When we give talks about our work we are always asked what it is like to live in tents in tough arctic conditions where it can snow any day of the year and we must constantly be vigilant for grizzly bears, and polar bears. The conditions are often hard, but being in such vast wilderness, living in the most pristine land-based ecosystems on earth, fills us with an awe that more than compensates for the difficulties.
At Coats Island we are sleeping in a small unheated cabin for the first time in more than a decade of arctic field camps. The Canadian Wildlife Service built cabins for researchers because of the many polar bears that spend their summers on these islands in Northern Hudson Bay after the ice melts. Having a foam mattress on a plywood bunk is a great luxury! Our kitchen, chairs, and work table, at which we write these posts on a laptop run by a generator, are in a canvas wall tent. In the Arctic Refuge we work and sleep in tents because it is a federal wilderness area and we are required to pack in and pack out everything we need, and to leave no trace when done.
The hardest thing about the arctic for most of us is not the cold but the wind. It blows 20-30 mph most days, more during storms, and is often gusty above those baselines. The constant howl, flapping of tent walls, high pitched whine of guy lines, and struggle to walk in strong winds are incredibly fatiguing. When the temperature is below freezing and it is foggy, which is often the case on the Arctic Ocean coast, the wind turns fog into little crystal pellets that relentlessly sting your face. It is also quite challenging to focus on tiny birds when both our binoculars and their flight are buffeted by strong winds.
We cook on a two burner camp stove run either with propane or white gas. Dinners are generally simple, one-pot affairs when possible. Our staple breakfast menu revolves around hot water: coffee, tea, and oatmeal with a variety of toppings. Lunches are sandwiches, pilot bread and canned fish, and plenty of snacks to get through long days in the field. Some days we use a stove-top camp oven, tricky aluminum boxes that are hard to heat evenly, but once mastered enable much appreciated treats when we have the time and energy: cookies, coffee cakes, biscuits, brownies, and even pizzas! Everything tastes better up here. At most camps setting up, cleaning, and replenishing water filters from a river or pond to slowly drip throughout the day while we work is a major camp chore. At Coats Island the river water is so pure that it doesn’t need filtration, a marvel in the 21st century.
Nearly everyone is curious how we handle our bathroom in the wilderness, though most are too shy to ask. In the tundra where there are no trees for cover, and our crews are equipped with the world’s best binoculars, politely turning one’s back when a teammate drops behind or moves off is an unspoken norm. In wilderness camps where we pack everything out we use “wag bags,” large sealing bags with enzyme powder inside that we set up in a portable loo and replace the bag as needed; paper is burned in a tin can.
Most camps construct some kind of shield around their loo, or “biffy” as it is called here in Canada. At the Canning River it is made of half sheets of plywood and has a lovely river view. Here at Coats we have a 3-sided tripod structure with blue plastic tarp wrapped around it, and a 2×4 frame for a brand new comfortable seat. Another luxury. Our biffy overlooks a deep bend in the river where it would be easy to be surprised by a bear; for that reason we designate one of our four shotguns as the “loo gun” while in camp and always take it with us. Probably not too many people carry a 12 gauge with 2 ¾” rifled slugs when they visit the loo!
In past years the CWS crews have been here later in the season when the mud dries out. Although the walking is difficult, we all appreciate slowing down to the natural pace of the world around us. Having this short reprieve from the relentless multi-tasking of “normal” life makes “normal” look quite different. It seems to take at least a week to get into the rhythm of life here, and although we work long days and it sometimes feels hectic, watching the life around us for hours every day is a powerful antidote to the pace of life back home.
Perhaps the most magical aspect of working in the arctic in the summer is the midnight sun. In the Arctic Refuge the sun never sets while we are there, it circles the sky creating beautiful rosy and golden light for many hours every night. The birds are active then, and listening to Pacific and Red-throated Loons in the long light of an arctic summer night is an indescribable thrill. We find it difficult to go to bed on nights when the clouds and fog lift, suffusing the tundra with a soft magic that nourishes something deep within us. The sun dips below the horizon for a few hours at Coats, giving us our first arctic full moon rise over the river a few nights ago. We fall silent at such moments, each of us filling a place inside that renews us in the moment, from which the memory can sustain us in the months ahead.