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Flight to the Arctic

This article was originally published in the Wellesley Magazine.

Deborah Cramer is the author of The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey.

By Deborah Cramer
Illustrations by Christiane Engel

 It is June, but it doesn’t feel like summer. Instead of kayaking through the salt marshes near my home in Gloucester, Mass., swimming off the sandbars, and welcoming home our vacationing adult children, I am waiting out an intense Arctic storm in Nunavut, Canada’s northern-most territory. I am with a team of field scientists on the remote tundra of East Bay, Southampton Island, at the head of Hudson Bay, just below the Arctic Circle. The temperature is well below freezing; the wind chill makes it feel colder. I am wearing every piece of cold-weather clothing I have—two layers of long underwear, fleece pants and vest, wool sweater, wind pants, and parka—and if I don’t keep moving, I’m still cold.

I’ve come here to write a book about a bird, Calidris Canutus rufa, the red knot—a small sandpiper weighing no more than a coffee cup. One of six subspecies worldwide, rufa red knots migrate along the length of the Earth, each year flying an almost inconceivable 20,000 miles along the edges of two entire continents. Their numbers have dropped precipitously. In December 2014, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service listed them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the first bird in the U.S. listed because global warming imperils its existence. They are losing their shoreline homes due to rising sea level and storm surges, and a warming ocean may lead to a mismatch between the times birds arrive at their feeding grounds and the peak production of their food.

I’ve followed the birds on their long journey, beginning on the remote beaches in Tierra del Fuego, off the southern tip of South America, and moving north through touristed beaches in Argentina, hunting reserves in South Carolina, slivers of sand in Delaware, and then, finally, to their nesting grounds in the Arctic, where if all goes well—and it often doesn’t—the birds bring forth a new generation to begin a new migration. Wellesley’s Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellowship, Canada’s National Wildlife Research Centre, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation, the Norcross Wildlife Foundation, and the Ocean Foundation enabled me to accompany knots to their faraway, difficult-to-reach homes, and to witness the challenges faced by shorebirds on a rapidly changing and increasingly fragile sea edge.

The Rigors of the Arctic

More than one biologist warned me that the Arctic is not an easy place. I’d traveled extensively researching the book and met many dedicated people determined to give these birds safe harbor. I was thrilled and honored by the opportunity to accompany scientists to the shorebird nesting grounds in East Bay, and to experience firsthand the inhospitable land where the birds nest.

At the same time, I wondered what it would be like living with strangers in cramped, rustic quarters on a snowy isolated ridge seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Once the pilots dropped me off, I wouldn’t be leaving for three weeks. To help prepare, I was required to take a Red Cross CPR course and asked to obtain a Massachusetts gun license to support my application for a temporary gun license in Canada. To do that, I spent six hours learning about handguns, taking a written test, and shooting pistols and revolvers. I hadn’t held a gun since taking riflery at summer camp 50 years before, but by the end, I had a license to carry a large-capacity firearm.

In Ottawa, I learned how to fire a 12-gauge shotgun. One of the Arctic’s greatest concentration of polar bears lives in the Foxe Basin, where we’d be, and record losses of seasonal sea ice triggered by global warming were bringing them ashore earlier in the season to look for food. The shotgun kicked; I flinched at the recoil every time. My poor aim earned me a private instructor. We didn’t expect polar bears in the camp, but we needed to be prepared.

All of our team are veterans of the rugged Arctic, except for me. Research scientist Grant Gilchrist runs the East Bay shorebird camp and the eider-duck research camp on a nearby island. Josiah Nakoolak, a resident of Southampton Island, knows weather, ice, and bears. Four highly capable young women carry out the bulk of the shorebird survey work. Alannah Kataluk-Primeau, from Pond Inlet on Baffin Island, 600 miles north of East Bay, knows the Arctic in ways we never will. Meagan McCloskey, a biologist and long-distance cyclist, was in the Navy Reserves; Kara Anne Ward, also a biologist, would be going to medical school; Naomi Man in ‘t Veld, a former science teacher, would be pursuing a graduate degree in social work. They all know birds, are physically fit, and are good shots. As friendly as they are, meeting them compounded my mounting concern about whether I had the endurance to manage this trip and whether I’d pull my weight or burden them. The oldest, 30, is half my age, the youngest, 20. I’d prepared by running three or four miles a day on hilly terrain or wading two miles through sea water up to my thighs. I hoped it would carry me through.

©Bradford Winn

Waiting out the Storm

In Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, on Baffin Island, we gather supplies for the field season: gasoline, kerosene, and propane for the ATV, snowmobile, stove, generator, and heater; radios, satellite phone, field computer, GPSes, batteries, and charger; tools to fix anything that might need fixing; sleeping bags; research equipment; survival packs; guns and ammunition. In the supermarket, we try to estimate how much fresh produce we can keep until it rots, how much meat we can keep until it thaws in the Arctic summer, and how much canned or packaged food we will need once we’ve finished the fresh supplies. We select crates of cabbages, carrots, potatoes, oranges, and apples; chicken and bacon to bury in a metal chest; pancake mixes and eggs; canned vegetables and spicy sauces; peanut butter and energy bars.

We have time to explore. The weather map shows a blizzard blanketing Southampton Island. The bush pilots aren’t flying. The eider-duck researchers have been grounded here for over a week. We’re all staying in old U.S. Army and Air Force barracks. The base, built during World War II, was maintained during the Cold War when the U.S. constructed the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line, a series of radar stations across northern Canada designed to detect hostile planes from Russia. The base is now closed, the airport converted to commercial and civilian use, but from my window, I see a large U.S. military plane on the runway. As global warming melts polar sea ice, opening northern shipping routes through the Arctic, the United States continues to have a strategic interest here.

Iqaluit is a sleepy town, its dirt roads turning to mud in the spring thaw. In the evenings, the scientists go for beers at the Kickin’ Caribou Pub or to the movies. The evenings are long and the choices few: Some see Snow White twice.

Inuit from across the Arctic are in town to celebrate the opening of Iqaluit’s Anglican church, rebuilt after a fire, and to dedicate a new Inuktitut translation of the Old Testament, more than 30 years in the making. A priest invites me to the ceremony. The church is shaped like an igloo, the lectern built in the form of an upright komatik—the Inuit sled once pulled across the ice by dog teams and now by snowmobile. The offering bowls are soft, handsome sealskin, and the cross is made from the ivory tusks of narwhals. The church is full, the congregation spilling out of the sanctuary into the foyer.

©Grant Gilchrist

Cleared to Fly

When the storm finally abates, the bush pilots are cleared to fly. The eider-duck team, and a few of our team, along with supplies for both camps, leave for East Bay in a DC-3 equipped with skis to land on the still-thick ice. The rest of us follow the next day in a Twin Otter. As we fly over the Foxe Basin, the ice is beginning to break up; the floes look like giant floating pancakes. After a three-hour flight, the camp comes into view—a few specks in a vast expanse of white. The plane circles, then lands, making a short, quick stop on a snowy gravel ridge, our runway. It is bright and sunny, almost balmy.

We take the next few days to finish setting up camp, organizing the kitchen tent where we’ll be cooking, piling snow into large barrels—our water supply—and gathering rocks to anchor the tents during storms. We practice shooting, firing at cans placed atop barrels. I begin with rubber bullets and progress up to slugs, and by the time I am finished, my marksmanship, thankfully, has substantially improved.

No one, however, wants to shoot endangered polar bears. If necessary, the team will scare them away with cracker shells, firing them to land in front of bears so the noise turns them away. I have no desire to experience this. As long as there is still sea ice, bears will be out hunting seal, but the ice is melting earlier each year, requiring us to carry guns everywhere—in camp, taking them into the cabin where we sleep, into the tent where we cook and eat, and even to the outhouse. We keep a bowl of slugs in the kitchen. Members of the team saw two bears the first day—one running across the ice as they crossed from the plane to the camp, and the other on the camp ridge, dead of starvation.

Read more> 

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Deborah Cramer’s The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey, is coming out in April. You can read more about her work at www.deborahcramer.com. For more information on Wellesley’s Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellowship, visit www.wellesley.edu/cws/fellowships/Wellesley.

 

 

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