Pikas, marmots, and tubs full of shrubs

Thirty-five kilograms is a notable weight. It is, for instance, equal to a fairly large Labrador, seven thousand tundra voles, or two hundredths of an African elephant. None of these facts, however, were of any particular comfort to us as we struggled through dense shrub thickets and clawing spruce trees on our way up a mountain with a thirty-five kilogram pack on our back.

We had set off ‘early in the morning’, some time in the afternoon, in our bag-cramped, tarpaulin-roped hire car. The dirt tracks leading to the foot of the mountain were awash with wildlife: porcupines, eagles, and one large bear out for a lunchtime stroll. Car parked and boots strapped we shouldered our packs (with difficulty) and set off on the long hike to Pika Camp. Our aims were various, but we hoped to come back down the mountain with bags full of shrub-rings and samples, leaving only a few plots and tea-bags behind. The optimism of bright and exciting science lightened our step as we started off into the sun-speckled forest.

Look, a shrub!

Twelve hours later. We collapsed into camp, or what would become camp as soon as we could summon the energy to put the tents up. We were scratched, bleeding, aching, broken, and one of us had accidentally discharged his bear-spray into his own side. We ate and fell asleep.

With morning came the slow unraveling of the beauty of our home for the next five days. Pika Camp sits in a valley cut between two peaks, 1,650m above sea level. Snow-fed streams gush past our camp and down to the hills below. Around us, though now hidden from view, is a spectacular mountain backdrop of snow-capped peaks and glistening blue lakes. It is, we reflected over our breakfast at 1pm the next day, not a bad place to be doing science.

Sunset from East Peak.

The next few days were spent on hill-slope and mountain-top, finally getting our various projects underway. Vegetation plots, old and new, were scouted, identified and investigated for growth. Brown paper bags were filled with leaves, stems, furry catkins and tiny white flowers to examine their decomposition. Tubs were filled with willow and birch cuttings. Hikes from the valley floor to the tip of East Peak, crossing bear tracks and moose droppings along the way, tested herbivory patterns and our own perseverance. The hours were long and the days longer, but were broken by more spectacular views, tundra feasts in ‘the pod’, and perilous trips to visit our dunny-dwelling marmot friend Donald.

Polar scientists enjoying a tundra feast.
Polar scientists enjoying a tundra feast.

Many adventures later it was time to leave. After our last sips of Yukon water fresh from the alpine stream and our bags on, shrubs wrapped, tents packed and samples stacked, we set off back up the hill and down the hill to the mythical land below, where showers were hot, toilets flushed, and beds were soft, welcoming, and didn’t deflate in the night.

Until next time.
Until next time.

By Haydn