The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

My life in the north so far – the halfway point

It’s been four weeks since I hopped on the first of four planes and began my journey northward for this incredible adventure.  It’s been interesting, to say the least.  Often exciting, usually eye-opening, and sometimes very challenging.  

From a personal perspective, being away for this length of time is proving to be a greater challenge than I ever anticipated.  I figured I would be so busy, I wouldn’t have time to miss the familiar comforts of my own home or the constant support and companionship of my partner.  I was wrong on both fronts.  I appreciate, I think more than ever, how lucky I am to have certain opportunities and to have a soulmate standing by me as I pursue them.  

Truck with flag at Nunavut Day parade

Living in a remote northern community is an experience like no other.   The hamlet has a population of around 1600 people, about the same size as my own small village back in Ontario.  The colourful wooden homes and apartments are built on stilts; this area by the shore is very rocky and permafrost makes digging a proper foundation impossible.  Water is pumped in to each residence once a week; sewage is removed with the same frequency.   Many homes have a Honda or two parked in front, and a skidoo or two tarped over in the rear, right next to the traditional wooden sleds with curved runners.  Sled dogs, looking badly in need of grooming, live tied to doghouses in areas slightly removed from where people reside; they are sometimes given a run in the evening hours, swiftly following their Honda-riding owners over the tundra.  Upon returning, the dogs are given leftover raw char or caribou for dinner.    There are several churches in town, two grocery stores, a hardware store, a medical centre, a sport complex, a search-and-rescue building, a high school, a grade school, a number of government offices, and even an inn.    

Yesterday's sunset.

The people here are very friendly.  They are quick to make eye contact and even quicker to smile freely, something you rarely encounter in towns in the south.  It’s a close-knit community, where everybody knows everybody else, and people do their best to look out for each other.  Youth catch fish and sometimes seals during the summer, bringing the food to less mobile elders.  Teachers work hard to inspire and motivate both in and out of the classroom.  People come together to raise funds in order to build a soccer field and send kids to camps.   Traditional food, dance, games (more games), and crafts persist despite the extraordinarily rapid takeover of southern culture in what was a nomadic community mere decades ago.   The language is dying though…kids only want to speak english; I hadn’t heard an actual conversation in Inuktitut  until last week, and it was between two people who looked old enough to be my great-great grandparents. 

It is clear that there aren’t enough jobs to go around; many families rely on welfare to get by.  Others take up temporary employment outside of town and fly to Rankin Inlet or Yellowknife or Edmonton.  Kids roam the streets until the wee hours of the morning (“it’s easier to stay up late when there’s no school”, one 7-year-old told me as he took a break from practicing wheelies on his dirtbike…at midnight…no guardian in sight).   Most adults I’ve spoken to do not have a high school diploma; until very recently, the dropout rate was nearly 100% (last year there were 10 graduates, a community record).  Alcohol was once a very serious community problem, but strict regulations and limitations put in place a few years ago (only a certain amount of alcohol per person per week can be purchased, and it must be done under permit, directly through the RCMP office) have helped tremendously.   

North shore by boat on a foggy day

Basic resources like food, medical supplies, and gasoline for vehicles are scarce and ridiculously expensive.   A litre of milk can cost up to $12.00.  A cucumber? About $5.  A small can of beans is $2.99 .  Have a hankering for fresh food?  You’d better be a good shot, because the majority of food in the stores here is frozen, processed, or well past its expiry date: it’s all you get unless you collect it from the land yourself or make arrangements for food to be flown in from the south.  Last week the one and only gas pump in the hamlet was malfunctioning, and I was told it would be four weeks until the next barge came in with supplies to fix it (happily someone figured out how to repair it in the meantime).  Four weeks with no fuel would have been catastrophic for my field work, and would have put most hunting and fishing to a halt once stashed jerry cans were drained.   Want some simple pharmaceuticals like cough syrop or rubbing alcohol?  If you’re REALLY lucky the Northern store MIGHT have some.  But probably not.  So it’s weeks until the next delivery, or you order it in from Yellowknife, because there sure as heck isn’t a Shopper’s Drug Mart down the road (or, if you ask very nicely at the Medical Centre, like I did today, the nurses there might slip you a few bottles of isopropyl for free!).  Speaking of roads, they are all gravel and tremendously dusty.  Water trucks prowl the streets all day, spraying water in an attempt to keep the pervasive dust to a minimum.  It helps a bit, but you still end up with grit in your hair at the end of the day.

While there are certainly challenges to living here, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t growing on me.  There’s a coziness and predictability, a regular ebb and flow of activity and human movement.  The town is actually very pretty.  It feels safe and comfortable.  And the land around it, well…I can put up photographs but they just don’t do the region justice, it’s really tremendously beautiful out here.  There’s so much to be discovered, admired, and appreciated.

From a research standpoint, all I have to say is that the insect community here is shockingly WEIRD, at least from my usual temperate frame of reference.  It’s not so much what I AM seeing (although certainly I am encountering species new to me), it’s more what I’m NOT seeing.  Keep in mind, I’m a beetley person, so this is where my attention is drawn when I’m checking out my catches, but I’m sure dip gals and lep guys and others would also be going, “whoa.”  

Mosquitoes? Oh, I have a few.

Basically, certain major beetle families are missing.  Some things I understand.  I would not expect to see bark beetles or wood-borers (very few, anyways), since, well, there’s no wood with a diametre larger than 2 cm or so.   But I have not seen ONE SINGLE leaf beetle.  Not one.  Only a teensy smattering of snout beetles.  Maybe five rove beetles.   No clicks, no scarabs, no fireflies, no dermestids, no ladybugs, no checkereds.  Nada.  Nothing.  Zilch.  No beetles aside from the ground beetles I regularly encounter in traps, and the carrion beetles I find on dead stuff, and sometimes this guy: 

who likes to hang out on flowers and hide under willow leaves.  Well, I do find diving beetles in the stagnant ponds that dot the landscape…I guess they count too.

And when I look at the plants here, there is a striking lack of herbivory.  The damage from leaf-chewers is minute, there are no leaf miners, and other than small pinkish galls on dwarf willow shrubs (I’m not sure yet who’s causing them), plants look entirely untouched.   The only herbivores I’ve captured (aside from the snout beetles) are some teensy leafhoppers, some caterpillars and some rather pretty grasshoppers, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what they’re eating. 

Typical yellow pan trap catch. You like wolf spiders and Carabids? I have those too.

Spiders, however?  GABILLIONS.  Wolf spiders, anyways.    

It’s just so gosh-darn WEIRD.  I keep thinking, “well maybe later in the summer I’ll see something different”, but so far that’s not the case.   And this is using a variety of traps and techniques, plus plain old flat-out hunting and snooping and looking wherever I go. 

The beetles may be weird, but at least they're SHINY

Very, very odd. 

Anyways, I guess the short ending to this long ramble is this: it’s pretty neat-o here.  I miss home and my wife more than I can possibly convey, but at least my separation from those comforts allows me to experience this amazing place.

13 responses to “My life in the north so far – the halfway point

  1. Rachel July 20, 2010 at 1:34 PM

    Wow, C. That’s just awesome. You wanted an experience of a life time and I believe you got yourself one! This will one experience is something I have a feeling you will take through the rest of your life and influence you in ways beyond measure. Continue to soak it up, sister, and thanks for giving us an inside peek along the way.

    • TGIQ July 20, 2010 at 3:42 PM

      You’re right, Rachel, this IS an experience of a lifetime. I suspect this will influence me on the same scale (if not greater) as when I did research in the tropics as an undergrad (first and only time)…that three-week stint turned me into an ecologist, at least in my own head. It will be very, very interesting to see how this all unfolds in the future.

  2. Susannah July 20, 2010 at 2:45 PM

    Weird about the spiders. If there are so many, what are they eating?

  3. Warren July 20, 2010 at 3:00 PM

    I spend my life in these northern shitholes (albeit a little further south) and I applaud your positivity. Luckily you will be gone before the novelty wears off. Great writing on all three blogs btw. Is it two or three? Anyway, it’s great that you’re motivated to share nature through the internet. It’s more important all the time and I wish more academics were into it. Guide the way!

    • TGIQ July 20, 2010 at 3:45 PM

      In speaking with some of my colleagues who are spending time in other northern communities, I think I have a pretty good deal here. I’ve not been encountering all the horrific stuff I was fearing (though I can’t say the same for the other researchers *shudder*). It’s a nice place. Hm, three blogs? I’m not sure what the third one is, but I’m happy to take credit for it anyways 😉 I like to share, because I’m excited by what I do, and it’s great to have a willing audience to join me for the ride. I mean, you people come here by CHOICE!!! OMG!

  4. jason July 20, 2010 at 3:15 PM

    C, that was utterly, beautifully, unspeakably potent. Your words did more justice than the photos. Good stuff!

  5. Morgan Jackson July 23, 2010 at 8:36 AM

    Awesome Geek! Your best post in my mind!

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