The logistics of working in a research camp have facets beyond those of life at home. Skill sets that are thought of as hobbies are in reality practical techniques needed not just for survival, but to go beyond this and start accomplishing work. The long list of things worth knowing is highly complex and something I am generally unaware of. That said, here’s the first six things that came to mind:
Infrastructure. There is less support infrastructure in this area of the Canadian Arctic than my field camp in the Antarctic. There are only three of us on the entire island (which is a touch smaller than Nova Scotia) and we are a minimum 2-hour flight away from our logistics support hub. It’s incredible that Antarctica can have a larger science support center than an island that’s 8 hours north of Toronto. This largely reflects the fact that Canada’s Arctic is relatively undeveloped and unexplored, and that’s incredibly appealing. It also means special safety considerations. At 7:30am and 7:00pm all field camps across the Arctic call in to the station at Resolute to report the local weather and to verify that everyone is alive and well. If a camp misses two calls in a row an emergency plane is sent out. With the flights at $2000 per hour, missing check-in isn’t a great idea so knowing how to operate an HF radio and repair the different types of communication is critical. It was also a convenient way to get the World Cup results.
Transportation is an essential tool. Many of the research sites can be accessed by hiking, but if the distance is great or a large amount of scientific gear is being carried different methods are used: helicopters to other valley systems or different parts of the island, ATVs over the tundra, and snowmobiles during the coldest 11 months of the year. Simply using a vehicle is not enough though – safety is a huge consideration and field repair knowledge is essential. The risks and consequences of a rollover on an ATV is amplified given that a medevac is likely days away, and a breakdown means prolonged exposure to inclement weather. Knowing how to properly use an ATV could save your life.
Medical training. Let’s say that ATV does rollover; the closest doctor to us is a flight away, so our medical kits have to contain a little more than aspirin and band-aids. Having an ultra-swanky medical kit is only as good as the user though and it’s no good having items you don’t know how to use. Anyone going in the backcountry should have first responder training, and it’s a great idea for field camps to have a field medic on staff. My personal med kit usually consists of Robitussin and a few packs of Oreos.
While I’m on Oreos: Food takes up a significantly larger portion of the day and the field party’s expectations of productivity need to reflect this. Working in the field has the pressures of time constraints and money invested in the research, so there is an internal push to work as much as possible 24/7. But learning to pace oneself is key because rushing through eating doesn’t make for happy campers. Meals are moral boosters – after long weeks of work, often with very little time off and a large degree of physical labour, being able to sit down to a warm dinner can be enough to boost the spirits for the next day’s tasks. In the end if you don’t love where you are or the work you’re doing, it’s time to go home.
Water. Generally, this factor controls much of day-to-day tasks in the field, but at our camp on Axel Heiberg we have access to a beautiful lake with pristine water that requires absolutely no filtering or sterilization. We’re spoiled, and I enjoy that on a daily basis.
And lastly: firearms. While a great option for dealing with troublesome teammates, knowing which end is the barrel is essential information as a last line of defense against Canada’s terrifying white teddy bear. We’re prepared because scientific studies have proven that: Polar bears > Humans; p=.99 (Becker et al, 2008). We have all manners of flares, pepper sprays, and scare devices but polar bears are notoriously persistent. Thankfully, passing footprints are the only evidence of these animals in this field camp in the last few decades.
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of aspects of fieldwork but it gives an idea of the different context we operate in. By no means am I yet able to write a how-to-guide – there are still things to learn. I don’t think there is a ‘finish’ in field education because there is a kind of art of living that takes practice and patience that comes mainly with experience. Learning to be comfortable in your environment and at peace by yourself is the foundation upon which all else is built. That and Oreos.