Life in the High Arctic

Words by Isla Myers-Smith, Photos by Jeff Kerby

Summertime at Alexandra Fjord. 78 degrees north. The sun shines all day long.

Around midnight, you can experience the phenomenon of a double sun where the sun reflects off the still waters of the Fjord. One evening, we even had a quadruple sun with sun dogs – the mirrored sunlight in the air – also reflecting off the waters.

Like everywhere in the Arctic, midnight is the most magical time. But to fill you in on life in the High Arctic, here is our routine as the sun rotates around us in the 24-hour light of an Arctic summer’s day.

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The mornings are often the coldest time. Temperatures are chilly, fluctuating between zero and 12 degrees. Never go out without your down jacket packed and your hat to hand. The ocean is choked with sea ice and each time the tides rise and fall the ice bergs rotate, melt, and crack to create brand new ice sculptures along the shore. Glaciers flow into the Fjord valleys, with the local Twin Glacier slowly retreating at around five metres a year back up to the permanent ice fields. Ice surrounds you even at the end of July – this is the High Arctic after all.

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The daily routine keeps us to schedule (unlike in the Western Arctic where we move to “Herschel Time”) with morning (7:30 am) and evening (7:00 pm) “sched.” – a radio communication for all of the remote camps with the logistics coordinators at the Polar Continental Shelf Programme Headquarters in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

“Hello 26, this is Alexandra Fjord, we hear you 5 by 5, all is well and we have no traffic”.

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Breakfast times are a chance to catch up with the research crew, analyze our last night’s dreams with the “Dream book” or learn an Inuktitut phrase such as ‘would you like some coffee’? ᑳᐱᑐᕈᒪᕖᑦ? It is also a chance to chat about field research progress and to plan the days and the science with the team. After breakfast and packing it is out to the field – Cassiope, Dryas, Willow, Sax Opp, Fert, or far away Dome are the field sites that one could be heading off to. Or maybe it is a hike farther afield to the glacier or up the fjord valley hill-slopes.

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When you are on Team Drone, the packing takes a bit longer and the backpacks are a fair bit heavier with drones, sensors, calibration panels, many batteries, water bottles… and of course lunch! But once you get out there (which often doesn’t take long), and the weather is good, then it’s drones in the air. Drones can be a bit challenging in the High Arctic, only a few hundred km from the magnetic North pole, but more on that in another blog post. We were pretty surprised by how well the data collection went given the potential pitfalls of drone work in this far north, from GPS to weather challenges. All and all it was an incredibly productive trip with over 600 GB of drone data collected!

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By the middle of the day, you are getting hungry. Time to eat your sandwich and share your daily chocolate bar – will it be a Mars Bar, Twix, Kit Kat or Coffee Crisp? The views are always stunning whichever way you look as you lunch and the skies are always changing. This summer we had a celestial encounter with a massive fireball exploding over the fjord – to find out more check out Jeff’s account of the meteor (in prep!). And if you read the media reports they say that “nobody saw it”, but we did or some of us did!!!

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Once the fieldwork is done and the sun is moving lower in the sky and towards the North it is time to pack up the drone gear and head back to camp. On the way back to our Arctic home of white-painted wooden RCMP buildings you might chance to see an Arctic hare or our fjord companion the Arctic fox. When you get back to camp you can drop the bags, enjoy the views out across the water and head inside to start some metadata recording and to back up all the drone imagery as the dinner preparations progress.

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After sched., a leisurely dinner, dishes and once the data are all backed up it could be time for an epic game of Boggle where, if you can’t find actual words, feel free to write down potential new ones like:

Bant (noun) – One unit of banter. e.g., “I met Isla out on the tundra and we had a quick bant before getting back to work”.

Murl (verb) – To spit out one’s tooth paste, but in such a way as there is no spitting involved. Somewhat similar to hurling up your tooth paste, but less active. “We gathered around the slop pit to murl before heading to bed.” (Jeff here: Turns out Murl IS a word. We were close to the correct definition. I want my points!)

Besides, the polar bear ate sections L to M of the dictionary, so if your word starts with any of those letters, no one can prove that your word isn’t real!

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After murling, enjoying the midnight rays of the sun glancing off the water, and getting ready for bed, the last person has to bar the door with the long plank. Up at Alex Fjord, we are staying in polar bear country and at all times one needs to be aware that we could get a visit from the year-round, white and fluffy inhabitants of this part of the Arctic. The RCMP buildings get annual winter visits from the local bear who has left his nose and paw prints on the windows and walls.

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The end of the day is closing your eyes with the golden light washing over you from the windows, wishing you could stay up longer, but knowing that 7:30am sched. is just a few short hours away.

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From the ground to the sky: fieldwork in Kluane

Roaming the common garden

Over the last five years, the common garden in Kluane has allowed us to collect data on the growth of different willow species from across Canada. This experiment enables us to better understand how plants grow in a warmer climate. Over the start of this summer, which has been particularly hot in Kluane, we have continued smothering our plants with love by fertilizing and watering them so they would allow us to take all sorts of measurements on them – including phenology, new growth, leaf length and canopy height.

At the moment, one Salix richardsonii individual is the tallest plant in the garden at 156 cm, which makes it the king or queen of the (Arctic) jungle! We will be back in August though so there is still time for other plants to have a go at dethroning it. A close-up view of our willows is spectacular, but I have to say that looking up every once in a while from callipers and measuring tapes and seeing the majestic mountains surrounding Kluane lake does not get old – this is truly is a magical place.

By Mariana

Climbing up mountains

Behind our experiment at the shores of Kluane Lake rise the mountains that gives us a chance to step, in just a few hours, into the tundra. Aside from the abundance of shrubs, grasses and beautiful alpine flowers that are our primary attraction to these climes, we have also over the last few years been helping Anna Hargreaves to examine patterns of herbivory. Laying out seeds and cages, we keep an eye out for critters and flutters, picking and scratching, and most often of all, the scraping of teeth and piles of poo that signify a small mammal has found our caches. This year we have added fake caterpillars to expand the repertoire of munching mementos. All went well with putting out the seeds, though it turned out the fake caterpillars were hard to work with in the summer heat! But we managed. Either way, the birds didn’t seem overly keen – only one, maybe three, caterpillars got pecked. Whatever the task, it hardly matters once atop the mountains: the views are reliably beautiful!

To find out more:

Hargreaves, A., Suarez, E., Mehltreter, K., Myers-Smith, I., Vanderplank, S.E., Slinn, H.L., Vargas-Rodriguez, Y.L., Haeussler, S., David, S., Munoz, J. and Almazan-Nunoz, R.C., 2018. Seed predation increases from the Arctic to the Equator and from high to low elevations. bioRxiv, p.304634.

By Gergana (and Haydn)

Flying drones

Drones! We still have them, none have broken yet. The main task of our test flights while in Kluane was adding the Sequoia multi-spec sensor to the DJI Phantom 4 Pro (editor’s note: for non-drone folks I think that means ‘added a cool camera to a mini helicopter’). The flights were a success with slight glitches that have been corrected by now. The only casualty during our flight operations were my ankles which were not properly protected from the mosquitoes during the first flight at dusk. If anything it was a proper introduction to the bugs that we’ll face while on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island. Once all flights were completed, we carried five gallon buckets from the lake to water the community garden through herds of black flies.

Yes, I was sore the next morning.

By Noah

Exploring – from the ground to the sky!

In between measuring leaves, counting seeds and flying drones, we also got to explore the icefields near Kluane – a magical experience! Our favourites included the super high mountains, the rich turquoise colour of the little pools among the ice, and just the all around grandeur of the place. Majestical, as the movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople would put it.

We continued the Team Shrub tradition of a barefoot icefield run – refreshingly brisque! It was quite the contrast to feel the heat of the sun and the chill of the ice at the same time.

We are now off to Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island for the next, longer stretch of our field season! In less than two hours, us and many boxes are scheduled to depart for Qikiqtaruk. Oh the adventure that lies ahead…we can’t wait!

By Gergana, Mariana and Noah