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Hunting for early life in Arctic Canada

Text and photos by Vivien Cumming – @drvivcumming

A week in Arctic Canada — and an impressive tally. Bug bite count well over 1,000. Rock samples collected over 250. Freeze-dried meals eaten – 63. And the list goes on: minor injuries – 3, major injuries – 0, fish caught – 4, caribou seen – over 20, bears – 0, moose – 1, wolf – 1.

The polar tundra environment of Arctic Canada is a summertime breeding ground for mosquitos and playground for geologists and caribou alike. It’s an ideal place to study Earth history. There is generally very little soil and vegetation — meaning the rocks are well exposed, and northern Canada holds some of the Earth’s most exciting undiscovered geology.

It turns out we are on the edge of this landscape, the final flanks of the boreal forest. Here there is soil and shrubby vegetation. Adrian our Inuit wildlife monitor (bear guard) points out the blueberry bushes and caribou tracks. Unfortunately, it’s late July and the blueberries aren’t out until the fall, but the mosquitoes sure are.

Mosquitos fly over the bright blue waters of the western lake of the Dismal Lakes
Mosquitos fly over the bright blue waters of the western lake of the Dismal Lakes - Vivien Cumming

Every day we wake up praying for cold and wind so that the bugs don’t plague us. Some days that prayer is answered, but others have beautiful sky blue days with not a breath of wind. Dismal Lakes where we camped doesn’t look dismal at all. A beautiful crisp blue reflecting the piercing azure skies inviting us in for a swim, but one toe in and that idea is soon dismissed. The icy water is a gentle reminder that we are in the Arctic.

It must be one of the few places in the world where I actually prefer to be blown around by cold Arctic winds than have hot summery days — anything but the bugs biting every inch of my body. No matter how many clothes and layers you are wearing they still bite. The mosquitos here must have evolved stronger to deal with caribou hide as nowhere else in the world has a mosquito been able to penetrate my thick, Gore-Tex waterproof trousers.

The mosquitos that seem to be able to bite through Gore-Tex trousers!
The mosquitos that seem to be able to bite through Gore-Tex trousers! - Vivien Cumming.

We are about 80 km southwest of the Inuit settlement of Kugluktuk that lies on the Arctic coast and will be the end point to our 200 km lake and river journey. The vegetation is declining as we move north. In this part of Canada, it’s a hike across the boggy tundra to reach the rocky outcrops we are here to see.

From the top of a nearby mountain, you can see what we came here for. Escarpment after escarpment as far as the eye can see. Layers of ancient sedimentary rock that have been tilted by tectonic movement and that can now be seen making up the landscape of vast areas of northern Canada.

Looking over the landscape filled with rocky escarpments made up of rocks that were deposited under the sea over a billion years ago
Looking over the landscape filled with rocky escarpments made up of rocks that were deposited under the sea over a billion years ago - Vivien Cumming.

Here the scientists from the Geological Survey of Canada cross bog after bog as they sample each layer of rock. Every one is a time capsule of marine conditions over a billion years ago.

Corentin Loron of the University of Liège in Belgium has been hunting for layers of chert that contain microfossils that can tell us more about the dawn of life. Rocks just over a billion years old are known to contain evidence of life becoming more complex than the single-celled organisms life started out as. As Corentin finds one of these fossil rich layers he holds up the hard, dark rock explaining that there are likely to be species of fossils in here that are totally new to science: “What’s exciting is finding out how and when life diversified, what the world looked liked a billion years ago, what was living back then.”

PhD student Corentin Loron surveying the rocks
PhD student Corentin Loron surveying the rocks - Vivien Cumming.

Our first week in the Arctic has been spent on the shores of Dismal Lakes studying the over one-billion year old sedimentary rocks around the shores and mountains of the lakes. This is the first part of our journey through time looking at a time when life on Earth began to get bigger and the volcanic eruptions that made it hard for life at that time.

Each day involves getting up around 7 a.m. for a breakfast of oatmeal. Then we head out into the field and spend the entire day hiking through the tundra measuring, recording and sampling rocks — each layer of sedimentary rock read like the pages of a book getting younger in time.

Lunch consists of sausage, cheese, apples and trail mix, and then its home around 6 p.m. for a dinner of rehydrated freeze-dried food. Anything tastes good when you have spent that long outside. Light summer evenings spent writing up results, playing cards or sleeping when the days are particularly hard going. Life is simple because it has to be simple. No creature comforts, just the great outdoors as a home. I’m sure most of us will agree, there’s nothing quite like being out in the wilderness far from home embracing everything nature has to throw at us.

Getting to location by float plane - there are so many lakes up north you just pick your lake, land and make camp - the canoes arrive
Getting to location by float plane - there are so many lakes up north you just pick your lake, land and make camp - the canoes arrive - Vivien Cumming.

The next part of our journey will see us hop into our canoes to travel down through Dismal Lakes to the Kendall River towards the Coppermine River. The challenge will be fitting all of our personal field gear, food, tents, rocks, etc., into our canoes. Can we do it and stay afloat and will the weather hold for our journey? You never know in the Arctic…

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