Field season report #1: the beauty

Yours truly at the Arctic Circle - km 405.5 of the Dempster Highway

I’m back from my adventures in the breathtakingly beautiful Yukon territory, and can now proudly claim to have survived a trek up and down the infamous Dempster Highway!

The science was awesome and the the team I worked with was incredible, but first I just want to share the tourist-ey bits of my trip.

We landed in Whitehorse late on on Sunday evening; by noon the next day we were equipped with an SUV, RV (i.e., transportable lab space), groceries and protective gear (it’s bear country after all!) and were on the road with Tombstone Territorial Park as our goal for the first night’s camp.

The caravan heading north from Whitehorse on the Klondike Highway

We arrived at Mile Zero of the Dempster Highway about 500 km later, and made it to Tombstone another 75 km in, on gravelly, slick roads. It was a long drive, but well worth it: nothing can quite match sleeping in a tent surrounded by mountains on all sides. It was a chilly night, and we awoke to cloud and fresh snow on the mountaintops. The weather wasn’t ideal for bug hunting, but it sure was awesome to look at!

Waking up to snow on the mountains at Tombstone Mountain Campground - km 71.1

A view of the mountains on a clear evening later that week made it evident how “Tombstone” got its name:

Tombstone Mountain Range - km 74.0

I was blown away by the beauty of the landscape throughout our journey, and the way the ecosystems changed from boreal forest to alpine tundra to  lush fields of pink post-forest fire fireweed as the miles piled on. Here’s a look at a few lovely spots on the drive:

Windy Pass - km 152.8
"Elephant Rock" - km 224.7
Ogilvie Mountains (a view from my tent!) - km 259.0
Fireweed blankets the landscape after a forest fire - km 302

The Dempster eventually crosses both the Arctic Circle (you can see my silly self-portrait at that point at the top of the post), and then moves into the Northwest Territories.

Crossing into the Northwest Territories - km "0"
Field of Cottongrass - NWT km 22.9

Our travels took us as far as the Peel River, but we were forced to stop there: the ferry was out of commission.

The tantalizingly close northern shore of Peel River - NWT km 74

While we were mainly focused on finding small, six- and eight-legged critters, we were also every bit the “road biologists”, often slowing our vehicles to delight in occasional sightings of larger wildlife. We saw all kinds of caribou tracks, spotted a couple of moose, a rather tame fox, many species of birds including these wonderful Sandhill Cranes

and got very excited to finally catch a glimpse of the most impressive “charismatic megafauna” of the region: a grizzy bear! It was from quite a distance, and from the safety of our SUV, but watching it stride confidently across the tundra was an unforgettable experience.

There's a bear beyond those shrubs, honest!

The drive back down to civilization was filled with great camping, cooperative weather and, of course, scads of science – which I’ll talk about tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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