Twin Lakes: random thoughts on Yukon fieldwork

23 July, late at night: My three week field trip to the Yukon Territory is drawing to a close and we’re back at Twin Lakes Campground, on the Klondike Highway between Whitehorse and Carmacks. By the end of this trip I will have spent about 19 weeks, all told, in the Yukon since 1997. And I realized sitting at the picnic table tonight, that Twin Lakes has figured in all those trips. I’ve camped here a few times, and stopped off for lunch a few more, pulling into an empty campsite and eating under the trembling aspens. It’s the first place I ever noticed the patterns the serpentine leafminers trace in the leaves of the aspens, mimicking the gold rush dredge tailings along the road outside Dawson City. You can see the tailings on Google Earth. To see the leaf mines, you have to come here and get out of your car. Some years the leaves are almost white from all the leafminers. This year there are almost none. I don’t know why.

Twilight at Twin Lakes

Twilight at Twin Lakes

It almost always seems to be sunny at Twin Lakes, but maybe that’s my selective memory. And when it rains, it only rains a little, and just for a few minutes. It’s raining outside now, but I’ll probably forget that soon enough. And so I only ever remember sitting here under a blue sky looking out through the open, white-barked, aspen forest down to the little lake. There is always a pair of loons on that lake. And the aspen leaves often flutter in the wind, but that never quite drowns out the loons when they decide to call. In the Portrait of Me in The Yukon, I’d be standing at Twin Lakes.

The highway runs right by the campground, so we hear the transport trucks on their way north and south, and all the Yukon road crew trucks going by to put out orange flags on the washouts and bumps, and the rental campers full of tourists, and the motorcycles bound for the Dempster Highway and the Arctic Circle — not heavy, polished Harleys that would shake themselves to pieces on the gravel up there, but quieter, hardworking BMWs and Ducatis and Triumphs made for tougher roads, most with extra tires strapped to the hard metal cargo cases on the back and riders armoured for the spray of rocks and dust and mud. Bicyclists go by silently, but they’re there just the same. I have never bothered to calculate how many miles I’ve travelled up and down the Klondike Highway between Whitehorse and points north. Stéphanie Boucher and I went up and down that road once or twice a week through long summer field seasons in 1997 and 1998, waiting out the smoke and flames of the Fox Lake fire in 1998 when the fire burned too close to the road or jumped across and they’d close it for an hour or a few until the flames by the road burned back and we could follow the pilot truck through the smoke and ash. We’d get out of the car and look for insects along the roadside while we waited for the pilot truck, and everything ended up smelling like forest fire. I’ve travelled up and down that road the past three years as well, sampling insects on the remnants of the Mammoth Steppe on the hills above the road south of Carmacks, and whizzing by those same slopes on the way up to the Dempster Highway.

On the Dempster, all cars are the same colour

On the Dempster, all cars are the same colour

We’re slowly getting organized for the trip home. We cleaned up the Malaise traps after supper tonight and rolled them up and packed them away. In a geeky and trivial way, that seemed to signal the end of the big collecting part of the trip. But not all the collecting. The sweep nets and aspirators and our few remaining empty vials are still in the back seat of the truck where we can reach them easily. And flies are active all the long arctic day up here. Élodie went to look for Rhamphomyia on the outside walls of the outhouses tonight. There weren’t any there, but she did find a very pretty bibionid fly (a March fly) down by the water. I know a colleague in Europe who would appreciate that bibionid, and others like it, far more than we will. We bring back strange souvenirs from trips like this.

And we ate supper outside at the picnic table tonight because the sun was warm and the breeze was nice and the mosquitoes were not out yet. And we talked about science and the nature of research questions.

We talked about how strange it will be to go back to the city. And by “city” we meant Whitehorse, population 27,000, with its traffic lights and cell phone coverage and flush toilets and sidewalks. Everything is relative I suppose.

We visited a lot of great habitats and spots on this trip – some old places that I knew well, some new places that just looked nice as we drove past, and some places new to us that others visited long before us, back in the Northern Insect Survey era of the 1960s and into the 1970s. We got a lot of great things and Sabrina and Élodie learned a lot about flies. I accumulated a lot more data about the diversity of my favorite flies in the Yukon. And I thought about a lot of new things to look for on my next trip up here (which should start in, oh, just under 11 months).

Cleaning samples, with mosquitoes

Cleaning samples, with mosquitoes

We also got to escape the contrived urgency and inflated self-importance of University World and spend three weeks sharing campgrounds with European tourists trying to figure out the inner workings of their rental campers, music festival hippies hitchhiking out of Dawson with their dogs, retired California couples doing their laundry and talking to the grandkids back home, and that really big Amish family at the RV park late last night. We gave a little steering wheel wave at truckers and bikers and road crews as we passed on the Dempster, we got a little filthy every time we accidentally brushed up against our mud-encrusted camper, we fed the mosquitoes, and we lived in a world we defined however we wanted – as small as the camper on rainy, cold days, or as big as the tundra when we were out chasing flies.

Not bad, really. Not bad.

Dempster Highway says "sorry about the mud and rain"

Dempster Highway says “sorry about the mud and rain”


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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