The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle

In Canada, Battling Bugs and Bears
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 22 2011 7:16 AM

The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle

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The race to extract natural resources continues to dominate the Arctic agenda, and the hydrocarbon and mineral potential of the Hudson Bay region of Canada has become an investigative industry of its own. Of the 130 companies exploring in Nunavut at the time of my visit, 32 were looking for uranium, the rest for gold, diamonds, silver, zinc, nickel, copper, iron ore, and sapphires. Canada is a relative newcomer to the murky world of diamond plays, but interest in Nunavut quadrupled overnight after a diamond rush in the Northwest Territories in the 1990s, following a strike under Point Lake. The little-traveled Barrens, still without year-round access roads, suddenly thrummed with choppers, and in the winter, convoy headlights bored into the darkness of the ice roads. Stock market analysts began to compare the Barrens to South Africa or Botswana. The joke used to go that a typical Canadian-Inuit family consisted of a father, a mother, two children, and an anthropologist: now a geologist has replaced the anthropologist. The irony of this latest chapter of the Inuit story is this: although they have consultation rights defined in Section 35 of the constitution, and title to 217,480 square miles, Inuit own mineral rights to only 10 percent of their land, those rights in Canada normally belonging to the federal government. So just as circumpolar peoples win a measure of self-government, the Arctic emerges as the last energy frontier and the lower latitudes need it as never before. A warming climate has also stoked the wider debate over sovereignty, as minerals previously locked under ice thaw with lascivious promise.

The double engines continued to drone over the Foxe Channel, the inky water reflecting little, even in the westering evening sun. The pack ice had gone, but white dots flecked the coasts of the swirled-espresso islands. The leaders of the geoscientific mapping project on Southampton Island had chartered the Twin Otter on a resupply mission from Iqaluit. The three other passengers were geologists. I had talked at length to one of them during hours of delay at Iqaluit Airport. Doug was a senior scientist from the Geological Survey of Canada, a branch of Natural Resources Canada, a not insignificant government department in a country with more natural resources than it knows what to do with. A rangy Englishman in his sixties who had made Canada his home several decades earlier, Doug had picked up only the trace of an accent. His first field camp in the Arctic had been on the site of a former Distant Early Warning Line station. Like the conflicts before it, the Cold War had hurried Arctic science forward, opening up ice landing strips and stimulating investment in cold-weather technology. Since those heady years, Doug had spent hundreds of months tramping over Arctic tundra looking at rocks. He was phlegmatic about the aesthetic appeal. "You always think from the aerial photos that it's going to be different and interesting," he had said as we drank bitter airport coffee from polystyrene cups bearing the image of a polar bear. "But it never is."

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It was 45°F when we gathered for breakfast, and the bugs were dense in the fresh morning air. Ah yes, the bugs. The pages of my notebook tell their own story, encrusted with flattened mosquito and blackfly corpses and splotches of my own blood. The bugs bit us even as we wore jackets with full-head net hoods and peered out at the landscape through a veil of brown mesh. Everyone had his or her own system, which created the illusion of small victories in the eternal battle against the mosquitoes. A student had a lamp on her desk in the office tent, and when she switched it on at about nine o'clock at night as the light failed, the insects would arrive in squadrons. When they fell, the student swept them into heaps and kept a chart of nightly kills, adjusting the angle of the lamp head to optimize slaughter. Someone else kept a specimen jar in his parka pocket and raced himself each day to see how fast he could fill it with corpses. A pilot devised an outfit without a single unbattened edge of fabric, thereby exposing not a square inch of skin, and he challenged the bugs to get one bite in a twenty-four-hour period. I doused myself in 95 percent deet, which melted part of my ziplock sandwich bag and bled black dye out of my notebook cover. But the mosquitoes always won. Their victory was made more bitter (for us) by the knowledge that the female of the Arctic mosquito species, unlike her southern counterparts, does not actually need a blood meal before she can lay eggs. Owing to the absence of life in many parts of the Arctic, she has evolved a system of autogenous egg making, using food reserves stored up during the water-borne larva phase. High Arctic blackflies have gone one stage further in the evolutionary plod north. There are no males at all. The females reproduce parthenogenetically.

Slide Show: Scenes From the Arctic Circle. Click image to expand.

We sat on fuel drums swatting mosquitoes, waiting for the choppers' purr as they returned from the first drop-off of the day to pick us up. I was going out on a bedrock traverse with Joyia, the project coleader, and Joe, another old hand from the Geological Survey of Canada. Joyia was a sanguine figure who looked younger than her thirty-two years. She exuded serenity, perhaps a legacy of her South Indian heritage, and she had welcomed me warmly to camp; we often stood on the tundra and had a talk last thing at night over a final cigarette, if the bugs weren't unduly menacing.

At about ten o'clock we put down a couple of miles to the southwest of camp and started out across a plain surrounded by low hills and glacial outwash deposits. The sky was flawless, and mist rose from a livid blue lake. We had walked a half mile from our first station and just arrived at our second. It was hot, and our backs had been sweating under the packs. As we began getting out the observational instrumentation, Joyia stiffened. She said, "Bear." I tasted again the coffee I had drunk at breakfast. Eight hundred yards away, a polar bear was loping up an escarpment. We had been downwind of him for an hour, so he must have smelled us, and after a few minutes he lifted his snout in the air and began to circle. Eight hundred yards might seem like a long way to a reader sitting in an armchair. When there is nothing between you and a bear that can outrun you, it is a very short distance indeed. Joyia cocked the gun, and the three of us loaded the anti-bear firecrackers that allegedly frighten the beasts into running away (an improbable outcome, I always thought). Half the world's polar bears hunt in Nunavut. But only one mattered. We called camp on a sat phone, asking for a pilot to come and get us. The bear completed a quarter circle and disappeared over a ridge. We kept vigil and chatted. Joe looked at rocks; it was difficult to say whether his nonchalance was studied. Joyia scanned the horizon with field glasses. I tried to think of something to do and failed, my mind fixated on images of my motherless sons. Then we heard the helicopter. It was a good sound. Before we could see the machine, Joyia made radio contact. The pilot had found the bear and chased him to the other side of a lake. The chopper landed and dropped off Noah, one of the bear monitors, as he was going to spend the rest of the day with us, increasing our gun quotient. We continued. We had not exactly looked death in the eye as we confronted—with our bare hands—the wrath of Mother Nature in the wilderness, specks of life battling for survival against insuperable odds in the hostile Arctic, but it was going to make a good story at Rock Talk.

Click here to read a slide show on arctic life.

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Sara Wheeler is the author of Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle, and four other books. She lives in London.

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