Sense of Place in the Hudson Bay Lowlands

Being in a new place or embarking on a new experience can often cause us to regress to our most elemental selves.  At the outset, we may spend less time contemplating and asking deep questions, but rather, rely on our sensory perceptions of place to tell us where we are and what we need to pay attention to.  We are infants, toddlers at best, taking in buckets full of information as we find our footing on this new landscape and in these new scientific endeavors.  I myself, find that my senses are heightened or that I am more attuned to them during these experiences.

TASTE: Before I arrived in Churchill, I wasn’t sure what the food was going to be like.  I thought that it might be very processed (because fresh food might be hard to come by) and that it would be typical cafeteria food, given that the cooks needed to prepare meals for dozens of people.  After about eight meals here, I can certainly say that our bodies and souls are fueled up each day!  Though vegetables can be scarce in Churchill because of climate conditions and transport costs, we have been able to eat cucumber and cantaloupe salad, spinach salad, and tomato and cilantro salad.  We are treated to a variety of dressings including “Churchill secret sauce” and sesame vinagrette.  The chefs are incredibly accommodating to those with dietary restrictions.  On top of it all we are treated to pastry goodies like homemade cookies (oatmeal raisin, butter pecan crunch, and chai spice) and even cream puffs!  These special meals certainly makes the research center feel more like a home away from home!

SMELL: Wet, salty sweat, organic, and earthy probably best describe the equipment room where we all don our “uniform” of neoprene waders, booties, and bug nets before heading outside.  The first day, everything started off dry and it took us a good 10-15 minutes to get geared up.  After only two days, we are probably down to a 5-7 minute period.  However, at this point, we have brought with us pond water soaked waders and all of the algae, sedge, and sediment smell that comes with it.  Our sweat it also embedded in the gear, a trophy of all of our hard work!

TOUCH:  The wetlands inland from Hudson Bay have proved unpredictable in terms of their weather variation and my body is confused by the wild swings in temperature, wind, and precipitation.  Just yesterday, I was sweating through my neoprene waders and feeling of sweat dripping down my back.  One’s body almost feels suffocated under the protective layers of fabric and netting designed to keep mosquitos at bay.  Yet, a change in the wind and the promise of a storm brought a temperature drop from 70F to 39F now, as I write this.  Working in the pond this afternoon, the water chilled my hands considerably to the point where I needed gloves to warm them up.  From this experience, I’m reminded of last night’s speaker, Caroline, an elder of the Sayisi Dene people in Churchill who spoke of her cultural heritage and the use of caribou for many different purposes, including insulated clothing.  The Caribou fur sample she brought felt layered and thick, but also light, and helped people adapt to the harsh conditions that are persistent in winter.

HEARING: One of the challenges of staying at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre is that it’s not possible to go outside and wander around anytime you like.  There is always a risk of encountering a grizzly bear, black bear, or even a polar bear.  Therefore, our groups are typically accompanied by bear guards when we travel out in the field.  However, CNSC has a “floating observation deck” on the outside of the building where we can get fresh air and look for critters.  One sound is clearly distinguishable among others–the call of the Boreal Chorus Frog, otherwise called the “false cricket” as its call sounds like a high pitched peep or like someone running their fingers over a small comb.  This is one of the frog species that we are looking for during our surveys, so hearing them in the nearby ponds reminds me of their important presence in many of these ponds.

SIGHT: Today, I had the tedious, but necessary, job of counting egg masses.  The procedure is actually quite fascinating:  In the field, frog clutches are gathered and gently put between two plexi-glass sheets to flatten them.  A photograph is taken and then we go about counting the number of eggs as individual spots on the picture to get a total.  To me, this is a fascinating and efficient way to take something so numerous and globular and turn it into a reliably measured variable.  The careful counting and mouse clicking of this task is even somewhat meditative.  During this task, my partner, Erika, turned around for a moment and spotted something moving outside the center.  It was a red fox!  We alerted our cohort and followed it’s progress over the rocks and across the dirt road, some of us even running upstairs to view it from the observation deck.  To me, this was our most amazing wildlife sighting yet, though we’ve also come across many frogs, arctic hares, moose and bear scat, Canada geese with goslings, Mergansers, and several other bird species.

Now that I’ve given my senses a chance to adjust to the new environment and tasks at hand, I find myself asking more questions and reflecting on how this day to day work and observations fit into the larger study as a whole and into the general research around climate change and biodiversity.  I am figuring out what I can do to get the most out of this experience and what I can take back to my friends, family, colleagues, students, and community.  However, my aim is also to keep my senses attuned so that I continue gathering those pieces of the story I plan to tell.

-Rose Chaffee-Cohen


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