Photograph by: Ed Struzik, edmontonjournal.com
It was cold, wet and snowing at the time. Hills picked up the specimen, put it in his bag and headed back to base camp not really knowing what he had found. He didn't give it any more thought until Dale Russell, a paleontologist for the Canadian Museum of Nature, phoned him 15 years later and asked whether he had ever come across some Cretaceous-era bones during his explorations of the High Arctic.
Hills had explored nearly every island in the archipelago by then. But the call served to remind him of what he had found at Ballast Brook that day.
Back in his lab, Hills had a laugh when he gave the fossil a good wash. He could see then that it was the shinbone of a woolly mammoth, a giant elephant-like animal that lived in the Arctic long after the Cretaceous era ended and the last of the dinosaurs disappeared.
For some time, no one knew what to make of both this 22,000-year-old fossil and another one it that was found on Melville Island to the north. No one had thought that mammoths had lived beyond the north coast of Yukon and Alaska.
Five years ago, Dick Harington, another paleontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, offered an explanation that seemed to satisfy most everyone.
In an article published in the scientific journal Arctic, he suggested that Banks Island and parts of southwestern Melville Island were likely the eastern limit of Beringia. That verdant mass of lowland periodically connected Siberia to Arctic North America, when sea levels were much lower than they are today because most of the Earth's water was locked up in glaciers.
Along with scimitar cats, short-faced bears, Ice Age horses and other now-extinct animals, woolly mammoths used to walk across this land bridge, before they were stopped by a massive sheet of ice that had expanded northward from the Keewatin region of Hudson Bay.
Even today, many scientists assume that much of Banks Island and other parts of the western Arctic Archipelago were largely ice-free through the last period of glaciation, and at least partially ice-free for hundreds of thousands of years before that.
You can almost see it in the soft, verdant look of this treeless tundra. There are 65,000 muskoxen — nearly two-thirds of the world's population — living on this island. In many places, the terrain looks as if it was never scoured by the sharp edges and heavy weight of ice that expanded to its Ice Age maximum 18,000 years ago, before petering out 11,000 years later.
For most of his 40-year-long career working in the Arctic, University of Alberta scientist John England also thought that Banks Island was a relic of an ancient world. But some time in the 1990s, he and others saw something in the accumulation of geological evidence that suggested this theory was flawed.
England and I were standing on the treeless tundra a few kilometres from that same spot at Ballast Brook, when he described to me how he saw it all unfold. It was cold and bleak, just as it might have been when Hills was there more than four decades ago. There was, however, no snow, just a relentless wind that came in from M'Clure Strait, an exit point for Canada's Northwest Passage.
England waved his arms, much like a sketch artist might do in a courtroom, drawing in the air a picture of a monstrous sheet of ice moving north from the mainland in super slow motion, churning up granite and gravel, sand and stone and possibly the bones of animals that may have died in its path.
Banks Island may have been home to woolly mammoths and other Ice Age animals at one point in time, he concedes. But if it was, the animals were eventually displaced by this big sheet of ice.
"If there was such a population, it is surprising that no additional evidence has been found of any other animals like it," he told me. "One bone on Melville, one on Banks. And the Melville sample was found below marine limit, the height of the postglacial sea level that inundated the land after ice retreat.
"That mammoth bone could have been rafted in by sea ice long after the animal from which it was derived, lived," he added. "How far away is anyone's guess?"
England didn't arrive at this theory and an earlier one like it lightly.
The truth had been germinating in the research that he and others had been doing on Ellesmere and Devon islands on the east side of the Canadian Arctic. Like others, they had assumed that the High Arctic was too cold and arid to grow the glaciers that sculpted this polar world during the last Ice Age and episodically millions of years before that. Presumably, there simply wasn't enough snow falling in that intensely cold, desert world.
But over time, England and colleagues found evidence to suggest that during the last Ice Age at least, there may have been a split in the jet stream that steered storms laden with moist Pacific air into the Canadian Arctic. This could have resulted in the snowfall needed to inundate the region with snow and ice.
Once convinced, England felt compelled to tell his colleagues in the scientific community that the data he had been collecting for more than 20 years needed to be fundamentally reinterpreted.
It came as a shock to most everyone. One of his graduate students, not yet prepared to accept this dramatic change of view, abandoned him rather unceremoniously in the middle of a lunch. It was apparently too much to swallow, especially for someone still writing his thesis.
England looks back on it now, convinced that it is much better to be right than stubbornly wrong.
"Fundamentally revising one's research after investing so much time and effort isn't easy," England told me that day. "But it did resolve a long-standing debate about the roller-coaster role that glaciers played in shaping the High Arctic during the last glaciation. It also promises to shed light on how Arctic environments evolve and how we can place modern changes in a meaningful context now that this part of the Earth is warming so rapidly."
Many people know that the Arctic is warming up faster than any other place in the northern hemisphere. Here on Banks Island, the 100 Inuit living at Sachs Harbour have seen and heard southern robins singing in the rain following violent thunderstorms that almost never occurred in the past. They're now catching Pacific salmon along with the Arctic char they haul up in their nets. And sea ice is now replaced by open water a month before Canada Day, when Banks Islanders traditionally used dog sleds to take them across the ice to the southwest tip of the island.
Earlier on this trip, England spotted a grizzly bear on a tiny island off the northwest coast of Banks, 400 kilometres north of where the species is normally found. What it was doing in the kingdom of the polar bear is uncertain. But brown bears have been regular visitors to the High Arctic in recent years, and at least one of them has mated with a polar bear, producing a hybrid that has never been seen before.
"It does take the breath away when you see dramatic signs of change like this," he told me. "In the last 35 years, we've lost more than a million square kilometres of ice. This is not ice that's coming back. If anything, the melting is accelerating to the point where the Arctic will be seasonally ice free, possibly in the next two or three decades. The consequences of such an event are staggering, and range from the geopolitical to the ecological."
John England was born in Windsor, Ont., which is almost as far south as one can get in Canada. He likes to tell his friends and colleagues, however, that he was conceived in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, where his father started up a hardware store in the 1940s.
England travelled north for the first time when he was an 18-year-old geography student at the University of Windsor. The telegram informing him of the job is a testament to how long ago that really was.
Since then, he has never really looked southward, choosing instead to venture north almost every summer, living in canvas wall tents on rocky, barren ground, eating from tin cans and dried-food bags in summer blizzards that would go on for days.
The beatings that he's taken over the years are etched on his weathered face.
Miserable as it has sometimes been, England has nothing but fond memories of those experiences. At least that's the message he conveyed as we walked along that high plateau at Ballast Brook, toward a two-metre-high tree that was still rooted in the ground.
Dead for 2.5 million years — possibly as long as 5 million — the tree and the remains of others like it scattered around us are relics of an Arctic that was a lot warmer than anything we have seen since then
"I've said it before and I'll say it again; the Arctic is a book of untold stories," he said. "This tree here, for example, was part of a vast forest that extended all the way from the mainland at one time. How that was possible is one of the stories that I'm trying to tell to people who know the Arctic only as a wasteland of snow and ice."
The idea of a warm Arctic goes back to the Greeks, who believed in an open polar sea that existed beyond the Rhipean Mountains where Boreas, the god of the north wind, lived. Hundreds of years later, scientists attached some credibility to this myth by speculating that deep ocean currents from both the Atlantic and Pacific rose up at the pole in sufficient volumes to melt the ice away
Nearly five hundred years of fruitless and sometimes tragic explorations in search of a Northwest or Northern Passage to the Orient finally put these theories to rest.
Following Hills' discovery of a mammoth bone at Ballast Brook in 1967, the notion of a more temperate Arctic was resurrected in the 1970s by Mary Dawson and Robert West. The two vertebrate paleontologists — at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Milwaukee Public Museum, respectively — excavated a rich vein of varied life forms at Strathcona Fiord on Ellesmere Island. In among the rocks, gravel and peat along the icy shores, they found fossil fragments of alligators, giant tortoises, snakes, lizards, tapirs, hippo and rhino-like animals that lived 55 million years ago.
A decade later, helicopter pilot Paul Tudge found enormous tree trunks that proved to be 45 million years old sticking out of the ground near the base of a massive ice cap on Axel Heiberg Island
Since then, scientists with the Geological Survey of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Nature have done a great deal to reveal what the climate was like in the eons that followed.
Two years ago, a team led by Natalia Rybczynski, a vertebrate paleontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, found a four-legged, semiaquatic carnivore that lived in freshwater in a part of the High Arctic that was forested between 20 and 24 million years ago.
A decade before that, her colleague Dick Harington excavated the last of a treasure trove of fossils on Ellesmere Island. His find proved that the most northerly land mass on the continent was warm enough 4.5 million years ago to sustain miniature beavers, ancestral black bears, weasel-like carnivores and Eurasian badgers in a forest environment.
Now, thanks to research done by oceanographers like Eddy Carmack, Humfrey Melling and Fiona McLaughlin at the Institute for Oceans Sciences, we know that warm water from the Pacific and the Atlantic has been and is circulating through the Arctic in profound ways that affect the climate of the region
It's taken a long time for England to get to Banks Island to research this particular story. Over the past three decades, he and colleagues — including Art Dyke, Ray Bradley and dozens of students from the University of Alberta — have been slowly moving west from Ellesmere Island, searching for geological evidence along the coastlines that might tell them what the climate was like over different time scales.
What they've discovered is a dynamic world in which temperatures were on average 10 degrees or more higher or lower than they are now and sea levels that either flooded vast regions of the Arctic or exposed huge landforms that are now submerged.
So far, though, they have found nothing in the driftwood, whalebones and shells they've collected along the raised beaches to suggest that there is an analogue in the past 10,000 years that is anything like the seasonally ice-free future we are heading towards.
"It is going to be a very different world," England predicts. "Understanding the past as I am trying to do should help us better predict the future. That's why it's so important that this government invest in Arctic science.
England has said this so many times in so many different ways that most politicians and many bureaucrats in the Canadian government are tired of hearing it. But it's hard to silence a scientist who occupies a coveted Northern Research Chair supported both by federal funding and industry
In newspaper articles, magazines and scientific journals, England has been hammering away at the dearth of funding for Arctic science. Not everyone agrees with his point of view, but virtually everyone admires the inventive way he often makes his point.
His comparison of Canada's Polar Continental Shelf program to the U.S. way of funding research in the Arctic as a "rusty old microbus" versus the "Space Shuttle," for example, was not only funny, but a stroke of genius, says Rod Smith, a Calgary-based Geological Survey of Canada scientist who did his doctorate with England at the University of Alberta.
"John has been an unwavering and tireless advocate of Canadian Arctic research and has expended enormous efforts trying to convince politicians and others of the inequities and inadequacies of support for research by Canadian scientists in the Canadian Arctic," he said.
"He truly is a proud and patriotic Canadian who feels frustrated by the lack of attention we as a nation pay to what is so emblematic and integral to our national identity
"It was also amusing to see the reaction of some politicians as he invited them north to experience a scientific research camp, and the absolute horror this notion was to them in realizing the truly Spartan and simple manner that he revelled in spending each summer.
"I don't think any of them ever took him up on his offer, but as always, his passion for arctic science was infectious, and few realize just how significant and timely some of his interventions have been."
Claude Labine is an Edmonton-based scientist and the founder and principal owner of Campbell Scientific Canada (Corp), a company that provides sensors, measurement instruments and data acquisition systems to researchers working in the field. He represents the industry side of the partnership that supports England's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Northern chair at the University of Alberta
Labine has sat beside England at departmental Christmas-cookie exchanges and worked alongside him in the Arctic. He witnessed the payoff that sometimes followed England's so-called interventions
"During the Mulroney governments, Don Mazankowski was the deputy prime minister and president of the Treasury Board," he recalled recently. "Coincidentally, he was also John's member of Parliament. So John organized a meeting with me, scientist Greg Henry and Mr. Mazankowski.
"The meeting took place late at night in a hotel suite following one of Mazankowski's functions. We only met for about half an hour, but as a result of that meeting, the Polar Continental Shelf Project — the key government agency responsible for the logistics and field support in the Arctic — received several more million dollars in funding.
Not everyone knows it, but it was England's intervention in the 1970s that got Parks Canada thinking seriously about establishing the national park that now exists at the north end of Ellesmere Island. England went straight to the public — a move few scientists would have pursued at the time — and wrote an article for Canadian Geographic magazine extolling the natural wonders and historical importance of the region.
Later during our afternoon together, England and David Evans, a former student who has made a name for himself in the world of geomorphology at Durham University in England, set out with me by helicopter to survey the landscape along the coast.
The pilot had just returned from Mercy Bay in Aulavik National Park, where a Parks Canada archeological crew had found the wreck of the Investigator, a British ship that had sailed in search of the lost Franklin expedition in 1850 before it was stopped by ice along the north end of Banks two years later.
Investigator captain Robert McClure and his crew were the first Europeans to see all the wood scattered along the shoreline. According to McClure, the biggest of the tree trunks was nine feet long and 14 inches in diameter. He had it set aside for botanists at the British Botanical Gardens to study. Unaware of the significance of the discovery, he got the crew to gather up the rest for fuel
Scanning the landscape from the air, England wryly told me that searching for clues of what the ancient past looked like in the High Arctic is very much like putting a jigsaw puzzle together without the pieces
After a half-hour in the air, we landed on a broad plateau that England dubbed "747.
"Look at it," he said. "It's long, flat and hard enough that you could easily land a 747 on it in an emergency. There are few places like this in the High Arctic.
Here, we came across the beginnings of a den that a grizzly bear had been excavating, days, if not hours before we had arrived. True to their scientific interest, England and Evans seemed more interested in the nature of the sand and gravel that it had unearthed than the reason for the animal being so far north.
Back in the air, we headed west over a broad plain that was pitted with circular and elongated holes. "Pachendale," is what England called it. This, he suggested, was what the landscape must have looked like after the heavy shelling that occurred during the famous First World War battle
The American poet Allen Ginsberg was once asked why his friend Bob Dylan refused to be too specific about certain lyrics that he wrote — such as the identity of Mr. Jones, or where Desolation Row was. Ginsberg suggested it was because Dylan improvised a lot, often blurting words into a microphone without knowing exactly what the next line would be
England, a huge Dylan fan, does that a lot. And, like Dylan, he can often be downright poetic in the way he explains things. Unable to see the marks left by glaciers in many places he showed me, I asked him how this could be in light of what we saw at Pachendale.
He put it this way, as we approached the cape where McClure had erected a cairn in 1852: "Ice is not always the violent brute that some people think it is. Glaciation is sometimes a thin veil draped over the landscape."
Back at the base camp, we sat down to a dinner of pasta and canned spaghetti sauce thickened up with a few potatoes that had been left over from a previous meal. It was a little tastier than the reconstituted porridge we had for breakfast
There is nothing more uncomfortable than being in a steamy canvas tent after a long, cold day, sitting in damp clothes that haven't been washed for three weeks. For the first time on the trip, I was in no mood to talk
England, however, was just as pumped as he always seems to be when there are ears to hear what he has to say. By this time, I knew that England grew up Catholic, as did I. What I did not know was that he still very much believes in God, in spite of all the science he has been taught to suggest that we were created by a Big Bang rather than a Holy Spirit.
He, however, is not ashamed to say that each year when he comes up to the Arctic, it's as if God has just left the room.
"It's like He's telling me to figure out how this landscape was shaped," he told me
"I've had several years in the field when things have gone so well, so perfectly, that I've come to the conclusion that it can't be random.
"God," he allowed, "does not give out instructions. But he does provide the clues."
Rod Smith believes that England revels in not conforming to people's expectations.
"His character is often better revealed when you see him out on his tractor cutting his fields, delicately nursing spruce seedlings to maturity in a formerly barren Prairie landscape, or wheeling almost effortlessly through opponents as he stickhandles his way to the net — preferably on an outdoor slough on a gloriously sunny weekend afternoon."
Sunday dinners at his acreage near Cooking Lake east of Edmonton are a tradition in the
England household. Each year, graduate students are invited out to get to know him, his botanist wife Catherine LaFarge and their two daughters.
Scott Lamoureux, now a Queen's University scientist, has fond memories of those dinners and the hockey games that always preceded them.
"Of course, the pond needed shovelling and the students bore the brunt of that effort," he recalls. "It is no wonder John skated circles around us in the game that followed.
On occasions when excessive snow had accumulated, the afternoon was spent digging a path for the tractor to the pond to ultimately clear the ice.
Students may be England's greatest legacy. In addition to
Scott Lamoureux, David Evans and Rod Smith, he has taught and trained highly accomplished scientists like Trevor Bell of Memorial University and Nigel Atkinson, now with the Geological Survey of Alberta. Jan Bednarski, a Geological Survey of Canada scientist working on the west coast, insists that he would never had gone on to do his PhD had it not been for England pushing and inspiring him.
John's typical greeting to his graduate students and close colleagues is often simply "Scientist." Rod Smith suggests this simplicity evokes the self-effacing respect and integrity he has for academic researchers, including his graduate students. Each one is treated and regarded as a peer, whose pursuit and passion share the same nobility and integrity of his own.
"Many profs use pictures in lectures to illustrate examples they've described," says Smith.
"John has such a remarkable photographic ability that his photos teach of themselves, and indeed in lectures, he will pause the lecturing to immerse the students in examples of the landscapes and systems he is describing. It is amazing to watch the realization and understanding dawn on them.
"He can also work a Bob Dylan lyric into lectures and discussions on almost any topic," he adds. "When discussing permafrost and the slow down-slope movement attributed to frost creep, for example, he quotes Dylan as 'the carpet too, is moving under you.' "
England seems content with this legacy of scientific achievement. But he is also proud of the serendipitous contributions he's made to other areas of Arctic research.
In the summer of 1999, for example, he and Art Dyke were travelling along the south coast of Axel Heiberg Island when they spotted some scientific instruments scattered on a sandy beach.
Being keen students of Arctic history, they initially thought that they had had come upon the remains of Operation Franklin, a Geological Survey of Canada expedition that had explored part of this island in the 1950s
But the location, and the apparent age of the artifacts, suggested something older.
Otto Sverdrup, the Norwegian explorer who reached the southern tip of Axel Heiberg during a sledging trip in 1900-1901, initially came to mind.
But England soon realized that didn't make sense, either. Being in good health, Sverdrup and his men had no reason to abandon any of their provisions.
So, after heading south, the scientists went to anthropologist James Savelle, of Montreal's McGill University, and Randall C. Brooks, of the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, for help in solving the mystery.
After some detective work, they concluded that England and Dyke had found the final camp of Hans Kruger, the German geologist and explorer who went missing with two other men in 1930. None of them was ever found, despite several searches by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Looking back on it now, England suspects the men were trying to reach a remote RCMP outpost 300 kilometres to the northeast, at Alexandria Fiord on Bache Peninsula, but perished along the way.
"Why would anyone leave behind a valuable scientific instrument, a pile of rocks that they had obviously collected, as well as all of the other artifacts we found?" he says
"The overriding impression we got is that they were under duress. The fact that so few provisions remained and that the tent may have been destroyed suggests that the camp may have suffered a late spring snowstorm that buried what remained, and that the explorers had not the time or energy left to excavate it before escaping eastward."
Now in his third year of exploring Banks Island with graduate students Tom Lakeman, Jess Vaughan, and Mark Furze, an instructor at Grant MacEwan University, England is setting himself up for what may be the final chapter of a career that has spanned four decades. Like Len Hills, he has explored virtually every corner of the Arctic Archipelago.
He, however, insists that the Arctic will always be a part of his life.
"I've invested so much time and energy in this world and got so much back from it, that it's hard to imagine how I could withdraw altogether."
On the last day of the trip, we paid a visit to the tiny island off the northwest coast of Banks Island to see if that grizzly bear was still around. All that we found, however, was a Peary caribou looking as surprised as we were to see him so far from the mainland. The bear, we thought, no doubt made the long swim to shore, surprising the caribou to the point where it took flight and jumped into the water.
Walking along the island's shore on that clear morning, thinking how memorable a site like this would continue to be, I asked England which place in the Arctic he remembers best.
It took some time before I got an answer. "Dozens spring to mind," he said, before picking Fort Conger on the northeast corner of Ellesmere Island. Here, North Pole explorer Robert Peary, bedridden for weeks, inscribed on a wall, "Inveniam viam aut faciam" (I shall find a way or make one), a quote from Roman philosopher Seneca.
"It was to this remote historic site that I first sledded with all our supplies across the rotting, early summer sea ice with Ray Bradley back in 1971, starting my PhD research.
"To get there, we had crossed the length of Discovery Harbour to set up our first Ellesmere camp at the former home of so many late-19th-century icons of the Arctic, including Peary, Sir George Nares, and Adolphus Greely.
"When we arrived, muskoxen grazed quietly nearby on a hillside strewn with flowers and the small abandoned head-high huts stood nestled in the same silence and emptiness that they had enjoyed since being abandoned almost a century earlier. Surrounding Fort Conger were the rugged hills truncating the outer Hazen Plateau and eastward across the sea ice one could glimpse the imposing cliffs of northwest Greenland, only 18 kilometres away. Utterly magical and serene."
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