MARS

Geologic history

It’s a fitting acronym for the small camp I’ve spent my season in. Canadian Space Agency projects run through the McGill Arctic Research Station use Axel Heiberg as a Mars analogue site for research on polar desert landscapes. The idea is that the climatic conditions and geological history of this area of the Arctic (as well as those of the Dry Valleys) share many similarities to the conditions on Mars, and by examining these processes on Earth we can then apply what we learn to our friendly red neighbor.

A dark and stormy night

These are just on the walls to try and make us look cool.

Being trapped here comes with a relative level of comfort you wouldn’t expect given our location. The kitchen hut is a half-century old structure that feels like you’re cooking in a museum’s storeroom. The view from the outhouse (barrel) looks out across a massive glacier with the sounds of the floodplain in the distance. As if these weren’t perks enough, the central work/sleeping hut is about as cushy as any outdoorsman (or woman) would want. The back half of the building is the sleeping quarters with military style bunks and all sorts of expedition gear lining the walls: ice axes, rescue rope, flares, and the odd radio or two left over from 1960.

The social hub.

The front half of the building serves as the main work center and social area of the camp. Our communication gear is perched in the corner, surrounded by the lab and computer space needed for processing scientific samples and checking facebook. Miscellaneous parts line the walls of the room and a central Preway heater runs on diesel to heat the building. During the lonely polar storms there’s an emergency library stocked with the latest Nora Roberts books and the complete Twilight series to keep the spirits up.

The expedition's library.

It’s interesting to think that someplace so remote is set to become a second home. In a mix of design and good fortune I’ll be returning to this spot in the North several times over the next four or five years. Beginning this coming January I’ll be starting graduate school to look at how the changing climate influences ice and in turn the sensitive biological ecosystems that surround it. The unjustly lucky aspect of this work is that Axel is not the only potential research site, but much of the Canadian Arctic and even the Antarctic.

The long journey forward

Regardless of where the research takes place I’m set to return to Axel to continue working on the station, even during different times of the year. The prospect of coming back over several years, watching seasons change, living with the potential terror of being eaten by a bear – these are things that allow someone to become intimately familiar with an environment on a personal level. As I finish my first season in the North there is no worry about my ability to return or an emotional feeling of conclusion – only the excitement that for one reason or another, at some time in the near future, I’ll be back. At this moment there is potential for everything, and that is something to look forward to.


Construction

It's alive.

The largest single project of our field season has been the construction of a new kitchen hut for the field camp. While the building of a 24′ x 16′ structure may not call for much celebration in more southerly latitudes, things move slower in the Arctic. As the station is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary it’s incredible to see that the eating quarters have remained relatively unchanged since the beginning. We still use the original 12′ x 16′ structure built 50 years ago. Floorboards squeak, decades old food, and a chronological collection of (unopened) Spam containers through the ages are just a few of the memorabilia that decorate this living museum. As it’s only a few decades younger than some of the expeditioners’ huts in the Antarctic it really does have the feel of being a living piece of history. At the moment it can cook/feed about 6 people at a time in relative comfort, although it has served far greater groups in the recent past. While the mystery and sense of adventure when opening up old boxes will be missed, the completion of the new hut will be a wonderful doubling of the floor space and a vast improvement on quality of life. Fret not however that the living museum will be torn down – instead it will be re-outfitted as a reading room/library stocked with all the Nora Roberts books one needs to survive in the lonely Arctic.

Cleaning the mud after the rain.

Our new building has been a crash course on what it means to be Amish. Every piece of it was built from scratch, and aside from a miter saw and a drill, there were no power tools or pneumatic equipment. All the trusses for the roof were built by hand, the ground was leveled using a shovel, and the color of my thumb nail provides testimony to the epic number of nails put into the kitchen.

The view

The new kitchen hut has been perched on a gorgeous ridge that overlooks Colour Lake and Wolf Mountain in one direction and a massive glacier in the other. While this ridge at first looked to be rather level it still involved an entire day of digging to produce the correct surface. One of the cool features incorporated into the design of this building are the adjustable “wedges” that support the three main beams of the foundation. The freeze/thaw cycle of the seasons can cause dramatic shifts in the level of the building, and these pieces of wood can be pounded in/out in order to raise/lower the specific section of the building as needed.

Sadly, we weren’t able to complete the building this season. However, the main structure is up and it has been weather-proofed for the coming winter months. Not much remains to be done for next summer – simply adding in the windows and adding insulation to the interior of the building. Oh, and building the patio. Why build a ridge-top chalet in the Arctic without a patio?

This is the time-lapse video I did of the absolute start to near finish of our construction project (the music is by the incomparable Michael Stearns). Building in the Arctic is not just working on a static landscape – the environment is a dynamic, moving force that is constantly in motion around us and interacting with us while we work. The rolling fog, the rain, the ice shifting across the lake with the changing wind: these are all things that are easy to miss when our heads are down making sure we don’t hammer nails into our fingers. Enjoy!

Fog

The last five days have been one of the stranger things I’ve experienced. We’ve been doing a rather large construction project at the field camp and for the most part the weather has been quite enjoyable until the last few days: one evening as we were wrapping up leveling the floor to the new kitchen hut a low level fog came rolling up the valley. And it didn’t leave for five days.

How it all started

It would be a huge exaggeration to call it extreme weather since it was generally around 1ºC and drizzling the whole time, not exactly the stuff of legend. But what made this an otherwordly feeling was that the whole valley system was socked in with this thick fog that reduced our visibility to about 100m the entire time. And since the sun never goes down, the grey color was absolutely constant. No change in hue, no change in darkness. Just days spent in a small grey bubble. We have been outside doing physical labour the whole time on a 2-hour work, 1-hour of rest/eat/dry off schedule. Days blended together and I’m confident that if dinner and breakfast weren’t different meals then time would have truly lost all meaning.

The haze rises momentarily

When the mist finally lifted for the first time and the sun broke through it was like waking up from a dream. The weather was not severe but the constant, uniform grey and lack of darkness gradually crept in and glazed over my brain in a nearly imperceptible way that numbed my senses. It’s the same feeling as sitting in an organic chemistry lecture. Or being in a casino for a week. Or painting in an apartment with no ventilation. Glad I don’t live in Seattle.

One of the clearer moments

I’ve done a time-lapse video of the project from absolute start to tolerable level of finish and should have it posted in a few days.