Saturday, August 02, 2008

Part III, Day 2: 080709

Today was launch-the-boat day, which was successful though also very heavy and quite involved. When not in use, the Zodiac is stored in the “Rocket Launcher” building, a large hangar-like building on the CNSC grounds. The CNSC and some of its buildings used to belong to the federal government, and was constructed as part of a rocketry facility. Canada’s “Black Brandt” rockets were launched from here, though I don’t know precisely where the actual launch pad was situated. In any case, from the ceiling of the Rocket Launcher hangs a large object, apparently made of fibreglass, that looks like a shipping container for rockets. It’s shaped like a padded-out rocket, and hangs open above one as one enters the building. Besides our Zodiac, there are a couple of apparently-broken pick-up trucks inside the cavernous building.

The engine and fuel tank are in another building, locally referred to as the “Diesel Shed”, along with a pile of boxes containing equipment used by Dr. Hebert’s graduate students and the students of the Arctic Ecology field course. The field course is not being run this year, and rumour has it it may never run again, which I find rather sad, as what I saw of it last year was pretty cool.

We had to talk to several different people at the station to get access to both the Diesel Shed and the Rocket Launcher, and get our boat. Zodiacs are of course inflatable, and are therefore composed chiefly of air. One would not think a large balloon would really weigh that much, but ours at least is both heavy and awkward. We secured it to the back of Sally’s rented pick-up without too much difficulty, then drove back to the station so Cliff, the CNSC’s facilities and fleet manager (and excellent mechanic, and generally useful person to have around) could help us test the engine. It’s been sitting in storage for about 11 months, in an unheated building, so we’re a little concerned about its reliability.

Cliff let us attach the outboard motor to the tailgate of his pick-up truck, since ours was occupied with the Zodiac hull, which overhangs both sides and the back of the truck’s bed (have I mentioned I would like a boat trailer?). We managed to get it started, and it seems to run OK, if not super-well. Cliff had several concerns regarding the boat and its motor, such as advice that we should a) replace the current propeller because it is pretty banged up and b) carry a spare prop anyways in case we hit a rock at speed and break the prop. Other than that, we seem to be in good shape.

We drove into town and visited Churchill’s boat ramp. Matt and I visited a large number of boat ramps in the USA, and never once actually used one for its intended purpose. Today, I launched a boat from a boat ramp. How interesting it felt, to be questioned by nobody as to my intentions regarding the water.

Our Zodiac, in the water at Churchill’s boat ramp.

Of course, we had to test the boat, so Christy and myself motored out onto the Churchill river and played with the belugas for a few minutes. It took a long time to get it started, and the assistance of the fortuitously-nearby Len, a man who works for Parks Canada and whom Christy has already been in contact with. The throttle was a little sticky, which caused the engine to stall repeatedly.

In the afternoon, we visited a few choice sampling locations, and I picked up a few lovely critters, as well as retrieved some underwater light traps we’d placed in a road-side pond yesterday. As last year, the traps were full of the local giant copepods, but there were also a few beetles, and I found a few snails nearby as well.

We also visited Bluffs A, a rocky headland to the East of Bird Cove. Here there are several small ponds on the tundra just behind the bluffs, which contained some beetles and snails, as well as a number of rock pools on the bluffs themselves. Previous work by Dr. Hebert and others has shown these pools to contain a graded series of salinities, with pools closest to Hudson Bay being saltier than those higher and further inland. These pools are quite small, and while a few contain some small beetles and snails, most of the work that has been conducted here previously has concentrated on the planktonic crustaceans, particularly Daphnia species.

The place to park at Bluffs A, a bit of a loop of dirt track that runs between some small ponds. We’ve been driving around in the blue Suburban, while the grey pick-up is Sally’s rental. The rocky headlands provide excellent cover for approaching polar bears, so I climbed up on top of one and scanned with my binoculars. No bears today.

Tomorrow we plan to cross the Churchill river to the beach just below Fort Prince of Wales, and walk across that narrow peninsula to visit Button Bay at low tide. Low tide tomorrow is among the lowest we’ll see this visit, about 0.75 m, and occurs very very early in the morning at about 7:30. So, I’ll be waking up stupid early tomorrow, probably about 5:30 am, to get packed up, get into town, and get over on the boat in time.

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