ABOARD THE CCGS AMUNDSEN – After two weeks I’ve finally figured out what I’m doing here on the icebreaker: I’m “embedded” much like a war correspondent with troops in Afghanistan.
My troops are the 40 Coast Guard crew and 41 scientific personnel on board. Like a war correspondent, I depend on them for my safety, shelter, food and – most importantly – my stories.
The parallels are eerie. I’m not supposed to leave the ship (equivalent of a military base) without clearance. Out on the ice, I’m always accompanied by someone with a gun (for polar bears.) Travel is on their snowmobiles or heavy duty snow cat (in Afghanistan it’s light-armoured vehicles).
|Researchers Ralf Staebler and Klaus Hochheim launch a weather balloon from the helicopter platform at the stern of the icebreaker Amundsen. The balloon ascended to 20 kilometres, radioing back readings on wind direction and speed, temperature and humidity.|
They look out for me in other ways too. When I was stumbling around on the deck with frosted-over spectacles the other day, Myriam Paquet-Gauthier, a “matelot” or seaman, gently guided me to the entryway. I try to do my bit by checking other faces for hints of frostbite and lending a hand with simple tasks (although just staying out of the way is my biggest contribution.)
Inevitably, the normal cautious separation between disinterested reporter and subject disappears, much like it does in war zones.
We’ve chorused Happy Birthday to our shipmates and together scoured corners for the miniature chocolate eggs secreted by some unknown Easter Bunny.
It would be impossible – no, downright inhuman – to remain disinterested when someone with whom you’ve shared a life-altering exposure to the Arctic is obviously feeling joy or pain.
So I’m rooting – and not that quietly -- that Maike Kramer from the University of Kiel manages to incubate the thousand-plus rotifers she needs from that chest of sea ice. Or that a balky laser doesn’t create any more woes for Jeff Seabrook from York University. And I’m crossing my fingers in the hope that a crucial missing instrument component turns up for someone who will remain anonymous.
I realized my embedded position just a couple of evenings ago when, after several hours of minor tribulations, two researchers finally managed to release the first weather balloon on this leg of the Amundsen’s expedition.
As the white sphere rose rapidly from the helicopter deck, someone was imploring “Go, go, go.”
It was me.