Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Part IV, Day 6: 080726

A most unexpected day. I got to breakfast about 5 minutes later than the two people whose names I knew, so I sat at a different table as theirs was full. Not really a problem, my conversation skills in the time between a shower and breakfast are basically terrible anyways, only marginally better than my non-existent conversation skills in the minutes immediately after I wake up.

At the end of breakfast, a man who had been sitting with Derek and Günter walked over to my table and introduced himself: “Hi! I’m Steve. I hear you’d like to go to Truelove on Devon Island. We’re going, you can come along if you’d like!”. I responded with something positive (and likely only half-intelligible; caffeine takes a few minutes to really have an effect), and Steve was busy making last-minute preparations to leave TODAY, so he told me where I could find him once I’d made up my mind. Somehow I got the impression during this brief meeting that I could visit Devon Island for two days, which would be sufficient time to get some interesting collecting done and have time back in Resolute for the things I’d planned to do directly out of the PCSP.

I looked at my situation: I had a few collected specimens from the lakes around Resolute and from Amituk Lake. Both locations were nearly barren of the things I came here to find: no beetles, no amphipods, and no freshwater snails, just a few chironomids and some worms that most likely were the Enchytraeids I was mildly interested in. What I’d seen of Cornwallis Island was desert, and what I’d heard about Truelove is that there are THINGS there, things to collect, things to look at. So I knew I wanted to go, but there were many logistical questions I could not answer.

I found Steve, and asked him a few questions. Turns out, the shortest visit would be for 6 days, not 2, depending on his ability to get everything done he needed to get done; this would also be highly depended on good weather, something the Arctic generally lacks. The rest of the team going (5 more people besides Steve) were staying for 12 days, long past my booked return flights. Presumably First Air might be able to move my flights for small or no costs, but that would throw off later plans, too. Steve told me they had lots of food, space on the airplane to get me there and back with no additional costs to me (flights are EXPENSIVE), and a spare sleeping bag. Really, I couldn’t find any solid reason not to go, and I very much wanted to visit Devon. This could be my only chance to get anywhere more interesting than the nearly-lifeless polar desert of Resolute. So, after thinking for an hour or so (including some alarming thoughts about my laundry situation), I told Steve I’d love to go, please count me in. He said “Great!” and introduced me to the rest of the team, who helped me find that spare sleeping bag and sort out some other minor things.

Steve was scheduled to fly from Resolute to Truelove by Twin Otter at 10:00, but in the Arctic, all flight schedules include the appendum “weather and mechanical permitting” because cancelled flights due to poor weather or machinery reaching operational limits in the harsh conditions are very common. Today we had fog. Thick fog. The head people here at the PCSP, Mike and Tim, could make no promises, but told Steve that they’d try to get him airborne around noon. During this discussion, I tried to clarify the come-back-in-6-days thing, since I know I have a flight South on August 5 (i.e., in 10 days). Steve told me (and everyone else there) in no uncertain terms that this was NOT guaranteed, NOT in the plans, and that the only firm plan was for everyone to fly back on August 7 (weather and mechanical permitting). Oh well, it’s still the best opportunity going.

The fog and generally unpleasant weather at Resolute continued until early afternoon, when things cleared up enough that pilots started at least talking about flying, rather than staring morosely at the too-near horizon. However, there’s nobody at or really anywhere near Truelove station on Devon Island. Radio calls to passing international jetliners and other aircraft such as a Twin Otter flying somewhere near Grise Fjord (quite close to Devon Island, but on the South shore of Ellesmere Island) eventually gave us a semi-reliable weather report that Truelove was “probably” clear of fog and high winds.

A map of Devon Island and its surroundings, stolen from here. The arrow points to Truelove.

Steve took off at about 4:00, with one other person on his team and most of the equipment and supplies. The rest of us waited in the “departure lounge” until about 5:30. We were joking about the fine facilities available for passengers departing from Resolute Airport. Our departure lounge consisted of several ATVs parked outside the warehouse, including the one I’d been driving two days ago. We sat upon these, until the “airport shuttle”, the back of a large pick-up truck, took us around the building out to the runway. Just as the "shuttle" was leaving, Derek and Günter wandered over to wish me good luck and say good-bye. The pilot said “How many?”, we said “Four”, and he kind of did a double-take before I said “I’m the extra”. I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to go at this point due to weight considerations or something, but no problem, off we went.

The Twin Otter operated by Ken Borek Air that Steve flew to Devon Island in, taxing on the runway before take-off.

The inside of a Twin Otter, at least those operated by Ken Borek Air, is basically a metal tube with some stuff bolted to the walls. Our gear was in front of us, held down by a maze of grey straps. Our seats were “jump seats” that fold down from the walls; they’re about as far below standard “coach” seating on jetliners as coach is below a Lear Jet. There was no in-flight meal, nor movie, but I did manage to entertain myself by imagining all the things that could go wrong with the 100-litre propane tank directly in front of me. I also took a few photos out the windows, both for myself and for Asim, sitting next to me on our little jump seats.

My first glimpse of Devon Island, viewed from perhaps 10 000 feet altitude out the window of the Twin Otter. This is the central part of the Western part of the island, looking roughly Northwest.

The Northern coast of Devon Island, with the left wing of our Twin Otter in the top of the image.

As we descended towards Truelove, I took this shot of the coastal bluffs of Devon.

Upon landing, Steve greeted us and welcomed us to Truelove. Then we quickly unloaded our gear, and watched the plane take off. Steve had prepared dinner for everyone, which we ate quickly, then set out for a little tour of the area.

Devon Island is the world’s largest uninhabited island. Nobody lives there year-round, though many researchers spend months at a time there, and local Inuit hunt caribou, musk oxen, and other animals. Almost all of Devon is classic High Arctic Polar Desert – rocks, more rocks, some lichen, a bit of moss, big rocks, small rocks, medium-sized rocks, boulders, sand, gravel, and the occasional flower, with very arid conditions and extremely low temperatures, for about 55 000 square kilometres, plus of course the permanent ice-cap and big-ass glaciers on the Eastern end of the Island. For reference, Croatia is about 57 000 square km, Belgium is a little more than 30 000, and Vermont and New Hampshire together are just under 50 000 (all these numbers come from the relevant pages of Wikipedia). So this uninhabited, windswept, frozen desert island is larger than many countries.

The Truelove lowlands are a flat, wet area just above sea level on the Northern coast of Devon Island, and are considered a Polar Oasis. Shelter from the North wind combined with high local precipitation and good solar exposure during summer means this patch of about 43 square kilometres is home to a surprising diversity of life, and is much more lush than the surrounding granitic highlands and their glaciers and deserts. I’ve heard that polar oases are basically as biodiverse as similar patches of land several hundred kilometres closer to the equator.

The view to the East of our camp. These hills are about 350 metres tall, and their light colour apparently comes from the fact they are composed chiefly of dolomite. For our purposes, when talking about directions, towards these hills is “dolomite”.

Our camp, viewed in silhouette from about a kilometre to the East (i.e., in the dolomite direction). We stayed at the “parcalls” (I have no idea how to spell that), semi-permanent buildings resembling small Quonset huts.

A patch of rather damp tundra, near where the previous photograph was taken, facing Southeast. The darker hills on the right are granite and similar in height to the dolomite hills; that direction is “granite”. Those are two of my companions in the middle distance.

I haven’t got permission yet from my companions to post pictures of them, but I think I can get away with this one since nobody’s face is visible. From left to right: Eric (carrying predator deterrent shotgun on his backpack), Angela, Maxime, Marcus, Asim, Steve (seated). And that’s my shadow in the bottom-left. We found a clump of granitic outcropping rocks, and paused to take in the view.

We returned to camp, full of plans for sampling locations. Tomorrow will be more reconnaissance, as a major part of our plans here include a 500-metre-long transect. I hope to get some good collecting in tomorrow, especially from the intertidal zone if I can access it.


Chris Harrison said...

Love the entries Martin. Do you have any larger files of your images available?

TheBrummell said...

Hi Chris,

Yes, all of the photos I took are much larger and higher-resolution than these. My digital camera is set to take pictures that come in at 2592 x 1944 pixels and about 1.6 megabytes. I shrink these to 30% before uploading to Blogger, to save space and time. Some images I crop or adjust the colour levels, and you may have noticed that I pixellate license plates on vehicles and so forth.

If there are any pictures you're particularly interested in, I can email them to you, assuming your email server will accept 1.6MB attachments.