A Different Planet

It might be the most gripping course guide ever written.

The Animal Bioscience 475 field guide begins with the assurance Prof. Ryan Brook is an expert with firearms and “has safely resolved several hundred polar bear encounters without ever having harmed a bear or put any human at direct risk.”

That sets the tone for what students can expect on their two-week course conducted each August in Churchill and neighbouring Wapusk National Park.

Bear monitors? Always at least one, and as many as four, armed with 12-gauge shotguns and “starter pistols with screamer shells.” Bathroom breaks on the largely barren tundra of Wapusk? Either “ask everyone to face the other way” or if there’s a boulder within shouting distance, have a monitor do a quick bear scan first. 

You’re warned the temperature can plunge 20 degrees in a few hours, accompanied by frigid rain and 50-kilometre-an-hour winds. There are two pages of clothing advice and another on how to treat a hypothermia victim. There’s a frightening picture of Brook in his ‘bug jacket’ being swarmed by black flies. And during your six days in a small compound in Wapusk, you’re to stay at least two metres from the heavy wire fence “since bears can and will reach through the wire.”

But Brook delivers his last warning in person.

“I always caution them this course will change their life,” says Brook, assistant the professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science and senior member of the Indigenous Land Management Institute.

“That’s the most common comment we get from their feedback: It changed my life. It’s pretty humbling, but it is one of the most amazing places on earth.”

That’s exactly what happened to Brook 19 years ago, when the then University of Manitoba undergrad noticed a posting for a northern field study of arctic foxes. He’s been back every summer since, running the Field Studies in Arctic Ecosystems and Aboriginal Peoples field school since 2004.

“This course isn’t for everyone – and I certainly say that a lot,” he says. “It’s not for the faint of heart, it is an adventure and, like everything else, there’s some risk.”

So far, 207 students have taken the course, part of the new Bachelor of Science in Animal Bioscience. Other than blisters, the only injury has been a sprained ankle suffered during a dodgeball game in the Churchill school gym. But that’s why the 42-page field guide was created – the course’s first lesson is you must know the risks in order to be prepared for them.

“These are people’s children I’m taking out there and that is the most stressful component for me,” he says. “Most of my grey hair has come from worrying about and, basically being the father to, 15 to 20 undergraduate students for two weeks each summer.”

Brook was just 20 when he first travelled to the remote and frequently inhospitable shores of Hudson Bay. “It just clicked – it was like I had gone to a different planet even though I hadn’t left my home province,” he says. “I learned I like to be challenged. I like the extreme weather, I like being surrounded by pristine wilderness, and I like to be in a remote place where, if you’re careful, you can have safe encounters with the world’s largest land carnivore.”

Just as critical, it’s also a chance to do serious, and increasingly vital, science. Each summer, students add to Brook’s detailed 16-year-old database on the permafrost layer and vegetation covering the sub-arctic peatland. Using a transect sampling method, students record the percentage of different vegetation (lichen, moss, herb, shrub and the rare tree), moisture levels, groundwater pH, and soil/sand/gravel percentages. Data has been collected at hundreds of sites and the vegetation map is used by virtually every researcher visiting the region.

But it’s taken on added importance because of climate change. 

“The most frequent question we’re now asked is ‘What change have you seen?’ Well, the only way to answer that question is to have a baseline that you can measure change against.”

Global warming has put the arctic and sub-arctic at tremendous risk, but to truly appreciate what’s at stake, you have to see it with your own eyes, Brook adds.

“When you take students to a place like Wapusk National Park and say, ‘If we don’t do something, you are not going to see polar bears in this area,’ it makes an impact,” says Brook. “Anyone back in Saskatoon would get that, but it means infinitely more to people who have actually been face to face with a polar bear.”

The bears dominate life at Churchill during the four to five months (although increasingly longer) they spend in the area waiting for the sea ice to re-form. But the remoteness of the area, particularly the Nester 1 research camp, also makes for a deeply intense experience. It’s a thousand-kilometre drive from Saskatoon to Thompson, Man., an 18-hour train ride to Churchill, and a 20-minute helicopter journey (mind the spinning rotors) to get to Nester 1. Every item – from food and fuel to biodegradable soap and garbage removal – must be precisely planned, and students must be equally rigorous in their research.

“The research is a platform to train students in science and that’s the main reason I do it,” says Brook. “Everything is geared towards engaging students and training them in the methods of science – designing research, collecting and analyzing data, and all those good things. They work in small groups and design their own research projects – everything from polar bears, wolves, caribou, and foxes to habitat change and working with local aboriginal people.

“It’s about inspiring them. The science we do is important. Conservation is important. And there’s something to be said for taking students to the really remote areas of Earth.”

Many of the students have gone on to further ecosystem studies, including a graduate student who is now studying animal health and conservation under Brook and the Parks Canada official assigned to accompany his students this past summer, who took the course four years ago and is now a research technician in Churchill.

As always, Brook can’t wait to get back. The pull of the place never diminishes, he says.

“Sometimes life in the south is almost too easy,” he says. “It’s easy to slip into a rut. Well, if you want to get out of a rut, come to Churchill.” 

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