Logistics

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:

Logistic support

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.

Spoiled

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.

Better than Aquafina

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.

Safety practice

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.

Axel

“Polar desert” is the term that characterizes most of the landscape of Axel Heiberg. The island gets very little precipitation, the humidity of the air is very low, and there isn’t much groundwater available to plant or animal life. The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are very much a polar desert as well, however there are vast differences between the two locations.

Well, relatively covered in life.

Green. Axel Heiberg is astoundingly green despite the polar desert definition. Plant life covers many of the valleys and the soils can support large moss communities where snow and glacial melt water collect. There are a number of gorgeous flowering species of plants and even a rather edible item called Mountain Sorrel that’s taste is quite similar to rhubarb. Despite this relative abundance of plant life (roughly 170 different vascular plant species on Axel) it’s all quite small in stature and grows very slowly due to the harsh climate and incredibly short growing season. A prime example of this is the incredible Arctic Willow. Existing far above the tree line, it is the northernmost woody plant in the world and lives happily around Arctic Canada and Greenland. The higher in the Arctic the shorter the plant, on Axel it only grows to around 10cm in height and it serves as food for the roaming muskox, caribou, and hare. This brings me to the second major difference:

Makes excellent throw pillows.

Animals. Axel is rich in animal life when compared to the Dry Valleys. I saw one bird in three months down there and I nearly had a heart attack in excitement. In my first week on Axel I’ve come across herds of both caribou and muskox, and have seen both the before and after effects of wolves on the Arctic Hare. Wolves are relatively common but the largest land carnivore in the world, the polar bear, is also known to occasionally traipse through the island. Although sighting one is rare we do carry protection in the event that one decides to become confrontational. So while the weather and one’s own (lack of) judgment are the major safety concerns in the Antarctic, the Arctic has the added concern of wildlife to deal with.

Staring at the sun

Having gone from 77º S to 79º N in such a short space of time has given me an opportunity to compare the two landscapes on a very informal level. Being able to fly over mountain ranges by helicopter gives a wide aerial perspective to witness the effects of glaciers and ice on topography, while hiking to the different study sites provides an up-close and visceral experience. But of all the readily apparent differences I’ve noticed between the two polar landscapes, telling the time of day has been the most subtle change to cause me the most confusion: the 24-hour sun rotates clockwise in the Arctic and counterclockwise in the Antarctic.

North

To the Arctic!

After four months of post-ice recovery I’ve headed north in search of the next ridiculous escapade. I’m still only vaguely aware of how I ended up here but the story goes as follows: During my Antarctic survival training I shared a tent with a researcher from McGill University. Upon hearing that I had gone to the same school and finding that my personality was tolerable enough to spend a night in very close quarters with, he offered me a position to work at the McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS) in the Canadian High Arctic to pursue research on climate change.

MARS is located in the territory of Nunavut on Axel Heiberg Island, which is located at roughly 79º North and is utterly uninhabited. But getting to this degree of latitude is no simple endeavor. To put things in perspective, Alaska is completely south of us. While getting to the Antarctic is largely arranged through the US military in uber large aircraft, flying to Axel is done by a series of “milk-runs” in small prop planes. First Air runs flights out of Ottawa to Iqaluit, after which the connecting flights north become increasingly weather dependent – heavy winds, snow storms, and caribou on the runway can all throw a wrench in travel plans. From Iqaluit a 16-seater makes a stop at Nanisivik airstrip (a narrow patch of flat space atop a mountain crest) and then on to the desolate town of Resolute on Cornwallis Island. Resolute is a gateway station to the extreme latitudes of Canada. Adventurers, thrill-seekers, and in our case, scientists, use the town as a staging area to get to Axel Heiberg, and the Polar Continental Shelf station provides the last hot shower before heading out to our field camp. We spent two days in Resolute preparing food, scientific equipment, camp supplies, and clothing – with Canada Goose generously providing me with the attire I need to survive this season.

First glimpse of Axel Heiberg

After a few nights sorting out a few thousand pounds of gear we jumped on our chartered Twin Otter and took off. The flight to Axel was two straight hours north from Resolute over barren Arctic landscape. Gravel, sand, clouds, ice. As the plane descended towards Axel the cloud cover broke to reveal an entirely different scene: jagged peaks, creeping glaciers, and green valleys that defy expectations. We landed directly on the tundra, unloaded our gear, and I watched the plane take off – knowing that I have another field season of isolation, limitless scenery, and only a vague sense of where I am to look forward to.

The midnight view from camp