It’s a strange feeling, disappearing from one side of the country and appearing on the other in a matter of hours, a very different experience from this time last year, making the 7-day drive across plains, mountains, and frozen lakes. In some ways I would give anything to be making that drive again. I’m not sure I’m ready to be thrust into squirrel camp without any transition period. It makes leaving home and Josh so much more difficult. It wasn’t until I was back on the ground, driving from Whitehorse out to camp that I finally started to feel comfortable, passing familiar valleys and snow-capped peaks, feeling the rush of nostalgia at those familiar bends in the road, eyes skimming the places where my feet have been. In those two hours it finally started to come back. I finally started to feel at home again.
We are an eclectic crew this year, 16 of us packed into our roughly 800 square foot cook shack. One professor (Ben), one post-doc (Freya), six PhD students (Emily, Yasmine, Mike, Ally, Sam and me), three Master’s students (Naomi, Monaly, and Amanda) and five technicians (Laurence, Monica, Catherine, Sean, and Sylvain). There are five guys and ten gals, which is a marked improvement in sex ratio from past years. Five of the crew members are doing research on snowshoe hares and are out trapping bunnies from 9:30 until midnight many nights while the rest of us sane people chase squirrels around at more reasonable hours of the day, although sane is a relative term when it is -30° C and blowing like the dickens.
As I write there is a dance party going on to All Night by Icona Pop in our kitchen as Ally tries to cook dinner while Sean and Catherine play catch with an apple over everyone’s heads. (I think the apple just landed in a can of soup). It‘s a small space for 16 people to share and cabin fever manifests itself in strange ways. In the midst of all of this Naomi and I are trying to bake bread since we have conveniently run out and our next grocery shop isn’t until Sunday. It’s also a challenge figuring out how to shop for a group of 15 with different food preferences and allergies. Clearly we haven’t quite figured out accurate quantities yet. The benefit is that Naomi and I now have a cinnamon loaf and garlic rosemary loaf baking and the Cook Shack smells like heaven (which I have to say is a serious improvement over the typical stale BO smell, ha!).
Despite the bucolic scene I have just painted we’ve had a pretty rough start to life at squirrel camp. Given our large number of crew many of us are sleeping in uninsulated plywood huts at night, which is a marked un-improvement from last year (recall the “toasty” PhD hut that I shared with Lisa). I’ve been sleeping in two layers of clothes, my sleeping bag with a thermolite liner with my heavy down coat layered on top. I’ve been fairly toasty but I just can’t seem to keep my feet warm.
But before you start feeling bad with all my whining (sleeping outdoors is actually pretty awesome), three days after we arrived at camp, on our first day off, we were loading propane tanks into one of the trucks when Monaly slipped and fell and hit her face off the propane. In the panic that ensued Amanda (our squirrel leader) somehow decided that I had the most first aid experience of all the people gathered and before I knew it the three of us were on the road to the hospital in Whitehorse. Monaly, thankfully, was well bloodied but conscious and alert. On the drive in Amanda and I were chatting and one of us just happened to glance back at Monaly in the backseat. She was slumped over, hanging from the seatbelt and didn’t respond when Amanda started yelling her name. My heart dropped through my toes and I almost drove off the road in a pure panic. Seconds later she woke up and was just fine but I had never seen anyone fall asleep quite like that. We all shared a laugh after that, although I’m sure mine sounded more like a hysterical giggle.
It took four hours for Monaly to see a doctor and to confirm that her nose was, in fact broken in two places. Ouch. Worse yet she had to wait a week until the swelling went down before the doctor could set it. We did a grocery shop for 15 people at 8:30 pm that night and by the time we left Whitehorse it was 11pm. We arrived back at camp around 1:30am, barely making it halfway up the ice-covered driveway in Maurice, our minivan (yes, we have names for all our cars). Our amazing crew waited up to help us drag dozens of boxes of groceries up the icy driveway. Thank god for them too because I don’t think any of us, all with heavy eyelids, one with a broken nose, had the energy reserves to do it ourselves. I think that was the first night I felt totally warm in my sleeping bag. More likely I was simply too tired to notice the cold.
The next day we were up at 8am for the first day of the Silver Sled Dog Race. You might remember from last year that Shannon, Hannes, Lisa and I arrived at squirrel camp just in time to help out with the second day of the 100-mile race that runs from Haines Junction to Kluane Lake. This year the whole crew was helping out with both days of the race. But to add to the exhaustion of the night before I was halfway through my breakfast- teas was poured, toast on the stove – and Maurice (the minivan we had parked halfway up the driveway) was now stuck in the snow bank. Fantaaastic. So the next hour of the morning, while my breakfast was getting cold, was spent pushing, shoveling snow, and dumping ash, trying to get Maurice unstuck. Eventually Emily had the brilliant idea to pull her out using the Enterprise (the new truck from the University of Alberta). In seconds we accomplished what we had been attempting to do for over an hour.
So at 9 am the van was finally unstuck and I had 15 minutes to choke down breakfast, pack a lunch, layer up my clothes and get out the door in time to make it to Haines Junction for the start of the race. We made it with minutes to spare and ran to find our mushers before they took off with their dogs. There were seven of us who were in charge of driving one of the musher’s trucks from the Junction to Kluane Lake. We meet our mushers, shook hands, got a 30 second run-down of the trucks we would be driving later today and then we were off, racing to the check points that we were needed at.
Ally, Catherine, and I were placed on a sharp turn heading up the hill from Haines Junction. This was the point at which the three skijoring teams were beginning the race, so it was a bit chaotic with the three skijor teams getting ready to run and the sled dog teams racing up the hill for a sharp right hand turn. The air was filled with loud shouts of “Gee”, “GEE”, while the over-excited skijor teams yipped in the background. There was only one team that tried to make a left-hand turn instead of a right, barreling straight over our barrier and heading for the excited sounds of the skijor dogs. It took three of us to get the dogs back on course, taking both barriers out In the process and snapping at least one guide post along the trail. I end up throwing myself backward into the snow to avoid getting caught up in the dogs’ lead lines as the sled whizzed past, finally back on track.
When the final team came past we raced back down the hill to where the musher’s trucks were waiting and fired up our Ford-350’s and Dodge Ram 3500’s. These are monster trucks, the beds loaded with 8-10 dog houses so wide that you see behind the truck without the use of specialized side mirrors. I had to back my truck up in order to get it out of its parking spot and I was sweating profusely just at the thought, adding a little BO scent to the mix of manly cologne.
But once we were on the road I have to admit that I felt more than a little badass driving a musher’s truck, returning everyone’s excited waves…until they realized that I wasn’t actually the musher they were expecting. The musher’s are somewhat of a celebrity around here, making this experience somewhat equivalent to driving Tom Brady’s truck through Boston.
That night we were supposed to return to Base Camp at Kluane Lake for a bonfire and party but we all fell asleep long before said witching hour.
The next morning I woke up so nauseous and sick to my stomach that I thought I would barely make it to the Dunny (our outhouse). This was Day Two of the race I didn’t know how I was going to make it through. We headed down to Kluane Lake around 9:30 am, just in the nick of time for the start of the race. We barely pulled in and I was whisked away into one of the organizer’s cars to help at a crossing just down the road. As it turns out I was pretty lucky since the spot had a beautiful view of Kluane Lake and Sheep Mountain as the dogs took off from the start line and headed down the first long straight-away. Despite the stomach cramps I managed to stay on my feet and take some nice photos.
We then packed up the musher’s trucks and took them back to Haines Junction, and the rest of the day I spent mostly sitting down, kneeling, or generally curled up, in any position that would relieve the nausea. Somehow I made it through the rest of the day and the banquet that evening. The sickness ended up lasting a solid 5 days in which I couldn’t keep down more than tea and dry toast. Not exactly the ideal diet for running around in the snow for 5 hours a day after squirrels. I thought I must have ended up with some sort of food poisoning from our trip to Whitehorse but the so-called “Erin-sickness” has since spread around camp, along with an “Emily-sickness” which seems to induce a different kind of severe vomiting and a “Naomi-sickness” which is a generally horrible head cold. So camp has been crippled as of late and think we are only just starting to emerge from the epidemic.
But that night, just amid the scattered clouds, I saw my first northern lights in the Yukon. Streamers of green danced across the entire length of the night sky, tinged with slight shades of red. The long bands of light rippled and shifted at regular intervals, sometimes transforming from a single band of light into two bands or more, their long tendrils reaching down toward earth in streamers so long you almost felt as through you could reach out and touch them, disappear into them. The ephemeral colors against the inky blackness of the sky felt like the gateway to another world that we can glimpse only at the rarest of moments. It was spectacular, and even though I could barely hold myself upright to watch them it was a reminder of how lucky we all are to be here and experience this, even when we are worn thin by sickness, cold, and un-trappable squirrels. It all fades to very little when standing in knee-deep snow, staring at the shifting sky, and listening only to the sound of your breath coming in small puffs of steam and the howl of coyotes in the distance.