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Professor of Molecular Biology, University of Tampere29.10.2018
Urged originally by our editor to deliver a season-opener on 'what professors do in their summer vacation' I naturally wrote about something else. However, the points I would have made are just as relevant at any other time of year, so here goes.
In 2018 I decided to have something approaching a proper holiday, in other words a month of exploring some northern wilderness without interruptions from academic visits, institute management duties, or urgent manuscript tasks. In some years my vacations have even tended towards the opposite extreme, i.e. short bursts of leisure activity, punctuating a string of work-related visits.
Nova Scotia and Newfoundland were my destinations, approached through a variety of air, sea and land routes that probably involved too much driving. But they did include a lot of walking too, especially in the majestic highlands of Gros Morne NP in western Newfoundland, taking in the spectacular inland fjord of Western Brook Pond, and the desert-like landscapes of Tablelands. I also found time to visit the reconstructed remains of the earliest known Viking settlement in North America, at l'Anse aux Meadows, the living museum of remote Trinity village, restored to its condition of 1908, and the unexpected urban oases of St John's, Sydney and Corner Brook, where craft beers abound, and I was able to find shelter from the stifling heat (yes, there too) in the odd wholefood bistro or falafel joint.
One downside of exploring remote northern places is that it is often a challenge for vegetarians: a typical menu choice is between chips and fish and chips. Atlantic Canada also seemed particularly plagued with the Western epidemic of junk food-driven obesity. There were many days when I just longed for that apple I had forgotten to buy at the last supermarket for 400 km. But I did find a profusion of dolphins and humpback whales (to observe, not eat).
Part of my choice of destination was governed by the fact that I have family based currently in St John's, which led to the odd situation of taking a zodiac tour around the seabird cliffs of Gull Island, home to N. America's largest puffin colony, whilst my nephew-in-law (if such a relationship exists) was busy poking his arm into storm-petrel burrows just a few hundred metres above me, as part of his monitoring work for the Canadian Wildlife Service.
At Ship Harbour, in remote and foggy Placentia Bay, I visited the memorial to the 1941 summit between Churchill and Roosevelt, which took place on warships moored just offshore, and where the Atlantic Charter, which was later used as the template for the UN, was finalized and signed. In the village, I stumbled across the tiny museum, which doubles as the Post Office, and seems to be visited by approximately one person per month (for either purpose). It includes a collection of memorabilia from the event, including (allegedly) the original oak table from USS Augusta, at which the documents were drawn up and signed, plus a random array of photographs and objects from the lives of the protagonists. Bizarrely, these included an original of an elementary school report of Churchill as a ten year-old child, lambasting his disgraceful behaviour and poor academic performance, but recording that he was at least good at history.
In Halifax, already most of the way back to civilization, I went to the must-see maritime museum, with its collection of artefacts rescued from the site of the RMS Titanicsinking, including fragments of the woodwork from its magnificent grand staircase. The museum also had an exhibit, so far rather small, about the Franklin expedition, focusing on the recent discovery of the sunken ships that had been lost for over 150 years, and describing the project to investigate the still mysterious fate of that doomed enterprise. The recovery of items from the ships, combined with current analytical techniques, should settle at least a few of the most burning questions about why the entire crew of 129 perished.
The loss of the expedition is still considered a crucial event in polar history, and it has fascinated me for a long time. On one earlier summer trip, I even went to King William Island, off whose shores the ships were eventually found. That particular holiday also included probably the most hair-raising and certainly illegal experience of my entire life. My Inuit guides Sam and James, connected to the team that eventually helped researchers track down the wrecks of HMS Erebusand HMS Terrorsome years later, led me across the July remnants of the sea ice on snowmobiles, just for the fun of leaping across the alarmingly wide cracks, in between long and (happily fruitless) waits parked on a melting ice floe, hoping to harpoon a passing seal.
Newfoundland seemed a bit tame by comparison: a bit more like the remoter parts of Lapland, but with proper mountains, or Scotland with trees. But to function properly in the hothouse of science for the rest of the year, I definitely need these bouts of lonely wanderings in the far corners of the North (or South).
Professor of Molecular Biology,
University of Tampere
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