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.
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.
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.
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.