My Summer Vacation: A Trip to the Arctic amid Truth, Reconciliation and Coalitions for Climate Action

I went to the Arctic for my summer vacation.

To be specific, I volunteered* with the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and joined a team of CWS scientists in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories to study shorebirds as part of the Arctic Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (Arctic PRISM). I was a volunteer, but I am also a trained shorebird ecologist turned university administrator, so for me the trip was part adventure, part scientific data collection, and part blissful 3-week escape from email. Oh, and I really loved the flying in a helicopter part. I was in the air for 20 or the 21 days I was away!

“My ride” in the tundra while volunteering in the Canadian Arctic

“My ride” in the tundra while volunteering in the Canadian Arctic. Photo: Debbie Buehler

But fun and adventure aside, it was an auspicious time for a trip to the Arctic.

Only days before I left, the True and Reconciliation Commission released its summary report. I am not a social scientist; I have only average knowledge about the plight of aboriginal peoples in Canada, yet the opportunity to visit the Northern communities of Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Baker Lake and Yellowknife, so soon after the report was released, left a lasting impression.

Then, upon my return, my children and I attended the March for Jobs, Justice and Climate Action. It was inspiring; and it brought together a coalition of diverse groups working towards common goals – First Nations, labour unions, students, activists, cyclists, and people like me with young kids who want to make a difference.

Jobs, Justice and Climate Action marchers reflected in Toronto’s gleaming glass.

Jobs, Justice and Climate Action marchers reflected in Toronto’s gleaming glass. Photo: Debbie Buehler

My family joined a small group of people working together to commit 15 min acts of climate action each month. Started by a professor Dan Dolderman and his kids (check out his incredible TEDX talk), the group’s metaphor is an Unstoppable Snowball, something that starts small, but gains momentum as it grows.

“My ride” (the family sedan) for the march in Toronto.

“My ride” (the family sedan) for the march in Toronto. Photo: Debbie Buehler

So, did I see evidence of climate change on my trip?

I was last in the Arctic in June 2002. On that visit, I arrived to a frozen Nunavik (Arctic Quebec). There was still at least a meter of snow on the ground, so much snow that the plane couldn’t land and we had to snowmobile to our camp. The birds had barely arrived and were hunkered down in the snow. This year, we arrived about a week later by the calendar, and on the western rather than the eastern shore of Hudson Bay. There was very little snow left and the birds were already starting to nest. Was this climate change? It would be pretty unscientific to say so. For one thing I was in a different part of the Arctic, for another, I had arrived later in the year. I would have needed to visit the same site and to look at it in the same way over time.

This is exactly what the PRISM project is doing. Scientists are systematically surveying random sites within a series of set regions across Alaska and Canada and returning to those sites at set intervals to track the health of shorebird populations. This summer alone, we collected data on 57 plots in the Kivalliq region of Arctic Canada, while a second team performed intensive surveys on a plot in Polar Bear Pass. For those who are interested there is already a monograph on the past 10 years of work.

Putting the scientist in me aside, it was hard to visit the Arctic without seeing things that, at least anecdotally, reminded me of climate change. In Iqaluit smelly gas bubbles leaked up through the thawing tundra. (This is not necessarily new, but it reminded me of much larger methane bubbles and even craters in Siberia). In Yellowknife, I was greeted by a red and hazy sky, evidence of wildfires fuelled by heat and drought in Saskatchewan and across western Canada.

For the most part though, I was lucky to see an Arctic still outwardly unmarred by climate change. Indeed, for three weeks I saw a land of immense beauty – both in its landscapes and in its people.

A land that humbled me with its vastness.

Scientist dwarfed by the tundra

Scientist dwarfed by the tundra. Photo: Debbie Buehler

A land of snowmobiles and living skies.

Snowmobiles on the ice in Baker Lake.

Snowmobiles on the ice in Baker Lake. Photo: Debbie Buehler

A land of abundant wildlife.

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Arctic Ground Squirrels (Sik-Siks). Photo: Debbie Buehler

Arctic Ground Squirrels (Sik-Siks). Photo: Debbie Buehler

Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope. Photo: Debbie Buehler

An immense, wild and (often) frozen place that I would hate to lose to climate change.

Sun at 10 pm over Hudson Bay near Rankin Inlet

Sun at 10 pm over Hudson Bay near Rankin Inlet. Photo: Debbie Buehler

I plan to write more about this 2015 trip to the Arctic and to share more of the hundreds of pictures I took. If any of you would like a guest post/article around the shorebird work, the Arctic tundra, or the communities I visited, let me know and I will be happy to oblige J.

* The views expressed in this, or any other, article written about my experience, are mine alone. I am not an employee of the Canadian Wildlife Service, though I thank them for inviting me on this incredible journey.

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2 Responses to My Summer Vacation: A Trip to the Arctic amid Truth, Reconciliation and Coalitions for Climate Action

  1. Joe Hessberger says:

    Well, now you understand why the High Arctic is one of my favourite places in the world. I spent a few years and all of the seasons flying up there. If you are interested, research Dr. Schledermann. He was instrumental in the anthropological findings concerning the early Norse peoples in the Arctic Ilands. I worked for him in the eighties as part of a contract with The Canadian Continental Polar Shelf project.

    Great pictures,

    Cheers,
    Uncle Joe

  2. Brad Andres says:

    Glad you got to return Deborah. The Canadian Arctic makes Alaska look crowded! Nice tie to action down south to affect change to preserve the Arctic and its cultures.

    Brad

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