Monday, August 13, 2007

Middle of, wait, Resolute Bay

A little travel article for you all good people...I just came back from the high Arctic. One of the several work-related trips this year, and by far the weirdest...

"The most striking impression, when we land at Resolute Bay, is the wind. It sweeps the almost uniformly grey-brown surface with an unceasing pressure. Sometimes, the base staff tell me, these windstorms last four or five days in a row. It is blowing at 40 knots now, hard to walk against.
By the time we've arrived in Resolute, we have been in transit for over seventeen hours; delays are a constant feature of flying up north. Ross (my colleague) and I are giddy with fatigue and crack goofy jokes. Although the flight has been at times incredibly scenic, we are impatient to get on firm land and fall asleep for at least a few hours. Daylight lasts 24 hours a day in this season.
I have mentioned the wind as the strongest impression from the onset. The other aspect that immediately starts to dominate the senses are the stark colors. It is a perfect polar desert scheme - light browns and slate grays of the land, an icy blue and turquoise of the sea. The water in Lancaster Sound is churning in the vicious wind today, whitecaps rolling onto the pebbly shores in rapid succession. Once we leave the base for a two hour hike, all signs of human activity disappear. All that is left is the uneven scree and gravel field, crunching under our feet. Low, elongated, steel-gray clouds render the panorama even more horizontal.
The small water bodies - ponds, marshes - dot the desert here and there, and are responsible for the meagre vegetation. I find small clumps of saxifrage, mosses, even the odd specimen of yellow Arctic poppy. "Trees" are, by taxonomic definition, still present here but what that means in reality is the occassional flat, 1 cm high, nestlike tangle of arctic willow branches. Even to grow a patch like the one we saw, 1 by 1 foot, may take a century.
On the way up here, the joke was that Resolute Bay is like Mars with bears. I'd like to replace that with "Mars, only with water", since the bears are - fortunately - away from the land, hunting seals on offshore ice. There had been some polar bear sightings several days ago, I am told. But we find no evidence of any large animal on our beach hike. The only animal lifeforms we encounter in the two days are seagulls and a flock of Arctic terns. They seem to be catching something in the sea, we are not sure what.
The land is so uniform, it would be easy to simply dismiss it as a giant gravel pit. But a closer look at that gravel reveals all types of geological oddities and frequent fossils. There are imprints of small shellfish, millions of years old, locked in the stone. There are strange metamorphic rocks surrounded by what looks like breccia, a compressed matter that may have been sand or silt at some point. There is heavily eroded, scoured limestone and other rocks I can't find names for. Whatever is here today, it has been squished, ground up and transported by glaciers. Cornwallis Island where Resolute Bay is located does not have a permanent ice cap. Most of the other islands around here do. At any rate, the snowpack lasts up to 9, 10 months in northern Nunavut, melting only in mid-to late June.
To speak of summer here seems a joke to southerners. However, those two snow-free months mean that all kinds of activity can take place...for instance construction or fixing up buildings. Not to mention that the place depends heavily on the 'sea lift', a yearly delivery of heavier supplies like fuels which can be shipped in the short window of time while the sea ice breaks up. With climate change, there is supposedly more of an open water season. But by anyone else's standard, it is still an extremely short and unpredicatble season.
During my short stay in Resolute, I have learned to appreciate shelter and abundance of good hot meals, more than ever before. The Polar Shelf base is a capsule-like microcosm of comfortable life, seemingly adrift in the otherwise barren land. If you stay here, expect three tasty, nourishing meals a day, a bed and a warm shower. This is a transit point, a staging ground for field work by many a scientist. I rub shoulders with geologists, grad students, with a glaciologist from Edmonton, and I listen to an a Scot and an Irishman describe their work on arctic bird colonies. There is an air of shared international interest in this area, an area which is still a hostile frontier.
Brad, the glaciologist, and I pass time by playing what must be the northernmost pool game in the world, on the slightly crooked table. We devour literature and we go walking on the Mars-like landscape. There are not a lot of stimuli here - and yet this is the busy time of the year.
Logistics completely dominates the proceedings at the base. The flights getting in and out, the servicing of equipment and trucks, the tracking and accounting for supplies. The far North depends on air transport; it is still a frontier-style flying experience, on very old aircraft. Hawker Siddleys, Twin Otters, the occassional Hercules, anything that can land on dirt airstrips and won't break down in the intense conditions. Even the helicopter by the base has that 70s vintage look about it. I have gained the utmost respect for the guy who flies this thing for a living.
Resolute Bay is not a holiday spot. It is, however, a striking and fascinating setting, a window into a truly alien landscape and into extraordinary human efforts. My joke about Mars finds a real-life reflection - there is an experimental set up on neighbouring Devon Island where Canadian and NASA researchers simulate would-be operating conditions on Mars.
As we leave Resolute, the weather has finally cleared. Wind has died down, large patches of blue sky have opened up . I was a little mad earlier at this twist of fate, but now I am feeling just a tinge of sadness.My stay here was too short for serious exploration, yet long enough to gain an appreciation for this amazing part of the world. It has left me wanting to see more. When I reach green, summertime Ottawa, this will seem like a sleepwalking episode or a strange dream."


joncormier said...

Sounds interesting. I'm not sure if it's a place that's top of my list of vacation destinations but I'm also a bit jealous you've gotten to see the place.

I've always appreciated those kooky scientists living in isolated and unforgiving locations. Gotta love the kooks.

Jan Triska said...'s truly a capsule environment. Most of the actual activity is guys (and they are mainly guys) going to a from their field research sites, dropping off samples, equipment, photos. Flying back south, to go back to universities.
As far as the base itself goes, there is not much research done there, but there were some 140 projects going on this season - and all those people pass through Resolute PSCP at some point and stay there for a few days. The conversations you get there are straight from National Geographic files.