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.

Not so down time

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Dr. Kathryn Hargan, who fills us in on what field biologists do when they can’t do field biology!  For more about Dr. Hargan, see her bio at the end of this post.

For those of you not acquainted with northern field work, weather will dictate your field season, no matter your discipline. If there is too much fog, there is a real danger of walking straight into a polar bear due to the low visibility. Trying to catch cliff-dwelling seabirds in the wind and fog is similarly treacherous. Wind is terrible for limnologists, yielding white caps on lakes and placing tension on the sampling rope. Often we sample in children’s inflatable boats (they’re light and portable!) and these can take on water fast. Surprisingly, paleolimnologists, like me, can work fairly well in rain. However, most ornithologists, with whom I collaborate, cannot: when the mother birds flees, the eggs get too cold too quickly in the rain. Cumulatively over my last two Arctic field seasons, I have spent more time not in the field than out collecting samples. So, I feel it only appropriate to touch on some of the non-field activities that have been so important in maintaining the sanity of our research teams as we see our full research potential and dollars dwindle day by day. What do you do if you have days, or in the cases of my field seasons, weeks, of bad weather? Here are a few insights and suggestions from my experience:

  1. Hone your photography skills and creative abilities.

How often are you placed in a beautiful setting with infinite time (i.e. days to weeks) to explore? Once you have taken the classic landscape shots, it’s time to take it to the next step. I highly recommend picking a theme for your non-field work photos, for example, rocks, ice, houses, community dogs, etc. In 2014, my field colleague, John, decided it was going to be skulls. Good thing John had a strong knowledge of this macabre subject, because at first my anatomy knowledge failed me – who knew seals and dogs can be confused? But generally speaking, in the Arctic you see lots of different sets of bones that are decaying but not necessary fully rotting, from a whole variety of charismatic animals – caribou, belugas, bowhead whales, seals, and lemmings, to name just a few. If you’re not into slightly weird pictures, you know those iconic jumping and yoga photos that everyone has? This is the time to take ‘em! The field crew jumping on a cliff, or perhaps a 6 ft man in intense hiking shoes and a rain jacket preforming some yoga on the sea ice? And then finally take lots of photos of the culprit that is preventing your field work – weather, fog, or blasted ice pack! If you return to the same field location year-after-year than you can start to line up the photos by date and see how drastically different one year can be from the next. I really find that looking back at all these photos provides me with a lot of entertainment and makes me forget the stress of missing valuable field work opportunities.

Left: photographing skulls in the Arctic. Right: ice yoga.

Fieldwork on pause?  Try taking up a hobby…like skull photography (left) or ice yoga (right).

  1. Learn something new from someone else.

I have been very fortunate to be “stuck” in the north with botanists. Just about anywhere you go, there are plants, and so really, no field season is a complete disappointment to them. When all else fails – ID plants! Can’t find your study animal – ID plants! Can’t get to that lake – ID plants! Though, I apologize if you do winter field work – ID…those clouds?!  My favourite plant from 2015 is the Hairy lousewort (Pedicularis hirsute) and actually may have become my photo theme – it’s not common and quite rewarding when found.  I recently learnt that there is a Woolly lousewort in the western Arctic, and as the name suggests it has more hair than the Hairy lousewort! One day, I will devise a plan to sample lakes in the NWT.  But seriously, if there are not botanists around, most scientists tend to harbor a pool of information on something outside of their field that should be gleaned.

Hairy Lousewort

A close-up of the aptly name hairy lousewort (right), and most rewarding lousewort patch I found in the summer of 2015 (right).

  1. Cook and bake.

    An abundance of free time can result in some interesting culinary creations...

    An abundance of free time can result in some interesting culinary creations…

While maintaining a positive outlook that you will eventually start field work, it is only logical that you gain some extra ‘energy’ stores. Of course, these stores will be burned off later when you are putting in long hours and making up for lost time. Also, when we are cold, we eat. Typically, there is no shortage of flour, sugar and butter in northern communities (ketchup is another story!), and so time can be passed whipping up biscuits, croissants, shortcake, brownies and themed cakes. If you don’t have a stove or microwave, even experimenting with new combinations of food (e.g., nutella and peanut butter pair well with many things!) is an amusing option.

  1. Enjoy the community.

I have to say that although I really enjoy the remoteness of northern field work, we don’t often get to be fully immersed in a community. This changed in 2015 when our team was in Cape Dorset for over two weeks. We got to participate in Nunavut Day –a festive town parade and games for ALL ages – including toddler races – so cute! Daily trips to the grocery stores and evening strolls around town meant that we got to know many members of the community. We made friends with a group of children that would always know where we were and even call the house to ask if we could “play out.” Our extended stay in the community also meant that we could organize an information session on our research, and demonstrate how to use our equipment – believe it or not, the sediment corer caught the eye of some.

Community information session.

Community information session.

Cape Dorset youth at sunset.

Cape Dorset youth at sunset.

So, those are my main points, but of course I have left out some of the obvious. We do watch TV and bad movies when we can’t work – 2015 is the first year I ever watched Shark Week and I probably saw every show twice. We also unknowingly used up the last of our internet watching origami instructional videos. And yes, we do spend a lot of time talking about the weather and brainstorming wild ways to make it improve. Hopefully you never have to employ any of the above, but if you do, maybe now you will have some new inspirational ideas.

Me, with a rally cap – our field season could still be victorious late in the game (and it was!).

Kat, sporting a rally cap and the belief that field season could still be victorious late in the game (and it was!).

Kathryn Hargan is currently a W. Garfield Weston postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa. She finished her PhD in 2014 in PEARL at Queen’s University looking at environmental changes in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Since then she has shifted her research focus to the eastern Hudson Bay and understanding the importance of seabirds as biovectors in the Arctic.


The rarest, quietest lessons

Arriving at a new field station is always a bit overwhelming.  As I unpacked my suitcase in my newest field home, disoriented and jet lagged, I decided that taking a nap would be the best possible use of my time.   I threw my sleeping bag on top of the nearest bunk, and climbed into it to hide for a few hours.  I was almost asleep when my attention was caught by the strangest noise: a sort of rolling honk.  Still in the sleeping bag, I sat up to stare blearily out the window – and realized that the sounds were coming from a pair of large birds just across the river. “Oh, emus – how cool,” I thought to myself happily – and promptly closed my eyes again.

I woke up hours later, still disoriented (and probably drooling).  As I looked around the rough wooden walls, it took me a moment to remember where I was.  A glance out the window revealed a vista of white:  flat, empty, snow covered land stretching to the horizon.  Right, I remembered: Alaska – specifically, a tiny field station in the western part of the state, between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

But then…how to explain the emus?


When I finished undergrad, I decided to take at least a year off from school (and real life), and spend it getting as many field jobs as I could in the coolest places I could find.  Alaska was at the top of my wish list of destinations.  I had several highly romantic (and highly unrealistic) notions about Alaska.  I pictured tall, rugged, untamed mountain ranges standing blue against the horizon, rivers crashing down waterfalls into secluded lakes, and – of course – glaciers gleaming under the never-setting sun.  I was determined to do fieldwork in this iconic wilderness.

So when I was offered a job as field assistant to a PhD student studying shorebirds in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, I jumped at the chance.  I immediately headed out to buy the Lonely Planet guide to Alaska, and eagerly leafed through looking for information about my destination.  If I was surprised (and a bit alarmed) to find that Bethel – the town closest to the field station – wasn’t even in the guide, I was even more perturbed by the general information about the YK Delta region: you won’t get there, and there’s no reason to, so don’t worry about it.

Perhaps that should have tipped me off that the situation might not be exactly what I was expecting.  But my arrival at Kanaryarmiut Field Station (pronounced Kanaugiak, for those who are curious) still came as a shock.  As the helicopter descended towards the station on a cold winter day, I stared in consternation at the flat plain below me.  If I squinted at the horizon, I could just make out the silhouette of a far off mountain range – otherwise, it was just a flat sheet of snow as far as the eye could see.

Kanaryarmiut Field Station in early spring

Kanaryarmiut Field Station in early spring

I was bitterly disappointed.  Admittedly, I had been told that the land around Kanaryarmiut was a combination of tundra and lowland meadow – but that information had somehow failed to penetrate my excited daze.    Of course, it didn’t help that I’d come there directly from a field job in Hawaii – or that when I arrived, the field station was buried under a layer of snow neck deep.

Better people than me would recognize the beauty of the tundra instantly.  But I was cold, cranky, disoriented, and very, very let down.  I wanted mountains, I wanted lakes – I wanted dramatic, iconic Alaskan scenery, not this dull and dreary landscape.  And so appreciating the quiet splendour of my new flat home took me awhile.

Where's Waldo: can you spot the biologist?

Where’s Waldo: can you spot the biologist?

Working on the tundra also posed a number of unique challenges.  For one thing, it made catching birds very difficult.  Trapping the shorebirds involved placing an open net around their nests, and waiting nearby, hidden under camouflage netting.  Once the birds had settled down to incubate, we’d pull the string that would release the net, allowing it to close over the nest.  Unfortunately, birds are not stupid, and even camouflage netting doesn’t do much to disguise the only bump on the tundra for miles – so we often had a pretty long wait.

Then, of course, there were the sloughs to contend with.  These were dotted about the landscape: patches of wet grass that looked like nothing more than puddles – until you stepped into them, and realized the hard way that they were several feet deep.  For some reason, fieldwork is not as much fun when you’re soaking wet. But slowly and steadily, the tundra won me over.  It took awhile, but eventually I realized that the combination of dry tundra and wet meadow was anything but monochromatic.   I started to notice the all-encompassing sky – which made the sunsets among the most dramatic I’d ever seen.

So much more colourful than I originally thought!

So much more colourful than I originally thought!

Sunset over the tundra

Sunset over the tundra

An American mink checks out our study site.

An American mink checks out our study site.

It also dawned on me that the treeless, open landscape allowed for incredible encounters with wild animals.  From being dived-bombed by long-tailed jaegers, to being rushed by a hissing mink protecting its booty (a headless Canada goose corpse), there was no shortage of wildlife drama.  At one of our sites, an American golden plover pair nested right by the entrance – every time we passed them, they would try to lead us away from the nest with their convincing broken wing displays.  And dotted about the tundra like landmines were willow ptarmigan nests.  These birds blend in so well with the landscape that it was almost impossible to see them until you were about to step on them – at which point, they would explode upwards with a squawk, often releasing a riot of fluffy chicks to run in all directions.

A long-tailed jaeger surveys its surroundings.

A long-tailed jaeger surveys its surroundings.

American golden plover performs its broken wing display

American golden plover performs its broken wing display

The real Waldo: a female willow ptarmigan broods her nestlings.

The real Waldo: a female willow ptarmigan broods her nestlings.

But you’re probably still wondering about those emus.

At dinner the night after my sighting, I casually mentioned seeing a noisy group of very large birds.  (Obviously I wasn’t going to tell my coworkers that I thought I’d seen emus in Alaska – there are some things that a fledgling ornithologist should never admit.)  The response was instant: I had undoubtedly seen a group of sandhill cranes.

At first, I was unimpressed.  Unlike their relatives, whooping cranes, sandhill cranes are quite common birds.  But later that evening, as I watched the pair across from my window scoop up mud and preen it into their feathers (to generate their rust-coloured breeding plumage) , I changed my mind.  It’s hard to watch cranes for any length of time without being struck by their elegance – not to mention their unique calls.

And in the end, my experience in Alaska was a bit like those sandhill cranes.  I thought I was going to see something exotic and showy.  Instead what I got was a common bird (dipped in dirt, no less) – that turned out to be so much more amazing than I had thought.  Over the course of those few months, Alaska certainly taught me a lesson.  The flat plain of the YK Delta lacks the obvious drama of those iconic Alaskan mountains.  But if you look closely, there are subtle dramas everywhere.