Arctic Adventures (May and June 2002)

Deborah M. Buehler – Travel Chronicle

The trip began May 30th with a very short flight to Montreal where I was to meet the rest of the shorebird team: a big boss from the Shorebird Conservation Plan, a grad student at the University of Alberta, and a grad student at Simon Fraser University. The purpose of the expedition was to get information on shorebird breeding densities in arctic Quebec (as well as information about any other bird species we might encounter). The morning of the 31st we boarded an Air Inuit Dash 8-100 twin propeller plane and headed north. Through the window we could see the forests change from mixed deciduous, to boreal, to taiga until they finally petered out all together. Beyond that there was nothing but snow-covered tundra as far as the eye could see. A single word came to my mind – vast. As we flew over Hudson Bay I could see cracks appearing in the seasonal sea ice. The melt was just beginning near the tree line, but farther north where we would be staying, the ice was still frozen solid.

Just after noon we landed in the Inuit community of Puvirnituq just north of the 60th parallel. The town was well organized and equipped with a new school, a hospital and a hotel. Newly constructed duplex houses replaced the caribou hide tents and igloos which were once the trademarks of a more mobile Inuit community. An Inuit man named Aliva Tulugak, who owned the hunting camp where we planned to stay, met us at the airport. The camp was located 60 km south of Puvirnituq and we had planned to fly there in a small Twin Otter aircraft. Unfortunately there was still at least a meter of snow on the ground and the landing strip was covered. Plan B was to reach the camp by snow mobile. I was ecstatic. Riding on snow mobile over the ice of Hudson Bay and the surrounding tundra was an exhilarating experience! Three Inuit men took us to the camp using their snow machines and sleighs which carried our gear. Not long ago, the sleighs were pulled exclusively by dog teams, but today most Inuit people opt for faster and more powerful snowmobiles. Along the way we stopped to chat with other Inuit locals and were given tea and bannock. We arrived at the Tuksukatak River Camp at around 9:30 pm. The sky was still bright and the landscape covered with snow. I was astounded to see that the camp’s buildings were surrounded by huge three meter drifts. Obviously the land was still in winter’s grip. A large common cabin was central to the camp. It was heated and had a living room, a dining area and a well equipped kitchen. Around the main cabin were smaller sleeping cabins each with four single beds and a diesel heater. These were luxury accommodations for arctic fieldwork. Upon our arrival at camp we met the CWS Goose team which consisted of husband and wife and three other students and field technicians. Together we made nine people at the camp and it was somewhat like living with the Brady bunch.

Our first few days at the camp were fairly low key. We were unable to do any shorebird work due to the snow cover. The snow melted very slowly and the weather didn’t help. Daytime highs hovered around four degrees with cold northerly winds, and each night the temperature dipped below freezing, suspending the melt. One night I awoke to a snowstorm and found a small snowdrift developing on the inside of our cabin! Blowing snow was accumulating through a small crack between the door and the doorframe.The downtime gave us lots of time to explore the camp area if one was willing to slog through the deep snow. Each day I went on long walks trying to learn the tundra plants which grew on exposed ridges and the songs of birds as they slowly arrived from the south. Some of the snowdrifts reached my waist and I was very grateful to have hip waders. During the winter the snow’s crust is hard and thick, thus walking on the snow is not a problem. However, in spring daytime temperatures above freezing soften the crust. I sunk a lot! During these long walks through the tundra I saw my first Arctic Fox and Caribou as well as many new birds including Rock Ptarmigan, Golden Eyes, various Mergansers, Oldsquaws, Pintails, Green-winged Teals, Short-eared Owls, Snowy Owls, Long-tailed and Parasitic Jaegers and a variety of passerines. The first shorebirds to be seen were Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlins. Later came American Golden Plovers, Black Bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, Least Sandpipers and White Rumped and Baird’s Sandpipers migrating through. A few Ruddy Turnstones passed through along the coast but sadly no Red Knots (my study species).

During our waiting days there was time for our Inuit friends to hunt and fish and we had a few excellent dinners of Arctic Char and Snow Goose (the snow goose populations have exploded and they few over us in the hundreds and thousands during migration further north). Everyone at the camp knew how to shoot a gun, many of them because they had worked in regions with polar bears and others because they or their family members hunted. I decided that since there was a lot of down time I would learn how to shoot a gun and I received lessons on both rifle and shotgun training. The rifle had barely any kick at all but the shotgun certainly wakes you up when you shoot. Surprisingly though neither hurt my shoulder as I had expected. Now at least I know what it feels like to shoot and I feel that if I did have to work in a region with polar bears (there were none where we were) I would be able to do a descent job in a gun training course.

The nights were nearly non-existent and although the sun was not above the horizon at midnight (one needs to be above the Arctic Circle for that), it did not slip below the horizon until 10:30 at night and the sky was still edged in a pink and golden light at midnight. It was like a five-hour sunset/sunrise as the sun hung just below the northern horizon before rising like a fiery red ball just before 4 am.

On June 9th the snow had finally melted enough to begin work. We went to five different 10 ha plots a day and surveyed for as many territorial or nesting birds as we could find. Each day a coast guard helicopter arrived to fly us to our plots. I have never in my life ridden in a helicopter for so much time (almost 30 hours in all) and at it was spectacular. I loved the feeling of flying, simply floating off the ground without a runway. The freedom to hover, to land anywhere and to spin in circles while surveying was a huge benefit was exciting. We flew at approximately the soaring height of a large raptor and I felt that it was the closest thing to flying without aid that I have experienced (I will need to try hand gliding!). Below us the tundra looked endless and we could see small groups of Caribou migrating north. The ground was crisscrossed with their migration trails. Also clearly visible from the air were hummocks, frost boils, tussock wetlands, and in a few places tundra polygons and eskers. All of these landforms are the result of glaciers or permafrost.

As the days passed, more and more snow melted causing fast flowing melt rivers to cut impressive gorges through snow filled valleys. On Hudson Bay water formed over the thick ice producing a stunning shade of aqua blue. Each day the helicopter dropped each of us at a different plot and we had just over an hour to survey. The first few times I got tingles as I watched the helicopter fly away and realized that I was completely alone is this barren and at the same time vibrantly alive landscape.Although we did not find any shorebird nests due to the late spring thaw we were able to get data on territorial pairs and I learned quite a number of shorebird aerial displays. We did find a few passerine nests and to my utter delight I found both a Rough-legged Hawk nest and a Snowy Owl. Both nests gave me stunning views of the adult birds as they circled and called at me for my invasion.All in all it was for me a very successful trip. I met a lot of interesting people and our camp had an excellent group dynamic which made it fun to live there. I didn’t even miss showers! I saw many new things but missed enough (for example full midnight sun, the northern lights, musk oxen, phalaropes, gyrfalcons and perhaps polar bear) to want to do it again.

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