The Dempster Highway is a 750 kilometer, gravel, narrow, bumpy, dusty, muddy, rutted washboarded road with one gas station at the beginning, one in the middle and a couple near the end. It runs from near the Klondike gold fields across the Arctic Circle to the Mackenzie Delta up on the Arctic Ocean. It is, in short, one of Canada’s great drives, if your vehicle can handle it. It is also one of the most renowned routes of great northern insect collecting in the country. This is mostly because you can drive into Beringia, a place where an array of organisms from soil mites to mammoths survived the Pleistocene ice age, and the place where humans first walked into North America. In Beringia you can collect insects along the roadside in places that were free of ice when the rest of Canada was buried a kilometer deep.
About 70 kilometers north of its starting point the Dempster runs past the Tombstone Mountains. These high, craggy peaks are the backdrop for Tombstone Territorial Park. And Tombstone Territorial Park is one of the reasons I like the Tombstone Mountains.
I spent a very productive couple of weeks in Tombstone Park in 2011, along with students Anna Solecki, Katie Sim and Ruben Cordero, collecting insects near North Fork Pass, just north of the campground. The staff at the Tombstone Interpretive Centre were wonderfully helpful and really enthusiastic about our work. We gave a public talk about our research in the cook shelter at the campground during our trip and the audience was excited to learn about our work and the insects that were all around them.
Our Northern Biodiversity Program, about which I’ve droned on previously here on the blog, has three “core” scientific themes, and a fourth theme that is “traditional knowledge, outreach and education”. Although I must confess that I gave Theme 4 low priority in the early days of getting this project off the ground, I’ve come to enjoy it, and recognize its critical importance more and more as our northern field seasons roll on.
Why does Theme 4 matter?
1. Because if you can’t communicate the importance and significance of your science to the people outside the walls of academia (the people whose taxes support our research, and whose children become our future students, and who have the power to vote out politicians who ignore scientific evidence, and whose lifestyle decisions can make or break our ecosystems . . . you get the idea), then your research remains a lot less relevant.
2. Because it’s just a tad silly to think there’s nothing we can learn about arctic ecology from the people who have lived on the land for thousands of years.
3. Because kids and regular people everywhere have an inherent enthusiasm for nature, especially in places where they are surrounded by it, and we have a social responsibility as scientists to nurture that enthusiasm.
So, when I was sitting in a cafe in Whitehorse, Yukon one morning this summer and got a last minute email from the Tombstone Interpretive Centre asking if I could come up in two days to fill in with a talk as part of their insect weekend (their scheduled speakers were stranded a few hundred km up the Dempster on the far side of a washed out ferry crossing), how could I refuse?
My fieldwork in the Yukon this summer wasn’t originally intended to take us as far north as the Tombstones. Another NBP team led by Chris Buddle was driving the Dempster this year, but my student Anna Solecki and I jumped at the chance to revisit the park.
You never really know what you’re in for when you give a public talk about insects. Audiences are unpredictable, as are the questions. But that being said, when I give public talks around southern cities a lot of the questions are of the “I would like advice about things that are crawling in my garden/attic/bedsheets” variety. The audience on this night was a mix of local residents, park staff, members of the Friends of Dempster Country (a fantastic group of people), vacationing families with children, a couple with a very well-behaved dog, and a handful of European tourists driving the Dempster.
Here is a cross-section of questions I got from the audience (the mostly non-scientist audience . . . ) at the cook shelter at Tombstone this year (great discussion ensued!):
“Lots of insects are moving north because of climate change, but could there be any moving south instead, and why?”
“What effect did the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age have on insects in northern Canada?”
“Where exactly IS the southern edge of Beringia around here, and why here?”
Will I do another talk when I’m back in the neighborhood? Absolutely.