sweat on the brow, and the feeling of accomplishment when you were done.

We heated our house with two wood stoves, so that took a lot of firewood. On average, we might go through a cord of wood a week. So you can imagine, I had cut, chopped and stacked a lot of wood over the last ten years.

Carl and Sam were assigned to assemble the zodiak while John unpacked our radio and set it up to connect with a relay to Larsen Bay which was nearly fifty miles to our north.

While I ate, I looked out the window to a bank of clouds that nearly touched the water. Out the window, all I could see was the depthless gray mask that made me start to have vertigo if I stared too long.

The rain had subsided and now a mist hung in the air. It really didn’t fall, it just hung there. If you went out in it and stood still, it would take a few moments for it to start to cling to you, but if you walked through it, it soaked your face despite the raincoat’s hood.

John turned on the maritime radio and we listened to the weather feed. Strong winds were blowing on the north side of the island and it seemed the clouds were going to hang out all day. The rest of our supplies would not be ferried in by plane today.

So we each got our assignments. Sam and Carl were to assemble the zodiak. John was going to plot out the prospectus for the survey on our field maps and assemble the radio. My job, or jobs for the day, was to find and split firewood, gather water and organize the pantry/store room.

Olga Bay did not have many trees that grew on it in the area we were in. The only trees were stunted spruce trees that were barely as tall as I was. I found a pile of wood in the grass across the creek. Some of it was sawed spruce from across the bay while the rest of it was driftwood.

The stove was small, so I used the chainsaw to cut eight inch logs before spitting it into smaller burnable pieces. John had chosen a fiberglass handled axe that vibrated horribly every time I struck the wood. The mist made the handle slippery which did not help with the grip or the vibration.

I walked up the narrow bath along the creek to the outhouse, my head down against the mist. My pants were soaked through and it was drawing the warmth from my body, so I walked stiffly.

On the way up I noticed a shed that was newer than the other buildings. From the oil drums and tools hanging on the outside wall, I assumed this was some sort of tool shed. One tool was a worn looking double headed axe that I borrowed on my way back to the woodpile.

The head of the axe was clean and sharp with little signs of rust on it. I could see water bead up on its head and smell the oil that had been rubbed across the surface to protect it from the elements. The handle was long and smooth and showed signs of being well used and cared for. Best of all, the handle was wood.

The axe was lighter than the one we had brought, but it split the wood. I was soon chopping in swift, comfortable arches. My grip was confident as the wooden handle did not threaten to slip from my hand. Nor did the handle send vibrations up my arms that numbed my hands.

The effort was therapeutic and repetitive. I swung the axe methodically and let my mind ponder the wonders of the universe and this new land I was anxious to explore. I stripped off my raincoat and my shirt was soon soaked through, a mixture of sweat and rain.

I finished splitting the entire pile of wood and lovingly hung the axe back on the wall of the shed after wiping it down with an oily rag that hung from a hook.

I tossed the split wood across the creek before stacking it along the long porch outside of the bunkhouse. Despite the roof, I decided to cover the wood as best as I could with a tarp so that it had a chance of staying dry even when the rain blew sideways.

With that done, I set to work on the pantry. I sorted through the boxes and stacked cans of food along one counter. I put all of our boxed goods on shelves that lined one wall above the counter.

John came in and helped me move some of the boxes into the common room in order to clear the small table that sat under the small window that looked towards the mountain. He then set about setting up the radio there while I finished sorting out the remaining food and survey equipment.

I placed to cases of MREs under the counter along with cans of food that would not fit on the counter. MREs are rations made for the military that came in a sealed brown plastic bag. These Meals Ready to Eat were our backup food supply in case our supply planes did not come in every week like we had planned. We had brought enough food for nearly two weeks, plus about two weeks worth of MREs.

I finished arranging the food and prepared a lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches and chips. Sam and Carl came in soaked and huddled around the stove while they ate. Steam rose off of them as their clothes began to warm and dry in the cool damp air.

They reported that they had unpacked the boat and began to assemble the aluminum floor panels. Sam held up a finger to show that he had smashed it between two of the plates when they were trying to put them in the bottom of the boat. His finger was swollen and red and the nail had turned black.

“You are going to probably lose the nail,” John said as he examined the finger. “We have been here for a day and you have hurt yourself twice. I hope this is not a trend.”

Sam and Carl drank some coffee to warm up a bit more before heading back to the boat.

After they left, I helped John finish setting up the radio. I nailed the antennae to the wall outside the window and aimed it to the top off the mountain. We ran the line to the radio through a hole in the wall and tested the radio.

John gave out our call sign and called to Larsen Bay, but there was only static. There was no way our radio was going to reach Larsen Bay until a crew from there used a helicopter to set up a relay on top of the mountain.

We turned our attention to the four hand held radios we brought for field use. We had brought a couple of deep cell batteries and a solar panel to charge both them and the radios. The solar panel was placed in the windows of the common area as it would get the most sunlight there. John decided that we could rotate the batteries to charge every other day.

We tested out each of the radios and the multiple sets of batteries we had brought with us. One of the radios had a lot of static and we could not find the issue. John assumed either one of the crystals was loose or it was a loose wire. He labeled it with duct tape and set it aside to be used as a backup since we only planned to take two into the field on any day.

It was going to be hard to keep them dry in this wet environment, so we made plans to use Ziploc bags to them in.

When we were done, John turned his attention back to the maps and I went to check on Sam and Carl.

I found them arguing on the beach as to how the foot pump they were using to blow up the zodiak was supposed to work. The hose popped from the pump when Carl stepped on it and that led to another round of shouting.

As I approached, Sam pulled the hose out of the thick gray rubber of one of the boat’s pontoons and reversed it. Carl was still yelling and shaking his head when he stepped on the pump. The billows compressed, but the pontoon did not move.

“We have tried it this way for nearly an hour and it has not inflated the boat,” Carl yelled as he threw his hands into the air. “It has to go the other way!”

Sam threw the hose on the ground. “There is only two ways! You can’t even pump air the other way.”

Carl kicked the pump and stormed off down the beach letting out a string of curses.

“Anything I can help with?” I asked Sam as I approached.

Sam shook his head. “This stupid pump is broken or something.”

I picked up the billows and pointed for Sam to reattach the hose. I pressed down on the billows and it easily compressed. We could hear air moving, so I pumped a little harder and faster.

“We did that for an hour and you can barely see any change,” Sam said looking up from me while holding the hose firmly in place.

I didn’t answer and continued to pump a little faster and harder. The rubber on the zodiak jumped a little and doubled my efforts. It wasn’t much, but at least we could see that the pump was working.

Carl came back and didn’t say anything as he stormed past us, heading towards the bunkhouse.

I pumped for a few more minutes, hopping from one foot to another until both of my legs began to burn. The pontoon was no longer flat, but it was far from full, so Sam switched places with me and continued to pump.

When he was done, gasping for breath, we switched places again.

Sam suddenly held up his hand and told me to stop. It did not take much coaxing to get me to do so.

Sam picked up the hose and looked at it. “Try again.”

I stomped on the billows and Sam motioned for me to stop. He unplugged the hose from the boat and carried the pump down to the water’s edge. He placed the hose in the water and used his hands to pump the billows.

He waved to me and I staggered down to the water. “Plug up the end of the hose.”

I did and he tried the pump again. I felt the air pressure on my hand and saw a stream of bubbles rise along the length of the hose.

Sam let out a curse and a laugh. “The hose is busted.”

I did not see what was so funny and Sam did not give me a reason. Instead, he said he would be back in a moment and jogged up the beach to the bunkhouse.

I lay down next to the boat and tried to cool down. The mist had lifted and a breeze caused the low clouds to swirl in wispy lines.

The sound of footsteps on the gravel caused me to look up. Sam was jogging back carrying a roll of duct tape in his hand. He set to wrapping the entire length of hose making sure he wedged it down in the grooves that made the hose flexible.

With his makeshift repair done, he took the pump down to the water and tested it.

A few moments later, he had the pump hooked up the zodiak and tried it out. When he stomped on the billows, the pontoon heaved with a sigh and nearly doubled in size. It took only a couple of minutes for Sam to fill up the first of four pontoons.

We took turns again and it took about five minutes for each of the pontoons to fill. The billows were harder to compress so we could not go as fast, but the air was now reaching the boat.

A dull thumping slowly began to fill the air. The sound grew louder and I realized it was not from the blood pumping through my head. I followed Sam’s gaze up into the clouds as the sound of a helicopter passed overhead. I also spotted John standing on the boardwalk watching us.

The sound of the helicopter slowly disappeared as Sam and I finished filling the boat.

We triumphantly returned to the bunkhouse where Carl had taken over on the maps. He did not acknowledge our presence as we stood around the stove and tried to dry off.

John returned and told us the caretaker wanted to see us all after dinner.

We ate hamburgers that night, the last of our packaged meat. We sat on the porch and watched as the clouds slowly rolled away as if swept from the bay.

With dinner done, we cleaned up and headed to see the caretaker. I had not met him yet and was a bit curious about him.

We walked down the boardwalk until we were in front of his cabin. We stood there for a moment before he came out. He grabbed a chair off of his screened in porch and joined us without saying a word.

He looked out over the bay as the sun began to slip behind the mountain and the sky turned to peach tones.

We stood for a few moments before Sam and I took a seat on the edge of the boardwalk and let our feet dangle.

The old man pointed towards one of the buildings behind the warehouse and said, “The microchiroptera will come from there first, then there.”

His hand motioned towards the warehouse before swinging back over his head to point behind our bunkhouse. “Then they will be there.”

Sam turned to me puzzled and mouthed, “Micro-what?”

I shrugged and took the time to swat at the swarm of bugs that accompanied the cooling of the evening. One thing I do not like about Alaska is the variety of bugs that literally want to eat you alive.

I saw movement from the building that the caretaker had pointed to first. I saw one or two things dart out of the upstairs window. They appeared to be birds of some sort, but their flight was a bit strange.

At first it was only a couple of things darting about, then suddenly the sky boiled outside the window as thirty or forty more joined them.

At nearly the same instant, another dancing swarm came out of the far end of the warehouse through a crack in the roof. The sky was now full of what I realized were bats.

I sat a bit mesmerized as I watched them dart about the air eating the bugs that I had just complained about.

John let out a rolling laugh and said, “Bats.”

Sam went a little pale and Carl let out a yelp as a couple of bats swooped down from the sky as they emerged from the building behind the bunkhouse.

The caretaker gave Carl a disapproving look as Carl let out a small scream and waved his hands about his head. “This is one of the only places in Alaska you can find all five species of bats that live here. Most are small brown bats and they are harmless. They kill all the bugs.”

Without another word, the old man stood up, picked up his chair and went back into his cabin.

Carl ran back to bunkhouse while the rest of us watched the bats surge out over the water and occasionally down about us. We let out giddy laughs when they did so but no longer flinched from them.

As it grew darker, it was harder to spot the bats as we walked back to the bunkhouse. We could hear clicks and the silent whisper of their wings.

John noted as we walked, “There are a lot fewer bugs already.”

“I think the bats are cool.” I replied.

“As long as they are not in my room,” Sam countered.

We all laughed and went inside.

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