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Rayner overlooks a glacier valley. The rocks in this valley are 2.8 billion years old, from a time when the atmosphere had no oxygen and life was limited to single-celled organisms.

Text and photos by Katriina O’Kane
We are going to travel through time,” shouts geologist Nicole Rayner over the rotor wash of the helicopter, “We’re going to travel a billion years between now and the next stop!” I follow a team of five geologists as we duck under the spinning blades and pile into the helicopter. We put on our headsets, check to see that we have all of our bags of rock samples and our topographic maps, and lift off into the air.

We are leaving behind a beautiful valley surrounded by glaciers. Rounded granite hills mold down into u-shaped valleys, a landscape that is telling of its long history. The Hall Peninsula just north of Iqaluit is the focus of this team’s geology mapping project, a two-year program led by the Canada-Nunavut Geoscience Office meant to increase geological knowledge of the area and provide up-to-date bedrock and surficial geology maps. The valley disappearing behind us has some of the oldest rocks in Canada, originating from the Archean Eon 2.8 billion years ago when the atmosphere had no oxygen and life was limited to single-celled organisms.

I’m travelling with five geologists: Rayner, Holly Steenkamp, Zoe Braden, Marc St-Onge, and Brendan Dyck. Sitting knee-to-knee in the back of the helicopter, they all sport similar outfits: Hiking boots, well-used over the dozens of kilometres they have already traversed in the past month, sweaters and bright red vests with many pockets to store pens and cameras and the handheld field-computer used for taking field notes, a hand-lens attached around their necks by a piece of string that is used to inspect rocks, and a hat or sunglasses protecting against the summer sun.

boots_sidebar02We pass over an ice field, an endless plane of white stretching to the horizon, and touch down on the snowy hills of the other side. “Now we are in a sequence of younger rocks,” explains veteran geologist St-Onge, who has been studying the Arctic since 1974, “these alternating sequences were morphed during the mountain building event 1.8 billion years ago.” He paints a picture of the Himalayan-sized mountains that used to cover this area, called the Trans-Hudson Orogeny.

Part of the objective of the team’s project is to study this mountain-building event. Dyck, originally from Canada but who is currently a PhD student at Oxford University, spends part of his time in Nepal studying the Himalayas. “There’s a lot of similarities in the deformation and mineralogy,” explains Dyck, “We’ve had three recognizable massive continental collisions in Earth’s history, and this was the first one. The Himalayas are part of the ongoing process making the fourth one.”

The other objective of the project is to update the low-resolution geological maps that were made back in the 1960s. The high cost of doing fieldwork in the Arctic means that, geologically, large parts of Nunavut remain frontiers in terms of mapping and exploration. Satellite imagery has helped in recent years to delineate boundaries between rock types, but geologists still need to collect samples to determine what the rocks are made of and how old they are. To do this, these bedrock mappers spend their days hiking seven to eight kilometre lines, collecting rock samples that progressively make their backpacks heavier.

boots_sidebar03The maps this project is generating will be used primarily by land-use planners and mining companies. Peregrine Diamonds Ltd. has already been exploring and prospecting in the area since 2005, due to its high concentration of kimberlite pipes which sometimes contain diamonds. Following analyses over the winter, the geologists also found elevated levels of copper, nickel, molybenum and iron in some of the rock samples. And perhaps their most exciting find, eleven good quality carving stone sites.

This project adds to the attention Nunavut has been receiving from the mineral industry. Nunavut has only one operational mine at the moment, the Meadowbank Gold Mine near Baker Lake, which began operating in 2010. But a lot more is happening. The Mary River iron ore mine on northern Baffin Island is scheduled to begin production in September 2014, and in 2013, $270.2 million was spent on exploration and deposit appraisal in the territory, making it the fourth largest investment region in Canada. The 32 active exploration projects in 2013 included gold, base metal, iron, uranium, diamond, and coal, with six of these projects in the advanced phase of undergoing the environmental assessment process.

These massive investments will undoubtedly lead to job opportunities and prosperity for northerners in Nunavut. Elizabeth Kingston, the general manager of NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, estimates that if all the advanced exploration projects succeed, as many as 5,000 mining jobs could be created in Nunavut in the next five to 10 years. However, only about 30 per cent of jobs at both Meadowbank and Mary River are held by Inuit at the moment.

Mining activities are not only good news. A recent report from The Conference Board of Canada warns that despite job opportunities, “the history of mining [in Canada’s North] is also marked by mines that have closed or been abandoned — creating legacies of environmental problems, struggling communities, and ghost towns.” Ongoing problems with arsenic contamination at the abandoned gold Giant Mine near Yellowknife, or the high cost of cleaning up contaminated water and dust from the Faro lead, zinc, silver and gold mine that has fallen into government responsibility are just two examples of the negative long-term effects that poorly managed mines can have. Other concerns revolve around affecting important breeding habitats or disrupting migration pathways of Arctic animals. Although rigorous environmental review processes and mine closure planning is now part of the process in Nunavut, careful preparatory research, honest reporting and listening closely to the communities’ concerns are still important to ensure the long-term benefits outweigh the costs.

The day winds down and we head back to the camp. A lonely group of blue-roofed plywood cabins and orange-and-white dome tents sit next to an ice-covered lake. To untrained eyes, there is nothing else around. We meet up with the rest of the team — nine other students and geologists who have spent their day marching along their own traverses — and at five o’clock, everyone gathers around a table covered with that day’s finds.

“This is our daily routine,” explains Steenkamp, “In the Geo-wrap everyone shares what they saw, their interpretations, they ask any questions, and we talk about how it fits in to the overall picture we have been building.”

“The most valuable part of a map is the interpretation,” Rayner chips in. Then they dive into excited discussions about “mafic tonalites” and “asymmetric crenulations”.

After dinner, camp manager Sandy Macintyre and geologist Tommy Tremblay bring out their soap stone carvings. Mannasie Qillaq, also a camp manager and originally from Clyde River, has been teaching Macintyre and Tremblay how to carve. “He did pretty well! This is the kind of shininess that I want to see,” says Qillaq referring to Macintyre’s seal carving. They have been practicing their patience on soapstone that Tremblay brought back from the field.

The sun has set, and it is starting to turn the clouds shades of fiery orange and red, as purple creeps up from the other side. The colours enchant me down to the water’s edge, where I gaze into the quiet hills. Picking up a stone, I try to skip it across the small patch of open water next to the shore. I pick up another, but then my eye catches its patterns of folds and colours. Well before the Dorset Culture peoples, well before dinosaurs, we would have been camping on a mountain peak. My imagination trails off into the far future of another billion years. I perch myself onto a rock, content with this humble feeling of awe that the day has evoked.

Katriina O’Kane is a documentary-maker living in Montreal. Trained as a scientist, she is currently completing a web-documentary about scientists working in Canada’s Arctic: www.arcticprofiles.ca.