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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One day, 12 795 words: The Team Shrub Writing Retreat

12 795 words in one day! That is a dissertation right there pretty much. And members of Team Shrub wrote those words over a mere four hours of structured writing time. How did we do it? To find out more read on…

We have long loved the idea of a writing retreat – setting aside time to just write. No distractions, no emails, even no coding, just pure writing. It always feels hard to focus just on writing – little urgent tasks creep in and next thing you know, the day is over and that Word document is still blank. Writing retreats are a fun combination of peer pressure and peer support. Nothing like the sound of many people writing to make you realise that you really should be writing, too! We all have things we could be writing right now – a manuscript, an assignment, a thesis chapter, a blog post (a great distraction from what I really should be writing right now, but hey, this is still writing…). It’s great when we have a special occasion when all those things do get written – the Team Shrub writing retreat!

In November, Isla organised a writing retreat, right here in Edinburgh, so a convenient location for all of us. It was quite the fancy setting, with a particularly inspirational ceiling in our writing room!

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The fancy setting of our writing retreat!

We started off the morning by laying out what we would like to achieve during the day and in the specific one hour writing sessions ahead of us. We shared our writing goals, Isla told us a bit about how writing retreats work, and with an alarm set off to ring in an hour’s time, we began writing! The break between the writing sessions gave us the chance to refuel with tea and coffee and chat about how our writing is going. And then another one hour of solid writing followed.

Next, we moved onto a delicious lunch in a nearby cafe, followed by a casual work session with even more delicious lattes, flat whites, mochas and such! Our cafe visit gave us the chance to chat about our writing projects, how they are progressing, and ponder over any questions we might have. We liked the combination of the more strict writing sessions in the writing room with the casual cafe session – the best of both worlds!

We also pondered what kind of writers we are and what our strategies for success at the writing retreat were. Do you edit as you write? Do you write everything that comes to mind and edit later? These questions, and many more, are covered in Stephen Heard’s great book “The Scientists’s Guide to Writing”. I particularly like the chapter on writing behaviour. I over-analyse to a fault, so if I give in to the temptation to really discuss or write about writing behaviour and writing strategies, I’d never write anything else! I may or may not be wondering whether there is a test online about writing personalities, but alas, I shall be strong and focus on this.

We wrapped our writing retreat feeling very accomplished. So how did we do it? Here are a few of the elements that came together to bring our writing successes, though of course, everyone is different and everyone writes in a different way.

  1. Make the time. Most of us could have been doing different things that Friday, some of which important, but with writing, often one really has to make the time to make it happen, which sometimes involves some tough decisions and prioritising writing over all the other tasks on our to do lists.
  2. Set specific goals. It’s hard to asses progress if you are not quite sure what you are aiming for, so being specific always helps. How many words would you like to write, or are there particular sections of your writing project that you would like to finish before the day wraps up?
  3. Share your goals. Here comes the peer pressure and support again. Sharing your goals makes them more real, which can motivate you to really achieve them, and knowing that someone else is watching and knows what you are meant to achieve, can provide a dose of healthy pressure to write.
  4. Track progress and adjust your goals as you go. At our writing retreat, we had one hour writing sessions, followed by a break where we could reflect on how we are progressing with our goals. Things don’t always go to plan, some things are easier, others harder than anticipated, and that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. On the contrary, being able to accurately asses your progress and adjust your goals is a great skill to hone.
  5. Just write. We had a few rules for our writing retreat, which I think helped us all focus more on just writing. We had to do our reading and note taking in advance, so that during the writing retreat, we focused on just writing.
  6. No internet, no phones. Sometimes writing retreats are purposefully in places with no internet, so that you don’t get stuck answering emails and constantly having to restart your writing process. In our case, we were right in Edinburgh, so the internet was there, so it was up to us to decide whether or not we turn it off. But the peer pressure was there to not check one’s phones during the writing blocks.
  7. Save, back up. Make sure you save often and that your work is backed up – it would be a shame for all that writing to go to waste! Isla had a complete computer melt down in one writing session with her reference software, but she managed to get things back on track and rewrite that paragraph that got deleted!
  8. Reward yourself. Writing retreats are intense and it’s always nice to have a little reward at the end. The satisfaction of having done something you’ve been postponing for ages, a nice hot drink, a delicious meal with the jolly company of your lab mates.
  9. Follow up on your writing projects. Especially if you are the kind of writer that leaves a lot highlighted text saying things like “insert reference, add link, double-check this is true”. Setting aside a full day or more to pure writing is great and it can be really efficient, but it’s also important to remember your writing projects and to try making the time to work on them in between all our other daily tasks.

We all thought the writing retreat was great, we wrote a lot, and we’ve said we should have writing retreats more often, so here’s to a happy and productive 2018 and more writing!

By Gergana