The Seasons

Winter 2014

Cassandra Elphinstone

Schulich Leader at University of British Columbia

This summer I was very lucky to have the opportunity to travel to Alexandra Fiord, Ellesmere Island (north of the magnetic north pole) to work as a field assistant at an International Tundra Experiment (ITEX) site. We studied the effects of warming treatments on the phenology of the tundra plants. What I wrote on one of the last days on Ellesmere Island helps to convey what a unique and spectacular place it is.

The Seasons

Words cannot capture the beauty of my surroundings at this moment. I have learned and experienced more than I could have ever imagined three months ago. The summer began with a week- long ski traverse of the northern half of Garibaldi Park. Shortly after this traverse, I boarded a plane headed for Alexandra Fiord, Ellesmere Island. We flew to Ottawa and from there up to Resolute Bay, the base for high arctic camps. After a few days in Resolute waiting for clear weather and adjusting to twenty four hours of daylight, five of us boarded a twin otter and flew into Alexandra Fiord.

When we arrive it is winter. The plane heads back to Resolute, leaving us alone on the sea ice, surrounded by snow coated mountains. In awe, we take in the silence and beauty of the fiord. The next few weeks saw winter morphing into spring. As the snow melts in the lowlands we watch as the shrubs peek out of the snow. We count the Ring and Bearded Seals sitting by their breathing holes and watch a polar bear slowly cross the sea ice in front of our camp.

Spring is here! The sea ice begins to disappear, the plants extend their small leaves toward the sun, and we have our first encounter with mosquitoes.  Snow Geese, Snow Buntings, Red Knots, Jaegers and Sand Pipers begin to search for nesting grounds on the tundra and carefully lead us away from their nests if we get too close. The glaciers melt faster now and fill the rivers with ice cold water. I take my first shower in a month after bathing in the streams and it feels amazing! A plane comes to drop off some fresh supplies after nearly a month. We feast on fresh food and read mail, catching up on news from the rest of the world. The small plants grow buds and wait patiently for slightly warmer temperatures.

The flower buds break open and paint the lowlands brilliant bright colours. Summer has arrived! We hike up a nearby mountain and look down on our camp and the lowlands. The sea ice is gone now except for the occasional iceberg that floats by. It rains occasionally with the extra humidity in the air. Each day, we encounter fascinating things that seem almost unreal. While brushing our teeth, we stare up at an upside down rainbow. I learn something new every day, be it about cooking, maintaining camp, speaking over the radio to Resolute, or simply how to identify a new plant or animal species.  In the evenings, while walking along the lowlands, jaegers dive at my head warning me not to get too close to their nests.

It is getting colder now! The leaves begin to turn bright reds and yellows as summer changes to autumn. We hike to the base of the glacier and mark its slow retreat. I am shocked to see how far the glacier’s base is from the stick placed at its base back in 1994, the year I was born.  It brings back memories of the first glaciers I ever saw in the Rockies many years ago on a road trip with my parents. I was shocked then to see how far they had retreated in such a short time. I feel lucky to see these magnificent sheets of ice but at the same time I am sad to think they may not exist in the future.

Soon, hints of winter begin to appear again. All four seasons had come and gone. Light dustings of snow have fallen on the peaks surrounding the lowlands. The plants begin to show signs of senescence. The sun dips lower in the sky everyday reminding us that eventually it will set and not show itself for the entire winter.  The winds and storms are stronger now.  I am reminded of how beautiful and at the same time dangerous nature can be. Soon we will head south and return to Vancouver and the heat of summer.