It seems winter is the longest season of the year. Growing up in southern Idaho, I remember hoping it would not snow for Halloween. Although there were spring-like days in April, snow in May was not unusual. Now I live on the edge of the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin desert of southern Utah. Winter for me is more of a cold spell. But I have paid my dues to the winter gods Boreas and his ilk. During two summers and a winter, I camped alone on the tundra of the North Slope in the Yukon Territory. I suppose it was an adventure that was long on enthusiasm and short on planning. It was part of my doctoral research. The arctic is the home of the largest falcon, the gyrfalcon. It nests throughout the region but the brutal conditions have prevented serious study of its breeding behavior.
From a home base of Cornell University in upstate New York, I began a two year odyssey of travelling to Edmonton then catching a few times a week flight to Inuvik, Northwest Territories on the mouth of the East Channel of the Mackenzie River. One February I left New York on a balmy 50 degree morning. When I landed in Inuvik that night it was exactly 50 degrees below zero. A hundred degree shift simply hurts. Inuvik is a town built for winter. It was a small Inuit village on the river that was connect to the South only by river and then only for 6 months of the year. Oil exploration and government administration are its two employment bases and change the small village to a concentration of 2,000 people and a working airport. The Arctic is a desert so there isn’t a lot of snow. But what falls, stays. Everything is frozen. Inuvik is built on permafrost. The ground is always frozen except of the top few inches in summer. The houses and buildings are built on short stilts that allows air (and cold) to pass under them. This keeps the ground frozen and keeps the structures from sinking into a mud of their own making. Utilidors snake from one building to the next. These are 3 by 3 foot tunnels above ground that carry water and sewage in heated pipes. There were 13 miles or roads connecting the town to offices, the airport and a hydrodome, a lake that launched float planes. Trucks parked outside the Hudson Bay trading post were usually left running in the winter. No one would steal them because there was nowhere to go. Every place you could park a truck in town or at a home had an electric outlet. Engine block heaters had to be plugged in if an engine was to start. If you couldn’t plug in, you didn’t turn it off.
Inuvik was my base where I could spend a few days between twenty days of camping. I was looked after by a gas pipeline company that was funding my research. They paid for my helicopter time and filled my shopping list at the local Hudson Bay Post. Early in the spring I flew surveys along the coastal plains of the Yukon Territory between the Mackenzie River Delta and the Alaskan border. This was a vast tundra flat that lay between the frozen Beaufort Sea and the Richardson Mountains. Gyrfalcons nested on the cliffs cut by rivers running from the mountains to the Arctic Ocean. After I had located active nests I returned to camp near the nests and observe the bird’s behavior. I would camp a mile or so away and out of view of the nest site. Then I set up a small tent as a blind at a vantage point from where I could watch the birds. This would begin in March when it was minus 20 or 30 degrees and daylight fast approaching 24 hours.
Camping in canvas tent about eight by ten feet and just tall enough to stand in was pretty basic. I once weighed myself in full winter kit and found that I was wearing 35 pounds of high-tech, down-filled gear including moose hide mittens over ski gloves. In the tent I got out of my canvas, knee length parka, down vest, and down filled bib overalls but only when the little sheet metal stove had warmed the upper air. The floor was always frozen. This was handy if I spilled water or soup. It soon froze and the spill could be picked up like a dropped pancake. All my food was frozen until cooked. I had fresh eggs for the first week after setting up a camp. They would freeze solid. When it came time to cook them, I simply peeled the frozen eggs and set them in a frying pan. Unfortunately, they resembled eye balls developing cataracts as they went slowly opaque then melted into the pan.
During March and April it was below zero on my study area 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The only company I saw were the five species of birds that overwintered, moose, caribou, wolverines, wolves and foxes. A few rodents and weasels lived under the snow but everyone else either slept or migrated. Grizzly bears hibernated but were active by April. That event marked the end of bringing meat into my camp. The area was so remote that there were no settlements, hunting or camping for a hundred miles in every direction. Grizzlies, wolves, and foxes had no exposure to the guns or garbage human kind brings. Their response to my camp and to me was mixed. Wolves found me an interesting addition to the neighborhood. More than once I was welcomed by wolves when I moved camp to a new site by helicopter. As we lowered in for a landing, a pack of a half dozen wolves would appear loping along under the chopper. They would actually be blown over by the down wash of our rotors. Each morning I would find them sitting 50 yards from my tent. They seemed skittish but excited. As I set out for the blind perhaps a mile away, they would fall in behind me. The snow was like vast sheets of sculpted Styrofoam. I seldom broke through or walked in drifted snow. My boots squeaked but behind me would be the soft crunch of sixteen or twenty wolf paws. If I paused look at something, they waited respectfully. My entering the blind soon bored them and they wandered off. I did not see evidence that they ever entered my tent, although each new place I set up my tent the local pack faithfully marked it as their own with a spritz of urine. This probably caused some concern when I set up miles away in another pack’s territory. It certainly ensured that I would receive a new dose of markings.
Grizzlies, thankfully responded differently to my intrusion. They spent the winters holed up in a hibernation den. In mid-April or so they would immerge. By then the snow has mostly cleared and ground squirrels, rodents and nesting birds were available. Caribou were increasing from a few hundred that overwintered to herds from the south numbering in the thousands. I checked a lot of bear scat and was pleased to find a major part of their diet are bear berries. These grow on miniature bushes a few inches high. They seem to form in the fall and then are frozen under 10 or 15 inches of snow. Then, with the thaw of Spring they become a ready food source for wildlife. The bear’s personal opinion of me was not flattering. Several times I have watched a grizzly walking across the featureless tundra 200 or 300 yards away. When he got directly down wind of me, he would rise up to his full height, nose in the air. He would get my scent, then drop to the ground and lope directly away from me. Other times I have looked over a cliff’s edge into the gorge of a spring running river and watched grizzlies catching Arctic grayling moving up the now open water. The small group of bears would look up at me only thirty yards above them and seem to have an attitude of ownership and a look of distain for me. It was enough to erase the passing thought of slipping down to collect a slab of fresh fish when they weren’t looking.