Arctic Memories

Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island is less a discrete event and more a blur of experiences that is difficult to distil into a single entry. Instead I have compiled a few of my thoughts at the time, taken from my letters and diary entries. 

We have arrived on Qikiqtaruk. It is hot and sunny as we unload the plane. The small camp stands out against the mass of the island, ringed by waves. It is both bleak and incredibly beautiful.

Silence on the tundra, but for the wind and the distant waves. There is an immense feeling of solitude.

Walked a fair distance today looking for sites to bury teabags for the decomposition experiment. Found five suitable sites but lost one radio. I should be able to get away with blaming Joe once we get back to base. One site was hidden in an ice creek, and we stumble upon a family of cranes limping away hastily before taking to the skies.

Time moves slowly when you are collecting samples. To help it pass I have been writing songs about the vegetation.

We keep our eyes on the sky as we head out along the coast –  several of our sites are beyond a steep creek closely guarded by rough legged hawks. We collect root collars and leaves and flowers to the sound of their screeches as they wheel overhead.

Paden has taken us on a boat trip around the island to find a new drone site. Joe and I climb the ridge behind the landing site to uncover the view. In front of us, framed by the hills, a herd of around ten muskox are grazing, black and shaggy, refusing stoutly to respect the passage of time. Behind us, a scatter of icebergs of the most incredible blue, rising in anvils and needles and grand pianos. We end the trip with hotdogs on the beach and skimming stones.

A day clouded in mist as the float plane attempts to land, eventually splashing down in the bay to much relief. We watch from Collinson Head, taking a break from point-framing. A radio message comes through that a pod of Belugas are moving along the shore, so we head over to the cliffs. Something explodes out the water, and before long we are amongst a multitude of white bodies rising and falling through the waves, clouds of spray rising with each breath.

Joined briefly on the island by some Government ministers. They are slightly confused by our schedule – perhaps it is not normal to have lunch at 7pm. It is still raining heavily here. All my clothes are very wet and there is a pool of water in my tent. It is supposed to freeze tomorrow.

A beautiful morning. The mountains on the far shore jut out through the mist and are awash in a pink-orange light that shines through the storm.

Out in the tundra collecting plant samples. The bags disintegrate too quickly. More rain rolls in and we must return to camp. The opposite shore disappears as a thick sleet blows in from the sea. Everything is very wet and very cold.

Sat in the lab for much of the remainder of the day. My breath rises in clouds as I try to process all the plants, weighing and scanning the tiny leaves. Discovered that the canopy height in our plots has increased by a factor of five in the last fifteen years. The Arctic changes quickly.

The storm is setting in. Wind is tearing through the camp; were it not for the weather shelters the tents would be blown away. Even within the wall of logs the tent shakes and I can feel it lifting around me. Not far away the waves are slowly eating up the beach. The sea is already in the camp and it is possible the runway will be topped, leaving us stranded. Most of all, the storm is loud – the wind and the sea and the rain.

Was lucky enough to be offered a helicopter ride this evening. A strange feeling as we took off almost without movement, and stranger still to see the tracks and landscapes we had been exploring from the air. We hug the coastline before turning inland, looping around lakes, permafrost slumps, and a retreating grizzly bear. I can see the tired bodies of the rest of Team Shrub in the distance as they return home from fieldwork. They give us a friendly wave. I am in slight fear of being ostracised by the rest of Team Shrub once they find out I am on board.

Passed two Muskox butting heads on the beach. They are not really bothered by our presence and eventually move off back up the hill.

Another boat trip, this time perched on the edge of the Zodiac as we speed over to Slump D. We spend a few hours exploring that cathedral of ice and soil, throwing clods into its mysterious depths, and trying (and almost failing) not to lose our footwear. Only a few short mud-fights later we emerge caked and dripping onto the crest and eat lunch staring down the icy walls. By the time we leave the wind has picked up and we must be rescued by George and Sammy in the boat, fighting the waves so we may jump aboard once more.

Belugas in Pauline Cove. Both teams stand in silence watching them for fifteen minutes. Isla puts her head in the water to see if she can hear their song. All she gets is a wet ear.

The last sound of Qikiqtaruk is the roar of the twin otter before it comes into view. All storms have passed and the sea is calm. We load the plane and say our goodbyes, and the silhouettes on Simpson Point fade behind us.

By Haydn

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