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!