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Feb. 6, 2003, Gazette

Living life on the edge . . . of the Arctic Circle

Karen Traverse
Photo by Chris Hammond
Karen Traverse

Imagine a place where the temperature can drop to minus-70 with the wind chill, food costs three times as much as it does here in Newfoundland and the sun only rises for a few hours during the day before complete darkness falls. Given a choice, most people would prefer to head south, but for Karen Traverse, term 8 electrical engineering, there is no place she would rather be.

Located just below the Arctic Circle, Iqaluit, the capital of the newly formed province of Nunavut, has been a second home to Ms. Traverse for the past two years and it is where she hopes to work when she graduates in the spring.

Since her childhood days growing up in Freshwater, Ms. Traverse has wanted to be an electrical engineer. And she has worked very hard to achieve her goal. When she first arrived at Memorial back in 1994, she knew her grades were not strong enough to gain her admission into the faculty but she did not stop trying. Instead she completed two years of general studies and got in. Electrical engineering has been tough, but her secret for getting through the courses is her genuine interest in the subject.

“People cannot believe that I actually like this kind of thing, working with circuits and all that. But I really enjoy what I do and what I am learning,” said Ms. Traverse with a laugh.

After a number of work terms which saw Ms. Traverse working with a local alarm company and the Chair of Women in Science and Engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ms. Traverse got the opportunity to apply for the kind of work she was really keen to try – working with the newly formed Nunavut Power Corporation.

According to Wally Jacobs, co-op coordinator, Ms. Traverse was one of the first students to go to Iqaluit. The experience that she and other students have gained in working there has been invaluable.


“The students who go to Iqaluit gain a great deal of experience working in an area where the traditional methods of engineering do not always work. For example, because of the permafrost, buildings cannot be constructed on concrete foundations and, therefore, must be built on either adfreeze or bedrock piles which are driven into the frozen tundra,” he explained. “To save energy, the orientation of the buildings is also important in order to take advantage of the sun and the amount of snow build-up.”

During her first work term in Iqaluit, Ms. Traverse worked on the power distribution systems doing fuse coordination and computer models of their feeder systems. At this time, Nunavut Power was in its infancy and there was a lot of foundational work to be done.

“It is a completely different system in the north. Because communities are so far removed from each other, each community must have its own distribution system and their own generators to supply power,” added Ms. Traverse.

“Unlike in Newfoundland, where there is a main generating station with transmission lines running to a substation, in Nunavut permafrost does not permit transmission lines. So you do what you have to do to ensure all communities have a reliable power supply.”

The system, according to Ms. Traverse, is sufficient and getting better. Years ago it would be common to have a power outage at least two to three times a week. Now they are working on better fuse coordination so that if they have a fault they will not lose the entire system. The work is challenging and there is no shortage of it, especially if you have a strong sense of adventure.

There are a lot of stereotypes about living in the north, but none that could change Ms. Traverse’s mind about going back there to work, if given the opportunity.

“I loved living there! Being from Freshwater, I settled into the small community life rather quickly and felt right at home. And contrary to what a lot of people might think, there was no shortage of activities with access to two arenas, a curling rink, a theatre and swimming pool. And the people were so friendly; they helped me feel like I was a part of the community.”

Ms. Traverse has now returned to the milder winter of Newfoundland to finish off her final academic term. After almost nine years at Memorial, she could not be happier about graduating in the spring. Even though she is unsure what the future holds for her, she is looking forward to getting out and putting what she has learned into practice.