Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal 24 July 2003: Homeward Bound – In Slow Motion

By SpaceRef Editor
October 13, 2003
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NASA HMP-2003/SpaceRef

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My room at the Co-op. This photo was taken around midnight. Note the heavy curtains and the amount of light that still gets through.
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Polar bear hide hanging on someone’s house across the street from the Co-op.
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The entire ground servicing fleet attending to our plane at Nanisivick – including the air terminal. Note the haze – which kept flights away for several days.

We have been cooling our heels in Resolute for three days now. I am clean, have eaten 9 real meals and more or less adjusted to civilization – even if I am at the very fringe of it. Alas, I yearn to depart the fringe and head for the heart of civilization.

Due to the weather, flights (what few of them there are) are backed up with people who couldn’t get to their destinations several days ago. As such, you pretty much sit around here and wait for a call to tell you that you have a seat. This call can come at any moment. As such, you more or less to be packed and ready to go on short notice.

When we arrived at the Resolute airport today we did not know if we would be on the plane or heading back to the Co-op to watch another Star Trek episode. Bad weather a few days before had prevented some people from flying into Nanisivik – a mining community on Elsmere island. This caused flights in the area to get overbooked. A misunderstanding with the airline had left several of us suddenly without seats. Whether we’d get on would depend on many seats were available after the folks trying to get to Nanisivik were taken care of. When we arrived the airline representative said that we were all going to be on the flight. Relief. Again, such is air travel in the arctic: be flexible.

At last! I called my wife to let her know that I was on my way and then asked her to reverse my hotel accommodations back to their original date. I had swapped them the night before when I thought I’d be delayed. Hopefully, I’d have a room in Ottawa. With the delayed departure and lord knows what else lay in our path as we headed south – we were going to be getting into Ottawa at around 1:30 AM – three hours late. Luckily my flight the next day did not leave until early afternoon.

After several days of cloudy depressing weather in Resolute our jet punched through the weather and it was blue skies and white fluffy clouds. A welcome pleasure for someone who had become quite accustomed to lots of light all the time.

The flight down was uneventful. We stopped at Nanisivik on the way. On board were several dozen people who had been trying to make it in for several days. We made a rather unusual approach. We descended as one would to approach a runway – but then flew at that altitude (less than 300 meters I am certain) for a rather prolonged period of time. Indeed, this part of the flight was more like a Twin Otter flight than it was in a full fledged jet liner – and at twice the speed.

We hit the runway with quite a bit of a bump. Cheers and applause arose in the cabin. After refueling, unloading, and loading passengers and cargo, we were off again. The day was somewhat overcast if you were near the ground – and had been for several days. As we took off and climbed upwards we burst once again though the thick low cloud deck into the sunny realm of jet aircraft.

We landed in Iqualuit and had to deplane. It is here that civilization – as measured by tight security screening of all passengers and carry on luggage – begins. As I walked on the tarmac away from the plane I noticed that I had lost sight of the sun for the first time since July 1st. Not by much since it was just under the northwestern horizon and would pop up again in a few hours.

The local kids (population 13,000) take full advantage of the summer sun. While I am prone to wear less clothing in cool weather than some folks, these kids reveled in it. Everyone here wore shorts, surfer-theme t-shirts, sandals – and yet there was snow on the nearby hills. Summer is so brief here that they make the most of every moment it would seem.

Soon enough we were back on the jet and heading south – this time to Ottawa. After a half hour or so, the sky was noticeably darker than I had seen in 3 weeks. Soon, it was night. Only after an hour and a half of flying south did I see something I had not seen since June: stars. More accurately, a single star. For the remainder of my flight I would see only one star – curious since the sky was devoid of clouds for the most part. I don’t know which star it was – how near or how close – how old or how young. But photons released from its nuclear furnace were welcoming me back to the abode of night – and a ring side seat to the rest of the cosmos.

We made it into Ottawa as had been predicted – at 1:30 am. Swift luggage claim service (thanks Ottawa!) and I was in a cab to my hotel. As we sped down the road I saw a waxing moon – orange and yellow and glowing. The last time I had seen the moon it was almost at the horizon (where it stayed) in broad daylight. You’d only notice it if you happened to be looking that way.

By 2:15 AM I was collapsing in my bed. I awoke to pictures of the dead Hussein brothers on CNN. There was no doubt that I was back in “civilization”, so to speak.

At one point I opened the blinds to my room and looked out. Green. Everywhere. How odd. As we sped back to the airport (fast cab drivers here) I continued to stare at the lush expanse of life before me. On Devon Island there was green, but it was usually in very small clumps- and often associated with the spot where something had died and left a bonanza of nitrogen in the soil so as to spawn a micro oasis.

Here life just grows wherever it wants to. Its ubiquity makes it mundane. On Devon, its scarcity makes it precious.


My flight home was mercifully short. Soon enough my luggage emerged from the carousel and my wife and I dragged it to the car. As I did last year, I inhaled greenery on the drive home. My yard is lush – ever more so this year because of all the rain.

My time perception while on Devon Island was rather strange. Having been there for a slightly longer period the previous year, I knew what to expect – good and bad. There were times when I thought the whole thing was going fast. Other times, far too slow. It was as if I was experiencing time dilation and compression simultaneously. Being sick for a week didn’t help.

Since I was constantly moving from one place to another – many times with little or no notice, I went into what my wife calls “travel mode”. Except this time it lasted for 3 weeks. Just as I got used to something, often rather stunning, I had to move on to something else. As such I learned to be at home within my own little zone wherever I was. Sometimes earplugs helped. Other times music from my iPod, Most times, I just did this wherever I happened to be.

The tent I stayed in could go from warm and quite to cold and noisy in minutes. Within a meter of me was a satellite phone, two radios, someone using an Internet telephone set up and a half a dozen people typing away. All the while a large huskie kept crawling on my feet so as to sleep on some of my luggage parked under my plywood desk.

I now returned to my quiet suburban home, my wife, and two cats. Last year I did not know how to relax and readapt after my arctic adventure – I had to relearn how to. This year I did not have to remember how to start to readapt. I simply did. Alas, traveling to “Mars On Earth” – Devon Island – has become routine.


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