What Did Kevin Get Himself Into Now?

What Did Kevin Get Himself Into Now?

This summer I was lucky enough to get a job working with Environment Canada at the world’s most northern permanently inhabited location in the World! (no, not Santa’s Palace nor Superman’s Crib, but they live close by) This location is of course Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut (aka CFS Alert). Alert started out as a joint weather station between the US and Canada, now it is a military station run by the Canadian Air Force and has approximatey 100 personnel, most of which are military. The position I have is with the GAW (Global Atmosphere Watch) lab which collects data on a variety of surface and atmospheric a variables as well as pollutants.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A Little About Alert

Alert, Nunavut, is the northernmost permanently inhabited location in the world, located above 82 degrees north. This puts Alert well within the Arctic Circle, giving it a very harsh climate. Alert experiences about 5 months of light, 5 months of darkness, and 2 months of twilight (no, not the movie twilight, thank god). Sometimes the 24 Hrs of daylight can be annoying, others times it is nice. For me, it is sometimes convenient because I am never worried about hiking too far and not getting back to station before nightfall. I can’t imagine what it would be like in total darkness, I would definitely not enjoy it as much because I wouldn’t be able to go hiking anywhere leaving me with a lot more spare time. People here are really friendly though and are quite easy to get to know and hang out with.

(The red arrow points to Alert, where I am!)
The beautiful and rugged landscape is home to few animals and flora. There are some areas where all you that can be seen for miles are rocks and mud. The sporadic valleys between mountains serve as oases for Peary caribou, arctic hare, and the occasional muskox. The flora is largely limited to flowers, patches of grass, moss, and the odd looking willow (poor excuse for a “tree”, has almost no vertical growth as it mostly sprawls across the rocks)

These are some pictures of a muskox that I saw while hiking south of the station.

There are lots of wolves and birds and a few foxes too. The wolves are hardly afraid of people, they are definitely not afraid to see how close they can get. Wolves can always be seen around the station, best practise is to carry a weapon of some sort if you go walking/hiking any far distance (no joke). I've never hear of them attacking anyone unprovoked, but a long stick is nice to have to keep them at a comfortable distance. It’s also never a good idea to leave doors open, the wolves around here are very curious and occasionally venture inside the buildings, once one snuck into the kitchen and had to be chased out. Usually they get the idea to back off if you wave a large enough stick at them. They're not as mean as they look though, just hungry, sometimes they try to scamper off with a shoe or glove.

Onto details about actually living on station! Well, first off, you will have lots of free time. On the bright side, there are many organized activities and things to keep everyone busy. The bar is open every night and it always hosts an activity, which, if you come in first, second or third, you win prize money (usually between 25$ and 5$). The more "low key" nights at the bar are Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. On these days you can join in on a euchre, crib, darts, or bingo tournaments, respectively. Wednesdays, and Saturdays usually have a few more people. Wednesdays feature a pool tournament and ‘Mess night’ where they give out door prizes. Saturdays are ok because there is usually a movie on at the theatre and a poker tournament going on. Fridays are, in my opinion, the best nights of the week because the bar gives out a limited number of free drinks (you can usually get 2 to 3, some nights you don’t have to pay for any). The bars are pretty nice, they have pool tables, dart boards, poker tables, etc.

There are also lots of sports going on, usually one every night of the week. I don’t remember which sport is on which specific night, other than hockey, which is played on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Badmington, volleyball, soccer, and basketball are often organized in the gym. I have to add that there are fairly good weight rooms and treadmills on station, and they are hardly ever busy.

Oh yea, another thing, the food here is fantastic and to top that off all the food is free! It can be hard to stop eating sometimes haha. There is a cafeteria that serves food from 7:00 to 8:00Hrs, 12:00 to 13:00Hrs and 17:00 to 18:00Hrs. Each hallway also has its own common kitchen stocked with basic stuff like breakfast foods, microwavable foods, canned foods, nutella, etc. Mostly everyone up here has lots of spare time, I usually spend the majority of my time hiking, working out, playing pool, reading, or watching movies.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

A Hike Out To The Tragic Box-Top 22 Crash Site

Box-Top 22 was a CC-130 plane (AKA a Hercules) that crashed during a supply run in October 1991. Every year the station runs operation “Box-Top” where the station is refilled with many essential supplies, this operation usually lasts around a few weeks. These operations usually occur in the spring and fall, just after and just before the dark season (because Alert is well within the Arctic Circle it is completely dark for about 6 months).

During the 1991 operation Box-Top one of the planes got caught in a blizzard just before getting to Alert. Unfortunately, the plane crashed approximately 15 kilometres south of the station. Only four died upon impact, and the pilot lost his life while waiting for the rescue crew, leaving a total of 13 survivors. To the extent of my knowledge, it took approximately 48 hours for a rescue team to reach the crash site during the blizzard conditions.

This crash site is located at the very edge of the allowable travelling limits from station. Naturally, I wanted to try to hike to it. Very few people hike out to the crash site, for good reasons, I believe the last group to hike out to the crash site was quite a few years ago. In the way are rivers, marshes, and deceptive rolling hills of tundra. What makes it a really hard hike is that we could not find any GPS co-ordinates for the crash site, and to top that off most of the maps of the area are from the 80’s and not very reliable. We did have one advantage though, that was that one guy from our hiking group had worked in Alert for five years, knew the area very well, and is an experienced tracker/hiker. So myself, and four of my adventurous friends, took off one early morning for what would be about a 30 kilometre hike (roundtrip).

Our first bout of excitement came when we were crossing a marsh/valley (well during the spring it is marsh) about 7 kilometres from station. To our surprise three small peary caribou came trotting from one side of the valley towards us.

These little guys were a very curious bunch. It`s not very often that caribou are spotted, and luckily they were just as interested in us as we were in them. But we were short on time and had a very long hike ahead of us, so we snapped a few pictures and carried on. Surprisingly, they followed us for a while, but stayed back in the safety of the valley and left us to hike out towards the barren tundra ahead.

Past the valley was a very unforgiving wasteland, hardly any vegetation could be seen at all. After a couple of hours of hiking and crossing a couple of streams we reached our first big obstacle. A melt-water river more than 6 feet deep in some places. The timing of our hike was far from optimal because, well, we did it a couple of weeks after the rivers had peaked with melt-water. We had to do it at this time though because our most experienced member was leaving in a couple days, and this was his last weekend on station.

Luckily, we found a spot that was knee deep, unfortunately it was also about 80 feet wide. The picture above is the river I am writing about, on the left side you can see two of my hiking party. (The barren rocky-ness on the right side was characteristic of most of the terrain). We had anticipated such obstacles and we came prepared, mostly. Our strategy: Pants off (or rolled up if possible), slip on some old running shoes, and carry your boots as well as the rest of your kit across the icy stream. As soon as we arrive at the other side we planned on throwing on lots of warm clothing and waiting a few minutes to warm up.

We knew that the river was going to be very, very cold, but none of us, except Phillip (our most experienced hiker I keep talking of, he is also Inuit…) were really prepared for the cold. The intense feeling of cold was more than I had ever imagined possible. Yep, my skin went through the typical burning cold sensation, followed by the expected numbing (as if walking on a couple of blocks of ice). Then came the real pain which was a deep bone stinging/ache that directed all of your thoughts to one thing: Holy S**T my feet are cold. So, upon arriving at the other side we all did the same thing: collapsed and held our feet in a desperate attempt to warm them up and relieve the cold. Of course it really wasn`t that bad, that bone-aching feeling diminished after 5-10 minutes. And it was pretty funny to see the first few members of our group cross and then collapse, not so funny when I was crossing myself though. Soon enough we had our feet dried, fresh socks on and we were ready to continue our trek

It took us a few hours to get to the general location of the crash area, followed by another few hours hopelessly wandering the tundra looking for the actual plane. Don’t worry Ma’, we had GPS coordinates back to our truck, so we weren’t really lost, we knew precisely where we were. However, the ambiguity of our map left us wondering where the exact location of the plane was.

Eventually we saw a blue tip that was the plane’s tail and headed straight for it. After arriving at the wreckage it was hard to imagine anyone surviving this crash. Pieces of the plane were littered all over the place. In addition to that, the only major intact piece of the plane was the tail end. A few propellers and engines were identifiable, but not much else.

Unfortunately, a few minutes after we arrived at the Box-Top 22 crash site, fog started to roll in. We did have a GPS and the coordinates to get back to our truck, but we did not have the coordinates for where we crossed the main river. This posed a bit of a problem, especially after we learned how hard it was to find anything in this vast wasteland. So ten minutes after we arrived at our destination we took off, retracing our steps back to the river crossing we had taken earlier.

 As we hiked back the fog rolled in and out of our general area, allowing us to safely make it back to the river crossing. In the picture below you can kind of see what an endless wasteland the tundra around here is, nothing but rocks and mud for miles.

After crossing the river we had an easy hike back to our truck. We also had a visit from our three favourite caribou on the way back through the swampy valley between Mount Pullen and Crystal Mountain.

Turned out to be a great hike with a great bunch of guys, and I would gladly do it again. Above from left to right: Me, Cory, Cale, Marcus, Phillip.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Found an Ice Cave! Well eventually....

So I have taken three long trips out to a gorge near Kirk lake (about 8 km from the station) looking for some ice caves. I have seen pictures of them and have been given directions their general location, but no one could tell me exactly where they were or if they even still exist. Some people said that they would be snowed over at this time of year while others said that it was too warm and that they had probably melted. Well either way I tagged along and encouraged any trips going out looking for them. I just really like hiking.

Attempt 1

The first trip I took was a while ago, around early May, and I went with a couple other Environment Canada employees (Jane and Eric, they launch weather balloons and do a lot of meteorological work up here). There was still a lot of snow at this time so we were able to take some snowmobiles out. One of the difficulties though was finding the gorge. There aren’t any real roads up here, especially going out towards the Ice Caves. There was only a trail marked by rusted barrels, but most of those were covered by snow. Once we got to Kirk lake we took a break at the “Love Shack” which is really just an old fishing hut.

The Love Shack is hardly used now, but has quite a long history and from what I can tell must be pretty old (it has asbestos walls and flooring haha). A few years ago a couple of long time Alert civilian employees got married up here and had their honeymoon in that shack, and I am pretty sure that is how it got its name. Apparently they stayed out there for around 2 weeks!

We were surprised at what we found in the Love Shack, which was a variety of things. Most notably was an old hockey goalie mask and a home-made mace. Naturally we all did our best “mace murderer” impressions, pretty sure I was able to find the sociopathic killer look in me for this picture.

There was something scrawled on the side of the mace but it was really hard to make out what it was. Something about avenging someone who had been attacked by wolves… comforting, haha. The mace was some old club with a few nasty nails sticking out.

After our stop off at the Love Shack we decided to hike through the gorge looking for these ice caves. We finally got to the corner that looked like what was described to us but unfortunately we found no caves. All we found was a huge snowdrift, Eric and I decided to slide down it, you can pick up some pretty good speed on these drifts!). Even though we didn’t find any caves the excursion was tonnes of fun.

Attempt #2

Last Thursday I decided to hike up with a few other guys from around station, I thought that maybe things had melted enough to expose the ice caves. Turns out things weren’t done melting yet, and the melt-water streams were very deep and fast flowing.

It was pretty surprising how much had melted, and how many streams their were. Wasn’t much of a surprise that none of us got back to the station dry. But, we also saw a good deal of wildlife! Lots and lots of arctic hares, a couple leverets (baby arctic hares), and even a fox! So once again even though we didn’t find any ice caves the hike was well worth the trip.

Looking back at my pictures I can actually see where the snow was about to give way for the stream to burst through, pretty neat! On the right side of the picture below you can see a huge crack in the snowdrift.

Attempt #3

I found out about a group of people that wanted to go looking for the ice caves just this past Saturday. They asked me to help them get to the area since I had been there twice in the past month. I told them that I would love to come but that I had just been there on Thursday and that the ice caves were still not thawed. This deterred most of the group from coming, unfortunately. I feel pretty bad about this because it turns out the ice caves were open (Yay!).

They were pretty neat! They had formed by the melt-water bursting through a snow drift that fell between two ridges. Earlier in the spring the melt-water had just ran along side one of the ridges and on top of the snow, but as things melted and the flow of the stream increased the melt-water undercut the snow drift and burst out through its front wall. Pretty impressive, and frightening, especially since I had been sliding down that snow drift just a month ago.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Unforgiving Arctic

The arctic is a very unforgiving place and I can’t believe anything survives up here. I have been told that in the winter the temperature drops to -70 degrees Celsius and its average annual precipitation is only 6 inches, while only 0.7 inches of that is actual rainfall. With conditions like these it is no surprise that there is so little vegetation, and also so few animals. 7 months of the year it is complete darkness, whatever soil there is up here is also frozen solid for those eight months. These don’t exactly make for comfortable living conditions, and I don’t think anyone plans on opening any retirement homes or resorts up here either.

But there are many hidden treasures to be found in the arctic, little things that brighten your day when you see them.

The other day a friend of mine, Kristy, was talking about some caterpillars that exist out here, and that they only come out during the month of June. Well I do an exhausting amount of hiking (I love hiking), I might as well while I am up here, and decided to keep my eyes open for these caterpillars. Well I didn’t find any for quite a while haha. But, eventually, I spotted one! OK, so maybe I was really out hiking with Kristy and she spotted it, either way I got to take a couple pictures.

We found this little guy by the side of the road surrounded by rocks, so we brought him over to the biggest pile of vegetation we could find. This caterpillar is an Arctic Wooly-Bear caterpillar. Apparently these guys spend over 90 percent of their lives frozen! The lifecycle of these caterpillars is approximately 7 years, but that includes the time it is an egg till when it is a fully grown moth, still impressive. Nobody ever drives on that road but me, but still, I am sure he loved his new home.


Another beautiful thing about the tundra is that you can find these patches of flowers, purple saxifrage, scattered all over. It’s amazing that these things grow up here, and they are usually found in the most rocky/desolate areas. I mean, sometimes I find them growing straight out of a pile of shale, with no apparent source of water for nearly fifty feet, nor any signs of fertile soil.

There is also a local wolf pack up here in Alert. Normally, arctic wolves would survive mainly off of lemmings (which I have yet to snap a photo of, they are so fast!), arctic hare, and the occasional caribou or muskox when they come around. But because they do visit the station all the time, I can only assume that they do sometimes eat garbage. Nonetheless, these wolves have a hard ‘nough life!


Pebbles (as named by the inhabitants of the station) was one of the wolves in the local wolf pack.

Pebbles was probably the most photogenic wolf that I have ever seen and is always around station. But she has good reason to stick around, she was kicked out of the wolf pack. We can assume this because when the pack goes out hunting for a few weeks at a time she stays here by herself.

Unfortunately, the pack came back to the station one week and beat the crap out of Pebbles. Then the next week they did it again, she ended up getting sick, and died. That’s life in the arctic, unforgiving. Of course I personified that story a bit, I mean, this is the arctic. The wolves are wild animals, they do things more out of instinct than malicious intent, and they’re doing what they have to in order to survive up here.

Rabbits, there are lots of them. These arctic hares grow to be up to 70 cm long, larger than a lot of dogs. And they come in herds up here. I mean, I have been told that in the summer they have been seen to aggregate into groups of over 50! The largest herd that I have seen is seven, and frankly, it might be a bit frightening to be hiking and then stumble upon a pack of fifty of these guys. They do kind of freak you out when they start running on their hind legs like a bipedal (yea they do that up here for some reason)