Students spend a week outdoors to prep for future jobs in Nunavut
Environmental technology students learn to do research and survive on the land
A group of nine students search for a body after an apparent avalanche near Crazy Lake, about 13 kilometres due north of Iqaluit, or a half hour by snowmobile.
They’re in a straight line on a slippery hill holding long, thin metallic probes.
Like a military brigade, they take orders from a leader one step ahead. He belts out instructions.
“Left! Step!” commands Tyler Harbidge, a Parks Canada resource management officer.
Nine bundled up students simultaneously stab their probes through snow and ice and yank them back up to the surface. They take one step forward, maintaining perfect line formation.
“Step! Centre!” Harbidge says.
“Strike!” shrieks one of the students.
After yelling, “Stop” Harbidge walks over to inspect the strike. Silence lingers as the students wait for further instructions.
This exercise is part of the Environment Technology Program’s winter field camp, run through Nunavut Arctic College.
The camp teaches students about the rigors of surviving outdoors in the North, and exposes them to field research and survival situations they might come across once they’re employed across the territory.
About two dozen students attended this year’s camp, which ran from April 2 to April 9 near Crazy Lake.
Harbidge is calm, collected. He knows the ins and outs of a real avalanche recovery effort and uses that protocol for the mock training exercise April 4.
Standing by the student who got the “strike,” he tells them what would happen next. “Then we’d start doing the probing, someone starts shoveling. Because we might have a false strike.”
Harbidge has a deep voice and often pauses between thoughts, making what he’s about to say seem extra valuable, which helps get his message across.
Avalanche awareness is a skill these students need to know, even though avalanches are somewhat infrequent here.
“But they do happen in Nunavut. And that was kind of our push to doing avalanche awareness,” Harbidge says.
Although people know avalanches can happen in Nunavut, few have actual knowledge of what areas are prone to avalanche and what to do when it occurs.
“We did get these stories from people that there have been fatalities and people weren’t really understanding … didn’t have that vast knowledge about avalanches.”
Harbidge has worked and travelled around Nunavut for years. He’s been stationed in Pond Inlet, travelled to national parks like Quttinirpaaq, Sirmilik and Auyuittuq, and he’s been doing avalanche awareness at ETP since about 2008.
Tall and bearded, with hands hardened from years of cold-weather experience, Harbidge knows how vital emergency preparedness is in the North.
And being prepared is one of themes of the field camp.
“The students are going to go on to be environment practitioners with various departments and agencies and they’re often going to be looked to as people to help out in an emergency situation,” says ETP’s program coordinator, Jason Carpenter.
The first-year students learn first aid, as well as emergency wilderness training like making snow shelters and staving off the sometimes deadly Arctic cold.
Last year, in fact, the field camp ended a day early because of extreme cold — at one point it reached -51 Celsius with the wind chill.
Today, it’s -31 C. with the wind chill — so cold that ETP student Steven Lonsdale has no choice but to record his notes with a pencil, and not a pen.
He’s bundled together with other second year students. clipboard in hand, facing an open, watery hole in Crazy Lake about half a kilometre from the avalanche group.
“The pen will freeze. Even if you keep it warm in your pocket, you take it out and [it] will freeze within five seconds. You might write two words,” Lonsdale said.
Lonsdale, who graduated from Iqaluit’s Inuksuk High School and Ottawa’s Nunavut Sivuniksavut college, already has experience assisting researchers in the field. He’s helped with bird branding, water sample analysis and studying contaminants in the North such as mercury.
“Give it a few more years and a bit more school, I’ll be doing my own research,” Lonsdale says, confidently.
Here at the lake, as part of their limnology training — limnology meaning the science of freshwater — students are documenting food webs by lowering a net to the bottom of the lake in search of copepods, daphnia and plankton: the tiny creatures that small fish eat.
They’re also monitoring how much oxygen is in the water at different depths in the ice as well as ice thickness. Their results will be added to a bank of freshwater data which has been collected annually for 10 years.
This year, for example, the ice on Crazy Lake is between 20 and 30 centimeters thicker than the previous year.
“This is all field stuff that’s probably been done for quite a long time,” says Candice Sudlovenick, a second-year student who travelled to a geology field camp in California last summer largely because of ETP.
“[Scientists] don’t have a lot of information about the North, so this is the kind of information that they’re looking for,” she said.
Sudlovenick also knows the importance of survival fashion — she’s draped almost head-to-toe in colourful furs and wears a balaclava over her face to shield herself from the wind.
“It’s coooold,” she says with a giggle.
But the cold teaches the students a valuable lesson, Carpenter argues.
“I think there’s an increased skill level. And because of [the field camp], your confidence goes up a little bit. Not in a cocky way, but as you feel more informed,” Carpenter says.
“At least somewhat more competent. More competent to pack important gear — not just iPods. And know that they’ve got the stuff to keep them safe.”