Okay, say you were a group of international scientists, doing research on the Arctic, and coming off the International Polar Year, and you were going to hold a major conference to discuss your the findings over a broad area of Arctic issues. Things like the Environment, and Climate Change, with a stated goal of reviewing our understanding of the arctic system in a
time of rapid environmental change. Say your organizing committee was from across the circumpolar world. Places like Canada, the US, Russia, Finland, Sweden, France and China (France and China?) Where would you hold your conference?
Say the conference would "provide an open international forum
for discussion of future research directions aimed toward a better
understanding of the arctic system and its trajectory. Topics will range
from basic understanding of the Arctic and system-wide change to
developing response strategies to adapt and mitigate change. The
conference also will provide an opportunity for resource management and
service agencies to link the most recent science findings to their
objectives and priorities. All of the sessions have been designed to
include human dimensions and social science research to ensure a
balanced portfolio in conference talks and discussions." Where would you hold your conference?
If you answered Miami Florida, then you're right in step with the people organizing the State of The Arctic Conference this coming March. Yes, thatMiami Florida. Southern tip of the continental US. About forty degrees south of the Arctic Circle, and about 90 degrees (F) warmer than my little corner of the Arctic at this very minute. Miami is about 3,300 kms (2000 miles) from the closest bit of the Arctic by any definition. (image by Wadester16, by Creative Commons licence) I have to say that after my initial knee jerk, I'm not quite sure what to think about this. The reason they give for holding the conference in Miami, is that it is centrally located and offers cheaper airfares. The centrally located part makes (supposedly) a smaller carbon footprint, and who doesn't want to save money. Money that can be better spent on research I suppose. It is a good thing, that the Arctic, and the environmental challenges it face, are being discussed, being researched.
But it smacks of "lets have a warm get away". There are other centrally located airports, relatively cheap to get to, and most of them a lot closer to the Arctic than Miami freaking Florida. For that matter there are ways of getting together that don't involve flight, if the carbon footprint is of central importance.
I get that a conference like this would cost a lot more if it was held in Arctic Bay, or Iqaluit, or hell Yellowknife. But this is a world wide conference, Helsinki is a lot closer to the Arctic, or Chicago, or Anchorage. Or Edmonton. But Miami?
All this smacks of is one of the central complaints that people who live in the Arctic have when it comes to policy and research and other such matters. That for the most part, it is run by people who have a huge, huge, disconnect with the Arctic itself.
I had another post in mind for today, and I might get at it later, after I run my head around what I want to say exactly. But, in the mean time, do yourself a favour and have a listen to my friend's, (Karen MacKenzie, of Port Town Ghosts fame) music.
She just released a CD Wind Don't Blow. Doesn't look like its on iTunes yet, so I'll be buying my first CD in years. Listen here, buy here.
Okay, this will be my only Olympic post, so I'll make this quick. Perhaps.
Everyone has an opinion on what should or should not be an Olympic sport. And I'll have to admit that occasionally I run it through my mind. I should, by way of disclosure, point out that I don't care deeply about the Olympics. They've been on TV at our house a fair bit, but for the most part it wouldn't bother me if it took more than four years for them to roll around. Much ado about a little.
I can see his point, but I don't agree. Judging to some degree is a part of all the events. It is certainly more overt in something like Ice Dance, and there are problems. But bad officiating can be a problem in something like Hockey as well, and affect the outcome. The point isn't that judged events shouldn't be allowed, but that the judging should be as fair as possible.
No for me the criteria should be athleticism. Olympic athletes should not be mere mortals. They should be the best athletes out there. Sometimes that might take a judge to decide. And yes, sometimes they might fail in their decision. Its a human activity, we have a lot of flaws.
I can't say that I would miss figure skating if it ceased to exist, I probably wouldn't notice. But watching them on TV I can't help but be amazed at their skill, and yes their athleticism. I'm not sure if everyone could do Skeleton, probably not, but I'm also not sure if they transcend that "mere mortal" criteria. I actually like my friend Dave's suggestion on Facebook, that the finish line should be back by the start line, and after that run down the hill, they'd have to haul themselves and the sled back up the hill.
To that end, as much as I love the sport, and played the sport, I don't think curling should be an Olympic Sport. My dad was a darn fine skip in his day, but I couldn't think of him as an Olympian. And yes the curlers there are good, damn better than me, but they aren't athletes, not in the true sense of the word. I know there is a special place in Townie's heart for the sport of curling, but it is what it is. There are darn fine dart players out there, whose level of skill I'd never reach, but I don't think they should be in the Olympics either. It might be a sport, but its not athletic.
Bottom line, the Olympics are entertainment on a big scale. I scoffed when I heard Snowboarding was going to be in the Olympics. But I can't deny that Snowcross, or what ever its properly called, is damn entertaining. Should it be there? I'd need to take a lot more convincing, and probably not. There should be less sports, not more. That's not going to happen.
This post is dedicated to the memory of John Babcock, the last remaining Canadian soldier of the Great War, who passed away this past week at the age of 109. Babcock joined up as an underage youth, and although he never made it to France, and the horrific battles, he was our last living connection with that part of our history. The last of those voices to fall silent.
"Then in January 1917 we moved up to the Bully Grenay front with snow and frost and the misery of open trenches wet, cold and very dangerous. We used old pails which we called braziers to burn bits of coal in. The coal we got from the slag-heaps at night. One of these slag heaps was on fire and was known as the Burning Bing. Here Jack Bruce and I were together on post and had quite a few experiences with Minnie-werfers, huge trench-mortars, spies, and casualties in our draft". - Alvin Kines
Much of the War Diaries of the 16th Canadian Scottish describe their time around Bully Grenay as "quiet". Quiet, I suppose, would be in the eye of the beholder. For although they weren't involved in any major actions during that time, it was a very dangerous place. Many of my grandfather's stories of the Great War originate from this time and place.
The Battalion had arrived there less than two months after he had joined it in France, and they were initially there on this front for only about a month and a half, with three tours at the trenches during that time, nineteen days at all. There would be more than a life time of experiences crammed into those quiet nineteen days. Seven men from the regiment would lose their lives in that quiet, a further fifteen would be wounded.
My grandfather's stories from this place ran the gamut from being buried in a funk hole (a pocket in the wall of a trench where men rested and took shelter) by an exploding trench mortar shell, to missing a spy passing through their trench who was caught by the neighbouring battalion and eventually executed in a nearby town.
But perhaps my favourite story involves the visit of the Brigadier General of Grandpa's Brigade, Brig-Gen. Tuxford. In Grandpa's words:
While in the “Burning Bing” area or at least up in front of Bully Grenay, Jack Bruce and I were on duty in the front line together. The corporal was fixing up a periscope out of a piece of mirror when the Brigadier General Tuxford came along. He asked us what the corporal was doing; the corporal was deaf from shell shock. When we told him, Tuxford said, “How do you keep watch”, we said we just looked over the top; which we did at night but not in the daylight as the snipers used to break our periscopes in daytime. Tuxford got up on the firing step and looked over. “My what a fine view you have here,” he said. Jack and I waited to catch his head when it was shot off, but no one apparently saw him.
Thanks to the wealth of information available online these days I can even figure out the exact day this story took place. Although the War Diaries of the 16th do not provide any detail of Tuxford's visit, the Battalion was only at the Front Line three times at Burning Bing. A search of the 3rd Brigade's War Diary reveals that Tuxford took a tour of the front line, visiting the 16th Battalion on the 19th of February 1917, along with the Acting General Officer Commanding of the I Corps of the British Army, Major General Sir John Capper (who would eventually be instrumental in the development of Tank tactics). Tuxford served with distinction throughout the Great War, including playing a major roll during the first gas attack by the Germans at 2nd Ypres, a battle that forever changed the face of war, introducing the terrible concept of Total War.
Much of my idea of what trench warfare looks like comes from the iconic photos of places like Passchendaele, churned fields of mud, water filled shell holes, and nothing much else. No buildings are left standing in that image in my mind. But the reality, like most things, was more complex than that. Certainly in the early years of the war, the landscape even around Ypres was much different. And the trench system did run through towns and cities. We may think of urban warfare in terms of some of the battles of the Second World War, but it existed in the Great War as well. Much of the final days of the war played out in Urban areas.
I recently received a book The Battlefields of the First World War by Peter Barton. The book mostly showcases a number of panorama photos of the Great War, taken by Royal Engineers over the course of the war. It is much more than a picture book however, with an excellent text, quotes from soldiers (mostly Engineers), photos and diagrams of the landscape and abutments of war. It quite simply changed the image of the war that predominated my mind.
At the time I received it I had been forming the idea for a post about Grandpa's time around Burning Bing. So as I flipped through the book, I turned to the section that had photos of the area around Lens, the area where Burning Bing could be found. Not only was there a photo, but it was taken from directly behind Burning Bing towards the German Lines.
Only I couldn't find the photo in the book, and I was mystified. The map of photos clearly showed it, and the area it covered. It was then I realized that not all the images are in the book, but some are only included on the accompanying DVD. And there it was, but it was not a shell torn field before me, but the damaged landscape of a city. Houses, once homes, formed the backdrop to the German front lines, their communication and other trenches snaked through them.
First of all, this is a detail of a trench map from near the time my Grandfather was there (courtesy the McMaster Trench Map Collection). The blue lines, are the Allied trenches, the red German. Also shown on here is a tunnel that extends far behind the German front lines. Burning Bing is pretty much dead centre in the map, with a little sap (or dead end trench that extends out from the line) leading out to it. The city behind the British lines is Cité Callone, facing them is the city of Lievin. The panorama photo was taken from directly behind Burning Bing, towards those rows of houses on the map. As you can see from this, the trench system was a veritable rabbit's warren. Small wonder that soldiers needed guides to get in and out of the front line, especially when you think that looking over the top of the trench to get your bearings often resulted in a sniper's bullet to the head.
Next is an overlap (courtesy of my friend Tighe McManus, a historian and fellow member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group) of a similar trench map, overlaid on the present day Google Earth image. The area of No Man's Land that extends beyond the camera's lens, to the opposite trenches in the Panorama is now a city park.
And finally the panorama (or rather part of it), looking out over Burning Bing. It isn't very high resolution, the viewer on the DVD leaves alot to be desired, only opening the images in a small window and not offering much resolution. But this gives you a general idea.
This is a rather poor composite image of parts of the panorama that I gleaned off the DVD to try and get a better resolved picture. I'm not sure if the dark area on the right is smoke from Burning Bing or just blemishes on the photo. Perhaps it is the larger pile of rubble to the centre right.
One thing you can see, is just how close these two lines are to each other, a distance of only a couple of hundred metres. In other parts of the line the distance could be much, much closer. The Canadian barbed wire can be seen running about midway in the photo. The German trench, though not really visible, would be between there and the houses, closer to the houses.
And although its not really visible, rest assured that the location of both trenches was well known to the combatants. But for me the really startling thing about this photo is the houses. Battered and mere shells to be sure, but standing. A far cry from the flattened landscape of my imagination. "What a fine view" indeed.
I hadn't planned much for Sunday's count of the Great Backyard Bird Count, apart from a trip out to the St George Society Cliffs to have a look for any Gyrfalcons that might still be about. Then I got a call from a good friend of mine. Seven Snowbuntings had been seen at Ullisautitalik, also known as Rabbit Valley, and would I be interested in going for a look. Would I?
Being as it was Valentine's Day, and being as I am an unabashed, incurable romantic, I left Leah with the kids and a promise that I'd return soon (after carefully checking in there was gas in her snowmobile, and asking if I could use it). I met Niore on the ice, and we took off to Ullisautitalik, making a beeline there.
As we turned down Adam's Sound passed Holy Cross Point it struck me that in the 10 (going on 11) years that I've been here, I had never gone this way down Adam's Sound. Not once. I had always turned west towards the cliffs or on out to Admiralty Inlet. Ullisautitalik is on the opposite side of the sound from Arctic Bay, and I marvelled at how smooth the ice was this year. It was nice to be on the wide open road.
I knew that it was unlikely that the birds that were seen on Saturday were Snow Buntings. Although Snow Buntings arrive early (beginning of May) and leave late, they do not winter here. There was, however, a pretty good chance that they were another small passerine, redpolls. Redpolls supposedly winter in the High Arctic, and there were hints that it was a good year for them. Reports filtered in in mid dark season of "Snow Buntings" seen around town, and I had seen the first Hoary Redpolls of my time here, this fall at Uluksan. We had, unfortunately, no information on where exactly the birds had been seen, and this is big country. So we were faced with, essentially, two choices when we arrived. We could either go up into the hills, or follow the river canyon. We chose to go up into the hills.
I've said this before, but this is a startlingly beautiful country. Adam's Sound offered stunning vistas, cliffs and jagged mountains. And as we climbed we could look back at Arctic Bay and the St George Society Cliffs in the distance (The entrance to Rabbit Valley is about 16 kilometres from town, we would cover over 50 kilometres during the trip).
We climbed to a rocky section near the first ridge top (probably about 300 metres above sea level) and left the snowmobiles to walk to a small "inuksuk" , look at the Sundog low on the horizon (photos did not turn out, I've really got to pay more attention to the camera these days), and take some photos.
But there was very little sign of any animal life up here, only a lone set of Arctic Hare tracks, so we back tracked and headed down to the mouth of the canyon. Immediately our prospects improved and we began seeing the signs of the winter life in this land. Here, a lemming scrambled down the wall of the canyon, there an Arctic Fox left scat on the top of an ice mound. Another predator, the weasel, had prowled along the edge earlier, a hare used the river as a highway. We drove farther up the canyon, at times by towering walls, dripping with huge icicles. Our way, a smooth ride on the river ice, reminded me again, that I live in a place that leaves me breathless. A place that exists only in most people imaginations, but it is in my backyard.
Niore stopped to examine some tracks, which turned out to be fresh Ptarmigan tracks. We climbed a little way up the side to have a closer look. As I looked down the canyon from the direction we had just come, four Rock Ptarmigan flew around the corner, straight at me, passing a little ways away. I followed them as far as I could, and when they went out of sight, but didn't appear to continue down the canyon, we walked to have a closer look.
High up on the wall, two of them could be seen feeding. Niore went farther up river, and began climbing the side for a better photo, while I snapped the first of almost a hundred photos of them, from below. Part way up he began calling insistently and I left the two birds above me , and started up in his tracks.
I had a very difficult time finding purchase on the hard packed snow of the steep slope, and my boots were far slippier than they appear. It took awhile for me to make my way to the meadow above where Niore was waiting. He was waiting with the news that he had heard the redpolls calling, and pointed out small bird tracks on the tops of snow covered boulders.
The two birds that I had been photographing had moved off, by the time I had made it up, and we moved down the meadow towards scree slopes in the general direction that the bird calls seemed to becoming from, and where ptarmigan could also be heard churring.
About a dozen metres on, I stepped in a hole in the surface, neatly hidden by snow. It was a hole big enough to swallow my entire left leg, straight down. As I sat on the ground, one leg splayed to the side, the other out of sight, and my butt on the ground, I marveled both at my sheer bad luck to find a hole just large enough for my leg to drop into, and my sheer good luck that it was straight down and that I was not injured in the least. It would have been a long way back with a broken leg.
A little farther down we found the flock of Rock Ptarmigan that now numbered twelve birds. They were alert, but mostly unconcerned with our presence, just making sure that they kept their distance from us. We ended up on either side of them, and they made their way quite close to me, feeding all the way.
After they flew off, we split up and continued our search for whatever small passerines these were. Both of us heard the birds call, sparingly, but were unable to either pinpoint where the sound was coming from or find the birds themselves.
The day getting late, and the sun sinking farther, we decided to give up and head for home, making a quick stop at the Gyrfalcon aerie to see if the falcon was around (it wasn't). On the way there we passed by a father and son travelling by dog team down Adam's Sound (probably the only team in the GBBC to experience that). Passing by the dog teams on the ice I grabbed a quick count of 63 Ravens, and headed in to see my wife, who promptly informed me that I had forgotten we were suppose to take part in an air rifle competition with the RCMP team in the annual Cadet open competition.