Days 3 and 4 (Will)
Monday we got our rental car, bought a buttload of food and officially hit the road! Our journey took us up the Alaska Hwy to the Klondike Hwy and Dempster – an 8-hour journey that would eventually take us to Tombstone Campground on the Dempster Hwy. It seemed like we’d see a darner dragonflies along every kilometer of the Klondike; they were everywhere! We stopped a few times to collect them and they all seemed to be Aeshna interrupta (Variable Darner). The scenery along our drive was spectacular: thick conifer, aspen and birch forest in all directions and lots of mountain and river views. It kept getting later and later as we stopped to collect and take photos, although it only looked like early evening based on the sun.
We finally arrived at the Dempster – the long, winding highway that we’d be following for the next 2 weeks of our trip – a little after 8 PM. The first kilometer or so of the highway is paved and the rest is gravel! Mind you, it’s the most well-maintained gravel road I’ve ever ridden on, but it’s definitely gravel. Sections can be washed out or full of potholes and washboarding, but generally it was in surprisingly good condition. It was so drivable that we actually saw a Smart Car driving on it! Anyway, we got to Tombstone around 10 PM (it was still very light), found a nice tent campsite, and Manpreet cooked a lovely dinner, which we ate around 11 PM! When we went to bed a little before midnight, the sun had gone down behind the Ogilvie Mountains, but it was still bright twilight.
I woke up really early Tuesday morning, excited to start the day. The previous day we’d basically thrown all of our groceries into the back of our suburban (who we named Belinda) and it was in complete disarray, so I reorganized all of our food and supplies to my satisfaction. Aaah, much better. Manpreet got up a little later and we had a nice breakfast at our campsite. We packed up, checked out the Tombstone Interpretive Centre, and headed north through the Ogilvie Mountains and more magnificent views.
At this point, I should tell you a little about the life history of dragonflies (and damselflies). The flying insects that you know as dragonflies are actually just the adult stage – winged aerial acrobats that are voracious predators of small insects, like mosquitoes and flies. Adults mate near water and females lay eggs in still or flowing water; different species prefer different habitat types. Small, spidery larvae then hatch from those eggs and begin the aquatic phase of their lifecycle. The larvae (like the adults) are predators, only they feed on other aquatic organisms: insects, other arthropods, worms, and even fish and tadpoles! Like other insects, dragonfly larvae shed their skins several times as they grow, and eventually crawl out of the water onto nearby vegetation and hatch out as an adult, leaving a larval skin behind (called an exuvia). Dragonflies go through incomplete metamorphosis, meaning that they have no pupal stage, like butterflies, beetles and many other insects. Instead, their wings form during the larval stage, folded up in special pockets (wing pads) on the thorax of the larva. Damselflies, are the thinner, daintier cousins of dragonflies and have the same life cycle. Together, dragonflies and damselflies comprise the insect order Odonata, and we call them odonates, or “odes” for short. On this trip we’re looking for arctic odes of any stage: larvae or adults. Our highest goal is to collect individuals of the Treeline Emerald (Somatochlora sahlbergi).
Anyway, back to the story… A few kilometers up the Dempster, we saw a large pond a few hundred meters from the road that looked like it would be fun to try out for collecting larvae and adults. It was surrounded by thick, spongy moss, grass and shrubs – the kind of terrain that I’m calling “tundra” even though Manpreet says that I might be misusing this term. We pulled over, put on our waders, gathered our nets and equipment, and started walking. This terrain is very deceptive; it looks like flowing grassland from the road, but is actually moss hummocks surrounded by soft, sinky low spots in between, with large expanses of shrubs that make walking very difficult. Your feet are constantly being twisted or you are falling into what you thought was firm ground. We finally got to the pond and immediately saw a darner dragonfly. Excellent! We tried a few dips with our aquatic net in the muddy substrate and mossy edges, but didn’t find any larvae. There were, however, lots of fairy shrimp (think sea monkeys). We walked around the edge, dipping along the way, and weren’t able to get anything else – no larvae, no adults. But, the view was absolutely stunning! The pond was nested at the base of a valley with high mountains on all sides. So green, so peaceful and quiet. What a wonderful place! After several more net dips and no luck, we decided to give up and start the difficult trek back to Belinda.
We headed on northward on the Dempster, stopping at overlooks, stopping to take pictures of a bald eagle that landed in a tree beside us (wow!), and generally enjoying the indescribable beauty around every turn. We tried several more potential collecting spots and got a few darner larvae, but were getting a little discouraged that we weren’t finding any emerald dragonflies. Several hours later we made it to Engineer Creek Campground, our stop for the night, only to discover that it was closed for several days due to a bear sighting there a few days ago! Distraught, we kept driving toward Eagle Plains, the next campground and another several hours away. Hours later, and uncountable vistas later, we arrived at Eagle Plains, found a campsite, and got ready for bed. What a long day!
Day 5 (Manpreet)
We woke up to a beautiful, although still quite windy morning up here at Eagle Plains. Since Eagle Plains is at the top of a ridge the landscape around it is very picturesque. Also this place has hot showers and other facilities, which is amazing. We made couple of (very expensive) long distance phone calls back home. Soon after this we were on road again headed to sites about 20 Km from our campsite. These roadside (small) ponds matched the description of the Somatochlora habitat described in scientific literature. We did not see any dragonflies flying, which we were expecting because this time of the year is a little past the flying season for most of the dragonflies. Hence, we are concentrating on collecting dragonfly larvae (babies), which are found in water. These larvae can be collected by using a water net called a dip net (think of a fishing net only smaller and with a much finer mesh). Anyhow, three dip net samples and sure enough we find our first Somatochlora larva. As we were looking at the larva for all its identifying features, we were squealing with excitement. This spot turned out to be a great spot as we collected a lot of Somatochlora and Aeshna larvae. We were also able to collect adult Aeshna dragonflies at this spot. Our next site, site number 2 of the day did not yield much and we moved on to out next site. Site # 3 turned out to be another excellent spot. Not only did we collect a lot of Somatochlora and Aeshna larvae and Aeshna adults, we also for the first time saw and caught a Somatochlora adult. Somatochlora adults are some of the most beautiful dragonflies, which have emerald eyes and metallic thorax. Rest of our sites for the day did not produce much and we went back to Eagle Plains hotel for lunch (yummy and greasy food). After that we decide to drive to the Arctic circle crossing. One of the most striking features that we saw on this trip to Artic circle was what Will and I call the tree graveyard. It seems like all the conifers were burnt in a forest fire and what remains of them are just tall and slender burnt tree trunks. Contrasting to this is the very lush and green moss and horsetails growing on the ground. Together these make a very striking sight.
We got to Arctic circle around 4:30 in the evening. Lat 66° 33’ is on the top a mountain and it provides beautiful view of the surrounding scenery. For the rest of the blog for this day I will let the pictures do most of the talking because my words would not do justice to this beautiful place. When we got to the Arctic Circle it was really bright and sunny but after a while it started getting cloudy. Soon these clouds turned into a big thunderstorm that we saw rolling in from the east side. While on the west side the clouds covered the mountains in a mist, reminding us of the “misty mountains” from the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. At this point both Will and I are speechless, just staring at these incredible vistas and trying our best to capture it with our camera. However, soon enough the thunderstorm is almost upon us and we decide to get back in the car. Though we were a minute too late. As soon as we got in the car the rain turns into a hail and before we knew it turned into a hailstorm. A HAILSTORM! Marble sized hails start pelting our car. SO LOUD! We were stranded on top of this ridge and in no time ground around us is white and we can’t see anything in the distance. It was so beautiful and so scary at the same time (mostly scary). After about 10-15 minutes however this hailstorm starts to dwindle as it moved further west and we could see it hail over the “misty mountains”. All of this however did not conclude our evening since we came back to two more big thunderstorms at our campground (Eagle Plains). We had just enough time to cook and get back in the car, where we slept that night.