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So Much Sun, So Little Time!

Crossing a tidal flat in the early evening

Crossing a tidal flat in the early evening

This past week, I again appreciated the relationship between fieldwork and weather. In previous visits to Churchill, we usually had breaks in the outdoor work because of the region’s varied and often unpleasant weather. This year, I had anticipated that we would meet similar conditions, and that I would be able to fit some blog posts into the time at the research station waiting for rain/sleet/snow to clear.

But of course this was not to be, courtesy of unpredictable weather conditions. This time, we were met by the longest run of fine weather I have ever seen on the Hudson Bay coast. We could occasionally complain that it was unusually hot (i.e., a pleasant mid 20s Celsius), and the flies WERE horrible whenever the wind died down, but really we had nothing to complain about.

No two days were the same, but a typical day went like this:

6:30 am – The northern sun has already been beating through our window for hours. It is time to struggle out of bed, shave, and face the day.

7 am – Breakfast. Food is very good and plentiful at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, so this is always a pleasant experience, with eggs, potatoes, bacon, coffee, fruit, cinnamon buns, … roughing it in the field! After breakfast we will make sandwiches, then load gear into the truck.

Debbie keeps the back of the truck in remarkable order. I have never before seen a geological field vehicle looking this tidy.

Debbie keeps the back of the truck in remarkable order. I have never before seen a geological field vehicle looking this tidy.

8 am – Drive 25 km down the gravel road to our main study site. Unload collecting gear, attach kneepads, load shotguns, fill water pails from a pond on the tidal flat. The rock we are seeking is a not quite in-place bedrock, but its loose blocks have a very distinctive appearance and appear to come from just under our feet. I select a likely spot on the shore and pick up and split every piece of this rock type within reach, wetting the surfaces in the pail and examining with a hand lens for tiny fossils.

Matt works through the blocks of stone on one little patch of shore. The shirt and hat protect him from both sun and biting flies.

Matt works through the blocks of stone on one little patch of shore. The shirt and hat protect him from both sun and biting flies.

9, 10, 11 am – We continue to repeat the splitting and examining processes. I occasionally stand up, grumble about leg and knee pain, and scan the horizon for polar bears (Ed is holding a shotgun and acting as full-time bear patrol; my scanning is of marginal importance, but it makes me feel useful). I go and take a look whenever Debbie or Matt call out about a fossil they have found.

12:30 – Lunch. I find a nice rounded boulder low on the shore, and pull out the sandwich that I made at breakfast. Sandwiches always taste so much better when inhaled with sea air!

1 pm – A quick run to town to purchase supplies. There is always something we need for this sort of work, and town is nearby, so it makes a welcome break.

Matt, Sean, Debbie, and Dave, collecting on the shore in the hot sun.

Matt, Sean, Debbie, and Dave, collecting on the shore in the hot sun.

2 pm – Back on the shore, we are splitting rock. The sun has become hot and blinding, and this gets to be sleepy work. If the tide is out, maybe we will take a little breather at 3 and walk lower on the shore to examine fossils in the bedrock of the intertidal zone.

4 pm – We begin to pack up. Every likely slab that we had set aside is re-examined to determine if it is worthy of transport back to the research station. The good ones are wrapped in foam and carefully placed into bins. These fossils are easily abraded, and it would be a shame if we wrecked them after they have survived in good shape for 450 million years or so!

5 pm – Back at the Centre, we unload the gear and rocks, and wash up a bit to make ourselves marginally presentable. If there is time, we will examine a few of our finds before dinner.

Sorting fossils and gear in the lab in the old part of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre

Sorting fossils and gear in the lab in the old part of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre

5:30 pm – Dinner! In the cafeteria, it is time to talk about our discoveries of the day, plan for tomorrow, and maybe talk to the Centre staff and other scientists about what they have been doing.

6:30 pm – We are back to the truck, ready to pay a visit to one of the field sites from previous years. The weather is so wonderful, the light is perfect for photography, and we need to look at some of the sites on the shore to see if they have changed or “new” fossils have popped up. This is no hardship at all: one evening we wade through a quiet mist toward the middle of Bird Cove, another time we head along the beach ridges east of Halfway Point, and on a third occasion we travel down “Polar Bear Alley” near the former dump site. Everywhere the scenery is gorgeous, the animal life is interesting, the bears are not in evidence (this is important when we are out on foot!), and even the malevolent mosquitoes only trouble us for relatively brief intervals.

Our evening drives took us over several of Churchill's interesting roads! This one is near Halfway Point.

Our evening drives took us over several of Churchill’s interesting roads! This one is near Halfway Point.

9, 10, 11 pm – After our final return to the Centre, we spend a bit more time working on our fossil collections, perhaps socialize over a beer, and then return to our rooms to download some of the hundreds of photographs.

It has been a perfect field day, but also perfectly jam-packed. The only thing we could wish for more of is time. I wish that this particular batch of Churchill fieldwork could last a month, not just nine days; then I would really have enough time to appreciate the experience.

Sometimes the mosquitoes WERE bad: evening feeding time with Dave.

Sometimes the mosquitoes WERE bad: evening feeding time with Dave.

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Graham Young

Curator of Geology & Paleontology

See Full Biography

Graham Young grew up in Fredericton, New Brunswick. After doing a B.Sc. in biology at the University of New Brunswick, he switched to geology and did an M.Sc. in paleontology at the University of Toronto. After completing a Ph.D. at the University of New Brunswick in 1988, Graham spent two years in Newcastle, England, studying fossils from the Island of Gotland, Sweden. He moved to Winnipeg in 1990 to do research at the University of Manitoba, and has worked at the Manitoba Museum since 1993.

At the Museum, Graham’s curatorial work involves all aspects of geology and paleontology. He is responsible for building the collections, dealing with public inquiries, and preparing exhibits. Over the years, Graham’s research has become broader in scope, moving from specialist studies of fossil corals, towards research on ancient environments, ecosystems, and unusual fossils such as jellyfish and horseshoe crabs. Most of his current field research is on sites in the Grand Rapids Uplands and elsewhere in northern Manitoba.