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Summer Arctic Trip 2011

Saturday, September 249:41pm (Christopher Mergen)

 

Here's some underwater footage from the trip of beluga whales swimming in the Churchill River, right next to the Hudson Bay. During the summer, the whales come to the river to mate, and then return to the bay for the winter. They have a very distinct call - you can hear it in the last few seconds of the video.  This also serves as a teaser for the larger video that will be released soon, chronicling our entire trip!

 

Sunday, August 21st/Monday, August 22nd, 10:41pm (Christopher Mergen) (Our last post from the road!)

         Everything passes.  It’s unavoidable – very few things will last forever, and even those things won’t last as long as they are supposed to.  That moment on the deck of the CNSC in the cold wind will end, and so will the sight of the Hudson Bay, and the whale-back rocks and the ledum decumbens and the campfire and the singing on the bus.  The perfect sunset will pass – no matter how many photos you take of it or how long you stare at it.  Looking out at the tundra, I kept finding myself thinking, “This is the first and last time you will see things this way forever.  This is the last time I will see the sky touching the horizon in all directions for the first time.  This is the last time I will feel the foreign wind and have it feel completely fresh and new.”
I thought about endings a lot yesterday, especially because our trip is fast approaching one.  I woke up on the train in the early morning surprisingly rested.  We stayed in a station for about an hour, and then continued the slow crawl towards Thompson.  The trees outside the window grew slowly bigger and bigger, and the lakes wider and wider, until the landscape grew to a certain familiarity.  The train ride back felt like re-entering earth from another planet, just as the ride to Churchill had felt like leaving the planet.  It was reassuring to see that the rest of the world still seemed in tact and hadn’t disappeared while we had been away, but it also signaled that our time in the far north had passed.


We ate our last train breakfast in a crowded dining car with the sunlight dancing across our plates – different sunlight than the sunlight that had danced for us on the way up, but still warming and gentle.  The sunlight followed us back into the passenger car and stayed with us all morning, skipping over lakes and penetrating the trees as the train plodded along.  We wrote notes to every member of the group, with jokes, thoughts about the trip and happy memories.  I was restless for most of the ride – I got up and changed seats, sat in between the seat banks, climbed up into the luggage rack and walked between the cars.  I wasn’t ready for the train ride to pass, too.


Sadly, the delays or breakdowns that I was hoping for never materialized, and we arrived in Thompson on a bittersweet note.  For some reason, the train to Thompson was much fuller than the one from Thompson – people had squeezed on at every stop, driving the train staff crazy and causing the man in charge of the dining car to almost have a nervous breakdown.  The train seemed to empty out completely when we disembarked in Thompson, half of the North standing on a tiny platform surrounded by luggage and family.   We found our cars back, grabbed our bags and began shoving them into the not-big-enough trunks.  After saying goodbye to Olwyn and the other graduate students with her, we drove into Thompson, picked up a couple of auxiliary cables so we could play music on the drive back (noticeably lacking on the drive up) and stocked up on car snacks and sandwiches at Quiznos.  Finally, we climbed into what would be our world for the next 10 hours and watched as the last buildings of Thompson passed by.


Riding for 10 hours in a car is different than riding for 10 hours in a train – it feels more claustrophobic, and somehow, more bland.  Still, though, there is that magical spark of adventure that you feel as you barrel across a landscape untouched save for the one road.  In some way, you feel more connected to the land around you – you are more dependent on and controlled by it, but it also touches you more.   I stuck my nose through the tiny back window of the van and breathed deeply as the blistering air rushed across my face.  Each tree, each patch of gravel, each telephone pole passed as we went by, softly whispering, “Goodbye!  Goodbye!  Goodbye!”


10 hours is a long time to drive for – it’s numbing, and you almost stop being able to separate the miles in front of you from the miles that passed you.  That isn’t to say that we drove for 10 hours straight, however.  We had a number of stops and “interruptions” along the way (some of which will remain unmentioned for the benefit of all parties involved) that made the journey a little more interesting.  The first of these was at Pisew Falls, a gorgeous waterfall just outside of Thompson that I could have spent an entire day at.  (Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but Webs seemed to think that this would be a perfect camping spot for the drive up next year.)  Then, there were gas/stretch breaks and finally a milkshake extravaganza later in the evening at our favorite gas station/restaurant along the road.  We had eaten so much on the trip that none of us felt like eating much for dinner anyway.


Because there was some confusion about the gas station locations (and whether or not they would be open on a Sunday – a serious problem in northern Manitoba) we turned around several times, which meant that we caught a glimpse of the last sunset of the trip.  The sun passing behind the clouds reminded us of how tired we all were and in the same way the earth yawned and pulled up the covers of night, and the last day passed.  We drove on through the dark, searching for songs to keep us awake and hoping that we were on the right road for the hotel we were staying in.


When we reached said hotel (the Victoria Inn) the much-talked-about dinosaur waterslide was closed and couldn’t be opened again.  The hotel was having a minor crisis when we arrived, because its computer systems had just completely failed.  Jackson and I were sent to three different rooms – the first one had a man sleeping in it who came to the door in his pajamas, the second had a “do not disturb” card in the slot and wouldn’t open with our key, and the third one was a suite, ridiculously decadent and somewhat poorly planned, with an extra shower, TV and two couches crammed into a connecting room.  We didn’t complain, however – we were glad to have a room, and grateful for the extra space to spread our suitcases out for repacking!

Our wrap-up session was shortened by the time – we received our notes from the train and then hugged each other good night.  I crawled into bed at 1:45AM, knowing that I would get less than five hours of sleep, but still buzzing with energy from the trip.

The next morning, we said goodbye to Dorothy and Kat who left us in the airport to return to their cities.  We checked in to our flight to Toronto and boarded it soon thereafter.  In Toronto, we bit our nails waiting in line in customs, watching the minutes tick by as our flight’s boarding began.  Some of us got held up by security and had to run to the gate, where, of course, the flight hadn’t even begun boarding yet.  We grabbed some bagels, lined up for boarding and climbed into the tiny plane that would take us back to Baltimore.

Watching Toronto disappear behind me in the window and the land disappear completely for a moment, I caught my breath.  Passing over the edge of Lake Ontario, I wondered if we had left Canada yet, another thing passing underneath us, as indistinct as each farm plot laid out in a haphazard grid below.
When things pass, they leave a mark on you.  The three glaciers passing over the subarctic region that Churchill is located in left markings in three different directions, a reminder of change on an inconceivable scale years before there even was such a word.  These markings remind us of a time that passed long ago, but they also let us learn more about our future.  They appear only as the glacier retreats, invisible under a mass of ice until it has retreated past them.  This trip passing was not unlike these markings – it left a mark in all of us, and it also opened the door to so many new discoveries – even ones that we never could have imagined before.  From the first time I heard about the Arctic trip to the moment I left Baltimore for the two-week adventure, I had dreamed about what the trip would be like, but only afterwards can I begin to process what happened in these past two wondrous, beautiful weeks.  Like the glaciers, the weeks passed, but like the rock I will remain a record of this time forever.

 

Saturday, August 20, 2011 (Akira Townes) 

Today was a bittersweet day.  It was our last day in Churchill but I couldn’t have imaged it ending any other way. At the beginning of the day, we didn’t really do much but get our supplies organized and pack. Once we were all packed and ready to go, we went to pick up one of our PCB samples and have a campfire. It was really wet and cold but we had tons of great laughs and our traditional closing ceremony which was where I felt that we all came together for the first time and shared the our appreciation for everything that we were soon going to have to leave behind. After our closing ceremony, we went into town to buy souvenirs, just roam around, and meet the people in the community. After we were supposed to go on a little hike but our awesome bear-guard noticed that they were doing a bear lift. A bear lift is when they take a bear from the bear jail and air lift them to some beach north of Churchill where they can recover and go back to living the “normal” life of a polar bear. It was a very interesting experience because it was cool that we were seeing this happen. Not many people get to see that happen but it was also very sad seeing a polar bear lift into the air in nets when they aren’t conscious. It was very hard for me to watch this happen because it seem as if the people handling the bears didn’t really cared and weren’t gentle. Afterwards we went this little cove during the low tide and it was the most beautiful thing ever. It all seemed just so perfect when it stopped raining and the sun started to come out. Before getting on the train we went to dinner at Gypsy’s, the local restaurant, there we were joined by Heather, our camp facilitator from Parks Canada. She saw us off, now we are on the train again. I have to say that this was the best two weeks of my life and I am so grateful that I for this opportunity to experience it for the second time. 

 

Friday, August 19, 2011 (Megan Philippi)

“You are who you are. Be proud of it.” Caroline’s message was clear as she stood at the front of the bus and told us her story. Caroline is a Sayisi Dene woman who was born near Duck Lake, not far from Churchill. In 1949 she was taken from her family, along with the other Dene children, by the Canadian government and moved to a residential school. Caroline explained to us that her mother hadn’t understood when she was told her daughter was going to the school for an education. To the Sayisi Dene people, education meant learning to survive in the wilderness. It meant knowing how to hunt the caribou and use every part of its body. It meant knowing the traditions, knowing that a pregnant woman should not cut a goose when preparing it for a meal. It meant learning to sew with animal bones and sinew. But, as it turned out, the purpose of the residential schools was not only to teach the Dene children the values of a culture not their own, but to teach them to feel ashamed of their traditions and their way of life. It was even stated that the schools’ goal was “to kill the Indian in the child.” Caroline said, “My people, when they lived out on the land, they did not ask for help.” The residential schools taught them that they needed help, that they needed to be taught how to live, that their culture was wrong. When the Dene left the schools they had no skills and no jobs. They lived in tents on welfare checks. The Sayisi Dene had never relied on money, only on the land and their knowledge of it. Instead of using currency, they had traded furs at the Hudson Bay trading post for food, clothes, and guns. But those skills had been taken from them along with their memory of their heritage. Children didn’t know who they were, Caroline said. More than once the government promised housing for the Dene people, but those promises were not fulfilled. As a result, the Sayisi Dene people despaired and an overwhelming number turned to alcohol. Many died.

Caroline’s story unfolded bit by bit. In between each chapter we would drive to a nearby landmark of her past, stop, and she would stand up and explain its significance while we and about twenty students from the University of Manitoba listened and stared out the foggy windows trying to picture the tents that once stood there. The most memorable stop was at the ruins of Dene Village, the one building provided for the Sayisi Dene by the government. There was a large stone in front with a plaque, a memorial to those who had died as a result of the residential schools, loss of traditional knowledge, and poverty. The plaque described it as genocide. Caroline explained that it is a tradition to sprinkle tobacco there to say that she remembers those who were lost and to move on. She invited us to sprinkle tobacco with her and we did. As we returned to the bus I was surprised at how strong a connection I felt to her and the Sayisi Dene people. Sprinkling the tobacco was entirely foreign to me and I knew little about the history of the Sayisi Dene, but her need to remember was universal. I had heard this story before, though it was set in different parts of the world. I felt that I genuinely understood her desire to have us “remember” with her, to “pass it on.” Caroline told us that she became an alcoholic at age thirteen. It doesn’t matter how many years, months, or days she’s been sober, she told us, she is only happy to be sober today. It was clear to all who listened to her narrative this afternoon that she is proud to have won her personal struggle with alcohol as well as proud that she and others are learning more and more about the culture that they almost lost. “The beautiful part,” she told us, “is we survived.”

Caroline’s story, though intense and at times upsetting, was for me the highlight of a fun, busy, and productive day. Our day began when a few people went to collect data in a fen and the rest of us participated in a community service activity. Ryan drove us, along with the University of Manitoba students to a gravelly spot beside the road where we started using shovels to cut out squares of sod with tundra plants on them. After a couple of hours, three trucks full of tundra vegetation, and a lot of dirt, we piled back into the bus and drove to the complex. The complex is by far the biggest building I’ve seen in Churchill. It has among other things a school, a movie theater, a library, and a really fun slide (I know because I slid down it multiple times when we stopped there for lunch). It also has a hospital, which was the reason for our morning digging up plants. We were helping to plant what’s known as a medicine wheel. It’s a circle of plants on the ground divided into four sections. Ours has two main purposes: to provide a place for people staying long-term at the hospital to come and see the plants of the tundra and to help bring back the plants that were destroyed when the complex was built.

The last activity of the day was our final visit to the fen. It didn’t seem to want us to go. The active layer was deep and full of clay and rocks, making it difficult to probe. Three of us had to lean on the probe with our full weight to get it all the way down to the permafrost, but we had fun and finishing each flag was even more satisfying than usual. We finished the day with a group hug as we slowly started to sink into the mud.

Thursday, August 18 (Rachel Donabedian)

Today was another exciting, but bittersweet day. We woke up bright and early at Nestor One and were all happy to have slept without the wind and rain lashing at our tents all night for the first time in a few days. We crawled out and were even able to see the sun poking out from under the clouds. Unfortunately, this meant the weather was clear enough for us to fly back to Churchill. After a breakfast of warm bannock and fireweed and cloudberry jam, we packed up our stuff, spent some time on the observation deck watching the mother and cub bear from yesterday cuddle in the tundra, then loaded up the helicopters and headed back to the studies center. We were all sad to say goodbye to our cage and tents, but after five days in the same clothes none of us were too disappointed to see the warm showers back at CNSC. We also had to say goodbye to our partner Sam who was heading back to her school in Saskatoon. Our original plan for the afternoon was to go to a fen near Churchill to collect more data, however, due to a miscommunication between us and the bear guard company, we were unable to get a guard for this afternoon so we had to stay at the CNSC. After dinner however, Ryan returned who could act as our bear guard. After we met his class from the University of Manitoba, eight kids went out to the fen and collected data, while the other five of us stayed back. The five of us that stayed had planned on going to a talk by the curator of the local Eskimo museum, however, she got cold feet and left at the last minute. In her place we watched a thrown together presentation which included a partial rough cut of a documentary a man was working on and some slide shows of his family vacations. It was amusing, but not exactly cohesive, to say the least. We then headed off on a sunset safari in a clunker van the research center left us. It was about 20 years old, the entire body was covered in rust and the brakes took about ten seconds to actually begin to slow the car down. Fortunately, we were able to see a gorgeous sunset over the Hudson Bay, and didn't even kill one animal crossing the street with our faulty brakes(there were a few close calls). We headed back for tea and cookies at the CNSC and were excited to learn that the trip to the fen had been successful and we have a new pile of data to sort and analyze. Some of us went to bed from there, while others met with Ryan and Webs to discuss our data and where we're heading with it. Now we've all gotten in our bunks and are enjoying mattresses and warm comforters for the first time in four nights. Tomorrow will be another exciting day and a nice change of pace as we head off to do community service and learn about the local culture and traditions in Churchill.

 

Wednesday, August 17 (Emily King)
BEST BIRTHDAY EVER! Coming to Nester One has been a dream come true, and spending my birthday here is like a mountain of icing on the cake. My birthday party actually began (with a large chocolate cake and Jim’s awesome polar bear talk) last night, on the 16th, in anticipation of us flying back to the CNSC today. However, inclement weather and my no-longer-secret birthday wish to stay another night hindered our departure. Although going for a helicopter ride on my birthday would also have been amazing, the extra day we spent here was fabulous as well. It started with mounds of scrambled eggs and toast.  Then, after I was denied a spot at the sink for doing dishes, we geared up for the day. All the gear was packed, the kitchen was cleaned, and we were ready to leave well before our scheduled departure time of 1 pm. After the bustle died down, we headed back to the kitchen to finish up our simulation of the Parks Management Board. First on the agenda however was thanking Heather, Jim, and Brendan for all of their help, knowledge, and conversation. Then the debate heated up. After about two hours of discussion on land use, resources, the economy, and environmental protection, we came to a consensus on how to divide up a map of Wapusk National Park. The simulation was tense, exciting, and maybe even frustrating, but I know we all came away with a better understanding of the issues surrounding the use of National Parks, and a new respect for the people who are involved in such a large undertaking. 

Throughout the morning we had been receiving calls on the radio phone from Jim’s students at Broad River, and from Dennis, the helicopter pilot. The wind was fierce, the rain was off and on, and a thick blanket of fog covered the area. We could barely see across the small lakes next to the compound. Eventually it was decided that the helicopter couldn’t fly out, and we would have to stay another night. This announcement resulted in dancing on the observation deck, and in the words of Dorothy, “It’s like a snow day, only better.” But the day was only half over. After all the amazing experiences, all the great food, great company, awesome science, being at Nester One, what could possibly make my birthday any better? Seeing a mother bear and her cub in the willow bushes near camp. They were near enough to watch without binoculars, and when they were spotted, Heather came into the kitchen and said “Emily, your birthday present has arrived!” And not only did we get to see the two bears, they hung around for hours and even had a little wrestling match for us! The rest of the day we were occupied by a little more cleaning, delicious bannock with Cloudberry jam and Fireweed jelly, (Thanks Heather!) and an epic game of Spoons, which everybody let me win just because it was my birthday. And, as if enough things hadn’t already made my day, Ryan called to wish me happy birthday. Even though he’d only left the day before, we all missed his big, colorful personality and vast knowledge of the Arctic. After a tasty dinner of tuna and chicken casseroles, Jim took us outside our cage to see a fox den. We didn’t see any foxes, but it was a great talk and we learned some cool things, including how to identify an active fox den. Then the fog thickened again and although we were within a stone’s throw of camp (literally), we could barely see the bright orange tents, so we headed back. Back at the compound we whipped up some Dream Whip to go with a mouthwatering peach crisp. So much for roughing it at a remote research camp in the Arctic! The final activity for the night was a conversation with Jim about the purpose of our research, and about how science works. Talk about intellectually stimulating! Then we pulled out our sleeping bags again and crawled back into our trusty orange tents, which only got a little bit wet in all the rain. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday!

 

Before we left Nester One, we all signed a piece of plywood that had this quote written on it:

Go my children, burn your books.  Buy yourselves stout shoes.  Get away to the mountains, the deserts, the deepest recesses of the earth.  In this way and no other will you gain the knowledge of things, and of their properties.  --Peter Severinus
 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 (Jonathan Gorman)

Waking up from my cozy sleeping bag, I hear the wind blowing against the tent.  I get out into the chilly air to see that the sky is overcast and the tent surface is wet.

After a breakfast of pancakes, Heather (one of the Park's Canada people staying at Nestor 1) presented a simulation to us.  In the simulation, all of the students were part of the park's management board.  The object was to decide how Wapusk's land would be used by different groups with different interests.  We broke into teams of two to three with the teams being researchers, ecotourists, traditional people, miners, and government. 

After lunch, we headed out to find a new site to probe at (we already probed the sites that we knew two days ago).  As we hiked, we watcheda helicopter come to take Ryan back to Churchill where his students were.  We headed north to search for a new site.  Our first potential site was at a fen at the bottom of the ridge that goes by our camp.  The site looked like a promising homogenius habitat to probe since it had all the water sedge, tufted bulrush, and buckbean that are typical of a fen.  We stuck a probe into the new site.  Rock!  The ground had an impermeable layer of rock, probably left behind from when this location was a beach ridge.  Unfortunately, this site was not going to work.

We traveled southwest for a new place to probe.  Our second site was just as promising-looking as the first and just as rocky.  Meanwhile, Julie fell backwards into the fen as we probed it.  She put on another layer and we walked to a third potential site slightly west of where we were.  No luck!

We headed back to Nestor 1 just in time for it to start drizzling.  A few of us headed to one of our successful fen sites that we probed two days ago.  We probed in order to contrast this site with the three other locations we went to today.  The probing at this site felt different from the other locations and we were able to probe much deeper.  This made us feel confident that we were only hitting rock at our newly visited locations.  In the end, we didn't probe a new site like we had hoped, although we already had four sets of data from two days ago in Wapusk.

After dinner, we continued our simulation of the Park management board.  Each side respectfully shared their goals and questioned the other groups in order to gather information.  Tomorrow we will decide on an actual plan.

Tonight we gathered in the classroom to see Jim's (another researcher staying at Nestor 1) Powerpoint presentation on polar bear conservation.  Before we started, Brendon (the other Park's Canada person) brought out a chocolate cake to surprise Emily for her almost birthday.  While we ate, Jim talked about bear biology and threats.  I for one thought the presentation was fascinating; I never knew that most polar bears fast for 4 months of the year while pregnant bears fast for 8 or that polar bears used to gather around the dishwater that was poured on the ground by tundra buggies.  

Being very tired, we all crawled into our tents right after the presentation.

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY Emily!

 

Monday, August 15 8:20, 2011 (Phil Middleton)

Today was a less scientific day and more of an exploring the tundra day. We began by checking some Lemming traps that we helped our friend Jim set up and we found one little female lemming. After gathering the necessary data from the lemming we set off on a hike to the coast. We had called it a hike but it turned into the best safari that we had gone on in all our time in the Arctic so far; we saw and learned so much that it made the day just unbelievable. On the way we saw a mamma polar bear with her cub and a couple caribou and on the way back we saw another four caribou, an arctic fox, and a hare. Nester One territory just bursting at the seams with arctic wildlife, but that is just another day in the arctic. All that was left was dinner with our Parks Canada and Bear monitor family and a presentation for desert.
 


Sunday, August 14, 2011 – Victoria Brown 
Due to the constant call of cell phones, Facebook and hours of homework, we are often caught up in the chaos of our modern world. In the onslaught of media and school we often forget to sit back and enjoy the scenery. To look and admire the beauty of the world around us. To watch the animals fattening up for winter, the crisp, unblemished blanket of a freshly fallen snow, the first buds opening on the cherry blossom trees in early spring,  or the pull of the tide from the beach, retreating before its next attempt to conquer the sand and the shore.

The loud whir of a helicopter engine cut through the early calm of the morning like the roar of a lion across a barren plain. The joy of riding in the helicopters was like nothing I had ever experienced in my entire life. The view from the co pilot’s seat of Wapusk National Park from three hundred feet above was breathtaking. We watched the small lakes and grassy field fly by, at speeds of 120 miles an hour. During two of the trips, we got to see a group of over 10 grown, male polar bears waiting around on land for the lake to re freeze. It was an amazing site to see so many of the fascinating creatures in one place. The ride was over far too quickly, but Nester One was just as amazing as the helicopter ride in its own way.

When we arrived at Nester One, our bear guard, Ryan gave us a tour of the two buildings were we would be staying. Although there are nice sleeping spaces inside, most of us decided to sleep outside in the tents. So, while we waited for everyone else to arrive by helicopter, we pitched tents and ate lunch. Once all the gear was put away and the tents were pitched we gathered our packs and headed out to our collection site. Today we did our first fen site. Aided by the plant expert among us, we completed two fen sites in one afternoon. 

We rested for a while, played Set and Around the World (basketball) and hung out. For dinner we feasted on fries and hamburgers (courtesy of Ryan Brook)  and then walked up onto the deck to watch the sun set. There is a forecast for a meteor shower tonight so hopefully we will be able to see shooting stars and the Northern Lights!

 

Saturday, August 13, 2011, 10:11 pm (Naomi Roswell)

It would have been nearly impossible to have had a day that included as many exciting, new and inspiring experiences as yesterday, but we set out for an ambitious day. Our destination was to be a never before visited lichen bog, not too far from home.

I woke up this morning, slightly unsatisfied with amount of sleep, but after the hot breakfast of pancakes, fruit, oatmeal, and my now regular cup of caffeinated tea, I was prepared and looking forward to the packed day. We offered a few suggestions and reminders about data recording techniques in a quick, useful pow-wow and loaded the bus, hip waders and all.

We drove for about 20 minutes, and Emily and I used that time to continue entering our data from yesterday into the database, which is finally making sense. When we arrived, we got our bug jackets on and set out for the bog; we were to walk one click (a.k.a.) kilometer through a boreal forest.  It felt like a treasure hunt, not knowing where we were going, but rather just following the GPS, trusting that it will lead us to our  habitat of the day. As we weaved through drunken trees leaning this way and that, we alternated between the squishes and squelches of the wet and murky fen and the soft, reluctant sighs of sphagnum fuscom, a golden and rust colored moss. Underneath our weight, the moss sunk down, and when we lifted our feet, the moss would slowly rise up, re-taking its previous formation, a gentle reminder that if you have the right attitude, you can stand back up after any setback.

The trek to the bog was longer and harder than we expected, and arrived an hour and a half later than we had hoped, but upon arriving, we set out our two transects, flagged every other meter, and began collecting data.

Even for those of us who have not been here before, already, on our second day of going out to the sites, we have memorized the Latin species names, and the protocol and process of probing, quadrat-ing, and vertical profiling at each flag. As we become more accustomed to the environment, we are becoming more efficient.

We finished the first two transects at about 1:00, and we probably would have taken our lunch break, rehydrated, rested, laughed and talked. We had predicted the hike to be shorter and assumed that we would be back to have lunch, and take data at a fen, another arctic habitat. Although we were hungry, we began two more transects in the same lichen bog, with the same great attitude. The rain that followed slowed the data collection, just because it became more difficult to record our findings, but as we finished up, so did the rain, and we began the hike back to the bus around 3:00.

Although the walk back was shorter, it was slightly more frustrating. Although there were actually no more bugs than in the morning, we were getting tired of swatting away mosquitoes and re-adjusting our mesh bug jackets, and we had not had lunch, and were eager to eat our well deserved sandwiches.

The wet, grassy fen seemed even more determined to keep us there, and its method of choice was to suction our hip waders (rubber boots that attach to belt loops) to the ground, and even going as far as to give blisters to many of our group.

When we returned, I took a nice warm shower and finished up inputting yesterday’s data, and after dinner, we received the low down of tomorrow; a helicopter ride into Wapusk National Park, and then to Nestor 1! We plan to collect data from four sites tomorrow, and finish off with an Arctic Dance party under the Aurora; we have yet to see them, but I have a feeling tomorrow night will be the night. 

 

Saturday, August 13, 10:49PM (Shh!)  (Josie Verchomin and Christopher Mergen)

 

Here's a video of some of the past two days' field work (and some crazy dancing on a bus.)

 

 

Friday August 12, 2011 12:17AM (Jackson Hance)

Today started about a half a meter below the ground and ended in the skies. We moved from probing the permafrost in a lichen bog to staring in wonder at the marvelous evening clouds and sunset with a huge moon. The arctic provides wonder at a vast array of scales. From the simple beauty of a web of lichen and shrubs to the vast panoramas of a cloudy sunset to the peaceful sight of a pod of belugas circling a boat.

We started the day with a hearty breakfast at the CNSC and then quickly got our gear together to go out into the field. After a quick bus ride and a short trek, we ended up in one of the truly unique tundra habitats: the lichen bog. Despite what most of us classically thing of when we hear the word bog, the lichen bog is one of the driest habitats you can find in this region. As we walked down our quadrats, gathering our first data of the trip, our boots sunk, crunching, into the dry puffy lichen. Cutting through the clouds of vegetation are thick cracks where wedges of ice rend the bog apart. To truly understand the permafrost, we reach down through the peat in these cracks and press our hands against the implacable block of ice beneath us all.

After hammering out two transects in the lichen bog, we sat down to a quick lunch and continued onto the burned lichen bog only about one hundred meters away to gather two more transects of data. The bog and the burn are two of the most amazingly beautiful habitats in the arctic ( if one can truly call one beautiful in comparison to everything around it). The tiny landscape of hummocks forested with at least seven varieties of lichens, several shrubs, and cloudberry are a wondrous, yet tiny habitat.

We got back to the studies center for dinner a bit early, and then set out for a beluga whale watching adventure. My boat was lucky enough to be swarmed by a pod of about twelve bull whales that circled us and watched us and surfaced all around us. Then, on a tip from another boat’s pilot, we went out to the point and saw a polar bear resting amid the rocks.

After leaving our tour we thought we were done with animals for the day. But only a few hundred yards from the docks we stopped for several minutes to get pictures of a red fox standing on the nearby rocky ridge. As we drove back to the Studies Center we were treated to a fantastic sunset enhanced by the clouds around it. For all the time we spend staring at tiny bits of vegetation on the ground, the sky around this area is truly fantastic. The multicolored clouds rained pink and orange as a brilliant orange sun shot through the gaps near the horizon. To finish a wonderful day, we did some data analysis and packed our lunches for another day in the field. å

 

 

Thursday, August 11, 2011 12:48AM (Maia Draper-Reich)

When I woke up this morning curled in a ball with my head on the arm of my train seat, my back against Josie’s back, and my feet wedged somewhere between Emily’s legs and Akira’s ribcage, I couldn’t have predicted how this day was going to go.  That’s how everyday is here.  Much like the ride on the train that pulled us gently into Churchill at 11 a.m. this morning, I have little control over how this journey goes.  I am simply brought along, attempting to notice and appreciate all the beauty that is rushing past the window. 

After we detrained and loaded our luggage into a pickup truck headed for the CNSC, which is about 23 km east of town, we loaded onto a bus driven by Dr. Ryan Brook.  We took the “long route” which means we head the opposite direction and stopped at the Cape Merry National Historic Site, a lookout point located at the mouth of the Churchill River.  The sun was shining unexpectedly and gloriously and we saw hundreds of Beluga whales arch their white backs briefly into the sunlight mid dive.  After several minutes, we headed along the coast of the Hudson Bay on the road to the CNSC where, amazingly, we saw our first bear!  He or she was a ways off towards to water, but even from afar we could see its butt wagging.  Someone remarked, “You don’t need binoculars to see that bear has swagger.”  I feel so spoiled; we’ve seen intense sunshine and a polar bear and it’s only our first day in Churchill.  It's awesome. We arrived at the CNSC and were ushered into the brand new, beautiful building. (http://www.churchillscience.ca/construction/)  Although some of us feel some nostalgia for the old building, this new facility is absolutely gorgeous.  It has fantastic views from its numerous windows and just seems so fresh and new.  After an orientation about the CNSC and a thorough polar bear safety briefing and training, we spent the rest of the day doing the first round of work for our PCB study, which is in partnership with Dr. Upal Ghosh of UMBC.  We planted three pieces of PCB collecting plastic into the Hudson Bay, the Churchill River, and a fresh water lake near the CNSC.  The second two sites involved some brave swimming by several members of the group.  The sample collectors we put in place will be retrieved before we leave and transported back to Maryland.  We both drove and hiked through the land to reach these sites, which, for me, gave me time to reconnect with a place I had fallen so in love with a year ago.  The land just seems to go on forever up here.  The horizon is so wide that it makes me feel so insignificant and powerless.  But then, while I’m feeling tiny, I look beside my boot and see a tiny sprig of dwarf Labrador tea or crowberry and I remember that I am also big and scary.  Those plants give me hope.  They are tiny, maybe less than an inch tall and they have only three months to bloom and live, yet they seem to have so much motivation and energy.  They are making the most out of the time they have been given.  Those beautiful little plants are reminding me to be present for every moment of this trip and indeed, to treasure every moment of our short life spans as well. 

We have our gear all packed and organized to head out into the tundra tomorrow for a full day of taking data.  I simply cannot wait to spend the day amongst the bravest, and most awesome plants and environments that I know.  I am so happy to be where I am right now.  Doing this work, with these people, in this place is pure joy.  I’m excited for every moment of it that has yet to come.

 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 11:06PM (Christopher Mergen)

You have always been on a train.  You will always be on a train.  The train’s destiny and your destiny are interwoven – wherever it goes, you will invariably go, slowly creeping over forests and bogs, watching as towering trees give way to shorter ones, and eventually disappear in places.  The setting sun cuts through the windows, mottling the train car with patches of light and dark.
For the past two days, we’ve been flying hundreds of miles to drive along Route 6 in two vans and a car on our way to a train station in Thompson to catch a sleeper train to Churchill.  We arrived at some questionable cabins late last night – the ceiling fan in our  had murderous intentions, and the floorboards in our room sagged and creaked loudly as we walked over them.  Luckily, there was plenty of free WiFi to be had in the middle of the woods, and we all managed to survive (and even enjoy) the night.   

We woke up to bags of bagels and cream cheese and another long stretch of driving.  Route 6 cuts a swath through the forest that leaves what can only be described as a moat of foliage.  On either side, tall black and white spruce lined the road, extending on into the distance for hours.  We drove past lakes, fire-devastated areas, rainstorms, and plenty of “drunken” trees (sticking out at precarious angles because of the uneven nature of the permafrost) partially submerged in bogs.  Josie spotted our first lichen as we were nearing Thompson, clinging to partially dead trees, and Kat and Maia spotted the clouds (“They’re so FLUFFY!”)

When we arrived in Thompson, there was an indecisive rainstorm that opened up all the way as we made our way to the train.  Remarkably, it was waiting in the station and was going to leave on schedule, so we went and got some pizza (elating the staff of the local, empty Pizza Hut) and met up with Dr. Ryan Brook, our research partner from the University of Saskatchewan and Samantha from The Outdoor School in Saskatoon.  We grabbed some last-minute supplies, loaded our luggage onto the train, and settled in for the next 17 hours to watch the outdoors slip by.

We ate dinner as the sun was setting, and many people tried their first pirogues, a sort of potato dumpling.  Then, we crawled into the sleeper seats and talked for hours as darkness swallowed the train. After some last-minute database tweaking and hilarious conversations in the dining car, we all finally crawled into bed.

I am left in the dining car, sitting alone aside from the train crew, peering out as dark forms pass by me.  There is a part of me that doesn’t want to ever get off this train, not at Churchill, not in Thompson, not in Winnipeg, but just to ride it back and forth forever and ever.  These past two days of non-stop traveling have been filled with warmth and happiness, and also the quiet beauty of the foreign landscape.  It has reminded me again to listen – not just with my ears, but with my eyes.  More importantly, though, it has proven to me that I am – that everyone is – so impossibly small, but that the actions that I take, and that we all take, ripple out to the farthest edge of the domed sky.
 

 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011. 12:30AM (Rachel Drachman)

Greetings from Grand Rapids! We've made it safe and sound to our first overnight stop. It's been quite a day. The 14 of us met at 7:30 this morning at the Air Canada desk in BWI to kick off our day (this morning seems so long ago...). From there we flew into Toronto on the smallest plane I have ever flown in, a mere 37 seats. We grabbed lunch in the airport in Toronto before getting on our second flight of the day to Winnipeg. After picking up all (nothing was lost!) of our bags we met up with Kat (our chaperone/photographer, who went on the very first Arctic trip) and Dorothy (our Global Explorers leader). By this point our traveling for the day was only half over. We had a lovely, 5 hour road trip and saw everything from open fields, to spruce and birch trees, about 4 different kinds of cows, dogs crossing the road, and a gorgeous sunset. Now here we are all settled in cabins for the night (technically morning for those of you paying attention). 

 

Monday, August 8, 2011 (Josie Verchomin)

Right now, wow, right now is the night before we leave. All day today I kept thinking, "I have done this before, I know what to do." Right now it all seams unknown. I am embarking on this whole new adventure. Last year, this night, I was scared. I was scared I wouldn't know what to do or that I would do something wrong. Now I am just plain happy. I was telling Emily that this summer, so far, hasn't felt like a vacation at all. She agreed. After discussing all the work we had to do, we both agreed that the Arctic Trip would be fun fun fun work. The Arctic Trip is our fun trip our vacation. I am so excited to go back. Every part of the trip last year amazed me and so it will again this year. I guess all there is left to say is Goodnight.

 

 

Check back in August for reports from our trip members in Churchill!