An Unforgiving World

3/8/2011 1:42:51 PM

An Unforgiving World

Caribou in snow

Life on the winter tundra is sparse, but stands out when seen against an unremitting backdrop of snow. We occasionally see caribou scattered in small groups, pathetically battering against the ice looking for remnants of the last arctic spring. Often, it seems they give up altogether and lay down with their antlers sticking up like two sad little twigs.

The other day we passed a red fox trotting lightly on snow, as if he had somewhere he needed to be. I looked at the fox, then looked at the expanse of white spreading for miles in every direction, and wanted to say, "Dude, you are hopelessly lost and just haven't realized it yet."

Red fox

One creature we have run into looks much more at home on the tundra. On the way to one den, far in the distance, we saw a herd of musk oxen. Even from far off, you can sense the size and power of this ice age relic. Though ancient, they are hip to the ways of the modern world, running from a mile away at the sound of snow machines. I watched these very shaggy animals through my binoculars as they encircled their young and lumbered farther into the distance.

While we have enjoyed these encounters, what we would really like to see are polar bear mothers and cubs leaving the den for the first time. We realize that for such a chance, a great deal of patience, determination, and luck are required. In the last few days we have checked on several cameras outside of suspected dens. Because of  the problems we've had getting our new solar panels shipped up north, we've had to keep exchanging batteries in the units to ensure the cameras are ready to go, just in case someone decides to stick their head out of the snow. The batteries are very heavy and awkward.

Recording data while trying to stay warm

Of course, even simple maintenance on the cameras can be tricky in such cold. Overstuffed mittens keep us warm, but are pretty much useless when it comes to working with technology. You might as well try typing an essay with your elbow. We are forced to expose our fingers to the elements, and as a result are constantly trying to warm our hands after using the computer, plugging in battery cables, or readjusting ratchet straps. Cheeks are vulnerable too, and a slight breeze can make them burn in the cold.

This is an unforgiving place, and there is little sympathy for visitors or residents. On the ice we passed a seabird, frozen unceremoniously to the surface and draped with a thin layer of snow. In this place, death is just as common as life. I think of the young bears that will soon greet this world for the first time. Roughly half will never make it through their first year on the ice. Yet in all the footage we have, young cubs never seem to take anything very seriously. We hope that our work in recording this fundamental life history event will provide data to help conserve the ongoing sagas of polar bear families in this region and others like it.

Photos: Top, ©Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures; Middle, ©Mike Lockhart: Bottom, ©BJ Kirschhoffer.

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