Land of Light - Canada's Northern Oasis

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Thanks for your encouragement, Alan & Ralph!

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The Barren Grounds are like a northern prairie, and we thoroughly enjoy the juxtaposition of sky and water, particularly when suffused with light on the ever-present horizon.

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Splashes of colour along the shore often draws our attention. This river beauty (Epilobium latifolium) is a close relative of fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) and one the first species to establish along disturbed river banks.

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Other plants sheltered among the rocks of the river bank include prickly saxifrage (Saxifraga tricuspidata), a cushion plant. The dead leaves form a "mounded cushion" that shelters the plant from snow abrasion in winter and from drying out in summer.

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Mountain avens (Dryas integrifolia), the floral emblem of the NWT is also a cushion plant, which is a common plant adaptation to wind in the north. Although wind often presents a problem, many plants also take advantage of the wind, which helps distribute the plumed seed of mountain avens far across the northern landscape.

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Antler lichen (Masonhalea richardsonii) also takes advantage of the wind. It grows unattached to any substrate, and rolls along the ground, eventually accumulating in its preferred moist, tundra depressions. (Thelon River)

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All living things in the north need to be well adapted to survive, particularly to economize heat. The Lesser Fritillary settles on spike-like goldenrod (Solidago spathulata) and spreads its wings in a way that maximizes the warmth it can absorb from the sun. (Snowdrift River)

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Warmth is important even to canoeists. Kathleen relaxed at lunch, enjoying the heat that is captured by the weathered rock. (Point Lake, Coppermine River)


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The tundra lakes, when they are calm, are truly spectacular and comfortable. We glide effortlessly down Point Lake, along the Coppermine River. We stop in a serene bay named for Keskarrah, one of the guides for Sir John Franklin on his ill-fated overland expedition to the Arctic coast in 1821.

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I loved looking at and being near these rocks. We our now on the Canadian Shield, whose rocks form the nucleus of the North American continent. The Himalayas are 35 million years old; the Rockies are 60 million years old; but this eroded core of former mountains was created between 2.5 and 4 billion years ago. They are among the oldest rocks on earth. (This was true in 1995. Our knowledge and understanding might have changed since then.)

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These rocks support an interesting array of lichen species. Map lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum) and rock tripe (Umbilicaria spp.). The rock tripe was made infamous by Sir John Franklin's 1821 expedition. Returning to Fort Enterprise from the Arctic coast in late fall, much of what they survived on was this lichen.

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Many lichens require specific kinds of habitats. Blood spot lichen (Haematoma lapponicum) grows only on acidic, usually granitic rocks (rock tripe lichen grows nearly exclusively on acidic rocks).

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Other lichens such as few-finger lichen (Dactylina arctica), grow best on soil, on moist sites protected by snow banks that persist late in the year. (Thelon River)

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Worm lichen (Thamnolium subuliformis) also thrives in these snow patch communities, and together with few-finger lichen, is commonly used for nests by ptarmigans, plovers, and sandpipers. (Thelon River)

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Least willow (Salix herbacea) occurs in moist areas where the snow persists until late in the season. It must flower and produce seed very quickly, because it has sunlight for such a short period after the snow melts. (Snowdrift River)
 
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I’m so enjoying this natural and cultural history thread. I’m especially appreciative of the flowers. How beautiful. And the sand esker.
The rock tripe can be used as a lavender dye for textiles.
 
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The glacial advance and retreat scoured depressions in the hard, Canadian Shield. Even small depressions provide essential habitat of moist homes for dwarf plants such as net-veined willows (Salix reticulata). Temperatures inside the fuzzy, female catkins are 4-5 degrees warmer than the surrounding air temperature.


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Muskoxen depend heavily on the twigs and buds of willow and birch during winter. During early summer muskox are often seen along tundra rivers, as they follow the “greening” of willow leaves and catkins. (Snowdrift River)

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Muskoxen are particularly very easy to see along the middle section of the Thelon river. Two thousand muskoxen live in the Thelon Game Sanctuary, which was created in 1927, to protect the muskoxen from over-hunting for their luxuriantly warm coats
. They are the only High Arctic mammal that seeks no shelter from the winter blizzards.

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Muskoxen (Ovis muschatus) would have been very easy to hunt into extinction, as they are easy to approach when the form their circles of defense.

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Because tundra plants are so small, it is often too easy to pass quickly by. Sometimes you just have to sit, take out your book, and immerse yourself in a close-up view of the tundra’s floral elegance.

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Normally there exists a predictable mosaic of plants, including crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), with a profusion of black berries, eaten by birds, voles, lemmings, and bears. Common associates include rock cranberry, as I’m sure you remember from before! Do you also recognize the very fragrant northern Labrador tea, and bear berries?

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Red (Arctostaphylos rubra) and black (A. alpina ) bear berries, both in the heather family, occur north of tree line, replacing the familiar bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) also known as kinnickinnick that occurs to the northern limit of trees.

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We are again windbound on the Snowdrift River, in a small, protected cove, which provides time to explore and enjoy the tundra plants. We see another member of the heather family. Alpine azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens) generally grows in very exposed places.

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Its tender twigs are protected from the wind during winter by snow sifting down into the inter-twined leaves and twigs, forming a protective drift over the entire plant.

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Bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia), another member of the heather family is pollinated by bumble bees, which are large and strong enough to force their way into the small, urn-shaped flower.
 
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I love the plants. Does bog rosemary have a scent like culinary rosemary?

You've got to get onto the ground to see so many delightful things.

Textile artists use the fiber of the undercoat of musk oxen to spin and knit or weave into garments. I believe indigenous people are trying to develop businesses using the musk oxen fiber. Maybe they already do. I've been out of the field for a long time.

I also don't know how they collect the fiber. Perhaps picking it up when it gets sloughed off in spring?
 
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Musk ox fur is very high quality.
I have given my Mom some items made from it. There is an outfit in Seattle that sells it.
Qiviut.
 
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Erica,

Bog rosemary does not have a scent like culinary rosemary. It is also poisonous, as it contains andromedotoxin, which causes breathing problems, dizziness, cramps, diarrhea, and lowers blood pressure. It was names bog rosemary, because its leaves resemble that of the culinary rosemary.


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The north is an interesting, entertaining environment, changing with the seasons, the wind, and each bend in the river. We never tire of visiting here, and of witnessing the beauty and surprises of each new day.

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We never tire of those silent northern nights when we would relax in the beauty and tranquillity of our northern retreat. After dinner we crawl into the tent, to lay in each other’s arms, to re-live the closing day and anticipate unknown adventures. We are in our own nest, we are free, we are content. We are home.

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Eventually, however, as we paddle our way across another northern summer, we sense the approach of winter. We are now enjoying the fall fruit of the blueberries growing above the Thelon River just west of Baker Lake.

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The bearberry and moss are turning scarlet red.

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All too soon, like the birds, we must fly south before the ice and snow return. Our life in Canada's north will then over for another year. But, while back home in Preeceville, our thoughts often turn back to this Northern Oasis.

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We dream of when we will next return, to live free and open in splendid isolation and vastness.

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To us, Canada’s northern landscape provides much more than a refuge for plants, animals, and ecological processes. It also provides an oasis of simplicity, tranquillity, contentment, and challenge for the human spirit.


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The challenge of finding our way across vast distances, and over the heights-of-land armed only with compass, map and personal judgment.

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And then the contentment of drifting easily down majestic, unending rivers.
For Kathleen and me, though, among the greatest gifts of Canada's Northern Oasis is a tranquillity of life lived in unbroken silence. And the simplicity of standing, as people were meant to stand, surrounded by wild, nurturing isolation -- forever adventuring, forever strong, and dare we hope, no matter what our ages, forever young.
 
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To us, Canada’s northern landscape provides much more than a refuge for plants, animals, and ecological processes. It also provides an oasis of simplicity, tranquility, contentment, and challenge for the human spirit.
Very well said.
I continue to be impressed with your knowledge of plants!
Thanks again.
 
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Wonderful photos, and informative text. I am resolved to remember some of those plant names.

Now, if they would just let us in . . .

wjmc
 
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I second Ralph’s comments. You are able to express in words the things I feel.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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In 1999 we rented a cabin just beyond the Arctic Circle at 67 degrees north at the north end of Colville Lake. We flew away from Inuvik in a Twin Otter on January 31st at -400 C.

Michael, to go back to the very beginning of this beautiful slide show, I'm curious as to what what specifically motivated you and Kathleen to do this. And how did you both get so much time off from work to do so? I don't think many canoeists—or, indeed, many people in the world—go to cabins in the middle of nowhere above the Arctic Circle in January, facing five months or so of freezing cold and frozen waters. Something else, some other quest for some other experience, must have been mentally motivating you.
 
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Michael, to go back to the very beginning of this beautiful slide show, I'm curious as to what what specifically motivated you and Kathleen to do this. And how did you both get so much time off from work to do so? I don't think many canoeists—or, indeed, many people in the world—go to cabins in the middle of nowhere above the Arctic Circle in January, facing five months or so of freezing cold and frozen waters. Something else, some other quest for some other experience, must have been mentally motivating you.
Glenn,

I noticed an error of mine in your quote above. I said we took of at -400 C. It should read -40 C!

Anyway, the answer to time off work is straightforward. Kathleen was head of a department at the University of BC that had just been eliminated to save money. The university didn’t want her to leave, so they gave her a year’s sabbatical without pay. I had just stepped down from being an Associate Dean, and as such, I was entitled to a one year sabbatical with pay.

We had enjoyed our canoe trips in northern Canada, and were considering moving to the north. But we had no experience with winter, so thought we should try it out. I had also read quite a few diaries and books of explorers of northern Canada, and wanted to “share” some of their winter experiences. And, first nations people had been living in the far north for millenia. They didn’t go south for the winter. Kathleen and I both wanted to experience that extreme cold. We actually loved it, which prompted our move to Saskatchewan, which provides long, cold winters. It’s fair to say that come February, we’re the only people in the coffee shop not wishing winter was over.

We’re in our hot tent right now. Minus 8 C, plus 17 F outside. Incredibly toasty in the tent. Glass of wine. We love winter!

There is more detail in our Trip Report “Our winter of Contentment in Canada’s Western Arctic“ on this site’s forum “Winter Camping.”
The whole story is in my book ”Beyond the End of the Road.” I am hesitant to promote myself, but if i do say so, the book is kind of interesting.
 
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Glenn MacGrady

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There is more detail in our Trip Report “Our winter of Contentment in Canada’s Western Arctic“ on this site’s forum “Winter Camping.”

Thanks, Michael. I completely missed that trip report. Maybe it's because that was around the time I was on sabbatical from this site, or maybe it's because that forum is one that I didn't used to read everything in.
 
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