Yukon Territory -- tremendous strides following a bumpy start

Lab Note #13
Aug 18, 2014

We last left you with a note from Boise, Idaho, where we were presenting on our research at the 2014 Botany Conference. Since then, we hopped on a plane bound for Seattle, transferred onto a plane headed to Vancouver, had a 9 hour layover, then finally boarded a plane that eventually touched down in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. Sounds smooth, right? It wasn't. Although our bags were checked through to Whitehorse, we apparently had to pick them up in Vancouver and walk them through Customs only to re-check them before traveling our final leg. Whoops!! Thus, we were disappointed to hear at 1:00AM that we had to take a taxi IMMEDIATELY back to the airport in Vancouver to pick up our bags for secondary inspection. Our host in Vancouver, Carl Rothfels, was a good sport about it, waiting up for us until we returned around 2:30AM. After a quick sleep we were back in the airport and onto a plane -- we arrived in Whitehorse feeling exhausted and beaten by the taxi fares.

Trouble didn't stop there. Having put our bags into the cattle feeder a few hours ahead of schedule, we were surprised to find that one bag never made it onto our flight to Whitehorse. It would be put onto the next plane, but that didn't arrive until the next afternoon -- an inconvenience when you're on a tight schedule visiting widely spaced plant populations in a foreign country. We remained calm, interacted with our car rental agency and got hold of the vehicle we intended to get cozy with for the two week trip in Yukon. After shopping for food and supplies, we set out to make camp outside of Whitehorse only to return the next day to fetch our lost luggage (pictured below, plant collection supplies).

We're back on track, right? WRONG! The seemingly brand new F-250 broke down on the road while we were en route to a nearby camp -- we hadn't even taken it off the pavement! Fortunately, Ingrid had set up a phone plan and we were able to contact the rental agency late on a Friday night. They came and towed the truck, arranged to give us a new (bigger and better) vehicle that would be waiting for us at the airport when we picked up our bag the next day, and gave us a small vehicle in the interim. We were beginning to feel like someone was out to get us.

The next day we got our bag from the airport, hopped into our new wheels (F-350 Super Duty), and headed back to camp -- the midday flight had left us stranded for another day in the city without a field site to attend to. With some time to spare, we decided to visit the Beringian Interpretative Center in Whitehorse. It was an excellent display of the prehistoric land of Beringia (see picture of map below). The Beringian Mammoth Steppe is the name given to the ecosystem that existed then, with mammoths, saber-toothed cats, giant beavers, and short-faced bears, to name a few. It was a good way to spend some time, especially considering that we are greatly interested in trans-Beringian disjunction of arctic plant species -- many of the plants we are working with occur in the far east of Russia as well as in the mountains of western North America, previously connected by this land bridge.

Finally, the next day we set out into the field to a site where Ingrid had identified a population of Draba oligosperma -- Grey Mountain (first picture below) just on the other side of the Yukon River. Although she found a population of D. oligosperma that was too small to collect from, she also found four species of Draba in close sympatry (second picture below, Draba palanderiana and a unknown Draba next to each other). This is enough to satisfy ANY Brassicaceae enthusiast. Tommy, on the other hand, found the circumpolar Silene acaulis which will make a lovely addition to his growing catchfly dataset.

After getting back on track with some success on Grey Mountain, we headed back into town to meet up with colleagues that were also traveling in the area -- Maribeth Latvis is a post-doc and Sarah Jacobs a Ph.D. student, both studying Castilleja at University of Idaho with David Tank. We set out northward with Maribeth and Sarah, making camp and chatting about the things we'd seen since we last connected at the McCall Outdoor Science School in Idaho.

Our goal north of Whitehorse was to explore the Ogilvie Mountains in central Yukon. This range is quite large and we were only able to visit a few sites close to the legendary Dempster Highway. Prior to reaching the Ogilvie Mountains, we took a jaunt over to the Wernecke Mountains to a silver mining town called Keno City -- this was a site for Claytonia tuberosa that Tommy had identified. We were happy to be able to drive up to a high elevation area and spend plenty of time hunting the little cauline leaves of C. tuberosa. After poking around for about an hour, near giving up and collecting a Castilleja hyperborea for the Idaho contingent, we stumbled upon a healthy swath of happy Claytonia plants growing in a wet seepage of mosses and sedges (first picture below). This was the first time Tommy had seen C. tuberosa (second picture below), a species that is widespread both in northwestern North America and eastern Asia (Siberia).

Next, we headed into Tombstone Territorial Park, on the eastern edge of the Ogilvie Mountains, where we camped again with our Idaho colleagues -- they had taken their own route to the campsite and collected Castilleja along the way. The next morning we all hiked together on the Goldensides trail in the area of North Fork Pass. Although no members of our party found what they were looking for, we did manage to have a humorous encounter with a vocal hoary marmot (first picture below). The spectacular view (second picture below) made up for our going back to camp empty handed.

After defeat on the Goldensides trail, and a side-jaunt with no luck on the North Klondike trail, we parted ways with Maribeth and Sarah, heading north to another site just outside of the Tombstone Territorial Park -- Tommy had his heart set on visiting the area of Windy Pass in an effort to collect a localized endemic species, Claytonia ogilviensis. This species is quite rare, known only from a few (mostly historic) collections. We had one shot to catch this taxon, although fear had definitively set in when we observed fall colors appearing on many of the plants in the area. After over three miles of off-trail hiking on talus slopes, 3000+ feet of elevation gain, and collecting at least four species of Draba, it was almost five o'clock and there was still no sign of C. ogilviensis. Were we too late? We headed down from our perch atop a dolomite ridge (first picture below) and dropped down to a hillside of black slate where C. ogilviensis had been collected a few years ago by floristic researchers. To Tommy's surprise (and delight), we found basal leaves and remnants of flowering plants -- we had finally found the only species Tommy REALLY wanted to see on our trip to the Yukon. We quickly dug up some tubers for an herbarium specimen (second picture below) and headed back into the valley as rain began to pour down on us. Tommy had nothing but a smile on his face, completely disregarding the soaking wet boots he was trudging along in the tundra with. "I can't believe we found it!"

After our final (epic) hike in the Ogilvie Mountains, and a quick aside in Dawson City to maintain good hygiene, we headed back toward the southern portion of the Yukon Territory to another area we had targeted for a few days worth of field expeditions: Kluane National Park and Reserve of Canada. Arriving midday in the area, we headed over to an easily accessible site where Draba oligosperma had been collected previously -- Ingrid was really eager to collect at least one population from this northern portion of the range for the species. With little effort, we found thousands of plants (first picture below, D. oligosperma in fruit) growing on an expansive glaciofluvial plain (second picture below) that was once the floor of a glacial lake, now part of the Alsek Valley Trail. Tommy was pleased to find fruiting Androsace septentrionalis (third picture below) ripe for the picking -- he is gearing up for a common garden study comparing this species with an undescribed taxon that is endemic to the San Bernardino Mountains in southern California... the two are currently considered conspecific.

The next day we set out for what was one of our most grueling hikes -- a nearly continuous 45 degree 'stroll' up the King's Throne Trail. Things started out nice with the sighting of a Spruce Grouse (first picture below) on the relatively flat first two kilometers of the trail, but it was a very steep uphill climb after that... our pace slowed considerably as we began to pay much more attention to the plants, finding any excuse to stop for something interesting. We stopped every now and then, collecting Cystopteris fragilis (second picture below) so that we'd have something to exchange for another 'house visit' during a long layover in Vancouver en route back stateside -- Carl Rothfels was already a gracious host on our way into the Yukon, but we felt that we needed to produce a reward after the late night fiasco with our bags (not) moving through Customs earlier. We made more stops for a few Draba (D. palanderiana in the third picture below) -- the plant presses were beginning to fill up and there were still no signs of Claytonia. Tommy had selected this trail in hopes to get more material for his molecular study. As the clouds set in and we prepared for rain, we found possibly the most beautiful Spring Beauty Tommy has encountered to date -- there stood in front of us Claytonia sarmentosa in all of its glory (fourth picture below). It seems that yet another Spring Beauty Pageant may be in order after some of Tommy's work this season!

After what felt like a VERY successful day on the King's Throne Trail, we set out the next day onto some other trails a bit north of the Kluane Ranges, closer to Kluane Lake. We hit the Sheep Mountain trail, where we didn't quite find what we were looking for, but we did happen to gaze from afar upon a large number of lazy Dall sheep (first picture below) lounging around on the aptly named mountain. A quick jaunt to the other side of Sheep Mountain on the Sheep Creek Trail also proved to be somewhat fruitless (except for the fruiting Draba that Ingrid collected), but another spectacular viewshed (second picture below) made it worthwhile. This area was very dry -- signs of spring were long gone.

After another night of camping, and a sighting of a black bear mother with three cubs frolicking through a soapberry patch nearby our tent, we set out the next morning back to the Whitehorse area -- our time in Yukon Territory was coming to a close. Near Whitehorse, there was one final locality that Ingrid had identified as having potential for another population of Draba oligosperma. We set out the next morning toward Carcross to an area just west of Tagish -- D. oligosperma has been reported here as 'common' on the south-facing slopes of an unnamed mountain peak. With a bit of effort to scurry up a steep hillside of decomposing slate, we managed to find a population of D. oligosperma that was suitable for collection -- Ingrid was now able to go home with a smile on her face having 'captured' her targeted minimum number of populations for that species (in addition to the 7 other Draba species and 9 other Brassicaceae she collected on the Yukon trip). Tommy found yet another population of Androsace septentrionalis on this hillside, this time with some flowering plants worthy of a photo shoot (first two photos below)! Although this species is not the center of Tommy's dissertation focus, its biennial growth habit and circumpolar distribution provides an extraordinary study system for investigating biogeographic patterns of alpine species -- for more information on the importance of studying this species and others, check out this short blog we posted a few weeks ago. Feeling satisfied, we trotted back down the hill, waving goodbye to the chirping chipmunk (third picture below) that was extremely curious about our activities.

Our last days in Whitehorse have been spent in the BABY herbarium, where a number of plant specimens collected from around Yukon have been preserved for use by researchers. We have encountered extremely rare plants in this collection, including some 'oddballs' worthy of further investigation. There may be reason for us to return, but we've got our eyes set on the last big piece of the puzzle: Siberia.

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