TSSRAP summer student Teya Wetrade learning from elder Rita Wetrade at Science and Culture Camp. Photo © GNWT / Stephanie Yuill TSSRAP summer student Teya Wetrade learning from elder Rita Wetrade at Science and Culture Camp. Photo © GNWT / Stephanie Yuill

Tłįchǫ Summer Student Research Assistant Program 2015

For the third summer, two Tłı̨chǫ youth have had an opportunity to be involved in research projects underway at the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station at Daring Lake. Trena Weyallon and Teya Wetrade were this year’s summer students in the Tłı̨chǫ Summer Student Research Assistant Program (TSSRAP).  Working as research assistants, they had a chance to experience what it’s like to live and work at a remote field station in the Barrenlands.

Trena’s work started even before she arrived at Daring Lake by floatplane.   She helped take water samples at 10 sites en route to the Research Station, getting her feet wet as a research assistant!

At Daring Lake, Trena and Teya helped university researchers with their fieldwork, work that involves collecting data and often long hours.  They took water samples on a tundra pond, assisted with taking various measurements, hiked out to sampling sites, and tried out scientific equipment that enabled researchers to take images of plant roots underground.  Many of the projects at Daring Lake are climate change studies on plant growth, reproduction and timing of events in the plants’ life cycles.  Trena and Teya helped researchers check various types of plants every few days to observe whether any had bloomed, collecting data on the timing of plant species’ growth and reproduction. 

A specific research project was investigating changes in plant communities on the tundra as temperatures rise and species like Dwarf Birch shrubs are becoming more abundant.  Trena laughs when she describes how she “picked birch shrub leaves for two whole days”, and that she and Kristyn, one of the researchers, kept each other entertained out in the field by singing and playing games.  Trena describes how they picked 900 bags, 100 g of leaves in each, at three sample sites.  They placed the leaves in the ground so that they could decompose over the winter until they’re retrieved next summer.  At that time, researchers will assess the rate at which they decomposed. 

When organic matter such as leaf litter decomposes, nutrients enter the soil for new plant growth.  Comparing rates of decomposition at different sites with different environmental conditions will help researchers understand nutrient cycling in the Arctic.   Those rates can vary depending on how cold or warm, dry or wet a site is, for example.  The amount of permafrost--permanently frozen soil--and the active layer above it which thaws in summer, are also factors that play into how quickly decomposition happens.   Changes in permafrost affect how carbon and water cycle through the environment and how plants grow.  


Summer student Teya Wetrade with one of the four Lake Trout she caught at Daring Lake this summer  (Photo:  GNWT/Stephanie Yuill)

When they were not out in the field helping with the sample plots of cranberry, saxifrage, sedges and other tundra plants, Teya and Trena helped with camp chores and explored the landscape which they describe as “stunning and peaceful.”  Trena saw a gray-white wolf, just behind the esker close to camp, the closest she had ever been to a wolf.  Teya caught four Lake Trout.  Both summer students participated in a raptor survey, saw loons on a tundra lake, and viewed peregrine falcon chicks from a distance.  Just being out on the land and out in the elements was an exciting experience for them.

Trena and Teya had more opportunities to learn about the natural environment at Daring Lake when they joined students in the Tundra Science and Culture Camp (TSCC) that also takes place there for two weeks every summer.   At TSCC, students learn about the tundra environment from different disciplines and perspectives –ecology, archaeology, geology, human history, and ornithology, the study of birds.  In the program, students are involved in many experiential learning activities such as digging into the ground to observe permafrost, first hand. “We learned about permafrost in school," Teya says, “but we never dug up holes and experienced how cold it is!”  Participants also complete two projects:  a collection and a presentation on a topic they choose and research.  

For her collection project, Trena collected feathers on a full-day hike, and drew different kinds of birds, illustrating each species’ place in the food web.   Karin Clark, Wildlife Biologist, Cumulative Effects, ENR , remarked on how Trena was able to not only draw beautiful portraits of the birds, but was able to capture the characteristics of each kind of bird.    Intrigued by a beautiful white rock she came across, which turned out to be a quartz scraper, Teya collected rocks and minerals for her project.  She created an information brochure and left it as a resource for next year’s camp. 

TSSRAP summer student Trena Weyallon displaying her feather collection project at Daring Lake (Photo:  GNWT/Stephanie Yuill)

Learning about the area’s archaeology and actually encountering evidence of the Tłı̨chǫ, Yellowknives Dene, Métis and Inuit peoples who had travelled and lived there before, was definitely a highlight of their summer.  Both Trena and Teya researched cultural topics for their presentations.  Trena investigated the roles of men and women in post-contact Tłı̨chǫ society.  She focused on the introduction of bannock through the Hudson’s Bay Company and its trade goods which furnished the ingredients: flour, lard, and sugar.  She learned how over time, people added their own ingredients to the mix and developed their own recipes for preparing bannock.  

Teya decided to study quartz scrapers for her project, and learned how they were used in the past to scrape hides, cut meat, and even fashion other scrapers.  Trena also described an artifact, a “beautiful quartz arrow head”, and spoke about how amazing it would be to study artifacts like that one day.  Being there, right on site with such objects, and “not just in a documentary” was amazing, she says.  Watching how a caribou skin drum was made, and demonstrating how to work with caribou hide, a skill she learned from her grandmother, were other activities that Teya enjoyed. 

TSSRAP summer student Teya Wetrade with her research project on rocks and minerals found at Daring Lake (Photo:  GNWT/Stephanie Yuill)

Their final thoughts on their experiences this summer? For Teya, her dream is to study biology and chemistry one day, describing how in her spare time at the Research Station, she would read a biology text that was in the lab.  She says that her experience at Daring Lake is making her biology course at school easier.

 “It’s worth going to," says Trena.  “It’s an experience that is different”, she explains, “not like something you would be used to every day in Yellowknife, or even in a tropical place.  I’m not going to forget Daring Lake.” 

Fact Box:

  • TSSRAP takes place at the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station at Daring Lake, 300 km northeast of Yellowknife.  The Research Station is operated by Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), Government of the Northwest Territories.
  • TSSRAP is a joint initiative of the WRRB and Environment and Natural Resources, GNWT, and is funded by the Aurora Institute.  

Photos:  GNWT / Stephanie Yuill