Reflections on conducting fieldwork in Nunavut, Canada

The opportunities and challenges of working in the Arctic as part of the Arctic BIOSCAN project

By Crystal Sobel

Carter Lear and Jaiden Maksagak (left to right) venturing across the tundra in search of insects

PHOTO CREDIT: Andrea Dobrescu

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Arctic’? Do you picture snow and ice, freezing temperatures, vibrant communities, and animals like the polar bear and Arctic fox?

Ice breaking apart on Ferguson Lake, Northwest of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
Polar Bear walking around Churchill, Manitoba during the Arctic summer
Photo credit: Thanushi Eagalle

Not everyone is able to experience first-hand the vast tundra or see people fishing for Arctic char as they travel down the river to the ocean. I hope to share my impressions as a visitor to the Arctic, through my fieldwork as a research technician for the Arctic BIOSCAN (ARCBIO) project.

Beautiful sky views and summer flowers at Long Point, Victoria Island, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

ARCBIO is a partnership between the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG) at the University of Guelph and Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR) that aims to carry out biodiversity assessments in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut. Teams of researchers and technicians have been sent from the CBG to Nunavut for eight weeks spanning July and August in the summer to collect and catalogue plants and animals.

I play a major role in the planning and logistics for ARCBIO’s field expedition which includes working out how to transport and assemble the equipment required to collect and catalog insects, plants, and small mammals for an entire field season involving more than 14 researchers.  Careful planning is crucial to order and organize the more than 70 different pieces of equipment — Malaise traps, sifters, nets, forceps, camera gear, labels, collecting bottles, etc. — as it all needs to be in place at our research sites in time for our arrival at the start of field season.

Flying to Nunavut from Ontario involves three flights over two days. But once you arrive, the land is truly a sight to behold. It is like no other place on Earth; its beauty magnified by the midnight sun and the countless tundra flowers covering the landscape.

Tundra landscape in full bloom in July. Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

In 2018 and 2019, my Arctic travels were focused in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut whose location on Victoria Island along the Northwest Passage has made it a key port for passengers and research vessels. The Inuit have been residing in this region for over 4,000 years, naming the area Iqaluktuuttiaq meaning ‘good fishing place’ in Inuinnaqtun, the traditional language of the area, for its abundance in Arctic char.

My colleagues and I worked at the magnificent new Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS). Run by POLAR staff, the station has several research and teaching spaces including a very impressive necropsy lab that has enough space to dissect whales. Dorm style lodgings are available for visiting researchers, with a facility building full of fieldwork equipment from ATVs to scuba gear to snowmobile suits.

After arriving at a sampling site North of Long Point, Nunavut, we took in the incredibly vast view of the tundra
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
ATV transport is the best way to get around on the rugged tundra terrain. Ovayok Territorial Park, Nunavut
Photo credit:Alex Borisenko
Mikko Pentinsaari and Alex Borisenko (left to right) are searching for insects in the leaf litter sample collected from the tundra back at the CHARS facility
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
In addition, the CHARS staff are incredibly friendly and an indispensable resource for a successful field season providing logistical support to advice on field site selection. The POLAR staff were particularly instrumental in helping us collect aquatic samples.
Researchers surveying the land for sampling sites on the Northside of Grenier Lake, Nunavut

Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

There are no docks to park your boat out on Grenier Lake, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
Everyone is having a great time travelling along Grenier Lake in their survival suit gear
Photo credit: POLAR staff
Coming from Southern Ontario, I dressed in many layers of clothing including quick-dry field pants, gloves, short-sleeve shirt, long-sleeve shirt, sweater, windbreaker jacket and, when needed, a rain jacket and pants. And don’t forget a toque (I did!). A cozy hat is key to keeping your head and ears warm against the unrelenting wind coming off the Arctic Ocean. But perhaps the most important article of clothing is the very stylish bug net hat.
Keeping the mosquitoes away with a stylish bug net hat!
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

We were also very fortunate to have hired two youth in Cambridge Bay for our 2019 field season. Jaiden Maksagak and Carter Lear helped with insect monitoring by setting up traps, collecting samples, and recording data. Having a keen interest in the sciences, they were eager to gain experience by working with us.

Carter Lear and Jaiden Maksagak (left to right) venturing across the tundra in search of insects
Photo credit: Andrea Dobrescu
Jaiden Maksagak attaches a collecting bottle to the Malaise trap, which passively collects flying insects
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
Jaiden Maksagak (left), Andrea Dobrescu (bottom right) and Alana Tallman (top right) work together to set up an insect trap transect line with pitfall traps and samples of soil to be sifted through
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

Our team also conducted field work in Kugluktuk for the 2019 summer field season. Kugluktuk, meaning ‘place of moving water’, is situated on the northern edge of the mainland of Canada and is the westernmost community in Nunavut. Here, we worked with two wildlife guides, Thomas Bolt and Dettrick Hokanak whom helped with monitoring for bear activity and site set up as well as with servicing of the insect traps.

Thomas Bolt and Dettrick Hokanak (left to right) were our incredibly helpful guides in Kugluktuk, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

In both Iqaluktuuttiaq and Kugluktuk, we sought guidance from Nunavut’s Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO) who provided us with local wildlife guides, bear monitoring services, and recommended great science-minded youth from the community who worked with us as science rangers. We were grateful for the knowledge they shared with us and for the opportunity to share aspects of our research work with their communities on Nunavut Day.

A Malaise trap, used to collect flying insects, contrasts with the beautiful tundra sky and landscape
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
During the Nunavut Day celebrations, we were able to share the wonderful world of insects with children and adults. We set up displays in both communities that showcased the many shapes and sizes of insects, their life cycles as well as highlight which ones are beneficial to humans, and which ones are pests. I always enjoy seeing kids get wide-eyed with excitement when they see our insect displays.
Local community members demonstrate the making of bannock, a traditional food from the region during Nunavut Day 2018, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

The kids enjoyed our giveaways which included informational pamphlets, bookmarks, postcards, buttons and other fun items about animals and how DNA barcoding works. I enjoyed learning a few words in Inuktitut from them, such as nuna for land, tuluaq for crow, and hikhik for ground squirrels. I believe that it’s very important to democratize science, involve local communities in research projects, and make data available to the public including the people making decisions that could impact ecosystems and their biodiversity. We need sensitive tools to understand how Arctic environments are changing and give us insights into what we can do to solve problems. DNA barcoding arctic diversity, this is what ARCBIO is all about.

Written by

Crystal Sobel

Crystal Sobel

Research Technician, Collections Unit, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics

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