Research in the Real North

Have you ever thought of visiting the North? Let’s go on a field trip together. First we get on a plane, or two or three; destination: Yellowknife. We’re headed to the true North. It’s spring when we leave Waterloo: no snow on the ground, grass is turning green, and things are starting to come up in the gardens. By the time we’re flying over great bear lake, you look out of the window and the ground is white, Point of view snowmobile ride in northern Canadanot a patch of open water to be seen. We land and step out onto the tarmac; it’s -15°C, and snowing gently. But we’re not there yet, next we drive down to the Air Tindi (never heard of it? We must be too far south) hangar and we get on a plane with two other people; turns out they’re the pilots and we watch the controls while they read a newspaper. We land in Fort Simpson, and Gary is there to pick us up in his truck. He’s a talkative guy, apparently the Leard (river) hasn’t frozen entirely this year, and the road we’re driving on will only last a few more days before they’ll have to cross the river by Helicopter. Then we’re in Checkpoint; a community of one house, two dogs, and a bunch of spare motor parts. We’re about to embark on the last leg of our journey, a 20 kilometre snowmobile ride through the boreal plains at night. You sit on the back of a sled, occasionally looking back to make sure that the cooler full of scientific instruments and some fresh veggies is still there, while you whip past black spruce and tamarack, gliding over snowdrifts, and squeezing between close stands of trees.

Snow covered scene two coniferous trees and a frozen lake in the backgroundThen we’ve arrived. Four dome tents and one weather haven (like an insulated garage tunnel), perched on the shore of Goose Lake, smack dab in the middle of bloody nowhere. No cell service, no power, no internet, no running water, no showers, nothing. We’ve got some solar panels, a satellite phone and some satellite internet when it’s sunny. But right now we’re exhausted from our trip, so let’s get out the -30 sleeping bags, and slip the -9 bag inside, because it’s going to be a cold night, the first of many.

We’ve all heard that the earth is getting warmer: some of us model it, others of us think about the economic or ecological impacts. It’s in all of the papers we read and has a front row seat at all of the conferences. We’ve also probably been told that this is more pronounced in cold regions, where ecosystems are more ‘fragile’. Intuitively that all makes sense, and we can even talk about it and sound intelligent. Sometimes.

Frozen lake in northern CanadaBut there is a difference between knowing and experiencing. The shear magnitude of the things that are presented trivially sometimes catch me by surprise. Have you ever walked on lake ice in the morning, and paddled back across that very same lake in the afternoon of the same day? Have you ever driven a snow machine through slush for hours to get to solid ground? Have you ever found yourself chest deep in a bog or a fen, wondering where the path you took that morning has gone? Sure, these are examples of things that would of course happen every spring… right?   Well, yes, but last year the lake broke up a week later, and that path across the bog outlet was safe to take until the end of June, but it’s impassible in May this year.

Coniferous forest in northern Canada with mixed meltwater and snow

To me it doesn’t even really matter. I’m just a scientist, equipped with hip waders, a graduated steel rod and a meter stick, wandering around poking the ground, trying to figure out what is going on. If I take a minute to stop being myself, and jump into Joe the trapper’s shoes, these interesting changes I’m documenting become more terrifying than interesting, and their ramifications can cost me my living. Winter pelts are much thicker and more valuable than summer ones. In winter, Joe has the mobility of his snowmobile, plus the animals freeze in the snares. In the summer, he’s stuck walking his traplines, and if his timing is off, a bear beats him to the snare and takes the pelts, or they’ve rotted by the time he gets there.

For the city dweller, this can be a hellish place to live: isolation, wild animals and blood thirsty insects. But for me it’s not. One of the things that you can’t really read about in any of those papers about this changing region is how beautiful it is. How at home you can feel there, living for months at a time in tents with the same four people, watching as the sun sets later and later until it only just rolls around on the horizon, never truly going to sleep.

Instrumentation setup on snow covered groundWhy do we do it? Sometimes I think it’s just to have fun, or for the challenge, but really it’s because Scotty Creek research basin is found in the permafrost transition zone. It is a unique place, where you can see the impacts of climate change year to year, and where the hydrology is just beginning to be understood. This place has given me a new appreciation for vegetables, down sleeping bags, beer and making a family out of whomever is around. I was hoping to gain a little independence as a graduate student, but little did I know that would include experimental design where what you have is what you carried with you on the snowmobile you rode in on, and your first priority is no longer programming, writing, or even Pokemon Go,  but rather survival. Survival in a world where it’s -20 at night, and 30 during the day, where your primary concerns are how the water filter is holding up, whether the toilet that burns your feces is broken again, and how many times the path to work steals your shoe and you fall flat on your face. Welcome to the North, strong and free.