As the administrative assistant for Research and Collections, I work with a group of scientists, research assistants, curators, collection managers and collection technicians at Canada’s national natural-history museum. My job is never boring. It actually keeps me on my toes and I learn something new every day.

A while ago, I wrote a blog article about my adventure in the field with the assistant curator of mineralogy. This time, I thought I’d share my adventure at a firing range.

A man aims a rifle while another looks on.
Noel Alfonso practices with a .45/70 lever-action rifle. Alan McDonald, a technician for our palaeontology collections and our firearms safety officer, stands by. Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

What’s an administrative assistant of the Canadian Museum of Nature doing at a firing range? For that matter, what’s a group of scientists doing at a firing range?

I’m getting first-hand knowledge and experience on how to prepare for field work in the Canadian Arctic. Our botany team is heading out to Arviat, Nunavut, for four weeks to collect plant specimens and learn more about the biodiversity of Canadian Arctic. Their field studies are part of our large project called the Canadian Arctic Flora. Two more scientists are preparing for the 2016 Students on Ice Arctic Expedition.

Besides the endless paperwork for permits to collect specimens in the Arctic, the food preparations for a team of five, field-gear purchases, and first aid and wilderness training, there are also gun-safety requirements.

Knowledge of gun safety is important because when scientists work in the field in the Arctic, they become part of the food web; they have to be prepared to protect themselves from polar bears. After successfully taking a firearms course and obtaining a gun permit from the RCMP, practising how to properly use a firearm is a must.

Men standing at tables take aim while others observe.
Left to right: Mark Graham, Troy McMullin, Paul Sokoloff and Geoff Levin practising at the firing range. Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

So on a hot Friday afternoon, I drove out to the firing range and met up with my colleagues who are preparing for this part of their field work. I signed in and was equipped with safety glasses and ear protection. My colleague and our Safety Officer Alan McDonald showed me how to load and unload a pump-action, 12-gauge shotgun. The phrase “red is dead”—referring to a red dot near the trigger—still sticks in my head to help me remember when the gun’s safety switch is on/off.

I practiced a few rounds using birdshot (a type of load for a shotgun shell), and then moved to slugs (the load used for bear protection).

Men approach their targets, which stand in front of a hill.
Left to right: Kieran Shepherd, Mark Graham, Paul Sokoloff, Troy McMullin, Geoff Levin, Alan McDonald and Noel Alfonso checking the targets after a practice round. Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

My aim seemed to be way off. I shot too high, then too much to the left. The shotgun had a mighty kick and left my shoulder red, which progressed into a lovely purple bruise.

I tried the .45/70 lever-action rifle. It’s another popular gun choice for self defense against bears. It had less kick than the shotgun. I put my elbow on the table in front of me to steady my arm and help my aim.

After the practice round was over, I put the gun down with the action open and walked the 25 yards to view my target. It didn’t have a single mark on it! I needed more practise, but wasn’t sure my shoulder could take it.

A sheet of paper printed with a grid and some text.
My target sheet. 🙁 Not a mark on it . Image: Lory Beaudoin © Canadian Museum of Nature

When I signed out from the range later that afternoon, I left knowing a little more about what goes on in Research and Collections at the museum and what it takes to do research in the vast North of Canada. I have new admiration and respect for my colleagues.