Biodiversity Monitoring Project – a Wild Month in the Boonies

Well, this blog post took a tad longer than August to write. After getting back from my month-long trip up north with Dave Mossop I was not super eager to get back into computer life, and then school and a new part-time job started up and kept me busy. However, with classes ending I have time to sit down and write about my last month assisting with Dave’s Biodiversity Monitoring Project in July. Be warned – this is a long blog post!!!!

 

On June 26th we hit the road for Dawson in a flashy red rental truck, towing Dave’s river boat on the trailer behind us. I was looking forward to the adventure ahead, but also nervous in the face of such a new experience. I had no idea what to expect.

Dave Mossop monitoring a Peregrin nest.

Dave Mossop monitoring a Peregrin nest.

Our first week was spent on the Yukon River doing Peregrine Falcon surveys, with Dawson as our center point. We set up camp this first night in the Yukon River Campground and enjoyed cheesecake and a couple of drinks in the Downtown Hotel before heading out the next morning. The first 3 days we spent travelling downriver where the river gradually became wider and wider, until only a few kilometers from the Alaska border, it seemed to be more a lake than a river. We got caught in a big thunderstorm that followed our metal boat directly overhead on the way back to Dawson, but we kept on going with Dave’s belief that “no one gets stuck by lightning. You need a little more risk in your life, kid!” Up river from Dawson we saw several cow Moose, some with calves; at one point we came across a cow and her calf attempting to swim across the river.

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Spotted Sandpiper Nest

Spotted Sandpiper Nest

At our turn-around point camping location, another storm rolled in. We quickly set up camp on top of a sand bar, pinned down tent flies and weighted them down with our packs to ensure nothing would blow away while we got back in the boat to check the last Peregrine Falcon nest in the area. Wind screamed down the river, thunder boomed, and it started to rain. It was lucky that we decided to come back when we did, for when we came around the corner approaching camp I was horrified to see my tent upside down at the water’s edge, with all of my belongings inside of it. Apparently the wind was strong enough to roll the tent to the water, despite the weight of my heavy pack and sleeping bag inside of it, and the pins. I’m so lucky to not have lost it – even months later I feel deep relief in reflecting on that moment.

Camp

Camp

After a week, we made it back to Dawson alive and had to start thinking of our next big trip up north, the canoe trip down the Eagle, Bell, and Porcupine Rivers. We stocked up on groceries and picked up a couple of guys who flew in to join us from Old Crow: Peter Able and Clifton Nukon. One of Dave’s colleagues from the Yukon Research Center joined us from Whitehorse and took responsibility of driving the truck to Inuvik after we set sail on the Eagle River in the Dempster. We would pick it up in Inuvik a few weeks later.

While in Dawson I took some abstract photos of some of the old relics.

While in Dawson I took some abstract photos of some of the old relics.

It was very smokey in Dawson and up the Dempster due to nearby forest fires. My head ached and eyes burned for several days.

It was very smokey in Dawson and up the Dempster due to nearby forest fires. My head ached and eyes burned for several days.

The big day came the next day. All loaded up, we drove up the Dempster Highway to Eagle Plains and put our two large canoes (2 people in each) into the Eagle River. Checking that we hadn’t forgotten anything, we said goodbye to Dave’s colleague and shoved off from shore to begin our Peregrin surveys. At that point I was excited to get into the river and paddle, knowing that I would be in Old Crow for the first time two weeks later and that I would be seeing some incredible scenery along the way.

Dave and Clifton on the Eagle River

Dave and Clifton on the Eagle River

The river was high and fast-flowing from all of the rain the territory had been receiving before we got there, and because we were moving with the current we made speeds of up to 12km/h sometimes. The weather could not have been better the whole trip; it was usually clear and sunny and warm, with even a couple of hot, sunburn days and just two days of gloomy, windy weather. During the trip we all tanned brown as berries. The bugs were not bad on the river; swarms of horseflies followed us down the Eagle River and partway down the Bell, but cleared off after that. Usually we moved too fast for mosquitoes to catch up to us, but when they did a bit of bug spray kept them away. The only times when they were insufferable were the times when I had to truck off somewhere in the tundra to (being a woman) expose my posterior and other lower extremities to the hoards of blood-sucking beasts that showed absolutely no mercy or discreteness as to where they bit. The only way I could stand it was to be releasing clouds of bug spray from the can I carried with me during my vulnerable state… a couple of times it was even still so bad I decided holding my bladder a while longer was a much better option. As we came nearer to Old Crow we found an outhouse; never have I found an outhouse to be such a luxury! After the first full day of paddling I woke up in the night because my arms, neck, and upper back burned so badly from new use of muscles, and for the next three days moving and sleeping were both agony. It didn’t take long for my muscles to adapt though, and I began looking forward to beginning our paddle every morning. By the time the two weeks ended I could have kept paddling forever.

Clifton and Dave

Clifton and Dave

"... the camps we made when their strength outplayed, and the day was dim and wan; oh the joy of that blessed halt..." ~ R. Service, My Friends.

“… the camps we made when their strength outplayed, and the day was dim and wan; oh the joy of that blessed halt…” ~ R. Service, My Friends.

Porcupine River

Porcupine River

It’s amazing the things that we who live well-off in privileged modern society take for granted. I’m not talking about just indoor toilets, but clean water as well. Clean water never felt so amazing to me as it did when we reached Old Crow. Up until that point, we had been drinking either highly muddy water or stagnant tundra water. Dave had bought us all water bottles with filters, but after a day of Eagle River water these filters were destroyed. There was no way to clean them because the available river water all the way down the Eagle, Bell, and Porcupine was mud. We decided to try drinking some of the creek water that drained into the river; creeks we called them, but they were pretty stagnant and we didn’t have any purification tablets. Clear, but brown in colour and full of little swimming larvae and microscopic parasites. It satisfied our thirst though. Washing to get clean in the river water was impossible because of its high silt content, but it rinsed off the sweat and left intricate dust patterns on my arms when it dried.

Where the "creeks" met the river

Where the “creek” meets the river

The clear water of the creek meets the muddy water of the Eagle River

The clear water of the creek meets the muddy water of the Eagle River

We saw a lot of wildlife along the way. Moose were abundant as were Beavers, and we saw one lone wolf. Birds were the main focus of our trip, and we got great views of Peregrine Falcons, Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Hawk Owls, a Great Horned Owl, a Great Gray Owl sitting on a nest with a chick, lots of Spotted Sandpipers, Canada and Greater White-fronted Geese, and heard lots of Alder and Hammond’s Flycatchers, and even a few Yellow-bellied Flycatchers. Dave had me and Clifton chase after young geese so he could band them, which was often an extremely comical undertaking. The goose families would see us from a long ways away and start honking and running, so we would paddle as fast as we could towards them, jump out of the boat when we hit shore, and undertake a literal goose-chase through the thickest thickets of willow or steepest hills the little geese could find. They ran like chickens – darting side to side and backwards when you thought you almost had them. Nonetheless, we ended up using all of Dave’s bands – more than 30!

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Great Gray Owl on a nest - the chick hidden behind.

Great Gray Owl on a nest – the chick hidden behind.

Bull Moose

Bull Moose

Dave banding a young Canada Goose

Dave banding a young Canada Goose

Geese weren’t the only birds we banded; Dave possesses a permit to band Peregrine Falcons, and we found one nest that was accessible. After a difficult climb up the steep, unstable slope with both parents dive-bombing my head (I was closest to the nest), we made it up to the nest which was on a small ledge in the slope, sheltered by a juniper berry bush, and carpeted with a layer of bones, feathers, and gore. Four chicks sat on the nest – two large females and two small males, the smallest being a starving runt on the verge of death. The largest female gazed boldly up at me with her huge feet stuck straight out in front of her, her beak slightly open, a whole thrush leg sticking ungainly out of her throat. At first glace the ugliest babies I had ever lain eyes on, but they quickly grew on me as I admired their fuzz and comic-book characters. Dave let me band the largest three under his supervision – the smallest was too small to keep the band on, and didn’t have much longer to live.

Peregrin Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrin Falcon chicks on a nest

Peregrine Falcon chicks on a nest

The largest female

The largest female

I enjoyed the expedition to Old Crow, but I have to admit to bad homesickness and to what a relief it was to come around a bend in the Porcupine River one day and have the Vuntut Gwitchin community of Old Crow appear ahead of schedule, only ten days after leaving Eagle Plains.

Porcupine River

Old Crow, along the Porcupine River

Our motley crew

Our motley crew

After that, my “work” was pretty much over. We spent a week in Old Crow visiting and playing crib with some of the elders, sleeping, watching TV and birding. A friend of mine from the Yukon College (and a resident of Old Crow), Kibbe, took me for tours of the town and partway up nearby Crow Mountain with his quad, where we continued on foot to the top and experienced spectacular views of the area. I could see the big Porcupine River winding its way through the tundra, and Crow River on the other side of Old Crow. Behind us Kibbe pointed out the edge of Old Crow flats which you could just see on the horizon. Other days he invited me for breakfast and once treated me to a dinner of roasted Caribou head, local cuisine! It was my first time trying tongue, which I was surprised to like – but when he offered me the eyeball, “the best part,” I had to turn it down πŸ˜› Despite missing out on eyeballs, I feel like I got a good sense of what the community is like, thanks to Kibbe. I really hope to return there someday!

Kibbe on Crow Mountain, with the community of Old Crow in the background

Kibbe on Crow Mountain, with the community of Old Crow in the background

Me embarrassing Dave by acting touristy in Old Crow

Me embarrassing Dave by acting touristy in Old Crow

The part of our trip was Inuvik; we flew there on Air North and I got to behold the nearly full scope of the massive Mackenzie Delta below us. The size of this delta was extremely impressive – with the sun reflecting off the smooth lakes, creeks, and Canada’s largest and longest river – the Mackenzie River, the flat tundra landscape looked like a shattered mirror. In Inuvik Dave and I got to check out the Great Northern Arts Festival, which featured handmade products and artists from across the north. The highlight for me was seeing Iva, an Inuit woman and her band who combine traditional Inuit throat singing with Celtic folk music. I’ve never heard anything like that music in my life, it was so unique and heartfelt.

Birds lured me far north.... all the way to Inuvik! And hopefully one day even further north.

Birds lured me far north…. all the way to Inuvik! And hopefully one day even further north.

I had time alone in town while Dave went with a couple of biologists to do helicopter surveys of Peregrin Falcons along the Yukon’s north slope and Herschel Island, during which I spent some time exploring town, catching up with my family and partner, napping, and collecting tea plants. On the day Dave was to come back, I packed up camp, bought a take out pizza (the best I think I’ve ever eaten… or so it seemed at the time after having eaten dehydrated food for a couple weeks), gassed up the truck, and was completely ready to hit the road when Dave met me. I expected it to be a three day trip back to Whitehorse, but it ended up being two. With me driving, we made it from Inuvik to Eagle Plains in about 4 hours, and the next day from Eagle Plains to Dawson before noon. Just outside of Dawson, I had the most amazing surprise in finding that my partner, Ulrich, came to meet us part-way. It was a very special surprise for me after having been away for a month, and I rode with him the rest of the way back to Whitehorse.

The tundra plains up the Dempster Highway, near the NWT and YT border

The tundra plains up the Dempster Highway, near the NWT and YT border

And now here I am.

It was a pretty outstanding summer.

Sitting here in my college apartment after 4 months of classes, part-time secretary work, and little fresh air, it’s almost hard to believe that all of this happened. It was a memorable summer for sure, and a learning experience. I had fun re-accounting it through this blog post, and I hope that you will all enjoy it as well. If you made it to the end – it’s one of my longest posts, I think! πŸ™‚

Thanks for reading, and thank you for continuing to follow my blog despite my absence on it this year. Life is getting busier and busier, but I always hope to be able to write occasionally.

Next up, Christmas Bird Count Season! Merry Christmas everyone πŸ™‚

 

 

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