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Date: 02.23.04
Position: 63º40'N 100º29'W, Grant Lake (Nunavut), Canada
Weather Conditions: Blue sky, sunny, clear and calm, - 30F/- 33C

Our first official team picture in Nunavut! Top from left: Will, Eric, Mille, Paul, Aaron; Sitting in front: Hugh and Nuka

We are in Nunavut! Digging out ourselves, the tents, sleds, and dogs from yet another stormy rest day, we loaded the sleds with the new supplies from our cache. With heavy loads we took off over land, traversed rock gardens and punchy willow fields, moving toward the destination which we have all been working so hard to reach for so long, Dubawnt Lake - where we crossed the border of Nunavut.

Freja showed great bravery, jumping into her first lead of this expedition!

We set out on the ice of Dubawnt Lake with lifted spirits. The hard-packed surface made for much easier dogsledding though the drifts were many and we even had a few pushed up pressure ridges to battle. Dubawnt Lake is the biggest lake in the Kivalliq region, known for outstanding grayling fishing and lurking forty pound trout making it supposedly THE lake trout water in Nunavut. With the Northwest Territories to the west and the land of Nunavut to the east, the lake creates a natural border between the two territories.

Heading from Dubawnt Lake up the Dubawnt River we were met by a HUGE vapor cloud warning us of dangerous conditions - numerous rapids and no ice, but fast moving water making it impossible for us to travel on the river.

Watch the river and flowing water as we travel by it.

Watch Paul explain the situation!

Along the north side of the lake is the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary, covering more than 52,000 square kilometers (20,077.3 square miles). As the name suggests, this is a place for wildlife to feel at ease; to be safe! Created in 1924, The Thelon Sanctuary was developed specifically to preserve the dwindling musk oxen population in the area. As you may remember from last week's report, for thousand of years this area has been inhabited by inland Inuit who lived off the land, surviving by hunting caribou and musk oxen. What threw off the balance was not their subsistence hunting, but the skin trade that developed after the arrival of the Hudson Bay Company and whalers from the south. The once abundant musk oxen reach a population low in 1936 with less than 300 animals in this entire region. By 1994 that number was brought back to nearly 1,100. Unfortunately, the creation of the sanctuary and the protected status given to the musk oxen of the region meant that they could not be hunted, including the traditional subsistence hunting by the Inuit. They could no longer hunt one of their most important resources; needed in order from them to survive on the land.

Today the local Inuit appreciate the fact that the population has really flourished and expanded far beyond the sanctuary area. When Nunavut was created they chose to maintain the sanctuary, keep the musk oxen protected in the area, and only allow subsistence hunting of animals outside the sanctuary. This issue of preservation versus subsistence living for people who require the land for their livelihood in one fashion or another (i.e. sheep or cattle farmers) is a difficult question that can be found worldwide. Also, make sure to join the chat this Wednesday, February 25th to discuss "Biodiversity" and "Threatened Species."

We traveled through a small Arctic forest last week and stopped for a minute to enjoy the last trees we expect to see for many months ahead. Aaron poses with the largest tree we could find!!!

Musk oxen (Ovibos moschatus) are considered the most "Arctic" of the northern land mammals. Whereas a polar bear resembles other bears, there is really no other animal like a musk ox. With impressive long curved horns, stout body, and woolly coat, musk ox are the only survivor of a group of "ice-age" oxen species from about 18,000 years ago. They are the only High Arctic mammals that seek no shelter of any kind during winter blizzards. Their thick coats (which are dark brown except for a pale cream-colored saddle) keep them warm enough so they just stand there! Their outer coats of long guard hairs almost reach the ground and even camouflage most of their white legs underneath. Both males and females have horns which are mainly used for defense against wolves - their only natural predator.

Paul and his team traveling the sunset along the border land of the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary.

When wolves threaten a herd, the adult musk oxen arrange themselves in a circle with their young in the middle, or in a line with the young behind them. The wolves are then faced with an unbroken row of lowered heads and sharp horns. So, unless they are very quick and get a calf before the adult musk oxen are all lined up, the wolves have to simply, just give up! Paul and Mille saw this a little too closely some years back when Aksel and Choko were pups. They were on an expedition heading through the Richardson Mountains in the Northwest Territories with two teams of dogs plus three puppies that were just four months old. Two of the pups, Aksel and Choko, were running loose alongside the sleds, having lots of fun exploring as they traveled. Mille saw some big brown lumps way out on the horizon, and before she even had time to think, the pups charged ahead. She steered her team toward the animals and realized that the lumps were actually musk oxen. Seeing the approaching dog teams, the musk oxen quickly went into their formation. The pups, who didn't know any better, yapped and ran in between the legs of the musk oxen. Paul and Mille decided it would be safer to quickly turn the teams the opposite way, thinking that the pups would realize they were leaving and follow - to great relief they did. Hopefully, both Aksel and Choko will remember to be careful now, as we could very well meet some musk oxen in the next week!!!

From here we head northeast to Baker Lake - about 160 miles as the crow flies. This means "Good-bye" to Dubawnt Lake and "Hello" to traveling inland over rolling land while following lakes and waterways. We should have a good chance of seeing other animals too including caribou, foxes, wolves, and maybe even wolverines. We'll let you know.

While traveling across the barren we are taking snow samples for Environment Canada which they will use for weather prediction and the study of climate change. Hear Paul explain all about it!

Actually, there will be more animals around us than we realize. Not very many animals have it "as easy" as the musk oxen. To survive the strong winds, blizzards, and freezing cold, land mammals in the Arctic have had to adapt. Most cannot migrate south for the winter. So, those that stay have two options: hibernate or tolerate. Marmots and ground squirrels hibernate, which means they basically build a warm nest and sleep through the cold season. Every two weeks or so they "half" wake-up to create some body heat by shivering a little bit, and then go back to sleep. Others, like voles and lemmings, are too small to hibernate as they would freeze if they stopped moving for an extended period of time. Therefore, they live in the subnivean air space, a layer of air between the land and the snow. Insulated beneath a layer of snow, they dig tunnel systems and forage for food protected from the elements and predators. Sometimes they do come above ground, but then they better watch out for the Arctic foxes that are exceptionally well adapted to Arctic life.

Tracks of an Arctic fox along our route!

Arctic foxes have magnificently thick and fluffy winter coats and even have furry soles on their feet. They have a much less "foxy" face than their cousins, the red fox. Their muzzles, legs, and tails are considerably shorter as are their rounder and shorter ears. These characteristics protect the arctic foxes against the cold because less surface area means less that can get cold. In other words, short limbs and a more round body are great for cold weather! What are the animals like in your area? Is the climate reflected in the dominating body shape? Visit this week's Collaboration Zone 05 to share your observations with other students.

Though lemmings, without a doubt, are the favorite food of an Arctic fox, they are well adapted to eat anything and everything from berries to insects and bird eggs to a fat piece of seal. Fox can often be seen closely following polar bears and scavenging their kills. The saying is that if you see lots of foxes, polar bears will be pretty close by. One advantage Arctic carnivores (meat eating animals) have over carnivores in warmer southern climates is that most of the year the temperature here is low enough to ensure that the meat won't spoil. The meat of a kill quickly freezes, so if for any reason a carnivore leaves some leftovers behind, it won't be wasted and will stay in good condition until a scavenger comes by to claim it. That's probably why all Arctic carnivores will eat leftovers when they find them; they don't limit themselves to freshly killed prey. When hungry and finding enough to eat in order to stay warm is your number one concern in the winter, you cannot afford to be a finicky eater.

Most rocks in the Arctic are covered by lichen.

Check out the QTVR as we travel through a rock garden. Can you find this week's Polar Husky Superstar, Sable?

It is much tougher to be an herbivore (a plant eater) in the Arctic. The tundra only offers fresh greenery during a very short period of the year. The rest of the year it is very hard to find forage. The dominant plant on the Arctic tundra and barren land is lichen. With thousands of its kind growing in North America, lichen is actually the most dominant plant of the continent. One of the oldest and toughest plants on earth, this strange hardy plant is the number one player in the plant world with roughly 20,000 of its kind worldwide! But, lichen being the chief winter food for both caribou and moose; it is a lot of work for these animals to get enough calories for the tough conditions.

Watch the Polar Huskies up-close in action with lichen and willows!!!

The solution is pretty strange. Scientists have found that animals like caribou and musk oxen actually "shrink" themselves in the wintertime. The animals lose a considerable amount of weight during winter, but apparently not because of starvation. The weight loss is normal and does them no harm; it is adaptation that allows them to survive the food shortage during winter. By losing weight, they reduce their need for food! Put another way, when the forage becomes insufficient for heavy animals, they "shrink" to match the food supply. It is believed that the animals put on weight in the summertime, not in preparation for winter food shortages, but to supply themselves with the large amount of energy needed for reproduction. Another fact to consider is that winter forage is low in protein. This actually benefits the animals since a low protein diet reduces the amount of water an animal excretes. This reduces the animal's need for water, which in turn, reduces the amount of energy it must waste melting snow and ice, the only source for water in winter. Pretty interesting, eh!

Mille and Paul on the ice, discussing the route ahead. Now gaining six minutes of daylight per day, our team has adjusted by changing our travel time. We set our watches forward an hour to gain light in the afternoon and are now traveling from 8:30 AM to 5 PM.

Imagine if we could do the same thing. Talking this morning, Aaron and Mille agreed that people are not very "adapted" for these conditions. Mille expressed, "Arctic nature really amazes me; it is so fine tuned. However, drastic changes are taking place which I have seen firsthand during my travels in the Arctic for the past eleven years. Changes have also been observed by Elders who were born on the land, and generally reported from people in the communities we visit. Last year we were talking with Thomas, a much respected Elder from Rankin Inlet which is an Inuit community on the Hudson Bay coast, who told us that coyote and white tailed deer are now being spotted much further north than ever before. These two animals never used to be able to survive in the cold, harsh conditions of the Arctic, but it looks like that is changing as the climate changes." Before we left for the expedition, Paul read in a newspaper article of the discovery by biologists here in Canada that red squirrels have changed genetically to make them deal with the warming climate so that they now breed earlier in the year than just ten years ago! What time of the year the squirrel breeds or that the coyote is moving north may not seem like a very big deal to us humans, but when you think about it, this means that there are big changes going on all around us. The changes are already affecting the animals and it may not take long before we humans will be affected as well.

Raw Polar Husky power in action as Hugh and Eric move their sled over a pressure ridge...

Watch it!

Another animal already very affected by the climate change is the polar bear. Polar bear moms start leaving their dens much earlier than before, heading out on the ice with their cubs to find food. They do this because, with the warmer weather, their hunting season is getting shorter and shorter so in the fall they can't get as fat as they need to before giving birth. Their cubs are therefore born smaller and they need to go look for seals earlier. Most of the polar bear moms and cubs used to come out of their dens in mid-March, but over the last five years their trek has begun earlier and earlier. As we are traveling far inland there is no chance of running into polar bears right now, but once we get closer to the coast of the Arctic Ocean by Pelly Bay that will all change! (Make sure to add YOUR Polar Bear stuff to the Collaboration Zone. Oh well, hopefully Timber is up for some serious polar bear alertness! It does not do any good for us to get to worried. Right now we are concentrated on continuing our way over the barrens tomorrow; successfully plowing our way to Baker Lake pulled by the mighty Polar Huskies.

This week's Polar Husky Super Stars, Terex and Sable, are two of the most powerful Polar Huskies out here.

Terex is simply a powerhouse! His incredible power and determination to get the sled moving, rocks the entire team. To make his point you can often hear a rolling growl as he digs into the harness, head down, tail up…moving FORWARD. He is actually almost scary. But as Aaron puts it, "Terex is the big teddy bear that we all always wanted - but he is alive! His growl is merely the force that is behind his loving character. "

A true sweetheart, always playful, and an exceptionally hard worker who always tries to please and do her best, Sable is not only a constant force pulling the sled, but also an excellent teacher who nobody messes around with! Whether male or female, her running partner better be at their best performance or she will let them know about it. Sable will not tolerate any sluggish or lazy behavior!

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