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~ ARCTIC SUMMER, 1986 ~


1986 was a cold summer in Canada, a mere 40 frost-free days in Alberta that year. I spent that summer with the Geological Survey of Canada in the high Arctic, near Grinnell Peninsula (NW Devon Island), and Spence Bay (SW Boothia Peninsula). That summer the snow never left the ground on Devon Island. At least Boothia Peninsula was snow-free, and this was its west side (the east side is a popular thoroughfare for caribou and, um, polar bears). To see where all this happened, go to Andrew's Where in the World? map and select 1986a or b.

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... The Arctic landscape had a way of making you feel this small - all political leaders should be subjected to it - 1000 ft. cliffs with puny tents nestled at their feet.

... Twin Otter aircraft tearing up the 100' runway - that's feet, paces, not meters or anything more - the 'runways' consist of gravel beach or eskers.

... Have two Inuit guides - Canadian for Eskimo - one 'modern' in jean pants and jacket, baseball cap, sunglasses and Walkmans, listening to Talking Heads incessantly... the other in traditional garb including parka and mukluks his wife made for him, refusing to eat vegetables as his diet is meat-only... they both come from Gjoa Haven, half of the village that left Spence Bay across Prince William Sound, to start anew as a dry settlement (alcohol is the silent killer up North).

... I had the latter for my field guide, he could spot animals a mile away... he had no idea what plant species were as they ate none, but could tell the calorie value of a bird flying over the horizon... he always looked back, in order to recognize the return track in the featureless landscape... if it was foggy in the morning and he said not to bother with raingear, then sure enough sunshine would break two hours later (and vice-versa)... he'd say if you eat you get hungry, if you stop you get tired, which is counter-intuitive (Inuitive?) until you start marching non-stop for six hours across the water-logged landscape.. you learn to step on the willows, lest you sink in the mud at every single one of ten thousand steps that day.

... Those willows grow flat on the ground, maximizing their exposure to the sun, and minimizing that to the constant winds... but behind a table in the kitchen tent, they'll shoot up five feet... and leaving a lone row of spindly tress in an otherwise featureless landscape after camp is broken.

... Yet in the leeward side of a polar bear skull found on the ground, grows an Eden of moss and wild periwinkles (must use southern terms, as Inuit don't name plants)... was a juvenile bear judging by the ridges on its unworn canines... its brain perfectly freeze-dried and shrunken inside the skull... the cheekbones outlining the fearsome size of the jaw muscles, powering two-inch long canines and inch wide molars.

Top Bottom ... Scientists get all excited, because they discovered a new hairy caterpillar, that lives its entire life-cycle (maturation, fertilization and egg-laying) in three weeks in the summer, before hibernating for the remaining 49 weeks... but the Inuit guide say "so what else is new? see them all the time!".

... Watch flights of Brant geese, whose habitat is North Greenland, but got swept far west in unusual storm patterns that cover the ground with snow this summer... indeed, most migrating birds stopped their northward journey early and never reached the Arctic Islands, spelling difficulties for the hunting Inuit.

... The Canadian government asks us to record any artifact found in the Arctic wasteland, as coverage of that area is otherwise minimal... plane wrecks, abandoned buildings, any remains of the Franklin expedition or other boat or overland ones by Peary or others... we also record twice a day meteorological data and location, again due to otherwise sparse data coverage... and at the same time we radio to report our well-being, so that no-one is more than 12 hours out of touch.

 ... In 1985, we hear East German radio broadcasts over the Pole, extolling the virtues of Communism to anyone who cares to listen in German in the Arctic (which no Inuit and few visitors spoke).

... Keep to the leeward side of solid 40 gallon drums or flapping tents ... away from the constant and stiff wind off the frozen ice-caps into the warmer ice-free sea.

... Jumklas (catastrophic break of ice dams) racing slush atop the glaciers, at a speed none living could outrun, and so dense it cannot be swum in either.

... At the head of a bay, watch polar bear approach ... uh oh! I'm upwind - it always blows from land to sea - and therefore the bear must know I'm there ... forget the camera, load the gun, remember the practice routine... like, wait until it's 30 ft (again paces not meters) away from you, yeah right! ... then watch it walk off into the distance, only then I remember I'm at he head of a bay... and it was simply following the lea of the coastline, chasing the seal sunning along shore near the broken ice.

... Fly away in the Bell 206 or 210 - chopper workhorses, small and large - remember to load the slug from the shotgun into your jean pockets when flying, to keep the gun safe when aloft... the pilot is a Viet vet, he wags the tail of the helicopter before takeoff to ensure the rear propeller still works (enemy fire tended to hit the aircraft in the tail, as flight speed is often underestimated and bullets hit too late and thus toward the rear), and then proceeds to fly 30 feet (again, that's feet not meters) 'off the deck' - off the ground -, and delights in swinging the chopper to a halt, tilting its nose up as our guts sink into our heels (that pilot used to rescue downed jet pilots in the Laotian jungle, so he'd race full-tilt barely above treetops, then suddenly dropped into a clearing when he spotted someone, hopefully an American lest he stared down the barrel of enemy fire!).

... Land near camp, then the pilot decamps... Why? Over the ridge stands a wall of ten to twelve muskoxen, protecting their young behind... The pilot radios "no worries, I'll return when they leave"... But will that happen before nightfall? The pilot's fear stemmed from experiences on the eastern, opposite side of Boothia Peninsula, where polar bears actually race toward helicopters as they land... And the week before, the camp cook had to shoot one in her kitchen tent!

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... Watch the spot the Inuit guide proudly reports he killed his polar bear that winter - Native were allowed one kill per year, and the only ones allowed to operate a gun, except in an emergency - as he laughingly recounts chasing bears in the snow on skidoo the previous winter ... Stay off the right flank, he says, as most bears are born 'bent to the left' - sideways in the womb, thus turn easier to the left, and less likely to cut you off in pursuit if you stick to their right - else you don't live to tell the tale.

... Watch the caribou scamper in the distance, head held high in the somewhat comical pride of a midget - they're in fact the size of a pony, dwarfed by bear and musk ox.

... Trudge along the coast, among raised beaches - stranded by the glacial rebound - with funeral stone igloos left farther inland as they get older... as well as stone nests, purportedly built by Vikings to attract eider geese who feathered their nests... also found a few lead musket balls, the Arctic Institute of North America determined to date from the 1600s.

... Find caches from the fifties, some marked by upright whale ribs, most by stands of 40 gallon drums... pop the barrels open and find well-preserved cans of peanut butter (yum!), dried bananas (crunch!) and spam (blek!)... muse on the fact the lost Franklin expedition could have used those untainted cans a century earlier, straight across the bay on Prince William Sound.

... Return from east-central Arctic to base in west-central Arctic, planes guided by sun-compasses as the magnetic north is right about in that area... notice what's 'wrong with the picture', when flying west - the sun is to starboard and thus to the north - the Arctic midnight sun, that is.

... Sit out the fog on southern Cornwallis Island, as Resolute Bay was built at the locus of a well-known perennial fog bank, had anyone cared to ask the Inuit before the US military built the base there... in a game of chicken with the Canadians whose sovereignty over the polar region is still in dispute (see a little more on this here).

... Return to Yellowknife, and watch the F-18 jet fighter from the USAF take off in waves... thundering down the runway, tilting nose-up and using the ground (not thin air) to augment their thrust and climb vertiginously... these are war-games with US Navy jets based in Pangnitung on Baffin Island further east... their 'playground' consists of the entire pie from the Alaska border, up to the North Pole, and down toward Greenland... the previous year, the Navy won the war-games by using automobile radar detectors, which gave their pilots a split-second advantage to detect USAF jets... radar detectors cost $100 each, against jets $10M apiece?

... Arctic high altitude pilots (jet liners, not propeller-driven planes and choppers) report already in the mid-eighties, the pitting of windshields thru airborne solid pollutants such as dust and sand... they say wind patterns corkscrew northward, and concentrate pollutants over the Pole... this well before knowledge around holes in the ozone layer, melting ice and rising sea-level!
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