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The Crew’s Return

The Arctic Poppy

20231014

I guess I’ve never truly known what a total-body workout is. I’ve done workout routines labeled as such, but I must have lacked the correct motivation to really push myself. The only plane off the island waiting for you just over the hill is the best motivation to haul everything inside, seal it up, and get your gear loaded and gone. We couldn’t stop to take a break, we just had to keep moving and lifting and carrying until we were done. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. The next day we wake up at the ATCO South Camp Inn In Resolute and my entire body is reminding me of all that physical work I had done last night. I had split my thumb at some point, my hands are swollen, and I have a headache. We are slow to rise after a solid 9 hours of sleep. We are sharing a 10-person room. It’s very big and warm with thick mattresses and clean towels. We have our choice of beds and I chose one of the two lower bunks which has a larger mattress. The shower is amazing because the water is seemingly endless and I didn’t have to fetch it or heat it. Still, I have a strong awareness of how much water I’m using, and I cut it shorter than what would be a normal shower for me on any other day.

I am eating everything. The dining situation in Resolute is the choice of either the ATCO camp or the other ATCO camp. These are hotels built from standard pieces that fit together and are shipped to remote places around the world to serve people working in those places. The chefs must be the most thanked chefs in the world as they put together powerful lineups of food like chili, cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, and fried chicken, roast turkey, plus veggies, fruit, salads, soups, and desserts. The latter being available 24 hours/day. Every meal is different and consistently decadent. I try a bit of everything at every meal, then go for 2nds, then dessert. I think I’m satisfied after a meal and then 30 minutes later my body says “hey I noticed you stopped eating”. If I lost any weight over the last 6 months, it will surely be undone here.

We have no plans this first day except a video call with James Burk, the Executive Director of the Mars Society. The South Camp Inn is not what you might expect from a frontier lodging. It is big and cozy. The entrance is a long hallway where one leaves their boots, there are no shoes allowed inside the hotel. This makes it even cozier as everyone is walking around in their pajamas and socks. Following the hall will get you to the dining area, prior to that the hallway takes a right turn past the office and into the common shared space. This space has massive couches and recliners, a shared fridge and a freezer, and another stuffed polar bear near the laundry machines. Seeing the laundry machines is an unexpected bit of excitement because I hadn’t thought about clean clothes in weeks. The common area does not have any windows that could disrupt a normal circadian rhythm. A hall off the common room to the right is a space for meetings and the signs on the walls show that it is used like a town hall. There is a stuffed muskox, which is a little smaller than a buffalo and despite its name, is more closely related to goats. The whole place is laid out like a maze after being built and added to over the decades. It clearly provides a safe place for travelers to relax, and since it is late in the expedition season, we are meeting other groups that are on their way out too. Everyone is easy to talk to and we share stories of the wild things we saw and experienced. Lunch is burgers and fries with all the fixings and I don’t hesitate.

We go to the Co-op later in the afternoon, which is the only grocery store in town. Google images and the Co-op website did not give us an understanding of their stock. In fact most reviews were from people who have never been there before making jokes about it like “they don’t have my favorite polar bear food”, so they perfectly hindered our expedition and that of other travelers. I took a continuous video of the entire stock inside the store and I plan to upload it for others. The Canadian government subsidizes the cost of fresh produce to Resolute (the least that can be done given the troubled history of the settlement) so I buy a large apple at a normal price and some snacks for later. It is a Cosmic Crisp, my favorite and from my home state. The crew enjoys their time shopping and talking with others in the store. We get in and out of line for the checkout a couple times which I fear might annoy the locals so I go through, buy my things, and wait between the doors of the store entrance. While I’m enjoying my apple, I read the corkboards between the doors with the local notices about new online education opportunities, job postings, and alcohol abuse and mental health help that is available. I see a printed flyer and hand-written on it in ink it says “TONIGHT”, which is never true, right? It’s surely old and never removed. I read through it, and it is indeed tonight. It advertises a talk about updated research on a recent mass die-off of muskox in the Arctic. It is at the South Camp Inn conference room, we cannot miss this opportunity. As I wait in the doorway for the crew, someone walks through and says “welcome to Resolute!” as he walks out. I smile at him and say thank you. This interaction makes me feel good, as I haven’t really talked to anyone but the crew in a month and these are nice words to hear. When they come out, I point out the flyer. These nerds are as excited as I, also a nerd, am. We make plans for an early dinner to make sure we get to the talk in time to get a good seat. The room could hold 50, and there are around 30 people (we are told this is a “great” turnout). There are cookies and pastries and juice in the back and I can’t help but eat more. My body wont stop telling me to eat everything I can find. We listen to a sad and foreboding talk about the research efforts to investigate this disease that is killing off muskoxen. The disease is familiar and normally only appears in cattle in warmer climates, but with the planet heating up, the critters that carry these diseases are spreading further north and south. Who cares about muskoxen? They aren’t food or a resource worth hunting to anyone outside the north. But we all care about them because they tell us, in another unique measure, how well our planet can support macrofauna (creatures like you and me and muskoxen). This die off is new. Just last year the dead muskoxen had been discovered by a wildlife photographer on Ellesmere Island who reported it to a researcher in Calgary. When someone claims “the planet is dying”, what does it make you think about? I used to picture a Hollywood-like dry and burning desert dystopia, but now I think about the carcasses of muskoxen on an uninhabited island, and I think about watching the water level in our creek by the hab drop so low after just a few weeks. Perhaps the planet itself is not dying, but if the climate supports critters and diseases instead of muskox and humans, I see little difference. After the talks, there were giveaways and discussions. I get a poster, have it signed, and I will give it to Lor. It is of 3 wolf cubs and their mother after their first hunt. They hunt muskoxen. We talk to the scientists from Calgary for a long time about our research and share our findings on Devon. We have samples they are interested in and it is really something to be able to share so directly with another group’s research in this place. We grab some last snacks and go to bed.

A good, long, deep sleep. My body aches less today and we get up earlier for a more relaxed breakfast. We are waiting for our scheduled flight in a few more days which still has the chance of being changed at any time. We want to explore more of Resolute, so we borrow a truck and drive up the hill to where they have painted “Resolute” on the rocks, and despite our muscles’ protest, scramble up the hill to take a photo. It is a really great view.

We visit the town hall office where their council chambers host a suite of modern telecon technology. The main hallway displays local historic artifacts from the Dorset and Thule people who lived in the area centuries ago. Andrew sees a baseball-sized rock on a shelf that is black and glassy and thinks it might be remnants of the asteroid impact. The clerk opens the case for us but it turns out to be a piece of a fossilized tree, ancient, because there are no trees up here. There are many other interesting things in the case and we get a full history on them. The town hall also has the local gymnasium where a school class is currently playing. We chat with someone who works as the building’s janitor and handyman. He talks about his education and about the local opportunities. There is a lot of interest in the natural sciences in Resolute. The people we talk to are motivated to learn more about the place in which they live.

We drive down toward the coast and play on the sea ice that has been pushed to shore. They are a beautiful deep blue color and the random melting has caused them to take on very intricate shapes that look like roiling splashing waves that have been flash-frozen. It is amazing to be playing in the Northwest Passage. We continue along the dirt roads to a historic area where ancient Inuk ancestors had built houses out of whale bones and caribou pelts. The remains we see are replicas but still look amazing.

Driving back past the small but actively-burning landfill and defunct 1950’s machines gives us pause. It is hard to see this, but what can one do? There will be no funding to remove these wartime relics. It is a relatively small place to clean up if it were even needed. When the means of producing energy and managing waste are so obvious like it is in this small area, it makes it more clear what consumption and progress cost where I come from. We will continue in our current society, but not for much longer. We will be forced to change some fundamentals of how we live. I wonder if these major changes will come in my lifetime. When I was in college, one of my professors told us that we should try to do work that we enjoy, but there will come a day when humanity is in peril, be it from an external threat like another asteroid, or an internal threat like ourselves. That day, the accountants, CEOs, marketers, and lawyers will all cry out to the Engineers to save them. Yeah for real, he actually said that to us, but that might not be a surprise to some of you who have been hearing the din of Armageddon on the horizon growing louder.

Oof, boy, that’s heavy. Wasn’t I supposed to be going on a fun wild adventure? Well surely we can’t pretend the world is a perfect sandbox built for us, not when you see so much of it. Seeing more of the world and experiencing more of it and the creatures therein has unapologetically forced just a little bit more of an understanding on me than I had before, just a little. Being an engineer sometimes means creating new things, but my current job has me creating fixes. Which means I see every problem in my scope of work, but it also means I help fix every single one of those problems. This has changed me into a person who can more clearly see where the problems are, and it makes me search for the solutions. I don’t know what I’m trying to say here. Life and this world are interesting, and unintentional, and we are wrong about most things, let’s go find out more.

Another big dinner and a cozy night. Several others have joined us before bed to watch Interstellar in the common room. We all raid the kitchen for cake and ice cream and tea and popcorn. The hotel is full of interesting people doing interesting things. We have all struck up conversations these few days that are broad and deep because who would have thought to meet anyone up here? But here we all are and what island are you going to? How long? What science are you doing? We should collaborate. Coming back next year? There is little worry about bags being snatched. We know everyone already. It’s a cozy and friendly environment, totally different from the hab and perfectly welcome. Not that the crew wasn’t cozy and friendly, but the hab wasn’t. The island wasn’t. The island didn’t like us or dislike us. It didn’t care for us. It didn’t notice how its winds stung our ears and dried our hands and carried our voices away from hearing the person a few meters away. The temperature difference between sunlight and cloud was sweating sunburn or freezing bitter chills. The rocks reach up to grab you, they sneak up behind you to trip you. They are almost sticky with their weather-worn limestone grip. They tore at my leather boots, eating them. I could not go outside with my sneakers. They are too delicate and I had too many close calls with twisting an ankle. These hotel carpets are welcoming, and I get to wear clean, thick, wool socks.

We mill about packing after breakfast the following day. We have to be out by 1pm and our flight is scheduled to arrive around 4 but we are still not 100% sure about our flight out of Resolute. This makes the feelings of finality of the mission stay at bay. It feels like we still have expedition things to do. I am still in work mode: Caleb and I repaired the hotel bathroom door strike plate the first night because we couldn’t help ourselves. We’re waiting and traveling and waiting and eating. I haven’t stopped eating since we got to Resolute. Four meals and snacks each day. My body is healing. Last night I feel like I caught up with my sleep for the first time in over 3 weeks, but I still feel like I can eat or sleep at anytime. Having to pack replaces the comfort of the hotel with feelings of the unknown travel ahead of us. I really loved staying here but I’m looking forward to getting back to Lor. Even Yellowknife with its smokey skies and paved roads is sounding nice because it is closer to home. There was smoke in Yellowknife when we left, and we hear it has not gotten better. Several towns in the surrounding area have been evacuated into Yellowknife for safety from the wildfires. We have to go regardless, because we don’t know when the next flight will leave Resolute. We get a ride to the airport and wait for the plane to arrive.

The 15th expedition to the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station departed from Resolute and the Arctic for the last time on Wednesday, August 2nd 2023 at 7:07pm local time. As soon as we lifted off the ground, I realized that I didn’t know if I would ever see the people of Resolute again, or the Island. We climbed heading North and as we turned, I looked out the window toward the North Pole and I saw faintly in the far distance, mountains. There is more out there, a little further, just over the horizon.

Resolution

We have no place to stay in Yellowknife when we arrive, and the evacuations eat up any available hotel rooms. Amid the changes, we lost our booking, so we shift to the first Airbnb we can find. It’s a nice modern house and ends up cheaper than the Chateau Nova. We spend time outside that night identifying the stars and planets in our first dark night sky in almost a month. We order 6 large pizzas and for the first time, I eat too much. That’s a good sign. The next day we relax and write up reports and journals and share photos from the expedition. We decide to have dinner at the same place we met, the Black Knight Pub, although this time I can eat the whole meal without feeling full, a theme that will follow me for a few weeks.

The next morning, early, we wake up to get in a cab and say goodbye to Andrew, who is on a later flight. And so the crew disburses. When we land in Vancouver, one by one we say goodbye to meet our connecting flights. I have something to eat; yesterday’s bagel with some lox and cream cheese from a little kiosk. I’ve had better and I’ve had worse on this trip.

Caleb and I get on the short hop to Seattle. The plane is sent past the airport to the south for sequencing into the traffic but we are well past Tacoma and I just want them to turn us and get home. We finally arrive at the gate and shuffle back in with our bags, which are much lighter now. Lor picks us up and I finally get to hug her again. We drop Caleb off and I thank him for the adventure.

I’m tired. I need a shower and a big meal. I think about grabbing something quick, but Lor wants to go to Rondo, our favorite place. This would be a treat and I’m surprised I hadn’t thought of it. I can eat a lot, so I order what appears to be a ridiculous amount of food but I enjoy every last bite, with big desserts at the end. The next days and weeks will be full of reports and review. Right now I am home but my heart is in The North and I can’t wait to take Lor on an adventure there to see it again.

Thank you to those who have been following along, and a special thanks to all of you who have donated your time and money to help me go on this journey. None of this would have been remotely possible without you. Thank you to my coworkers for picking up my slack while I went on a camping trip in Canada. Thank you to our Mission Support Crew: Eleonore, Roger, Sam, and James. Thank you Mom, Dad, Tina, Mike, Dave, Lee, Loretta, Eliot, and my friends and family for all your support.

And thank you Lor for not even a glint of hesitation at the idea of an Arctic expedition. I love you and all our adventures.

1 thought on “The Crew’s Return”

  1. Andy – can’t thank you enough for taking all of us on your journey! (I got so invested I cried when you got to hug Lor!) You will be processing this for years! One thing I question – is your heart in the North, or is the North in your heart? Love to you and Lou
    Aunt Bernadine

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