Barren, desolate, magical, rugged, and peaceful: 9 days of labour and laughs in the tundra

This week Dispatches from the field are very excited to welcome a guest post co-written by a professor’s wife and 14 year old son when they went to the tundra to help with fieldwork. It is very rare that we have someone under the age of 20 contributing to our blog! For more about Paul, Anne, and their son Louis, check out the end of this post!

Finally, this is it!  After all the preparations, Louis and I are now on our first ever float plane flight heading 300 kilometers north of Yellowknife to the remote low Arctic tundra station at Daring Lake.

We are being flown in by a pair of bush pilots on a plane loaded with lots of wood, screws, nails, and rolls of plastic for one of Paul’s long-term experiments.

Louis: The plane’s engines rise to a dizzying roar so I put my headphones on, which only partly subdue the noise. We start off with a lurch and then float out to the “runway” – a long section of slightly wavy lake. The pilot then heads us into the wind, facing towards the shore no more than 200 meters away. After some last checks, he pushes the throttle to max and we’re off bouncing over the waves until we lift up completely, with plenty of space between us and the shore.

The Tundra Ecosystem Research Station at Daring Lake has been in operation since 1996, when it was opened by the Northwest Territories government for research and environmental monitoring. Government scientists, university professors and their students come up here to do field work.

Views of the tundra.

We fly for 75 minutes across the treeline and over a seemingly uninhabited land of lakes, rivers and rocky barren land, towards Daring Lake in the land of the indigenous Dene people.

The camp consists of 10 all-season large tents. Each has a lovely white and orange cover, and sits up on wooden supports. A boardwalk connects one tent to the next. The flags flying represent the Tli-Cho Dene territory, NWT, and Canada.  It is very obvious that a lot of care has gone into developing this camp.

many people on the dock to unload items.

Unloading the float plane.

After unloading our stuff and then reloading the plane with all the waste from camp (empty fuel tanks, trash, etc.) the plane is ready for take-off. Once it is up and away, leaving behind a spray of water that washes our faces, we are all alone – just 8 of us on this desolate landscape, kept secure from the local wildlife by an electrified bear fence.

Louis: We trudge across the tundra to a natural cut in the esker through which a river flows. I cast off from the edge, when soon one line gets tugged, and then another, and then one of the fishermen asks me if I want to reel the fish in… and for the next minute it’s fish versus my forearm. At last, the fish flops out from the water; the fisherman gives me a smile while removing the hook, and proceeds to whack the base of the fish’s skull until it is looking at me with dead eyes.  

The soft “beds” of the tundra.

Our day’s work starts….. Paul takes us on a walk to see his greenhouse experiment in a nearby valley. Walking across the tundra is not like any walking I have ever done before. It is very strenuous, with lots of ups and downs, full of water holes and low shrubs so you become unsure of where your foot is going to land next. You can get a wet foot very easily if you do not judge a tussock carefully. But lying down on the mat of plants feels like sinking into a nice soft mattress. The bog cotton blows in the wind, the ground is full of low vegetation, rich in colour, and laden with blueberries and cranberries.

Louis holds the wood while Anne uses the power drill.

Louis and Anne work hard to put together sturdy greenhouses.

Louis: The high-pitched whine beside my ear tells me that the powerdrill is working and the screw is piercing the wood, making the greenhouse frame stronger. The end goal is to make the greenhouses last another 13 years… but they look like they will last until the next ice age. These greenhouses are supposed to show the likely effects of climate change on plant growth by accelerating the process and then recording the results. For me, it was all about the challenge of fortifying the greenhouses.

It’s grizzly bear country and we have to carry shortwave radios, pepper spray and bear bangers at all times. There are resident ground squirrels, lemmings and voles. They run around the camp keeping us company.

At 2.30 am we get up to see the northern lights – lovely green hues swirling 100-300 kilometers above us.

Louis and Anne putting in some hard work!

After a long day in the field, we head home to camp, tummies empty. The kitchen is the hub; we cook and eat together. It provides a unique setting to develop a real sense of community and to share ideas and experiences. We will have lasting memories of this safe haven, a home away from home.  As the Sami people of the Swedish tundra used to say: “My home is where my heart is, and it travels with me wherever I go”.

Louis, Anne, and Paul

Louis Grogan: 14 year old teenager. He loves the outdoors and having fun on his bike. He was very disappointed he could not bring up his bike to the field station and ride around in the tundra.  This is Louis’ first time to visit any of Paul’s field sites. Louis loves to use a power drill and is always very excited to build with wood. At this time in his life he has shown no interest in science.

Anne Keegan: Registered Nurse, wife of Paul and mom of Louis. She has travelled with Paul to several of his field sites in the Arctic, and this was her first visit to Daring Lake.

Paul Grogan: Professor of Plant and Ecosystem Ecology, Queen’s University, Kingston. Paul has been doing research at Daring lake, NWT for the past 13 years. His students typically spend 10 to 12 weeks at the site in the summer working on their experiments.

Family in the Field

Fieldwork often takes you away from home – whether it is 1 hour away for a day trip or across the country. As with your actual family, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly memories with members of your field team. Regardless of the circumstances, your field team becomes your family in the field.

They keep you company

Fieldwork can get pretty lonely, especially if you are in a remote location. At first this sounds quite appealing: you can just listen to the birds chirping and the waves crashing against the rocks without any interruption. However, it is always nice to share the experiences with someone. Even what might seem like the worst moment in the field at the time can always be laughed about later on with your field team.

field team in Mexico

Team “BioCaliente” – Field team in the Yucatan, Mexico

Sometimes you look up to them

As Sarah tells it: Although I only spent about 3 weeks in the field with Ed*, he became like a grandfather to me. He had so much experience with fieldwork and so much wisdom. At the beginning, it took all of my strength to not just stare in awe listening to the many stories he shared. Not only did he teach me all of the skills I needed to know for the fieldwork ahead, he also shared simple life hacks. For example, he taught me the proper way to wash dishes – cutlery first (the item that goes directly in your mouth), then glasses (also touches the outside of your mouth), and finally the plates. He was able to push me to my limits but did not let me fall past them. He literally caught me at the bottom of a hill that I was sliding down! Although our lives are different at home, we were able to connect in the field and share our love of conservation and biology.

But sometimes you can’t get away from them

I think of the relationship with members of field teams like a relationship

Sarah with her best field mate

Sarah with her best field mate (and bff) experiencing the good, the bad, and the ugly (she knows what I mean!).

with a sibling – you enjoy each other’s company but spending every waking moment together can result in getting on each other’s nerves. You know each other’s schedule even down to the details you don’t necessarily want to know about! However, you don’t really have a choice. You have to have at least two people in the field for safety purposes. On the plus side, two sets of eyes are always better than one and they are often at your side to save you when you start to go a little crazy worrying about where that bird may be hiding, or maybe where you last put your water bottle.

Despite knowing every detail, they still support you

amanda_fieldwork-clothesAs Amanda tells it: One of the best things about having a field family is that you get really close really fast. You learn interesting facts about each other and because you spend so much time together day after day, you also learn about each other’s personal lives (past and present) and their goals for the future. Whether it was support or advice on a new relationship, talking about where we wanted to be in ten years, or chatting about family problems, my field family has remained one of my biggest support systems throughout graduate school. In fact, to date, I still keep in close contact with almost all of my field family and we continue to support one another as our stories continue to develop.

 

Thank you to our followers for keeping us company as we continue to share dispatches from the field from around the world!Amanda, Sarah and Catherine at the QUBS open house with their poster board

 

*name changed for the purpose of this story