Anywhere Is Walking Distance If You’ve Got the Time…

Two people in backpacks walk on the tundra at the foot of a hill.

Museum botanists Lynn Gillespie and Jeff Saarela walking across the tundra. We did a lot of this. Image: Roger D. Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

This is the second post in a five-part series on Arctic flora research at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Join us as museum researcher Paul Sokoloff introduces the fieldwork and lab work involved in writing a new flora of the North American Arctic.

Either end of a typical field trip is typically marked by an unreasonably early wake-up call to catch the earliest flight to your destination, or trying to fit all the samples you’ve collected into the remaining nooks and crannies of the boat, floatplane, helicopter, or truck that is taking you out. When you’re out on the land, however, the best way to get from A to B is your own two feet—especially when you’re staring at the ground the whole trip for fear of passing up a rare plant.

During the 2010 Canadian Museum of Nature botanical expedition to Victoria Island, Northwest Territories, nearly every other day involved a decent trek. Not only was this economical and environmentally friendly, but is the best way to comb different, far-flung habitats for species of interest. After each 10–15 km jaunt, you can understand we felt a wee bit tired the next day.

Therefore, a typical day in the field—let’s say July 23rd of last year—starts slowly, especially if you are still getting used to the midnight sun. While a morning shower is out of the question (bathing turns into a weekly activity in a frigid lake out on the tundra) we’re all in the same boat. I was just happy my hat kept me from looking like the mad scientist I feel like sometimes.

Several tents and stacks of plant presses on rocky tundra.

Field camp on the Victoria Island tundra. Home sweet home for one of the three weeks we spent out on the land. In the foreground are plant presses that contain the specimens collected. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

After a double helping of granola and coffee we set off towards a river delta we’ve spotted on the topo maps. At this point on the trip, we’ve visited many other habitat types, so an estuary should provide a whole new assemblage of plants to collect. We leave camp in a straight line due southwest.

Four hours later, as we finally pass through a tributary creek valley leading to the delta, we realize we were right. Sitting on a gravel island in the middle of the river was a dense stand of felt-leaf willow (Salix alaxensis). We’d already seen a stand of these next to our previous camp. These were much, much bigger.

A small island with willows (Salix alaxensis) in a shallow river.

The willow stand that we thought we'd find and the cold, cold river separating it from us. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

On the tundra, hundreds of kilometres above the treeline, stands such as these are rare. Mostly confined to sheltered river valleys where the winters aren’t too harsh, they often harbour interesting species found nowhere else in the low Arctic. Our goal in sight, we rolled up our pant legs and forded the cold, cold river. Even before we had made it to the trees, we found what I think was the most interesting plant of the trip.

The pendant-pod oxytrope (Oxytropis deflexa subsp. foliolosa) as it was found growing.

The pendant-pod oxytrope we found. Right now you're thinking, "and he got that excited over this?" Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Halfway across the braided delta, on a rocky island with a few low lying shrubs, something different-looking caught my eye. Growing out from under the weathered stones was a small population of pendant-pod oxytrope (Oxytropis deflexa subsp. foliolosa). I was particularly excited as this tiny member of the pea family (my own research interest) was not yet known from Victoria Island. In fact, we’re still looking into this, but this small population may be the most northern record known from the entire country! Needless to say, this was one of the most interesting collections we had made all day.

And to think, we would have never known it was there if we didn’t spend all that time walking and staring at our feet.

A thank you to Cynthia Moffat for the very appropriate title.

This entry was posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Anywhere Is Walking Distance If You’ve Got the Time…

  1. John Gilbert says:

    Interesting picture of the willow stand. Can you pick relatively large items, such as these, out of satellite photos? The National Geographic studies of Northern Mongolia are identifying quite small structures from satellite photos. They make the point that once a potential site of interest has been identified they can then make better use of (in their case) horses and vehicles to view the site of greater potential interest.

    • Paul Sokoloff says:

      Hi John, oftentimes we can see these large stands in satellite photos, dependent on the season the photo was taken. Some of the willow stands we explored in 2010 were first spotted using aerial photography, and followed up on in the 1980’s. Using satellite images, we were able to compare known stands to potential sites. Of course, you’re right, the only way to know for sure is to “groud-truth” the data for ourselves, but that’s the really fun part.

  2. John Gilbert says:

    I am envious of your opportunities to walk in the North. In 1956, as a 19-year old, I arrived in Eureka for a two-year sojourn. Back in 1948 Eureka Station had burned down. It was rebuilt and a hut erected several Km away at Eastwind Lake to be used in any future emergency. It had to be checked periodically and I hiked out there one glorious spring day in the bitter cold and stayed overnight in the hut. Enroute we saw wolves, muskoxen, Arctic hare, lemmings and many birds. I have a photo of a knot`s egg in an Arctic “tree”. That summer the late Dalton Muir of the NFB did the filming for his movies of Ellesmere Island, based out of Eureka.

  3. Pingback: The Last W: Why Our Flora Is Important (and Urgently Needed) | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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