There it was…on the bottom corner of page 25 in the Yellowknifer newspaper: “Handyperson–Department of Environment, High Arctic Weather Station, Eureka, Ellesmere Island. Position open to residents of the Northwest Territories and northern Alberta.”
I qualified as a Northwest Territories resident by a scant three months because I had moved–in early October–from Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, to the barren flats of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories where it was already -22 C. I knew one person in Yellowknife–the sister of a friend back home. She and her family had put up with me for three months while I looked for work. I was broke. Northern jobs paid well and I was prepared to go as far north as necessary to get one.
I had hoped to get hired on at the new Ekati diamond mine located approximately 480 kilometres north of Yellowknife. However, the mine was mostly interested in hiring native people and long-term residents of the Northwest Territories. Other businesses were reluctant to hire someone who had just got off the plane. And so I spent three months pounding the pavement until I saw the ad for the handyperson. The salary fit my needs and the job sounded interesting, but where was this place called Eureka?
An atlas at the Yellowknife public library located Eureka on the west coast of Ellesmere Island, now part of the huge northern territory of Nunavut (The Dawning Of Nunavut, January/February 1999). The island is separated from Greenland to the east by Kane Basin and Kennedy Channel. To the west is Axel Heiberg Island. About the same size as Britain, Ellesmere is the third largest island in Canada and the most northerly in the Arctic Archipelago. The island is deeply incised by fiords and its northern coast is extended by ice shelves that are fused to the shore. The northern part of the island is dominated by mountains that are shrouded in ice nearly 2000 metres thick. Other library books provided additional details. As one of the most remote and isolated places on earth, Ellesmere was inhabited by wandering Thule people 4,000 years ago. The Vikings visited the island in the 10th century, but it remained largely unexplored until the 1800s when heroic and often ill-fated attempts were made to locate the North Pole. The island was named after Francis Egerton, the first earl of Ellesmere, during the Inglefield expedition in 1852.
Today, some 200 people live in Ellesmere’s only permanent settlement, Grise Fiord, on the southern tip of the island. Only two other sites see year-round human activity. They are Canadian Forces Base Alert on the north shore of the island and Eureka. I also discovered that Environment Canada’s Eureka weather station is one of five in a network of High Arctic meteorological sites established shortly after WW II under the combined efforts of Canada and the United States.
Approval for the Joint Arctic Weather Stations, JAWS, was reached Jan. 28, 1947. Between then and 1951, as routine air operations became possible in the Arctic and as the threat of Soviet bombers became real, meteorological sites were established at Eureka, Resolute, Isachsen, Mould Bay and Alert. Isachsen closed in September 1978 and government cutbacks closed Mould Bay in September 1997. Many Canadians may be surprised to know that the current annual cost of operating a High Arctic weather station is roughly $1.8 million.
Reconnaissance flights suggested Slidre Fiord on the Fosheim Peninsula as the most promising location for the Eureka station. Beginning at 11 a.m. on April 11, 1947, 110 tons of supplies– enough to last six men 400 days–were airlifted to Eureka. The first of five prefabricated Jamesway huts was up and heated by 7 p.m. Radio equipment and meteorological instruments were operating that evening.
All of the above information fascinated me and so I began to wonder if Environment Canada would consider a 47-year-old woman for the handyperson’s job. I applied, and seven months later the position was mine. My first tour in Eureka would begin July 17, 1998.
I flew from Yellowknife to Resolute on Cornwallis Island where I met my new supervisor, Rai Le Cotey, the station program manager. From there, Le Cotey, myself and four other people–along with two-weeks worth of produce–boarded a Twin Otter and flew to Eureka. The 2 1/2 -hour trip offered a low-altitude glimpse of some of the world’s most spectacular scenery on Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere islands. I saw icebergs floating like dollops of whipped cream on ultramarine waters; I watched the run-off from glaciers pour down through mountain passes and saw lacy scraps of summer pack ice drift lazily at the whim of winds and currents. We had flown over hundreds of miles of uninhabited landscape and were quite literally in the middle of nowhere when the Eureka outpost appeared.
We landed safely and everyone helped unload the plane. At the station, Le Cotey gave me a tour of the living quarters. He showed me the kitchen, dining room, television room, recreation room, offices, four bathrooms and the laundry room. I discovered that there are 16 bedrooms and that the television room is equipped with two sofas and 1,500 videos. The recreation room, meanwhile, has a pool table, easy chairs and a bar. I was also shown the Polar Bear room, named after the huge bear skin hanging on one wall.
Le Cotey introduced me to my co-workers. There was mechanic Jobie Andrews, heavy equipment operator Dave Swoboda, contract weather observers Edward Saul and Al Gaudet, chef Peter Ganong, senior aerological observer André Bouchard and outgoing station program manager René Boisvert. Nearly all of them have been rotating in and out of Eureka for several years. And with the exception of René, Edward and Peter, most of these men are over 45 years of age.
My room at Eureka overlooked Slidre Fiord and included a bed, desk, shelves, night table and an easy chair. The handyperson’s daily work routine began at 6 a.m. I worked six days a week, 40 hours a week, plus overtime. I cooked breakfast for between eight and 30 people. The rest of my work was housekeeping, cleaning bathrooms, washing floors, vacuuming, laundry and odd jobs. My afternoons were free, but each day ended with a kitchen cleanup after supper.
During my time off I explored the complex and got to know my co-workers. Most of the station’s buildings are lined up facing each other on a small rise overlooking Slidre Fiord. The main warehouse reminded me of a general store. Its 15-foot, floor-to-ceiling shelves were jammed with canned and boxed food, cleaning and office supplies, electrical and plumbing equipment and enough toilet paper to last 100 years.
The station’s generator building houses one small and two large generators. Their combined output, 650 kilowatts, powers the entire complex. To meet this demand the generators guzzle roughly 35,000 litres of diesel fuel every month. This building also houses half of the station’s water supply. All of Eureka’s water comes from the melted snow that follows a well worn creek bed before emptying into Slidre Fiord.
When the runoff water begins to clear, it is diverted first to a 1.6 million gallon holding lagoon, and then to four 50,000 gallon storage tanks, two in the generator building and two inside the station. Drinking and cooking water are treated with a reverse osmosis process. It’s important for new station staff to realize that should spring snowmelt be limited, shower water may be rationed during late winter months.
Because the Eureka weather station must be entirely self-sufficient, it depends heavily on the expertise of its mechanic who is responsible for building maintenance and general repairs. Jobie Andrews is also responsible for anything that moved at the station, including snow— plows, graders, trucks, vans, bulldozers, snowmobiles and the track truck.
A singularly tall, narrow building is located a short distance from the main compound in the name of safety. One portion of this building contains a hydrogen generator used to manufacture hydrogen gas. Due to the highly explosive nature of this gas, nobody enters the building without first touching a small anti-static plate. The building has huge doors that can be pushed back to allow weather observers to bring out tan coloured weather balloons which are inflated with hydrogen. Balloons are launched twice daily; at 11:15 and 23:15 Greenwich Mean Time in conjunction with identical releases at precisely the same time all over the world.
A radiosonde or miniature radio transmitter is attached to each balloon. It measures temperature, humidity and barometric pressure and transmits this information back to the station. The balloon’s location is determined by Global Positioning Satellite, GPS, and very low frequency, VLF, signals.
Raw data is sent to the Canadian Meteorological Centre in Montreal. The average balloon rises about 20 miles before its bursts. Other specialized balloons reach sufficient heights to take ozone readings during winter months. Balloons also help the weather technician estimate the height and depth of cloud cover. This information is of keen interest to pilots of incoming and outgoing planes.
One plane the folks at Eureka are always interested in is the produce flight. Up here, the food is flown in from Yellowknife, biweekly during the summer months and triweekly during the long winter. I quickly discovered that the people at Eureka eat extremely well. Regular fare includes roast beef, lobster, shrimp, fresh strawberries and salmon steaks.
The produce flights also bring in the mail. A huge bonus is when you receive news from friends or family or when you are the lucky recipient of a package of licorice or chocolate. Indeed, mail is still the only reliable contact with the outside world. The Eureka telephone system relies on satellite transmission, but a one-second time delay makes conversation difficult as does the system’s penchant for cutting you off in mid-sentence. Staff are also free to use the station’s Internet system, but if the phones are down so is the e-mail. Reactions to this fickle lifeline range from hair pulling to creative cursing.
Considerably more dependable is the once-yearly late summer arrival of the station’s resupply ship. The sea-lift begins in Montreal and takes some three weeks to reach Eureka. The shipment includes everything from new vehicles to several tons of non-perishable food, office equipment, linens, beds, light bulbs, cooking utensils, auto parts, plumbing fixtures and dozens of other items–all of which is ferried ashore by barge.
The station also receives one-half million gallons of bulk fuel, piped by hose from the ship to the station’s holding tanks. Over the course of four weeks, the time it took me to unpack all the boxes, I got a pretty good idea about where things are stored at Eureka. I also learned that the station maintains a two-year supply of food and fuel in the event that a sea-lift fails to arrive.
While hiking around outside, I was strictly regulated by two primary rules: Always tell somebody where you are going and always take a walkie-talkie. The High Arctic tundra is a hiker’s challenge. It is a true polar desert and precipitation may amount to less than one inch per year in some places. Vegetation is sparse and little grows above six inches. Needless to say, it is practically impossible to get a perspective on a distant hill. Additionally, a compass will not function here because Eureka is above Magnetic North.
Walking can be difficult. Large areas of tundra are covered with frost boils, and some of these are eight inches high and about four inches apart. There are also various wild animals armed with teeth, claws, horns and uncertain dispositions. I was particularly cautioned about being aware of muskoxen behaviour in the event of my rounding a building and suddenly bumping into a herd of these beasts.
Before lowering its horns and charging at breakneck speed, the muskox rubs its nose on one of its forelegs. They are formidable creatures, highly prized for their hair which can be spun into incredibly soft, very expensive warm clothing. Needless to say, the only way to gather this treasure is to pick it off the tundra.
My arrival on Ellesmere Island coincided with the brief High Arctic summer. A peculiar thermal oasis generates surprisingly warm summers, 50 to 60 frost-free days in some areas. Between April 10 and Aug. 29, the sun never sets–a seasonal gift to some 325 species of local flowering plants. The highest recorded summer temperature is 20 C. During three short weeks in July the earth- brown tundra around Eureka is a carpet of colour–white and yellow Arctic Poppies, tiny pink Moss Campion, reddish Ground Willow, blue Pallas Wallflower, Purple Saxifrage, yellow Alpine Arnica and white Cotton Plant. All of these plants share the unique ability to freeze at any time and resume full growth as soon as temperatures permit.
I was very surprised to see moths and butterflies. They were black and orange, black and white and green with pink edges on their wings. The bumblebees are large, fat and covered with thick black hair. Arctic terns fiercely defend nesting areas on the beach in front of the station. Long-tailed Jaegers, gulls and fox are quick to snatch unwatched eggs. The arctic hares are white-furred all year long. They startle easily and run upright on their back legs.
Two fox, in their brown summer coats, are regular visitors at the station. They have been given the names Charlie and Foxy Roxy. Although it is hugely tempting to allow them to approach you, contact is considered dangerous. Many Arctic animals carry rabies. A bite ensures an immediate medevac to the nearest medical facility in Resolute where your tender posterior will be treated to the business end of a very large needle.
Polar bears are infrequent visitors at Eureka. Nevertheless, station staff are advised to be particularly attentive during the fall freeze-up and spring thaw when ice conditions on the Slidre Fiord offer hungry bears easy access to basking seals. Bears may also be attracted to odours vented from the station’s kitchen or garbage dump. Every possible effort is made to discourage bears that become frequent visitors. Only if all else fails, and only with the permission of a wildlife officer, will a nuisance bear be shot. The largest land carnivore on earth, the polar bear can attain speeds of more than 30 miles per hour.
The Ellesmere Island National Park Reserve publishes a visitors handbook that includes very succinct advice about camping and or hiking in polar bear country. It states that campers or hikers may wish to take a dog. “Several dogs are better than one. Keep the dogs staked so they can not run to you for protection. Be prepared to lose them.” Bear deterrents–flares and noise makers are deemed experimental. All things considered, the general rule at Eureka is “look before you exit.”
By mid-October the snowmobiles were out of storage. We bundled up and sped across the frozen fiord to explore giant icebergs. In late November we were plunged into 24-hour darkness and -30 C temperatures. I was nervous about walking across the compound to the food warehouse. There weren’t many outside lights and so I was cautious of seeing white bears on white snow…and shadows pooling everywhere.
By early December I was counting the days before my departure. My beloved co-workers never missed an opportunity to regale me with tales of being storm-stayed in Resolute for several days. After hugs and farewells, I flew out of Eureka on Dec. 19. Two hours later, in blessed daylight, the plane landed in Resolute. The polar desert was behind me and I was on my way back to civilization..