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SOI Educator Q&A with David Gray

David Gray has joined us on numerous expeditions. He’s an independent researcher, writer, and filmmaker, specializing in Arctic parks, mammals, and history, especially the Canadian Arctic Expedition (CAE) of 1913-1918. We’re thrilled that David will be joining us again this summer!


How did you become interested in studying the Arctic in the first place?

For as long as I can remember I have been interested in biology. As a kid I collected everything from rocks and fossils, to insects, marine life and bird and mammal skulls. I became intrigued by animal behaviour and loved watching mammals. Through my high school and university days I worked as a park naturalist and spent all my spare time looking for mammals. For my BSc thesis at Uvic I studied hoary marmots in the alpine region of Manning Park in BC. Life above the treeline became a passion. In 1967 I met Stu MacDonald, an ethologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, in Banff National Park, who invited me to apply for a summer job as his assistant on an arctic expedition to Polar Bear Pass on Bathurst Island. I got the job and Stu suggested I should start an independent study of the behaviour of muskoxen. My first summer in the Arctic in 1968 was an incredible and compelling experience. I was hooked, and the muskox study became a 5-year PhD project, and led to a position at the Museum of Nature, researching arctic birds and mammals for 21 years.


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Tell me about some of your more memorable experiences during expeditions you’ve planned yourself?

1968: Watching an arctic wolf attack and kill a solitary bull muskox, during my very first week in the Arctic on Bathurst Island.

1971: Skiing alone across Polar Bear Pass in the cold low light of early March to retrieve parts of a pregnant cow muskox killed by arctic wolves, with the blood-red sun setting in the blue ice fog after only a few hours above the horizon.

1973: Spotting a female muskox, accompanied by a calf, which we had ear-tagged in 1970. We had given her artificial respiration when she stopped breathing due to an overdose of the drug we administered, so it was great to see her again as a mother.

1990: Identifying Red Rump, an Arctic hare, by reading the number on his ear tag with a spotting scope, four years after we tagged him, thus getting the only longevity data for Arctic hares in the wild.

2013: Arriving at an undocumented historic site on western Banks Island after a three-day overland ATV journey with descendants of the people who had lived there in the 1930s, and finding possible evidence of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1917 on the same coast.


Working as a biologist, historian and filmmaker/writer, what are some of the ways in which having such an interdisciplinary background has opened doors for you?

It all seems to go back to curiosity. As a child discovering the remnants of a lost village of immigrant workers and the drive to collect artifacts and information was a significant step towards research in archives and immigrant communities. This background from my childhood allowed me to broaden my skills base to include history as well as biology when my “permanent” job with the government ended in 1993.

In reading about the natural history of Arctic mammals at the beginning of any field study, I was always amazed by what Arctic explorers discovered about the behaviour of animals. That led to my fascination with the Arctic career of Dr Anderson, chief biologist and leader of the Southern Party of the Canadian Arctic Expedition. The study of the CAE has been a major part of my life ever since and has led to a documentary film, a virtual museum online exhibition, and a major travelling exhibit for the Canadian Museum of History.

The extensive use of cine photography in recording animal behaviour during my days as a research scientist made the recent career move to filmmaking a natural progression.

Also, my background as an amateur artist helped in making field sketches of animal behaviour, recording patterns impossible to capture with a camera. Both of these skills are a natural help in composing video scenes as a filmmaker.


What are some of your favourite SOI memories?David Gray and Jessica

Our close encounter with a bowhead whale at the floe edge on my first SOI expedition to Pond Inlet and Bylot Island in 2004. Seeing my first blue whales, a female and calf, who escorted us for a short time while crossing from Iceland to Greenland on the 2005 expedition. Connecting with students Jennie Klengenberg and Keisha Westwood, both related to members of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918, on the 2014 trip. We were discussing CAE and family history, in a bus en route to the Greenland Icecap, and Keisha spotted an Arctic hare right outside the window, thus bringing together my passions for Arctic history, Arctic hares and connecting with Arctic students.


What kind of lectures and/or workshops will you lead during the SOI expedition and what’s exciting about them?

My Skin and Bones Workshop, with hands-on specimens of birds and mammals, is always exciting because even students from the north do not always get to handle such specimens, artifacts and cultural objects. The workshop also helps students learn to identify bones on the beach, and learn the basic anatomy of wildlife we may see in person only at a distance. We also experience examples of traditional uses of fur, feathers, and skin of arctic birds and mammals in games, clothing, and tools.

In the Arctic Hour session on the Northwest Passage I will give a short presentation on the winter life of the Copper Inuit on the sea ice 100 years ago, and how the Bowhead Whale has impacted the human history of the Eastern Arctic, from traditional Inuit life, to the era of European whaling and exploration, to the establishment of Canadian sovereignty.

My keynote talk on mammals of the Arctic, From an Arctic Ethologist’s Notebook, will introduce students to Arctic mammals in a personal way by describing our research projects and the fascinating and useful results: the role of solitary bull muskoxen and the real muskox defence formation, secrets of courtship and breeding of Arctic hares (How to meet your mum and avoid Mr fox), polar bears as inland mammals, and where Arctic wolf pups hang out when their parents are away.


Do you have any tips for students who may find their interests going in many different directions at once?

Keep a broad perspective by maintaining different interests and skills as much as possible. You never know what might happen in a life-long career. If you have a well-rounded life your chances of being paid for doing what you love are even greater than if you are single-focused. I am amazed and impressed by the bios of the Students on Ice this year, and eager to get to know them all!


David R. Gray, PhD.

David is an independent researcher, writer, and filmmaker, specializing in Arctic parks, mammals, and history, especially the Canadian Arctic Expedition (CAE) of 1913-1918.

During his research on the behaviour of muskoxen, David spent several years, including one winter, on Bathurst Island, Nunavut. As a researcher with the Canadian Museum of Nature, he made annual trips north to study muskoxen, Arctic hares and Red-throated Loons. As a filmmaker, he directed Arctic Shadows: the Arctic Journeys of Dr. R. M. Anderson and five documentary films on early immigration from India to Canada. David has written two books on Arctic subjects: muskoxen and CFS Alert, and produced two Virtual Museum of Canada exhibitions (Ukaliq: the Arctic Hare and Northern People: Northern Knowledge. He also produced an exhibition on the CAE for the Canadian Museum of Civilization. In 2013 David headed a research expedition to Banks Island to document sites used by the CAE.

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