In a few short days, Canadian Museum of Nature botanists Dr. Jeff Saarela, Roger Bull and yours truly will depart Ottawa, bound for the Arctic hamlet of Kugluktuk, where adventure and new plant discoveries surely await us. For the next month, we will be documenting and collecting the vascular plants along the Coppermine River—a Canadian Heritage River and paddling hotspot—from the tree line to the coast, a roughly 40 kilometre-long transect of Arctic-plant biodiversity.
From Kugluktuk, a helicopter dispatched by the Polar Continental Shelf Program—Canada’s Arctic logistical support group—will take us to Sandstone Rapids, the first of three camps that we will establish along the river. Here, the favourable microclimate (warmth and shelter from the wind) provided by the Coppermine River Valley coaxes the tree line to its northernmost point in Nunavut.
These spruce groves hosted a Canadian Arctic Expedition camp in the winter of 1915, and we are hoping to find these historic trees and sample them for the National Herbarium of Canada. Unfortunately, as the CAE passed through this area in winter, there are very few collections from that location and that era in our herbarium—a gap that we will soon fill!
From Sandstone Rapids, we will move north along the Coppermine, travelling by helicopter and collecting on foot until we reach Kugluk/Bloody Falls Territorial Park, a place known for both its infamous past, and for its present as “the” park for the residents of Kugluktuk. There, we will document the flora of the park—data that will contribute to the understanding and management of the park’s ecosystems for years to come.
Finally, we will boat back into the community of Kugluktuk and spend a week collecting the plants within and around the town. We will cap off the trip with a big community presentation, giving the citizens of Kugluktuk the first chance to learn about our findings along the river.
This “spruce-to-shore” expedition allows us the unique opportunity to collect plant species along an ecological gradient from boreal forest through to low Arctic tundra. In particular, a complete assessment of the floristic diversity at the tree line will allow for (relatively) rapid assessment of climate change impacts in the future, as the taiga-tundra ecosystem is projected to be amongst the first impacted ecosystems.
As with our previous trips, we will live lightly on the land: camping in remote areas, eating delicious dehydrated food (cooked by our “chef extraordinaire” Roger), and aiming to collect over 1000 plants for the herbarium. Unlike our previous expedition, a paddling trip on Baffin Island, we’ll leave the boats at home; the rapids on the Coppermine are a bit too extreme for us, and it wouldn’t do to lose our collections down the river!