Winter Fieldwork in the Yukon

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
– Robert Service, “The Spell of the Yukon”

Field assistant Bailey, Kluane resident Peter Upton, and Bubba the dog snowshoe across the ice on Kluane Lake.

I spent January of this year in the boreal forests of Kluane, Yukon. My goal was to collect pictures, fur samples, and tracks of Canada lynx in order to estimate density of lynx in the Kluane area. My Master’s project compares methods of density estimation to improve lynx research and management. Every few months I head to my field site in Kluane. I have experienced every season of the year in the Yukon, from the midnight sun in summer to the deep dark and cold of winter. No time of the year is quite like January. 

Most of my time in Kluane, regardless of season, is spent hiking. This becomes particularly challenging in winter. This year, temperatures dipped to -35 Celsius and snow was thigh-deep in many places. Bailey (my field assistant/ hiking buddy) and I looked to lynx for advice on how to traverse long distances in deep snow. Lynx have disproportionately large feet, making them look funny in summer but helping them keep up with their prey in winter. Their feet function as snowshoes to distribute their weight and help them float on top of the snow. So, Bailey and I got some snowshoes. Not just any snowshoes; modern, lightweight snowshoes were ineffective in snow that deep. In order to make it to all our remote cameras and fur snag sites, we had to borrow extra-large, old-school snowshoes from a local outdoorsman. After a steep learning curve where we learned to walk without tripping (sometimes), the snowshoes became indispensable to our everyday hikes. 

Bailey and I in our snowshoes, on a long hike through a frozen creek bed. We set out this day to collect lynx fur samples from a snag. (Photo by Lindsay Potts)

Cold temperatures were less easily dealt with. Lynx grow big fur coats every winter, with a beard around their neck for a scarf and thick fur between their toes for boots. All Bailey and I could do was outfit ourselves in the human-made substitutes. No matter how much we layered up, we still lost heat throughout the day and had to manage it as best we could. When temperatures were low, lunch breaks to eat our (frozen) sandwiches were limited at five or ten minutes, or until the cold caught up to us. Taking off our mittens even briefly to check cameras or to make a note was painful. Camera screens wouldn’t work, handheld GPSs would turn off mid-hike, and even pen ink would freeze. The Yukon cold did not make our fieldwork easy.

A Canada lynx notices a remote camera set atop a ridge in Kluane.

Despite the deep snow and the deep cold, Bailey and I headed outside each day to take advantage of every hour of daylight available. A key lesson that I learned this field season is that tough conditions are not as tough when you have a friend by your side to experience it all with you. Long sunrises and sunsets, Northern Lights to light up the night, and expansive white landscapes can help counter the extreme conditions with extreme beauty. And the real reward for the tough times was a lot of data. We collected about 250 pictures of lynx and 100 fur samples for analysis in that month. Every successful camera or fur snag and every lynx track in the snow is another piece of the puzzle to understanding lynx populations and improving our management of an ecologically, economically, and culturally important wildlife species.

The sun rises at 10 AM and lights up the sky above the Alaska Highway.

I will return to Kluane for the last time in June. I look forward to experiencing yet another side of the North. By June, everything will have turned from bright white to bright green. The winter challenges of cold and snow will be exchanged for mosquitoes and mud. Long days will keep me outside for hours on end, and I look forward to returning to camp every day tired and happy. But I will certainly miss the Kluane winter and everything it offers. Again in the words of Robert Service:

There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land – oh it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back- and I will.
– “The Spell of the Yukon”

Dream team.

Darcy Doran-Myers

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