A Yukon Quest for Rare Mosses Provides Priceless Memories

On some of the best days, my line of work as a botanist can be part geocaching, part scavenger hunt, part amazing race. Oh, and part miraculous coincidence.

Case in point: at the end of May, my colleagues and I spent four days in southern Ontario looking for the Canadian rarity, Porter’s Twisted Moss. We carefully researched places where it had been found in the past, sought guidance from local knowledge-holders, obtained permission for land access, covered up from head to toe against mosquitoes and ticks, and sweated (rain, shine…and rain) up and down the Niagara Escarpment, looking for—and ultimately finding—our prize. Woohoo! Very satisfying!

Jennifer Doubt looking for mosses behind a waterfall.

That’s me checking behind a waterfall. And yes, I am getting soaking wet. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

However, the biggest population of this moss that we found that week required little effort. It was on the rocks lining the walkway that we sauntered up, in our sandals and shorts, to shop for souvenirs before hitting the highway for the drive home. I love that kind of luck.

So knowing how much I enjoyed the Porter’s Twisted Moss foray, you won’t be surprised that I was thrilled at an invitation to lend my efforts to a search for Porsild’s Bryum (Haplodontium macrocarpum) in Yukon Territory in June. It had all the ingredients of the perfect botany trip:

1. A beautiful quarry: Porsild’s Bryum is brilliant green, with plump capsules resting on sparkly leaves;
2. A mysterious and elusive habitat: this moss likes shady, wet, sheltered, and relatively undisturbed rock (often calciferous), such as one might find behind some waterfalls or on seepy, hidden cliffs;

Closeup of Porsild’s Bryum under an overhang.

Porsild’s Bryum growing under an overhang beside a waterfall in northern BC. A water droplet is suspended below the moss. Sheltered, shaded, cool, wet rock seems to be what Porsild’s Bryum likes best. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

3. An adventurous venue: They say, temptingly, that the Yukon is ‘Larger than Life’! I had never been there;
4. An awesome team: I would be working with three of biology’s inspiring, skilled, productive leaders and teachers—Syd Cannings, Bruce Bennett and Rene Belland.

A man at base of waterfall collects mosses.

Rene Belland collects bryophytes close to a waterfall along the Beaver River, Yukon. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Before setting out, we stopped at CBC’s studio in Whitehorse for a radio interview about the work ahead. To ensure success regardless of the search for Porsild’s Bryum, we explained that we would survey bryophytes (mosses and their liverwort cousins) everywhere we stopped. We were going to come back with great specimens and new knowledge, no matter what!

Closeup of botanist examining mosses along a roadside outcrop.

We brake for seepy cliffs! This wet, roadside outcrop was too tempting to pass by. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Unbeknownst to us, the interview was heard by author Ellen Davignon. She is the granddaughter of M.P. Porsild after whom Porsild’s Bryum is named. She is also the niece of A.E. Porsild, one of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s best-known botany curators. With this connection in mind, she called the station and had an interview of her own.

Our route in the first week took us from Whitehorse to Dawson and beyond. Regrouping in Whitehorse at the halfway mark, we then drove south and east, through northern British Columbia, and north again to Fort Liard, Northwest Territories. From there, we could access southeastern Yukon by helicopter.

View of mountains from inside a helicopter.

View from helicopter on the day we were snowed out of our planned excursion into the Ogilvie Mountains. We turned back and headed up the Dempster Highway instead, and had two flats before the end of the day! Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The days were full—the long northern sunlight hours allowed us to do all the surveying we could stand. To preserve our moss samples for later identification and accession in our home herbaria, we put them in paper bags (2 lb Kraft, to be precise—they fit in the pockets of cargo pants) and spread them out to dry when the opportunity arose. While on the road, I spent time cataloguing the new specimens…thanking, all the while, the ancestors that furnished genes permitting me to type on a laptop in the back of a tightly-packed truck cab, without turning as green as the mossy samples!

View of landed helicopter beside river and steep cliff.

Best pilot ever! Just enough room for him to land between the Beaver River and our waterfall. When we flew along the rivers, we saw more waterfalls and seepy cliffs than we were able to land at (we’d like to come back with a boat, which is much easier to park!). Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Did we find Porsild’s Bryum? We hiked up numerous creeks and stopped at a lot of seepy cliffs where we can now say with some confidence that Porsild’s Bryum…isn’t found there! We experienced flat tires, gorgeous landscapes, wet boots, views of wildlife, bug bites, terrific exercise, learning experiences, some great discussions, and filled lots and lots of little paper bags. Nonetheless, we only saw Porsild’s Bryum at the one spot where someone had recorded it in the past—in northern B.C., where we laboured up a steep talus to confirm that it persists where Nathalie Cleavitt found it in 2003.

View of canyon.

View of one of the dark canyons we climbed into along the Alaska Highway. It was difficult to know what we’d find when we selected these hikes from the road: sometimes there was no water in the creek at the highway, but once we got higher up there were falls, seeps, and even deep snow. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

But ask us instead if we found Porsild’s granddaughter! One morning, a call arose in the truck for a coffee stop. Knowing a place with magnificent cinnamon buns nearby, Syd pulled in at Johnson’s Crossing, where we were welcomed with refreshments and friendly conversation. We soon learned that the person operating the mixer—that day only, for old time’s sake—was none other than a smiling Ellen Davignon, the author who was ready to share some stories with four travellers on the trail of a plant named for the granddad she remembered so fondly. I love that kind of luck.

My 700 paper bags of moss are now fully dried and (thanks to our fabulous summer student, Emilie Viau!) sorted into batches for identification and accession into the National Herbarium of Canada. The information gleaned from them will become part of the growing territorial biodiversity database managed expertly by the Yukon Conservation Data Centre.

View of waterfall along steep cliff.

One of the waterfalls in northern BC where Porsild’s Bryum was first recorded in 2003. It was a steep climb! None of the team was game to climb to the topmost falls, which is where the nimble grad students that were there a decade ago reported seeing the largest number of colonies. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Both public resources support countless projects for research, resource management, and education, and will continue to do so long after we are pushing up daisies … and moss, too!

This entry was posted in Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Yukon Quest for Rare Mosses Provides Priceless Memories

  1. Nicole says:

    Great post Jennifer! Your mossy adventure sounds wonderful (well, maybe not the mosquito and flat tire parts). Congratulations on a successful field trip!

  2. April Hurst says:

    Great blog! Wonderful adventure to hear about. Thanks for all the twitter photos too!

  3. Jean Faubert says:

    Nice Jennifer, I’m sure you did enjoyed. I quite like your post. As for mosquitoes and black flies, I have a method : just ignore them 🙂

  4. Pingback: An unfinished story…assessing the status of Porter’s Twisted Moss | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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