Our planet (sorry aliens) is incredibly vast. On this Earth there are so many different climates and topographies. Going from a tropical rain forest in Costa Rica to the snowy winters of Northern Canada is like travelling to two separate worlds. Each have unique landscapes and each have been conquered thousands of years ago by different people carrying the human spirit within.
I have been fortunate enough to visit the Subarctic tundra in Northern Canada, and it was an unforgettable opportunity. It was an experience that made me feel small and insignificant, much like looking at the stars at night and realizing you are just a speck of dust. Simply looking at the endless landscape of the tundra, void of other humans, cities, towns, streetlights, or busy roads can make one feel lost and alone. There aren’t the comforts of modern life or modern society. It was just rolling hills covered in vegetation or boulders with many lakes in between. It was not a sensation that I can forget, nor do I want to forget! Stripped of safety and prone to changes in the weather and wildlife was exhilarating and completely unlike my average lifestyle. The beauty of it was breathtaking! I felt all the vulnerability one has when there is only nature, wilderness, open spaces, and quietness around. It is a feeling forgotten by the twenty first century. It was a place where you were in the moment, unaffected by the busy lives of others, away from consumerism, commercialism, capitalism, and just a place where nature was still the dominant entity.
First of all, I was up there for research purposes. The closest city or town was approximately 300km away. Every day for two weeks I would wake up early in the morning, but the sun would already be up because it was the summer. And by the time the work day ended the sun would still be high in the sky. Around 5am the sun would rise, and around 11pm the sun would set. It was the land of the almost midnight sun in late August. After I woke up, I would meet up with my coworkers and supervisor, and then we would hike to collect samples of plants and soil as a team. We would hike for almost four or five hours on rough terrain. Yes, the terrain in the tundra is not flat! It’s full of many micro-valleys and wetlands; it’s incredibly uneven and almost impossible to hike in regular running shoes. I almost lost my knee high rubber boots in marshes as my foot sunk deeper than I expected. Each step had to be calculated and predetermined. Almost falling into a crevice in a boulder field was also a frightening experience. And that was while hiking in a boulder field lasting many kilometers; just full of boulders bigger than me. There is land hidden deep underneath in the spaces between each giant boulder, but one that I don’t wish to see. It is definitely an alien landscape to those who have never seen it before. From a helicopter view, it was impressive to see how far the tundra extended.
The tundra is home to hundreds, maybe thousands, perhaps millions of lakes. I don’t know how many for sure, but it felt like every 500 metres or so you would see another lake. Many of these small lakes are unofficially named, so I named one Wolf Lake, a name that may only be known to me and the few others who ventured into the tundra alongside me for research. The beauty of these lakes is not to be underestimated either. The water is clear enough to see the bottom near the shores while it is fully reflecting the skies above. The pristine beauty of the North is one I hope will last forever. Mesmerized, I thought about what might have crossed the minds of the other explorers in this land when they first arrived.
As a geographer, I was especially fascinated by the eskers: deposits of sediments left by glaciers thousands of years ago. From afar an esker appears a short while away, but it could be an hour hike to the base, and then a little or a long while to the top. Standing where the ice age had ended recently, home to people who have survived against the odds, I felt a great amount of awe. The Earth is so magnificent in all its systems and forces, and these great landscapes takes thousands to millions of years to form, where as my life is just for an instance.
There was no tree cover from the wind, and even in August there was hail, cold rain, and harsh winds of over 50 – 60km/hr which would batter and chill the bones. I was above the treeline so sparse stunted spruce trees grew in isolated areas, but they would be in very small patches. I was actually standing taller than trees that were hundreds of years old, trees that watched the tundra change throughout the century. I wonder what they would say to me, a 20 year old girl, if I could speak their language. In those moments, it was a time for reflection and true awe in the power of nature and strength of the human spirit. I was definitely out of my comfort zone, being so weak and helpless if I were to be abandoned or lost out in the tundra. I’d probably die within weeks. It doesn’t take too much understanding to see how necessary it is to be resourceful for survival in the subarctic, truly appreciating all living beings that call the far North a home. I genuinely admired the landscape, it is worth worshiping and protecting. There is no way to fully understand a place until you have been there and seen it, and without the tundra, how will future generations comprehend its beauty and fierceness? It is a part of my country, a source of pride, a part of our culture and indigenous culture, and a way to celebrate the natural diversity of Canada. It is a place that needs to be protected.
Measurements and distances are a challenge to determine in the subarctic, especially since there’s no large monuments for reference. It was tiring, and consisted of millions of bugs (deer-flies and black-flies and mosquitoes, oh my) attacking any naked skin. By the end of the two weeks, I had more than a few black-fly bites, including in areas I was confused of how they got to. However, the view from a top of an esker is worth it, as you can see the remoteness many kilometres away. It is possible to see the ends of lakes in the distance. The rain approaching is visible too; and watching the clouds travel carrying the rain throughout the landscape, or fall a few kilometres away, is hypnotizing enough.
The tundra is not barren. There is plant life wherever you look, consisting of Labrador tea, blueberries, bear berries, raspberries, grasses, and birch. There’s tons of vegetation and peat land. I even sampled some blueberries myself and they were quite sweet. It may not be as diverse as the temperate areas or the tropics, but it consists of life that has the will to live and to thrive in seemingly not ideal conditions. The harsh winters do not kill the plants, and every spring and summer they prove worthy of natural selection. The majestic animals that thrive there include grizzly bears, red foxes, rabbits, groundhogs, wolves, ravens, falcons, eagles, and caribou. There are many others, but these are the ones that I managed to see excluding the grizzly bear and the wolf – though a couple of bears were reported to be in our area, and someone else managed to see the wolf. I am both happy I didn’t see the bears, and sad that I didn’t. Grizzly bears are powerful and must be respected; we always carried bear spray and bear bells to avoid conflict, but that doesn’t stop the slight curiosity of wishing to see one. We did however find grizzly bear poop! Let me also add that ravens are huge birds. Two flew right over my head once and I could distinctly hear their wings flapping. The caribou was an impressive sight to see as well! It was difficult to imagine the size of their antlers before I saw one. They’re huge! They’re gentle creatures, easily startled. I’m so grateful to have seen some wildlife while I was up there.
At night, the sky would always cloud over. I was unable to catch a glimpse of the subarctic night sky or the Northern lights. However, just knowing I was close to the top of the world was enough to satisfy me as I slept. To return when the land is covered by snow would be a challenge, and even further out of my comfort zone. To travel is not to arrive at a destination: it is to experience adversity, learn to overcome obstacles, and to broaden horizons. If I am ever given the opportunity again, I would definitely accept the challenge to traverse the Northern winters, especially with the respect I have gained from being there first-hand already. Even if it’s not the winter, I’d gladly go North once again. There definitely is a call of the wild, and it certainly calls me!