It’s 1:36 in the morning on July 16, 2017, and in the orange tent-tinged midnight sun, I’m face to face with a curious wolf, who has muzzled into my vestibule trying to figure out just what’s this strange fluorescent bubble. Welcome to Hazen Camp, on the north shore of Lake Hazen, in Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Here the views are immense, the Parks Canada staff and visiting scientists are welcoming, and the local wildlife are curious.
Bright and early the next morning, my colleague Dr. Troy McMullin and I, set out on day 17 of our High Arctic tour collecting lichens and plants across the top of Nunavut. We’re both scientists working for the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario, and while I’m the botanist interested in all the flowers, Troy is the museum’s lichenologist, which makes him one of the few scientists in Canada whose full-time job revolves around the study and classification of lichens. Few, if any professional lichenologists have ever been sent on a collecting trip quite this far North, so the primary goal of our expedition is to scout out and systematically collect the lichens of the High Arctic, starting at Cornwallis Island, right in the middle of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
Troy and I arrive at the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP) base in Resolute by First Air charter. Stepping off the plane we are immediately greeted by Tanya Lemieux, one-third of the triumvirate of PCSP operations managers who make all High Arctic research in Canada possible. Troy, myself, and the rest of the newly arrived “beakers” (PCSP slang for scientists) each receive a slip of paper with our room assignment at the base and a Wi-Fi password — precious digits if your stay is an extended one.
We settle into our room, get a good night’s sleep (thank you blackout blinds) and rise early for breakfast at the base’s cafeteria. The meals are fantastic due to the amazing chefs on the base staff, and our dining companions include parks staff, pilots, flight engineers, glaciologists, ecologists, astrobiologists, students, etc. Conversations jump from microbial life in extreme environments to shorebird monitoring to how much lumber you need to finish constructing a cabin.
Our Polar Shelf-issue ATVs are waiting for us in a large warehouse just off the airstrip. After a brief familiarization session, we are soon rolling down dusty tundra roads looking for potentially lichen-rich habitats. Our road trip takes us through the community of Resolute, around an old Thule site, to a meeting with the local HTO, past a territorial park, and through a glacial river and back across again — even if the return trip is a tiny bit sketchy due to high water.
When we find an interesting site — a rocky outcrop, a marshy meadow, or a craggy cliff — we pull over, record the GPS coordinates and take notes about the location and habitat, and start collecting. While I tenderly dig plants out of the ground, Troy chips lichens off rocks using a sledgehammer, bits of stone zinging by as they ricochet off boulders. These samples, paired with the data we record at the time of collection, will be deposited into the collection back at the museum, forming a piece of tangible evidence that this species was found growing at a specific place and time. Each of these biodiversity records adds to our overall knowledge on what species can be found where in Canada, and our job is to fill in the gaps.
As Troy puts it: “lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture”. They are fungi that have evolved to house algae or cyanobacteria (what used to be called blue-green algae); the fungi provides the photosynthetic partner with a place to live, and gains food from the sugars produced by the algae. They can grow as crusts fused to rocks (crustose lichens), as leafy or large branching structures (foliose and fruticose lichens, respectively), and range in size from microscopic dots to boulder-covering sheets. Their conjoined life strategy has paid off handsomely, and these hardy organisms have evolved to fill nearly every niche on earth. Astrobiologists have found they can even survive being exposed to the outside of the International Space Station. About a week after arriving at PCSP, and about eight hours after leaving Resolute in the back of a loaded Twin Otter, Troy and I gaze down at a herd of Muskox grazing on Ellesmere Island’s Fosheim Peninsula, about 20 km out of Eureka.
Eureka Weather Station is our second stop as we make our way ever north to Hazen. After being flown around for a few hours by Stig Sande, our Norwegian- Newfoundlander helicopter pilot, we end a long travel and work day at our camp at the airstrip, processing samples under the midnight sun. Billed as the garden spot of the Arctic, Eureka is wet and cold during our stay, so we are very grateful when John MacIver, the manager of the weather station, invites us for hot showers and a warm place to work.
While I am thrilled to have the opportunity to collect the many grass species that cover the clay soil of the Fosheim, the lichens are sparse and small, so Troy is happy when we board Stig’s helicopter for a short jaunt over to the McGill Arctic Research Station on Axel Heiberg Island. Not 40 minutes later, we fly over vast tundra plains, immense ice caps, and white glaciers below towering mountain spires, before setting down in a lush valley populated with friendly scientists. The collecting at the station is amazing, and during a long hike with resident glaciologist Laura Thomson, we discover many exciting lichens in a lush valley not a kilometre away from camp — a treasure trove of biodiversity previously unknown from this well-studied area. Unfortunately, since travel in Nunavut is always at the mercy of the weather, we pull out of Axel after only 48 hours to ensure we make our connecting flight to Lake Hazen.
Landing on the sandy shores of Lake Hazen, with the sun glowing overhead and lake-covering candle ice clinking in the breeze, we finally make it the High Arctic oasis that is the goal of our trip. We are warmly welcomed into the local community of Parks Canada staffers and long-term researchers from the University of Waterloo, and, a day after the wolf contacts us, we discover the Soil Paint Lichen (Acarospora schleicheri) — a species known from Greenland but never before found in Nunavut.
I’m sure more new discoveries will be made in the coming months as we continue to identify and investigate the nearly 1,000 samples we have collected across the High Arctic.
Paul C. Sokoloff is Senior Research Assistant at the Canadian Museum of Nature.