Arrival in the Arctic

Resolute Bay and Devon Island, Nunavut, Canada

A map of the Arctic showing the location of Devon Island. Credit: Mars Institute and National Geographic Society

After two days of travel from Clinton, Canada, where I had spent the previous week with the Pavilion Lake Research Project, I arrived in the evening in Resolute Bay, in Nunavut Territory, Canada.

“Evening” is a relative term in Resolute Bay. It was summer in the northern hemisphere and Resolute Bay is above the Arctic Circle, so the sun, instead of rising and setting, made a circle around the sky during the course of a day, getting higher in the south at mid-day and lower to the horizon in the north around 1:00 am. Everybody’s heard of the “land of the midnight sun,” but until you experience it you don’t realize to what extent it can disorient you. At least I didn’t. For those of us raised in mid-latitudes, a dark night sky, I discovered, is a very deeply ingrained expectation.

Resolute Bay was the next-to-last stop on my journey to the Haughton-Mars Project Research Station (HMPRS), the project’s base camp on Devon Island, about 180 kilometers (about 112 miles) northeast of Resolute. The heart of HMPRS, which includes office space, repair shops, a medical facility and a mess hall, is a circle of seven rectangular buildings radiating out from a central octagon.

For the past 15 summers, scientists and engineers have made their way to HMPRS to study the geology, biology and climate of the island and to test technologies and operational procedures aimed at furthering the exploration of the moon, Mars, asteroids and other planetary bodies.

An aerial view of “downtown” at the Haughton-Mars Project Research Station, taken out the window of a Twin Otter. Credit: Henry Bortman

One of the projects being tested this year is the IceBreaker drill, designed to drill a meter or more below the surface in the polar regions of Mars to search for evidence of life. Another is a robotic arm that, mounted on a rover, could be remotely operated in real time on the surface of Mars by astronauts who have landed on a martian moon or from the relatively safe interior of a pressurized rover on Mars.

HMPRS is quite literally in the middle of nowhere (or perhaps at the top of nowhere). Devon Island, one of the islands in the Arctic Archipelago, about the size of West Virginia, is the largest uninhabited island on Earth.

While the researchers are “in town,” diesel generators provide abundant electricity, and a satellite dish and wireless base stations provide more-accessible Internet access than you’re likely to find at a local Starbucks. But each year, when the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) closes up shop, the human population of Devon Island once again drops to zero.

The view out the front flap of my tent – ‘round about midnight. Credit: Henry Bortman

Climatically the island is a polar desert. Vegetation is sparse, consisting mainly of mosses, lichens, and several species of hardy, ground-hugging plants, including the lovely yellow Arctic poppy. Where plants are absent, it could easily be mistaken for Mars.

One of the main reasons HMP came to Devon is the presence there of Haughton Crater, formed when a very large object slammed into the Earth 39 million years ago. Haughton, some 20 kilometers (just under 12.5 miles) in diameter, is one of the largest well-preserved and exposed craters in the world. The better-known Meteor Crater in Arizona, by comparison, is only 1.2 kilometers (4000 feet) across. While Meteor Crater is classified as a “simple” crater, Haughton is considered a “complex” crater, presenting higher-impact-energy features such as impact melts, collapsed rim terraces and a central uplift.

The morning after I arrived in Resolute Bay I got an 8:00 am call instructing me to head across the street from the hotel where I was staying to the airfield to board the next flight to Devon Island. Resolute Bay is a hub for flights that ferry people and cargo to and from more-remote locations in Nunavut, the northeastern-most province of Canada.

Astrobiology Magazine’s intrepid field research editor, Henry Bortman, astride his trusty ATV. Credit: Luis Alvarez

Twin Otter planes do the ferrying. They don’t go particularly fast, nor do they fly particularly high, but they can do a lot of heavy lifting, and they can take off and land on very short runways. That, I learned shortly, was a good thing: the runway at HMPRS is only about 240 meters (800 feet) long.

I was a minor addition to the flight I was on. Its main purpose was to bring two large, empty wooden crates to HMP, to be filled with equipment that researchers from the Canadian Space Agency had finished using and were bringing home.

After a tour of the base camp, settling in to my personal tent, and grabbing lunch in the mess hall – people eat well at HMP – it was time for ATV training. There are only three ways to get around on Devon Island: on foot, okay for short distances; in a Humvee, great for long-distance traverses or large cargo movements, but overkill for everyday use; or on an ATV (all-terrain vehicle). HMP has a fleet of 14, all brought to the island on Twin Otters. When you arrive at base camp for the first time, you learn to drive an ATV.

Pascal Lee, who heads the Haughton-Mars Project, handed me a helmet and asked, “Ever ride a motorcycle?” I hadn’t. So he started from the beginning.

An Arctic poppy, one of the flowering plants that can survive in the Arctic desert, common in Nunavut but rare elsewhere in the world. Credit: Henry Bortman

First he said, “ATVs are central research tools for us. They take us to information. Please treat them with respect.” Then he showed me how the brakes work. Then how to start it. Then how to shift up through the gears, awkward at first – it involves lifting a lever with your left foot – but once I had driven the thing for a while it began to make sense from a safety standpoint. Then there was the proper use of the all-important kill switch. And finally, after assuring me that ATVs are built for stability and are very difficult to flip over, he noted the value of jumping off quickly in the event that I did “roll” one.

Once he was satisfied that I had the basics down, he said off-handedly, “Okay, take it up to the runway,” a distance of about a quarter of a mile. “Try third and fourth gears,” he added. “Even fifth if you want.” I stuck to fourth. When I returned, in one piece and still seated on the ATV, he declared me certified. “Welcome to Mars,” he said. And with that I was officially a resident of HMP base camp.

I suspect he was more confident of my abilities than I was. Every time I go bouncing over the rutted, rocky trails that pass for roads on Devon Island, I wonder if breaking one’s neck is necessarily fatal. But I have to admit: they’re fun.

Stay tuned for further adventures.