"It went from a paid vacation to a summer job under trying conditions in a hurry. The terrain is basically rain-slick, lichen-covered rocks and boulders. There is hardly a level spot for the helicopter to set down. Snow patches are plentiful and still fill the deeper ravines. Walking is difficult!"
The rocks were so brutal to walk on that eventually most of the skin was replaced on the bottom of both my feet. Although they remained tender, I grew stronger, and the physical demands became less of a strain by the end of the first week. Then I began to appreciate the subtle beauty of my surroundings: the daily rainbows that followed passing showers, the vast emptiness and silence, and, among this harshness, the individual, delicate, colorful flowers that appeared sporadically.
Unfortunately all the beauty was tempered somewhat by the arrival of clouds of mosquitoes. I was told before going north that it only took six Arctic mosquitoes to make a dozen, but nothing could have prepared me for the numbers. They land en masse on anything foreign to them; just as many tried to feed on the black canvas bipod bag as on me. The drone of their beating wings is like the hum of traffic on a busy highway. At their peak, I allowed them to land on the back of one gloved hand until there was room for no more. I stopped counting them at 70, wiped them clean, and they were quickly replaced with a second wave. Fortunately gloves and a good bug jacket do an adequate job of protecting you, and their season came and went during my short time on the tundra.
Surprisingly, wildlife encounters with larger species and difficulties with weather were not an issue that first summer. The potential was there of course. One morning a mother wolf led two pups away from a den as we approached rather than defend it. It was quite a sight as she climbed an esker howling instructions to her little ones and them trailing behind baying in response. A second wolf left fang marks in a meat freezer in camp one night.
On the weather front, we were camp-bound waiting for transport to a second camp when a wind and rain storm lashed us for better than 40 hours. The roof tarp flapped so ferociously we couldn't talk over the din. But this was 2005 in the eastern Arctic, and we were snugly coccooned in our sleeping bags inside a stove-heated tent and slept much of the storm away.
In stark contrast, 2007 in the Western Arctic found us in the Asiak high country, a 40-minute flight from camp even in good weather. Everything about the western Arctic was different and, at first glance, more benign than the east. It lulled me into a complacency that could have had dire consequences.
The east is grey and rocky. Vegetation is limited to moss and lichens for the most part. The only tree is a willow that hugs the ground between rocks for survival. Flowers are tiny and short lived. In contrast, the west, in the summer months, is green, and snow is spotty at best. Spruce trees line river bottoms and the willows grow as tall as a person. Flowering shrubs like potentilla are as large as foundation plants around southern homes.
For three sunny days we worked in 25C temperatures amidst all this greenery. In an effort to reduce my load I left my heavy rubber rain suit at camp and replaced it with a lighter waterproof jacket and pants. I wrapped a spare fleece top in them for extra warmth if needed. My journal entry for day four captures the essence of how quickly the Arctic can turn on you if you take it for granted:
"The day started at 23C, humid and buggy by 9:00 a.m. The mosquitoes made the bug jacket a necessity but the heat was oppressive under it. The first rain drops began falling at 11:00 a.m. By 2:00 p.m. we were in a cold wind-driven rain and the temperature had dropped to 10C. My digital thermometer became waterlogged and stopped working. The ceiling collapsed and visibility on the ground disappeared. We used our hand-held GPS to navigate but knew the helicopter needed a visible horizon to fly. We hoped for clearing by 6:00 pm but by then my "rain gear" had proven itself to be useless and my extra clothes were soaked through. Even my gortex boots, great all day, now seemed full of water.
I could no longer control my shaking and it was obvious that early stages of hypothermia were setting in. My anxiety increased when there was no sound of a helicopter at our predetermined 6:00 p.m. pick-up. Lloyd called camp on the satellite phone and found that an experienced pilot, James, had made two attempts to get to us since 2:00 p.m. but was stopped both times by a wall of fog. He would make one last try at 7:00."
Luckily all four of us were to meet at the same station at the end of the day, which is something we rarely do. Chuck and Jesse found shelter against a rock face and gathered what twigs they could while Lloyd and I walked to them so I could generate some heat. Lloyd gave me a dry fleece "hoodie," and I wrapped my legs in a space blanket while the boys nursed a tiny fire made from the gathered twigs and shavings of a stakers post that we sacrificed. Conditions had deteriorated so badly there was even thunder added to the mix.
Just as we resigned ourselves to a night on the tundra a voice from the fog crackled over the radio, "Where are you guys?" We had our coordinates and so were able to guide pilot James to us. We scrambled aboard leaving our base stations where they were. We had to fly the 70 kilometers back to camp at a height of about eight meters and at a bare hover. When we came to the edge of a lake, he followed the shoreline until he could see across. Otherwise the water and sky would blend and he would be unable to determine which way was up.
A hot shower and hot meal later, and the ordeal was behind us. The weather actually got worse the next day with strong winds, driving rain, and limited visibility. We were unable to access our project area and remained in camp contemplating our narrow escape from being left to the elements for a dangerously long time. Needless to say I carried the better rain gear for the rest of the job. We replenished our waterproof bags of extra clothes and topped up our emergency kits with space blankets and fire sticks.
However, the weather would not be our sole source of adventure on this trip. It seems everyone who has been in the field for any length of time has an animal story. Ours was slow in coming. Curious caribou would often stop in their wanderings to check us out, and we stared down a lone bull muskox on a few occasions, but we had nothing to add to the legendary tales spun around the office water cooler.
Then, two days before we completed our survey, every animal in the Arctic zoo seemed to be out of its cage. At our third station of the day, Lloyd noticed a "brown mass of fur" in the rocks in the distance. Closer inspection revealed no horns, and when it fixed him in its glare he radioed back to me that he thought it was a bear. This is grizzly country, not the encounter we were hoping for! He set his pack down and began to backtrack towards me. Chuck and Jesse were within radio distance on a parallel line on the opposite side of the claim. Lloyd advised us he was going to discharge a warning shot.
What he actually put to flight was a wolverine! The shot also caused a sickly muskox to leap up from a depression behind Lloyd, startling him. We heard his reaction over the radio but were unaware of the cause. By the time I joined him the muskox had challenged his pack and then stumbled a short distance away and collapsed. I think we interrupted Mr. Wolverine's planned meal.
Chuck radioed immediately that they had the bear. That wasn't good because we had the team's only gun.
"Are you sure?" Lloyd called, preparing to go across country.
"Yeah, and your wolverine is with it!"
I wouldn't know any better, but Lloyd didn't think that was possible. "Could it be a cub, Chuck?"
"Uh, roger that! We have a grizzly and cub. But don't worry about us; she's headed your way… Check that! We have the field glasses [binoculars] out, and she has twins."
Chuck and Jesse were able to track her progress from their vantage point on a ridge. She was following a creek that eventually intersected our line. We immediately took evasive action. We dropped our gear and sought the high ground up-wind of the bears hoping they would smell us and leave peacefully. Lloyd had the gun, and I had bear spray and a marker post I foolishly took along for a spear; "a phalanx of one," the guys would later rib me about.
Chuck and Jesse radioed, "We have you guys in sight," and, "The bears disappeared into a ravine south of where you are."
That was good because we were headed north. But nobody could see the bears. The last thing we wanted was for Momma Bear to come over our ridge and find us blocking her escape. We cautiously crept forward so we could get a better look at the creek. Finally we could see it meandering south across the tundra…. No bears!! As Lloyd moved to the edge of the drop to the creek, Chuck radioed, "I don't understand why you can't see the bears."
Suddenly, Lloyd turned and advised me to go back. Momma was only 30 meters away, fortunately with her back to us. We scampered behind a ridge, radioing the other crew that here is where "we'd make our stand." We turned off our radios and remained silent. We peeked at her slow, methodical progress for 40 minutes as she remained oblivious to us. The wind shifted when she was about 500 farther meters upstream. She stood, sniffed, and bolted away with the cubs in tow. Quite an adrenalin rush!
When we turned on the radio Jesse was relieved to hear we weren't dead. Chuck mused, "Hmm! They should put a warning on these things: objects in field glasses are not as far south as they appear."
A Twin Otter flew us out of camp a few days later, and I was back on a golf course within the week. I have hundreds of pictures and memories of an adventure that so few have had the opportunity to experience. The amazing thing is, I was actually paid to do it.
About the Author
This article was submitted by Lloyd K. Taylor, CLS, of Ollerhead and Associates Ltd. Ollerhead is a land surveying company based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. It was established by Varick Ollerhead in 1996 and has grown to a fulltime staffof 20, consisting of four Canada Lands surveyors and sixteen technical and support staff. The majority of Ollerhead staffare longtime residents of the North and as such have became accustomed to the many challenges of working in the Canadian Arctic. They have accepted the many mini-adventures that occur as part of the job.
John Adams [the original author] is a retired teacher who lives in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. John's adventures normally consist of ski trips to Maine and golfing at Mrytle Beach, so he's unaccustomed to the many challenges of working in the Canadian Arctic. His refreshing view is that of a visitor and is not compromised by descriptions of technical and logistical problems.