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Summer Arctic Trip 2012

August 12 (Adam Lessing)

As I woke up this morning to the conductor’s radio as he walked through our car, I was surprised to find myself not at all annoyed.   Being on a train is so relaxing for me that even though I had accidentally woken up and eaten breakfast three hours before planned, I was still unusually calm.  As I sipped my tea in early morning solitude, I began working on my notes to the rest of the people on this trip.  Writing on the colored squares, I realized how much more I knew about everyone than I did before, and it made me even happier that I had decided to come on this trip.  After completing my notes and draining my tea, I sat for a while in the dining car until others started showing up.  Not long after, we went back to sleep and woke up at around noon for another round of closing thoughts.  We each drew two cards: one with a name, and one with a question similar to those that we answered our first day in Winnipeg.  We went around and shared an experience or two that we had had with the person on our card throughout the trip, and answered the questions about our personal experiences with the trip.  Just as we were finishing, we pulled into Thompson (at around 1:30) and disembarked.

We went from the train station to get some lunch, and then proceeded on our long drive to Winnipeg.  I’ve always hated long drives, but this particular drive seemed short.  There was never a lack of good music, good conversation, and good laughs as we slowly made out way south.  The road itself was repetitive, with tall electrical structures seemingly marching along a seemingly unchanging path of asphalt, but it somehow managed to not be boring.  Passing through the occasional small town, and seeing the occasional scenic overlook kept things interesting.  Not to mention, around 6:00 we spotted our eighth (or ninth) and final bear of the trip.  Although it was our last bear sighting, it was our first black bear sighting, with the medium sized bear climbing through the median of the divided highway. 

We continued on like this (with the exception of our brief stop for dinner and milkshakes), singing, laughing, and sleeping until we arrived at the Victoria Inn unfortunately well after the nightly closing of the famed dinosaur waterslide.  By the time we settled down in our rooms we only had about two hours of possible sleep before our wake up call, which we spent hanging out, reading our notes from each other, playing catchphrase, and (just as our wakeup call went off) falling asleep for a ten minute power nap;  thus ending our surprisingly awesome traveling Sunday. 

 

Waking on the train

Laughing along the highway

Sleeping at the Inn?

 

August 11th: (Megan Philippi)

On the tundra I find it nearly impossible to estimate distance. This is largely because of size. A tree spotted on a hike along a beach ridge that appears to be many kilometers away may be relatively close by, but only a foot tall. To someone who grew up in Churchill this is most likely not a problem, but I cannot shake my expectations of the size of trees and hills based on what I see in Baltimore.

Today, as I flew above Wapusk National Park, I experienced the same phenomenon. I could not tell how high above ground we were. Were the clumps of spruce trees below the helicopter patches of boreal forest or clusters of six-inch tall stalks sprouting from the same root system? I watched the mysterious land pass beneath the jet ranger. Soft brown earth was split by cracks filled with royal blue water. Sometimes we looked down on expanses of white and mint-green lichen, which dissolved into hummocks of rusty peat moss before returning to lichen. The lichen became the carpet of boreal forests. Though a major reason we are here is to do science, I couldn’t help but connect the transformations below me to the world of fantasy. It was hard not to imagine the elves or anthropomorphized animals that might live in the miniature woodlands below, to wonder what creature guarded those miraculously blue arctic lakes.

As we flew over a lake we all looked out the left window at the pilot’s suggestion. Though I missed it, most of our group caught a brief but glorious glimpse of a swimming polar bear.

The land raced by below us. Soon we would arrive back in Churchill. It was hard to believe our time at Nester One had ended and we would soon be leaving the north. Our final day in Wapusk had begun with the patter of rain. I felt it on my face and heard it on my sleeping bag from the front porch where a few of us had decided to spend the night. The rain poured harder and we took it as a cue from our natural alarm clock, dragging our sleeping bags inside. After donning raincoats we returned outside seeking a sunrise. Though it was cloudier than it had been since our arrival at Nester One, we could see a bright sliver in the massive sky. It soon burst and started our day with an explosion of sunlight. More people awakened and we ate breakfast and cleaned up Nester One before Ryan arrived by helicopter with a few of his university students and our first group left for Churchill.

When we reached the CNSC we took much-anticipated showers, ate lunch, and set off for our afternoon activities. We drove to parts of Churchill we hadn’t seen before. Jim showed us a fox den. Then we drove by Camp 10 where Caroline lived as a child. We stopped for a moment of silence beside the nearby cemetery; we could see no signs of Camp 10 itself.

The next part of the day was a closing ceremony at Cape Mary. We sat on the rocks by the Churchill River and shared with each other a favorite moment, a wish, and a promise. The belugas came by to listen and a few tears were shed as the group reflected on our incredible adventures.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the town of Churchill and shopping. Finally, we met at the train station, said goodbye to Heather, Jim, and Tim, and boarded the train. Then, as we waved goodbye, the train picked up speed and Churchill slid away from us one spruce tree at a time.

 

August 10th: (Akira Townes)

Today was our last day at Nester One and it couldn’t have been a more perfect day. Our day started off earlier than I would have liked. On our walk to collect data from a fen, I realized that it was going to the last fen of my “Arctic career.” When considering this thought, I didn’t feel sad or regretful about anything; all I could do was take a moment and just take in my surroundings. Sitting on the tundra and taking in the full 360 of what was around, I felt so connected with land. This connection was like nothing I have ever experienced in the past two years. I felt as if I was a part of the tundra, a part of this very fragile ecosystem that is so vast and diverse. Whilst I was taking it all in, I got this feeling that the land was somehow taking me in at the same time. After my moment of peace and serenity, Webs, Sofie, Sam, and I got to our probing duties. Team Awesome, as we like to call ourselves, was able to hammer out our fen together with lots of laughs, sass (not from me though), and lots of enthusiasm. After finishing our final fen and site of the trip, we went on a hike to visit one of Jim Roth’s fox dens. Jim thought the particular den that we were going to visit was an inactive denning area. When we were about 100 meters from the den, Jim stopped the group and silenced everyone. At first, I thought for sure that he saw a polar bear in the distance and we were going to have to turn back around and head back to Nester One, but when looking to the left of the fox den, I saw this little silhouette of what looked to be a fox. When the binoculars finally got around to me, I saw that little silhouette was for sure a fox pup. Then, as soon as I passed the binos, another little silhouette appeared right next to the other pup. After Jim confirmed that there were indeed two fox pups, he and Kat approached the den to get a closer look. After checking the site out, they gave us the okay to quietly approach the den. When we were finally able to get closer to the den, there was a hole where two very cute and cuddly fox pups were laying down. Seeing them, I couldn’t feel anything but pure happiness and gratitude for being able to see such a sight. I have never seen anything so magical. It was different from anything I have ever seen before because they were in their natural environment, it was perfect weather, and at that moment of seeing the pups yawning and watching us watch them, it was the perfect moment. That is a moment I will never forget. After watching the pups for about an hour, we continued on our walk to a lake where some people took a dip. While some people were swimming, I just sat with Renee and we just talked about the life’s expectations and how amazing our group was. When we came back from our hike, we had an amazing family dinner and toasted Dorothy, Jim Roth, and Heather for making our group that much more amazing. All in all, it was a perfect last day in Nester One.

 

August 9th: (Tim Roth)

We woke up at about eight o’clock in the morning to eat breakfast. For breakfast, we had pancakes. Dorothy had a very interesting “polar bear” pancake. We didn’t leave camp until about eleven o’clock. We had decided to do a second uber-fen (repetitive probing of a site to ensure accuracy of data) after the one from the previous day showed slightly worrying results. I was assigned to micro-identification with Adam- quick, easy work in this environment that we completed with relative ease. However, those assigned with probing the permafrost did not have such an easy time as we did, and took a few hours. This gave time for a few of our group to go explore a fox den. When we got back, those assigned with probing were just finishing up, so we waited for about twenty minutes and then packed up and returned to Nester 1. By then, it was about three o’clock. We spent several hours entering and analyzing data while my father led part of the group to another fox den. Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties I ended up not being able to do anything to contribute to this, and spent my time sitting quietly until the one person who had a solution to the problem, my father, returned. We had the most delicious dinner that I have had on this expedition. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken with little french-fry-like potato slices. And lots of mustard. After investigating yet another fox den, we returned at about ten o’clock and ate some delicious cake.

 

August 8th: (Sofie Rudin)

We, the sleepyheads, woke up at the luxurious hour of eight this morning to the sounds of breakfast- bacon, eggs scrambled or to order, toast, fruit and coffee. It’s mind-boggling that in the middle of the tundra, a helicopter ride away from the nearest people, we could sit around the table in our cozy kitchen listening to music and chowing down on sizzling bacon. It’s almost possible to forget how remote we are. Until you step up to the window above the sink and see a caribou trotting across the horizon, that is.

Our first night in Wapusk passed in a wonderful blur. After watching the moon rise, reflected in the distant Hudson Bay and a nearby lake, most of us gave in to our fatigue. But, unable to resist the night, Johanna and I woke up at 2 to stargaze. The northern lights were stretched faintly across the sky.

Today we took a break from our research on active layer thickness and vegetation to go for a hike with the endlessly funny biologist, and trusty bear-guard, Jim Roth, to visit fox dens he’s monitoring. Along the way, we stopped at a set of archeological sites. Our other wonderful bear guard, Heather, told us about the flint napping workshop, used for tool making, and hunting blind, which is now covered in beautiful Starburst lichen. The people who lived here hundreds of years ago hid behind this low semicircle of rocks in order to hunt caribou with spears. Though we saw many, many caribou today, I can’t imagine lying still enough to catch one. I certainly can’t imagine depending on that to eat. They’re curious and gentle, but they’re wary and can run incredibly fast over the rough hummocks of the tundra, way faster than a human. They look pretty funny when they run: their body looks like it’s gliding along, but their long legs are gangly and sort of flog around. Probably the funniest sight of the day was a young caribou running full speed into a flock of birds, scaring them into the air. Whether or not the cutie was doing it intentionally was a subject of serious debate, but it really did look like he was making a game out of it.

Even though we saw countless caribou, each one seemed more beautiful than the last. Our arms kept rising above our heads, mimicking antlers, in an attempt to draw them closer. But wildlife sightings even more exciting were the polar bears! Yes, we saw multiple polar bears today—“a definite four, but a possible five”, Akira says. The first one came early in our walk. It seemed, even to Jim, like a white rock nestled among the willows until it…moved. A truly massive polar bear stuck its head up out of the bushes and sniffed at us. It was safely on the other side of a beautiful little pond, so we sat there for a while looking at each other. At one point he stood up—huge and beautiful and majestic—but apparently we weren’t interesting enough to disturb his midday nap, and he quickly lay back down.

We had our second bear sighting when we stopped for lunch at an arctic fox den overlooking the Hudson Bay.  Out on a point we spotted at least three bears hanging out. We passed binoculars around and watched them for a long time, as they napped and went for a quick swim. It was incredible, dreamlike to stumble upon these bears just doing their thing. We weren’t separated by bars, just a little distance. But though we were standing on the same ground, it was absolutely clear that we are on their turf. They have this slow, serene way of moving that makes it obvious that they are here to stay. This is their place. That makes the prospect of this place, their place, disappearing all that more terrifying. I never want to have to tell my children, or grandchildren, or whatever that I saw these animals and this environment that they can no longer see. And that goes for the ptarmigans and the owls and the lemmings and the weird little shrimpies, and the lichen, and all the stunning animals and plants that we’ve seen.

I want many more people to be able to come to this place and watch an arctic fox stroll along a ridge as they eat dinner with a group of wonderful—and delirious—people. I want more people to be able to sit up on the deck, overlooking the tundra, as the sun slides below flat horizon, singing and laughing uncontrollably and entering data as we did tonight. I want more people to be able to watch the moon and the stars and the surreal northern lights without light pollution.

Some of these things, like watching the sunset and moonrise, I should just do more at home. But here it is so beautiful and pristine, it’s impossible not to notice, and watch, and be totally and completely awed. 

 

August 7th: (Jessie Lamworth)

 It’s hard to have to sit down and write after all that has happened and while there is so much else to do. An entirely new chapter of our trip has just begun today when we gathered all our bags and said goodbye to the CNSC. After breakfast and the usual last minute panic to organize gear, we left in four separate groups to the much-anticipated Nester One, located in Wapusk National Park. The means of transportation we used to get here was also highly anticipated, for the only way to get to Nester One is via helicopter.

The Long Ranger is a helicopter not much bigger than a mini cooper, and with me, Webs, Megan, Christopher, and Sofie in the cockpit with the pilot, it was questionable whether we’d be able to get very far off the ground. We fearlessly clambered in to the deafening machine and lifted off, watching the CNSC disappear behind us. At an altitude of 300 feet, we were able to see for miles. The crystal clear blue sky painted the unending field of green with mirror-like splotches of lakes. It was easy to see how about seventy percent of the land in the national park is covered in water. These weaving bodies of water were laced with flickers of white snow geese and although there were no polar bear sightings, I watched a few caribou silhouettes trot across the plains.

The helicopter ride ended in what felt like minutes, and although I was disappointed to come back to sea level, the sight of the Nester One compound greeting us lifted my spirits again. When I entered the cage that will be our home for the next few days, I took in all the marvels that surrounded me. The temperature here is perfect, and there is just enough breeze to keep the bugs off. All the sights I saw on the helicopter engulfed our little box and within a few hours our group was up on the observatory deck pointing out caribou and sandhill cranes.

After we all got settled (which only required setting bags down and organizing the kitchen) we set off to do an uber fen. Normally it is a very difficult task to probe in fens because the active layer thickness is nearly three to four times thicker than in bogs, not to mention that the probe has to break through an thick mineral layer laced with rocks. Instead of taking about a minute to perform to measurements (as done in a bog), in a fen it took more than five minutes to collect one ALT measurement. Needless to say, this uber fen was a painstaking task. Luckily I wasn’t the one having to pound my palms into the metal probe, and I laughed with Akira while taking macro data. When we had finished, the probers were only a tenth of the way through their process, so we joined them to help out. Six people ended up working together in one probing group, and even with all the help we didn’t finish for another few hours.

Finally when we were ready to return to Nester One, exhausted and hungry for buttery spaghetti, we did a final inventory check before the hike back. Usually we’re pretty organized for a group of teenagers, but today we were missing a single tape measure. Everyone had experienced hours of blood, sweat, and tears, and we had to turn around and search through muck and water for a stupid tape measure. Several minutes into the fen search, it turned out Christopher had the tape measure in the depths of his backpack.

Tonight we plan on cramming all six of us girls into one tent, watching the northern lights, and staying up for polar bear watch, but I feel exhausted. There is so much to do and so little time that I am going to finish this blog post. I miss everyone at home so much and I am having a great time here.

 

August 6 (Sam Baird):

Today after the usual routine of waking up for the 7:00am breakfast we began to prepare for our first fen. After putting on all of our rain gear (including my favorite, the hip waders) we hopped into the new van due to the “technical difficulties” with the bus. After the short bumpy ride we stopped in between the two fens for the day. When we started doing our respective jobs it seemed like we would finish fast until we realized how much harder probing is in a fen compared to a bog due to the much thicker active layer. Early on while jumping in every little pool of water possible I managed to find the deepest on and got stuck. The water was up above my knees and I had to get assistance to get out, after which I continued on jumping in pools on the way to the next job. Three people managed to get stuck in the same pool later on in the morning.  Throughout this site the wind was whipping by making the process a lot colder. The wind was helpful though because it ridded us of the mosquitoes “Bug-ing” us. By the end of each transect we had everyone assisting in the probing. We would have two people stabilizing the probe while two others pushed down as hard as possible. This was exhausting and made the lunch break that much more satisfying. This day was different than most because instead of going on to the next transect we had to go back to the CNSC to call and check in on the helicopters who were going to fly a few of us to some lichen bogs a ways away. When the helicopter arrived we all went down to get a safety briefing for our ride to Nester 1 tomorrow. While the few were gone checking out the bog, the rest of us began to clean up the mess we made of the classroom we had been using to store our equipment. During this time a few of us had been punching in statistics from the transects into our online data base but multiple times the new data base cleared the data forcing us to start over again, but Christopher has been assuring that it works great after a few modifications. The group returned after dinner with news from the pilot that less bears have been seen this year than any other, but we have hopes to see a few during our stay at Nester One. Due to how late they got back it was decided that it was too late for the other fen and we would need to make up for it at Nester One. We went for one more “sunset safari” before we leave the CNSC and it was one of the most beautiful ones yet where we could clearly see the sun as it made its slow drop below the horizon. After getting bit every where by mosquitoes we all began to say our thanks to our amazing bear guard Ryan because he wasn’t making the flight with us. This trip has been an amazing new experience and I can’t even put this trip into words to explain not only the area around me but also the people. I am incredibly thankful for the students being so accepting and how easy it was making friends with them after worrying since leaving Seattle.

 

Feeling my boots sink

The wind blowing me around

Man, I love Churchill

 

August 5 (Adam Lessing):

Although today started similarly to our other days here at the CNSC, it quickly took a different path altogether.  After our standard 7:00 AM breakfast, instead of gearing up for the field, we suited up in our raincoats and rain pants to brace our selves for the wonderfully wet experience that is Beluga Whale watching.  As we were boarding our zodiacs (inflatable raft-like boats with a hard floor and a motor- ten of us in each), we were greeted by our very first rain of the trip.  We motored out through the rain and wind past the Prince of Whales Fort to attempt to locate a bear our guide had seen yesterday, but we were unsuccessful.  But we kept our spirits high, and pretty soon we spotted our first Beluga.  There’s really no good way to describe what a Beluga Whale looks like while surfacing for air.  I heard a variety of explanations ranging from “great big bathtubs floating in a giant bathtub” to “giant underwater torpedo missiles, except friendly”.  Both are absolutely true, and even combined don’t even get close to representing the true majesty that these whales embody.  As we motored further up the Churchill River, we were greeted by progressively more of these fantastic beasts, until we got to the point where, if you were to look in any direction, you would see tens of whales surfacing at once, including a few newborn calves.  Our guide, Dwight, estimated that where we were floating (Mosquito Point) that there were over 500 Belugas.  

Coming in from the Whale watching experience, we boarded the bus to make the quick trek into the town of Churchill to meet with a Sayise Dene elder named Caroline, whose story is one of those told in Night Spirits, one of our two assigned readings for the trip.  We picked up some lunch for Caroline, and then made our way to a point overlooking Prince of Wales Fort.  There, she told us her story.  Briefly, the Sayisi Dene are a group of Dene who had occupied the Churchill region for over a thousand years, living off the caribou herds and the fish from the river.  For a while after the Europeans arrived in the area things were peaceful, with the exception of some minor disagreements with other First Nations groups such as the Cree over the fur trade with the Europeans.  But, in the mid 20th century, the Canadian government started to try and assimilate the Dene people into “western” culture.  Camps were set up and the government began to airlift the Dene into the camps, away from the caribou they depended on to survive.  Residence schools were set up to educate the youth from the First Nations in the ways of European living.  They were forced to attend these boarding schools and much of their culture was stripped away from them.  The effect this had on the Sayisi Dene was disastrous; violence in these communities increased ten-fold, and many Dene turned to drugs and alcohol.  These issues, along with the trouble of trying to adapt to this new way of life ended up contributing to the deaths of over a third of the Dene population in only 15 years.  Caroline, who was a child taken to one of these residence schools, remembers clearly what happened to her, and how hard it was for her to adapt to living in these camps, as well as having to deal with drug and alcohol abuse in her family.  Hearing her story from her personally was incredibly moving.  The fact that she can address a group of us and talk about what she went through and coming to live with it is inspirational.  We visited Dene Village with her, where the Dene were made to live, and many of us sprinkled sage on the cement foundations of the buildings, a Dene sign of respect.  Hearing about her experience and her culture made me realize how different all of us are, as well as reminding me of how difficult it can be to talk about hardships. 

After the Dene Villiage, we took Caroline to get some tea and coffee at one of the hotels in town, and a number of us continued getting to know this incredible woman.  After dropping off Caroline at her apartment, we went to the Nothern, the one-stop shop for all food, furniture, and electronic needs in Churchill.  Everything in Churchill was at one point brought in by plane, train, or ship, and it is apparent throughout the town that very little of anything is wasted.  All of the food and produce at the Northern was brought in by train, so, the prices are understandably high.  After a quick visit there, we got a tour of the Wapusk National Park Visitor’s Center from Heather, who will be with us while we are at Nestor One starting Tuesday.   After seeing the exhibit, which focuses on the history of Churchill, we returned to the CNSC for a little bit of free time before dinner. 

Our plan was to go out after dinner and collect data in a fen, a wet area where the layer of peat is less than 40 cm (as opposed to a bog, a dryer ecosystem filled with all sorts of lichen), but we had a little trouble finding our site. We were still driving around, rocking out to the Lion King soundtrack, when we saw a few bolts of lighting.  We waited it out for a little while, but ultimately decided to return to the CNSC.  Our time at the Study Centre was not wasted, as we had (and still have) a lot of soil samples that needed to be processed to measure their moisture content, something we believe has an affect on both active layer thickness and ground cover, the two main groups we are trying to relate.  After some meticulous weighing of wet and dry soil samples, as well as some entering of data into our database, we were ready to go out on our Sunset Safari/Debriefing of the day.  However, just as we were getting on the bus, the rain really picked up so we decided to have our conversation indoors.  Once the weather cleared again we got back on the bus, continuing our conversation on topics like fair division of power, re-division of power, taking power, as well as things like coexistence and finding a happy medium.  When it got too late, we had to come back to our lodging, which we did successfully despite some technical difficulties with our bus. 

It’s pretty late as I’m writing this in the Aurora Dome, the CNSC’s 360º viewing area for the Northern Lights.  Tonight’s pretty rainy, so I don’t see any, but it’s still nice and quiet up here.  Tomorrow’s our last full day out in the field, which is a little sad, but I’m super excited to go to Nestor One on Tuesday. And so, at this early hour in the morning, I leave you with a haiku:

 

 

Whales in the morning,

Stories in the afternoon,

Silence in the night. 

 

August 4: Uberbog! (William MacKay)

We woke up at 6:45 in the morning. You may think this is not that bad, but remember that you're dealing with a bunch of high-schoolers here. We had a wonderful breakfast; the cooking staff here is amazing. They have fresh baked cookies for snacking and an extensive selection of delicious food.  We then took the CNSC bus with our dashing and fearless bear guard, Dr. Ryan Brook of the University of Saskatchewan. We proceeded to hike through trails, which, though first covered in gravel, quickly progressed into a southern Louisiana-like fen, after battling our way through dinner-plate-sized mosquitoes and the horde of black flies, a species known more commonly by its scientific name "demon spawn from Hell".  Right as we made our way into a clearing, Amani was  attacked by a "ferocious" lemming monster; it may been the scariest sight I've seen--barring, of course, some of the chaperones before their morning coffee.  After defeating all that the Canadian woods had to throw at us, we made our way to one of our last lichen bogs. This wasn't just any ordinary bog: this was an Uberbog!!!  Here we gathered 208 measurements on the depth of the permafrost in this area, as opposed to the normal 104. We also got many great photos, taken by the esteemed Kat Whitney.  After probing, we managed to climb to "Lookout point", where we came to the sparkling blue waters of Twin Lake. Needless to say a general madness ensued as we rushed into the water. The water was excellent, you could see right through it, and it was cold enough to cool one down without making them feel like they were in some place cold (Like Canada Eh?). We made it back to the CNSC where we were greeted by an exquisite Turkey dinner (Shout out to the Kitchen staff!) We then had "free-time". Most of us ended up finishing the work we started out in the fields.  I don't care if the sun is up for 25 hours a day; there's never enough time to do all we want here.  After this we went on a sunset safari, where we made a fire in the rocks on Bird cove, where we watched the sunset. At this camp fire, we talked about the plight of the Sayisi Dene, in preparation for our meeting Sayisi Dene elder Caroline. We also spotted our first bear! There's not an animal even close to the power and majesty of the bear in Maryland. Sadly it detected us and scrambled away before we could snap a picture. We headed home and ended our day. We then decided to hit the hay, as the Northern lights were obscured by clouds.


Bogged down in Fens

No bear on  rocks photo op

Probes go tink-tink-tink


August 3: Vastness (Johanna Busch)

The vastness I've experienced in the last couple of days is unlike anything I have every imagined.  After spending all of my life being fenced in by houses, trees, mountains, and street lights, I'm used to the saftey of closed, finite spaces.  Here, everything is different. Last night, stepping out on the deck to see the Northern Lights the incomprehensible amount of stars and earily dancing green-blue lights seemed otherworldly as I lost myself in their all encompassing, timeless, placeless infinity. The first thing I saw out my window this morning was the boundless stretch of tundra, green brown grass stretching out into the horizon as far as I can see.  As soon as we stepped outside, ready for our first full day in the field, I was engulfed by the immensity of the sky, which somehow reached out beyond even the unending tundra. Yet again, as we sat silently on rocks by the shore of the Hudson Bay the limitless stretch of rolling blue waves meeting the explosive sky, tie-dyed in yellow, blue, red, orange and purple, the enormousness of the world overwhelmed me. 

As I take in all of these incredible landscapes, I find myself unable to comprehend the whole shebang at one time.  There is simply too much to take in.  I don't have room in my head for this overflow of amazing sounds, smells, and sights.  I stand and just experience the vastness. 

However, after standing and experiencing for a little longer, I realize that there are new levels of neverendingness that I hadn't dreamed of five minutes earlier.  Last night under the huge night sky, I noticed the amazing amount of color and life in just one small section of the Northern Lights.  Today in the bog that we collected data in I discovered the tremendous amount of diversity and complexity of the ground, which from far away just looks green and brown.  The longer I look the bigger it all gets and the more incomprehensible. 

Part of me welcomes this feeling of incomprehensibility.  In it, I have been able to appreciate the amazing beauty of this place and feel like I have room to let my own thoughts go.  However, I also feel the need to unpack this place, to organize it and understand it, cutting it into bite sized pieces that won't overwhelm my senses.  After our first day of field work, I've realized that science is really a tool to help us to do this. By learning the names of lichen and shurb species, I am able to wrap my head around the seemingly endless amount of plants covering even a small patch of ground. By learning about permafrost, glaciers, and how this land was formed, I can better understand why this land is so different from anywhere I've ever been.  This understanding helps me to process and better connect with the vastness of this place. 

As I dive into the science, I find a whole new kind of vastness waiting for me: endless amounts of scientific plant names to learn, animals to recognize, soil samples to take, active layers to measure, and a neverending stream of questions to answer. 

When I decided to come on this trip, I expected to learn a ton of really cool science, see some beautiful sights and meet some awesome people.  However, I never could have imagined the amazing new understanding of myself and the world I am a part of that I am gaining simply from being a part of the vastness.

August 2 (Amani Lawson)

Well, we got off the train in Churchill at around 10:30 a.m, then got on a bus to go straight to the Churchill Northern Studies Center.  The weather was perfect!  The sun was out and there was a breeze so the mosquitoes didn't bite us. The ride to the CNSC was amazing. We saw the Ithica, a grounded ship in the Hudson Bay, and also saw a few beluga whales. We got inside the CNSC and had a safety briefing on polar bears and firearms.  After that we had a quick lunch and I got to have some fun with a GPS.

I took us in a huge circle but we got to our destination.  There we observed a small fen (marshy area) then turned around and went to Ramsey Lake.  There we did some test quadrats (a square meter) in a bog. Everyone had to figure out the cover in each quadrat, whether it be one big tree or many different shrubs and herbs.  After that we had dinner.  Dinner was awesome!  I wasn't expecting so many options, and especially not pumpkin pie.  During dinner we slowly started to pack our lunches for the next day.  The batch of hundreds of cookies was gone instantly.

After everyone had packed their lunches and dinner was cleaned up we went to find our fuel barrels, for the helicopter, to mark them for our trip to Nester 1.  I got to spray paint them. While we were doing this a small fox appeared. He was so cute! He followed us where ever we went.  That's when we went to the old CNSC to get our gear that we had left.  We got to see a spot where a bear had punched through a wall to get at a box of bacon.  We got our probes and scales and hip-waiters and brought them back to our rooms to be distributed out in the morning. We then went up to the seminar room and learned everything about caribous.  We learned that the can be any color from white to dark brown or grey, and that they migrate anywhere from a few hundred miles to thousands of miles.  During the meeting we were all anxious to go because the sun was setting and every night we go on a sunset safari. By the time we left the sun had set, but the sky was still a beautiful purpley-reddish-orange.

We all crammed into a bus and stuck our cameras out the windows to catch the sun before it was gone.  While we were on the safari we stopped to read a sign that said, "if you see any suspicious bomb like material, don't touch it."  This wasn't a surprise because this area was previously used for military bomb testing. We got to the majestic Arctic Ocean, got out, and took our last few pictures of the sun.  We then walked right up to the shore to skip rocks and look at all the cool animals in the water.  We also got to see how fast the tide went out.  It was quite fast.  Before we left we had a quick 3 minutes of silence to listen to the water and the wind.  Then we got in the van and all headed back to the study center. I'm going to stop this short, the Aurora Borealis are showing (The Northern Lights)! :)))))))))))) 

 

Lots of mosquitoes

Make sure to have your butt lube

The full moon is bright

 

 

August 1 (Maya Gillett):

Today’s fun began at the wonderful hour of 4:30, when everyone met in the lobby of our hotel to divide among three cars for the long (9 hour) drive to Thompson. Following a quick stop at Tim Horton’s, there was a little bit of eating and quite a bit of napping for the next several hours. Although I cannot speak for other cars, we spent our wakeful hours sharing music, discussing our eerily similar French curricula, reading, and studying lichen. It was a long but entirely pleasant drive, and shortly before arriving in Thompson we stopped to view Pisew Falls and Renee showed off her already-impressive lichen knowledge.

We then continued on to the train station, loaded our bags onto the train that would be taking us to Churchill, and then headed out for some lunch before the train took off.

So far the ride has been beautiful, although I’ve been repeatedly struck all day long by the lack of any kind of hills or mountains. Right now we are passing through a “drunken forest,” a phenomenon that occurs when trees grow in discontinuous permafrost areas. The freezing and thawing of the ground causes the trees to bend and grow in different directions, so that they seem to lurch and twist in an intoxicated manner.

For me, this day has been about getting to know all these new people better, and continuing to discover how much I share with people I have never met before. It took a leap of faith for me to commit to coming on this trip with a group of people I had never met, and yet I believed that the people who would sign up for this trip would somehow be a self-selecting, awesome group of people. I’m so glad to say that they are. Thank you to everyone for giving us such a warm welcome.

 As we draw closer to Churchill, the anticipation is building. We’re off on some grand adventure, and the excitement is palpable. To close, here is this evening’s haiku, composed moments ago by Megan and Adam. It captures this moment perfectly.

 

Bright summer evening

As we bounce across the rails

Making our way north

 

July 31st (Megan Philippi):

Sitting here at the desk in my hotel room, with the sound of Canadian Olympic swimming announcers in the background, I think back on the day and marvel at the fact that it was truly just one day. So much has happened since 3:50 AM.  It’s hard to believe it was just this morning that I nearly bounced out of bed, propelled by what is possibly the only thing that could make me eager to get up at that hour: the promise of the Arctic Trip.

The Baltimore contingent of our group arrived at the Harrisburg airport in two vans. Sleepy but excited, we greeted each other, distributed snacks, and set off on our adventure. Our flights were uneventful. Because of the time zone change, we had an hour longer than we’d realized in between flights. This meant that our luggage made it to Winnipeg with us.

At the airport in Winnipeg, Dorothy and Kat welcomed us with donuts and Twizzlers, not to mention hugs and big smiles. We crammed our suitcases and then ourselves into two vans and drove to the Victoria Inn. After settling into our rooms we set off for the pool. It is important to note that this was not just any pool. This pool was a big deal. Why? This pool had dinosaurs. Overlooked by a pterodactyl, we headed for the giant water slide and began exploring creative ways of riding down it. While we were at the pool, we were joined by three more members of our group: Sam and Maya (seniors at the Northwest School in Seattle) and their teacher Renee.

We gathered for lunch and icebreakers in one of the hotel rooms. Each of us answered a serious question written by Dorothy (for example, “What do you hope to bring to the trip?”) and a light question asked by anyone who felt like it (for example, “Which is your favorite kitchen utensil, and why?”).

The next part of our journey provided opportunity for both group bonding and practicing the important Arctic Trip skill of flexibility. We climbed back into the vans and set off to visit Jim. To make a long story short, what would have been a quick drive ended up giving us enough time to discuss the definition of the word “lost,” the meaning of “scenic route,” and to compare Seattle to Baltimore, Park School to the Northwest School, and, less predictably, Scotland to Vietnam. Though we were a little squished in the back seat, I’m really glad we had this time to get to know each other. At Jim’s house we met his son Tim (and Tim’s snake Tex) and hung out on the front porch eating pizza. As I swatted mosquitoes and talked, I realized how much closer we had all gotten in a matter of hours. At the end of a day filled with excitement for the two weeks ahead of us, this is what made me most excited of all.

 

July 30th (Christopher Mergen):

I am horrible at beginnings.  Getting up in the morning is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, although it is nothing compared to the treacherous task of starting my homework.  Starting a piece of writing is next to impossible; I freeze up, staring at the blinking cursor in the middle of a foreboding white void, writing six words and erasing five of them.  (This blog post is no exception, of course.)  I make false starts with other things too, great pyrrhic victories in a perpetual battle with my willpower. 

Preparing for this trip was no different.  I lay on the floor of my room, surrounded by haphazard piles of pants, shirts, bug netting, fleece jackets and rain gear, most of which had just been emptied from another suitcase three days ago.  I folded shirts.  I folded them again, realizing that I had made them too bulky.  I moved a pile of socks from one corner of my room to another.  I wrote my name on the toe of each one with a Sharpie, smoothing out the fabric so the writing would be clear.  I packed, and repacked, and repacked.  The trip was mere hours away, but at that point, it felt more like years.

Perhaps it had something to do with the minor state of panic that I was in.  Having just returned from another trip three days ago, I felt like my body and my mind had been run through a juicer.  This year’s trip came crashing out of nowhere, and I was caught unprepared.  I spent a good portion of my morning writing emails that I should have written weeks ago to our partner students at The Northwest School in Seattle and to Kathryn Whitney, our chaperone/Arctic alumnus/photographer-in-residence, trying to clear up any last minute issues that might have come up.  I got a phone call from Julie, who told me that Global Explorers had none of my online forms and wouldn’t allow me to go on the trip if I didn’t get my mother to fill them out immediately.  At one point, between searching for a lab supply store in Winnipeg and rushing to finish the data entry forms for the iPad and create a new database in FileMaker (all of which should have happened weeks ago), I sat in front of the TV with a pile of bread and stared blankly at Olympic volleyball, knowing I was getting myself into an anxiety trap again and wondering why I was doing it.

I hadn’t given much thought to why I wanted to return to Churchill, until our final potluck at Julie’s house, when, as an opener to the meeting, she asked us to share one thing that we hoped to give to the trip and one thing that we hoped to take away.  I thought of all the obvious things I wanted to remember: the magic of the train ride, the first sight of whales on the Hudson Bay, or the excitement of our stay at Nester One.  The more I thought, though, the more I didn’t know quite what I was looking for.  Why was I going back to the Arctic?  All the things I remembered were wonderful, but each experience didn’t feel like enough reason to justify the entire trip; taken together, they were wonderful, but something was still missing.

Then, as I began to answer the question for the group, I remembered why.  Last year, I had written in my last blog post that getting onto the train in Churchill was the last time I would see the Arctic, with its ever-changing landscape and vast, open sky for the first time.  I was able to approach things with an open mind, something that is so hard to do back in Baltimore with all the potholes of familiarities around me.  I remembered feeling overwhelmed by awe – a certain acute wondering – when I would stand on the tundra and slowly turn my head from side to side, trying to understand how the landscape fit together, and how I fit into it, and how we fit into the rest of the whirling blue home of ours.

I don’t want to lose that awe.  I know I’ll never be able to see the Hudson Bay again for the first time, but I’m certainly going to try.  In returning, there is a danger of resting on my laurels, and dwelling on my prior experiences.  If I were to allow that to happen, I would forfeit everything that made the trip so remarkable the first time, for it would never quite fulfill my expectations. Half of the knowledge that the region holds would be lost to me, because I would already “know where to look.”  I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t reproduce an incredible experience in exactly the same way, even if you have all of the original ingredients.   I can’t make last year’s trip happen again, but I can approach this trip with the same wonder I felt last year, and I know it will be far better than I can possibly imagine.

This is why beginnings are so important, and intimidating.  In a way, everything rests on them.  It is why I am so nervous and excited about this one, because I know if I can do it right – win just this one battle with my willpower, and convince myself to treat a large part of this journey as a blank slate – I can approach the Arctic again, and listen, unfettered, to its many swirling, tangled songs.