The 2012 Arctic Botany Expedition

With the arrival of summer in the Canadian Arctic, the region’s short growing season starts anew. As the flowers bloom and the willows bud, researcher’s thoughts turn to fieldwork and the annual collection trip.

A man stands holds a dead Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) by the hind feet. Archive #: CMNAC 61028.
J. Dewey Soper on board CGS Arctic in 1923, holding an Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) that he shot on Baffin Island (now in Nunavut). This was his first expedition to the Canadian Arctic. Image: J. Dewey Soper © Canadian Museum of Nature

J. Dewey Soper was an incredible naturalist. This avid adventurer crossed Canada pursuing his love of birds, mammals and plants. The highlights of his career—to him, a dream come true—were his three expeditions to Baffin Island (now in Nunavut) in the 1920s and 1930s.

One season, after the Kuujjuaq River on the southern coast of Baffin Island thawed, Soper canoed some 50 km upstream to Mount Joy and then back again. It is with a tiny bit of shame then, that I admit that I’m grateful we have to paddle only with the current this time.

That’s right: on June 26, three colleagues from the Canadian Museum of Nature and I will embark from Ottawa on a botanical collecting trip down the very same river that Soper navigated and explored nearly 100 years ago. It was long known as the Kuujjuaq—an integral part of local Inuit life—but Dewey Soper became so closely connected with this region on the Meta Incognita Peninsula that the river was subsequently named for him.

Jennifer Doubt, Lynn Gillespie, Roger Bull, Paul Sokoloff and Jeff Saarela.
The botany team (from left to right): Jennifer Doubt, Lynn Gillespie, Roger Bull, Paul Sokoloff and Jeff Saarela on Victoria Island, Northwest Territories, during our last field trip in 2010. The team will embark on our trip to the Soper River next week, minus Jennifer, who will take part in another field expedition this summer. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

Soper’s primary focus was on the fauna of the Arctic—the mammals and birds of Baffin Island. Of course that didn’t stop him collecting reams and reams of plant material for the National Museum (what would eventually become the Canadian Museum of Nature and the other federal museums).

A herbarium sheet from the National Herbarium of Canada, with a dried specimen of Salix planifolia and identification labels.
One of the original Salix planifolia specimens that J. Dewey Soper collected along the Soper River. We hope to re-collect this species and document its occurrence in the area. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Among his notable plant collections from the area was a sample of the tea-leaved willow (Salix planifolia) that was growing nearly 3 m tall! This particular species is rare in the Arctic, and where it is known, it normally hugs the ground. In the sheltered Soper River valley several stands of these tree-like willows are known, and the conditions that gave rise to such immense trees likely harbour other fascinating botanical discoveries. Surprisingly, this atypical Arctic vegetation has not been studied.

Since Soper’s forays, much has changed for the region surrounding this unique waterway. Only 76 km southwest of Iqaluit, and immediately north of the community of Kimmirut, its accessibility and sheltered valley ecosystem (not to mention its fantastic paddling and fishing) led to the declaration in 1992 of the Soper as a Canadian Heritage River.

The hilly tundra surrounding the river has been preserved as Katannilik Territorial Park, and both park and river receive hundreds of visitors seeking to experience the Canadian Arctic each year.

A map of Canada showing the Baffin Island and the Soper River, in Nunavut.
Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature; map courtesy of

However, very little plant collecting has occurred in the park since Soper’s general survey more than 80 years ago. In three short weeks, we will join the ranks of those who have paddled the Soper River. But our trip will be different than most, as we will bring back much more than the memories from the experience of a lifetime.

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