I stepped out of my tent on my last morning at Toolik and saw a fox trotting through the grass. Its tail and pale orange hue looked exactly like the animal we'd encountered on our first day here; giving me the sense that I'd gone full circle in my Toolik experience.
Exhausted and not particularly thrilled at the prospect of a 10-hour van ride, we loaded our things into the white Dalton Express vans. The caribou antlers that many of the follows found on their hikes jutted out amidst the luggage. From the vans, we noticed 20 or so Toolik researchers had climbed a picnic table in front of the dining hall and were holding their coffee mugs and grinning. As we drove away, the crowd hollered and waved after us, a Toolik farewell tradition that suddenly made me sad that I would likely never see this place again. I turned back to watch them jump off the table, laughing as they went back to the warm camaraderie of the dining hall.
As we rumbled down the Dalton Highway, I realized why I had taken so strongly to Toolik: It exudes a palpable joie de vivre, a feeling that you're among people that love what they do. And their research is not only relevant for this desolate region of Alaska: Predicting the effects of climate change may ultimately help us all.
The ride back to Fairbanks was nicely broken up between points of interest. We stopped for lunch at Coldfoot, a former gold-mining camp about 55 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It's named after "green stampeders" who got cold feet on their search for gold and set up camp here instead. Coldfoot is also known for having a run of the chilliest days in North American history: For 14 consecutive days in 1989, the mercury dropped to below minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily Coldfoot was a balmy 60 degrees above Fahrenheit during our visit.
Another stop was the Yukon River Camp, consisting of a few stores and a restaurant along the Yukon River. I visited two artists and their small tent of homemade curios. One woman had made a purse out of a wolverine, a scrappy and extremely elusive Alaskan predator that's related to the weasel, and shared a long-winded tale of how the unfortunate animal ended up as a fashion accessory.
Finally, we rolled into Fairbanks at about 7:30 p.m., marveling at the sight of trees and exclaiming at the absence of mosquitoes pricking our skin. We were here in Fairbanks only two weeks ago, but it felt like a lifetime. We said our goodbyes, heading back to comfy lives without daily doses of DEET or three gourmet meals a day.