Canada: A Summer in the Arctic
The Arctic, mysterious and wild, is a place of great hopes and fears and has attracted many people in the past and still does today. Its unconquerable nature and unique and fascinating environment creates a longing to explore and experience this part of the world that native cultures have relished for centuries.
As a young boy I often looked at my great-great-grandfather’s paintings of those incredible landscapes he visited on an attempted expedition to the North Pole in 1875-76.
The seasonal colouration seen within this remarkable landscape were of course those of the arctic environment, and those that I would find myself experiencing all these years later.
Mungla Sieck, a German friend of mine from university and equally committed wildlife biologist was keen to come with me and experience the nature of this beautiful arctic landscape.
Duck, Duck, Goose
Highly motivated we took the opportunity to participate with scientific research on geese, ducks and arctic foxes at Karrak Lake (64?14’ and 100?15’). This large arctic goose colony south-east of Victoria Island sees the end of the northward migration for the Lesser Snow goose and Ross goose.
The University of Saskatchewan has studied the density and success of nests throughout the colony for the past 15 years. With funding from Environment Canada, five wooden cabins were built on an island in the middle of the lake that has served as a base for many scientists and distinguished research projects though the years.
Flying into the Arctic Circle our eyes were glued to the aeroplane window as we approached Victoria Island and Cambridge Bay, a small but thriving arctic community easily accessible by plane from Edmonton airport.
Having now left the tree line well behind there was only an open landscape ahead, the tundra! As we drew closer five small white cabins came into view.
Excitement and Anticipation
The lake was well camouflaged with the surrounding tundra and after circling several times we landed with skis on the frozen lake. With mixed feelings of excitement and anticipation, as well as anxieties and worries, we arrived safely only a couple of meters away from the cabins.
Stepping out of the plane, we heard what was to become the familiar crunching sound of snow beneath our feet. This and the radical temperature change made it clear where we were. Our only means of escape or supply had just left and our group of seven were now alone in this remote Arctic location.
Waking up on the first morning, you wonder where you are. You cannot move; it is cold and dark and a constant unidentifiable sound echoes in the background. It takes a moment until the memories of the last day come back and then you remember you are in a little wooden cabin somewhere in the Canadian Arctic.
Twisted in your sleeping-bag and still cold, despite the several layers of clothing, the sound of the cold wind blows mercilessly over the treeless landscape. After freeing your hands, you are able to remove the scarf from your eyes to examine the inside of this remote arctic cabin.
You hear other people moving and peeling themselves out of their sleeping bags. After a quick change of clothes, you dash the few metres to the main cabin desperately trying not to slip or be blown away.
Early June brought ferocious blizzards, one lasting three days with temperatures falling to -25?C at night. Being confined to our cabin of 7 x 8 m there was little to do but talk, read, play games, cook and carve sculptures from pieces of antler while admiring the unforgiving nature of the arctic weather.
Living in such close contact for a long period of time inevitably created social tensions and both throughout the blizzard and as the summer progressed it became obvious people required more space.
Whilst waiting for the Snow and Ross geese to arrive, the main activity was surveying snow depth and providing ice for our water supply. Collecting ice turned out to be more exciting than it may sound! Every other day a team went out equipped with a large axe and plastic barrels in search of suitable cracks in the lake’s snow and ice layer.
This “sport” with the motto “the bigger the better” was necessary for several weeks until the landscape had slowly begun to thaw and a patchwork of snow and isolated clumps of vegetation emerged to reveal our surrounding environment.
As the ice softened we began digging a well in the lake to pump water up to the cabin. It now became obvious why hip-waders were so crucial; the difficulty and care required in merely walking was enormous for it was common to suddenly sink into the snow up to your thighs.
The additional biting winds and freezing temperatures persistently reminded us of where we were. Wading our way through the wet mushy snow was our only option to reach our destination.
The weather significantly changed during mid June. As the last of the severe arctic winter passed, it was replaced by an unusually long spell of milder weather. This remarkably changed the appearance of the surrounding environment.
We were now walking great distances (up to 40km a day) in deep energy-sapping snow. This proved physically very demanding and was further affected by the absence of darkness on one’s normal sleep patterns.
However, the unique experience of walking in a truly remarkable part of the world, witnessing the stunning combination of blues and greens merging together within the melting ice and the sight and sound of thousands of caribou forming huge herds moving across the tundra made it all worth it. Muskoxen and grizzly bears were a rarer sight, but no less intriguing with their sheer impressive physical strength.
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