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…