Mike Palmer is conservation program officer (CPO) for The Nature Conservancy’s office in Yellowknife, Canada—or, as he describes it, “the lone employee posted in the Arctic.” Last year, he orchestrated the Thelon expedition with Sanjayan, Richard Jeo and youth of the Dene First Nation into a remote and sacred wilderness. (See a recent video from the Thelon Expedition at National Geographic.)
OH CANADA: When I first moved here, the Northwest Territories (NWT) seemed extremely remote, but just like anything, you get used to it. Yellowknife is a capital city with Walmart, McDonalds and Pizza Hut—if you want it. I live down in “Old Town” where floating houseboats, off-grid shacks and bush planes are more common. The best thing about living here is the access to true wilderness and the opportunity to explore it. It allows people to thoroughly test themselves and push limits related to an older way of life, when people still hunted their food and didn’t stare at an iCrap device all day.
SUMMER VACATION: An Arctic summer is something amazing to behold. I spend most of my free time outside in endless daylight, 80-degree temps and lots of bugs! Paddling vast lakes and rivers is the best way to explore. Most southerners don’t realize how much water exists in the Arctic.
READING: I just finished The Legend of John Hornby by George Whalley. I have a thing for reading old journals of Arctic explorers and trappers. The strength and tenacity of these men is astounding. It boggles my mind to think of what they did—before GPS, satellite phones and bug nets.
CATCHING: Ice fishing season starts in late November and lasts well into April. Around Christmas, I set up my canvas wall tent on a remote lake about an hour out of town by snowmobile. It has a small wood stove, a table and a bed. I use a hand auger to drill holes, drop in a line and wait… and wait. You need patience and a very positive attitude.
The fish move extremely slow in the cold weather and rarely eat. My most memorable catch was a 20 lb. lake trout through a 6-inch diameter hole. I ended up taking off my parka, fleece and shirt so I could reach my bare arm and shoulder down into the water-filled hole and squeeze the fish up through the ice. It was big. The last few years I’ve acquired a license to set a gill net. That has increased my efficiency quite a bit and is the best way to secure local, healthy, sustainable protein.
THELON YOUTH: When I learned that the people of the Lutsel K’e First Nation community had always wanted to get youth into their most sacred place—the Upper Thelon River, a place also under threat from uranium mining — Richard Jeo and I talked about the idea of an expedition. The only access to the area is by float plane carrying canoes. Soon after, my life became full of logistics dealing with chartered bush planes, folding canoes, dehydrated food and wrangling youth. It was intense.
My favorite part was knowing we were providing an opportunity to youth they would never get otherwise—an opportunity that would immediately impact our conservation gains. The kids were so open and honest about what they had learned, urged on by being immersed in this incredible landscape. They all talked about how much healthy lands and waters mean to them.
I am still in touch with the kids that live in the NWT and they’ve been telling their friends how tough they are for completing the trip. Now all the other Lutsel K’e kids want to be tough too.
TRENDING SCIENCE: Since getting into conservation, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of overpopulation of humans on the planet. Every single conservation and environmental issue we face deals with too damn many people. We could burn, pave and kill whatever we wanted if there just weren’t so many people doing it. I find it interesting to watch how the Conservancy addresses this taboo issue as we evolve as an organization.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the September issue of Science Chronicles, a monthly newsletter for science at The Nature Conservancy. See a recent video from the Thelon Expedition at National Geographic.
(Image: Mike on a moose hunt. Temperature: -30 Celsius. Source: Courtesy of Mike Palmer.)