Friday, March 6, 2009

The Great Big Whites

I met my mom and Brian in Kelowna, BC to ski 4 wonderful days at the Big White mountain resort in early February. It was a bit of a trek to get there: flight from Churchill to Winnipeg, overnight stay, flight to Vancouver to Kelowna, but I made it with all my gear, although one bag was on the next flight behind me from Vancouver because it had been accidentally unloaded by airport staff. My mom and brother arrived not long after I received my second bag. We were able to visit some friends who were working at the Lake Okanagan resort – Kelowna oddly enough is becoming the new Burlington, with the masses of people that I grew up with, who have now moved out West, particularly to this city.

At the resort, we had a lovely condo with all the amenities, slope-side. However, slope-side doesn’t mean that it’s down-ward sloping, as we huffed and puffed (usually twice a day) to ski-skate uphill through a tunnel, along a short path to the main hill that took us to the first lift. The good news was that coming back, it was all downhill. We were fortunate that there was a snow storm well-enough in advance of our arrival that the airport and roads were open and cleared, but the hill was covered in a fresh powder. Blue skies and warm temperatures for three days were bliss on the slopes. The fourth day was cloudy and snowy, but beggars can’t be choosers – we saw what Big White got its name from (a blanket of fog that covers the mountain). Coincidentally, some folks from the Cedar Springs Ski Club in Ontario were visiting friends and skiing while we were there, and one day unexpectedly bumped into them at the summit of the mountain. We joined them that evening for dinner at one of the mountainside restaurants, famous for its “shotgun coffee.” With lavish preparations, and us expecting a big bang, it was instead a silent stream of ignited booze trickling down the barrel of an old shotgun into our beverages.

I stayed a few days in Burlington after our ski holiday, madly sorting, shopping and going to appointments, before returning to the great white North. To my surprise, we had a new inhabitant of our house – a hedgehog! Leonard had brought this creature back from Winnipeg (with a stop in Gillam for a hockey tournament). Sure enough, it started escaping from its cage at night, and bee-lining for our bedroom. Our Houdini rodent continued to escape despite taping up the sides of the cage and the addition of plexiglass. That said, this nameless little animal has informally been given the name, “little bastard.”

Shortly after my return, I started as a research assistant for the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a research base 20-something km outside of town (formerly a rocket range run by the military). My job included working closely with Earth Watch teams, which consist of individuals from all over the world. I maintained the snow machines, and pulled team members behind me on a bone-jarring ride, with a komatik. Despite attempts to mitigate the pounding on snowdrift formations called zastrugi, passengers still feel as though they are about to rupture a disc. With many laughs and layers, we sampled snow in many different locations, looking at layers, density, depth, crystal types, and more. Samples by Adirondack snow core were taken back to the lab for investigating pH, conductivity and the like. Under the watch of a PhD candidate, teams sampled the branchlets of (black spruce) trees that spanned from the tundra to the forest. With over six dozen branchlets and their fragile needles, it took our team of 15 quite a bit of effort to get them measured, recorded, waxed, weighed, and into their appropriate slots for site/location/height, with some close calls along the way. Each day, all of these samples are weighed yet again, to measure the rate of moisture loss in the needles. Luckily, that isn’t my task, but for those unfortunate few who stay behind each morning to do it - I’m sure they’re dreaming numbers…

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