Did you know the stars in the sky are really balls of flaming gas powered by nuclear fission?
And the color of a star – yes, they come in three colors – depends on how hot it’s surface is? The white are the hottest, followed by blue and then red stars.
If you’re like me, maybe these facts are buried deep in the recesses of grade school days but that’s where they remained for me; deep and buried, that is, until now. Standing outside of Qikiqtarjuaq’s Inn’s North with a few of the women from our team, I looked up at the night sky. Suddenly, it felt more important to me than anything else in the world. I imagined centuries of Inuit standing or living where I stood. What destiny had the stars held for them?
Northern Lights over our campsite. Photo credit: Shilo Adamson and True Patriot Love
Thanks to Major Kimberly Horan, I had someone to share the science of the stars and the sky. Kim serves in our Canadian Air Forces and is one of six military officers on our Baffin team. She is an engineer and a rocket scientist. Talk about luck – having access to Kim’s kick-ass knowledge of the night sky was like standing next to a human dictionary or a Jeopardy contestant.
We stood talking as if time stood still while Kim pointed to various constellations and explained the formation of stars. Stars come from cold, spinning clumps of gas and dust that gather and then collapse under the weight of their own gravity. The force of this contraction compresses the atoms in the gas until they heat up and fusion reactions begin. That’s how a star is born. And the brighter the star, the greater the heat.
I knew that tomorrow we would be at the mercy of these stars – the elements and possibly the wildlife in Auyuittuq National Park. But tonight, all we could do was ponder our place among them. And that started months ago, when our group practiced sleeping outside in the cold and learning how to stay warm. We had lessons in sock layering to keep our feet dry and equipment must-haves to survive.
Photo: Kim Horan on the Day 1 of our trek in the Pass before the weather turned ugly.
The build up to the trip was all-consuming. I read as much as I could about Nunavut and the Arctic and wanted to know about the culture of its people – what they ate, how they made a living and what their future looked like.
At the airport in Ottawa, where our flight itinerary started, I found a special edition Time Magazine devoted to explaining the night sky, weather and the stars and planets in our solar system.
I know now that all of this work couldn’t fully prepare me for the conditions we would face, although it did give me a larger sense of my place in history and the universe. All this talk of the sky was odd really, when you consider how many of us actually look up at the sky. On this night, I did notice that the sky was brighter than I remembered.
I could see the stars pulsing in their place. They were clear and, according to Kim, much easier to see without all of the light pollution that destroys sky visibility, interrupts our circadian rhythms and causes sleep disorders. Up north, I was surrounded by the cold and remote beauty of the Arctic free from waste, negative health effects and disruptions to ecosystems.
Instead, in the silence of this night, a colorful current of billowing air began to move across the vast sky, growing in size with hints of purple and green beginning to appear. I started to breathe faster until I realized the light show was disappearing as quickly as it had started.
I would have to wait for another time for the sky and the stars to reveal the Northern Lights. Kim insisted we’d have plenty of opportunities and Kim continued to share her science of the skies until we were cold enough to head inside.
By this time tomorrow (Thursday) night, our komatik sleigh ride into the Park would be almost over with the unbearable ride made easier by the comfort and distraction of science. The one polar bear spotting would happen during the day as the second half of our group waited went first while the other half of our team, including me, waited for the second shift.
Friday morning brought Day 1 of the trek. The forecast: clear skies. The mood was upbeat in our camp as we woke to sunshine.
It took three hours to wake, boil water for coffee and breakfast, and pack up our tents before we set out moving south along the Pass in our snowshoes.
Conditions deteriorated quickly on the first day. Photo credit: Shilo Adamson and True Patriot Love
Two hours into the hike, our clear skies and no wind turned ugly. We persevered for another three hours in almost no visibility, with our guide Scott nearly walking off a steep snowbank. Moral shrunk and giggling stopped as we now moved in single file and alone. One foot in front of the other. How I longed for a fraction of the heat from the stars as we dragged our heavy sleds in the wicked wind and unrelenting snow.