STUDENT ANGLE: My Arctic Alter Ego

2015 Student Writing Contest: HONORABLE MENTION

Karen M. Dunmall | karen.dunmall@gmail.com

As the sun slowly rises, we race across the frozen Mackenzie River Delta in a helicopter. The landscape is black and white; the twilight hoards the colours to paint the sky. We have donned our many layers of wool and feathers to ward off the extreme cold. Our food is in a cooler with a hot water bottle to keep it from freezing. As we fly over the icy maze of lakes and channels, I am mentally shifting. I am a mom that is headed into an unforgiving, frozen world. Rather than coordinating the usual hockey practices, birthday parties, and playdates, today my responsibility is to get my research team back home safely. If we get data too, that is a bonus. The helicopter is my phone booth.

I am the only person in the world that is researching salmon colonizations in the Canadian Arctic. While salmon are getting caught in higher abundances in subsistence harvests throughout the Canadian Arctic, it is not known where they may successfully colonize and if they will compete with local fish species. Even in the darkest days of the Arctic winter, there are rare places that do not freeze. In the summer, these places blend in with the landscape; in winter, their camouflage is lost and the dark, flowing water is starkly contrasted against the sparkling snow-covered trees and frosty willows. These are spawning locations for Dolly Varden Salvelinus malma, a cold-tolerant native char with similar habitat requirements to salmon. The goal is to determine if those places may also be viable for spawning vagrant salmon. Last winter, we deployed devices to record water temperature in these locations. Today, we are headed back to retrieve the data and redeploy the devices.

The helicopter lands and we emerge into waist-deep snow. We clumsily move toward the riverbank. The temperature loggers are in metal pipes that have been driven into the river bottom. I turn on a metal detector and sweep the wand back and forth as I walk along a section of shallow, open water. I wait for the hum to turn into a squeal, pinpointing the location of the pipe. Another team member kneels and twists off the lid, holding up the loggers for all to see. I pull a new lid, with loggers attached, out of my chest waders, and screw it onto the pipe. The extra room in the waders from the male-inspired design provides me a useful storage pouch. As we wade back toward the helicopter, our wet boots and waders accumulate layers of ice. I am teetering on an extra four inches by the time we reach the skids. As the helicopter blades start to spin, I suck on a frozen M&M and load up the coordinates for the next stop. We repeat this process until the sun sinks low on the horizon once again.

As we race back to the hanger to land before dark, I rub the window in a circle with my mitten to clear the frost and pause to own this moment of success. It hurts to leave my family and winter Arctic fieldwork carries significant risks. However, I look forward to the squeals that signal mommy’s return and I know we will soon settle back into the everyday routine. I am teaching my kids by example that it is ok to follow their dreams. Eventually they will understand that a challenging journey reaps the highest rewards.

To follow the Arctic Salmon research, “like” it on Facebook: facebook.com/arcticsalmon.

Karen Dunmall is a Ph.D. student at the University of Manitoba, working in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. She is expertly guided by supervisors at both institutions. She gratefully acknowledges receiving a W. Garfield Weston Foundation Award for Northern Research, an NSERC Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship, the American Fisheries Society 2014 J. Frances Allen Scholarship, and the University of Manitoba Roger Evans Memorial Scholarship. Her research is funded by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, University of Manitoba, Government of the Northwest Territories through the Northwest Territories Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program (Project # 00142), Fisheries Joint Management Committee, Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board, Gwich’in Land Use Planning Board, and the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board.

Members click below for the January 2016 Fisheries magazine's complete issue. Non-members, join here.

This content is for members only. Please login.