Alaska Professor Takes To The Tundra To Find Mars

Finding Marsmars

By Ned Rozell

University of Alaska Press


Alaskans have odd ideas of fun. And scientists and writers will go to any lengths to get results or a story. So it should come as no surprise that science writer Ned Rozell, who writes the Science Forum column for the local paper, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, took a 900-mile snowmachine trek in wild Alaska just to see what permafrost scientist Kenji Yoshikawa of the University of Alaska Fairbanks does. That adventure became the basis for Rozell’s newest book, “Finding Mars.”

The trip, with Rozell, Yoshikawa, and Yoshikawa’s assistant, Tohru Saito, begins at Emmonak, a village of about 850 Native Alaskans at Kwiguk Pass, a tributary of the Yukon River. From there, the three will travel (if Yoshikawa’s “ambitious” schedule is realized) to Kotlik, Stebbins, St. Michael, Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain, Nome, Teller, Brevig Mission, Wales, Shishmaref, Deering, and Kotzebue, in 16 days.

“Most scientists would budget in a few extra days for weather. Kenji is weatherproof,” Rozell writes by way of introduction.

Yoshikawa’s objective on this trip is to create a baseline measurement of temperatures in the stable permafrost that underlies these villages, in the hopes that 50 years from now, scientists will be able to reference his work. Another goal for the scientist is to conduct science outreach at the schools he stays at, to show Native kids the viability of a science career. He wants to instill the same love of science he has in others.

Rozell didn’t start out to write a book. His goal in accompanying Yoshikawa was to learn more about this intrepid, well-traveled scientist who was born in Japan and planned to get to the planet Mars before he died.

“I always thought Kenji was book-worthy,” Rozell said in an e-mail. But books take lots of time and money, and busy science writers don’t always have much of either.

A few weeks after the trip, Dan White, head of the Institute of Northern Engineering, approached both Yoshikawa and Rozell about a book on Yoshikawa’s studies. White said he’d find some funding to assist with the book, so Rozell got to work.

Yoshikawa was excited about the chance to further outreach science to students who might not ordinarily get a chance to study it in depth. A research professor, one of his projects is called Permafrost Outreach. He goes to many villages in the Interior and Northern Alaska, setting up permafrost temperature stations, and engages the students he encounters as he performs his science. He always takes time to talk to the classes. He is passionate about the work, he says, because while more difficult in arranging logistics, he is able to see how his studies – the thermal state of Alaskan soils – actually affects those who live on them.

Kenji Yoshikawa was born an explorer. Early on, in the western Tokyo section of Higashimurayama, he pored over a world atlas, yearning to discover places outside his home. “As a child,” Rozell writes, “he stared at maps of the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea and wondered if they were somehow different, these seemingly connected oceans with different names.”

While in third grade, he hopped on his bicycle and headed west, using the sun for guidance, and biked to his grandmother’s house about 6 miles away. He’d only been there in the car with his parents, but he navigated his way to the house with little trouble. But Grandmother wasn’t home, so he jumped on the bike again and went to his cousin’s house, remembering visits there. This destination was about 20 miles away, but he made it unscathed.

And instead of being scolded or punished for his boldness, Yoshikawa’s father Tadao praised his son for his ingenuity.

“He smiled, listened, and wondered where his son got the gumption for such an expedition. Hearing Kenji’s enthusiastic chatter, Tadao confirmed a belief he’d had since Kenji was a baby – that his son was different from most Japanese people. He also had a feeling that the bike adventure was just the beginning.”

And indeed it was.

“Finding Mars” depicts Yoshikawa’s adventures beyond the bike ride – from the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, to navigating the Amazon River, to sleeping on an ice shelf in Greenland, to trekking the South Pole. Kenji Yoshikawa has “endure[d] more discomfort than most others he walks past in Fairbanks,” Rozell writes. Overwintering in a frozen saltwater lagoon in a stranded boat, Yoshikawa endured dark, cold, and loneliness, but he was “totally delighted.”

The book is an account of the snowmachine trek, but it is much more than just a travelogue. Rozell captures the essence of Yoshikawa – his daring, inquisitive nature, gregariousness when sharing science, and his utter unflappability when things go wrong, as they inevitably do in Alaska. Interspersed are scenes of Yoshikawa’s childhood in modern Japan, home to 3,000 people per square mile. The book is filled with pictures from Yoshikawa’s archives – Kenji as a Boy Scout, Yoshikawa with his first boat in Okinawa, Yoshikawa the scientist drilling holes in permafrost in Alaska.

One picture, showing Kenji and his mother at the beach, brought back another memory of Kenji’s explorations – when he was 5, he wandered away while his parents and older brother were clamming. When they found him with the attendant, the attendant was laughing. When asked why, he said, “When he came up to me, instead of saying he was lost like other children, he said, ‘Can you help me? My parents got lost.’”

Rozell has given us an excellent picture of a hard-driving personality who has places to go and things to do – but who is also amazingly adaptable – “paradoxical,” in Rozell’s words.

“It’s hard to keep up with Kenji when he’s traveling – there’s not much down time,” Rozell said of his subject. “But it’s always an adventure, and I like adventure.”

Another difficulty in working with Yoshikawa, at least at first, was his accent. Having learned English as a second language, he has a thick accent, so occasionally it is difficult to catch what he says at first, Rozell confesses. “The more time I spend with him, the better I am at picking up what he’s saying,” he says.

When asked about having a shadow, someone watching and recording everything you do, Yoshikawa had high praise for Rozell’s assistance on the trip.

“My work needs a lot of pictures of what we are doing; however, we couldn’t [get] enough staff and time to [do it.] Ned did cover most of our weak points.”

If there’s anything Rozell hopes readers get from this book, it is this: “Passion will take you far.” But more importantly, “[w]hen you have a solid plan, people respect it. The universe does too. Things will work out no matter how crazy your plan, as long as you believe.”

Yoshikawa hopes people will see how science is done – it isn’t magic, it’s hard work, stubborn will, and using technology to the greatest extent possible. Expeditions have changed over time – from sextants to GPS, satellite phones instead of ham radios. But the science is the same.

“We are lucky to live in both eras,” Yoshikawa says.

At the end of the trip, after weeks of grueling rides and crummy Alaska weather, the travelers return home, weary but triumphant.

Rozell ends his book:

“The little boy who wanted to go to Mars will probably never get there. Kenji has studied Martian permafrost and is an ideal candidate for such a mission, but for all his drive, even he can’t overcome Earth’s gravitational pull. … Spend some time with Kenji, though, and you get the sense that walking on Mars doesn’t matter that much to him, perhaps not as much as it did a few decades ago. Maybe, after leaving footprints on Sahara dunes and wincing as the Antarctic wind nibbled his cheeks … he has seen enough to give a Martian a good briefing about what his home planet is all about. And maybe, in this landscape buckled with frost polygons that still hold the cold from 20,000 years ago, Kenji has found his Mars.”