Today is the first day in over three months that we’ve seen rain in the Yukon. I woke up to the blessed sound of it pattering softly on the plywood and plastic of my hut, then closed my eyes, rolled over and, for the first time in many, many weeks, went back to sleep. Back home, no rain for three months would spell a death sentence for the spring green-up. Here it has merely been an inconvenience and fire hazard. By tomorrow we will pay for the weeks of sunshine and dry warmth when the population of mosquitoes explodes after the cool wet weather today. Still, it’s hard to regret the rain after a sleep-in and a day to sit around the fire and catch up on data and all the other neglected aspects life (including but not limited to: putting lotion on your legs, tweezing your eyebrows, cutting your fingernails… not that this was a group activity around the fire, mind you) that squirrel camp somehow engulfs.
The 30-degree weather of the past week has brought summer to squirrel camp much sooner than expected. Cool mornings give way rapidly to steamy late mornings and scalding afternoons. And if we have felt the shortage of mosquitoes as of late we certainly have not felt the shortage of spiders. This seems to be somewhat of a boom year for your 8-legged friends and our grids are crisscrossed with their silky threads. Weaving my way from squirrel trap to squirrel trap makes me feel like Catherine Zeta-Jones dogging laser beam sensors in the movie Entrapment, except not half as gracefully or successfully and I also don’t usually wear tight black slinky clothing out in the field. Usually.
Last week we went for our first swim of the season down at Sulfur Lake, which is much more pleasant than it sounds, and is only a mile or so down the road from camp. We piled into our minivan, Maurice, cranked up the heat to make the car a little traveling sauna and zipped down to the swimming hole. Much to our surprise we found a little campsite set up with a one-man tent and motorcycle parked nearby. Since no one was around and we were not to be deterred by the possibility of strange people seeing us half-naked we decided that the swim was still on. After glancing at each other awkwardly for a bit- after all, the most skin we had seen of each other in the last three months was a bit of ankle and wrist- we stripped down to our skivvies and hopped ungracefully into the lake, yelping at the icy water while pushing ourselves past the pain as fast as our cold-shocked bodies would allow. Then, when we were finally deep enough we dove, the cold slamming into our airways and bringing us up gasping for air and treading madly for the shoreline. Within a few minutes we had acclimated and stood enjoying the coolness of the lake and the semblance of being clean. Just as we had decided to wade out and find our clothes, out of the woods strode (and I hate to be cliché) a tall, blonde, muscular young man…carrying a shotgun. While Yasmine, Naomi and I scrambled to find clothes, apologizing profusely for intruding on his campsite and scaring him, Freya had recoiled in fear and asked, not without good reason, why the hell three half-naked girls were apologizing for scaring a man with a shotgun. In retrospect, she had a good point.
Once wrapped in towels we made small talk with him and found out he was touring around Alaska and the Yukon by himself, having driven up from Spokane Washington last week. At odds with his motorcycle and gun, he was a shy, soft-spoken guy and we invited him back to Squirrel Camp for dinner. (Kids if you’re reading this, do not invite strange men with shotguns back for dinner. This kind of thing is okay only in the Yukon, when protected by a dozen other scrappy squirrellers.) Over pizza and numerous jokes about having drugged his food (personally I’m not sure why he didn’t run away screaming from a dirty, socially deprived group of people studying rodents in the Yukon and joking about kidnapping him and selling his motorcycle parts) we learned his name was Eli. (Maybe. If I were him I wouldn’t have given my real name…) In the end we didn’t drug Eli or kidnap him or steal his motorcycle and sell the parts for cash, but Eli did get a hot home-cooked meal, a bit of company on the lonely road, and the rest of squirrel camp got a bit of eye candy for a night.
In a seemingly unending stream of departures this week we bid goodbye to Monaly, Yasmine, and Mike, but welcomed Maya from Montreal and Sara from Ben Dantzer’s lab in Michigan. In perhaps the best farewell party yet we packed the entire crew down to the Jarvis River, about a 5 min drive from camp, for an evening campfire. Marina, being the amazing Italian cook that she is, baked us pizza bites, cookies, and a strawberry cream cake.
The fire ring sat just on the edge of the river, where the Jarvis wound past, the deep gurgle following the edges of its banks toward Mt. Decoeli and the St. Elias Range in the distance. Stepping out of the car to the smell of wood smoke and the sound of laughter floating amid the murmur of the river felt like stepping into the scene from a book, a well-worn page, it’s corners creased by thumb marks, read again and again with the desire to somehow read yourself onto the page, only to find out that somehow, incredibly, you actually have.
There are rare moments in life when the rest of the world falls away to a pinpoint in time, a blink in the time span of the universe and yet an eternity held in a blink. There is a rightness, a sense of pieces somehow falling into place, the warmth that settles into your belly, the laughter that lifts your cheeks, the lightness that expands your chest. We didn’t do much of anything, we simply were. Music played softly in the background, chatter filtered through the air amid the crackle of flames, food was passed, snatch up, laughingly stolen from your neighbour.
From the edge of the fire we could throw a line into the river and watch the current carry it lazily downstream. We ate until we thought we would burst, or die from the sugar we had consumed, and then we ate some more. We ate unsparingly, we lived, for the moment, unsparingly, without a thought of our waistlines or tangle hair or dirt streaked skin. While the rest of the world prepared for bikini season we pulled grayling from the river, gut them on the bank and roasted them over the open fire. Then, with bare hands and dirty nails we pulled the white flesh and crispy skin from the bones, passing the fish until our fingers were greasy and all that was left was slivers of white and the remnants of fins crisped black from the flames. We ate like primal beings and we reveled in it. Past midnight we ate and talked and let the wood smoke wash over us, watching as the river turned from peridot to onyx. By 12:30 with the last vestiges of light clinging to the curves of the mountains we forced ourselves to douse the fire and, shrugging on coats in a hurry against the sudden chill of the night, we ran for the cars, leaving behind us perhaps the most pure Yukon moment that I’ve experience in the two seasons I’ve spent living here.
To top off our week we had a school group come out to camp to learn about what we do and why we do research on red squirrels and snowshoe hares. In the morning Jacob, Mel, and Marina took small groups out to handle and process snowshoe hairs that the three of them had trapped the night before. The kids learned how to weigh snowshoe hares, measure their feet to gain an understanding of body condition, and identify a male from a female hare. They then split into two larger groups, one group Sean took on a tour of camp and the other Jacob took out to telem baby snowshoe hares that had been tagged just after birth to check their growth rate.
Meanwhile the rest of the squirrel crew members were running around like maniacs setting traps for squirrels. So when they were finished with the baby bunnies and tours Sean, Eve, Sarina, Naomi, and Maya took three groups of kids out squirreling where they learning how to live-traps squirrels, properly handle them, weigh the squirrel, check their ear tags to identify each individual and identify females from males. After learning the techniques of a good squirreller each kid had the opportunity to set their own trap and see what they caught at the end of their trapping session.
Over lunch the crew gave a brief presentation to teach the kids some basic red squirrel ecology and explain why squirrels are a good model system for research. The kids learned how we can tag squirrel pups at birth and follow the squirrels their entire lives to learn about survival, reproduction, and growth. They also learned that because squirrels in the Yukon feed almost exclusively on white spruce cones they provide a very unique system to understand how the environment can influence evolution.
Afterward we headed to Agnes to show the kids a squirrel nest, one of the last of the season! Unfortunately when we got there the nest was empty, most likely the mother lost her litter, so the kids did not get an opportunity to see squirrel pups. But the kids were excellent sports about it all. Instead of getting upset they cheered for Naomi as she climbed down from they tree, thanking her excitedly and telling her how much fun they had. As we drove back to camp we honked to the kids and waved as they skipped through the long grass by the side of the road and clambered back onto the school bus. Their flushed cheeks and high laughter that floated back to us confirmed for me that you can’t ask for a better classroom than what nature has already provided.