Sunday, November 30, 2008

Interlude IV: 080805

Today is another all-travel day, my last at high latitudes and the second-last day of my whole summer of fieldwork. Now is probably a good time to discuss my impressions and the outstanding events in my mind of the last 2 weeks or so.

In addition to the impressions, I’d also like to describe this day. As I have complained about before, my flight took off from YRB at 6:30am. I was able to grab a very quick shower and about half a cup of coffee, then I loaded my abundant luggage onto a van, with some assistance from the friendly pool-playing German from yesterday. We hung out in the airport with all of our abundant luggages (I’m not the only one – a Palaeontologist was travelling with long metal cases that must have collectively weighed 100 kilograms) for a bit, then boarded the plane, another ATR similar to that which took me here in the first place.

My last view of Resolute. The bright blue-and-red building on the left is the warehouse / control tower / laboratories.

An aerial view of Char Lake.

Southern Cornwallis Island.

Scattered sea-ice in Foxe Basin, Southwest of the main part of Baffin Island.

We landed and changed planes in Iqaluit, but I was only on the ground there for about 2 hours. I collected my abundant luggage, then hung out in the departure lounge (after actually going through security) until my plane boarded. There was a bit of confusion, with 2 flights on two different airlines leaving at almost the same time, but I managed to get on board without any trouble. It helps that I don’t mind being the last to board an aircraft, and that I’m in “airport mode”, which strips all anxiety from my emotions as I patiently wait to get on and off large vehicles.

Northern Quebec, just inland from Ungava Bay.

I landed in Ottawa on time, at around 5:00 in the afternoon, to be greeted by a childhood friend and her baby daughter. They were easy to pick out of the crowd around the luggage conveyor – not many people were greeted by hyperacheiving supermodel-esque young women carrying infants. My abundant luggage gathered, I got culture-shocked loading the Subaru and being driven through suburban Ottawa. Trees! Grass! People! Warm temperatures!

Tomorrow I’ll take a reasonably-timed (noon-ish) train from Ottawa to Guelph, via Toronto. With my abundant luggage.

The Daily Grind

My days in the High Arctic were often quite different from each other, and I never really settled into a routine, with the exception of a few days in a row on Devon Island. However, almost all my days placed a strong importance on mealtimes, and I drank much less coffee than I normally would, in clear opposition to Part I of this trip. For whatever reason, daily events were built around the framework of mealtimes.


There was no single all-important vehicle in Part IV, but I did have several firsts: my first time driving an ATV, and my first ride in a helicopter and a Twin Otter. Airport security in the High Arctic is opposite that of the rest of the world: there’s no fence or barrier completely enclosing the airport, and rather than ensuring one’s weapons are secured in checked luggage, the pilot won’t let you on board without a gun. The saying in the North is “weather and mechanical permitting”, because both factors are highly important in determining when and if one will fly. Packing is obviously important, and I’ve already talked too much about my abundant luggage. Still, I managed to get around when and where I needed to go, without too many hassles.


Hotels in the Far North are expensive. My two nights in Iqaluit ran to nearly $500, including food (one meal was free) and taxi rides across town. My stay at the PCSP was covered, not by my supervisor’s grant but by the agreement for logistical support between our lab and Natural Resources Canada. At least, we think so – the detailed financial side of that agreement remains something of a mystery to myself, my advisor, and even the financial services people at the University of Guelph, who said they’d “never seen anything like this” when I showed them the weird credit application back in May.

The PCSP facilities were great. Two beds per room, no bunk beds, and no mosquitoes. The food was excellent, the people were friendly, and the pool table was free. I also enjoyed the library – there’s a shelf running along two walls in the common room covered in books left by travellers. About 1/3 of them are in French, and the selection in English is eclectic and interesting. I ended up reading Skipping Towards Gomorrah by Dan Savage from that collection, and it was excellent.

An anecdote: after my return from Devon Island, I had 2 nights inside the actual building of the PCSP, after my 2 nights in the Weatherhaven. The first of these, I had no roommate – I had room 116 entirely to myself (the same room as I had when I first arrived, a week previously). Drunk on the unfamiliar luxury of privacy, I locked the door. Then I managed to lock myself out of my own room after midnight, and I had to wake up a few staff members to get back in. Knocking on an unknown staffer’s door at 12:30am wearing only my boxer shorts is not an experience I wish to repeat. Still, the people I woke were all discreet and polite the next day, and nothing was said of my nocturnal misadventures.

On Devon Island I slept in a tent, a bright yellow Eureka model with poles now permanently deformed from the strength of the wind. My sleeping pad had the name “BLISS” written in permanent marker on the top corner – it is not unlikely that the great L.C. Bliss used this pad during his stays here more than 30 years ago. A little on the thin side, but quite comfortable.

Other People

With the exception of the staff and pilots of the PCSP, everyone I met in Resolute was a scientist of some variety – geologists and geomorphologists, ecologists and ecotoxicologists, meteorologists and anthropologists, and one robotocist from the University of Toronto. He was up there working at The Crater on Devon Island, developing autonomous robots for use on Mars. I asked him a question he’s been asked many times before: what’s the minimum definition of a robot? The answer is simple and has surprising implications: a sensor and an actuator connected in some logical fashion. For example, a camera (sensor) that feeds information to a processor that makes decisions about where to move its wheels (actuators) next. As pointed out by the robotocist, this definition includes a toilet in the category “robots”. The sensor determines the water level inside the toilet tank, and is connected to a valve that refills the tank when the water level falls.

In Iqaluit, I met a few other scientists, along with lots of other people. In Rankin Inlet, I met only a few people, all of whom were employees of the various facilities I visited – the airport, the post office, a diner – and all of whom seemed entirely unsurprised by my presence, while I was highly surprised by my entire visit to Rankin.

The most important people I met on this trip were my direct collaborators, in the form of Dr. Derek Muir of Environment Canada and Dr. Steve Siciliano of the University of Saskatchewan. Dr. Muir I had met before; I visited him at his office in Burlington when I was planning my summer. Dr. Siciliano I had never met before, but despite knowing me for approximately 3 seconds, he invited me to Devon Island, all expenses paid.


The Far North is entirely beyond the tree line, at least everyone I went. Perhaps in the far West of the Arctic there are trees, but not where I was. This lack of trees is striking, for it is absolute. Unlike the generally treeless terrain of Churchill or the prairies, where there is usually one tree every so often, often as an ornamental on somebody’s lawn, there are no trees AT ALL in the High Arctic. For that matter, there are no lawns, and very little grass, too.

I’ve already mentioned the false-horizon effects of a treeless landscape and the gently rolling hills of eroded dolomite. The places I visited were not flat, but nor were they particularly rugged. Rankin Inlet sits on the flat coastal plain around Hudson Bay, but Iqaluit, Resolute, and the Truelove Lowlands are all surrounded by hills, with ponds, lakes, and streams throughout.

Collecting Sites and Maps

As during previous parts of this summer, my collecting sites were chosen haphazardously; I took what I could get. There are limitless numbers of small ponds and lakes sitting on the permafrost, and the only time I was not able to find some wet places to sample was in the highlands surrounding Amituk Lake. But even there I was able to find a trickle of water harbouring life.

I had topographic maps and a marine chart of the area around Resolute Bay, but I foolishly forgot these maps at home in Guelph when I embarked on June 27. There were good charts posted on the walls at the PCSP, and they had a sometimes-working internet connection that I could use for the same purpose. On Devon Island, there were maps posted in the kitchen at camp of the Truelove Lowlands, but in any case on Devon I was restricted to how far I could walk, and I was never more than about 10 kilometres from camp.


I saw one polar bear (Ursus maritimus) in the High Arctic, from the helicopter on my flight back to Resolute from Devon Island. I also saw a single beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) from that helicopter, in the sea between Cornwallis and Devon Islands. We saw musk-oxen (Ovibos moschatus) at Truelove, along with a Peary Caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi), an arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), ivory gulls (Pagophila eburnea), and a couple of other birds. There where bones from musk-oxen, caribou, and bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) under the sign for the Truelove research station.
I found tadpole shrimp (Order Notostraca) and fairy shrimp (Order Anostraca) in the ponds and lakes of Devon Island, along with chironomid midges, enchytraeid worms, and a few other things I’m less certain about.


The logistics of my time in the High Arctic were a little bi-polar. On the one hand, this part of my summer required as much planning and preparation as everything else combined, and schedules were very tight for things like arranging resupply and airline flights. On the other hand, once I was in Resolute, all scheduling and planning shrank to a horizon hours away – I generally didn’t know what I’d be doing the next day each morning. The most striking example of this bipolarity was my trip to Devon Island – I had no idea that a visit to Devon was even a possibility until the morning of the day I went there, and my entire time on Devon was marked by the hard deadline of my scheduled-months-ago flight from Resolute to Ottawa.


I had a fantastic time during this final portion of my summer of field work. I learned a great deal about a great deal: how to do fieldwork, both in general and specifically in this harsh environment, who are the important figures in my field here, and lots of details about lots of little things like how to drive an ATV, and how to unload a helicopter.
It’s highly unlikely that I’ll visit Resolute again during my PhD, though there is a slim possibility of a follow-up visit to Iqaluit, if those specimens prove particularly interesting, and I can find a bit of funding for that. However, I very much would like to do more research in the High Arctic, and the contacts I made at the PCSP should be highly useful.


King Aardvark said...

I kind of wish I had an opportunity to do a globe-trotting project like this during my grad school. Unfortunately I barely went outside the concrete lab. You really are fortunate to get the chance and had so many great experiences. And it's good you got that firearms training.

I think what I came to appreciate from your posts on this part of your trip is how subject to the whims of nature we still are. I'm too sheltered here in the GTA - never any chance of being killed by a bear.

TheBrummell said...

This trip was indeed a fantastic opportunity. I had a great time, and I do appreciate the work by other people (e.g. my advisor) that went into making this happen.

A couple of years ago I read somewhere that modern humans were actually more vulnerable to harsh weather than were people living 100's of years ago. The details of this assesment escape me, but I gather it has something to do with modern rigid scheduling, large population centres, and landscape engineering such as channelizing rivers, or building on land reclaimed from the sea behind dykes (e.g. Holland). The GTA itself, after all, was more-or-less paralyzed for a few days by a big snowfall a couple of years ago.

It's more noticeable in the North, though. For one thing, nobody drives anywhere because the distances involved are simply too great and there are no roads. Cars are probably less affected by bad weather than aircraft. Additionally, we ran out of a few things at Resolute for a couple of days while I was there. The kitchen staff reported one evening that this meal represented the last of a long list of basic supplies, including bread, frozen and canned vegetables, milk, and several kinds of meats and dessert-ingredients. The regular re-supply flight from Yellowknife had been cancelled by bad weather, and nodody knew when the next one might get through. Not a crisis per se, but a lack of dietary staples is rather noticeable.

King Aardvark said...

People in the GTA are wimps. I've been living here for 3 years and I still can't fathom how useless some of these people are in snow. The GTA is still in Ontario, correct? How come they are so bothered by snow?

industrial equipment said...

More complex control systems using valves requiring automatic control based on an external input require an actuator. An actuator will stroke the valve depending on its input and set-up, allowing the valve to be positioned accurately, and allowing control over a variety of requirements.

TheBrummell said...

"Industrial equipment", above, seems to be an interesting little bot. My guess is this lump of software found my description of my conversation with a roboticist and decided to post that somewhat non-sequitor comment.

I hadn't realized before that there are 'bots that search for keywords like "valve" and "actuator". I'd be very surprised if there was a 'bot roaming the blogosphere looking for terms like "Enchytraeidae" or "Dolomite".