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Friday Nights at the “Top of the World”…

As I prepare to return “home” to Barrow, I find myself reminiscing about days gone by on the North Slope.  I was priviliged to spend a Friday evening in August 2010 with longtime bowhead whale biologist Craig George, his wife, Cyd Hanns and their oldest son, Luke.  A friend and veterinary colleague, Nina Hansen was visiting me from Fairbanks.  Nina and I first met in 2007, when I was doing summer pathology work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  Nina graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in May 2007.  Upon graduation, she packed her things, got in her car and made the long road trip to Fairbanks, Alaska to take a job with McKinley Animal Hospital.  Today she is a full-time PHD student at UAF and still practicing at McKinley Animal Hospital.

We spent the evening cruising in Craig’s boat looking for seals, walruses and whales. 

We also encountered the incoming barges delivering goods to Barrow….

We discovered a gray whale carcass on the beach south of Barrow, in the area commonly referred to as “Hollywood” because of the past movies and films shot in this area.  It was apparent this whale had been there for quite sometime!  There were no tissues available to collect for investigation and study.  We still pulled the boat onto shore and investigated the remains.

A wind advisory was issued, cutting our evening short. As we cruised back to Barrow, I was able to appreciate an ocean view of one of the oldest and most famous landmarks in Barrow, the Brower Whaling Station.  Whalers, traders, missionaries and Arctic exploration greats-Stefansson, Captain Bob Bartlett, Wilkins, Rasmussen and Amundsen had all frequented the home and business of Charles D. Brower, the “King of the Arctic”. 


 Charles D. Brower with Whale Baleen
Upon seeing the familiar landmark, I was greatly humbled by the realization of the incredible, often rare opportunities I have been presented with since my arrival in Barrow.  I am truly “living the dream” in America’s northernmost city!

A Formalin Fixation…..

All of the formalin-fixed tissues from subsistence harvested seals and walruses taken during the 2010 harvest require  trimming in preparation for paraffin-embedding, sectioning and standard H & E staining.  I spent the last week of my summer in Barrow trimming and making over 1,000 tissue blocks from the seals and walruses sampled in 2010.  These blocks will be made into slides at the  Colorado State University Diagnostic Medicine Center and read by me under the direct supervision of Terry R. Spraker, DACVP and noted marine mammal pathology expert.  The  subsistence hunters have been so kind and generous letting me collect tissues from their seals and walruses.  They are most supportive of research that documents the health of these important subsistence resources.  Furthermore, their willingness to let us collect tissues from these animals is allowing us to develop an appreciation and understanding of the gross anatomy and microscopic attributes of Arctic marine mammals.  These 3 cassettes contain tissues from 2010RS8.  From left to right, the first cassette contains skin and vibrissae, the second cassette contains a section of liver, and the third cassette contains a section of trachea and a section of liver.  The gross changes in the liver are consistent with a parasitic infection caused by a fluke.  There is severe, chronic fibrosis of the bile ducts associated with this fluke infection.

Sections from 2010RS8  Pancreas, Gastrointestinal Tract and Associated Lymphatic Tissue.

All tissues from 2010RS8 ready for embedding at the CSU Diagnostic Medicine Center.

Here are some photomicrographs from my work…..

These two photos are sections of liver from a bearded seal with a heavy fluke infection caused by Orthosplanchnus arcticus.  The life cycle is likely complicated and may involve multiple intermediate hosts, one of them likely being a fecal feeding fish.  It is amazing that the definitive host, the bearded seal has adapted quite well to the presence of this parasite.  Histologically, there is severe cholangitis and cholangiohepatitis caused by the fluke.

  This photo is a section of lung from a ringed seal.  This low magnification photo illustrates histopathological changes associated with heartworm infection.  Yes, even seals get heartworm!  There is severe fibrointimal and fibromuscular proliferation of the medium-sized arteries in the lung caused by the seal heartworm, Anchanthocheilonema spiracauda.  Although this ringed seal and the numerous other subsistence harvested ringed seals  that have lung pathology associated with heartworm infection did not die from heartworm disease, heartworm is a significant cause of mortality in juvenile ringed seals.

Will Rogers-Wiley Post Airport in Barrow, AK

The tragic death of  Senator Ted Stevens reminds those who live and work in the remote Alaskan wilderness that flying for work or pleasure is not without risks.  On August 16th, 1935,  America’s beloved Will Rogers along with pilot Wiley Post died when their small aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed in the lagoon at Walakapa, 15 miles south of Barrow.    The two had taken off from Fairbanks, headed to Barrow -enroute they encountered fog and poor visibility and got off course.   Upon sighting a group of locals camping at a nearby stream, Post put the plane safely down, asking for directions to Barrow.    Upon finding out from local Claire  Okpeaha that they were only 15 miles from their intended destination where Charles D. Brower was awaiting their arrival, they took off again.  Okpeaha reported after ascending four or five hundred feet, the engine sputtered and died completely, the plane taking a nosedive and crashing into the lagoon.  Okpeaha ran the 15 miles to Barrow to get help.  It was determined the two men died instantly and likely the plane had run out of fuel, thus accounting for the sputtering reported by witnesses to the crash.  The above photo is a picture of the memorial across from the airport.  Below is the memorial at the actual crash site.  Every August, the Claire Okpeaha Memorial Run commemorates the 15 mile trek made by Okpeaha on that tragic August day in 1935 to deliver the sad news of the loss of Rogers, the common-sense humorist,  and Post, the one-eyed pilot known for brandishing an eye patch and his high altitude, around the world aviation feats.

The Plight of the Walrus

This photo was provided by the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management.  The well-being of walrus is threatened not by a pathogen but by the very real loss of sea ice that is forcing them to swim greater distances to find ice that is appropriate for hauling out and resting.  The overall health of the walruses that I have examined both grossly and histologically has been excellent.

This past summer I was able to collect tissues from 3 subsistence-harvested walruses.  It is more often the case that the hunter will butcher the walrus on a suitable piece of ice, leaving the visceral organs behind and returning with the skin, blubber and meat.  It is so difficult to haul the entire carcass back to town to butcher.  One of the hunters was kind enough to bring the entire carcass back for me to examine.  I was so grateful to the hunter for doing so, as I have never been able to examine all of the visceral organs before!  He was able to do so because it was a young healthy male.

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By Air, Land, and Sea-That’s How Goods Get to the North Slope

Alas! The supply barges are arriving in Barrow! There are no roads to Barrow and the other North Slope villages. Supplies are either flown in or brought by barge. Here is a photo of a Lynden Air Cargo plane that delivered premanufactured rafters for building single family homes and apartment complexes. Housing in Barrow is very hard to find for newcomers-many of the college professors find themselves living at the dormitories of Ilisagvik College until they can find a place of their own.  The waiting lists for housing are long!

Barges come in from Seattle, Anchorage or even Prudhoe Bay.  Many of my friends have bought vehicles and are driving them up from Fairbanks to Prudhoe on the infamous “Haul Road”.  The vehicles get put on the barges in Prudhoe for fall delivery to Barrow and other coastal North Slope villages.  Here are some photos of this summer’s incoming barges.

Note the truck stacked on top of the containers!

Last but not least is the “Greta” barge named in honor of Greta Akpik, a longtime native health worker in Barrow.  The Inupiaq name for “Greta” is Suvluraq.

KBRW-The Voice at the Top of the World

KBRW is the only station to provide radio programming to the 88,000 square miles that make up the North Slope Borough.  KBRW-AM 680 began br0adcasting on December 22, 1974.  In 1988, KBRW FM 91.9 was added.  In June 2006, 24/7 broadcasting was made available to the world via worldwide streaming.  It is through KBRW that I am able to stay connected with life on the North Slope as well as reading the online version of the Arctic Sounder Newspaper and social networking sites such as Facebook.  The programming mix offered by KBRW is most impressive!  There is a mixture of classical, jazz, bluegrass and new age as well as many NPR programs that I did not even know existed!  KBRW offers the nightly birthday show where people can call in and wish their loved ones a happy birthday.  Religious programming is also broadcast in Inupiaq.  The station also broadcasts community events and meetings.

Our wildlife department did a call-in show about our seal and walrus sampling program in which we communicated to the listeners the objectives of the program, significant findings and plans for the future.

Before the radio show. .. Shown are Billy Adams and Cyd Hanns.  Billy is pretending to be smoking a cigar like a certain

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Bearded Seal Post Mortem Findings

Here are some pictures that describe postmortem findings from 2010 Subsistence Harvested  Bearded Seals.

Hearts from 3 of the 42 bearded seals examined had incomplete closure of the ductus arteriosus-one of the three had a probe patent ductus arteriosus.  2 of the 3 were seals estimated to be just over a year old.  The remaining seal was an adult.

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