Icefields of Dreams

By Teresa Earle with photography by Fritz Mueller

For five decades, scientists have flocked to a research camp in the Yukon to study the surrounding mountains and glaciers. The food and showers are hot, the camaraderie is contagious and the possibilities for discovery are endless.

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.

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. More... [opens PDF]

Read the rest of this 14-page feature article, and view a photo essay on the community vibe at the research station, in the January/February 2010 issue of Canadian Geographic.