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Off to a great start!

Off to a great start!

July 2, 2013


From all of us, hello and happy (belated) Canada Day!


This past weekend, we backpacked into an alpine lake beneath Sentinel Mountain. After dropping our packs in the beautiful alpine meadow next to the clear blue water, we climbed the mountain to the very summit, 1,923m, by our GPS. We then conducted alpine vegetation surveys using the GLORIA (Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments) framework, surrounded by amazing views. We could see the interior mountains to the east, and across Atlin Lake to the coastal range in the west, including the Llewellyn Glacier and the margins of the ice fields that stretch north and west through Alaska and the northern territories. Beyond beautiful. To sit atop a high summit is a precious perspective.


Looking over Atlin Lake to the Llewellyn Glacier, part of the Juneau Icefield.


Under the watchful eyes of mountain goats, we headed back down in the evening, sliding down snow patches where we could. The idea is to slide upright. Not all of us have such balance, and the rocks at the bottom were, well, abrupt. And pointy! The skiers in the group looked awesome though.



The view from the slopes of Sentinel Mountain, including the ice rimmed lake where we camped.


Back by the campsite, we the students took a (very) quick dip in the water. So cold! Getting out, your blood just hums with heat as your body over compensates for the shock. It was surprising how refreshing it felt after the long, hot, buggy day of hiking. Don’t get me wrong, the hiking is great (Great great great!), but it does take a toll on the body. A happy exhaustion.



Alpine meadows by Sentinel Mountain, looking south to the Laurie Range.


After drying off, we filtered water and circled around the jet boil with delicious rice and beans and peppers, prepared by Will and Susie. The leaders had brought along a very special reading, Aldo Leopold’s “The Round River.” Get it? Yep, it’s what inspired the name and philosophy of Round River Conservation Studies. Look it up and give it a read if you like.

The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast, packed camp, and set off to go back up the mountain to complete our work. The sun was shining in a clear sky, with the half moon still hanging over the lake. We came over a rise, not 20m from our campsite, and came face to face with four male caribou. They sniffed at us and us at them, and we respectfully circled around each other, two small herds giving the other space.



Curious caribou.



Caribou below Sentinel Mountain.


Up on the top of Sentinel, we quickly finished our vegetation quadrats, and began measuring out other necessary markers. The group last summer had completed the markings of all the summits for the study except for these last few on Sentinel. After several hours with a clinometer, compass, measuring tape, and a real-world application of Pythagorean’s Theorem, we headed back down. We still had a few points to mark out, but the day was waning and we had a long hike back. The sunshine persisted, and we discovered how high altitude and wind make for a bad sunburn. The hike back out was good and even, and on the drive back we encountered a very gallumpy bear.



Ellen and Ari identify plants and lichens on Sentinel Mountain, as part of our alpine vegetation study.


Monday was Canada Day. Like good Canadians, we took it as a rest day. We drove into the bustling metropolis (population 400) of Atlin for a patriotic parade. The highlights were bagpipers, marching mounties, an Alaskan antique automobile club, and a somewhat disconcerting percentage of gold rush era madams. The whole town then followed the parade to the park, where, after a rousing rendition of “O, Canada,” a display of cupcakes in the image of the red maple leaf flag was brought out. There were enough for everyone to have seconds (and a few thirds).



Atlin’s roaring Canada Day parade!


Later that afternoon, we went to Nan’s house. Nan is a lovely lady who has lived in the area since 1972. She is an active community member with a lot of projects and knowledge of all the goings-on in the area. Her mother built her house from her own design, and it’s a cozy green place in the trees. In her kitchen, we sampled two flavors of her special dandelion wine. Then, we went down to the lake to walk and talk. Around a fire with hot dogs and smoked salmon, Nan related to us some of her adventures and observations from living in the bush. We parted, full and happy, looking forward to our next meeting.

In the evening, we played Hearts, the unofficial card game of Round River, while the leaders read our Grinnell Journal assignments. These journal entries are more than just diaries. We are required to record one day each week, from route to weather to observations based on notes taken in the field. Entries have a specific format and must include illustrations and a full species list. The goal is to have a record for future comparisons. This is a time-consuming process, but we’ll definitely be glad for the observational skills it nurtures, as well as the memories for our personal record.

A few of us went on a walk in the evening by the small lake near Peter’s house (our base). We met our first Canadian beaver, who was perturbed by our presence enough to slap the water with his broad tail and swim pace-like, back and forth in the water. We let him be and went back to the cabin for our readings.

The next  morning we discussed the readings. There were two articles on the topic of the current extinction events and the theory of connective corridor conservation. The idea is to prevent the detrimental effects of island ecology present in national parks, reserves, and other protected areas by connecting these areas with corridors for movement between these zones. This would help not just migrating species, but the entire, bigger picture ecology by allowing for more sustainably supportive energy and gene transfer. It’s a complicated problem and solution to implement, but today’s talk encapsulated Round River’s take on conservancy. We must recognize that all pieces of nature are important, and saving one flagship species isn’t enough. We must focus on the whole system, and allow for nature to be nature, even when we do not understand the mechanisms it needs. Honestly, it’s a daunting subject, and conservation biology is, as a crisis discipline, more a dark salvage effort than a bright, sunny, walk in the park. Unless, that park is connected to others…

Our thoughts are certainly spinning today! We are spending the rest of it entering data from last week into spreadsheets, and will head out to the field this afternoon to continue marmot surveys. This next week will consist mostly of lecture, readings, and day-trips into the field for data collection. Next week we will be heading out on the Nakina Trail. Stay tuned for more exciting exploits!


(photos by Susie Dain-Owens)

1 Comment

  1. jeanpolfus

    Amazing photos and work as usual! I am missing the summers in Atlin. Thanks for the update. That is so great you saw caribou on Sentinel Mountain. If you have the time, we are collecting caribou photos as part of a project to understand the diversity of caribou across the country. We’d love to have your photos included – you can submit photos at

    Thanks! And enjoy the Nakina!

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