How travelling helps me appreciate life – examples from the Arctic

While walking at lunch the other day I saw a bumblebee, and I stopped, and I watched it. In that moment I was fully present. Thoughts about work evaporated and my mind was focused. I smiled because there are bees in this world and because they do amazing work.

Then my mind wandered to the bumblebees I saw while volunteering with the Canadian Wildlife Service in the Arctic this June*. There, I marvelled at the bees even more than at home in Toronto.

Bumblebee in a dwarf willow, Baker Lake, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Bumblebee in a dwarf willow, Baker Lake, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Arctic bumblebees, and other Arctic insects, face severe cold in winter, unpredictable cold snaps in summer, and almost endless wind. The bees beat the cold by being large (lower surface to volume ratio) and by “shivering” (rapidly contracting their flight muscles). They also sit in the center of bowl-shaped flowers on cold, but sunny days. The petals of the flower focus the sun’s rays making a perfect basking spot. Other Arctic pollinators, like flies and mosquitoes, do this too. And Arctic pollinators don’t hover lazily around flowers like my Toronto bee. In a land of winds that can knock a human down, insects often eschew flying altogether, preferring to crawl from flower to flower.

In the Arctic I paid attention to bees because I was fascinated by how they survived in a place that is cold and windy most of the year. That fascination made me more attuned to bees back home as well.

This is what I love about traveling. It wakes me up and makes me pay attention. The effect is especially potent when I travel to places that take me to the boundaries of my experience. While on such trips – whether navigating a new and exotic (to me) city, or surveying wildlife in a remote plot – I must be present, must take in my surroundings, must live in the moment. I am wide open to the stimuli around me, and because I am paying full attention, I can fully appreciate my experience.

My trip to the Arctic offered many moments of appreciation. I appreciate caterpillars more because of the Arctic Wooly Bear** (Gynaephora groenlandica).

Arctic woolly bear, Kivalliq region, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Arctic woolly bear, Kivalliq region, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

 If you look closely at the Arctic tundra (which one does when looking for nests) you are bound to see a big caterpillar completely covered in long rusty coloured hairs (hence “Wooly”). These caterpillars spend nearly 90% of their lives frozen! They feed and grow only in June, then retreat to a protective cocoon for the rest of the short summer and go dormant for the winter. Such a protracted life cycle means that it can take 7 years to go from caterpillar to moth***. So the caterpillars I saw could have been 7 years old!

I appreciate helicopters more because there were no roads to the places I visited in the Arctic. We used our helicopter like a taxi, sometimes travelling hundreds of kilometers a day.

Me and “my ride” on the tundra. Photo: Jennie Rausch

Me and “my ride” on the tundra. Photo: Jennie Rausch

When people ask me what super power I want, my answer is invariably soaring flight, Flight in a helicopter is as close as I’ve ever come to soaring. I loved the feeling of flying, and I especially love the freedom of simply floating off the ground without a runway. The freedom to hover and to land anywhere is essential for Arctic fieldwork. Now when I hear a helicopter buzz by in Toronto, I am brought back to the tundra and the sound of “my ride” approaching to pick me up.

From the helicopter I had a bird’s eye view of a landscape that many “southerners” like me have never seen.

Landscape near Arviat, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Landscape near Arviat, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Melting sea ice on Hudson Bay. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Melting sea ice on Hudson Bay. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Tundra beneath clouds near Arviat. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Tundra beneath clouds near Arviat. Photo: Debbie Buehler

From the helicopter I saw herds of caribou – one day we had hundreds – and from the air I could easily see that the ground was crisscrossed with their migration trails. The aerial view also made it easy to see landforms made by glaciers and permafrost: hummocks, frost boils, tussock wetlands, eskers, raised beaches and tundra polygons.

Low-centered tundra polygons. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Low-centered tundra polygons. Photo: Debbie Buehler

To my delight, we also saw muskoxen from the air in small herds, including a few young. After landing at one plot, I was even able to snap a picture of one from the ground.

Muskox in the distance as seen from the ground. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Muskox in the distance as seen from the ground. Photo: Debbie Buehler

One particular sighting truly made me appreciate the helicopter – a mama Grizzly and her cub (sorry no photo, though I do have a very unprofessional video). I can assure you that I only wanted to see bears from the helicopter!

Beautiful places arrived at by helicopter. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Beautiful places arrived at by helicopter. Photo: Debbie Buehler

I appreciate satellite technology more because sometimes you need to make a call because you are almost out of fuel and are, literally, in the middle of nowhere. This happened when our team was deep in the Barrenlands of the Northwest Territories. Our cabin was over a hundred kilometers to the northeast in Nunavut. We had just finished a productive day of fieldwork and our pilot set a course for the fuel cache we needed to get home. But when we arrived at the coordinates there was nothing there! No fuel. This was a problem. The next nearest cache was at our cabin! When you run out of fuel in the tundra, it means staying where you are until fuel can be brought to you (could be days) with nothing but the helicopter for shelter (for 5 people). I will admit that this made me nervous, but the more experienced folks on the team were not worried. Luckily, we had not one, not two, not three, but four satellite telephones on us (the helicopter had two and each survey team leader had one). We used this rather amazing technology to call colleagues at Environment Canada who immediately put us in touch with the owners of the fuel cache. To our great relief, the minutes in the coordinates we were given were off. We were only 9 km away from fuel (as the helicopter flies). With one call, and within a few minutes, our problem was solved!

The elusive Hanbury fuel cache. Photo: Debbie Buehler

The elusive Hanbury fuel cache. Photo: Debbie Buehler

I appreciate showers more. This tends to happen when you live in a place with no running water for a while. I appreciated showers even more after returning from three weeks on the Mauritanian desert coast in 2006!

Finally, I appreciate my family more. My three weeks in the Arctic were the longest I have been away from my kids (or from my husband since having kids). It made me realize that, although I can still have my freedom and my adventures, I am tethered now. Each time talked to my family on the phone – whether from a hotel room in an Inuit hamlet or from a satellite phone on the tundra– I felt a tug of longing to be with them. The sound of my kid’s voices made me long to hug them and to smell their familiar scent. Noticing that tug in my gut, really feeling it, made me appreciate that I now have a safety line that guides me home. It changes my behaviour, makes me more careful, so that I can keep my promise of “mommy will be home soon.”

Appreciating my boys at the Aquarium back home in Toronto. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Appreciating my boys at the Aquarium back home in Toronto. Photo: Debbie Buehler

I have been back for more than a month and things are pretty much business as usual. But in the Arctic I practiced living in the moment, I practiced seeing my surroundings, and I practiced appreciation. I’ve brought that appreciation home with me.

While walking I saw bumblebee and I stopped and I watched it. I did not wander to thoughts of pollinators being in trouble. I just noticed the bee – and I smiled – with pure appreciation.

______________________________________________________________

* 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 as a volunteer.

** For those who know the “Wooly bear” to be the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger moth, this is a different Wooly bear

*** Revised from the 14-year estimate in E. C. Pielou’s book.

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This entry was posted in mindfulness, nature, Science, travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How travelling helps me appreciate life – examples from the Arctic

  1. Sarah says:

    A fabulous post Deb! 🙂

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