William R. Kuhn, PhD


Into the Arctic


Our trip is over now and we’re behind on our posts, but we’ll catch up this week so you can hear about the rest of the trip! Here is our account of days 6-10.

Days 6 - 10 (Will & Manpreet)

Eagle Plains had a cold, gray, windy morning on August 6th. I thought the grayness was kind of beautiful, but Manpreet (apparently solar powered) was a bit blue. After a quick breakfast, we drove back to the Arctic Circle and just sat there in Belinda (the suburban) and identified our larvae from the previous day. (No hailstorm this time.) We had been super excited as the larvae were definitely Somatochlora, but now as we looked at them—Manpreet carefully drying their butts with toilet paper to get a better look at their hind appendages—we discovered that they were most likely S. albicincta (Ringed Emerald). The features that differentiate these two species are very subtle and it was hard to tell, but alas, they didn’t seem to be the S. sahlbergi that we were looking for.

Manpreet identifying larvae at the Arctic Circle
Manpreet identifying larvae at the Arctic Circle

We spent the rest of the day driving toward Fort McPherson (the southern-most of the 2 towns along the Dempster). Gray clouds hung low over everything and as we approached the border between the Yukon and Northwest Territories (km 468), the temperature began to fall. At the border, grass and shrubs were covered in a thick layer of ice and it was -1° C! The first 40 or so km east of the border were the most beautiful. Sweeping green landscape, rolling hills and a few taller mountains. Because the clouds were hanging low over everything, we imagined the mountains to be much taller than we later discovered and we dubbed them the Misty Mountains. Eventually the road got really muddy along a long stretch just west of the Peel River ferry crossing. At the crossing itself, the road was also muddy and just kind of ended as we boarded the ferry and started up again on the other side. The ferryman was a friendly First Nations man who told us how the unseasonably cool and rainy weather was affecting his caribou and whale hunting this season. Fascinating!

At the border of Yukon and Northwest Territories
At the border of Yukon and Northwest Territories
The ice-covered grass under the NWT sign above
The ice-covered grass under the NWT sign above
Into the 'Misty Mountains'
Into the 'Misty Mountains'
The Peel River ferry crossing
The Peel River ferry crossing

We finally arrived at Fort McPherson (km 557), our northernmost destination, and were elated to have cell phone signal, gas, and 2 grocery stores! After making a few calls to check in, we just walked around one of the grocery stores admiring all the produce and other stuff that had somehow made it all the way up there. We did a bit of collecting outside of Fort McPherson and camped at Nutuiluie Campground nearby. It was lovely and had hot water and showers!

1 of the 2 grocery stores in the tiny town of Fort McPherson, NWT
1 of the 2 grocery stores in the tiny town of Fort McPherson, NWT

The next morning was bright, sunny and warm, raising our spirits. After doing some collecting nearby (our most productive morning of the trip!), we cooked lunch at our campsite, which we planned to occupy that evening. To mark it, we left our stove, a gas can full of extra gas, and a jug of water (a practice we’d seen others do at the other campgrounds we’d seen) while we went out for more collecting. When we returned, only the water was there; our primary means of cooking and the fuel for it had been taken and were gone! We could cook over a fire without a stove, and we did that night, it was just so slow and had been so convenient (especially for my morning coffee) to just light up our stove and go. We sulked in our campsite, and then some campground neighbors invited us over to sit around the fire with them. We’d met them the previous night and had seen them at Eagle Plains, too. (One very nice thing about the Dempster is that you end up meeting a lot of people who are going up or down it with you and you see them time and again. You make Dempster friends!) Anyway, we had a nice fireside chat, told them what we were doing, and listened to their story. They, Peter and Diana, were helping a friend, Dan, who was 84 and had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, to bike up the Dempster. They were his support crew and helped him make daily treks along each section of the highway. His goal was to ride “EFI: every f___ing inch” and to show the world that you can do anything you set your mind to. He was well on his way toward accomplishing this goal. Amazing! As the evening wound down, Peter brought out a box from their camper and gave it to us; it was their spare stove and some propane cans. Having heard of our stove-related woes, they were just giving us this stove. We were taken aback by this incredibly generous act! The next morning I chopped some firewood for them (with this cool axe that we’d found next to a pond at one of our collecting sites) and gave it to them as thanks. Such nice people!

Attempting to cook over a fire after our gas stove was stolen
Attempting to cook over a fire after our gas stove was stolen
Peter cleaning Dan's 3-wheeled (recumbant?) bike
Peter cleaning Dan's 3-wheeled (recumbant?) bike

The next morning we talked to the camp manager, a kindly First Nations elder, thinking that maybe someone had just brought our “taken” items to the campground office. No such luck. But the elder was heartbroken to hear that someone had taken our items at his campground, which apparently had never happened in the 20+ years that he’d been there. He insisted upon giving us some money, and he actually went on the local radio station to report the incident and to scold the young locals who the thought were responsible. Back in town, we replaced our stove (they had the very same model!) for a reasonable amount of money, topped off our gas, and, happening to see Peter and Diana in town, returned their items and thanked them profusely. There was so much kindness in this place!

The axe I found at the edge of one of our ponds, which we lovingly named Tina. Manpreet is convinced that a murderer disposed of it there, but, murder weapon or not, she definitely came in handy!
The axe I found at the edge of one of our ponds, which we lovingly named Tina. Manpreet is convinced that a murderer disposed of it there, but, murder weapon or not, she definitely came in handy!
Six <i>Aeshna juncea</i> perched on the bark of a birch tree at Nutuiluie Campground!
Six Aeshna juncea perched on the bark of a birch tree at Nutuiluie Campground!

After more collecting we drove back toward the Misty Mountains. The skies were clear this time and the mountains and streams passing through them were spectacular. At one point we stopped to admire a wall of rock that had been carved into by a stream following the road. The geological strata formed wavy black and white lines, indicating some major upheaval in this area since the layers were first formed. As we were heading back to the car, something caught my eye above our car and we noticed an eagle (probably a Golden Eagle) next to a very large nest on the cliffside. We’d happened to park right underneath it and it had apparently been watching us the whole time. A little further down the road we stopped at this medium-sized pond a few hundred meters from the road nestled in the sweeping tundra and surrounded by mountains. As before, the walk to the pond across the tundra looked so easy, but was full of foot twisting, sinking moss. It was beautiful though, as was the pond. There were several unidentified ducks and that was it: no sounds except a light wind and the humming of a few insects. So peaceful. As we collected there, hazy smoke started to blow in over the mountains south of us. (We later learned that it was from a fire in Alaska.) Upon walking back toward the car, I stopped in a particularly spongy looking pad of moss and dug into it just to see what it looked like underneath. The top inch or so was blue-green and the rest was brown and probably at least a foot thick. I dug down as far as I could and poked a thermometer into it, which read 3°C (38°F)! The permafrost was apparently just under our feet. We driving, past the now pleasantly warm border, and south the Rock River Campground (km 447), where we camped for the night.

Fireweed. This stuff was everywhere along the Dempster
Fireweed. This stuff was everywhere along the Dempster
On our way back south from Fort McPherson. Mind you, we flew and were flying out of Whitehorse!
On our way back south from Fort McPherson. Mind you, we flew and were flying out of Whitehorse!
Back through the Misty Mountains
Back through the Misty Mountains
A golden eagle and its nest
A golden eagle and its nest

Collecting around Rock River the next day wasn’t especially notable save for our last site. We were driving back toward the campground have more-or-less had our fill of collecting for the day, when we saw this small pond a ways from the road, past a wall of sparse shrubs and occasional trees; it was nothing special except that it didn’t seem to have any shrubs around it like most of the ponds we’d seen. It just sort of a hole in the tundra. Upon trekking down to it, we found that it was a bog surrounded by the normal spongy moss, and edged with large floating mats of moss and sedges. The mats were at least a foot thick: buoyant enough to support me as I gingerly walked out onto some of them in my waders. I could stand in one spot for just a few seconds before I’d start to sink into the cold, tea-colored, and apparently very deep waters. At one point I actually went in far enough for my right wader to fill up, but was able to get out just in time to keep from going all the way into the frigid waters. Yikes! It was here that we saw some of our first Somatochlora adults; they were patrolling the edges and laying eggs on the moss mats. We were able to get a couple of the adults, which turned out to, unfortunately, also be S. albicincta, and lots of larvae that also appeared to be the same. I think this was my favorite site of the trip though: this giant hole in the tundra. It was so cold and deep! So cool! Our campsite (again at Rock River) that night was right next to the river. We followed the river upstream and found a place where white met orange: this white stream, perhaps colored by calcium, flowed into the orange-colored river. Very strange!

The 'hole in the tundra'--one of our coolest collecting sites!
The 'hole in the tundra'--one of our coolest collecting sites!
Most of the grass in the foreground, especially to the right is just floating on water. If you stand on it you'll sink into the deep, dark, cold water! The brown patches in the water are also just floating there.
Most of the grass in the foreground, especially to the right is just floating on water. If you stand on it you'll sink into the deep, dark, cold water! The brown patches in the water are also just floating there.
A male <i>S. albicincta</i> perching on one of the few trees near that site
A male S. albicincta perching on one of the few trees near that site
Behind Rock River Campground: the confluence of two streams, one white and one orange
Behind Rock River Campground: the confluence of two streams, one white and one orange
Rocks in the white stream had a creamy film on them
Rocks in the white stream had a creamy film on them

The next day, we tried a few sites, rejected lots more that weren’t quite Somatochlora-like, and found one particular site that was just crawling with Somat. larvae. We got 15-20 larvae in less than 30 minutes. Nice! We stopped at the Arctic Circle once again and made lunch there, stopped along the way to look at another “tree graveyard”, where a fire had apparently come through a few years back, and got to Eagle Plains. We’d reserved a room at the hotel there for this, the approximate halfway point of our trip, although I’d been enjoying the camping, I was very excited to take a shower and spend the night in a bed! We had a pleasant dinner at the EP restaurant and played on their WIFI, then went back to our room. Manpreet did some larvae identifying, while I worked on this travel blog. With better lighting and a desktop on which to lay out her specimens, she discovered that a few of our larvae were a little different than the rest: they had slightly longer spines here, and a slightly longer appendage there, a few more hairs on their mouthparts, and looked a little darker in color. I checked her assessment and we came to the conclusion that we probably had at least three S. sahlbergi larvae out of the 100-200 specimens that we’d collected so far and those three had come from the sites we’d visited the previous week right near Eagle Plains! Finally, it looked like we had some of the species we’d come for! We slept a satisfied slumber in our comfy beds that night.


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