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Day 6 in the Arctic: Life in the north isn't easy


By Mark Robinson
Meteorologist
@StormhunterTWN
Thursday, November 28, 2013, 5:32 PM

Something was nagging at me even as we got back to the ship. Baffin Island is in the far north of Canada, so one would expect that very few people (and/or their constructs) would exist outside of the small towns. And yet, on the northern hill there was something out of place for a desolate wilderness. An almost straight line ran across the hills and snaked up and over the top. At the bottom was what looked to be rectangular blocks; docks with what had to be a boat tied up at it.

I pointed it out to Aaron and he grabbed his binoculars, “Looks like a mining road, there’s someone at the top of the hill checking us out. Gotta be prospecting over there. I know there’s no active mine, so it must be a potential one,” he said.

“A mine, here?” I asked.

“Yes, there’s some incredible amounts of high quality ores in the ground. One of the mines in the north has so much iron in the rock that you can weld pieces together. That’s an amazingly good quality ore and it means that there’s some actual money to be made. But, as always, it’s not that simple.”  

Nothing is simple in the north unfortunately.

There’s a huge amount of mining that’s going to start here in the next few years and that means jobs -- lots of jobs. The big problem is that extracting resources in an environment like this is next to impossible to do with no consequences.

It might be great for the people, but not so much for the ecosystem. Of course, people up here need jobs, but how do we balance the need for people to survive and have a good life with the need for protection of the fragile environment of the north?

In my opinion, there’s no good answer yet, but tourism may serve to bridge and possibly balance the industry of resource extraction with the need for environmental protection.

Mathias, our bear biologist would likely disagree.

He pointed out to me that many of the places where mining is occurring or will occur correspond to natural areas of concentrated biodiversity, especially in the ocean.

In order to move raw material to processing factories cheaply enough that mining in the north makes economic sense, large ports must be built near the mine. That means major disturbances to the waters and surrounding areas. And, as always in the Arctic, disturbances are functionally permanent and can be devastating to local populations of organisms (i.e. fish, seals, bears etc). There’s no easy answer, but these are discussions that must take place and soon. As climate change takes hold in the High Arctic, the ability of humans to take advantage of the resources that are being uncovered will continue to increase.

As for our group on the shores of the beach, these questions seemed far away and unimportant.

The wilderness was so vast and unspoiled that all we could do was marvel at the tundra around us. I decided that I was going to hike up into the hills as far as could before we had to go back to the ship while George was going to stick around and film around the beach.

I’d seen a small patch of white way up in the hill at the top of what looked to be a small stream of some type so my goal was to see if it was actual snow or ice.

I started up the hill and immediately noticed that the rocks I was walking on were shattered and broken, almost as if someone had come along with a big sledgehammer and smashed their way up the hills.

Very little vegetation was evident, but I looked closer as I walked and was rewarded with glimpses of tiny plants poking up out of cracks in the shattered stone. As I got further up, I began to follow the path that the little stream had made. There was less broken rock and more rounded and weather boulders, so movement was far easier. I jumped from rock to rock and marveled at the clarity of the water in the stream. It wasn’t much more than a strong trickle, but it was enough to try and get a drink from. When I’d managed to get myself wedged between two large rocks, I reached down and scooped up a bit of water. 

I wouldn’t normally have done this in the south, but I was pretty sure this water was going to be about as pure as it came. 

I didn’t go blind after drinking it so that was a pretty good sign. The water was cold and tasted more like mineral water than anything else.

And even better, there was a fairly good chance that no beavers had pooped in it. I continued up along the stream and as the land leveled out, the tundra (at least what I call tundra) appeared. There were far less rocks there and the ground between them was soft and covered in small green plants. Flowers bloomed here and there and a few buzzing insects moved around them. I stepped off the rocks and the ground squished down under my foot. It was soft and spongy, almost like walking across a memory foam bed mattress and water bubbled up at every step. That was when I realized that I was walking on Arctic tundra, creating disturbances with every step. As far as I knew, it might take decades to repair the damage of each footprint.

I immediately launched myself off the tundra and back onto the rocks that dotted the landscape. This made walking a lot more tricky (have you ever tried to hop across a stream from rock to rock? It was like that, only with 15 lbs of camera gear).

However, my guilt at wrecking the Arctic was somewhat assuaged. I could finally see the white patch that I was trying to get to and I realized that it really was snow and ice.

Not much, but enough that I could get up to it and make an actual snowball in August -- which I promptly did and then fired it out over the landscape back towards the beach.

As I looked out over the scene, I could see our ship anchored in the fjord and it struck me how small it looked in the middle of so much … landscape. From my vantage point I could see so much, almost to the mouth of the fjord and out to the end of the fjord far to the west.

With no trees in the way to block my view, it was like being on top of a mountain. Being up there also let me notice that everyone seemed to be heading back to the Zodiacs and there were even a few already heading out over the water back to the ship.

I grabbed my cameras, jumped down to the tundra and started heading back. I was immediately in trouble as I frantically tried to jump from rock to rock again, only this time I was moving a lot faster. So, stumbling and flopping down the tundra to the stream, I managed to mostly avoid destroying the critical landscape but still move just fast enough to think that I might make it back to the boats before everyone left. I didn’t want to get left behind simply because I’d be food for something in about 10 minutes. I’m a city boy and survival in the Arctic is kind of out of my sphere of experience.

As I hit the bottom of the hill, I could see the last Zodiac preparing to leave. Boris was standing by the boat helping some people in and the driver was revving the engine preparing to back away from the beach. They were still a really far distance away so there was no way they’d hear me. I’d be stuck on the beach until someone on the ship noticed that I was gone.

And because I was always running around shooting, no one might notice for a few hours. I’d be stuck in the wilderness for the rest of the day at least!

I ran across the soft sand towards the rocky edge of the water, the entire time trying not drop or bang my cameras. I finally stumbled across the rounded rocks at the water only to see Boris looking at me somewhat quizzically.

He laughed when I said that I thought I might get left behind. He pointed behind me and told me that Jeff and a few other people were still on their way. And they’d kept an eye on me the entire time. I should have known that One Oceans had everything well in hand.

I sighed and plopped myself in the Zodiac as Jeff walked up and helped the others into the boat.

I think I worry too much, but hey, at least I was heading back to the nice warm ship and a hot tub.

Yeah, it was time for jumping in the hot tub.

We were about to head across the Davis Strait to Greenland. It was going to be a long couple of days at “sea” to get to a place I’d never been to but wanted to visit for years.

Photos courtesy of Mark Robinson

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