I had the life-changing opportunity to spend two summers and a winter at the top of the Yukon Territory of Canada. As part of my doctoral program at Cornell University, I was there to study the world’s largest falcon, the magnificent gyrfalcon. This poorly known hunter nests in the arctic wastes around the world. My studies involved observing gyrs nesting behavior along rivers cutting through the Richardson Mountains and draining onto a tundra plain and then the Beaufort Sea. It was a surreal setting. Timeless in that changes came at the pace of the natural world yet breathtaking in the effects brought by light or wind. In March I began camping in my 7,700 square mile study area across the North Slope of the Yukon Territory. I fly out out of the village of Inuvik, Northwest Territories at the mouth of the Mackenzie River and dropped alone along the rivers and Mountains overlooking the Arctic Ocean. My study area was centrally located. I was 200 miles from Inuvik to the East, 200 miles from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the west, 200 miles above the Arctic Circle to the south, with absolutely nothing to the north till Arkhangelsk, Russia, 3,208 miles away. I believe that defines the “middle of nowhere.” The chopper returned to my camp every two or three weeks with supplies and to fly me around looking for another place to set up a camp and a blind to observe the nesting falcons and chronicle the courtship behavior of these magnificent predators. This involved camping in a canvas tent with a driftwood burning stove that could drive the minus 20 or 30 tundra air to a manageable near freezing level inside. There was room for a sleeping space occupied by two 4 inch thick foam pads and an arctic grade sleeping bag. There was a stove and stacks of clothes and supplies. It was sobering to get instructions to set up a small pop tent 10 yards upwind of the main tent. In it I placed an arctic grade sleeping bag, a foam sleeping mat and a box of canned goods. One of the deadly but possible calamities of camping is such conditions is a tent fire. Being without shelter a hundred miles from anyone is probably not survivable. If my main tent were lost, the necessities would survive nearby.
With that serious counsel notwithstanding, it was fire that brought near calamity as well its comfort to my camp. The gyrfalcons nested on cliff faces rising above a river. I camp about a mile away from them but pitched a small tent as a blind on the other side of the gorge from where I could watch their activity. Inside the tent, I would sit in a ludicrously out of place green aluminum lawn chair, looking through a spotting scope. The only way to sit in subzero conditions was to heat the space in the tent. I used a Colman camp stove to warm the tent. It had two burners and a fuel tank that one pressurized by pumping it. One day entered the blind, started up the stove and set it on the floor of the tent behind the lawn chair. I was still bundled in my parka. It was a wonderful piece of arctic gear. It was sheathed in heavy canvas and filled with down. The hood telescoped out to make a tunnel of fur in front of my face. As nothing was happening at the nest site and it was a sunny day, I left my snow goggles in place and settled down. The goggles were a critical piece of equipment. They looked like children’s swim goggles with coal black lenses. With the 24 hour sun on a completely white world, it impossible to function without them. Even wearing them it was hard to see. I was once walking across an apparently flat snow field on a sunny day. The wind and the constant cold makes the snow become solid. It sounds and feels like you are walking on great tumbled sheets of styrofoam. That day the was a landscape of bright, shadowless shades of white. I walked off a 3 foot drop. I made it a policy to carry a tent pole as sort of a blind man’s cane when making the daily trip across that field.
As I sat in the blind with the stove hissing behind me that day, I didn’t detect much improvement in the temperature and looked over my shoulder. The burners showed weak sputtering flames but the problem was horrifically obvious. The white gas was supposed to be presented to the burner as a pressurized vapor so it would burn. Apparently, the extreme cold had prevented this and the gas had sprayed out forming inch deep pool in the stove body two inches below the flames. I rolled out of the chair and crouched at the stove. I “turned off” the flames but the burners had their own pool of gas above the pond and continued to flicker. I wanted it out of the tent and picked up the stove and turned on my knees to the half zippered door. The stove in my gloved hands tipped, the pool of gas sloshed, and the arm full of conflagration erupted into my face. The whole catastrophe fell through the door, me in one pile, the stove in another. I shoveled snow onto my face and smoldering parka then struggled out of it. The first thing I took note of was that the beautiful fur ruff of my parka was a smoking stubble. My hood had been up and the ruff pulled into a snorkel. It had taken the force of the eruption. My face was beginning to transition from tingle to throb. I determined that my eyebrows, half my mustache, and the beard on my right cheek were gone. But in the midst of this, where my eyes should have been fried, were my snow goggles. I worked my way back into my parka and headed back to camp. The cold required the hood to be up. The smell of burned ruff, beard and flesh was overpowering. It was a mile back to the tent. I had been dealing with frostbitten cheeks so I had a cream that worked well. Whether skin dies from the burn of cold or the heat of fire, it seemed the same.
Because the goggles had protected my eyes, there really was no serious damage. And there wasn’t much to do in camp. Even though the winter weather was still in place, the days were long so I dressed and went back to the blind. I expect I always smelled bad because I didn’t take off the last layers of thermals for weeks at a time. But the charred hood and hair took some getting used to. I found the camp stove outside the blind. Perhaps throwing it out a tent is part of its maintenance program because it was soon hissing along in fine form.
It was a week or so before the helicopter came to resupply me and move me to another site. I didn’t get a look at myself in the interim but the pilot was impressed with what he called my 50-50 look of half pink skin, clean shaven and half weather beaten bearded appearance.