Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Heavy backpack and the kindness of strangers

I'm in the Canadian desert now (or as close to desert as it gets in Canada) and it's made me think a lot about what I've got packed in my full to bursting rucksack. In this heat it has in it among many, many other things two hoodies, a fleece, a woolly jumper, about four pairs of thick winter socks, two pairs of long-johns, a thermal top, two long sleeved tops, a big pair of gloves, a hat, a scarf, a raincoat and a thick winter coat. Admittedly I did go to the subarctic, but now I'm in the desert and it's hot here!

Not only do these things take up at least a third of my rucksack, but the thing is extremely heavy that just thinking about walking from buses to hostels is bad enough. I was meant to be walking from Kylie's house to Susan's with my backpack, but when Kylie offered me a lift I wasn't very hesitant about accepting the offer. This is neither good for the planet or myself, but my goodness this backpack is heavy!

Kylie had said to me that maybe someone would offer to take me the 1.5km uphill from the greyhound station in Nelson to the hostel, but I dismissed that thought and was getting myself prepared for the hike. The girl who was working at the Greyhound station did however take pity on me and got her parents to drive me to the hostel before going home. And not only did I get a lift to the hostel I got one back to the greyhound from a lady called Val from Vancouver Island who was staying in my dorm room at the hostel. I really appreciate this kindness from strangers.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011


I'm in Nelson, a 'city' in the Selkirk mountains of B.C. and on the west arm of Kootenay lake. Everyone has been telling me to go to Nelson and the guidebooks tell me it's a great place, so it really has had a lot to live up to. It's known for it's heritage architecture and artsy/hippy vibe. At first I was wondering what all the fuss was about and it just wasn't living up to all that hype, but after two days here I've come to appreciate it.

The downtown area is mainly focused on the main street-Baker Street, where I'm staying in a hostel, but if you walk onto some of the side streets it's a bit more interesting. There are lots of exciting shops such as a wool/anthroposophical shop, eco gadgets and clothing shops, a European shoe shop, health food stores, bakeries, lots of cafes, thrift stores with some good clothes (but there's absolutely no room in my backpack!) and about three bookshops. Walking around Nelson you can see a wide range of people in some interesting outfits. The buildings are also pretty nice for Canada and some of them even look rather English such as a row of terraced brick houses.

One of the great things about Nelson for me is that it's surrounded by forested hills and wherever you look in the distance you can see trees. I find this comforting. Down the hill from the centre of town is the lake and that's pretty peaceful too (although not so much when there are people in speedboats on it). On Sunday it seemed like the whole of Nelson was playing baseball in the park, walking along the waterfront or on the little beach.

Today I went on a hike along the waterfront and across the bridge to the other side of the lake. I then walked up this track to a lookout over the city called Pulpit Rock. Halfway there it started drizzling and I wondered if I should turn back because I'd forgotten my raincoat. Thankfully I persevered as it didn't last long. It was good to see some solar panels on people's houses and to overhear conversations about green things. The road to the start of the Pulpit Rock hike was like a combination of England and Swiss countryside. It made me realise how much I appreciate countryside.

Monday, 25 July 2011

WWOOFing at White Spruce Farm

My WWOOFing has begun. For the past eleven days I've been at White Spruce Farm amid trees and mountains near Fernie, South eastern B.C. The farm was started in the forest by Susan and her partner in the 70s. There are lots of cabins dotted throughout the woodland in varying states of decay and I can imagine what a great place it must have been back then. Now Susan lives in a beautiful house in the North along with her dog Tucker, and Kylie, Craig and their daughter Wakaiwa live a ten minute walk along the road/track (or through the undergrowth) away to the South in a small cabin. And I'm staying in an A-frame in the company of mice, voles and bats inbetween. Although it's no longer what it was it's still a brilliant and very peaceful place.

White Spruce Farm is off-grid (too far up the road for electricity lines) so the two houses have a variety of electricity generating and water heating devices, while the water comes from the streams. Susan has a mini-hydro system, photovoltaic panel, and wood fired burner with a petrol powered generator which she switches on when operating the washing machine. Craig and Kylie have photovoltaics, solar panels and a wood burner. They have an alfresco shower, which was freezing when the sun didn't shine and scorching when it did. Craig actually owns a sustainability company offering electricity and water heating solutions.

I've been weeding, picking herbs, preparing herbs for drying, attending a herbal preparation course (run by Susan), babysitting toddlers, planting out flowers, sowing seeds, watering plants, wandering through the forest, looking at the plants, going to Fernie, making vegan pesto, making salsa, making salads, baking cookies, baking a cake, making soup, chopping vegetables, weeding, picking lettuce, walking halfway around a lake in the provincial park, researching the nutritional qualities of foods, trying to hula-hoop, walking Tucker, sweeping floors, teasing wool, carding wool, learning about weaving, tidying and helping pack a trailer. I've been learning a lot about foods and herbs from both Kylie and Susan. I've also been trying all sorts of strange looking foods, such as the bright green spirulina, tumeric, banana and kefir-based drink that tasted like apricots. And although I'm not suddenly going to start eating all these concoctions I'm definitely going to start sprouting more seeds/beans, making more soup and eating a greater range of grains. I'll be trying to use nutritional yeast as a substitute for cheese, adding sesame seed/salt mix or dulse to my food, using a lot more herbs, drinking some lemon water and eating carob chips because they taste pretty good .

It's been inspiring here and I've gathered lots of ideas not only for the kitchen but for the garden and for life in general. I really should make that composting toilet when I get home and a solar drier to make apple rings. Why not try growing some oats and press them myself? (Although that's going to be somewhat lower on my priorities, and probably just a one-off). And I should really should sort out the wall so my parents can get some chickens and make a herb garden and garden with plants for dying wool. But to do most of this I need to be at home, but I'm really starting to like it in Canada.

Personality Types

In her volunteering Kelly was brilliantly efficient, rushing around and organising things. This she informed us could be attributed to her type A personality. Her remarkableness could only highlight our unremarkability.

Convinced that we had to be type Z personalities our intrigue led us to the Jung and Briggs Myers personality test, which classes all of humankind into 16 personality types. I would like to think we are all pretty unique and that it's not at all possible to classify everyone, but I gave the test a try all the same. I came out as an INFJ, or a perceiver. Sarah who started as a volunteer a week before we left is also an INFJ. We belong to the rarest of personality types sharing our traits with only 1-2 percent of the world's population. Valerie came out as an ISFP, or an artist. I was actually rather amazed by the personality test, because it summed up a great deal of my traits. Although I'm not convinced about the career suggestion of joining the clergy... I got pretty obsessed with looking into the personality types at one point, only to discover that this personality type gets rather carried away with minutiae and likes to look into personality types. And mother I can't help doing everything slowly, it's my personality type...

More on personality types at as well as hundreds of other websites... The test itself can be found at And wikipedia has some good info. on the INFJ

CNSC Mugshots

There is a tradition at the CNSC of people on the Earthwatch courses bringing a cup with them from their home city or country. When we moved into the new studies centre they were replaced by some small white cups and the old cups resigned to the back of the cupboard. Being attached to their mugs the researchers would sneak into the kitchen to take them, so that in the end we had to leave them out. New cups would arrive daily in the kitchen while the Earthwatch group were around, and it felt like the researchers were swarming to stake out their claim on a new mug.

I had quite a few favourite mugs. Two of them I appreciated for their comedy value- The Shell mug (most appropriate for a facility where people study ecology and environmental issues) and the newly acquired Museum of Aviation mug (it just made me chuckle to drink out of that one).

I was also pretty fond of the Western cup, although I hadn't been so fond of the university it refers to. It was a decent sized mug though.

It soon became clear to Valerie and myself that most of the inmates of the studies centre also have a favourite cup, so we thought it would be a good idea to take a mugshot of each of them with their favourite mug. Here they are:

Land Kayleigh (rather than C Cayleigh) was the first to pose for the mugshot series with her three favourite mugs- the Brazil one, the stripy one and the Koenigstein in Taunus one. She pressed me as to whether I had come to some understanding of her psychological state from this. I confess I have not really got the insight to reach much of a conclusion. She seems to like green, has a preference for handmade mugs and likes foreign countries (or maybe just Brazil and Germany).

Brittany chose the Rachel Carson Middle School mug. It's not one of those mass-produced made in China ones and I seem to remember it has quite a grainy texture.

The colourful and adorned with wildlife Minnesota mug was Laura's favourite. I didn't want to linger and take more than one photo while she still had that fork in her hand.

I share one of my favourite mugs with Celia. She's got good taste. It's also a very large mug so she's probably also got a taste for tea or coffee.

The Natural History Museum mug and another one were chosen by Matt. The Natural History Museum has fossilised leaves and lots of animals on it. It ranks pretty high on my ratings. Not sure what to think of the second choice though, I seem to recall seeing a flag like that in one of the countries I've visited...No maybe it's just a deja vu.

Emilie (and her fantastic laugh) came forth to the kitchen to present the green ceramic mug to us. This cup doesn't get out much and we've never seen it while washing dishes. Once we'd thought about it for long enough we could just about remember having seen it in the kitchen before Emilie arrived and got her hands on it. It's pretty unique and there must be quite a firm attachment between the two of them.

We found the (as always) mischievous looking Anne in the lab with her shapely, but pretty non-descript cup. Also one rarely sighted at the dishwasher. Almost started up a mug twitch.

Now I realise why Madi always has that infectious smile on her face, it's because she's under the impression that it's permanently Christmas (and seeing as she's in the subarctic she has a point). Well suffice to say, she doesn't have to battle off the competition when heading for her favourite mug.

When asked whether she had a favourite mug Kat, who works at the CNSC as a science technician, replied with 'of course'. She is clearly a winner.

The unhappy face mug couldn't be found, so poor Hope had to find a plain mug and pull the unhappy face herself. I seem to think we had to throw away some broken mugs recently...

Vanya didn't need to tell us which was his favourite mug since he'd made it pretty clear before. This is one of the two Bulgaria cups that he took a shine to. Perhaps somewhere in him lingers some Bulgarian blood. Not only did he pose for us with the mug, but he also wore his legendary wolf t-shirt for the occasion. There are 12 hidden wolves on this t-shirt, with one that glows in the dark. The build up for the grand unveiling of the glow in the dark wolf had been long, so much so that we thought we might never get to see it. Well we did never get to see it, the glow seemed to have worn out, Valerie suggested it's because he's washed it too many times. One might be more inclined to think of an alternative.

Hannah went for the beer tankard from some village in Germany, it's on the smaller size as mugs go, grey with a mountain scene. Having a German surname might have influenced her decision.

Valerie's favourite one was the Dubai cup with camels on it. She has a bit of an obsession with camels so it's understandable. I even found her a camel riding school in Austria to go and volunteer at and taught her the necessary camel vocabulary e.g. Kamel hast du Hunger? Unfortunately someone else seems to have taken a liking to the cup or sought to sabotage our efforts because the said cup could not be found by us on the CNSC premises for a photo opportunity. I seem to recall she went through a stage of being fond of the yellow one with the cats and dogs too.

Lisa is partial to the Western mug. She also likes the purple Idaho mug, bought along with the latest Earthwatchers. On its arrival it was the talk of the CNSC. This might be a sign that our lives had been pretty uneventful. It's a good cup though, I quite liked the idea of having it amongst my favourites, but it was already so popular and being that popular can't be good for a mug.

Staying on a similar theme we managed to capture Heidi with her favourite mug from her own collection. Of course it was green and if hadn't have been green it would have been pink. Heidi's house is beautifully furnished with lots of pink and green.

Polar bears- Fact or Fiction?

Polar bears were making our lives a misery. We couldn't walk any great distance down the road because of them and we had to write our names, where we were going and when we'd be coming back on the sign out board, because of them. And yet there weren't any. Well no real ones. There were plenty of polar bear nots (as Valerie calls them). They were on hundreds of posters and newspaper articles adorning the studies centre (each bedroom seemed to have at least four posters), they were on the signs (polar bear alert), there were statues, painted rocks and murals with them, buildings were named after them (polar bear lodge etc.), there were plenty of books about them, postcards and souvenirs with them on and there were tundra buggies to go out and watch them. But where were they?

It was no surprise really that there weren't any. We'd pretty much convinced ourselves that we weren't going to see any. The polar bears of this part of Hudson Bay gather en masse around Churchill in the autumn since the sea ice begins to freeze there first. This is polar bear season in Churchill and the time to see the bears. They then spend the winter out on the ice hunting for seals and drift back inland when the ice thaws. Hopefully rotund from their winter at sea they conserve energy over the summer and laze around, often close to the shore where they can go for a quick dip.

Even the researchers were beginning to doubt the existence of the great Ursus maritimus.They are all gun trained and had been lugging their guns around with them every day since they'd got to Churchill. Just as everyone was beginning to get a bit too complacent the polar bears hit town. I was out with Lisa and Carmen dozing in the sunbeams on the beach whilst attempting to catch semi palmated plovers before I looked out to sea and saw something white near the Ithaca (ship wreck). Grabbing the binoculars I realised that I'd spotted the first bear of the summer. On the way to the next semi palmated plover I spotted a further two bears on the rocks and the same bear as before some distance down the beach we were on.

The polar bears had arrived in force. As we drove to more plovers near Miss Piggy (a plane wreck), we heard one sided snippets over the radio. Things like 'Have you released fire crackers?' and 'Do you require any assistance?' didn't sound all that reassuring. Back at the CNSC we discovered that all the researchers in the fen had had a pretty close encounter with their first polar bear.

The sightings drifted in almost daily and they were duly written up on the polar bear sightings board. Bear activity in the fen was high and team godwit found one of their highly prized nests trashed and the eggs eaten by a bear. At one point a black bear was also spotted in the fen. When I was out with team godwit we saw from a distance a mother polar bear with her two cubs following behind her.

I'd seen six bears and I was feeling rather guilty that Valerie still hadn't seen any. I needn't have worried because we were woken one morning by Madi knocking on the door with the news that there was a bear right outside the CNSC. Along with many other spectators we stood on the balcony and watched as the bear ran from fire crackers, paced through the undergrowth and then towards the CNSC. It stopped now and then to sniff the air filled with breakfast sausages. Finally it disappeared into the trees. For the first time I found myself hoping that Rob would be cooking some meaty lunch concoction. In the afternoon we spotted the bear on a rock in the trees where it began to pant before taking a stroll into the lake to cool off.

In all I saw eleven polar bears, some walking, lying about and one swimming in the sea. Fortunately they were all from a pretty safe distance. I feel really privileged to have seen this predator in the wild. Sadly I didn't get many good pictures since I dropped my telephoto lens on the floor and it was off in Ontario getting fixed, and when the bear was close enough not to need it I'd forgotten to put a memory card in (school boy error according to Valerie) . So thank-you Kelly for letting me use yours!

Sad news filtered to the study centre about a polar bear having been shot in town because it chased a man who ran from it, wouldn't leave when crackers were fired at it and then proceeded to smash in the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) truck. Allegedly the bear was 400 pounds underweight. It seems that even though it was a colder winter than most some bears didn't manage to fatten up enough and are still looking for food. Human-bear conflicts will only increase as the climate continues to change.


At some stage in the proceedings a haiku obsession emerged from the depths of the northern studies centre. I think it began with team godwit writing haikus on the researcher's chalk board, this spread in a wave to Vanya and then to the lowly volunteers in the kitchen.

Inspirations for the researchers' haikus often came from the great outdoors and ours from the small indoors.

Many a researcher's haiku related to peanut butter, a substance to which northern science is truly indebted. One haiku was written about the Churchill tour company's slogan 'Our wilderness will touch you', which has been of amusement to the researchers for many a year.

Other haikus related to birds, mosquitoes, Hope's song terrorism, a certain stash of out of date orange juice and day to day life.

In celebration of washing our last dishes we published on the kitchen white board: 'Just washed my last dish, Cream of carroty cake crumbs, With joy, It was joy'. In response to this and our final haiku: 'Came, lingered and left, Much akin to drywall dust, Unremarkables' came the following:


The big city


Churchill's mosquitoes are notorious. After a good storm they began to appear in large numbers. I ended up giving quite a bit of blood just going outside to take a few photos in the nice light and my ankles swelled up with red blotches. I coped pretty badly with the mosquitoes to be honest. Wearing a bug net would help, but then I couldn't see through it. Either way there was a risk of getting eaten alive and I wasn't sure which I preferred- polar bear or mosquito.

The researchers had to start wearing their bug nets and even raincoats and gloves in the warming temperatures of summer. I really admire them for their ability to carry on with their research as normal while surrounded by swarms of mosquitoes. Valerie really went to town with her outfits.

Feeling nostalgic and wondering why I was leaving the place I went outside for a walk with Madi, Hannah and Amy on my final evening at the studies centre. It wasn't long before I came back in flummoxed, with bites galore and fed-up with the mosquitoes. At least it was a good reminder that were will be some things I wont miss.

Robert's record breaking skills

Robert uses a lot of eggs in his cooking, particularly when he makes French toast and scrambled egg. He has every right to be proud of his fine egg breaking skills, he would probably make it into the Guiness Book of Records if someone told them about it. His record stands at about 2 minutes 22 seconds for three trays of eggs. He's faster than lightening.

Ptarmigan and other beasts

Harvey the Hare




Living accomodations

Moonbows, Sundogs, Sunrises and sunsets


Valerie and myself became known as the 'unremarkables' and we would even sign ourselves out the building under that name. This was all due to a conversation we had had over dinner with Little Sir. There were always stories about previous volunteers at the centre, although it was mostly Rob who came out with these. Rob would describe what the volunteer did wrong and end with 'and then we took them to the station'. Valerie and I would always joke that we were about to be taken to the station.

Anyway, Little Sir was describing the behaviour of previous volunteers and said he probably wouldn't be able to remember us, that he only ever remembered the remarkable ones- either the ones that were really good or really bad. Valerie and I it seemed were unremarkable.



Sunday, 24 July 2011

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Just kidding..

We soon came to realise that the fellow inmates of the Northern Studies Centre did not always understand our native English wit and we were even accused of bickering like a married couple. Once Valerie even managed to cause offence to Matt the laddie, because of a sarcasm misunderstanding. Only after working a few days with Patsy (housekeeping) did we come to realise that in these parts of the world one has to say 'just kiddin'' after one jokes. It seems that any joke has to be underlined lest the meaning be misconstrued. Valerie and I cannot however stoop to such a level. Luckily though, as our sentence (just kidding) in the subarctic progressed, we became a little more understood (or so we thought).

Here's a photo of Chistina Neepin housekeeping, her sister Patsy, Valerie and myself. Valerie said we had to pull serious faces. Not sure if Valerie or Patsy know how that's done.

Monday, 18 July 2011


After what felt like weeks of looking at that untouchable box of games and puzzles Heidi suggested that we borrow her scrabble. After that there was no stopping us and we played most nights when there was nothing better to do. We had our own rules- we could pretty much put any word in any language down, as long as it was a real word. There would be double points for using words in Italian or Spanish. One evening after it had warmed a bit we played in our winter coats overlooking the tundra.

Once the researchers arrived we had some more opponents, but we had to play by proper rules. We weren't even allowed to look words up in Valerie's kindle before we put them down! Matt the laddie was serious about his scrabble, even though he'd never actually played before, but his mum is a Winnipeg or Manitoba scrabble champ. We'd also play with Lisa, Vanya, Jean-Michel (researchers) and the other volunteers.

It is not everyday that you get taught scrabble etiquette from a Metis/Quebecois assistant politics professor from the University of Winnipeg. I had thought that being from England I'd absorbed quite a lot about being polite, but Jean-Michel had other ideas. Apparently I was not saying please and thank-you often enough. And presenting the scrabble bag to the next player without neatly folding it with the words scrabble facing upwards is the ultimate crime. Everyone else it seemed had escaped the lesson, it might well have been because I happened to be sitting next to the professor. He could have done with an etiquette lesson himself though. Apparently he had to organise an interview for the following day and would excuse himself frequently to try to make the 'phone call' taking a casual look over everyone elses' scrabble tiles on his way. Made for one of the more amusing scrabble games.

We got pretty excited when we managed to put all of our 7 tiles down at once, or get a good word on the triple word score. Matt even had to get Valerie to photograph his seven letter word as evidence. On Heidi's staff night we played scrabble and she introduced to the scrabble dictionary, which is full of spellings which don't actually exist such as 'et' for ate.

In honour of the tradition we played scrabble on our last night with the new volunteers Sarah and Amy. Symbolically, like the changing of the guard, Valerie and myself were beaten and our scrabble winning prowess, as well as all our volunteer duties were handed over.