Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wapusk 2007: living life to its fullest

Well, it’s only a few more days until I leave Churchill! Countdown until I return to the apparent record heat waves from the cool sub-arctic.

After the course, I was glad to return to work, and to have my evenings free once again, but not so happy I had to say good-bye to my new friends. The students and researchers taking the train came into town on the Saturday to explore, and have one last dinner together. We went out to the Lazy Bear Lodge, and I tried musk ox for the first time. This was where some of the students gave an odd gift to the teaching assistant, Kevin. It was half of a chain mail glove, likely with some relation to the medieval era. When turned upside down with the two fingers hanging, it was rather peculiar looking (see pictures on Kodak gallery to get a better idea of what it looked like).

My week at work was a mixture of random projects not related to bug collection, for my boss. It was nice to have my attention focused on Parks-related matters for a change, even if it meant sitting in the office on a nice day. One of the things he had me do was count the number of caribou in this picture taken of a large herd from a helicopter. My estimate after several counts was over 2900 animals. It was rather a challenge because the picture was not very clear, and was taken from an angle, but I made do!

A friend of mine lost a dog across the river. We spent an evening searching for Scruffy (a little poodle) by boat, while whales and seals were playing all around us. Not such a bad way to spend the evening! Turns out we found Scruffy at the quarry seven days after he ran away (more about this later).

My long weekend was filled with adventures – nights out in town, and cruising around made it go by quickly. I visited a building called the golf balls, which has these large fiberglass covered spheres on top. It is now abandoned, but once used for radiotelemetry or something of the sort, long ago. Inside, there were lots of strange equipment and shiny material that it looked like it was the remnants of a spaceship designed in the 50’s. Another adventure was a walk out to the Ithaca shipwreck during low tide (it’s filled with about 8 feet of water during high tide). The ship is falling apart, but it was pretty neat to climb inside, and take a few shots (with what, a shotgun!) at the light socket that hung from the mast (you can see this socket in the picture looking upwards through the ship).

A bunch of us took a trip to the quarry, which was this place that was blown up to use rocks to create a dam, called the Weir. I borrowed a canoe from a colleague, and rode in the back of a pick-up truck, in the canoe, to the marina – that was fun. With three others, all our gear and Smokey, the dog, we managed to canoe across the turbulent waters by the dam to the quarry. When we arrived, my friend Samantha was blew her whistle to alert any bears, and sure enough it called Scruffy. Everyone thought that tiny little dog was dead by that time, so it was a miracle he was still alive! The quarry has a 40-foot drop into Caribbean-turquoise water (from the limestone, much like the Bruce Peninsula). Sure enough, I jumped off into the frigid waters, and somehow pulled a muscle in my leg pretty severely. I took no more jumps – didn’t want to push my luck! It was fun, though. We had hotdogs over an open fire and snacks while we were there, and I made sure that Scruffy got plenty of food as well, and the kids gave him lots of TLC. With it being a small town, it didn’t take long before my friend found out about the dog – so much for it being a surprise!

On the last day of the long weekend, I went out for an ATV excursion, along the tundra buggy trails (in search for bears). Indeed, there were two bears that took off at the sight of the 4-wheeler, so we hung around until they came back and settled down. Funny thing was that as we were watching the bears, a helicopter circled over top of us, and happened to have my colleague Janine in it (she had gone for a week or so to do some goose banding in the park). The people in the helicopter were so focused on the bears, they didn’t notice us down on the ground, waving (even with my yellow bandana). Bit by bit, we got closer to one of the bears, and the result was a wild picture of me standing with the bear 20 metres behind me, definitely something to hold onto.

Also on that excursion, we came across some caribou, and an Arctic fox den. What a bold little creature that fox was – I got some great pictures and video footage of it as it came out of its den and such. In my exploration of the fox den, I sunk into part of it, because the ground on top is not very sturdy with all of the underground tunnels… luckily I didn’t fall in too far (just up to my ankles), whoops.

Another colleague of mine has a dirt bike that he uses to get around town. Last week, he taught me how to drive it, and I spent the evening cruising up and down the streets of Churchill and down to the Cape Merry National Historic Site. It wasn’t as difficult as I imagined – my standard car probably made the shifting come naturally to me. Although, after hearing about mom’s not so fortunate experience with a dirt bike when she was my age (and the fact that I wasn’t wearing a helmet), I was careful not to pop the clutch or go reeling around corners.

I bought myself a hoodie sweatshirt from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre gift shop, as a souvenir of my time spent there during the course. It was brand new, off the shelf, but as I was trying it on later, I noticed that the pocket was rather bulky… I reached in, and pulled out a lacy thong!!! What are the odds?

The last couple of days have been tame in comparison to my wild long weekend (aside from my CSNC sweatshirt purchase)… summer is winding down in Churchill: the days are getting shorter and colder, and people are away for various reason. I’ve been doing lots of overtime trying to get everything packed up… and I will be home real soon! Looking forward to seeing you all.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Wapusk 2007: the dark side

Where to begin… I cannot express how much has happened in the past few weeks, emotionally, and agenda-wise. This part of my update I cannot post to the world, but am sending to you special few. It’s behind the scenes of all the fun and lively things you’ve read about in my past updates. Turmoil with my job, and colleague has made life a little on the stressful side than what it should be in Churchill. Facebook’s horoscope (if you believe those things) for the past week said the following: “Aries: you have been forced to interact with some difficult personalities lately, but you are about to get a break from their craziness. Finally”. I cannot say how true that horoscope was (and oddly enough so many other ones too). My professor/boss from the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at U of G was here for the past two weeks for the Arctic Ecology course (finished yesterday). I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that I (and my colleague) was given inadequate training, instruction, and no support from U of Guelph in this brand new initiative with Parks Canada, and people have just realized this now. Most of you know that I really enjoy learning about and working for Parks Canada. This job was supposed to have Parks-related tasks integrated into my summer schedule, but because Dr. Hebert was so dissatisfied, it looks like the rest of the summer will be almost entirely focused on collection of specimens for his project (which it pretty much has been, anyways, and everything has to be done Paul’s way). So that’s work, and a test life has thrown my way this summer has been as my horoscope described above. This professor, my colleague and the graduate student I assisted in Wapusk have taught me to exercise patience, acceptance of criticism and management of conflict. It was just as I feared, that living, partying and working side-by-side with someone 24/7 has taken a bad turn, which certainly doesn’t help when combined with the above job issues too. What I’m going to do about it, I don’t know yet. Right now, I’m just trying to stick it through, stay optimistic, and think of you guys!

The student life:

My past fourteen days were spent as a student in the Arctic Ecology course at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC). Days were long, an 8 am start, and not finishing until after 10 most nights, then a drive back to town to crash on my own bed, before waking up the next day to start all over again. It’s not as if the course required people to stay so late, but participation is key, and there’s always something to do… all in all, it was a great experience. Occasionally, a seminar/lecture would take place after dinner – they consisted of the work conducted by various researchers, such as the nematode (worm-like creatures) research one guy did in the Antarctic (he had some cute pictures of the penguins there), and the research done by another scientist in Greenland/Iceland/High Arctic. They were mostly interesting, but the incredibly stuffy and dark room (and a full stomach) made it difficult to stay focused at times. The first week of the course was spent sampling at various sites around Churchill, to familiarize students with the area and give them an idea of what organisms are present in this sub-Arctic region. The second week, students formulated their individual project goals and went to sites of their choice. My project focuses on the biodiversity of amphipods, which are shrimp-like creatures that live in the marine intertidal zone, in relation to variations in salinity and habitat. I chose them because they are quite abundant (straightforward to collect, and all over the place), and I love being on or near water. On purpose, I got away from the crowd of students, and into town one morning to collect around there (I borrowed an ATV and enjoyed my solitude), and another day I arranged for me and two other researchers to go across the river (by boat) to collect at the Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site (PWF). That was quite enjoyable being on the water all day at PWF, and afterwards we went whale watching, and pretended to be stranded on a buoy in the middle of the river. Other exciting events that were part of the course experience included kayaking with the whales, an all-day tundra buggy tour (we saw nine bears, an Arctic fox, an Arctic hare, a rough-legged hawk, and much more), a walk along Ramsay Trail to see the tundra polygons (natural formations that expose the permafrost beneath the soil) and the buried rocket from the old days when the CNSC was a military rocket launch base. All combined, I’ve seen 12 bears in the last two weeks, so yes, they’re around - it’s the polar bear capital of the world!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Wapusk 2007: the Park

The belugas are plentiful in the river – everywhere, there are white humps appearing and disappearing all over. Before I left for the park, Anaise and Mike from the study centre met up with Janine and I – we all went down to the seaport to have some wine and cheese while watching the belugas and seals in the river at sunset. That was pretty cool.

Wapusk National Park was a whole new experience, last week. There were no roads leading into the park, so our means of getting there was by flight, or snowmobile in the winter-time. This was my first helicopter ride – I got to sit in the front, with the glass panel beneath my feet. The lift-off was unreal, and the scenery was excellent. There were lots of birds flying below – mostly snow geese (who have taken over the park in vast numbers), to me they looked like tiny little white specks moving around below. The park itself was very flat (wide-open), had very few trees – more like sparse clumps of evergreens here and there. Let’s just say that when I had to go, I just had to trust that my colleagues were looking the other way, because the bushes (if any) only went up to my knees, more often than not! I stayed for 9 days at the Nestor 1 camp, which was surrounded by a 10 foot fence, with barbed wire at the top to keep the polar bears out – kind of a role reversal in the sense that it was the humans enclosed behind a fence.

I was there to help a graduate student, Jessica, with her research on human and non-human impacts on the tundra ecosystem. Greg came along as a polar bear monitor (even though we didn’t see any – the other two researchers at the park did though). Basically, Jessica would determine which disturbed habitat she wanted to set up transects in – these were 25 m long, with 5 or 6 quadrats (squares to be sampled) each. I had to learn and familiarize myself with about 30 different species of vegetation – you’d be surprised how much diversity there is if you took a closer look at what’s on the ground. We calculated percentages of each species, soil depth, and more. I did some collection of specimens on the side for the barcode of life project, and set up some pitfall runs after we were done with Jessica’s stuff for the day.

After work, time was spent playing basketball (they have a net set up at camp), playing cribbage, and reading. There was quite a stack of hunting magazines in the kitchen. Now, when you hear me make reference to “my rack”, I’m talking about the antlers… Anyways, while I was out with Jessica and Greg, I saw lots of caribou, and even got up close to them (they walk right past you if you stay really still), an abundance of birds (snow geese, tundra swans, long-spurs…etc.), a lemming, and even an active fox den, with the mom and dad looking after their pups. No polar bears yet, but there were some sighted by other researches just north of the camp (and there have been several around town recently).

The other two researchers were from the states, and after they got back from being out for the day on Canada Day, they let off two shotgun blasts in celebration for us Canadians. We had weather there that ranged from stinking hot with bad bugs, to bloody cold with rain. It just goes to show how quickly the weather can change, based on wind direction (North, off the Bay or from the South). Neverless, I ended up with a tundra tan (hands and face), and realized how much more outdoor field gear I need to get after I return home.

Back in Churchill, I worked my 12th day in a row on Friday, and am now off for five days. Keeping occupied for that time is the current challenge. I tagged along to the gun range with some colleagues on Saturday, and tried out a different shotgun (a police magnum, with spot sights, rather than the usual marine magnum with ghost ring sights). I also got to shoot cracker shells (basically firecrackers that give a really loud bang), and a revolver with caps/firecracker.

On one of my ATV excursions, I visited an old abandoned wildlife research facility near Churchill. It was full of old medical equipment, drugs, animal cages, and even rusted oxygen tanks that had the University of Guelph printed on them! Apparently, back in the 70’s and 80’s, nasty experiments were undertaken there on polar bears (effects of crude oil on them), and on other marine life. Creepy…

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Wapusk 2007: mammals and invertebrates

Work in the field has come along nicely so far. Pitfall traps have been set up at a number of locations to capture insects. Pitfalls are basically a small plastic container, put into a hole in the ground, filled partially with non-toxic antifreeze (to drown and temporarily preserve whatever falls in them), and covered with a plywood square with nails – there’s a gap big enough so that an insect or spider can fit through, but not something as big as a ground squirrel. The plywood covers the trap so that other animals don’t drink or disturb it. So far, a variety of creatures have been caught. These range from spiders to flies to springtails and beetles. We try to capture anything we see (that typically doesn’t have a backbone) as we are visiting our sites, by net or using good ‘ol fingers.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of different locations around Churchill to set these traps up. It’s been a great way to explore the different habitats around the area. The scenery can range from a boreal forest to swamp, open tundra, flat rock, or sandy beach. It’s so nice to be out in the field, even if it’s not the ideal day to spend outside. The weather can change quite dramatically with Churchill being on a water body as large as the Hudson Bay. There’s quite a bit of work to be done now with collecting from these traps, processing them, and eventually putting them into a database. The rapidly growing database currently consists of over 200 vials. A single vial may contain many specimens of similar classification (e.g. spiders in one, flies in another). It’s good to be busy, as always.

Tuesday was a beautiful day to be outside, sunny and warm all day long. I was actually in a t-shirt for part of it. The entire day was spent pretty much outside in the field, collecting and setting up traps. After work, a long and exhilarating ATV ride along the beach/tundra with Leonard and Janine during sunset was the perfect end to the day. I was given some Caribou antlers from Leonard as well, but the catch is that the head is still attached… and has been on top of his roof for the past two years. No doubt, I need to remove the skin and clean the skull before it can come indoors. Now, I have something real instead of a puppet (Bruce the Moose) to hang on the wall!

A professor from the University of Manitoba, Rob Roughley, came up for a few days to set up some malaise traps with some of his colleagues. Malaise traps are mesh tent-like traps that are designed to capture flying insects. I tagged along with those guys during their stay to observe malaise trap construction, and to set up pitfalls for our own research, nearby. Some of those roads that go to the sites are in rough shape – chugging along logger-type roads in a very old bruiser truck (that belongs to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre), all us researchers have pushed through mud, water, and giant potholes. No shocks for the thing, and city drivers behind the wheel have made it quite the ride at times!

I’ve acquired some beautiful custom and hand-made/beaded mitts, made by a local craftswoman. The inside of them is sheepskin, and the outside is made of caribou hide, arctic hare fur, and sealskin. The beadwork fashions a polar bear walking on ice, with a sun above it. The mitts are very special, and will be perfect for cold winter days.

Writing this blog/update, carefully uploading my pictures complete with captions, and ATV rides were excellent procrastination against studying for my deferred final. I was relieved to get it over with on Tuesday evening, and happy to focus my attention to something other than mostly work and “Introduction to Aquatic Environments”.

A nice reward was that I’m taking care of another colleague’s dog, since I miss my animals at times. Smokey is a 6 month old Jack Russell. He’s a real sweetheart, and I was given an ATV to take him for walks with, while Leonard is gone (he’s got so much energy, that the ATV is the most efficient way to tire him out). Riding the ATV with little Smokey running alongside it is awesome. I even took Smokey to Leonard’s cabin at Goose Creek (about 15 km outside of Churchill) for a day/night by myself to chill. I really like Goose Creek with its peat fens, rugged boreal forest, its surrounding watershed and the even more relaxed atmosphere than town.

I’m going into Wapusk National Park for the first time on Monday. I just finished working ten days on, to get four days off. The four days off is part of the field preparation before going into the park. I will certainly write about my adventures in the Park afterwards – stay tuned!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Wapusk 2007: settling into the Northern Life

Yet more training has occurred at work. This has included stuff that ranged from harassment in the workplace to library guidelines, informal conflict management in the workplace, and radio protocols. The highlight of training was shooting a Remington marine magnum shotgun on the firing range as part of my Parks Canada firearms training course. It was exciting, although those suckers have a bit of a kick to them… at least for me. (My arms are a bit short for the barrel length)

Every Friday there is a meat draw at the local legion (bar). Basically, people drink and submit a ticket to win a whole lot of meat. It’s good fun just to hang out with colleagues, play pool, listen to the jukebox, etc. The Seaport bar in town isn’t bad either. However, with the way things are in Churchill, they don’t serve limes … Coronas are just not the same without limes!

I ate a Canada goose for the first time on Saturday for dinner with some friends. It was cooked over a beer can on the bbq, shot and plucked by Greg (colleague) - tougher meat, but tasty! I imagine that I will be trying some other more or less routine foods this summer based on the variety of animal life out there.

Mom arrived by plane on Sunday, and took the long train ride back to Winnipeg on Thursday. I enjoyed the walks along the tundra with her, and the yummy food and baked stuff she prepared. Can you tell that I appreciate my food?

Interesting thing about Churchill is that there is a curfew bell at 10pm every night – not that we have to be inside by that time or anything, but it’s commonly confused to be a polar bear siren by newcomers. The funny thing is that it makes all the dogs in town howl for at least a minute afterwards. There isn’t any polar bear siren… just cracker shells being shot off in the distance. The ice has broken up quite a bit on the Hudson Bay, and I expect it won’t be long until I get to see my first live polar bear.

The primary mode of getting around in town is by ATV or truck. It’s not uncommon to ride an ATV to work or to the grocery store. Leonard (colleague) lent me his ATV to use for a bit. It’s a thrill to ride it around town and along the Flats (floodplains along the river where people have built shacks). ATV’s can go surprisingly fast (up to 100km/hr) and with me, the speed demon, you can imagine any passengers holding on for dear life! Note that I haven’t tested the upper limits of speed on it, at least not without a helmet…

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Wapusk 2007: the Arctic

We had some wicked cold weather here last week (-16 C at one point, with the windchill), complete with blizzards and snowbanks. However, all that is gone now, and the once frozen solid Hudson Bay has been steadily breaking up with each day. This means that the polar bears and seals will be coming inland real soon!

Cold weather and blizzards didn’t stop me from being the ever-adventurous Jess that you know. On one of my walks out of town, I stumbled upon the Husky tie-up area. There must have been close to fifty (if not more) Huskies tied up one after the other, row after row. They stay there year round – let’s just say that dogs at home live in the lap of luxury compared to dogs here, in Churchill.

I’m still getting used to the longer days of the North. The sun rises around 3 am, and sets around 11pm. Time to invest in some heavy blinds… My usual summer regime of rising with the sun and bed when the sun sets just isn’t going to cut it this year! Another thing to get used to is the prices of food – a pint of cherries may go for $20, and a carton of strawberries for $10. Oh well, that’s where isolation pay comes in handy.

Our U of G van arrived on Tuesday last week, and I was able to visit the Churchill Northern Studies Centre for the first time. This is an isolated old-rocket launching facility that has been converted for researchers to live in and for research to be conducted out of. It is about 20 min out of town, and is quite military-outpost style. No worse for wear than South residence on campus, I suppose. Each room can have up to 4 bunk beds (8 people), no privacy, and one shared bathroom per dorm. Apparently, the food is good though – I’ll find out when I eat there during my Arctic Ecology field course (through U of G) in July. Janine and I were there to check up on the inventory of U of G supplies left behind from last year’s Arctic Ecology course, and to drop off the supplies we carted along with us from Guelph.

Friday and Tuesday brought forth Canadian Firearms Safety Course training. This pretty much drilled the safe use of firearms (mostly shotguns and rifles) into our brains, and included discussions about basic types of guns, ammunition, ways to hold guns, and simple scenarios that involved firearms. Only dummy ammunition and firearms were used for this course. The good stuff comes later: with Parks Canada issue firearms training.

One of the highlights of my day was that there was an Arctic Hare in front of the office – and you bet, I got pictures!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Wapusk 2007: road trip to Churchill

Yep, I’m here in Churchill! Janine and I left Tuesday morning and made it to Sault Ste Marie by nighttime. To Kenora the next day, then finally on the third day we crossed the Manitoba border (into the Central Time Zone), and drove straight up to Thompson. We originally were going to stay overnight at Grand Rapids Reserve, rather than Thompson, but we were deterred by the fact that the only place to stay had a bar with slots in which people were gambling and drunk at 4:30 in the afternoon. I’m glad that we didn’t stay, since Thompson was much more inviting.

No problems driving, aside from a lack of air conditioning in the van. Although, after spending at least 12 hrs a day in the van with the heat, it was nice not having to spend much time in the van on the fourth day. Near Thompson, we stopped by Pisew Falls Provincial Park, and saw the spectacular falls there. It’s hard to describe them in words, so take a look at the video!

From Thompson, we took the 18 hour train ride to Churchill. The scenery changed from tall, dense coniferous trees to shorter and shorter, one-sided spruce trees, with the occasional tamarack and poplar. Caribou, muskrats, Arctic ground squirrels, and other wildlife were seen as the train went by as well. I can’t wait to see more of the wildlife in the area.

Janine and I were welcomed by Mike (warden) and Sheldon (supervisor), after we got off the train. We are sharing a townhouse with Mike for the summer. All is going well so far. We have cable t.v, internet, our own rooms, and good company. For the rest of Saturday, Janine and I were glad to settle into our rooms, have hot showers, eat a yummy lunch at the local cafĂ©, and to get groceries at the only grocery store in town. We even had enough energy to attend a multi-birthday party at the local bar, based on news we picked up on the train by the VIA workers who were planning to celebrate. There’s a pool table there, so maybe I’ll get good enough to give Brian a real challenge once I get back!

Sunday was a veg and exploratory day. I got my first full-view of the Hudson Bay, although it’s completely covered with ice right now. Churchill has snowbanks, and the polar bears are still off hunting on the ice so we are not restricted to staying indoors just yet!

Our first day of work was basically spent whacking plastic babies and practicing CPR on torso-dummies (for red-cross certification, that is), and of course, meeting the Parks Canada staff of Wapusk National Park. Everyone is friendly and inviting, as expected. Except for the CPR dolls – they seemed rather shocked to see me, based on their forever opened mouths.

Wapusk 2007: prelude

I know many of you enjoyed reading the Tobermory/Bruce Peninsula updates last summer. Well, once again school is done for the summer, and it is my aim to continue writing about my adventures/experiences working for Parks Canada.

It has been nearly a year since my summer in Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park. Turns out I’ll be going on another adventure this summer: my work is combined with research at the University of Guelph’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario and Wapusk National Park. The research U of G is having me do is collect specimens of all kinds in or near Wapusk. This is done as a means for creating DNA barcodes for every living thing on the planet. It has a long way to go by far, but their ultimate “aim” so to speak is to one day is to have a cell-phone sized device, in which with a simple tissue sample can identify any species based on its genetic material. Pretty fascinating to be part of the leading edge of science. See the attached article if you would like to learn more about this. I’ve been doing training at U of G for this since April 23 (my last exam was on the 20th). This has included mounting insects, learning how to use the BOLD (Barcode of Life Database), and preparing insects for DNA analysis, such as pinning them, placing in labeled vials, label making... not the most exciting stuff I’ve encountered, but still somewhat interesting.

The other part of my job will include stuff like the tagging of wild fowl, checking on research stations, and other little jobs for Parks Canada. At some point, Janine and I will be dropped off my helicopter in the park and camp in the backcountry for five days at a time. I have yet to learn more about my role in Wapusk National Park, but it won’t be much longer until I’m up there. I’m scheduled to take the train from Thompson, MB to Churchill on Friday. My colleague and I leave in a U of G van on Tuesday to drive to the train station in Thompson for Friday. The van will be put on the train on Monday, with all the scientific and research supplies for our use over the summer.

We will be finished on August 24. I will be staying in a townhouse with Janine and a park warden, which will be much quieter than the staffhouse I lived in last summer, where I felt like I was a camp counselor/baby sitter at times.

I admit, I will miss the special people (and horse) at home while I’m gone, and it has been quite the rush to get things in order for the trip. This has been stuff like moving Melody to her summer holiday home at Vernadee Equestrian Centre, buying field supplies, moving out of my house in Guelph, all on top of working at the University and at the barn. Yeah, crazy, but I’m positive that this summer will be yet another memorable and valuable experience of which I will keep you all updated!