Sunset on the barrenlands at Daring Lake, NWT  (Photo: Jody Zoe) Sunset on the barrenlands at Daring Lake, NWT (Photo: Jody Zoe)

Learning on the Barrenlands: TSSRAP 2017

The Tłįchǫ Summer Student Research Assistant Program (TSSRAP) is a great opportunity to get Tłįchǫ youth excited about science and to visit a part of their territory that not many youth have the chance to see.  The barrenlands are “extraordinary”, as one of this year’s TSSRAP participants, Jody Zoe, said.  It's the kind of vast, open landscape where you can see far in the distance and things look deceptively close but can take a long time to get to, she added. 

It's also a landscape of great beauty in summer when first wildflowers and then berries cover the mostly treeless terrain –habitat for a diversity of birds and other wildlife.  Research assistants in the TSSRAP work at the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station at Daring Lake, about 300 km northeast of Yellowknife and 50 km north of the treeline, the edge of the habitat where trees can grow.  They work with university researchers who are studying various aspects of climate change and its impacts on the tundra environment, vegetation growth, and carbon exchange between tundra surfaces and the atmosphere.  The tundra in the Arctic is changing dramatically.  Climate change is faster and more severe in the Arctic than in most of the rest of the world. 

Permafrost – a layer of frozen soil and organic material such as plant remains—is the foundation for much of the tundra ecosystem.  In the southern Arctic, the surface layer (the “active layer”) melts in summer and forms bogs, fens, and shallow lakes –havens for wildlife like migratory birds.  With warming temperatures, tundra soils are thawing more deeply for longer periods of time.  Organic matter in the soil decomposes faster, releasing larger amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a key “greenhouse gas” and contributor to global warming.  As more of the permafrost melts, shrubs that previously couldn’t take root on the permafrost are now appearing on the landscape, potentially altering the habitat of the wildlife found there. Animals that are typically found further south, like the red fox, are moving onto the tundra, and the long-term impacts on the ecosystem are unknown.  Research at Daring Lake is contributing to a greater understanding of how the Arctic is responding to changing climate.

TSSRAP Jody Zoe (at left) learning from science researchers in the field.  Photo:  GNWT / S.Yuill, ENR

What kind of research field work did TSSRAP students assist with this summer?

This year, the fifth year of the program, TSSRAP summer students Janelle Nitsiza, Zhalaani Drygeese, and Jody Zoe assisted researchers Quan Gu and Shannon Petrie, both from Queen’s University, and Emma Riley, from Carleton University, with their projects and fieldwork.  They helped take various measurements, including the depth of the soil’s active layer, soil moisture, soil temperature, and other “variables” (features that can change) that make up the microclimate of different small areas on the tundra.  They also took soil core samples and vegetation clippings, and monitored vegetation sample plots.  Soil coring involves taking soil of known volumes from each of the plots at different depths.  The cores are useful for knowing different characteristics of the soil, such as mineral composition.

One of the projects this year was looking at whether soil depth makes certain plants like crowberry, bearberry, and cranberry more or less productive (producing more plant “biomass” or amount of plant material)? Does soil depth affect a particular plant’s food-making processes (photosynthesis), for example?  The soil cores are useful for knowing different characteristics of the soil, such as mineral composition, that could affect the photosynthesis rates of these plants.  TSSRAP students took field measurements at 27 sample plots representing 3 different soil depths for the 3 different plants at 3 different areas at the boulder fields near the Research Station—upland tundra areas characterized by relatively shallow soil and lots of exposed rock.  These areas are abundant in the southern Arctic and represent an important portion of the tundra landscape.  Vegetation clipping, where vegetation is removed from a sample plot and weighed, can be used to estimate the biomass that occurs across the landscape.  For this project, it was also used to determine how much of the vegetation was healthy or withered / dead, another factor that would affect photosynthesis. 

Researchers and TSSRAP students also measured methane gas, another contributor to greenhouse gases.  Wetlands are one of the most significant natural sources of methane in the atmosphere.  Locked in permafrost, methane is escaping as ice thaws.  This research project is investigating methane emissions from the Daring Lake fen.  A fen is a type of wetland–a set sedge meadow with permafrost and mineral rich soil, sedges, dwarf birch and sphagnum moss.  These wetlands have higher water tables than other wetlands and typically have higher emissions of methane. 

While the TSSRAP is a unique opportunity for youth to learn about science first-hand out in the field, it can also be an opportunity to exchange knowledge and for researchers to learn from the summer students.  Emma, one of the researchers, commented that “during the many long days out in the field, Janelle also shared a lot of knowledge regarding Tłįchǫ language and culture.  It was really cool for me and for that, I’m super thankful that these [research assistant] positions are organized.” 

Tundra Science and Culture Camp Activities

As part of their work experience, TSSRAP students also join other youth who take part in ENR’s two-week Tundra Science and Culture Camp (TSCC) at Daring Lake.  At TSCC, students learn about the tundra environment from different disciplines and perspectives –ecology, archaeology, geology, human history, and ornithology, the study of birds. Students learn from scientists, Dene elders, researchers, and conservation education specialists –and this year, one of the TSCC students was an instructor too.  Janelle had spent the last year living a traditional life, practicing traditional skills which she shared this summer at Daring Lake.  Taking part in TSCC had a special meaning for her because her grandmother, elder Dora Nitsiza, had spent many summers as a cultural instructor at the camp, and Janelle wanted to experience what her grandmother had.  Janelle shared many of her grandmother’s stories at camp.  Here you can see Janelle assisting TSCC students with scraping hides, drum-making, and beading.

TSSRAP student Janelle Nitsiza instructing how to prepare hides.  Photo:  GNWT / S.Yuill, ENR

TSSRAP student Janelle Nitsiza assisted elder Louis Zoe in showing the youth how to make a drum.  Photo:  GNWT / S.Yuill, ENR

Jody was especially interested in the geology of the area, learning about the different kinds of rocks on the tundra and their textures.  “If you really look,” she said, “you can see crystals in the rock.” A special rock, the “big bear rock” where a bear had scratched its back, caught her eye.  A fun activity involved walking a geological timeline –where a rope was set out on an esker and students had to match slips of paper describing geological events to when they occurred in history. 

TSSRAP student Jody Zoe learning about rocks on the tundra.  Photo:  GNWT / S.Yuill, ENR

The tundra was a natural classroom where lessons about wildlife and other parts of this ecosystem were easy to learn.  Jody spoke about waiting at a fox’s den for a fox that never appeared. The lesson wasn’t lost though.  “They never came out,” Jody said, “but they were probably teaching their young how to hunt.  We could see little practice holes where they were learning how to make their own dens.” 

All the summer students were interested in the area’s prehistory and archaeological sites where “litter scatters”-- chipped stones and remnants of tool making activities-- could be viewed.  Stone tent rings and other artifacts were reminders that the Tłı̨chǫ, Yellowknives Dene, Métis and Inuit peoples had travelled, harvested and camped there in the past.

TSSRAP student Jody Zoe learning how to make dry meat from elder Therese Zoe.  (Photo:  GNWT / S.Yuill, ENR)

Janelle, Jody, and Zhalanni enjoyed hearing traditional stories, playing hand games, making dry meat, and being in a unique geographical setting where they were able to walk on eskers and see caribou and other wildlife such as peregrine falcons and grizzly bears –at a distance!  Learning about caribou ecology was particularly rewarding and the summer students learned many new things including the fact that caribou leave a scent so other caribou know if a potential threat was present. Students saw one or two caribou every day.  Jody described one encounter where a caribou heard her laugh,stopped and stared and went in a different direction.  Another time, she was up on an esker one night to watch the sunset when she heard a radio message that there was a caribou on the esker!  She was already up there and got a good view of it.  Jody spoke about the traditional stories that were shared at camp, especially the story of how a loon restored an old man’s eyesight by diving under the water with him on its back.  She was able to retell the story in detail and to reflect on its lessons.  Another memorable story was one told by elder Louis Zoe about how Akaitcho and Yamozha, a legendary Dene cultural hero, made peace.  In his storytelling, Louis used some old Tłįchǫ words which he explained to the students, passing on invaluable oral history and culture. 

Another of the activities at TSCC involves monitoring small mammal population trends using a new live trapping method. Students tagged red-backed voles and other animals, ran the trap line, and checked the traps. 

TSCC participants also hike, swim, fish, play games,and take part in cultural activities such as Dene hand games, drumming, and storytelling. Canoeing was one of the activities. Jody made an interesting observation that the water looks lighter where the fish swim in a line.  “We went over the fish trail in a canoe, “ she said.  “It was very cool but scary.  One wrong move and I could fall in with all the fishes!”

TSSRAP student Jody Zoe caught her first fish up at Daring Lake this summer.  Photo:  GNWT / S.Yuill, ENR

TSSRAP student Jody Zoe on a Tundra Trek with other youth in the Tundra Science and Culture Camp.  Photo:  GNWT / S.Yuill, ENR

On warm days, it was hard to resist the clear waters of Yamba Lake!  (Photo:  GNWT / S.Yuill, ENR)

Final thoughts

Being out on the barrenlands became like a “second home” to Jody, who added that she would like to return, this time as a camp manager.  One of her favourite things about being on the barrenlands?  The fact that there were no trees.  Her photos hint at why she would feel this way:  the views were endless and what views there were!  Still, she was impressed at the sight of her first tree on the tundra.  It was tiny and she had to touch it.  “I forgot what it was like,” she said. 

TSSRAP student Zhalaani Drygeese learning how to prepare dry meat at Daring Lake.  Photo:  GNWT / S.Yuill, ENR

Janelle spoke about how she would like to go into traditional knowledge research and said that seeing the methods the science researchers use in the field will help her learn how to become a better researcher.  For Zhalaani, who’s interested in the environmental field, it’s a “blessing to go out on the land –like being grounded in a happy smile.”

 Double rainbow at the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station, Daring Lake, NWT  Photo:  Jody Zoe

TSSRAP student Jody Zoe  (Photo: GNWT / S.Yuill, ENR)