Plat-Oh Look It’s A Bear

Sandra left her zoom lens behind so we were bound so see some wildlife.

We passed by the bald eagle sitting in a tree above us, passed by the spruce grouse perched on a log by the path, passed by the three ptarmigan chicks pretending to be rocks, but we did have to stop for the two bears fighting it out on the horizon. Reared to full height, clawing and jawing each other, we almost didn’t notice the third bear just below them watching with some bemusement. And we definitely didn’t notice the fourth one that we walked into thinking it was just a hungry hummock of tundra. Thankfully it was too busy being hungry to give us much thought so we skirted around it filled with that strange mixture of fear and awe. After it eventually spotted us, looked us over as if to say “where did these odd creatures spring from?” and shuffled off awkwardly to look for some roots in an altogether less noisy part of the tundra, we all agreed that bears were really rather cute, though that we hoped not to see one again that day.

This was our third time on the Kluane Plateau that week. Our legs were by now starting to feel much better about the four hour hike up 1000m of hill. Our boots were not. Sandra had reverted to wellies. Nevertheless, the quest for knowledge is a noble goal and worse things than walking boots have fallen apart in its pursuit.

A brief description here if you are lost (as we tend to become whenever we try to tackle the tall shrub without a GPS). The Kluane Plateau rises to the south of the Kluane Lake Research Station, home of the Arctic Institute of North America. 60° north of the equator and 1800m above sea level, the mountain ceases to rise for a short period and flattens out, giving us a stretch of unbroken tundra before the slope picks up again and breaks apart into snow packs and loose rocks. Here plants burst into their short existence between sunrise and snowfall, between the spring and the all too soon oncoming winter, coursing with life under a midnight sun. The hike “upstairs” passes through sun-lanced spruce forest in a haze of sweat before the trees thin and sharp, leaf bound branches claw at our arms, before clouds of blue, purple and yellow flowers spill around our holey boots, before the canopy and the hillslope rise to meet each other in the squishy, mossy, unbroken green sea of tundra. By that time out feet hurt a lot so we tend to lie down in a lump and eat some peanuts.

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That day there would be less lumping because we didn’t want to be mistaken for the ursine equivalent of peanuts by Claire the bear. There was also little time to finish our more important tasks. We sampled willow stems for the common garden to compare how fast and how tall shrubs from different parts of the Arctic can grow in a common, and altogether warmer, environment. We measured plant traits – their characteristics (height, leaf size and thickness, woodiness etc) – to help determine how they interact with their environment.  We monitored soil moisture around buried and half-rotten teabags, not yesterday’s lunch but part of an experiment to find out how important moisture is for decomposition in temperature-limited places like the tundra. And we collected the leaves of a small shrub called Rhododendron groenlandicum because stewed in hot water they make a delicious tea.

The clouds were playing games with us a little (jumpers on everyone. Wait…who has the suncream? Damn, unpack the waterproofs!) and despite clambering up and down a mountainside looking for a species of willow only 7cm tall and “definitely around here somewhere” we got all the work done in good time. Walking downhill is always more enjoyable I find, particularly when the tundra sponge add the impression of walking down the side of a slightly deflated bouncy castle.

Down into the shrub line, only getting lost once. Down into the tall shrubs, scratching open our scratches with their branches. Down into the forest where the air is dense and the paths try to slip and trip you at the same time. Down into the fresh air of the canyon edge where the light changes and the water rushes and the breeze starts to fumble again with your backpack, and where John fell and twisted his ankle only twenty minutes from the bottom of the hill.

Not the end any of us were expecting.

Post script 1

We all wrote Haikus for the bears.

Fighting silhouettes.
Teeth bared, claws raised, poised for strike.
This female is mine.

Hello lady bear.
I’ll fight for your…argh my face!
I might just leg it.

Foraging flowers.
Macho displays on the ridge.
I prefer tussocks.

Unwary hiker,
Look sharp! See that golden fur?
Let sleeping bears lie.

Post script 2

John is fine by the way.

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