The 2012 Arctic Botany Expedition came back from the Arctic a few weeks ago. Paul Sokoloff fills us in on the adventures faced by the four intrepid botanists paddling the Soper River on Baffin Island, Nunavut.

Four people in a small plane.
Pre-flight photo-op with the expedition team. Left to right: Lynn Gillespie, Roger Bull, Jeff Saarela and Paul Sokoloff. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

The capacity for the human body to adapt never ceases to amaze me. By our second full day in Arctic, on the tundra in Katannilik Territorial Park, I had already adjusted to the not-quite darkness of twilight. One week in, and the chill of the river no longer bothered me when water came in over the gunnels of the raft. Three weeks in, and portages seemed lighter and paddle strokes went smoother. And after a month, living unsupported in the Arctic wilderness was as natural as breathing.

The boats on the river.
Jeff Saarela, Roger Bull and Paul Sokoloff approach the final rapids of the trip, a Class 3 just below Soper Falls, the terminus of the Soper River. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

However, right on schedule, our supplies of food, pressing paper, and coffee and tea (gasp!) began to dwindle, marking the end of our field trip down the Soper River. On all counts, the trip was resoundingly successful, with nearly 900 collections made—but that’s a story for next post. The excitement generated by finding new plant species was equalled by the thrill of the journey.

A tent and some gear on the tundra.
Our third field camp, near the “big bend” of the Soper River, Baffin Island, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

We started our trip at Mount Joy, where a gravel airstrip allows charter flights from Iqaluit to land, offloading rafters seeking thrills on this Canadian Heritage River. These thrills were a bit muted by the time it came to leave Mount Joy due the nearly two kilometres of dragging required to get our vessels to water deep enough to float in. This was definitely a low-water year on Baffin Island!

Watch us try to move the boat in the following video.

Once we were moving under our own power though, the three inflatable canoes provided by Inukpak Outfitting in Iqaluit, Nunavut, were swift and stable. Louis-Philippe Pothier, the owner of Inukpak, constructed a large gear platform to support our field equipment. We lashed two of the boats to it and the Dewey Soper was born.

The Dewey Soper was named in honour of naturalist J. Dewey Soper. The river is also named in his honour.

Watch the team guide the Dewey Soper through some rapids in the following video.

Our pre-trip whitewater training on the Ottawa River proved indispensable as we were able to handle the 10 Class 1 to Class 3 rapids on the Soper without so much as getting the tents and specimens damp. Both the Dewey and its solo boat counterpart, the Alf Erling Porsild let us trek the 60 km length of the river in just six paddling days.

In the following video, we shoot some rapids, accompanied by mosquitoes.

During the 18 days spent off the water, most of our time was spent hiking and collecting. As I’ve blogged about before, fieldwork for us involves a lot of long hikes spent looking at your feet.

A man crouches in the plants near a small river.
Paul Sokoloff collecting bake apples (Rubus chamaemorus) along the Livingstone River. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature
A man with a plant specimen balanced on his head.
Paul Sokoloff exhibits some early stages of “field brain”, displaying a lovely pendant-pod oxytrope (Oxytropis deflexa subsp. foliolosa) in an unusual manner. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Between the paddling, hiking and collecting, our schedule was pretty tight, so there were more than a few midnight pressing sessions. A decent mix of classical music, folk rock and hair metal (seriously) kept us going through these late nights.

And the delicious food (and the occasional chocolate cake) doled out by Roger Bull were the reward that kept us going when it was soggy wet outside and when the mosquitoes were thick as carpet on the tent fly.

So after 24 days on the tundra, when the time came for us to leave Nunavut, we were tired, stronger and leaner than when we started, acting a bit weird due to the isolation (we call it field brain…) and for three of us, a lot more bearded than when we left.

Would we do it again? In a second! And now that we know that white-water botanizing is fun and effective, I don’t think we’ll have to wait too long for the chance.

2012 Arctic Expedition by the Numbers

Number of collections made: 898
Number of species observed: 250

On the back of a man's head, his bandanna is covered with mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes congregate on the back of Roger Bull’s head. And this wasn’t even them at their worst! Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Number of people met along the river: 11
Number of cakes eaten: 3
Number of carvings bought by the team in Kimmirut: 20
Number of cookies eaten on the trip: 400

Playlist for a Midnight Pressing Session

Scheherazade op. 35, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin
Heart of Gold, by Neil Young
I Believe in a Thing Called Love, by The Darkness

Watch an impressive moonrise and moonset over the tundra in this video.