Being Left – A Guide To Staying Home When Someone You Know Is In The Arctic

When your loved one takes off for the Great White North, there are a lot of emotions, worries and fears. However, as with any difficult situation, there are preparations or reminders which make the entire experience easier.

Before your loved one takes off into the frigid unknown, you can talk with them frequently, but at the same time it is important to remember that the period before the field season is often almost as busy as the field season itself. Every year before Lisa leaves for the Arctic, we are both cognizant of the fact that we won’t be able to visit for months, so I will call her a couple of times a week for a few minutes to check in. It’s nice to hear how she is doing and also to listen to all of the preparations she is making for her long stay in the North. Together we count down the number of days we have to talk to one another before she leaves.

These conversations also serve to remind me just how perfect Lisa is for her job. Regardless of whether your friend or family member is leading a team, researching or acting as a tech, it helps to keep in mind that your loved one has been chosen because they are skilled, well trained and able to take on this adventure. Ask about what your friend or family member is bringing to the Arctic and why. Each year Lisa sends all crew members a link to her blog post which lists the gear necessary for her crew to survive on the tundra for three months. Because of her crew’s careful preparations, despite the unseasonably cold temperatures last year, no one got chilblains on their face last season.

Once your loved one takes off for the North, it’s tempting to use the satellite phone number you’ve been left to call and check in but lots of contact with home actually increases homesickness. Ultimately you want your loved one to prosper and be successful up North, so in lieu of calling repeatedly and attempting to have long static filled conversations about how much you miss one another, take heart and remember that no news is good news. Admittedly some people are better at remembering the truth in this adage. Sometime around July, I tend to crack and call Lisa’s Mom. “I haven’t heard anything!” I’ll wail into the phone. Lisa’s mother will then cheerfully trill at me “Well dear, we haven’t either, you must remember that no news is good news”.

Although contact is infrequent and sometimes unreliable at best, the crew can be medivaced to safety if there is a serious problem. These types of emergencies are rare because of how well the researchers, techs and everyone, takes care of one another up there. It sounds funny but Lisa wants to know tidbits as basic as when each of her crew poops because these very mundane activities are indicators of health and wellness.

Even though phoning every day (or sometimes every month) is out, there are other forms of communication available to both you and your loved one. Writing letters or cards can be a cathartic and effective way to feel connected with your Northern explorer while they are away. In addition, they are a nice surprise when the crew receives a supply drop every other week.

Keeping pictures of your friend or family member or favourite items of theirs around the house or office takes the sting out of missing that person. My favourite thing of Lisa’s to keep is her dog Maddie. The past two field seasons that Lisa has spent up North, I’ve taken care of Maddie for a period of time. Having a furry bundle of joy definitely makes the time apart easier to manage. Although I imagine that albums or beloved objects would do the trick too.

When all else fails, knowing that the season is only three months long, and that they will be back soon, can be a comfort. As can planning a fun activity to do together when they return. Last year Lisa and I went back country camping. The year before that we crafted and wrote. What will you do to celebrate your adventurer’s return? – from The Great Unwashed

(the best friend a girl could ask for)


Camaraderie, leaving home and enjoying life’s adventures

The countdown is on. I have 10 days before I leave home for 2 months, spending time travelling by commercial flights, bush planes, helicopters; seeing polar bears, rare and exciting birds, well, the works. And truly it’s a magical time of year for me. BUT. And there always is a bit of a “but”; being in cool and exotic places, means you are not at home, you are away from family, the familiar, and the comforts that all those things contain.

When I’m away and don’t have convenient means to call my family and let them know how I’m doing, we always say that “no news is good news”. The absence of my contact means that things are likely not just fine I might even be having so much fun that any lingering homesickness, has been suppressed by wonderful daily happenings.

This is one of my favourite pictures from last summer. Victoria is a veteran crew member of mine; this summer will be her third summer working with me and I couldn’t be happier having her come back. She is getting a picture of her holding a male Black-bellied Plover, a bird that is difficult for us to catch. But you can see the rest of us, working together as a team, taking notes, dealing with gear etc. So for every picture of one of us, there is a whole network of people working together.



SHOREBIRD LEG FLAGS; how to make the perfect leg flag.

The North American Banding Council has designated that as scientists capture and tag birds, we do so in a structured way so that everyone can access one database and determine who, what, where, and when that individual bird was tagged. Banding and recapturing is how we first made strides in determining where migratory birds went after they left the breeding grounds or migratory stopover locations when they were headed…well, somewhere. It’s also how we have been able to determine proximate ages for individual birds and for species. How long does a little bird live? Believe it or not, some small songbirds can live over 10 years! And likely that is a conservative number. All that has been possible due to banding efforts where we capture birds, place uniquely coded bands on each one and record all the information about where it was banded, the species, other measurements etc.

Sanderling. Photo by: Nick Docken
Sanderling. Photo by: Nick Docken

In many cases, birds are mostly resighted and not recaptured, meaning that someone was looking through their binoculars and noticed a bird has some kind of marking on it. It’s wonderful, especially if the bird has a marking that is unique to THAT bird. Smaller birds can be given leg flags that have unique colour and code on them to help us identify from afar who they are and where they were tagged. These leg flags are colour coded by country which is even more fun, especially when you are in the Canadian Arctic and you see a red knot with an orange flag….Hello Argentina!!!! That bird has come a long way to breed.

Photo by: Nick Docken
Photo by: Nick Docken

It is however not a right but a privilege to handle birds. Each person is registered and has applied for a permit to capture and handle birds only after weeks to months of mentorship from experienced banders at permitted banding stations in the country. Code of ethics, safety, banding regulations all need to be followed precisely. “The bird comes first” before anything, so it’s safety and proper handling is our number one priority. With this responsibility comes not only the proper care and handling but the proper administering of any item being placed on the bird, such as the bands, flags or markings.

Making the perfect leg flag for smaller birds (band size 1A, 1B, 3 etc)

Things you need:

  1. Darvic plastic or the new Salbex plastic products 1-2 mm thickness cut into strips 1cm x 10 cm

2. Small but hardy clamp that can tolerate some heat

3. An assortment of nails that fit the measured diameter for the bands designated for your target species




Sourced from:

4. Heat gun


Take your flat pre-cut Darvic plastic piece and press around the nail sized to your leg band requirement. Then pinch in place as close to the nail as possible:

Hang your heat gun (I used Mastercraft’s model), and turn the heat setting on low. Place one side of the band with the curved side facing out under the heat for 5 seconds. You will see the plastic mold nicely to the shape of the nail. Then turn and heat the other side for 3-5 seconds until shaped. *Do not heat for too long, after the plastic gets too soft, it will droop and will not return to the right shape, aka the flag is garbage.

Let cool for 5 seconds and remove from clap. If the opening is not flush and forms a V shape this is a no no.

Flip the flag in the claps so the tail end is sticking out and give it a 3 second blast of heat, then pinch with your fingers being careful to not burn yourself. Don’t press too hard or the plastic may bend.

And Voila, the perfect leg band. Now trim and they are safe for use.


Life is like…..nest searching; ups and downs of field work and research

As we get older and move through life we experience; ups and downs, moments we will never forget, moments we wish to forget, and all the stuff in between. Short term 1, 2 or 3 months of field work feels like a whole lifetime in itself. You grow from being a newbie, completely unaware at the beginning of the field season to a master of your own little study site. You swing from limb to limb of successes and failures on an hourly basis. At the end you stand victorious and proud with usually minimal scaring.

Our field season in the Canadian Arctic over a 2 month period is both the most rewarding and the most challenging time in my life. I’m never happier than when I’m cut off from the civilized world, with no running water, 24 light on the beautiful tundra walking 20 km a day. Our daily goal is to walk as far as possible and cover as much ground as possible in an attempt to find shorebird nests. These little ground nesting birds make divets in the ground with barely a nest cup to speak of. Then they proceed to lay 4 highly camouflaged eggs barely visible to the untrained eye. You have to take great care to not step on them and crush the delicate eggs.

KEEN in the Arctic
KEEN in the Arctic

For example,

Arctic Facts: Shorebird eggs are natures tundra camo

After a day of hiking, each of my 5 crew members return to camp to carb-load and chat about the day’s events. Our most prevalent discussions revolve around the challenges of finding those cryptic little shorebird nests and all the mental challenges and self-evaluation that goes along with 8 hours of walking and finding only one nest. Life is like a field season of nest searching, some days you win and some days you lose and on those days you lose, there is always a hot bin of water to soak your blistered feet.


PhD Student Field Work Comic


Preparing for the field season…..the night before

The wonderful and yet stressful aspect of email and modern communication is one’s ability to send off copious quantities of files, protocols, requests and changes in schedule at a moments notice. Preparation for a field season, spending weeks and or months away from home and likely away from access to certain resources, can make the last moments before departure quite busy. This year we introduced a number of new data collection protocols for our remote Arctic field station. Luckily for me, I had a designated crew member just for new protocols, and she was wonderful. We were all lucky Kate checked her email regularly… you Kate!


Firearms, safety and being a woman

Perhaps this post is targeted at a very small group of people but if can help just one person, then I feel I’ve done my job. Woman in science are tough cookies. We do not usually think of our physical limitations being slightly smaller and slightly weaker in the upper body region than our male counterparts because we do not submit to any physical limitations except for the rarest of circumstances. But some days, it’s just a little tough to carry 60 lbs while dragging a 100 lbs hockey bag and trying not to huff and puff or let a tiny tear escape out of exhaustion. I’m not above asking for help, but again, this is only under specific circumstances. Last summer I was quite physical in the field, you are moving, walking, lugging, carrying or at least standing with gear hanging from each limb every day for 9 weeks. I dropped a fair amount of weight and little bicep muscles started to become defined on my usually rather soft arms. I felt a-mazing, nothin’ could touch me.

However, there was one object I had to carry everyday that really gave me trouble; our firearms. Now, this is the most essential item I needed to have on me at all times. And yet, it was the one I groaned about the most. Shotguns and rifles are bulky, long, heavy and have terrible straps that press hard across your chest. I had enough items hanging around my neck and chest; binoculars, gps, radio, backpack filled with stuff….And then a shotgun sling. Straps were fighting each other and I even had one weak momentary breakdown where I clawed at all the straps, begging them to release me. Because after walking 20 km/day with a shotgun strap digging across your chest, we females can be a little irritable….

So this time around, I did a little research (cause that’s what all scientists do; regardless of the subject matter) and found some alternative ways to carry a firearm.

Check it out, the 24 RUSH Pack with added Rifle Sleeve attachment. Easily carried and easily accessed in the event of it being needed. Now, I can be safer and more comfortable and not beg my technicians to carry the firearm for me. Be safe out there scientists!


Heading to a remote camp? How much STUFF do you need to bring?

This post could only come AFTER my first field season to the Arctic. I’ve learned a lot about what to bring into a remote field camp, how much to bring and what I can reasonably carry. Yup, made that mistake last year. I had to drag bags from one spot to another, pointing at strangers saying in desperation, “Hey you! Can you help me carry this?”. Needless to say, if you can’t carry all your gear on your own, reduce what you have until you can. Admittedly, I’m sure it was the excess volume of STUFF that led to some sweet lil’ biceps goin’ on at the end of the field season. Who knew I had muscles under there?

So, you’re going to be away for ~2 months. What is essential? What is non-essential? What is the balance between these things that you can reasonably carry all at once?

These are pictures of the breakdown for what I bring into a remote field camp for 2 months. This is all personal stuff so doesn’t include first aid, firearms, food, shelter etc. Those things are provided for me. 

NOTE*** All my socks, underwear, t-shirts and smaller cloth items are shrink-wrapped to reduce volume.


NOTE*** EVERYTHING FITS INTO THESE TWO PACKS. I carry one on the back and one on the front.

personal hygiene personal extras personal craft nonessentials head and handsclothes

THEN, I take this shampoo, soap, laundry detergent combo and condense into three small little travel bottles from a hotel room.


NOW, you might say that this all won’t fit into the two packs. HA. This is true. The morning of travel when officially  leaving civilization, I wear the rubber boots, several layers and accessories on the plane. Do you look, well….a little strange. YES. But who cares? You’re headed on a flight to Iqaluit, and you can only carry so much on your back. I will also have my laptop with me and a few data notes / information for my Iqaluit supply shopping. All essential grab-n-go items need to be in the carry-on.

Some of the non-essentials you see above are; GoPro camera, digital SLR camera with lenses, tripod, My personal coffee kit, decent coffee to have at the end of the season when NABOB is getting kind of boring, a few dried goodies and candies. I also like to have a craft, this ball of yarn and knitting needles will make 2 pairs of wool socks! Ya, baby!

Now keep in mind nowhere in these photos do you see personal toiletries ie; toothbrush, hair brush etc, or my lady undergarments. These items are shrink-wrapped as well and I’m still using a lot of the stuff so it can’t be packed yet but when in doubt, you can never have too many undergarments and socks. Happy Packing!



Going to the Arctic? “But what will I wear?” PART II

This post is a continuation of GOING TO THE ARCTIC? “BUT WHAT WILL I WEAR?”, describing some of the difficulties of finding the right kind of gear for outdoor field work, specifically northern areas (above 60 degrees latitude). And if you’re a female that doesn’t fit into the men’s sizes commonly supplied by most outdoor equipment manufacturers, this can be especially trying. I’ve covered wading hikers, hip waders, hand protection from bugs (mosquitoes in particular) and keeping warm using layers.

Now we’re moving on to bug-proof clothing, controlling your hair in the wind, Icebreaker products, Smith Optics and a few splurges I made this year.

Last summer, (insert serious voice here) East Bay, Southampton Nunavut, it was late june, a gorgeous sunny tundra summer day. We were hiking, and I was reflecting on how beautiful everything was, how much I loved this place and how lucky I felt to be there. We reached our destination according to the GPS, after doing some scanning we find the nest we are checking on and set up our net to catch a female Black-bellied Plover. A half minute later, we’re laying on the tundra on our bellies poised and ready . Not seconds later I feel it, the biting, the incessant and forever etched in your mind feeling that you’re being feasted on by mosquitoes. I feel compelled to scratch, to swat them away, perhaps just move slightly to increase the space between my pants and my derriere enough to save myself from being exsanguinated.  Low and behold, I glance at my partner, he seems content, comfortable even and does not notice the look of exasperation on my face. Plus, I feel embarrassed that my “behind” is likely covered in a blanket of mosquitoes. I won’t move! It will scare the bird and I’ll miss my shot at catching this female Plover. Why are all the skeeters biting me??! And NOT him?

Back at camp, we don’t have mirrors. I’ve barely seen my own face for weeks let alone the other parts of my body hidden under the clothing I only change every other day. When I pulled up my shirt to expose my lower back, and asked the other crew members how bad it was, their faces said it all…….”It’s like a swollen rash or something”…..

I’ve learned a couple things from this experience; 1) never let your guard down, bugs are everywhere, 2) I tend to react a lot to mosquitoes and I always scratch an itch (meaning these bites last….a long time) and most importantly 3) bug-proof clothing in the field is literally priceless. What was my partner’s secret to bug proofing? Rayon and Nylon. Yup, his thin pants were impermeable to the mosquito needle-noses. If you’re basically crack for mosquitoes like me, find pants with rayon and nylon. Secondly, get this great jacket (see pic and link below). It doesn’t impede your vision…too badly, it sits like a proper hood away from your ears (other jackets don’t do this) and netting in the under arms and sides prevents sweating. Netted jackets that are ALL netting aren’t very good. As soon as they get tight to your skin, mosquitoes will find that spot and still get in their bite.

ITEM #1: The ORIGINAL Bug Shirt

Next, your hair. The ladies in camp last year all had long tresses. Tips for hair hygiene are provided here:Hair Care in a Remote Camp. Controlling hair grease was one thing but man, with the wind and dirt and sweat, my hair legit became a rat’s nest. Nothin’ was going to get out my tangles unless they were cut out, so most of the time I forced my hair into a french braid of some kind and let it be. If I wasn’t wearing a windproof hat, I preferred to keep my hair out of my face with the classic BUFF. I’m going to figure 99.99% of the people that see this will have heard of them, or have 2, 3 or 4, like me.

Guy, girl, doesn’t matter, these things are awesome. And you can get them in warmer wool if you want or some crazy pattern reflecting your personality (insert dual Fashion and Function here).

ITEM #2 THE BUFF Shop for your BUFF here. Just don’t get lost in the endless options, it’s daunting. I WANT THEM ALL!


The tundra is also very sunny. There is not such things as shade because there is not a tree to be found. I rocked the tundra tan (very dark face and back of hands tan, everything else was white, white, white). Eye protection is really important.


ITEM #3 Polarized lenses are definitely a good investment, and I got some sponsor discounted Smith Optics sunglasses designed for being dropped, stuffed in bags and in general up for the rigors of fieldwork.

My splurges this year consist of a few items from 511 Tactical. These guys are American, and they won’t ship to Canada so I had to do some running around to get their products but there are some Canadian suppliers carrying 511 products. So I would check out their packs, vests and pouches if you want to get hard core.

5.11 Tactical

Up next week, this year’s featured East Bay Hoodies for all the crew members. East Bay Shorebird Crew 2015 is shaping up!





Breaking the Ice of Arctic Fieldwork: a short guide to Icebreaker


Icebreaker Overview by Gillian Holmes

I have been an Icebreaker lover ever since I was first introduced to this amazing brand in 2011.  That same summer I went on a field placement to Costa Rica working with Leatherback Turtles.  For this trip I purchased 4 pairs of Icebreaker Women’s Heavy Hikers, a pair of Everyday Leggings, and a casual half sleeve. I brought all these items with me to Costa where they fit perfectly into the humid climate. The socks were extremely comfortable when hiking. They kept my feet fresh while hiking and after the hike they dried quickly even in the humid environment. I instantly fell deeply in love with Icebreaker, especially their socks.

In 2014, I was hired to work as a technician for a M.S. student at Trent University assisting in research and monitoring of Dunlin, a species of shorebird that nest within the subarctic environment. Our research area was located just outside of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. The weather was variable and for the first 2 weeks of June there was heavy snowfall. The leggings and socks did an amazing job of keeping my feet and legs warm during these snowy days on the tundra and in wet environments. Unfortunately, some of the items I purchased 4 years ago are no longer available (the socks specifically), but unsurprisingly all the items have survived 4 field seasons, and will be coming along with me on my next adventure.

The aftermath of 3 days of snow fall at the beginning of June 2014 in Churchill, Manitoba. This was  the main field site where Dunlin nest and brood their young. Photo by G. Holmes
The aftermath of 3 days of snow fall at the beginning of June 2014 in Churchill, Manitoba. This was
the main field site where Dunlin nest and brood their young. Photo by G. Holmes

I highly recommend Icebreaker for fieldwork or any outdoor activities that involve locations with arctic or tropical temperatures based on my past experiences with wearing Icebreaker items in both climate types. Icebreaker offers an easy way to determine what item is best for different climate types by weighting the fabrics. There are four weight numbers: (1) 120 Featherweight, (2) 150 UltraLight, (3) 200 LightWeight, and (4) 260, MidWeight. What’s the trick? The larger the number, the warmer the item is. These weights are more associated with base layers and light layers.  This guide is helpful when deciding what items to purchase depending on your climatic needs.

The items that I highly recommend when purchasing Icebreaker gear are the socks and the base layers, specifically the leggings. I recently purchased the Sprite Leggings for everyday wear as leggings for fashion and as a base layer on below zero days. They are extremely comfortable and versatile in my everyday life and served me well during my field season up in the subarctic.  This time around I intend on buying the Vertex Leggings, they are a warmer fabric than the Sprite and the Everyday Leggings. They will work wonders in the cold arctic climate of Nunavut as I am trekking through the tundra in search of breeding shorebirds.

I have about 11 pairs of Icebreaker socks ranging in weight and type. I recommend any of the socks under the Outdoor & Hiking section. They are designed to be a tight but comfortable fit with the benefits of keeping you warm and dry while hiking in any climate type. The socks also offer an amazing benefit of cushioning that minimizes the presence of blisters caused by long hikes. I currently own the Women’s Hike+ Medium Crew. I have had no problem with them after two years of owning them and wear them in everyday life, especially during the winter season. This time around I intend on purchasing the Women’s Hike Heavy Crewe, since the climate of Nunavut will be much colder than where I have previously worked.

My main advice to you when purchasing Icebreaker clothing is to do your research, specifically about what each item can offer you and what you need depending on where you are traveling. I can vouch for the long lasting and the continued comfort of these items since I have now owned many items for 3-4 years. They have done me well in all of my field technician jobs, ranging from the tropics in Costa Rica to the dry heat of Mississippi and further north to the the blistering cold winds of Churchill, MB. I highly recommend Icebreaker as a staple to field and outdoor gear and I hope you will too!