Blackflies, begone! Studying the plants of northern Ontario’s peatlands.

As I reported in emails home to my “muddah” and “faddah”, Muketei Camp, with its clouds of voracious black flies, might seem to have some things in common with the infamous Camp Granada from the 1963 novelty song. However, going home early from the drill camp, which was two flights (float plane, then helicopter) past the end of the road, never crossed my mind.

A float place beside a dock. A helicopter taking off from a dock.

(top) The float plane we took from Nakina to Koper Lake, the closest landing lake to our camp. (bottom) The helicopter leaving from the Koper Lake pad (which is connected with the Koper float plane dock) with the first load of scientists and gear bound for Muketei Camp, just a few minutes’ flight away. Images: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A Pitcher plant.

This Pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), like most of the bog vascular plants we encountered, is rooted in a carpet of Rusty bog moss (Sphagnum fuscum). Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I mean “drill camp” in the mining sense—many of the visitors who make Muketei their temporary home are drillers, exploring the region’s mineral resources. Different treasure—specimens and data—brought me to this camp in remote northern Ontario, located about 75 km southeast of the Ojibway community of Webequie.

Potential changes in the nature of human activity in Ontario’s Ring of Fire make it prime time to capture a snapshot of the current state of the environment, including the terrestrial vegetation.

A Bog laurel in bloom.

Flowering season in the North: one of many perks to our peatland work! Bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia) bloomed profusely at some of our sites. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Accordingly, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change assembled a crew consisting of Ministry team lead Murray Dixon and three botany specialists—one for each of three organisms that grow most abundantly in the vast, soggy far north of the province: mosses (that’s me), lichens (Dr. Troy McMullin, University of Guelph), and sedges (Dr. Tyler Smith, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada).

Our job was to scrutinize (identify and, in several ways, measure) these plants and lichens within carefully defined squares and strips of land. By faithfully recording our observations and methodology, we hope to equip future researchers to detect environmental change when they visit the same sites.

Two scientists put metal stakes in ground at a sampling site.

After documenting each plot with photos, measurements, and species names, metal stakes marking the corners of our sites remained to guide the next researchers to visit this plot. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Thrillingly, this chance to contribute to a valuable project also put us botany nerds right in the middle of a big, juicy gap in many distribution maps for plants and lichens.  Accessing these kinds of areas not only allows us to learn what’s in those tantalizing blank patches, but it also gives us a chance to place the hard evidence of our findings in our herbarium collections, to be drawn on by projects that have been stymied by the same perplexing gaps.

Mosses on the floor of a bog.

A bog floor garden. The further north one travels, the more the competitive advantage shifts toward tough lichens and bryophytes, as compared with vascular plants. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Other crews were at Muketei Camp too, studying the ground and surface waters that define the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Eighty-five percent of the land from northwest Quebec to northeast Manitoba consists of muskeg—bogs and fens—saturated with this water. Between our camp and field sites, we flew over astoundingly beautiful water-signature patterns that are only apparent from the air. Wherever we landed, we found ourselves in urgently blooming, northern peatland gardens, which make the most of brief access to liquid water between long, frozen winters.

Practically speaking, all that water also meant that I wore rubber boots for 11 days straight…even on the plane, as it turned out, since strict weight restrictions limited our total gear to 40 pounds (about 18 kg) *including* carry-on luggage!  After removing more than half of what I originally intended to pack, I could still meet this criterion only by wearing my rubber boots for the flight.

View of the peatland landscape.

Incredible patterns develop in northern peatlands, according to factors such as the flow of water and the distribution of permafrost. Finding a place to land was sometimes a challenge in this water-dominated landscape! Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Botanist Troy McMullin wears bug protection clothing as blackflies swarm around.

University of Guelph lichenologist Troy McMullin demonstrates the Hudson’s Bay Lowland dress code, while blackflies demonstrate why it is a good idea to suit up in this way, regardless of high temperatures. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

And it was worth every minute! This being my second year at Muketei, I have an idea of the value the specimens we brought back will score for the project and for the National Herbarium when the winter’s lab work is done. Under the guise of mudslinging between devotees of “higher” vs. “lower” plants, or of plants vs. lichens, I also secretly pilfered skills, knowledge and ideas from my esteemed colleagues, and absconded with awesome fluorescent lichens to share with museum visitors. More on those another time…there’s no end to the cool stuff around here to write home about!

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

One Response to Blackflies, begone! Studying the plants of northern Ontario’s peatlands.

  1. Pingback: Fluorescent Lichens: Dazzling Creatures of Light | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s