We’ve recently come back from a successful five days out on the ice drilling holes, taking measurements and testing different fishing gear to see what fish occur in the area (see that story here). We were in the St. Roch Basin, northwest of Gjoa Haven, if you’re keeping tabs.

It's not always smooth riding when traversing the ice near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. I had to hang on for dear life!

It’s not always smooth riding when traversing the sea ice near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. I had to hang on for dear life!

The snow machine that I was to drive was broken, and I ended up riding behind a machine on a sled called a “komatiq.” Now, if you had the impression that the sea ice is nice and flat, take a ride in a komatiq and you’ll soon learn how far that is from the truth. It was a test of the strength of the human backbone, a test that I might have failed if not for the skilled driving of Saul Qirnginq, the Elder and hunter I brought as a guide. Still, I might just be an inch or two shorter than I was the week prior.

Travelling out on the sea ice, far from land, can be a dangerous endeavor. We had a few days of total whiteout conditions – a situation in which there is no visible difference between the snow and the sky, and there is no horizon with which to orient oneself. You can’t see the condition of the ice ahead of you and travel is slow, if you choose to move at all.

Saul’s job was to keep us safe, and he did a stellar job. Between his knowledge of the ice and my GPS, we eventually made it to each day’s camping location (which, in whiteout conditions, looked just like that of the day before), drilled our holes and did our work.

Probably the most dangerous thing we did during the trip was go to “the washroom.” The polite thing to do is take a snow machine away from camp to take care of the business at hand. But in whiteout conditions, it’s hard to tell if a polar bear has found your scent, and it’s important to keep scanning while, er, going.

On the second night we came across fresh tracks from a small polar bear near camp. A small polar bear is still a polar bear, and the small ones can be the most dangerous; they’re poorer hunters and get bullied by other bears, making them hungry more often and just a bit on the desperate side. Getting back to camp safely gave new meaning to the term “relieving oneself.”

Next, I’ll be training the Junior Canadian Rangers (JCRs) to do the same scientific sampling that I did all last week. We’ll leave the equipment here in the community and they’ll conduct the work once a month in the bay on which Gjoa Haven sits as part of the Ikaarvik program. I went over the data from the recent trip with the JCRs last night and we concluded with a game of floor hockey, which I lost by an embarrassing margin.

Blog post written by Eric Solomon, Vancouver Aquarium’s director of Arctic Connections. Eric is in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut and traveling along the eastern coast of King William Island with the Canadian Rangers Ocean Watch to collect important data about our oceans as part of the Ikaarvik: Barriers to Bridges program.

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