• Scott Donker, a graduate student studying population changes in arctic ground squirrels, serves himself dinner in the Yukon’s Kluane Lake Research Station (KLRS) mess hall. Since opening in 1961, KLRS has hosted some 3,000 researchers, and many professors who came here as young academics now bring their own students and families. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • It’s not all science at the KLRS. Students gather in the mess hall late in the evening for a heated game of Spoons. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • Using a one-square-metre quadrat, Jennie McLaren, a Ph.D student at the University of British Columbia, examines plant species. Ecologists use this frame to systematically measure vegetation in the field. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • Charles Krebs measures berry abundance as part of a long-term monitoring program. Krebs, a professor emeritus of zoology at the University of British Columbia, is a core figure at the KLRS and has launched his research from the base since 1973. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • KLRS manager and bush pilot Andy Williams sits in his radio shack and office. Andy is a triple threat: manager extraordinaire, consummate host/family man and skilled bush pilot. His ability to land almost anywhere was instrumental in the 1960s when the American military sent researchers into the mountains to study altitude sickness. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • As she winds down her program for the season, Gwenn Flowers, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in glaciology at Simon Fraser University, gets a hand packing up. Flowers, who completed her Ph.D at KLRS, has returned here for more than a decade to conduct glaciology research. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • After a month-long stint at its glacier camp in the St. Elias icefields, Flowers’ team runs to receive equipment being flown back to the KLRS. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • As twilight approaches, a group of students use the airstrip for a game of ultimate Frisbee. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • Students Scott Donker (left) and Michael Sheriff at work on a collaborative study of the arctic ground squirrel. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • Snowshoe hare research originally brought David Hik, a professor and Canada Research Chair in northern ecology at the University of Alberta, to KLRS in 1988. However, he quickly became interested in the pika, a relative of the rabbit, and his work now examines the interaction between animals and plants in a rapidly warming climate. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • Hik and two of his students pore over maps in the kitchen tent at Pika Camp near KLRS. Busy with his duties as executive director on the Canadian International Polar Year Secretariat, Hik looks forward to his time in the Kluane region all year. It’s nice to be away from the computer or a lectern, he says. “Summers at KLRS and Pika Camp are my salvation!” (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • Natalie Stafl, a student at the University of Alberta, frees a pika from a cage. Pikas, which are vulnerable to heat and limited in their mobility, have become a telling indicator of climate change in Canada. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • Field assistant Chris Baird strums his guitar as he winds down from a busy day. At KLRS, the consensus among scientists is that it’s the people who make the place. 'It’s an attachment that goes beyond the science itself,' says ecologist David Hik. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

  • Writer Teresa Earle with her two daughters at Kluane Lake. KLRS is family-run and family friendly, which was perfect for the writer and her husband photographer Fritz Mueller. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)

With photography by

A yellow JetRanger helicopter emerges from the shroud of smoke that envelops Kluane Lake Research Station and lands on the gravel airstrip. When the rotor wash subsides, four bearded researchers pile out and duck under the spinning blades. This scraggly-looking crew, wearing hard-shell bib pants and mountaineering boots, has just spent a month doing fieldwork in the St. Elias icefields, in nearby Kluane National Park. Weary from their extended expedition and craving a hearty meal, they stroll toward the mess hall, followed by the pilot, who knows that arriving around 6 p.m. always elicits a dinner invitation.

Tonight, more than 30 people are eating and bunking at this bustling science outpost, 220 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse. Wielding the kitchen’s cleavers and blackened pans, two university students named Virginia have turned out a spread of gravy-laden roast pork, vegetables, macaroni, salad and Nanaimo bars. Researchers and field assistants load their plates, grab bottles of beer and mugs of juice and find seats at the folding tables in the middle of the room.

The research station is the flagship facility of the University of Calgary-based Arctic Institute of North America (AINA), but the mess hall is a Second World War-era U.S. Army hut that was purchased for $1 in the 1960s from a road construction camp two kilometres down the Alaska Highway and reassembled here beside the airstrip. A painting of a Kluane Lake scene by a former artist-in-residence anchors one end of the hall, and framed black and white photographs of icy peaks hang between the windows. Under the glare of incandescent lights, several generations are gathered for this meal, like a large extended family. Graduate students rub elbows with Parks Canada archaeologists and academic superstars: the three University of British Columbia (UBC) emeritus profs here this evening — ecologist Charles Krebs, anthropologist Julie Cruikshank and glaciologist Garry Clarke — are leaders in their fields. Several of the younger profs first came to Kluane Lake Research Station (KLRS) as grad students; now they’re back with students of their own.

Kluane Lake Research Station map

Kluane Lake Research Station (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

Although the University of Ottawa’s undergraduate geography field school ended last week, student energy still dominates. “We had a rockin’ party here when you guys were away,” I overhear one field assistant report to another, who just returned from the icefields. Later, the camp’s twentysomethings will congregate in the mess hall, raid the fridge, play Spoons and sample a batch of spruce-tip beer.

Legendary and jocular bush pilot Andy Williams presides over the scene. Williams and his wife Carole have managed KLRS for 37 years; their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter are here too. Adding to the family vibe, I’m joined by my biologist-turned-photographer husband Fritz Mueller, who completed his master’s fieldwork at the base in the early 1990s, and our two young daughters. They quickly stake out the kids’ corner near the barrel stove, adding their crayons to the pile of books and toys that has been accumulating for decades.

After dinner, I step outside. The air is thick with smoke — it’s early August, the forest is tinder-dry, and it’s wildfire season in the Yukon. The station’s signature view of the Kluane front ranges is reduced to a hazy outline of Sheep Mountain, so I take in the dreary foreground: a utilitarian hodgepodge of about 20 cabins, sheds and repurposed barracks for work and sleep scattered across 60 hectares of bog on the shore of Kluane Lake. The smell of sewage cuts through the smoke; the base’s septic system and outhouses need work.

Leaving the camp common, I wander down a soggy trail, through thickets of willow, to the lakeshore. Without the smoke, the view from this spot would be stunning: a cerulean lake foaming with whitecaps and mountain flanks draped in alpenglow. It’s largely because of these mountains that scientists enjoy a rich smorgasbord of research possibilities at KLRS and its half-dozen satellite camps in the surrounding wilderness. They can move between boreal forest, alpine tundra and ice on a short hike. Elsewhere in Canada, one must fly thousands of kilometres to experience similar transitions between ecosystems.

This facility is hardly a luxe destination, yet KLRS is a storied hub of northern science that has generated around 1,200 peer-reviewed papers and hosted some 3,000 researchers who have come here to study glaciology, geomorphology, geology, geography, ecology, botany, zoology, hydrology, limnology, climatology, high-altitude physiology, anthropology and archaeology. Although many head into the mountains and forest to conduct fieldwork, sometimes for weeks on end, all rely on the base as a place to eat and sleep and shower, to aggregate and analyze data, to collaborate and socialize with colleagues. For the 100 or so scientists who beat a path to its door every year, KLRS offers an intangible mix of wilderness and camaraderie and myriad opportunities for scientific inquiry.

Even on the longest days of the northern summer, the morning sun takes a while to warm the bluffs lining Printers Pass, about 20 kilometres north of KLRS in the Ruby Range. A mug of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal take the edge off the cold as Queen’s University ecologist Ryan Danby and his field assistant Aimée Brisebois prepare for another workday. Juneau, Danby’s yellow Lab, wags his whole body excitedly as they pack lunches and shoulder backpacks. All is quiet except for the shrill “eep!” of collared pikas scampering around this alpine Eden.

Brisebois and Danby are setting out to take soil samples and record soil temperature using buried thermistors. They’ll also spend a lot of time hunched over a one-squaremetre quadrat, a frame used by ecologists to systematically measure vegetation. Much of Danby’s research focuses on upward advances in the treeline — the transition zone between boreal forest and subarctic alpine tundra — in response to a warming climate. Using tree-ring analysis, aerial photography and GIS mapping, he has documented rapid treeline advances, challenging conventional thinking that such movement would be gradual.

Danby is part of a network of circumpolar researchers who collaborated on an International Polar Year (IPY) project investigating changes in the Arctic treeline. His interests are broad and interdisciplinary, which helps explain why he favours the flexibility of a tent to the comforts of a fixed camp. Danby and Brisebois will stay in the pass for four nights before hiking back to KLRS to shower and resupply for their next stint in the field.

Danby first came to this area in 1996 to work on a master’s degree in environmental studies, looking at ways of integrating ecology with park management. He couldn’t have picked a better destination. Prompted by the construction of the Alaska Highway during the Second World War, the Canadian government had set aside a triangle of wilderness in southwestern Yukon as a wildlife reserve. Kluane National Park and Reserve is the 21,980-square-kilometre legacy of this decision. Combined with adjacent parks — Tatshenshini- Alsek Park in British Columbia and Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Glacier Bay National Park in the United States — it forms the world’s largest international protected zone. Noted for many superlatives — it is home to North America’s most genetically diverse population of grizzly bears, for example, and contains the planet’s largest non-polar icefields — Kluane National Park is the research station’s wild backyard.

“I don’t know if there’s a suitable adjective that really describes everything here in one word,” says Danby. “It’s the place, it’s the people … I feel comfortable here.”

A third-generation KLRS alumni, Danby conducted his Ph.D. fieldwork here with University of Alberta ecology professor David Hik, who did his research here with Krebs in the 1980s during a landmark study of boreal forest ecology. From 1986 to 1996, led by Krebs, nine professors from three universities, 26 grad students and 93 assistants and technicians participated in an academic assault on the forest. The star of the Kluane Boreal Forest Ecosystem Project was the snowshoe hare, a keystone species that’s central to the fate of many other animals and plants, but the body of work that emerged from the study was far-reaching. As a large-scale examination of an entire ecosystem — one that circles the globe and remains relatively intact — Kluane’s boreal study has global currency, says Hik. It became a model for ecological research around the world.

“It is often said that the longest way round is the shortest way home.… We have been doing a great deal, but our research accomplishments have been few.” Walter Wood’s journal entry on July 22, 1961, acknowledged that working in the St. Elias Mountains consumed a significant amount of time and resources and didn’t leave much of either for science. Bad weather hounded Wood and his team, and they found themselves preoccupied with logistics, camp construction and an icefield rescue. Nevertheless, the founder of KLRS reported that his first Yukon field season was both challenging and inspiring.

An AINA director based in New York City, Wood began studying the region’s glaciers in 1948 from a coastal base in Yakutat, Alaska. In 1961, he helped launch the Icefield Ranges Research Project (IRRP), an ambitious multidisciplinary study of the high-mountain environment, and oversaw the creation of a field station at an abandoned airstrip beside Kluane Lake. The new base provided more favourable weather conditions than did the coast and easy access from the Alaska Highway.

Station infrastructure was spartan in those early years, mainly Jamesway huts and canvas tents. KLRS was familyrun, with wives and children staying through the summer and helping with cooking and camp chores. In the mid-1970s, a log building was erected to support year-round research projects. Largely funded by a donation from Wood, it remains one of the station’s few winterized structures. Except for the wash house, a lab and a few sleeping cabins, KLRS looks much as it did 30 years ago.

The centrepiece of the St. Elias Mountains is Mount Logan, which, at 5,959 metres, is Canada’s highest peak. The massif dwarfs more than a dozen 4,500-metre peaks in the range. When the American military took a strategic interest in altitude sickness in the 1960s, a team of medical researchers selected Logan for the High Altitude Physiology Study (HAPS), which ran from 1967 to 1979 and was one of the IRRP’s flagship programs. HAPS was launched to study the effects of hypoxia and other altitude-related ailments, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the handful of ballsy, talented pilots — men like Dick Ragle, Phil Upton and Andy Williams — who landed and took off throughout the icefields in turbocharged, ski-equipped Helio Couriers. These pilots enabled researchers to conduct intensive scientific investigations across a region the size of Switzerland.

Williams, a former Outward Bound instructor and mountaineer from Wales who had worked at research stations in Antarctica and northern Quebec, was hired as KLRS manager in 1973. Within a year, in addition to running daily operations and overseeing field logistics, he was routinely landing at the 5,440-metre HAPS camp on one of Mount Logan’s snowy, sloping plateaus. There was little margin for error, yet Williams successfully completed nearly 200 flights, including 11 trips in 1980 to position the equipment needed to take the first ice core from Mount Logan’s Northwest Col — 103 metres of ice that proved vital for paleoenvironmental studies. “Believe it or not,” says glaciologist Gerry Holdsworth, “we’re still analyzing data from that ice core.”

Remote bases are notoriously difficult to staff, but in Williams, AINA found a triple threat: a manager, a pilot and a consummate host committed to sticking around. “It’s totally unique in the history of northern research stations,” says his boss, AINA executive director Benoit Beauchamp. “Andy can land that plane just about anywhere, but more important, he creates a very family-oriented atmosphere,” which keeps scientists coming back, says Beauchamp, in spite of the infrastructure.

Williams is part of the institutional memory at KLRS. Through decades of observation, he has even earned co-authorships on academic papers. But he’s more comfortable holding court at the airstrip, where tourists sometimes stop by as they drive up the Alaska Highway. A few years ago, actor Ewan McGregor pulled in on his motorcycle. Some women at the base were swooning, but the TV-averse Williams had no idea the man was a celebrity. “Sport,” he said to McGregor, “come and have lunch, but frankly, I don’t have a clue who you are.’”

For a glaciologist determined to tease out the relationship between glaciers and climate change, the Wrangell- St. Elias Mountains are a dynamic study area. According to Gwenn Flowers, who has spent eight seasons working from KLRS since 1995 — first as a UBC grad student and now as an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in Glaciology at Simon Fraser University — it’s one of the world’s fastest-shrinking glaciated mountain complexes and is making a significant contribution to rising sea levels.

After spending the past month camped on a moraine between the Kaskawulsh and Kluane glaciers, about 50 kilometres southwest of KLRS, Flowers and her four-person crew have been back at the base for 48 hours. They’re packing equipment for storage, poring over the contents of dozens of aluminum crates, but when the thwump-thwumpthwump of a helicopter gets louder, they bolt toward the runway to receive another slingload of gear. A large steam drill, a relic from glacier research in the 1980s, hangs in the cargo net. The smoke has thinned, and two days of gusting winds and poor visibility have broken, so Williams’ plane and a helicopter from nearby Haines Junction, Y.T., are busy until evening, when the airstrip is appropriated for a game of ultimate Frisbee.

In the field, the morning commute for Flowers and her colleagues was a 45-minute walk from camp to a glacier for a day of skiing and climbing to various sites on the crevassed ice, all the while hauling sleds and backpacks loaded with safety gear and research tools. Some days, they clocked 10 hours on the ice before they had finished downloading data from a weather station or installing a new GPS receiver.

Conducting glaciology research, says Flowers, is as much about budget, safety, strong backs and mountaineering skills as it is about the science. “It wouldn’t have the same allure,” she says, “if everything were easy.” Flowers spends a “large fraction” of her budget on training for personnel (such as wilderness first aid and crevasse rescue courses) and equipment (bear fences, climbing gear, satellite phones). “You look at your priorities,” she says, “and the science almost always has to come last.”

Her team is trying to better understand the mechanics of diminishing glaciers. Flowers is part of a communicationssavvy generation of researchers who routinely articulate their theses for public consumption, and she describes her research in a way that makes it sound compelling and relevant. Still, terms like parameterization, till viscosity and basal mechanics creep into her speech, and she patiently explains herself for my benefit. In short, Flowers is here to collect data that will help them build more reliable models of climate-driven glacier change.

Among the challenges facing scientists who come to KLRS, the high cost of transportation stands out. Many rely on aircraft while conducting their projects. At $1,300 an hour for a helicopter, Flowers spends up to $2,600 for each round trip to her research camp. Aircraft charter has always been an expensive part of northern research, but with rising fuel, insurance and maintenance costs, the price of a flight has increased nearly 40 percent over the past 10 years. Moreover, while the politicization of climate change has helped mobilize resources, it has also created a quagmire of interests and bureaucracies of which many researchers have grown weary.

But these are challenges, not barriers. And thanks to the diversity of research under way at KLRS, the station has long been a catalyst for the cross-fertilization of ideas and disciplines that might not otherwise occur. At the base, I meet two graduate students, Scott Donker and Michael Sheriff. They came here to do separate projects — Sheriff’s research focuses on snowshoe hares, while Donker is examining population changes over elevation gradients among Arctic ground squirrels — and decided to take on an additional collaborative study on squirrels. Similarly, Hik, Danby, Flowers and others collaborated on an IPY project to bring together ecologists and earth scientists to examine Kluane’s alpine ecosystems.

Before returning to their respective universities, Flowers and Danby also team up for the 45-minute drive to Haines Junction, headquarters of Kluane National Park as well as the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. They’re two of the newest professors at KLRS, and they’re on their way to a meeting with Parks Canada’s new First Nations liaison. “Once, I heard that an elder had said, ‘How nice it is that somebody from the Arctic Institute is here — we hardly ever see them,’” says Danby. “We’re trying to change that slowly. It’s not a knock against past KLRS users; it’s just a change in the way things are done.”

Snowshoe hare research brought David Hik to KLRS in 1988, but he was quickly lured beyond the area’s boreal valleys. Intrigued by stories about collared pikas in the icefields, Hik went into the St. Elias Mountains to investigate pikas that survive on nunataks, islands of rock that rise from the sea of glaciers. He found that the normally herbivorous rabbit relative was supplementing its diet by eating dead birds.

A Canada Research Chair in Northern Ecology at the University of Alberta and executive director of the Canadian IPY Secretariat, Hik has helped shape the objectives of Canada’s IPY program. His IPY position has meant years of travel and politicking, so right now, he’s just happy to be at Pika Camp, his 15-year-old seasonal field station in the Ruby Range.

With their gentle profile and worn appearance, the Rubies are a stark contrast to the rugged, more seismically active St. Elias range. Getting to Pika Camp, a cluster of 10 dome tents and three Weatherhaven shelters surrounded by an electric bear fence, entails a bumpy one-hour drive from KLRS, followed by a four-hour hike. From late spring until early fall, graduate students and field assistants spread out across these meadows to study pikas, marmots, ground squirrels, vegetation and other aspects of alpine ecology. It’s not glamorous work. Eschewing bathing, fending off mosquitoes and doing a long list of camp chores are part of the daily grind, but when you spend most of your work life at a computer or a lectern, these light-infused months fuel the rest of your year.

Much of Hik’s early research had focused on the ecology of grazing animals, so the industrious pika, which stores hay to eat through the winter, was an appealing subject. In their first few years in the Ruby Range, Hik and his team believed that pika populations were fairly stable, but then some unusually warm winters saw their numbers collapse. Vulnerable to heat and limited in its mobility, the pika has become a tiny harbinger of global warming. “I didn’t come here specifically to study climate change,” says Hik. “But once we realized how responsive the plants and animals were to these warm winters, it gave us a whole different reason to continue our work for the long term.”

Just as scientists seek insights that can be gleaned only over time, Andy Williams is all about the long term. When he arrived at KLRS in 1973 in a VW van, with his young wife and baby, the wayfaring mountaineer wasn’t thinking about building a legacy. But he raised his family here, and now, at 67, he has begun gradually passing the torch to his daughter Sian and her husband Lance Goodwin.

The place they’re inheriting will be getting a long overdue facelift in time for its 50th anniversary in 2011. Nobody, however, is worried that the magic will be lost when new buildings go up. The consensus is that it’s the people who make the place. “It’s an attachment,” says Hik, “that goes beyond the science itself.”

Although it’s barely mid-August, migrating red-necked phalaropes are starting to congregate along the lakeshore; the small shorebirds breed in the Arctic and are on their way to the tropics. The station’s eye-popping view is back, along with bracing winds that spill down the Kaskawulsh Glacier to Kluane Lake. The base is quieter now; many students have returned home already. A minivan with Alberta plates pulls up and a couple of departing researchers dash in and out of buildings to say, “See you next year.” In the mess hall, a few students are gathered around a laptop, one of the Virginias chops potatoes and someone strums a guitar. The door swings open, and a young botanist pops in, pressing poems about her summer into Williams’ hand as they clap each other on the back. Another Kluane summer is coming to an end.

If you renovate it, they will come

After decades of band-aid improvements, Kluane Lake Research Station is getting a $3.4 million make-over. KLRS is one of 20 research projects spread across 37 sites benefiting from an $85 million investment by the federal government to upgrade Canada’s northern-research infrastructure. “This grant dwarfs anything obtained in the past,” says Benoit Beauchamp, executive director of the Arctic Institute of North America, which operates KLRS. “In the past, we’d have been excited about $10,000.”

Beauchamp’s plans for the coming year include a new kitchen/cafeteria, bunkhouse, warehouse, powerhouse and showers. All new buildings will be winterized, and some existing structures will be renovated. A sizable part of the budget will be dedicated to systems upgrades: wiring, septic, a new well, some solar panels. Scientists have also told Beauchamp that better internet connectivity is a top priority.

Although $3.4 million is a lot of money, it doesn’t stretch far in a region with high transportation and construction costs. Nevertheless, the investment will totally transform what Beauchamp already considers one of Canada’s top three northern science camps, along with bases in Churchill, Man., and Resolute, Nunavut. Nearly $49 million of the $85 million Arctic Research Infrastructure Fund will build new facilities at eight research centres in Churchill, Resolute, Iqaluit and Quebec’s Nunavik region. The remaining $36 million will be divided among a dozen other projects from Labrador to the Yukon.

Scientists welcome this investment in infrastructure, but as the curtain comes down on International Polar Year, there are lingering questions about the sustainability of research in Canada’s North. “On the one hand, it’s fantastic,” says Simon Fraser University’s Gwenn Flowers, before adding what many researchers think but few will say publicly. “Scientists fear that all the money is going into infrastructure, while there’s less money being put into operating grants to actually do the research, so it’s maybe a bit bittersweet.”

For now, Beauchamp is focused on making sure the renovated KLRS is ready for the station’s 50th anniversary in 2011. “What a fabulous transition for a new crop of scientists to start their careers in a brand-new place,” he says, “but also a place where they’re sitting on the shoulders of giants.” T.E.

More on International Polar Year

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