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On Top of the World

On Top of the World

August 2, 2013

By Ellen Iida (College of the Atlantic)


After 5 weeks of hiking, learning, and fun, we are in our final week in the Taku — but in between spurts of concentrated working time for a long list of assignments, exams and presentations, we still managed to have our last share of fun and excitement.

The week started out on Sunday with a visit with Sophie and her gardens at the Telegraph Ranch. Even with a very short season for growing (May to September,) still the long days with lots of sunlight encouraged many plants to grow happily. Sophie showed us her greenhouse with squash, corn and tomatoes, her lines of potatoes, and even encouraged us to munch on some of her strawberries, which offer we gladly accepted. What we did not expect was an inprompto natural history tour—for one of our assignments, we were touching up on our species accounts, which each student takes a certain mammal, bird and plant and records every observation of the species, concluding it with an summary of the ecological niche of the species; when Sophie heard about this, she happily obliged to show us all she had to show of each of the animals we are responsible for. First was a tour of the beaver (Cynthiann’s mammal) dam that the beaver family would patiently rebuild every time Sophie tried to get rid of it. She went on to show us a beautiful wolf hide (my species) that her husband had trapped, and even let Hayley take back a good chunk of a moose hide, and a moose jaw bone with teeth and all. All these observations were gratefully added to further enhance our species accounts.

The evening was spent in our favorite way—observing marmots!  This was our last marmot survey for the summer, and we topped off scoring 8 marmots in a day. Ari, Gioia and Cynthiann got to watch a marmot for almost an hour, and Cynthiann even got to watch one feeding and grooming itself. We were a little sad to leave Ruby valley and our furry friends that we had come to find very endearing and amusing creatures to watch and learn about.


Ruby Valley, where we did our marmot surveys.

The next day, after we got our work on final papers done in the morning, we left our papers and books aside to set out on our last camping excursion to Consolation Creek. Done with all our fieldwork, this time it was mainly for watching wildlife, finding a quiet, inspiring landscape to write our Conservation Biology Essays, and just having fun, for the sake of it! Our supposedly 2-hour drive to the campsite ended out taking over 3 hours, because we were treated with an unexpected line of encounters with all sorts of creatures along the way. We took ample time at McDonald Lake while Cynthiann took good notes on the diving behaviors of the Common Loon, and rolled down our windows to watch every waterfowl (many with adorable chicks!) hanging out in the lakes and streams along the way. Also, with the sun beaming and not a cloud in the sky, it was apparently a busy workday for Beavers—they were everywhere!


Beaver patrolling the pond above its dam.

 Our drive was frequently interrupted by the shout of “Castor! Castor canadensis!” and we would stop the car and fumble for our binoculars to watch these interesting creatures. We observed one right outside our window, waddling across the road, swimming, and dragging sticks—even a whole aspen tree—across the water and into their construction projects. As we got closer to the camp, we got into the alpine shrub-lands with rolling hills covered with Scrub Birch, reminding us of the hills in the movie The Sound of Music. We were delighted to realize that some plants that we found dead in most locations were still in bloom here, and we enjoyed driving among the Monkshoods, River Beauty and Fireweed, adding radiant colors to the monotonous ocean of scrub birch.


Fireweed blooming brilliantly on the side of the road into Consolation Creek.

After dinner and roasting marshmallows for s’mores, we set out on a night walk, in our last faint hopes of seeing a wolf or a bear before we would have to leave this place where these creatures still roamed freely—who knows when we will ever be in a land so wild and vibrant? Sadly, all we saw was one Caribou. The thing with nature, I learned, is that human rules and expectations don’t mean anything in the bush—if the wolves don’t want to be seen, they won’t. Though slightly let down, I still managed to scrape together our ample sightings of tracks and scat to create and species account on these mysterious and elusive creatures.


Caribou watercolor by Ellen Iida.

The next day we set out on a hike, stopping along the way to pick ripe blueberries and watch Ptarmigan families with their chicks—by human age almost teenagers by this time, and the parents did not seem too concerned about us watching, and following them quietly while they walked along on their own pace ahead of us. At an alpine lake with a large ridge in the background, we took an hour or two to write up our essays—“Drawing from your experience in the Taku, how have your views on conservation been shaped through your experiences this summer?” We couldn’t have asked for a better location to reflect on our summer in this beautiful place, and wrap up our thoughts from all the things we have learned from visiting community members, lectures and readings put together by our leaders, and our time spent out in the field. Afterwards, we made a short ascend up a ridge, where we watched a two herds of Caribou with their young, lounge in their preferred summer habitat—a year-round snow pack. We headed down the mountain and back home, tired but satisfied.


Watching caribou from the top of a rocky ridge. The caribou were on the steep snow fields above the lake.


Alpenglow above Consolation Creek.


River beauty blooming on the shore of a small alpine lake.

The next day, also starting with frantic data-entering and paper-writing, was punctuated with a tour given by T.J. Esquiro of the Taku River Tlingit-run micro-hydro power plant, which literally runs the whole town—the town uses 465 kw, and the plant produces 635 kw, enough for the entire town of Atlin, the TRT reserve, and some surplus, which T.J. is proposing to use to heat a hot tub instead of wasting. He explained to us with enthusiasm the physics how the plant worked (which, sadly, was above any of our Physics capacity), then went on to explain about how the plant was a way of using modern technology, while applying traditional methods of thinking—such as the aforementioned idea of not wasting the surplus, or the rule of keeping the water clean as it exits the plant, so the town can use clean water. The micro-hydro is one of the most progressive and sustainable low-impact energy production models for a First Nation, and the hopes are that this will become a model for other First Nations to take up sustainable development initiatives. All of T.J.’s cool ideas and the immensity of what this small plant could do with minimal impact to the environment left our minds totally blown away.

Today we finished our presentations to the community, a way to let people know what we’ve been up to this summer. More people turned up than we expected, including Eric, Nan, Peter and family, and T.J.. After the presentation, everyone enjoyed the cookies, brownies and lemon bars that Susie, Gioia, and Will expertly baked.

None of us can believe that we actually have only 2 more day lefts in Atlin. Someday, we hope to return, but for now, it will be goodbye to this amazing place where we have learned and experienced so much, and return home. Thank you for reading our blog in the Taku, and keep an eye out for a few more last-minute Species Profiles coming up!


Photos by Susie Dain-Owens.


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