Arctic, Expeditions and Travels

On to the Land – the Search for Arctic Knots

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We left yesterday with high hopes of getting out to the plateau of barren tundra where we previously located 10 knots with transmitters over a five-year period. Remotely, the area looks like habitat similar to our 2000-2005 study area – slightly higher elevation than most of Southampton Island’s tundra, less than 5% vegetation, and inland at least 5 km. Unlike our study area, however, we can get to the plateau without a plane. We left Coral Harbor by the newly created road two days ago, and yesterday we set out to get the rest of the way by ATV. We were in for a surprise.

We had to fully load the ATVs so that once we reached the knot plateau, we could stay for at least 10 days.

We had to fully load the ATVs so that once we reached the knot plateau, we could stay for at least 10 days.

To get to the knot plateau, we had to cross the Sutton River, one of Southampton’s major rivers. It’s a gentle steam where it crosses the road but at the place we needed to cross it was a wide valley, within which lies one of the most formidable wetlands I have ever seen in the Arctic, with lush wildness and expansiveness stretching far into the distance in both directions. It is home to thousands of shorebirds.

The trip was worth the effort: we found American Golden Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Dunlin and one Long-tailed Jaeger nest.

The trip was worth the effort: we found American Golden Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Dunlin and one Long-tailed Jaeger nest.

Nevertheless, we soon learned it was a wetland from hell. Within the first hour, our ATVs were stuck in mud so colloidal that you might think it was a kind of mocha gelato. The ground shook like Jell-O as we walked, and if the ATV scratched the surface it was down to its axles. After 5 hours, we had to give up. The knot plateau was within sight, but we had to drive away.

Once into the formidable wetland of the Sutton River, our machines frequently sank up to the axles in mud. We spent most of the day trying to cross the wetland, but couldn’t. And all the while, we had to keep watch for bears.

Once into the formidable wetland of the Sutton River, our machines frequently sank up to the axles in mud. We spent most of the day trying to cross the wetland, but couldn’t. And all the while, we had to keep watch for bears.

At the end of the day, we were spent.

At the end of the day, we were spent.

Josh, our bear watcher, suggested a crossing 15 miles downriver used by Inuit hunters. We were skeptical because the river gets much wider as it approaches the sea, but Josh is a capable outdoorsmen. In the last two years, he legally killed two polar bears and, like many Inuit, spends most of his time hunting and fishing. We set camp at the trailhead and prepared for another attempt tomorrow.