The study of arctic insects in Northern Canada was begun in the 1950s by the Northern insect Survey, Department of National Defence, Canada. In the past it was fashionable to to think of “High Arctic Refugia” and published maps showed large areas in northern Greenland that were believed to be ice-free, hence potentially capable of supporting life during the Wisconsinan Glaciation. The Entomology Research Institute of Agriculture Canada even mounted a field party in 1966 to look for endemic insects etc., that would be found in Greenland if Peary Land had been a refugium. Since then, the northern parts of Yukon and Alaska have been universally accepted as not only ice-free areas during the Wisconsinan, but areas that, for millions of years, must have supported a diverse biota, and must have served as extensive refugia for a wide diversity of Arctic organisms that quickly recolonized the Canadian Arctic as it opened up during each postglaciation.
Field parties during the 1960s - 1980’s mostly supported by Polar Continental Shelf Project, had penetrated many previously inaccessible areas of the western Arctic, especially into mountains of northern Yukon that were formerly unknown entomological and even botanically. During 1984-1987, selected parts of the British, Richardson and Ogilvie Mountains, especially at higher elevations, were intensively studied, thanks to helicopter support from Polar Shelf. Superficially similar, each mountain range is different, yet there are parameters in common. For example, a conspicuous, pale grey, dolomitic formation, that makes up most of the Ogilvie Mountains, appears as scattered outposts to the north. this formation supports some rather unusual biota, dominated by plants requiring calcareous soils. It was the intention of the 1987 party to determine the extent of this habitat and whether this unusual biota was found wherever the rocks occurred.
The 1987 field party zeroed in on a remote isolated island of this unique habitat in the northern Richardson mountains, the White Mountains, an anomalous massif of dolomitic rocks many kilometres distance from similar formations in the Ogilvie Mountains. The biota of the White Mountains proved to be quite depauperate, with the insect biota present mostly also found in the Ogilvie Mountains, and on the few dolomitic peaks sampled in the Fish Creek valley and the British Mountains. Yet, there were surprises; species found only in the White Mountains and in the Arctic Archipelago, suggesting that the White Mountains are distinct from other dolomitic massifs.
July 2, 1987
Dear Mum and Dad,
This has been an amazing trip as most trips to Yukon are. This one is slightly different because somewhere in the planning, I realized that I was organizing the trip and that’s slightly stressful. But today Mary and I hiked the tundra for many hours and had a ball. She’s quite exhausted and is lying on the floor of our Logan tent, the tent that is meant to withstand incredible winds. We are here, because its very cold outside and the mosquitoes are horrendous. She’s all wrapped up in a vast down jacket, cosily reading.
Let me describe how we got here. We had all met in Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon, provisioning our campers with enough basic food for 8 people for 3 weeks. And started along the Klondike highway to Dawson city. The Klondike was made famous by the Gold Rush of 1898, but may be more so by the poems of Robert Service from which Dad used to quote to us as children. I know all about “Dangerous Dan McGrew” and could quote long passages from “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, and so it was wonderful that we spent our first night camping on the shores of Lac Laberge and toasted our luck to be in the Yukon by the bright daylight of midnight. For those new to the north daylight at midnight is a shock, but we would be travelling over 1000km further north and would experience many Midnight Suns. Roy’s luggage didn’t arrive with him in Whitehorse, but the next day we found out that it would be forwarded to Dawson. At Dawson we joined the Dempster Highway, one of the last driving thrills in North America - 765km of gravelled 2-lane road, with no side-roads, no small towns and only one petrol station and garage along its length.
So we formed a travelling caravan of 3 campers on the historic Klondike and rugged Dempster Highways, north from Whitehorse, stopping at will to collect arthropods in the subarctic and arctic habitats on the way to Inuvik. Our scientific interests were mainly the mountain ranges north of Dawson, the Ogilvie and Richardson Mountains. But we stopped to collect at the many short-grass Artemisia slopes rising above the Klondike Highway. We settled in at the Yukon Fire Station in Dawson. As on many previous occasions throughout the years, the Manager of the Station kindly provided “base-camp” facilities to us group of biologists, allowing us to get organized before we broached the Dempster. Of course, we had to visit Diamond Tooth Gerties, with its floor-show, bar and casino, and chance an entomological fortune (about $10 each) on blackjack tables. Nothing like filling up on culture for the dry spell ahead!
I had promised the newcomers on the trip - Mary and Roy - sun through the Ogilvies. That was the way I remembered it, climbing the hills beyond Northfork Pass to collect mites, or watching cloud shadows darken the tundra from Pyramid Mountain. For spite, this time it rained, in fact, it poured and hailed and sleeted. We met Linda and Jim Troubridge at Northfork Pass. Linda was going home and Jim would leave her to the airport, then drive north to join us. We bundled into the largest camper for meals, heat and chat, in between mad forays to collect anything that moved when the rain lightened. Mary and I were sharing Syd’s camper, the others were in Monty’s camper, with Roy tenting. The soaking rain was Mary’s low point. Also, the mosquitoes were awful. We moved our camp about 14km up the road and Roy and I set up extractors in a tent running off a genrator. It was another lousy day and the generator would only survive 3 hours on a tank of gas. Mary was giving the Yukon until Inuvik to improve, or she was flying back south. Luckily the trip did improve, she caught her first grayling, saw a golden eagle soar, crossed the arctic circle in a magical sun and rainbow filled midnight sky and saw her first grizzly at km465. At a more mundane level she had also caught up on laundry at the Eagle Plains Oasis, the only gas stop on the Dempster Highway.
This Highway between Northfork Pass and the Richardson Mountains must be one of the most spectacular highways in the world, with extraordinary peaks and vistas, fast-flowing rivers, an awesomely beautiful landscape. Then in the middle of this beauty is Eagle Plains Motel and campsite. what they call “An Oasis in the Desert”, though the reciprocal would be truer. However, it does have the only gas, store, bar, shower along the Dempster, so we all had showers and did laundry. We had supper in the camper and went to the bar for a drink, but rather than staying at Eagle Plains we decided to continue to the Richardson Mountains and so crossed the arctic circle in the light of the midnight sun at midnight - pretty cool. Roy was the only one of us who had never been across the arctic circle, so Mary and I carried him across. We got to our camp site about 2.30AM and we all collapsed asleep. We woke to someone shouting grizzly, and there was one about a mile from camp. We all got a good look at it through binoculars. The day was gorgeous and we had good collecting on the hills around km465. The following morning Syd was bringing Roy and me into Inuvik so that we could set up our extractors at the Research Station. Again, we woke up to a grizzly down the way, and the excitement of checking it out. finally we set off. There are 2 ferry crossings on the way, across the Mackenzie river, which are really enjoyable.
In Inuvik, I contacted John Ostrick, at the Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs, who opened the Research Station lab. for us and gave us access to showers - heaven. So the three of us had equipment all set up and were showered by the time we met up with the others for supper. I contacted the Polar Continental Shelf Project who were providing the helicopter support in the Richardsons. That night we packed for going to our field camp and it was a riot. I’m sure that Mary could have written a sociological paper on the procedure; I know that I retired to one of the campers for tea and to relax.
From Inuvik we and our copious gear were ferried across the MacKenzie Delta to our chosen site at the edge of the White Mountains in the Richardson Mountains. We chose this site, for its almost perfect topography for collecting: a short, steep valley with SW exposure, and with a rapid gain in elevation to the lingering snows at the head of the valley. The Creek running down the valley was fast, cold and permanent (based on its blackfly inhabitants) and flowed into a small river, reduced to a few main channels at that time of year, but most importantly with a large, level bank where the helicopter could land. Monty, Syd and I went in the first helicopter with the radio equipment, rifle and Logan tent, as the radio needs to be set up first.
By the time we had all been transported to the camp it had taken on a permanent air. We had erected the radio antenna and the Logan tent. The search for a flat area to pitch a tent had ended in failure for all except Syd, who with an unerring eye had staked out the only piece of flat real-estate in the valley. I set up my tent in the bushy “suburbs” close by the creek and well away from the concerto of snores I knew from experience would be the Camp’s nighttime Muzak. It was Jim who on arrival, christened our Valley, Erebia Creek, because of the hundreds of Erebia butterflies dancing in the sunlight above the carpet of lupins, Dryas, anemones and Saxifrages. Mary’s tent is close to that of Jim Troubridge, our best marksman in the group, who has 2 guns at the ready in his tent, and who is a Lepidopterist (butterfly expert). I’ve always been skeptical of rifles, although they are an essential piece of equipment on these arctic trips. Jim undertook to teach a few of us the basics, and given my incompetence, I’m glad that the only grizzly anyone saw near the camp, passed calmly by at 1.30AM while I was asleep. Later though I appreciated the rifles’ value for keeping pesky ground squirrels from taking over our tents.
We were spending a month collecting insects and mites in this remote, spectacular and biologically very interesting part of the Yukon arctic. We were colleagues and friends from various government and university departments in the USA and Canada. Besides Mary and myself, the others in the group are Monty Wood and Steve Marshall, both dipterists (fly specialists), Syd Cannings, who works on dragonflies, Roy Norton, my oribatid colleague, and Mike Polak, a student touring the arctic this summer, whom my CNC colleague, Lubomir Masner, subtly gifted to me. Lubomir had promised Mike’s mother, a Czech friend, that he would hook him up with any CNC group working in the arctic and so he has been adopted by the group. Mike is fantastic to have along, as he is willing for anything, he’s our best fisherman and Monty has adopted him as his “summer student”. Monty is the ‘eminence gris’ of the group, who had followed the progression of the Dempster from its inception, with annual collecting trips along whichever part was completed. He is extremely knowledgeable and can recognize the perfect habitat for collecting or camping. Steve, the dung and decay fly expert, has a wonderful smile, but the unfortunate propensity to collect all road kills and petrifying remains to use as bait for his insects!
And what always amazes me is that the group works, we all get along, can laugh together and generally are having a ball. Three of us, Monty, Syd and myself, had been on similar collecting trips before and fell easily into a previously established routine of who was best at cooking, tidying, decision making etc. Around this core the others arranged themselves, resulting in a group of 8 strongly independent but very compatible individuals. We were all in love with the North, the space, freedom, even from dark nights; any schedule was self-imposed.
The Logan tent is our radio room, library, laboratory, dining room in poor weather and general security blanket. It was designed to withstand conditions on Mount Logan, and has always lived up to its name. Its a double-walled affair, and with its countless ties, is not a tent to be set-up in a hurry. After supper 5 or 6 of us will pile into it to sit tightly around the folding table we have set up in it. We sit for hours commenting on the days insect catches, pinning insects, Mike stuffing a lemming and Roy and I getting the names for plants we have seen during the day from the arctic botanical bible - Hulten. Mary lies in the corner on the floor reading, or occasionally making cogent comments on the lemming nervous system to Mike, or on the peculiarities of entomologists “sitting around skewering insects with the concentration of all-night poker players”. Someone prepares hot chocolate; later Jim takes the day’s garbage to burn by the river, as we cannot afford to attract bears. Some of us follow him, add pieces of drift wood from the river banks to the fire, talk about the “goddam ground squirrels” who, once again, have messed up Steve’s baited traps. Its an arctic summer evening- cold, still, quiet, the sun catching ‘Norton-Tor’ which Roy will climb later to relax, watch caribou, with the rest of the camp sleeping.
Today Mary decided to join me on a hike up the valley. she takes her book with her, so that she can read while I sample. Along the way we pass Syd who is sweeping for insects along the gravel of the dried parts of the creek, where it turns into more of a river. And at the same time we can see Steve and Jim as tiny dots on the high mountains. Its about 60-65F with a wind blowing. I’m wearing a T-shirt and Mary is also wearing her bug jacket. She finds the mosquitoes hard to take and most days is wearing her bug jacket and pants. As usual it is hard to describe how awful they are. They have bit everyone everywhere. We are in 24 hours daylight, but the mountains leave our valley in shadow at 10PM each night, to return to no-shadow at 7.45AM. without the sun the valley gets very cold - down to freezing at night.
So a usual day starts with Twack! Twack! Twack! - it sounds like heavy rain falling, but from the corner of my eye I can see shadows playing on my tent. Once again it is a beautiful morning in the northern Yukon, but at a balmy 6C the mosquitoes are already up and doing their best to puncture my nylon cocoon to exsanguinate me. 7.30AM in the Yukon is not my best time. I drag myself out of my warm sleeping bag, put on even more clothes, and wash myself in the freezing creek before the mosquitoes really get going, as at 7.45AM the sun starts to warm our valley. Its almost 8AM and both Monty and I are on our way to the Logan tent to answer the morning radio call from Polar Continental Shelf Project in Tuktoyaktuk. Today I’ll answer the radio while Monty starts to make coffee on the Coleman. Steve passes us on the way to the Creek, Jim wanders by in the same direction with a cheerful “good morning” and among the twice daily list of camp names - Shingle Point, Herschel, White Mountains, I hear my cue: “HMX24 calling Bug Camp - OVER”. If the helicopter was due in they would want to know the weather. Usually it was “sunny with a few scattered clouds, wind from the NE at 0-5” a perfect day for the arctic. According to visiting helicopter pilots our Bug Camp is well named; we are in one of the buggiest parts of the North, and the inch of burnt mosquitoes piling up at the edge of the Coleman attests to that. However, for us, entomologist and acarologists studying the insect and mite fauna of the northern Yukon, this valley is close to heaven.
For breakfast we brewed up 2 pots of coffee and had that with granola and/or toast and/or oatmeal. Every so often we would have a ‘pancake morning’ when Mary would make loads of pancakes which we had with artificial maple syrup. And slowly others would wake up - Roy and Syd rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, Mike and Mary not wanting to move, but feeling they should because of the general awareness in the rest of us. Slowly we would start deciding where we were collecting that day. For example, on a non-helicopter day Mary, Syd and I walked down the Creek, finding tracks of wolf and moose and collected on some warm, sage-brush covered slopes. Mary and I continued to the tall spruce, willow and poplar, thickets further downstream. We climbed a tall hill on the way back and were greeted with a beautiful view of our camp from the top, and found a complete caribou antler rack. A helicopter day Mary, Mike Monty, Jim, Roy and myself went to Summit Lake, were Mary caught pike for dinner. Another helicopter day Roy, Syd and I collected at Reindeer Station, an old reindeer herding and killing area, with a cluster of houses, long since abandoned, and also Marie Hammer’s type locality from 1948.
Often on a non-helicopter day Mary would stay in camp until everyone had left and have a relaxed wash-up in her tent, read, write and then go for a short hike. I usually took some trail-mix with me for lunch, which I would sit eating on some knoll (on a buggy day) on in a protected nook (on a windy day). This was one of my favourite times - the let the mind go blank - time. Most of us returned to camp between 5-7PM. Mary mainly cooked, with Mike’s help, except for the 2 nights when Steve and Syd were in charge, but everyone got involved in the chopping of onions, garlic, celery, and fetching butter and milk from the cooler set in the creek. We had a fabulous, but typical meal on Mike’s birthday, July 9, our last night in camp. Steve had caught about 12 small char, 6-8” long, which we fried as an appetizer. Mary and Mike had caught pike which was cooked for the main meal in a herbed-flour dressing. Then we had macaroni in tomato sauce, and salad. The cake was an extra large pre-mix cheese-cake with pineapple slices on top. Because the mosquitoes were awful, all 8 of us sat in a circle in the Logan tent and sang Happy Birthday as Mike blew out his candles. All in all, a pretty impressive dinner for 8 people, 160km from civilization and cooked on a 2-ring burner. After supper Roy and Monty would fight over who did the washing up, Roy usually winning, but Monty drying. And then came the evening ritual of the radio report followed by the insect pinning session.
Again HMX24 (Polar Shelf) would ask Bug Camp to call in along with 10-20 other camps. The response was usually a brief “No traffic” meaning nothing happening. If there was traffic it would be held to the end and sometimes could be very amusing, for example “24, could you ask the pilot to bring about 20 loaves of bread - Over”. “Fish Camp, this is HMX24, was that 20 loaves, repeat 20 loaves, over?” “Yes, 20 loaves, 24 over”. “Brown or white bread, Fish Camp, over”. “Any colour, 24, as long as its not green and could you pass on a message to the Hudson’s Bay Store in Inuvik that the next time they send bread we would appreciate it fresh, rather than moldy”.
The insect pinning ritual would usually start with Syd getting first seat in the Logan. Monty and Mike would then come in and often Steve and /or Jim. Roy would usually go for an evening walk, Mary would curl up on the floor of the tent, reading, and I would have my usual position, rewriting my notes from the day and checking flower identifications with Monty, exclaiming over any neat bugs and enjoying the murmur of contented entomologists. Bedtime was varied: Mary about 10-11PM, Steve, Jim, Syd and I about 11-11.30PM, Monty and Mike 1.30-1AM, with Roy arriving back at camp about 12.30AM - and all in daylight.
July 3, 1987
Dear Mum and Dad
The helicopter has brought us to Summit Lake, a Killarney-like oasis in the mountains. From my vantage point on top of a hill (to avoid mosquitoes) I can see 6 lakes, the largest about 6 miles long and they are pristine, surrounded by large peaks with snow in crevices and spruce, poplar and alder running up the valleys of the streams feeding the lakes. There’s no sound but the wind and an occasional ground squirrel complaining bitterly that I’ve invaded its territory. It could be anywhere, but the plants and the polygonal tundra by the lakes give away that it is arctic. Monty and Jim are spending today at some high peaks and Mary and Roy have gone on the helicopter to Inuvik - Roy to change our extractors and Mary to do the groceries, because she is far and away the most organized of the bunch of us. Tonight Roy and Steve will go to Tuktoyaktuk for a few days and our camp will be down to 6.
July 16, 1987
Dear Mum and Dad,
I’m on the red-eye special from Vancouver to Toronto, so let me bring you up to date with the rest of the trip. I just left Mary and Roy at Vancouver airport after a lovely flight from Whitehorse during which we saw a large glacier and at the end experienced our first ‘night’ for 23 days. Both of them really loved the trip, both I know had “an exceptional experience” - I’m so glad. Yesterday we left the Fire Suppression Station in Dawson at about 9AM saying goodbye to Monty, Syd and Mike who were going onto Alaska via The top of the World Highway - a summer only road out of Dawson. In a sense Mary would have liked to have gone with them for the experience, but that is another trip.
Roy, Mary and I were going on the Klondike Hwy back to Whitehorse; we were all sad to be back ’south’. My surprise for the end of the trip was for us to spend the night in Carcross, south of Whitehorse, at the end of Lake Bennett and the Chilkoot Trail. Its an old Indian town that mushroomed to a tent city of 10,000 during the Gold Rush, but which now had 250 inhabitants. I think the site extraordinarily pretty, nestled among the high mountains and the Chilkoot Pass was still snow-covered. We had a marvellous supper of soup, grayling, that Mary had caught the previous day in the Blackstone River and salad. Later Mary and I went for a walk to the Village and the old cemetery, with a small picket fence around each grave, presumably to keep out bears as the graves are on the surface because of permafrost. Then we walked through the small Tagish Indian reservation where we got talking to one of the locals, who gave us a breakdown of life in the place. We later slept like babies in our usual arrangement in the camper - Mary and I together in the upper bunk over the cab and Roy on the bed made from the seat and the table.
This morning after breakfast we went walking and collecting on Carcross sand dunes, an area that gives a beautiful view on Lake Bennet and the Chilkoot Pass. And then onto Whitehorse to splurge on $2.50 showers at an RV park and then to return the camper and walk around Whitehorse before the flight back home.