On a bright June morning, a 28-year-old Dr. James Clark climbed out of his tent onto the Arctic shore, surrounded by sapphire waters and steep mountains. At least according to his watch, it was morning. At Spitsbergen island, located only 600 miles away from the North Pole, the sun never sets, making it difficult to keep track of time. Clark is warm-natured, so days like this — a high of around 45 degrees, with a low of 25 — are what he considers perfect.
Invited to join a British expedition of scientists to study Spitsbergen’s glaciers in 1978, Clark, now professor of geology at Wheaton College, explored the island to piece together its past. He met two Russian glaciologists, and despite the Cold War waging continents away, they overcame mutual suspicion to become friends. Clark never met the third scientist, whom the other Russian glaciologists suspected was a KGB agent. “He knows nothing of glaciology!” they told him.
Clark laughed. Swiveling in his desk chair, he told me stories of getting sea-sick on the narrow wooden troller steering towards Spitsbergen and of socializing with the seals that inhabited the island. But to hear the mild-mannered geologist tell of his arctic adventures or exploits in the Rockies, you’d probably have to ask before he politely obliges, sometimes with a slightly embarrassed smile.
Up on the mountaintop
Clark sat in front of his office window at Wheaton, where he has taught geology for 17 years, as the Chicago snow danced downward behind him. Spitsbergen’s landscape might be similar to what Chicago looked like 12,000 years ago, Clark imagines, when it was covered by some 3,000 feet of ice.
While students returned from tropical spring break vacations and scowled at the sight of snow, Clark preferred the chilly weather. He told me that there’s “not enough cold, not enough relief,” in the Midwest. By “relief,” he meant mountains, the geologist explained — it’s a geographic term for measuring a difference in height. But I imagined that the other meaning of “relief” would be equally true. Nothing quite refreshes Clark like escaping to a higher elevation.
Since his childhood, mountains have always been a haven for Clark, who disliked living in Woodbridge, N.J., near Manhattan. “Cities make me afraid!” he told me, only half-jokingly. Confined by cityscape, Clark rarely spent time outdoors — rocks suitable for climbing were not common in suburban New Jersey. So every time the family drove out West to visit relatives in Colorado and Washington state, Clark felt revived among majestic peaks and crisp air.
When the National Science Foundation offered Clark a grant for research at the University of Colorado’s mountain research station following his last year of high school, the budding scientist snapped up the opportunity. Accompanying a professor across the Rockies, the two investigated glacial deposits on the mountain ridges. Their objective: to discover whether the entire area had once been covered by a massive ice sheet before its valleys were carved out.
The answer was “yes,” they concluded, but the three-month adventure marked only the first of many times Clark would ascend 11,000 feet to the station throughout his college career.
Today, his parents have retired to Washington State by the Olympic Mountains, and Clark, now 66, again embarks on pilgrimages out West, seeking respite from his home in the suburban Midwest.
A rocky romance
One could even credit the Rocky Mountains with introducing Clark to his wife, Susan. The two met during a Fourth of July picnic at the science station, both working in the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. As a plant ecologist, she had previously spent a summer in Alaska, drawing detailed maps of the tundra vegetation. Beautiful, intelligent and energetic, Susan had many suitors at the science station when Clark arrived. She was interested in someone — but it wasn’t him.
Clark had long hair, Susan remembered, and a headband that he wore underneath a floppy hat. White cloth tubes covered his wrists and hands because of a sun allergy he developed in the San Juan mountains. It wasn’t the best first impression, she told me. “He looked odd!” Hoping to impress the guy she liked, she heard that Clark was a skilled rock-climber and asked him to teach her.
Clark, usually a slow, cautious decision-maker, knew right away that he wanted to marry Susan. Without warning, he placed his arm around her one day as they stood on a cliff, belaying another climber. Clark considers that their first date — meanwhile, Susan thought he simply didn’t want her to fall off the mountain. When her parents and nine siblings came to visit, Clark acted as their guide on a backpacking trip, helping her mom across the logs in the creek. After her family retired to their tents that night, Clark proposed to a shocked Susan, only a few months after their first introduction.
It felt impulsive, Susan told him, and asked him to think about it more. After three days, he proposed again and — convinced he was serious — she found herself saying “yes.” They married a year later, when Clark was 23 and Susan 21. The two didn’t know each other well, but Susan admired his character, noting that he was quick to defend other people. “I was impressed with his kindness.”
Forming a family
As the Clark clan grew to include three children, Susan dedicated her energy to fostering a close-knit family. Clark, however, tended to avoid deep relationships. Growing up, his parents, a research chemist and biology science teacher, had rarely expressed their feelings openly.
As a child, Clark often isolated himself from the rest of his family, spending hours poring over the latest issue of The Scientific American.
A gentle, modest man, he still prefers to keep his thoughts private. “I’m much more comfortable with a rock than talking to you,” he told me with his usual laugh. He has always been kind, Susan said, but within recent years, he has become more open.
In their early years of marriage, the two could sense what the other was feeling, but had difficulty dialoguing about it. Now, when Clark struggles to articulate his emotions, he’ll ask Susan to “give me a list and I can choose from it.” She writes out a series of options on a sheet of paper: words such as anger, confusion, anxiety, fear. He has kept a list that he frequently uses to reference.
Adapting to these challenges, the family did become close, partly due to the couple’s decision to homeschool, an uncommon and legally precarious choice at the time. Homeschooling allowed the Clarks to temporarily move to Russia and Paraguay for mission work. They also took every opportunity to embark on outdoor adventures together. “We poured so much into our children,” Clark told me. I looked over at the bulletin board by his desk that displays photos of the family backpacking in the San Juan mountains and smiling in the Sierras.
In the valley
Above his office window hangs a wintry watercolor painting. I pointed out the snow-capped mountain. “My wife just got that for me,” he explained.
Unlike this room, tucked in the basement of Meyer, Susan was never allowed to enter Clark’s office during the early 1980s: the high-security Sandia National Laboratories, seated in the valleys of New Mexico. Years earlier, scientists used the labs for the Manhattan Project during World War II.
In 1973, the U.S. was suffering under skyrocketing oil prices from the OPEC embargo and was desperate to find a cheaper way to retrieve oil in the states. Clark arrived at the laboratories to work with several other geologists to develop a solution: hydraulic fracking technology.
Clark’s matter-of-fact tone betrayed the significance of his work; it could have convinced me that “fracking” was a new technique for planting gardenias, and not a revolutionary and increasingly controversial method that uses a high pressure water mixture to extract oil from under the earth.
Sandia’s sprawling footprint, host to some 1,000 Ph.Ds, looked like an army base. The offices weren’t fancy, but it didn’t matter; after all, they were invisible to outsiders. More importantly, the scientists had access to virtually unlimited funding for equipment and research. After three years, Clark, who had become a Christian shortly before the move, felt called to pursue different sort of work. When he decided to take a position teaching at Calvin College, his research budget shrunk from $20 million to $200.
He chuckled — at least his new work environment was lower pressure.
Late nights in the lab
Clark is the original absent-minded professor, according to Susan — except when he’s working on research, she told me with a laugh. “Then he’s very, very focused.” He can be found behind his desk nearly any time of day, arriving when the doors open each morning and often staying until they lock at 11 p.m. He sometimes joins students in the lab late at night, assisting them in their research. One such night, when Andrew Graber ‘15 and senior Claire Carlson dropped an assignment by the office, Clark and Susan invited them to stay for coffee and dessert.
If it’s a Monday evening, the geologist will be hovering over his current favorite research project with his longtime friend Rick Page, an engineer and the husband of biology professor Kristen Page. They sit in a small, windowless lab cluttered with cables, models and circuit boards like they’ve done every “hobby night” for the last 15 years, experimenting and engineering. The two men, who invite assistance from students like Graber, are working on a project to develop cheap geophysical instruments to help people locate water.
Clark fingered one of many small devices, then spanned his arms to show me how this particular instrument will send a current through the wire to another device located further away. It travels through the ground, setting up an electromagnetic field that allows someone to walk across and estimate the depth of the water below, he excitedly explained. Clark comes “full of ideas” each week, Page told me.
These sorts of instruments usually cost up to $25,000, making them unattainable for people who need them, particularly those in the majority world. Clark and Page are working to create designs that cost less than $250 to make. They publish their research in online journals, free for anyone to access.
Every other day, Clark receives emails from people around the world who interact with the research and he has visited many countries in Africa to teach well-diggers how to find water with the instruments. “We’re both kind of quiet — but definitely not when telling people about it,” Page told me. In a few months, Clark and his wife will set off for Rwanda to provide more training.
Motioning to the back of his office, Clark explained that items from Africa used to adorn the now bare wall. Susan has already brought them to their new home she is currently renovating in an extended trip to Sacramento, California — “An hour and 15 minutes away from the Sierra crests!” he added jauntily.
The cottage has a narrow, cozy layout, but it’s much more spacious than the tiny living quarters they shared the first three months as newlyweds: a 12-by-12 feet sheep-herder’s tent at the science station. The new couple used a hole under their bed as a refrigerator, lowering their food under the earth to keep it cold.
Across from horse pastures, the Clarks’ new house sits halfway between the ocean and mountains. Laughing, Susan said that her mother called their beloved rural area the “poorer section of town.” Just a quarter mile down the road lives their physician daughter, who is expecting her sixth child. Though he will no longer have a lecture hall of students, “I’ll probably be a homeschool teacher when I get there,” Clark smiled.
Susan suspected the first thing Clark will do is to set up his new lab in its designated room. But outside of the lab, Clark envisions embarking on family backpacking adventures and cross-country skiing, traveling to Africa and perhaps Asia. Spitsbergen remains his favorite place in the world: “I’d love to get back there someday,” he told me.
For Clark, retirement means the start of another adventure out West: reuniting with his wife and children, and the mountains that hold many of his memories.
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