Subarctic Lifestyle of a Spotted Mind

The following was written as the days went by during a trip up north somewhere during the winter of 2005.. I have since compiled some photos into a montage and did an exhibition, the photos can be seen here

first step, go nuts.

since yesterday i've been planning this trip to churchill in manitoba, in canada, in north america (on earth?). basiclly i sent an email asking for various informations because i have always been attracted to the arctic areas and now could be a good time. i get a response concerning volunteering in june and that went straight to volunteering next week, so that's it, after a few emails, and then some dealing with a travel agent to get the best ticket possible (she actually impressed me, she found the same price and times as on the internet, i told her that i preferred buying my ticket from a human being, how ironic coming from me, well okay that is another story.. .) .. . .

my trip will take me from paris to winnipeg by plane, then to chruchill via train and this will take about 38 hours, and back to winnipeg via the same train and well, then i go to new york to see family and friends, that also is a separate tale.

in all this, after booking everything i did realize that the train doesn't run everyday, i would spend a night in winnipeg on the way over and another on the way back. so i tried out and guess what, this lady from winnipeg responded immediately and she seems really nice, she wants to pick me up and drop me off.. . i already knew why i love that country.

so now i have left my bags to pack and my stuff to organize, find clothing and gear for temperatures between -30 and -20 celsius, now that seems like something else. i cannot wait to feel what cold really means, here in paris when it gets to -1° everyone (including me of course) freaks out.

next step.. .(not the OS)

gear shop

i got some norwegian full body underwear and -mucho° proof socks, i will be staying with this family in winnipeg that seems really nice, the lady has been making sure that all will be the best, asking me what flight will bring me in winnipeg and what i like to eat ect. .. . she will even take me shopping for some gear that will be cheaper than here, especially because here in paris, well i mean go find north pole stuff at decathlon, people look at me like i'm a mad man when i say "i need something suitable for subarctic weather during winter time". .. . well except that shop that sells mostly army supplies, he was cool actually, he offered me a 100% wool hat for buying the norwegian underwear and socks. .. .

well, i'll be heading here and staying/volunteering at the CNSC

i am now much less worried about where i'm staying and what i'm wearing, however i now have to take care of the camera situation, what to do in such low temperatures ? how to take care of the condensation after getting back indoors ? what if a polar bear tries to steal my camera ? . .. ... .. i am glad i get to go to yoga class right before i leave. .. yay. .

getting "there"

i'm finally in the air off for winnipeg first. gosh the plane food is up to how it always is, with that trademarked "airplane food" taste, choose lamb or chicken and it wont really make a difference. actually if someone on ground eats that same kind of food they will probably feel like they are actually on a plane going somewhere, they might even start hearing jet engines in their head. on my connection to winnipeg from toronto we got a nice little "scare" as the cargo door was damaged so we where not sure if the plane was even to fly, but we did and the plane did not fall apart in mid air and we did not end up on a semi deserted island with black smoke monsters and wrecked ships from centuries ago.

arriving in winnipeg was quite something, i had to walk for less than 100 meters from the front door of the air station to the car and i had already started to feel my nose snot freezing up a bit. .. gosh that is scary. i learned a lesson that night, don't wear just jeans, i mean those cold weather underwear make a big difference, so don't be shy about em.

my hosts are really nice, they picked me up at the airport, took me shopping the next day and brought me to the train station. we had talked a bit about a lot of things, i was a bit overwhelmed as the mom and the 18 year old kid where talking to me about many various things at the same time and i was kind of tired, but that was all good. they most definitely earned the "friendly manitoba" that they have on their license plates..

btw. .. ..

i saw this on my connection between toronto and winnipeg. .. . . .


getting "there" II

i am waiting for my train at winnipeg station, they have announced that the train will arrive from maintenance a bit late, about 45 minutes late. . .hmmm. . .. there are about ten people waiting here, i just hope that those "the mall in my town is so great" chit-chatting old fellas aren't going to be sitting to close to me on the train. .. anyways, again it's frikin cold outside, it's about -a lot° and i can say i have total understanding of what they call "winterpeg". . .

Winnipeg train station

the ride is actually nice, imagine 15 passengers + crew on a train with 4 wagons including a dining wagon, basiclly we 0wn d4 tR41n. i met some nice people, a gal from bristol and a dude from amsterdam. everyone on this train is going to churchill, well all except those old dudes that had annoying conversation, yay.. .. there is even this guy on the train who reminds me of pedro from napoleon dynamite. .. .(turns out he's (and his gf) actually going to the centre as a visitor for learning vacation thingy, and he's from minnesota, and has a very nice pedro accent, and they are nice so mucho yay. .)

we are already late and we shall be later, caught up in a tie situation with a freight train, well we must give way as the other train has priority, and the freight trains go a lot slower than us, so our train has to follow and so we go quite slow for the next couple of hours. .. . with all this however the ride remains relaxing, the scenery is white and fluffy, doesn't change to much but has it's nice little features and some surprises/curiosities, it's like a fish tank except that it's outside every window this train has.. . ..

the fishtank effect.. . . .

between wagons.. .

Between wagons

getting "there" III - almost there

at thompson about 40 people or something board the train, this is at about 10 or 11 pm. suddenly our peaceful big empty train becomes a "crowded" train with mucho people everywhere, i suddenly realized i was on a train where people actually do hop on and off. . . .weird. .. :]

well i was dead tired so i fall asleep to be woken up by some guys going a bit crazy, i heard someone saying "you better stop it ! do you want to go to jail ?! you better stop!" that was interesting, it was on and off like that for a while till they started biting each other, of course as i was half asleep that kind of amplified the whole situation. after a while i abandoned the idea of sleep and took a peak out the window and saw what i thought was aurora, and it was, so until the "troublemakers" left the train i watched the auroras with my neighbour. . .. actually, as soon as they left the train there where no more northern lights, the spirits were no longer mad i guess.

after all that we just cruised at about 20km/h untill the next day (for about another 11 hours) untill churchill. yes that was kind of slow and hypnotic in a way. when i "woke up" i felt like i was born and raised on this train.. . . maybe i never did get to see the outside world with my naked eyes, maybe all of that was just part of my dream life and now i'm awake riding a train that never stops.. .. .

one thing i must say, it might have been -40°C outside it was probably something like +40° inside, maybe a technique to sell more drinks like they do in night clubs.. . anyways, after more than 40 hours of train riding, i, we, arrive.

Churchill Northern Studies Centre

we get off the train and goto the yellow school bus that takes us then quickly through town and then to the centre, things happen pretty quick, i meet heather then diane and after a quick tour i meet my room, a spacious room that i shall share with a guy that has way bigger hair than i. after that i sign a paper stipulating that i decline responsibility if a polar bear picks a fight with me. .. i get a tour of the kitchen, place where i will be spending much time, and then start working right there and then. .. basically will be working in the kitchen either i or the other volunteer (the big haired guy) and i when i'm not doing that i'm with the group of elderhostel/learning vacation people, in classes where we learn some basics about astronomy and northern lights, and during day time we go out and do stuff.

Churchill Northern Studies Centre

one has to understand, and starting with me, that such a remote place calls for very different ways of getting the day to day stuff done.. . .for example, the water, no toilet paper in the toilet, no water wasting what so ever, especially the outgoing water for everything is imported/exported and treated and stuff.. . . as for the internet, today i found out there is a wireless link going from the port till here, going about 23km i guess, and then here it goes through some other routers etc... . (yes there is a wireless router so i am quite happy here. ..)

anyway, this place used to be a rocket launch base and it does still have stuff from the days, yes, there is a rocket here and there, signs and other various equipments still here. . . it's really nice, plus today they have other scientific things going on, like earthwatchers. an interesting feature is the glass dome for auroral observation which used to be for the guy who would have the last word on the "go" or "no go" for each rocket launch. the rockets where used to study the northern lights so it adds a lot to the charm of the facility. my room is actually right under the dome (you can see the dome on the photo above).

bombardier yeah yeah. .. .

my first outing to town, we go to churchill and get a tour in these vehicules called "bombardier", basiclly called


that way because of the inventor, and the vehicle does resemble a snowmobile, but i guess that is because the guy that invented one invented the other (ski-doo) (J.-A. Bombardier). it's awesome, feels like being in a vehicle from world war two or something like that (well the design does date from the 40's actually). we drive on the churchill river and go to see the igloo that an inuit guy from nunavut built to show us what a real igloo is like. his wife tells us about their culture, a lot about the clothing and tools they made. A LOT of things are made with caribou, the only thing not made of bits of caribou was the snow blocks to make the igloo (of course all the tools where caribou) (well except that nowadays they use metal knives to carve the snow blocks and live most of the year in a real houses). after exploring some thousand year old remains of inuit or inuit ascendant settlements we went to see a caribou tent (inuit "summer house") and had hot coco and voilà. .. . . good day at the office.. .

caribou.. .

inside the igloo our hosts explain mucho things about inuit lifestyle in the nunavut territory.

Inside an Inuit igloo

old stuff. .

here are traces of an old (talking about thousands of years ago) family hut. the would set up the base against the rocks to protect it from wind. heather was very excited to see this, apparently it's not that often visible.

working hard

i've been spending much time in the kitchen, doing dishes mostly i must say, but i have also had the occasion to slightly overcook some pastries.. . yes i do mean burn.. . . don the cook is a very interesting man (then again everyone here is really interesting), he has worked here in the days of the rockets. anyways, he is a grumpy yet funny and nice guy, he's a character, like many people here. .. .

here everybody helps, beit the visitors from elder hostel or learning vacation, or the students and scientists conducting research. . . (you know, those guys running around the building with their trays of snow in ziploc bags). the environment is very warm here, hmmm.. . i'd even say globally warm.. . nothing here is locked up and it needs not be, i guess smart people aren't dumb. .. anyways, it is hard work but it is very very worth it....

a better view

you can see the building from another angle, and maybe better understand where the dome is.


if you still can't see the dome than that is too bad. . .. .. . :]

camera care.. ...

i was worried about camera care before i got here, i searched for infos all over and i have found some, but not enough to my taste so hereis some tips based on my experience.

check the specs of the camera and eventually of the memory card, my camera says -40°c and the sd card claims -25°c, so that should be fine ae. (i tend to think that any memory card will do, but i still got the one that said -25° and it was the same price) the biggest problem will not be the operation in low temperatures, however one must be careful while while handling the camera to not breath out to close to it to avoid humidity that will freeze upon contact to the machine, so yeah never breath on the lens to clean it for example, but also watch out for the viewfinder and the screen.

you can take your camera outside from the warm to the cold environment without worry, however never bring it back in to casually, the camera should not warm up to fast or else condensation will appear inside the body and might harm the circuits. you can do two things here;

one is, before getting indoors place the camera in an air tight bag (ziploc will do well), when the camera enters a warm environment the condensation will form inside the bag and not inside the camera (or any other equipment).

second, i prefer this one, find a way to warm the camera very progressively. i found that my camera bag is somewhat pretty insulative, so i leave it in the camera bag and i even place it in a cold place (the hallway behind the kitchen here is not heated) for a while (about an hour or so) then i put it in a heated room, while still in the bag. .. the procedure takes time, but whatever, i do other stuff meanwhile, and there is no condensation at all.

if the camera does experience some condensation, take the battery out asap and let the camera dry, don't heat it or anything, you can however put it in front of a fan or something that emits non heated air.. ..

voilà, that should do, its been a week now i have been doing this and it works well. i prefer the second technique because of the zero condensation but also because i tend to think that any parts going from -40°c to +20+c could be somewhat "damaged" if that occurs to fast.... . .. ..

for the batteries, well they die faster as they use more energy to deliver electricity. of course a cold battery while not used conserves its energy longer. anyways, just keep a spare, eventually in your pocket so that when you need it it will last a bit longer. i have not had to many problems with that, just turn the camera off when not in use and that should work well.

churchill.. . . ..

yes churchill manitoba, i actually have not spent any time there before this outing to the big city. well okay, churchill has about 900 people living there so it's not that big i guess, plus there is no urban sprawl around here. anyways we all went with the big yellow bird bus to the city, stopping at various points where things where pointed out to us like the old school weather station, u.s. military base and the bear prison.

the town itself is pretty small and i did not find any crowds nor any traffic jams. what to say apart that the streets are white and snowmobiles are parked all over the place and people are cool, in more than one way.

welcome to.. .

yes, i did get a shot like this, well i had to. it's good to feel like a good ol' tourist. . .. .. bring on the polar bears goddamnit. . . .

: ]

who want's crack. . ... ?

this is a crack in the hudson bay, nice ae? well i managed to get my left foot to fall inside one and it's pretty pretty deep. apparently robert, the guy i met on the train had felt the water beneath when that happened to him. .. . . so basically people don't walk on the hudson bay because it cracks up a bit everywhere, but hey, i didn't see any polar bears trying to kill me so guess i needed some adrenaline.. .. . besides that, the bay looks like it instantly froze as you can almost see wave like forms in it... . .

oh roar ah.

aurora borealis

since i have been here at the cnsc, i have heard about aurora, i have seen aurora, i have even taken some pictures of aurora, i have already frozen my ass off more than once in attempt to get a nice shot.. . . well today i think i got some nice ones. .. . .

i have for the first time seen aurora borealis, the northern lights, on this trip. tonight the display was immense and bright, green and mean, mystical and magical. . .. . .

the aurora moves a bit, more or less depending on "stuff". . ... .. it can appear at first as a discreet greenish cloud, just moving along doing it's business, then suddenly it may brighten up and become accompanied by other stripes and forms that suddenly become visible. it can then sometimes just starts moving quickly often making wavy movements, it can suddenly stop and die out or it can go back to a calmer state while keeping its luminosity or not, it's actually quite hard to know in advance what could happen.. ... ..

rockets r us. . .

i guess you know that you are in a special place when you see rockets in the lounge and on the parking lot, when everyday you look out the window and you can see through the frost three rocket launch towers, when you meet people who help out with the dishes just before going out to survey the polar bears while being followed by the bbc and other science mags, when you meet people that have been to antartica, etc etc. .. . . . everyone has a story to tell, and every bit of this facility is a story.

for example, the dome, the other night i spent a bit of time in the dome on my own while everyone was asleep, drinking my tea and enjoying the view. it feels awesome, relaxing and still exciting. from this dome a guy would have the button to the final descision on the go or no go of the rockets back in the days.

there is this building somewhere in the middle, well if you peak through the "bullet proof" windows you see a control deck that you would only see in a james bond movie or something like that, 60's style and dust free. .... (i'll try to see more). . .

rocket range 1 & 2

Auroral rocket launcher

go/no go

i will press this button (in the dome) tonight to see what happens. ..

Go / No go


Don the chef

don is one of a kind, he has been around here and there, i think he worked here when this place was a rocket range.. . he's the chef around here these days and he's also my "boss" as i worked in the kitchen. .. . he's quite the grumpy type, when he's grumpy you know he's happy. ... . that is don... .i'd say he's our swedish chef, but with the ladies he is one smooth criminal.

i asked him if i could take a picture of him and he said "sure, i'll try to smile but i can't guarantee anything", i replied "don't worry, i want a picture of you the way i see you everyday" and then he grinned.

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cookies !!

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churchill, the city that never sleeps. ... . .

chasing the aurora and having morning shifts doesn't leave too much space for sleep, besides those activities there is always something to do, a conversation to be conversed, eventually a drink to be drank. so basically sleeping is an activity i don't do much over here.. . .however lately things having calming down and i've been taking it much easier, the elder/learning groups and the earthwatchers have all left. well yeah it's getting kind of empty, remaining is the regular cnsc staff, starman, nick and greg the polar bear guys and a lady taking photos for ranger rick and guys from bbc also doing stuff with the polar bears.

so yeah, things are calming down a lot, i have had some very interesting conversations with the people who are here, for example Suzi Eszterhas who gave me quite a few tips on photography and taught me how to clean my camera. . ... . very useful.

mercury & mercury

mercury & mercury

the other day i helped setting up a wireless connection from the studies centre to the met station, i was excited to do that, plus to inspect the place where they study mercury the element. so this photo is that building, and the white dot above on the left side is mercury the planet. .. . .

btw.. . ..

this trip is officially over, just did not have any time to conclude this log. so yeah, tis was fun till the last minute, driving back from the centre to the train station was interesting, and we even stopped for a quick shot at this bar downtown and then just hopped on the railed bus (train) .. . .. . . another long trip with about 6 hours delay at the arrival point, but hey, me no longer surprised. so voilà, back to winnipeg for another night and then off to new york, that another story, and voilà. .. . . .. more details irl or via email... . .

Subarctic sundown