Sunday, December 31, 2017

In Residence: Report From the Yukon

By Leslie Sobel

The ridgeline view from camp in Kluane National Park
All photos by Leslie Sobel

This past May I climbed into a tiny two-seater plane and flew up to a glacier in the Canadian Yukon where I tent-camped with four climate scientists for more than a week. We were at an altitude of 10,000 feet, where temperatures dropped as low as minus 30 degrees. I’ve been a backpacker and wilderness hiker for decades, but this was the most remote, physically challenging trip I have ever taken. My residency in Kluane National Park was the culmination of multiple years’ work focused on making art about climate change. It took me into a setting I could not have gotten to on my own and was a tremendous adventure.

The two-seater lands on the ice

Why a Glacier?

I'm the daughter of two scientists, and looking at the world from a perspective invoking both science and art is an intrinsic part of my life. I’ve been deeply focused on climate and water in my work, with a particular obsession with Antarctica and other high latitudes. Going to Kluane came about as a result of that obsession.

I was working on a grant proposal for the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers in Antarctica program. I wanted to go to the Ross Ice Shelf and work with scientists studying its melt. Figuring out who was doing that kind of work and if they would be open to working with me took a mix of research and just putting myself out there contacting strangers and asking for their help. The Program Manager for the NSF program gave me names of scientists working in my area of interest and I started emailing and following leads. Eventually I connected with Seth Campbell, a glaciologist who works on the Ross Ice Shelf. Seth was enthusiastic about my interest and wrote me a great letter of support to join him in Antarctica. NSF did not fund my proposal, but Seth said he also did climate work in the Yukon and would I like to join him on the Eclipse Icefield in Kluane National Park? Yes!

Getting There

Kluane is remote. It took me over 12 hours of flying to get to Whitehorse, the largest city in the Canadian Yukon, where I connected with the scientists. We spent a couple of days in Whitehorse shopping for groceries and picking up more gear. Then we drove 60 miles to Kluane Lake Research Station, run by the Arctic Institute of North America. The research station sits on the edge of Kluane National Park. After a couple of days checking gear and re-packing, we were flown, one or two at a time, 100 miles into the Yukon’s high country where we camped on the Eclipse Icefield for eight days.

I arrived last with the bulk of the science gear. The two senior scientists went first with their camping gear, then two grad students with their camping gear. For this kind of geography, survival gear always goes ahead of science gear, because it’s common to have transport unable to continue if bad weather comes up. My flight was more complicated because it had to fit all the big boxes of science stuff and me—and then the wind blew the door off the plane! The mechanic had spare parts of everything so he just replaced the snapped hinge and we were on our way, only two hours behind schedule.

Getting out onto the icefield took my breath away—the stunning setting combined with the thin air and the feeling of amazement that I was actually there. I didn't have much time to gawk, though. We quickly unloaded so that the pilot could fly out. Then Seth helped me set up my four-season tent on the glacier. We used two- foot pieces of bamboo for more holding power rather than metal stakes, and right-angled climbing pickets at the corners. Every possible tie-down is used so that the tent is as secured as possible in case of high wind. We were in a more sheltered location than some. The Eclipse is surrounded by moderate peaks with much bigger ones nearby including Mt. Logan, the tallest peak in Canada.

Flying in above the immense Kaskawulsh Glacier 

Living on the Ice

To sleep on an icefield and not freeze to death I had two nested sleeping bags resting on a liner on top of two closed-cell pads placed on a Thermarest inflatable mattress. I slept in two layers of wool long johns with a hot water bottle. I snuggled with all my batteries for two cameras and a tube of sunblock to keep them from freezing overnight. Some additional clothing got stuffed in as well so it would not be frozen when it was time to get up and dressed. Omitting a layer of long johns or the hot water bottle was the recipe for a chilly, miserable night.

My tent and view

We were on the glacier for eight days, one longer than planned because half the time bad weather made it impossible for us to work. The scientists worked gruelingly long hours when the weather cooperated—digging pits to collect snow samples, towing heavy radar arrays on sleds with skis to collect accumulation data, drilling ice cores, fighting with recalcitrant equipment and, of course, logging data. When we were stuck because of weather we read, talked, cooked, journaled or slept, so it was an odd mix of working full out or having lots of downtime.

I did a lot of photography when I could shoot and a lot of writing when I couldn’t. It was too cold to draw, but I spent a lot of time thinking about the climate-related work I will produce. I made plans for larger-scale works than I have generally done; the scale of the subject calls for it. I am planning installation pieces as well. I will use some of the radar data Seth and his students collected as well. The icefields in Kluane are shrinking due to climate change but will not completely disappear because the mountains are coastal and trap moisture from the Pacific Ocean. The icefield is about seven degrees warmer than it was in 2002, an enormous change in a short period of time. 

This was a physically challenging trip. I was back-country skiing and camping almost two miles up, keeping pace with some scientists who were 30 years my junior. As a hiker and backpacker I was already in decent shape with a pretty serious fitness routine, but I spent about six months going to the gym five times a week and hiking on non-gym days. It was good preparation, but the extremely thin air made physical activity difficult, and there's no good way to prepare for that.

Some of the reality of camping in those temperatures: No heat. We hung out together in the kitchen tent where the warmth of a propane stove helped a bit. All our water was snowmelt so we had a big pot of snow melting all the time and drank a lot of tea. Sitting on a foil-backed pad or resting one’s feet on it made a big difference.

We made hot food for every meal and ate well. Breakfast was typically oatmeal or pancakes with tea or instant coffee. Lunch might be soup and grilled cheese. Dinner was pasta or curry or salmon or stew—hearty food, although my appetite was off due to the altitude. As with most back-country camping, getting back to civilization and taking a shower and doing laundry was bliss.

And of course the big question: How does one go to the bathroom? This is a situation where guys definitely have an advantage. We dug latrines into snowpack—new ones every two or three days—basically a deep pit with stairs to a bench with a hole, on which sat a Rubbermaid lid with a hole, and a niche dug into the wall of the pit to hold a ziplock with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Fortunately (and unlike some backpacking trips) we did not have to carry our waste out. At night time I think everyone used a bottle or a ziplock. (Women used a specialized funnel, surprisingly effective.)  Being out of the wind helped but, yeah, bare skin at 30 below encourages speed, especially in a blizzard.

The scientists collecting their radar data on skis

Back to the studio

After my week on the ice I spent a week at the research station. I was the only resident, except for a post-doc paleoclimate researcher and a former social worker who burned out and was working as camp cook. I spent a lot of time with them and far more time alone, walking on the shores of Kluane Lake. The lake is fed by outflow from the Kaskawulsh Glacier. Last summer the glacier retreated so far that its outflowing Slims River changed direction and no longer feeds Kluane Lake. As a result the lake level is down some 40 inches, another dramatic example of climate change. Despite its shrinking size, the lake provided good transition time between the ice and my home in Michigan.

Chilling on the shore of Kluane Lake

I am slowly starting to make studio work from this residency. Here’s a peek at  the three types of work resulting from my experience so far: encaustic paintings, works on paper done with cold wax, and small three-dimensional landscape shrines set into cedar boxes finished with shou sugi ban scorching so the darkened boxes set off the brilliance of the “ice” inside.

Mountain Shrine, 2017,  encaustic and mixed media in found box, 2.5x 6.5 x 14 inches, open

Inspiration: Alpenglow on far mountain, as dark as it gets on the glacier
Alpenglow 1, 2017, encaustic on panel, 12 x 16 inches

Snowy Ridge II, 2017, oil and cold wax on Rives, 10 x 13 inches


More Info

Funding this Residency
It’s easier to get to the Yukon than Antarctica but this was not a funded residency, and it would cost many thousands of dollars between airfares, other travel costs, and serious winter gear. Research led me to work with Fractured Atlas, partly because this is an ongoing project, not a one-time thing, and their program works better for my kind of project than some others. I will need to continue to raise funds to support developing the work and hopefully additional climate-based field experiences. Fractured Atlas has a lot of good information on the details of running a campaign, and because they are a fiscal sponsor, my backers could write off supporting me as a tax deduction. That made donating to my project much more appealing.You can see my page here.   

Red-lined Reliquary, 2017, encaustic and mixed media in found box, 5.5 x 8.25 x 9.5 inches open

I also had a studio sale and will continue to do studio events and pop-ups and social media. My art career is decidedly non-traditional, and many of the ways artists show and finance their work are no longer viable for me, so a mix of grants, crowdfunding, and showing my work in some non-traditional venues seems to be better. I have learned that asking and being open will take me to unexpected but rewarding places. Asking strangers for help is hard for me (and for many of us) but it can make the unexpected happen.

Related Reading about Kluane

. Ice Flow and Ice Cores in the St.Elias Mountains, co-authored by Leslie's arctic mentor, Seth Campbell
. Seth's blog, Alpine Sciences
. How Warming is Profoundly Changing a Great Northern Wilderness 

Read more about Leslie Sobel here.

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