Hell

I have seen the ravages of war. I have felt terror from the faceless masses approaching, heard the war machines’ endless drone, suffered at the hands of a million unnamed torturers. I know fear.

My energy and my spirits have been drained by this endless battle. My limited defenses have resulted in my body bearing an untold price. A thousand needles have pierced my flesh and emptied my blood by the thimbleful.  The enemy has weakened my mind and crushed my soul.

But I am not alone in this conflict. All around me my comrades endure the same agonies as I. I watch as the women and children hide themselves from the onslaught while the men take arms against the hordes. But their brave actions are fruitless – they too will meet their end in this field: each a forgotten soldier, each a victim to incalculable horrors. They shall fall as I shall fall. Except death will not come slowly. We shall endure this pain, endure these ghastly wounds, and suffer with the knowledge that nothing will soothe our searing flesh.

War is hell.

The women and children try to protect themselves from the onslaught.

Meanwhile, my fellow comrade screams as the masses attack.

He maneuvers to evade them.

But it’s to no avail. He falls in defeat, another victim to another unjust war.

I shall receive no purple heart for my wounds.

Coal

Bleeding resources.

It’s the dirty, dark little secret as to why most people are here. Interest in the Arctic has come and gone in waves over the decades as the price of natural resources rises and falls, and right now there is a major resurgence. Despite the economic downturn of ’08, prices for coal, natural gas, and oil have rebounded to a point that makes it feasible to extract them from the Arctic. As I walk around doing my daily work I can see that this place is bleeding resources: streams expose 20-meter coal beds, high-grade iron ore is pouring out of the hills. There’s an unreal abundance of expensive things that humans like and it’s all just sitting here at the surface. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to get to.

Mining and operations in the north face a number of difficulties not found down south like permafrost, extreme seasonality, and a lack of facilities. But the key inhibiting factor for development is isolation, which can be broken down into two parts: distance and sea ice. Distance is something that can’t change – it will still be a damn long way to the mainland no matter what happens. Sea ice is another story. After a global minimum in sea ice extent in 2007, each successive year has resulted in more of the Arctic Ocean remaining ice-free for longer. This means that sea transport (and the Northwest passage) is now becoming very much a reality for industry. The only way to make a profit from coal in the Arctic is as a bulk commodity – massive extraction and a near continuous chain of shipments running from north to south during the ice-free summer months. While coal is much cheaper to mine down south, the Canadian Arctic may have one of the largest coal beds in all of North America. Over my last three seasons here I’ve seen many exploration teams with maps dividing up the islands I feel so affectionately for. They head into the field searching for their rocks and generally come back quite successful. While they’re usually all very nice people, I can’t help but inwardly wish them failure in their search.

Found it.

My distaste for mining in this environment comes from knowing how vulnerable these ecosystems are to the slightest disturbance. No development here would be impact-free and any amount of damage would likely be permanent. When 80-year old trees here are as thick as my thumb or a single tractor trail lasts for over 40 years the idea that this ecosystem could recover from an environmental disaster is laughable. Growth is slow and life here is hard. The ecosystems here don’t possess the same resiliency as those down south, as sluggish rates of growth and the short summer season limit how much recovery can happen in any given year. I even feel bad when I leave deep footprints. Industry proponents and environmentalists bicker back and forth about the scale of environmental damage that is guaranteed to come. While it’s not likely that the two sides will ever agree on environmental principles, perhaps those that want to save the Arctic should try arguing a different point: economics.

Much like how oil extraction in the Canadian Tar Sands is not profitable when market prices are less than $60/barrel, the same economic danger rests on the development of the true north. Booms and busts have happened here in past decades and (most) everyone is aware that things could shut down again at the drop of a hat. Relics of old, half-finished projects litter the tundra – roads that connect nothing, half-constructed buildings, and bridges to nowhere. This is what makes it hard to predict how serious development is up here. Ignoring the ridiculous hot air about Canadian sovereignty crap coming out of Ottawa, the only real interest is economic development. This expansion is a large gamble as everything that happens here will be more reliant on high commodity prices than the rest of the world. And even if the boom of the Arctic finally happens, can we call it a success?

This was a question posed at a panel discussion on resource development at the International Polar Year conference in Montreal this April. There were two industry representatives, two scientists, and an aboriginal community leader (the mayor of Barrow, Alaska). After two hours of veiled words and empty phrases it was time for audience questions. A listener stood up and asked the mayor of Barrow, “Let’s say the oil industry meets all the safety standards, contributes what you’re asking for towards community development and employment, and there’s minimal damage to the environment – is this even a future you want?” The mayor responded, “I’m not sure.”

People live by the motto “not in my backyard”. Even though it may seem empty and desolate, I can guarantee you that the Arctic is still someone’s backyard. I can only hope that the coming economic moves are done with restraint.

“Clean coal” my ass.

Wolves (pt. 2)

A friendly visitor at my office yesterday.

I had intended on writing a post about the muskox that have been roaming around my sites, but after watching a pretty epic hunt go down tonight I decided to do a second post about wolves.

I was sitting in the station identifying some plants I collected today when I heard some very fast footsteps kicking up gravel. I looked out the window to see  an arctic hare sprinting like a bat out of hell as a very large and very hungry wolf ran quickly after it. Normally the wolves around here aren’t very successful at catching hares (whereas the foxes seem to have a bit more talent), so I watched the chase with passing interest. These happen a lot here. What this meant is that I didn’t have the foresight to grab my camera for what turned out to be a bloody victory for the wolf.

What they look like before: cute, fluffy, delicious.

After a few spins around the building the wolf finally landed his hare, grabbing it violently in its jaws, and quickly dismembering it before I had the chance to react. With the chase over the wolf quickly went to skinning its dinner and I saw this as my chance to run out and grab a few shots. Here is the aftermath of the arctic food chain at work.

It’s tough skinning with your teeth. No, I haven’t tried it.

Taking the meal off to… its pups?

The aftermath.

Wolves

I’d never seen a wolf before. Never in the south, and never in the Arctic. I’ve been eagerly hoping to see one ever since I was a small child. So it was with great joy and overly confident enthusiasm that I saw and photographed the wolves of Eureka this week.

This area is famous for having a number of dens nearby but for the last several years I’ve always missed them. A few days ago I was out stacking empty fuel barrels when I saw three white flashes dart across my field of vision. Attracted by the noise, the three wolves and come to inspect the new local noisemaker. They approached cautiously, warily, but once it became apparent that I wasn’t going to eat them they comfortably settled in, sat down, and stared at me.

Wolves can cross between islands by walking along the sea ice.

Other stations in the Arctic sometimes have problems with their wolves. Out there, the local packs have been fed by humans for a number years and have become accustomed to receiving food. So when someone walks outside and they don’t have food, the wolves bite, and the human spends the next several days getting rabies injections in their ass. In Eureka, there’s been little to no feeding of the wolves (at least by official accounts). This means our resident population acts less like spoiled dogs and more like wild animals. The wolves I mean.

Their long white winter coats get a bit haggard in spring.

And the thing is, they look so damn similar to dogs that I tried to treat them the same way. With the three wolves watching me, I tried to see how they’d react to different things I did. Instinctively I whistled out to try and grab their attention. No response. After three more tries the guy I was stacking barrels with decided to educate me. It turns out that the wolves tune out, or at least don’t care, about human sounds. But the moment you create a sound that they know from their natural environment, like dragging a stick across the gravel, their ears prick up and you have their full attention.

In Eureka there have been no historical (or at least modern day) records of people being attacked by wolves. Though I don’t think I’ll feel totally confident if the pack decides to visit me while I’m out working.

Arctic wolves stay in the north throughout the long winter season. Tough puppies.

Eureka

Welcome to Eureka

I’ve arrived at my final destination. After an incredible 18 hours of plane flights, all within Canada, I’ve unloaded and unpacked at the Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. At 80°N, it’s a land of blazing 24-hour sunlight, extreme dryness, and unpredictable weather.

Ellesmere Island is the northernmost island of Canada, and indeed all of North America. It’s quite a large thing and sits comfortably as the 10th largest island in the world. Eureka is a “small” weather station at the central far western edge of the island. It’s bounded to the south by a very cold fjord, and has some dramatic mountain ranges surrounding the horizons. The weather station is civilian run by Environment Canada and employs a staff of 8 people who stay year round to do a variety of duties and needs. There’s a senior officer in charge, a cook, a handy, a heavy equipment operator, a mechanic, and three weather technicians. This small staff keeps the station running throughout the polar winter and is efficient enough to accommodate a bustling summer population of up to 40 visitors. It’s a cozy group.

The station is well equipped to handle any and all events. There’s storeroom after storeroom of backups for backups, spare toilets, 10,000 napkins, 40 cases of laundry detergent, and even a box of vintage German porn on VHS for those lonely winter nights. There’s a mechanic’s workshop with lifters and loaders, sandblasting machines, and 3-foot wrenches. Everything. The guys and gals that run the station can fix anything that can be brought up, like trucks or tractors or sewage systems. The main building of the station consists of a galley, an opulent lounge, a small gym, and private rooms for the station staff. Even the transient visitors have it pretty damn nice in communal rooms. It’s certainly not the harsh situation you might imagine for the High Arctic. But all these facilities don’t come cheap. To stay here is $400/night for a bed, and an additional $160 for food for the day. Luckily I’m on a grant that provides me free accommodation, food, and flights for my time here. Otherwise my 45-day stay would cost around $28,000 for the station residence and a further $10,000 for flights (thank you Environment Canada). It’s mind-blowingly expensive to do anything up here.

Roughing it.

4-Star accommodation.

There’s even a greenhouse.

In addition to the main facilities of Eureka there’s a nearby military station about 1.5km up a dirt road to the airstrip. The airstrip is a grated gravel runway that’s big enough to provide landing space for some large military aircraft. As for the army, these boys are up here for only 6 weeks during the summer in order to assert Canada’s “Northern Sovereignty” (the Arctic is still being colonized, despite what you may think of as set national boundaries. More on this in another post). They’re generally a pretty friendly bunch and a nice change of face for some fresh conversation. I remember the first time I saw the base a few years ago: the boys had taken off one of the outside doors and made a ping pong table out of it while they blasted rock music on the loud speaker. It’s sort of like Stripes meets Animal House.

The international airport.

Hey look, Canada has a military.

Now that I’m here I suppose I should get to work. The one problem is that I’ve shown up two weeks too early. The snow has just melted and the land is 100% mud. The streams have become rivers and overland travel is nearly impossible. The amount of late drainage this year is due to a later-than-usual snowmelt and has caused a few landslides that have washed out the station’s dirt roads. Nothing’s in bloom and I can’t walk anywhere. This is the muddy season.

Yellowknife

I’m just happy the knife’s there.

This relatively large sub-arctic town represents the midway point for my trip north. While it’s actually fairly far up at latitude 62°N , Yellowknife’s (summer) climate is fairly mild when compared to other areas of Canada’s North. It’s governed by a more ‘continental’ type climate as opposed to an ‘oceanic’ type, and so has more extreme winter lows and summer highs. “Oceanic” climates tend to have warmer winters, but colder summers, as the surrounding ocean heavily moderates seasonal air temperature change by acting as a heat sink/source. ‘Continental’ climates are surrounded by large landmasses and don’t have as large a heat sink/source, so this is where winters dip crazy cold, but summers can reach a balmy high. This phenomena caused by large bodies of water actually explains why the Antarctic is so much colder than the Arctic – the Arctic is a frozen ocean surrounded by land, whereas the Antarctic is a frozen continent surrounded by the ocean. So the interior Antarctic gets MUCH colder than the interior Arctic. But either way you slice it it’s miserably cold here in winter. But summers are lovely.

10 hours to Yellowknife, then 8 hours to Eureka. Canada’s a big country.

Which brings me to my wonderfully summery stay in Yellowknife. I was lucky enough to have a one-day layover to wait for my baggage to come up, so I took the opportunity to tour the town and see the sites. And what a town it is. This speck up north is the administrative capital of the Northwest Territories. When I first heard the name Yellowknife and saw it on a map, I imagined igloos, ice, and a desolate little village. It’s anything but. Yellowknife sits comfortably at a population of over 19,000 (and growing) and has high-rises, asphalt roads, and a well-developed downtown. Rush-hour (if you could call it that) even gets so busy that the main drag is littered with traffic lights. The town itself is divided into Oldtown and Downtown. Oldtown is a collection of old buildings and residences, some dating to the original exploration of the north. These are beautifully positioned onto or next to Great Slave Lake – the deepest lake in North America and the ninth largest lake (by volume) in the world. This is where I chose to stay and enjoy the peace and quiet provided by a lakeside B & B.

My dream home.

My dream home.

The Downtown is the exact opposite of Oldtown, it’s bustling, busy, and provides all the trappings that you would expect of any major city. You have your chain grocery stores, your fastfood shops, and plenty of government administrative buildings. Driving nearly all of this success in the north is the insatiable urge that southerners have for diamonds. Yes. The major industry of the Northwest Territories is diamond mining. The minerals are so abundant and plentiful that it puts Canada as the third largest producer of diamonds world-wide. This economic boom has attracted people from all corners of Canada. Indeed, when I asked people in town what the hell would bring them all the way up here, the number one answer was work, and that work is industry. But in order to support all this development, a lot of civilian infrastructure goes in place and those jobs need to be filled, which helps to explain my newly immigrated Chinese taxi driver, the Somali grocer, and the other wonderful diversity this far north.

View of Yellowknife’s high-rises from across the lake.

Arctic hustle and bustle.

Arctic hustle and bustle.

But despite the wonderful attractiveness of this city in summer, and despite the economic boom it’s undergoing, there are huge social problems that exist just beneath its service. When walking through the downtown or the myriad of gorgeous park trails that surround the city, it becomes abundantly clear that Canada’s aboriginal population hasn’t experienced the same good fortune as the rest. There’s a palpable division between the First Nations aboriginal groups and the other, mainly white, Canadians. I had a good conversation with a few locals that helped put these things in context:

I had been walking around an 8km trail next to a nearby lake and had stopped to enjoy the sun. After a short while, a group of First Nations people (they were from different tribes) came up and sat with me. They were the first people to make an effort to talk to me and we got to chatting about Yellowknife. After 40 minutes, I was blown away with the normalcy with which they talked about drug abuse, alcohol abuse, arson, rape, and other things that mainly plagued the city’s aboriginal population. Being in southern Canada you always hear about the high level of social problems up north. But it was utterly depressing to hear people talk about it as normal. The people that stopped to talk to me were wonderful and (content aside) pretty damn hilarious. As they went to leave they told me “you’re not so bad for a white guy,” which leads me to believe that there’s not much positive interaction between the two main groups in the city. I’m not a historian, and not being a Canadian myself, I’m not fully aware of the history or social contexts in which these societal discrepancies exist. But what I do know is that the racial undertones in town were so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Packing

I’m back after last year’s hiatus. I did go into the field, but due to a continually down internet connection and an enthusiasm lower than the mercury level I wasn’t able to properly write about that field season. I went north, explored sites, slightly injured myself, and needed a helicopter rescue. In short, a success.

But this season I’m back in full force. I’m headed north now in charge of my own project, my own field camp, and an almost total degree of autonomy. It’s been a change in scale and responsibility that I had entirely underestimated. Being a lackey on someone else’s project is a lot of work, and at times stressful, but in the end you get to wash your hands of the responsibility of a failed endeavor. Knowing that the success or failure of this particular season is on your shoulders changes the game. So why the change in pressure? This is the first official season of my PhD where I have to implement my thesis design. And that’s the last I’ll mention of that damn thing. Life is bigger than grad school.

So what kind of changes does that mean for this season? This year I’m setting up my own field camp on Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian High Arctic. An assistant and I will be sleeping in tents surrounded by electrified dental floss and a nervously loaded shotgun (for the polar bears, not each other). We’ll be collecting data and hiking around to places that have only been explored by satellite images. It should be fun.

However, my season has started before I’ve even arrived. At the moment I’m on a plane headed to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories where I’ll have a day long layover until I fly further north. But the last month has been an ulcer-inducing, sleepless struggle to get things ready.  For a simple field camp I’ll be taking in 200 pounds of scientific gear, 100 pounds of personal gear, and a further 300 pounds of camp gear. Add to this the stress that it’s not possible to ship directly to Ellesmere and what you have is a nightmare. The cost of shipping to Resolute (the furthest north you can fly/ship commercially) is $15 per kilo or about $7.50 per pound. This accumulates very fast. Mix into this a fistful of regulatory permits, overweight baggage restrictions, limiting funding, and the looming threat that there’s only one flight a month to where I’m going. It’s been a stressful few months preparing and now that I’m on my way to Yellowknife there’s nothing left to do but sit back and hope that all that checked baggage went through. Otherwise, it will be an interesting time in the Arctic.

So it’s with cautious optimism that I approach this field season. I may arrive and find that this season is harsher than previous years, and a prolonged snowstorm would make it impossible to even begin my work. I may get there and find that my baggage didn’t get on that one flight a month. Or I may get there to find that the bears have developed a profound taste for humans. At least I get a layover in Yellowknife first. It’s warm there, right?

The yellow bag fits a human.

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.

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