On the third day of the expedition, I was leading some of the youth participants, and a few of the lodge’s guests, on a plant walk around the lodge. We walked up to a lush patch of tundra—an oasis in otherwise dry rocky scree—and came across the largest Purple Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) plant I have ever seen. This monster was at least three quarters of a metre across! I told my fellow walkers the Latin name of the plant and explained that this hardy little fellow was one of the most successful and widespread plants in the High Arctic.
Alicia Manik, one of our expedition members, quickly pointed out how delicious it was. Growing up in Resolute, Nunavut, Alicia often ate these early spring flowers. Belinda, another youth member, said she really enjoyed eating the flowers with maple syrup. So within 10 minutes we had retrieved a bottle of syrup from the kitchen, picked this massive plant clean of flowers, and had the entire lodge chowing down on this delicious arctic treat.
This was the tone for many of the six days we spent at Arctic Watch Lodge.
The nine youth participants (seven from Nunavut, one from Yellowknife and one from New York), were challenged to expand their boundaries and learn new skills. They were keen observers during fossil and plant hikes, didn’t complain when we threw them in the river in dry suits, and kayaked around Cunningham Inlet with enthusiasm.
Quieter moments would see them playing card games, editing videos from the day’s fun, or working on beading and knitting projects (not to mention the matches at the ping pong table). Through it all, they bonded, learned each other’s cultures, and gained experience, skills, and memories that will last a lifetime.
For my part, I quickly got to work as the lodge’s “scientist-in-residence“. I set up a lab in the great room (certainly the nicest field conditions I’ve ever worked in!), and worked as an educator while conducting field research for the museum. The youth became enthusiastic research assistants and valuable eyes-on-the-ground, often bringing me new plants to identify or helping me process samples in the lab.
The youth from Nunavut were also very keen to share their knowledge of the plants. Things like the Inuktitut name of the Saxifrage we ate (Aupilattunnguat) and the use of willow and cottongrass fibers as wicks for the Qulliq (an oil lamp) are not anecdotes that I get to learn on every trip up North!
Floristically, Somerset Island’s late spring (the plants were two to three weeks behind, the river was flooding and there was still ice on the bay) meant that many of the plants I’m used to seeing in the Arctic were not out yet. Instead, spring plants such as the Purple Saxifrage and flowering Arctic Willows (Salix arctica) dominated the rocky landscape.
This provided a unique opportunity to collect and photograph these plants in their prime, a time normally long past when we usually collect plants in the Arctic. We collected 145 specimens, including vascular plants, mosses, lichens, algae and fungi.
All of these specimens will be used in various research projects at the museum, such as our current work on the Arctic Flora of Canada and Alaska. This is all thanks to nine curious kids and one very treasured partnership between the museum and Arctic Watch Lodge. To paraphrase an old saying: it’s good to have friends in High Arctic places.
I would like to thank Richard, Josée, Tessum, Nansen, Sven, Catharine, Raf, Alexia, Piper, Jeff, Justin, Joan, Lee, and Gretchen for hosting me during my time at Arctic Watch. Your reputation as the premier Arctic Lodge is well deserved and your hospitality and competence is second to none! Thanks to Ewan for helping to put together such an awesome program, and many thanks to Jeff, Volker, Dorothea, Andrea, Frank, Boomer, Dave, Cliff, Megan, Chris, Bryan and Robin—you may have just been on holiday or working your own projects, but you all contributed to the youth expedition experience in some way. And to our youth: Alicia, Anika, Belinda, Louis, Savannah, Simeonie, Ryan, Sky, and Zach, thanks for listening to me babble off Latin plant names, teaching me a few new card games, and being up for anything, especially helping out a strange scientist such as myself.