Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Solo Walkabout


Two days ago, on August 8, I had a whole day in front of me and nothing pressing in need of doing. I’d just finished helping Katherine with her morning 15N injections, and at about 9:30am I decided I’d like to do a little exploring in the Alexandra Fjord area. It was a clear day, without too much wind, so I packed a lunch and some cold-weather gear (just in case) and set off to see the lower slopes of the Dome and the west side of the valley.

My goal for the day’s adventure, a traverse at near-constant altitude across the east slope of the Dome, from south to north. My route is indicated by the red line.

Rather than cross any rivers by myself, a dangerous and uncomfortable task, I planned to walk diagonally south and west across the valley away from base camp until reaching the north-flowing small river that supplies are our drinking water. This would be the same river that Katherine and I crossed on our previous excursion. Then I would follow the river upstream as it curves to the south and east, ascend the Dome to the first major bench, and traverse along the Dome at this height until I felt like coming back down and returning to camp.

The north half of the drinking-water river, viewed from a spot not far from where Katherine and I crossed it nearly 2 weeks ago.

There has been little erosion in the 12 days since I last passed this way. The bootprint on the left is from that previous trip, on the right freshly-formed.

The cottongrass (Eriophorum sp.) was in full display.

I nearly stumbled into this tiny side-channel of the river.

Moving southwest not far from the river, I crossed a broad, nearly-level plain littered with large glacial erratics – boulders deposited by a retreating glacier. There are lots and lots of such erratics all over northern North America, remnants of the last great ice sheets some 15000 years ago. One such large erratic is the basis for the name of a brewery in Calgary, Alberta. The difference here on Ellesmere Island is that the glacier that left these erratics behind is still very much in place, and has a name, in this case the Twin glacier.

An antler was resting on this multi-tonne behemoth of an erratic, and the white was visible from much further away than the distinctive shape.

The view from atop the erratic in the previous photo, looking north back towards base camp and the fjord.

The terrain forced me closer to the river, and for a while I was following my companions footprints, retrograde. Here is a footprint made by one of my companions when they descended from Katherine and my camp on the Dome on July 9, a month ago.

The north half of the river emerges from a canyon known as “Helm’s Deep”, descending swiftly through a channel of boulders and steep walls. I had no desire to chance the river’s current, but I wanted to see into the canyon, so I climbed a short distance alongside the rushing river before I decided "enough of this!" and scrambled up the north wall of the canyon. That scramble was probably the most tricky thing I did that day, a careful half-crawl up a steep and crumbly slope of granite boulders, soft gravel, and loose sandy soil.

The view to the south from the rocky point above the north wall of the Helm’s Deep canyon.

Another view from the same spot, looking northeast.

My altitude where I paused to take the above photos and drink my coffee was 186 metres, according to my GPS. This number would appear again and again on my GPS screen as I traversed the bench of mixed granite and dolomite that forms this part of the Dome. I was trying to stay at roughly the same altitude, periodically turning on and checking my GPS, and while I strayed a bit, up to about 200m, down to about 170, for some reason by far the most common reading was exactly 186m.

The view of base camp from the bench. The “Willow” and “Wet Sedge Meadow” OTCs are visible below and to the left of base camp.

“Cassiope” OTCs.

“Dryas” OTCs.

“Vaccinium / Fert” OTCs.

The terrain of the bench was a mix of polar desert and wetter patches of tundra. The differences between the two ecosystems are very apparent when they are so closely juxtaposed.

Polar desert.

Tundra, at least by my estimation.

I continued along the bench until I got hungry, then stopped for lunch on a prominent boulder or protrusion of bedrock. I like having a spectacular view during my meals.

The view from near my lunch spot towards base camp. The light-coloured pile of rubble on the left partially covers the granite block I sat upon to eat.

I continued around to the north slope of the Dome, where the structure gradually changes from a dolomite-dominated series of benches to a granite-dominated series of vertically-running channels and shallow, steeply-pitched canyons. This granite structure is much more difficult to traverse laterally, besides which I thought I should be heading back towards camp because I was scheduled to make dinner that evening.

The view north from the north slope of the Dome. Several of the icebergs had large melt-pools on them.

I was struck (not literally) by this precariously-balanced boulder on my way down the north slope.

The boulders here were very loose and unstable, so I wasn’t able to get as close to this boulder as I’d like.

I did get close enough to include my hand for scale.

Below the north slope of the Dome there is a narrow strip of wet and boggy tundra, covered with a mix of sedges and black mosses. This is apparently the home of a couple of pairs of parasitic jaegers (Stercorarius parasiticus), and I met one. I spent some time verbally berating it, thinking it was a juvenile with low muscular endurance, because it repeatedly flew only a few metres, then landed, then flapped around and took off for another short flight. On later reflection, it’s more likely this was an adult faking injury to lure me away from a nest. This late in the season it seems improbable that there are any non-flying juveniles or eggs around, but this behaviour is probably an instinctive response to a potential predator.

The fake-injured jaeger I followed and verbally abused for a bit.

I walked along the shoreline to the west, up towards the top of the fjord, and freaked myself out a little bit with some bearanoia: I was carrying no deterrents, not even “bear banger” firecrackers, and I knew I was in primo polar bear habitat. Fortunately, I encountered no bears.

It was very quiet, and there was little wind, perfect conditions for sound to travel far. I could hear a marine mammal periodically surfacing, so I walked down a short way and saw a pair of walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) diving and surfacing.

A cropped photo taken through my binoculars of the pair of walruses. They sit low in the water even when resting on the surface, so the distinctive tusks were only rarely visible at all, and then only the uppermost parts.

On my way back to base camp, I must have passed right through two jaeger territories, as I was dive-bombed repeatedly by 4 different birds, including the fake-injured dark-coloured individual I’d previously yelled at. Turnabout is fair play, I suppose.

VIDEO: Jaeger attack 1

VIDEO: Jaeger attack 2

Their attacks were quite spectacular, and I did get a bit of an adrenaline charge as these quite large birds (larger than a crow, similar to an average sea gull) wheeled in the sun and feinted towards my head. My camera was rapidly running out of battery power, so I tried to quickly escape the jaegers, but their territories are rather large and I was attacked off-and-on for about 10 minutes.

I got back to camp by about 3:00pm, more than enough time to get started on dinner. Overall, a very satisfying jaunt around the western side of the Alexandra Fjord lowlands.


Anonymous said...

OTC? I can follow floral Latin but I don't know OTC.

Anonymous said...

OTC? I can follow floral Latin but I don't know OTC.

TheBrummell said...

OTC = Open Top Chamber.

Sorry, you spend enough time around your favourite TLA (three letter acronym) and you forget about it.

The OTCs are the structures used to raise temperatures by a few degrees over select patches of vegetation, simulating climate warming. My work at Alex Fjord mostly took place among the OTCs set up in various vegetation-type patches.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, what phrase..., a magnificent idea