Reflections from my first polar bear field season

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Michelle Viengkone, a former M.Sc. student (and one of Sarah’s field companions in Mexico), to tell us about her field season working with polar bears. Check out her biography at the end of the post!

When I took my first trip up north to Canada’s Arctic to participate in a non-invasive sample survey of polar bears, I was 21 years old. Fast-forward 5 years and it still gives me goose bumps thinking about the experience: from the people, to the sights, to the cold fresh air. It is a pleasure to be sharing this experience via Dispatches From The Field in a guest blog. I would also like to acknowledge that the learning moments that I describe here are a product of an opportunity made possible by De Groot/Boag lab, Queen’s University, and Northern Scientific Training Program.

Learning moment #1: Nothing prepares you for being in the Arctic

Of course I tried to prepare: I spoke to others who had done fieldwork in the Arctic and to those who lived there before. Their advice and stories were invaluable and added to my excitement to be in the serene beauty of the North and so close to a majestic predator. I wanted to make sure I would have everything I might need, so I went all out and bought all the gear I could think of! From winter boots, an $800 jacket, and base layer items to hunting knives, paracord, bear bangers and an assortment of hand/foot warmers: I had it all, or so I thought. Imagine my surprise when I arrived to Gjoa Haven and I was cold! Nothing prepares you for that chill. My new Sorel winter boots with 3 layers of socks underneath didn’t stand up to traveling by sled, which entailed sitting exposed to the elements on top of supplies and equipment and being pulled kilometer after kilometer by the snowmobile. By the time we arrived at the hut after our first day, I no longer felt my toes and the other members of the team had to help me to take off my boots. After hanging my felt liners and boots to dry, it took dry socks and bit of time to feel the sensation again in my toes. We figured that my boots were actually frozen solid at the toes from the moisture, so “Buh bye boots, hello extra Kamiiks (Inuit hide boots)!”

Warm feet make for a comfortable ride on the sled.

Warm feet make for a comfortable ride on the sled.

Learning moment #2: Feeling alone and being alone are two different things in the Arctic.

After a few delays, the majority of our field team including myself, the PhD candidate, two European researchers and two Inuit guides set out from Gjoa Haven to our field hut. It was glorious: I was bundled with ski goggles in place; mitten-covered hands grasping onto the ropes wrapped around our equipment and supplies of our sled. The scenery, the pull of the snowmobile ahead, and the stillness of the surroundings were all wonderful. The ability of the Inuit guides to navigate the landscape amazed me; however as the sun went down and we realized that we were not even halfway to the field hut, we realized we had to make camp. We made it to a small fishing cabin, and we dug our glorified wooden box out of the snow while the guides pitched a tent outside, got a stove going and were warming up. Once in the fishing hut, the four of us researchers laid in there like sardines, trying our best to keep the door closed from the wind and get some much-needed rest. I have to admit that first night was a bit scary: you hear everything from the howling wind to every little crunch in the snow. Eventually I fell asleep, wedged between two new companions. What felt like moments later, we woke to the sound of thumping -like full body contact on the side of the cabin. We figured it wasn’t a polar bear (it didn’t seem heavy enough) but thought it may be a wolf. Panicked and without weapon to drive the culprit away, we began to scream for the guides and bang pots and pans to scare “it” off. All four of us were barricading the door and listening between the thumps when we heard footsteps rounding the corner coming towards us, and then a knock. It was the guide! He had been thumping against the cabin walls trying to reach a rope draped on the roof! Our fears subsided and we began our day with an oatmeal breakfast. That relief was jarred by the reality of being in the wilderness as we spotted fresh wolf tracks, droppings, and urine markings around our site.

Looking for fresh tracks.

In order to set up traps, we wanted to make sure polar bears were using the area. Guides identified fresh tracks for potential hair traps.

Learning moment #3: Emotions can run hot and cold when in the field – even in the Arctic!

The field is a tricky working environment because you work and live together all day, every day. Back in the city, you can leave work behind and go home; in the Arctic, regrouping and having alone time are complicated by the remoteness, the undeveloped field stations, and the dangers of straying too far from camp. Everyone has a different way of finding that solitude in the midst of a research team: I found my refuge hanging onto the sled and letting the landscape wash over me on the long sled rides between field sites where we set up hair traps. The long days and hard work could take a lot out of everyone, and that combination of physical and mental exhaustion sometimes provided fertile ground for interpersonal conflict. I learned that when emotions run high in the field, being able to take a moment for yourself while also ensuring others know where you are is key to keeping yourself safe.

Learning moment #4: The Arctic saves the best for last

Our field days were filled by traveling in search of fresh polar bear tracks, setting up hair traps and returning to them in subsequent days to collect snagged hair samples. We also kept a look out for polar bear poo, and bagged that too! On our days out we didn’t see much in terms of wildlife, aside from a seal head popping up from a breathing hole in the distance and rock ptarmigan hopping about. I was relieved to not have encountered a polar bear – seeing tracks and chipping poop into a Ziploc was enough for me. This is mostly because human-bear interactions often result in injuries to human and polar bear alike, the polar bear being shot and/or the human becoming a snack.

A used hair trap and a hair snag.

Polar bears are naturally curious, let alone destructive. Here’s a used hair trap and the hair snag.

Sampling polar bear poop.

Opportunistic sampling of polar bear poop was a part of the project, we bagged and labeled sample with GPS coordinates.

For some, the expectation was to see the white bear, but it did not look promising as we woke to our last day before us. As with the days before, getting breakfast going was the priority – for oatmeal you need boiling water, so that’s where a pot full of snow comes in. The PhD student went to fetch the snow but upon opening the door to the cabin she was greeted by the stunned faces of Tundra wolves! She turned around and closed the door calmly, but when pressed about where the snow was she softly told us about her encounter. Later on, after giving the wolves time to move along, she retrieved the snow and got breakfast going. I got ready and waited my turn to use the latrine that morning, checking to see when it was my turn. On one of those checks I suddenly lost the urge to pee as one of the crewmembers spotted a teenage male polar bear just down the hill from us, a mere 200m away. The bear’s presence energized everyone. Soon enough the Inuit guides hopped on their snowmobiles and tried to drive the curious bear away. Once the bear was sufficiently tired, the chase was over and he went on his way disappearing into the whiteness. We decided to check out the area of the chase and we found flecks of blood in the tracks, likely from cracked footpads. We took a sample just in case!

It was quite the introduction to the Arctic and I’m thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of the research project. Our work would not have been possible without the support of the community. There’s no place quite like the Arctic, I hope we can strive to keep it that way.

Little rock ptarmigan near the field hut.

Little rock ptarmigan near the field hut.

Originally from Ontario, Michelle studied at Queen’s University for her Bachelor of Science during which she became involved in a non-invasive study of polar bears in the M’Clintock Michelle ViengkoneChannel and Gulf of Boothia. Having developed laboratory and field skills, she opted to take a gap year before pursuing graduate studies. Through marine mammal research internships, volunteering on research vessels and traveling to New Zealand, Edmonton was to be her home for 2-3 years in pursuit of  a Master’s degree. Continuing research on polar bears, she defended her thesis examining the population in Hudson Bay in the spring and currently is living in Calgary and gearing up for a season of guiding in Churchill. From Michelle: “I hope you enjoy this blog, thanks for checking it out here on Dispatches From The Field. Ciao, Michelle Viengkone”.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections from my first polar bear field season

  1. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 16/10/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  2. Pingback: Oh, the places we’ve gone and the places we’ll go | Dispatches from the Field

  3. Pingback: This land is our land | Dispatches from the Field

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