“Ice.” Shiatie Taget’s voice came in faintly, stretched and delayed by its trip from Pond Inlet to the Iridium satellite high above the North Pole, then back to our frostbitten group of polar paleontologists. “From Greenland,” he added.
We were trapped on Nunavut’s Bylot Island by 100 km/h winds, August snow and ever-shifting ice floes. The voice delay made Shiatie, our boatman and eventual rescuer, sound as though he were speaking through jaws stiff from cold. In reality, he was probably only lifting his cheekbones gently in the Inuit version of a shrug, and speaking without moving his lips. A minimum of wasted movement, like lifting eyebrows to say ‘yes,’ smiling ‘hello,’ or crinkling the nose instead of ‘no.’ Shiatie had spent the day locked within the grinding, popping, gurgling ice-cakes in a failed attempt to pick us up. He had floated for hours through Eclipse Sound before managing to break free. But not through.
“Maybe tomorrow?” asked Dr. Hans Larsson, professor of vertebrate paleontology at McGill University. We were down to “Patriot’s Salvation,” the least edible of our dehydrated food supplies; and the goose-camp helicopter, the only other researchers on Bylot, had left for the winter on August 15th. After prospecting successfully in the south of Bylot, in Dinosaur Valley, we had moved north-west to Canada Point, where in 1906 Captain Joseph-Elzear Bernier claimed Bylot, and by extension all of the Arctic islands, for Canada (a five-year process which Bernier completed on Melville Island in 1909). Although local hunters and an extremely helpful Parks Canada warned that fourteen polar bears had been seen recently at Canada Point, its geology offered endless bone-rich deltas from 75 million years ago, the peak of dinosaur biodiversity.
For nearly a month we prospected unsupported through gale force winds that blew from all directions in the same day, that brought rain, hail, snow thick enough to collapse our tents, and sometimes even a sun that circled the horizon in a crazy tilted orbit, slightly higher in the south, tinting clouds across the entire expanse of sky with surreal purples, pinks and crimsons when it dipped below the Bylot mountains to the north; we learned that Arctic time, like Arctic weather, has its own logic. The Inuit have a word for it. Quituituq. Deep patience.
In his search for dinosaurs, an obsession on which he set himself when he was five years old, Professor Larsson has been shot at by soldiers in Niger who mistook him for a rebel Tuareg, forced inside a VW van by a swarm of killer bees in Brazil, and chased off hilltops by lightning in Patagonia. He has dragged rattle snakes from a cabin porch in Alberta, sifted through hairs in the milky water of camel wells, remounted a Land Rover transmission in the Sahara with only wire and acacia wood, and raced against the tide in the Bay of Fundy to dig out fossilized tree stumps. This summer, he led Dr. Natalia Rybczynski from the Canadian Museum of Nature, two students, and a writer, on a preliminary expedition into the final frontier of dinosaur hunters – the Canadian High Arctic.
Although palaeontologists have been going into the Far North since the 1960s, they have tended to focus on fish or mammals, or they made very brief forays, a few days per location. Dr. Larsson’s expedition to Sirmilik (the “place of glaciers” in Inuktituk) is the first of an unprecedented five-year Arctic exploration, a plan for which the 32-year old professor was awarded the prestigious Canada Research Chair (CRC) half-million dollar grant. With funding from the CRC, McGill, NSERC, the Redpath Museum and LevelSix.ca, this is the first dinosaur project of such scale in Canada’s North.
At the end of these five years, Dr. Larsson will spend five more in the Antarctic. He will then combine this polar research with ten years of past experience in Equatorial regions of Africa and South America to create an unprecedented picture of global climate change in the Mesozoic (250m to 65m years ago), an era during which the northernmost islands of Canada shifted from hot desert to temperate jungles.
“This was a great starting project,” Larsson explained of his choice for Sirmilik as the first summer of research. At a mere 73 degrees North, he expected it to be a far more gentle location than his next four years in Axel Heiberg, Ellesmere, Banks, and the Richardson Mountains. “This was a trip to get exposed to the Arctic, to find out that frostbite can occur even at 5 Celsius.”
His mischievous smile at the word ‘frostbite’ was an acknowledgement that the reality of Bylot was far from gentle. It was beautiful; but brutal. And, true to all predictions, full of polar bears. They summered on Bylot, waiting hungrily for the same chameleon ice-floes, a different colour every hour, that kept Shiatie’s boat away. For us, the ice was a prison. For the bears, it was a highway, a hunting platform from which they could pounce upon seals, and a ferry that brought them from Greenland and would take them on to Siberia in their endless nomadic wandering. The Nanuk who waits months for the ice to return, who builds a screening wall next to a seal’s air hole, then waits, who stalks slowly on three legs while covering his black nose with a big white paw in order to be less visible, he is the Inuit model for deep patience.
It has become almost a cliché in the North to say that the Arctic is infectious, that it’s a bad place for young men to go, because they’ll spend the rest of their lives trying to get back. But many “nights” on our 24-hour rotating guard I found I’d not written a single word in my two-hour shift. I had spent the time staring at the bruised sky.
“It’s like waiting for a guest who never comes,” said Dr. Rybczynski one night as she relieved me from bear-watch, and it took a few seconds to realise she was talking about Nanuk, that there was a practical reason to stay awake while everyone slept. I handed her the shotgun and crawled into my tent, hoping that if a guest did come, it would be on her watch. A palaeomamologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, she has worked on Ellesmere Island, as well as in Bolivia, Egypt and (like every Canadian palaeontologist) in Alberta, where she first met Dr. Larsson. But she is also a former Ontario biathlete who out-shot Olympic gold medalist Miriam Bedard at the National Championships – a little fact that made the rest of us sleep better at night.
The day after Dr. Rybczynski’s comment, we saw our first bear, curiously sniffing our path and following us with a desultory, female (overstepping) walk. In the course of the next three weeks we saw four others, including one that came within a few meters of our early-morning camp, unnoticed by our bear-watch until it decided to go around us. When we saw the same bear stalk and catch a snow goose, a bird so paranoid we couldn’t get a good picture with a 500 mm zoom lens, we knew we had no chance against a polar bear that truly wanted something from us.
The bears gave us space when the sun was in the north, and we respected them when the sun was south, the time of day when we hiked up and down steep badland scree that only researchers would chose to walk. We lunched on pre-cambrian rubble, and I asked Dr. Larsson how paleontologists know where to look when they decide to prospect in a new formation.
“We start with faulty geology maps,” he answered jokingly and pointed to the three-billion year old rock on which we were sitting, rock that was not on our map. Several days later, sitting on an enormous mound of deep-sea shale that could not have existed there, the joke turned out to be prophetic. No matter how far we hiked, there was no avoiding the reality that our Government Survey of Canada geology maps were wrong. Bears, ice and wind could not stop our little team, but no amount of human will could turn a 100 mya (million years ago) marine deposit, where no bones could survive the pounding surf, into a 75 mya bone-gathering river delta.
“It’s the normal process of science,” said Dr. Larsson of the geology mistake, after he and the students rolled a few round rocks into the modern river below. To play, and to relieve stress. “You start with an idea, then you correct it.” And we began calling Shiatie to come pick us up.
On the way South, however, we did stop in Iqualuit to ask about the maps. Edward Little, Research Scientist with the Canada Nunavut Geoscience Office, and a leading proponent of a new push to better map Canada’s Arctic, gave us a frustrated explanation: “The geology of Parks land hasn’t been a priority. Because you can’t mine it.”
But it was only the second Bylot formation we searched that was mislabelled. In the first, aptly named Dinosaur Valley, we found portions of a tyrannosaur, a mosasaur, a hadrosaur, a two meter fish, dozens of shark teeth, a new kind of toothy bird from 70 mya, and other fossils which may yield an answer to the eighty-year old question of whether dinosaurs migrated. And at the end of the trip, once Shiatie pushed his way through the ice and brought us back to Pond Inlet, we also found a school full of Inuit and Qualunaat (Southerner) children, who carefully passed the Dinosaur Valley bones to each other, and who will never look at the towering Mordor-esque island across Eclipse Sound in the same way.
At the end of Professor Larsson’s presentation, Simon DeMaio, an eight-year old Inuit boy in the audience asked: “Was the bird you found like a pteranodon?”
“No,” the professor said, struggling to decide on the appropriate level of diction with which to answer. “There weren’t pterasaurs here.”
“But the teeth were similar?” Simon insisted.
Simon thought about this. Then he offered: “Do you want to come prospecting with us? We’re going fossil collecting.”
“Really?” said the professor, surprised again.
The boy’s father laughed. “Well, prospecting for seals. But I guess it’s close enough.”
Dinosaurs on the Roof of the World was originally published in The Globe and Mail (September 2003)