Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Genomics: more questions than answers

I have been meaning to do a post for a while. Dustin - in a front-runner for post of the year - wrote about our Lapland trip, which meant my SS&S material was restricted to a few grainy shots of mushrooms already used on instagram. But I can't resist, it was a great year for mushrooms in Sweden:

I thought I would tell all you a bit about my research, or rather what I think of my field of research.

Generally I use genetic information to learn something about the ecology or evolutionary history of a species. To publish my research it gets framed as hypothesis-driven but it is just as much curiosity-based. My career goal is to provide tools or methods or information [or anything really] that can be used to conserve biodiversity. I had some success with this at the U of A, and by success meaning I got the attention of mountain goat managers (in Alaska). My research and outreach in part resulted in this delay and likely ACEC designation for an area in southeast Alaska, something I am quite proud of.

Fast-forward to Uppsala and my genomics era. Again, I am doing the same thing, but instead of using genETic information it is now genOMic. The difference made by these two letters is huge.

Practically speaking it means my desktop is all but useless (everything gets done on a massive computer cluster), most lab-work is outsourced, I rely heavily on government-funded bioinformaticians (it is Sweden after all), R turns out to be too slow for my needs, and I uncover patterns for which there are no clear (but often opposing) interpretations on what it means.

Academically, this is great - I am in the middle of a real transition and I can contribute to the development and maturation of the field. For example, I just ran simulations for half a year to figure out what demographic parameters can and cannot be estimated with a new type genomic data. Turns out we can't estimate effective population size worth shit. In the hypothetical two-population scenarios below, A and B are easy to resolve, C and D are not:

Who cares right? Well, C and D focus on changes in effective population size over time, and this can be an extremely valuable parameter for conservation and management. Did a population just crash or has it always been small kind of stuff. Yet with one of the most touted types of genomic data, it is essentially impossible to estimate - and this hits me where it hurts (remember my career goal).

For a while now there have been essays and reviews written about genomics and conservation, largely discussing how genomics will revolutionize the conservation sciences - I have counted almost 20 of these articles (bizarrely, there are few case-studies). The pervasive opinion of a panacea didn't seem to gel with my above work, nor the understanding of such data here at Uppsala (a world leader in non-model organism genomics - my boss just published this in Science).

This frustration lead me to organize a workshop titled: Conservation Genomics: Academic exercise or transition with real-world applications where I hoped we would discuss these issues among others. The workshop started off with this image (higher quality of course):

The Galapagos sea lion - one of my main study species at the moment - is endangered. The culprit(s): dogs and El NiƱo. Poaching doesn't help the matter.


i) Genomics will have little to do with species conservation in this case.


ii) This is probably the norm for species conservation.

Resulting question:

iii) How and when can genomics inform conservation?

I am still developing my views on the matter, but I think genomic data can play a role in conservation planning, the extent of that role has yet to be determined. Monitoring and inbreeding estimates are clear beneficiaries of genomics - but getting that info into conservation action is another matter. And at the very least there are some chinks in the armour (see simulations above) that researchers need to be aware of. The field is incredibly young and we are still figuring things out.

I definitely found some like-minded folk at the workshop. Others clearly had different views - the best analogy being that if they caught a glimpse of an off-colored black bear they would argue it is locally adapted and should be preserved at all costs. Of course, egos played a big role at the meeting, and many simply refused to acknowledge their research isn't as important [for applied conservation] as they think it is. Time will tell as to how it all plays out, but I managed to put together an article on the subject that will be published soon in TREE - keep an eye out for it.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Local Flavour

As the lone SS&S member still living in Edmonton, I feel a certain responsibility to keep the dream alive in the blog’s ancestral motherland. Unless the dream is a buck, of course.

Dustin turned me on to a ½ section about an hour outside of town, right along the river, with the tip that the deer tended to stay on the river-side of the property, moving through the many draws in and out of the valley. On opening weekend, I brought Josh and Jess out for a day in the field, hoping to connect on a deer and, in the process, continue the tradition of bringing more department people into the hunting fold. Unfortunately for them, I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing. Despite getting a deer in each of the last 3 years, my entire strategy consisted of driving to Pincher and walking around with Jesse until we saw something to shoot, often flushing several deer in the process. Ah, high ungulate density. As ecologically sketchy as it is freezer-fillingly satisfying.

In any event, I had the first part of our process nailed down – 3 separate deer groups, all flushed. Rats. The last of which was about an hour before sunset, when we set up facing downslope near a draw that had some sign nearby, expecting to catch a deer coming up out of the valley to feed in the fields behind us. Comfortably leaning back on trees, we had a good 180 degree view, with decent sight lines through relatively open conifers. After a few minutes of sitting, I detected footsteps, in a distinctive deer-y cadence. “Excellent – it’s all falling into place” is what I would have said, except the deer were right. Fucking. Behind us. By the time I heard the doe-fawn pair, they were maybe 15 yards away, directly upslope from us, but there was no way to turn around without getting busted. On top of that, out of the corner of my eye, I could see they were facing us head-on, not giving much chance for a good shot, especially given that any opportunity would have to be extremely quick. So I just sat there like an idiot, hoping they’d somehow walk right between the 3 of us without detecting us, which of course worked out about as well as you’d expect. Oh well - at least now I knew which damn way to face. Better luck next time.

Next time being yesterday, when I headed back to the same spot with a different crew (Todd & his buddy Miles), both of whom also had tags. We spent time in the same general area where we’d seen critters the previous weekend, but despite a layer of fresh snow, we saw almost exclusively coyote tracks.

Aside – if you ever want to shoot a coyote, apparently fawn distress calls are your friend. About 2 minutes after blowing the call, a coyote burst out of the trees 20 yards away and stopped along the trail I was looking down. We had a nice staring contest. I waved. He ran off and barked. Good times were had by all.

At the same time as my coyote encounter, Todd happened across some fresh buck tracks nearby, plus a scrape and a rub. Nice. Unfortunately, they led into the thick stuff, so following stealthily was not in the cards. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around aimlessly in search of (as it turned out) very few tracks, but upon our return to the area of the coyote encounter and nearby buck tracks we found 3 sets of tracks on top of our boot prints – it looked like the buck was chasing 2 separate does. We set up in the area for the last hour of light, each a few hundred metres apart, each facing a likely place to intercept the buck or one of the does moving downslope. This also happened to be within spitting distance of our almost-opportunity the previous week.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. The sound was coming from my 4 o’clock. I slowly turned my head and spotted a snout, then a couple of legs, then a full body and set of antlers emerge from the trees. By the time he was completely in view, he was no more than 25 yards away, fully broadside. Undetected, I turned to level my rifle, and even in the half-second between the click of the safety and the shot, he was still unaware that anything was amiss. One through the heart, and he rather determinedly trotted forward, clearly worse for wear. He stopped another 30 yards on, and I could just barely make out his rump between the trees in the rapidly dwindling light. I watched him for several minutes, neither of us moving an inch, until he slowly collapsed on his side.

The elation at my first buck quickly faded with the realization of how big he was, and how far (and uphill) the road was. We dragged in shifts, two of us on the deer, with the odd man out holding the rifles. After several hundred metres of slow and exhausting progress, Todd ran back to the truck to fetch his secret, high-tech friction-reducing device: a crazy carpet. Glorious. I was never a fan as a kid – always being partial to flying saucers  but damn if I don’t appreciate them now. Finish the drag, get him into the back of the car, zip back home to hang him in my garage, and sit back for a quick bowl of Hank Shaw’s chili I’d made the day before with the last of my 2013 deer. Just in time.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Moose Bulgogi

It has been a while since I put up a food post, but it has also been a while since I had a bunch of wild meat in the freezer.

I've been on a bit of a kimchi binge, so am pretty much constantly looking for things to eat with it. I remember some pretty lavish bulgogi meals in Edmonton, so thought I would give that a shot. I found this recipe, and followed it. I used a few bottom round steaks which I sliced thinly while they were still a bit frozen. Asian pears were hard to find, so I substituted another nameless variety. It seemed to work. I also added toasted sesame seeds because they are delicious. 

The meat marinated for a couple of hours in the fridge, then was seared hot and fast. Those of us with opposable thumbs made lettuce wraps with kimchi, enoki mushrooms, pickled vegetables and cucumber. They were very good. I think next time I would make some kind of Korean spicy mayo too, if that is a thing. I am not yet at the point where I am making my own kimchi, but will get there soon. Anyone got a good kimchi recipe to let me in on?

Friday, 17 October 2014

Equinox Alces

Make coffee, get a beer, assemble a snack. I decided to write this one up properly. Oliver will occasionally add his voice here too - in blue - because you can never trust the narrator.


The plan to go up to the Yukon for a moose hunt was hatched a while back. I can’t recall the precise conversation, but the idea definitely floated around. I eventually got the email from Oliver that it was time to put in for his once-in-three-years hunter host permit. He needed a name to go with it. I was in.

I signed some paperwork, did some faxing, and started to look into flights. Mark and Alana joined on at some point, so there would be a good crew. Months passed and then quite suddenly it was time to pack my gear. I found the most absurd combination of flights to get me to Whitehorse, so after something like sixteen hours of travel I got to Oliver’s in time to down a beer and immediately go to bed. Thanks to jetlag I was up again at 4 am.

The next day involved getting myself licensed to shoot and/or hook most fauna in the territory. In reality the only large game tag I walk out with is for bull moose. There is no cow harvest in the Yukon. I was immediately offered a choice: fish in the Yukon River for grayling or go into the mountains behind town and look for grouse and ptarmigan. I opted for the latter, though we saw no grouse or ptarmigan. What we did see was a rusty old car and Arctic ground squirrels. Delicious Arctic ground squirrels. First wild game meal of the trip.

I’d call them a mild cross between spruce grouse and mallard, with the merest hint of what I can only describe as squirrel. Would eat again.

Another 24 hours passed in a blur of target practice, picking up the raft, making gear piles, sleeping at some point, packing the truck, then heading to the river where we would meet Mark and Alana, driving from Smithers.

A note on the plan: Oliver has discussed his river floats for moose before. There was no reason to deviate from his thus far 100% successful formula: float down a river, call in moose, shoot and field dress, then float them out. The plan also includes a semi-elaborate hitchhiking, biking, and shuttle system to retrieve the truck at the end.

Oliver and I camped by the roadside, and Mark and Alana showed up the next morning. Shortly thereafter Alana left for Whitehorse to continue her work in bringing baby Clong into the world. Fine. But I did think longingly of that toffee dessert thing she made us on that one hunt back in Alberta... and while sighting in the second rifle before she departed we missed the opportunity to get a photo of pregnant Alana shooting a .22 in a gravel pit. 

Not losing momentum, we hid a bike in the woods and Oliver, Mark and myself made our way down the road to the launch, where we got our first glimpse of the river. Fast, clear, cold. Incidentally we arrived there with a couple of grouse that were blocking a portion of the road; we were forced to coax them off with the .22.

The raft was fast to inflate, rig up, and get floating. Or at least it seems fast in retrospect. It probably took a while. The centerpiece of the whole outfit, in my mind, was the large marine cooler. It served as food storage but also a seat and lunch counter. Always bring a large marine cooler.

At last we are floating, and begin to intently scan the riverbank. The hunt is everything from that point until there is a moose in the raft. We pull off the river at a likely looking place to do some calling; no responses. Lots of moose sign. This stop serves to get me settled in a bit, comfortable moving through the woods in a way that is very particular to hunting. And then we are back in the raft again, pushing off. It is notably quiet for the first time of the trip, with the exception of the rushing of water and the splash as oars dip into the river, pushing or pulling as the raft is guided through each bend. 

The thing about floating a river is that every place you leave you can never go back to.

We eventually make camp on a small gravel bar downstream of a much longer bar. On the long bar there are driftwood piles behind which to hide and call, which we do across a small channel to the forest. No moose. I stare hard and try to manifest a bull.

This is the first real deviation from my usual pattern; this stop is before my traditional first-night camp, but as it looks somewhat promising (and I’m in the business of providing Yukon bush time, in addition to looking for a moose), we settle in here on the first night.

Mostly we are cow calling, and by we I mean Oliver and Mark. As we walk through the forest they also occasionally bull grunt. I am always walking in front, which is an odd role to take, given my relative unfamiliarity with the surroundings. That oddness fades with time. We hunt the gravel bar again the next morning, and when we return to camp we see fresh moose tracks that have passed within metres of our tents while we were upriver. Probably a cow and calf. Probably. We set up a tarp downstream on the gravel bar and sit out the heavy rain while calling, and burning holes in the forest edge with our eyes. As a consolation we grill some grouse. 

Moving through the landscape, nearly every gravel bar we see has wolf and moose tracks crisscrossing, coming from all directions. Old sign and new, sometimes interlaced, hinting at the temporal rhythm of use. Many of the moose tracks look like cows traveling with calves.

Eventually we work our way downriver again, stopping once to walk a clearcut that is riddled with torn-apart stumps. Bears eating ants. There is some fresh sign, but eventually we decide to move on again, knowing there is a lot of river below us still. In the late afternoon we set up on another big bar, separated from the forest by a small channel. Camp is made in a small clearing in the center of the willows. We’re close to a series of old clearcuts, and spend the last hours of light walking through them, following an old haul road. There is sign of bull moose everywhere, we see broken branches, smell urine, find a wallow. No moose materialize that night and as we walk the 800 metres or so back to camp in the near dark I am begrudgingly grateful that we are not carrying 500 pounds of meat. We drink a few slugs of rye, eat dinner, and go to bed – setting an alarm for sometime before six again.

In the morning we are up and across the channel to the edge of the cuts, calling again in the rain. Nothing for the first hour, so we walk again up the road, and settle in to call near the wallow, thinking a bull could be nearby. A few cow calls, and then we hear a tremendous crash somewhere out in the forest. My heart begins to race, and it becomes suddenly very clear that I have few options for a shooting lane. We wait and then a couple more cow calls, quieter this time. Nothing. More waiting. I am not so happy about where I am positioned, and probably should have thought that through a bit more before I hunkered down. Eventually we decide to walk the old haul road to the back of the cut blocks again. We stop in a large uncut block, settle down, call again. No indication anything is nearby. There are no moose. Anywhere. Ever. They are a made-up thing.

When reason returns, we discuss how the crash could have been a cow spooking and leaving the area, or a bull who was decidedly not looking for any action. 

We head back to pack up camp, planning the next move. Our sights are set to make that night’s camp on a gravel bar that is a few hours of river travel away, a place that has produced a moose every time Oliver has spent the night there. Of course it has never taken until the third night on the river to do this. We’re in uncharted territory

We float. Hope ebbs and flows. I am thinking about how long it’s been since I was last looking through a riflescope at an animal. Years. But the moment of choosing a shot feels especially distant, because we have yet to even see a moose. One cannot justify bringing a cooler full of Arctic ground squirrel back across the country. I remind myself that not getting an animal is a distinct possibility, and that this trip – even mooseless – is something extraordinary. The contrast of the yellow aspen and dark green spruce, floating a river that is actively carving its way through a wide valley in the Yukon. This is a wild and remote place, and even in these moments we are only ever rubbing up against the edges.


It is Mark who first spots the animal, near a root clump on river left. It is a miniature moose, dwarfed by the trees. The smallest moose in the world. A child’s plastic toy. We soon realize it is a calf. At this point Oliver is quietly but somewhat urgently commanding “get the gun, now”. Where there’s a calf there’s a cow, and where there’s a cow there’s a bull. We hope. I slowly begin pulling the rifle from its dry bag. Slowly being the operative word.

My suggestion that he get the rifle out now has the pent-up intensity of a guide who’s beginning to realize his odds of getting a tip are evaporating like upstream river miles.

We keep our eyes fixed on the shore where the calf has now scrambled up the bank into a thicket of trees. In a small opening we see the cow. Mark is the only one with his binoculars, and again is the first to realize “that’s a bull, I see spikes”. A young bull, no doubt. We float by quietly, urgently looking for a place to pull the raft off the river. They see us and appear to spook, as they quickly withdraw back into the thicket.

A note on the lay of the land: This is a very active river, with new channels being carved each year, and logjams forming and blowing out, to the point that a two year hiatus from floating it means Oliver is seeing some very different morphology in places. The high freshet flows create large gravel bars, strewn with debris – whole trees, root masses and all – sometimes cutting around clumps of standing trees that are left intact as the river flows to either side.

The thicket into which these moose just retreated was one such “island”, although only separated from the forest edge by a dry gravel bar.

Oliver maneuvers the raft to shore just at the downstream end of the trees. I drop my life jacket, string my binoculars, and shoulder the rifle – a cartridge chambered moments earlier. “We’ll wait in the raft” is all that is said as I climb ashore.

Wait we did. There’s an odd kind of urgent uselessness to this, when the best thing is to stay put, do nothing and wonder if there’ll be a bang.

I make for the inside edge of the island and see that there is a small muddy depression just at the edge of the trees (probably the last channel of water as the river level dropped in the summer), which travels up to what looks like the upstream end of the thicket where we saw the bull. If they haven’t already made for the main forest, across the open gravel bar, then I suspect they are still at the top of the island. The muddy depression lets me move quietly and quickly, and I stop midway where I have a tree trunk for a rifle rest, and can see clearly up and down the forest edge. No sign, no sounds. Maybe they didn’t spook as hard as we thought. That is, if they didn’t make a break for it.

I wait a few minutes, listening. It becomes apparent to me that this is the first moment I have been alone and out of sight, no longer making each decision by consensus as is often necessitated by this style of hunt.

I decide to keep going, creeping slowly, silently, towards the top end. As I round the corner ever so slightly I see movement. It is the calf, 80 yards away, browsing on willow and seeming wholly unconcerned. I freeze. There is quite a bit of foliage between the calf and me, and if the bull is right there I don’t have a good shot or a stable rest. My best move, I think, is to crawl under some branches ahead of me, through a muddy hole, and come up behind a root mass directly in line with the calf. I get half way through this move when it becomes apparent my assumption of where the bull was hiding is false. He spooks at a distance of maybe 50 yards, between the calf and me, trots out onto the gravel bar, changes his mind, and returns to the thicket.

Shit. I blew it.

But they might be on the move back through the trees, thinking about crossing the gravel bar lower down. I return quickly to my log rest at the mid-point of the island, and scan both directions for emerging moose. None materialize. I don’t want to enter the trees, in case the only view of the bull that presents itself is in the direction of raft, where I know Oliver and Mark are still waiting. I have never listened more intently. Are those falling leaves, or hoofsteps? Time passes and I start to wonder if they moved much at all, as they hadn’t really done so initially. Back to the muddy hole at the top end - and there is the calf, staring right in my direction. But this time I am in a better position to get behind the root mass where the view will be unobstructed, so I move there, lift the rifle up in the roots first, then slowly raise my head until I can see the calf again. The bull is there too now, and they both look directly toward me. Their decision is made; they are making for the tree line across the gravel bar. The bull moves first, and starts walking out in the open, angling a little towards me. I have him lined up in the scope and take the shot as he pauses for a moment. When the world comes back into focus I see him turn, start in the direction of the river. But the bull is moving slowly, his movement laboured. I now have the chance to take a second shot, this time as he quarters away. Stories of putting two, three, maybe more shots into a moose to keep them from moving too far after the initial fatal hit are at the forefront of my mind. I take the second shot. Another noticeable change in speed, but still moving in the direction of the river.  I don’t get another chance, and he disappears over the bank.

“RIVER” I yell, in the hopes that will be enough to get Oliver and Mark’s eyes on the water, in case there is a moose floating by. It turns out they didn’t hear a thing, just the shots.

One shot, then two, and our restless wait is over. Quiet, hopeful celebration (I recall us both looking at each other and putting a hand up in the air, then not immediately knowing what to do with it), tempered with intense curiousity – what did the two shots mean? We quickly pack up all the equipment a dead moose requires, and set out round the island of trees to find Dustin, but on coming out to the gravel bar, we see only the calf, fleeing for the forest edge. No bull. No Dustin. We back out the way we came, to the river-edge raft.

I am keenly aware that I do not want to spook the bull further into the river if it is standing at the edge, but decide to get up to the bank so I can see if it has tried to cross the river, or has fallen short. I sneak up slowly, keeping low, and soon see that the bank drops down not to the main channel but a shallow backwater. In the middle is the bull, dead, in metre-deep frigid water. Textbook Northrup Hydro-cooling (Northrup and Shafer, 2008). The moose is small for a bull – but this is still a big animal.

A note on deciding which animal to shoot: We had this discussion early, because the timing of when you take an animal can have major implications for the remainder of this particular trip. So can the size of the animal. The previous year a bull was taken on the evening of the drive down to the river, and so the raft never saw water. We decided this was not an outcome we wanted, as the river itself was an anticipated part of the trip. But what if we saw a moose around the first bend, near the launching point? We could theoretically haul the raft back upstream, repack the truck, and be back in Whitehorse that day. Also not an outcome we wanted. Minimum two river bends, and then we would have no choice but to complete the float. The next point was size. What if it was small? Or enormous? Would I pass on a particularly young or old bull? I was there for a few reasons, but a Boone and Crockett rack was not one of them. There are also flavour and physical labour implications of taking an enormous bull. But could I pass on an animal not knowing what the rest of the hunt held? We decided to take the first bull we saw and had a reasonable chance at (after the aforementioned buffer distance), regardless of size.

Anyways, the moose is in the water and not going anywhere, although it takes a few minutes for the calf to decide to disappear back into the woods. I’m unsure what that calf was doing with the young bull; they were clearly different age classes.

I decide to head through the tree thicket for the first time as I make my way back down to the raft, passing on the way a lot of fresh sign (makes sense…) and an enormous shed moose antler. I wonder where that guy is now. Oliver and Mark are already unloading our packs, and are relieved to hear 1) we have a moose, and 2) it is in a backwater to which we can drag the raft upstream. This is a great idea, and works perfectly until we reach the protruding root wad that takes some serious engineering and brute force to maneuver the raft around. But we do it, and Oliver romantically paddles the raft up the back channel like it is a rowboat on an English country lake. The sky is clearing as we reach the moose, and it looks to be a nice evening. 

I’ll spare the gory details here, but after moving (floating) the moose to a gravel bar, we quartered it. I think Oliver posted his technique back in 2011, and we made a minor modification by gutting first. I don't think I'd gut first again, even in the water. Moose are much easier to skin and quarter guts-in, rather than out.

We were losing light as we butchered. Knowing that we were going to be leaving some bones and a hide on the gravel bar, we had hopes of moving some distance downriver with the meat we were packing out. This idea seemed even better when we heard the first wolf howl.

My optimistic assessment of “guys, I think it’s just a plane” was met first with mockery, nervous laughter, then a chorus of additional howls. To bring some comfort to the situation, Oliver noted “wolves - quiet and close”. He fired off the rifle, which did absolutely nothing to stop their choir. Yelling and sounding as human as possible seemed to work better, if only temporarily. After a while the location of howls changed, but they were not much farther away. Perhaps the pack was split, or had moved. We may have increased the pace of butchering at this point.

Wolves, in my experience, are as much a part of this river as the moose are. This is the second year in a row where a pack’s come in close when there’s dead moose to be had. It sounds wild and exciting (and it is), but mostly in retrospect. As a current event, it’s not that much fun – I’ve never felt personally threatened, but spending a whole night keeping watch over a moose isn’t the first thing I want to do after a day spent disassembling and moving it. I had, though, suggested wolves might well make an appearance, and so tucked into the stress of having to deal with them was the warm thought of having been right. Feeling smug is underrated.

By 10:30, in a moonless dark, we had loaded the raft with game bags: four quarters, a side of ribs, the spinal column with backstraps intact, and the smaller cuts for the grinder. Also the head and heart.

The plan was to put some distance between us and the butchering site. Time to change out the headlamp batteries. "Mine are good I think" says Mark. "You're changing them" responds Oliver. Ok. Oliver still seems quite confident this is doable. (Perhaps Oliver figures things will go best if he puts on the appearance that he is confident this is doable). He recalls a bend a ways downstream that may have some faster water, but none of us remember anything in the immediate downstream stretch of river that we should be wary of. In hindsight we were pretty focused on the moose. 

We push off. It is dark, and the air temperature has dropped enough that there is now a mist coming off the surface of the river. This made it exceptionally hard to see anything that wasn't very close to us.  

A note on traveling the river in a raft: It takes a whole lot to flip you. You’ll bounce, spin, maybe get wedged up against something that will be hard to push off of, but the river is considerably safer in a raft than in a canoe (which could put you in a really bad situation if you find yourself unexpectedly in a logjam). I tested this a couple years ago in Kamloops when I was put at the helm of a raft on a fairly narrow, loggy river, lacking any experience. My signature move was to bounce and spin off nearly every corner. Never close to flipping. What you do need when piloting a raft is enough lead-time to make decisions about how to navigate obstacles so that you can be correctly positioned in the current.

So back to night rafting. Immediately it seems like a bad idea, which becomes more apparent when we make it to the main current, and shortly thereafter bump the shore on the opposite side of where we thought it to be. “I wasn’t expecting that,” says Oliver, at which point any illusion that we can make it downriver evaporates. Across. We just had to get across now. Oliver is rowing hard, and we make headway, although we’re still moving downstream at a reasonable clip. The logjam starts to make its entrance at the periphery of our headlamp aura. But so does the steep gravel bank of the far shore, which we reach before the tangle of timber downstream. Both Mark and I jump to the bank simultaneously, and pull the raft in broadside. There’s nothing to actually pull it up on, so we run long ropes up to a large log and tie it off. It’ll hold until morning.

We’ve crossed the river. Not that wolves can’t also cross rivers. But we don’t hear them anymore, and figure they might be at least temporarily satisfied with the bits we left on the far shore. We get to work making a rack of driftwood on which to place the game bags, which keeps them off the sand and lets the exterior dry to protect the meat. It was starting to cloud over and maybe even drizzle a little, so we tented the rack with a tarp as well. Tarps: MVPs of the trip. Unless that should go to the raft. Tents were set up, chili was heated, a fire was started, and as much driftwood as could be collected was piled next to it. The plan was to stoke the fire in shifts until morning to keep meat-hungry wildlife from getting ideas. In the end, Mark and I covered off a substantial portion of both our shifts at once, sitting next to the fire, putting a dent in the rye, and watching the aurora borealis paint ephemeral green streaks. When we set the alarm for Oliver’s first watch there wasn’t a whole lot of night left.

5:30, and my alarm sounds. I’m impressed with M and D’s staying power, and emerge from the tent into a mix of swirling green aurora and the beginning of dawn light. I stoke the fire, and return to my sleeping bag. Over the next half-hour, I hear the wolves again - more distant, but on our side of the river. With dawn coming, though, I’m less concerned, and don’t wake Mark and Dustin.

The next morning gave a better view of what was awaiting us downstream. Being pulled into the logjam probably wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but certainly a less-than-ideal situation in the dark. We were slow to get moving, but felt like we earned the relaxation. Just a few hours of river travel until we would meet the larger, slower river that would take us to the pull out. There was even discussion of making it all the way to the pull out in a single day. When we did push off we had to first pull the raft upstream a good hundred metres so we could make the turn.

First daylight view of our previous day's work

We stopped to fish. A couple of times. Landed a few grayling. Enjoyed the sun and the fact that we could relax the intensity of scanning the forest edge as we floated by. In the distance a rain cloud or two missed us. We passed the fabled gravel bar that has never failed to produce a moose. The river began to change as the grade lowered. There were more aspen on the banks. The river level also seemed to be rising, backing up into the forest in a few places. I got nervous. Oliver had warned us of a previous year’s float that required a portage around a gnarly logjam on the final river bend. But we were well upstream of that still. 

We rounded a corner and a logjam loomed in front of us. But this one was navigated fairly easily in the raft. And yet the river level remained high. Another bend and the true source of the backwatering became clear. The river split at the top of an island, and a massive logjam entirely blocked one of the forks. The other fork was a smooth-surfaced, deep channel, with a serious volume of water moving through it. That’s the one to take, we figure, because at least there was still water. Given the way the river was flooding the forest it was just a matter of time before we met the end of that road too, however. The final logjam came in the form of a long berm of logs; water running through everywhere, but no open channel. A portage nearly certain.

We spent a good hour looking for the most reasonable path around (or through) the jam. A walk and wade showed us that the river eventually came back together downstream, below a sand bar that was tracked up with more than a few sets of enormous wolf tracks. Camping there for the night was not in the cards. A couple of options were explored, but, in the end Mark and Oliver are able to pinpoint the shortest route from above the logjam to a narrow channel, eventually feeding unobstructed into the main river. Just 50 or so metres of forest to get through (the first half of which was dense, flooded alder) with the gear, moose and raft. Sawing commences, at first to make a path just wide enough to carry packs. Oliver uses a pack frame to string up one of the quarters for the portage, but then Mark just starts heaving them up on his shoulder and crashing through the bush like Fred Flintstone. We pile the meat on a tarp, get the gear moved, and then tackle the raft. There are a couple of options: remove the rowing frame, deflate the raft, carry the pieces, reinflate and reassemble it all on the other side. Or cut a raft-sized swath through the forest. We opted for the latter. If you ever need the ideal saw for live alder, talk to Mark about whatever kind he has.

We did get the raft through. It was not easy. And then we loaded everything back up and were on the water like nothing had happened. Except my hand was now home to many, many thorns.

After the logjam I developed a better understanding of the river, and its ability to take hours from us at any moment. We no longer felt like stopping to fish, and had yet to pass the location of the logjam of years past - another potential portage. I kept my eyes on the water level, fearing signs of disappearing banks. Every visible gravel bar was an indication that things were as they should be. Even as we approached the final bend and saw the looming stacks of tree trunks, the river level was still low. A quick scout showed that the feared bend could be navigated without leaving the raft. And in another instant we passed the confluence and were on a wide, sinuous river flowing towards (relative) civilization. The water was shallow, often only a metre or two deep, but fast. While it was often hard to tell the raft was moving at all, rocks below were nearly a blur and the GPS clocked us in at around eight kilometres per hour. Before nightfall we pulled off the river and made camp on an endless gravel bar. Throw together a meat rack, pitch tents, collect firewood. Another night of fire-stoking shiftwork. 

The tracks of a couple of young black bears that Oliver saw on a fruitless grouse hunt gave us reason to stay vigilant. One fire was made up by the tents and one down by the waters edge with the raft and the moose. This was the quietest place we had been in days; the river was smooth, and lay some distance from where we set up our tents. In the calm it was easy to imagine any sound as a wolf or bear following its nose. 

We grilled a piece of tenderloin for dessert. Again the night was moonless, but clear. The aurora started as it had the night before, a band across the sky. And then grew more intense. To camp on a gravel bar is to give yourself a near 360 degree theatre of the sky. Spirals, curtains, greens and pinks. It took effort to finally make my way into the tent and set the alarm for an hour and a half later, the rifle lying placidly between two sleeping bags. We rotated through the night, keeping both fires going, kind of.

There were still some hours of travel between us and the pull out, so in the morning we broke camp at a slightly more hurried pace than the previous day. Though nowhere near the crack of dawn. On a wide, flat river the current does all the work. We reclined. We ate lunch. A few times. 

And then we rounded one last bend and saw the bridge. 

We pulled the raft in just above it and began the process of getting the truck to where we were, meaning Oliver disappeared to thumb a ride, which culminated in a classic Yukon biathlon.

Compared to a river trip, the two hitchhiked rides to the highway junction with the original logging road, followed by retrieving the stashed bike and getting back to the truck, isn’t much of an adventure. My Yukon biathlon participant badge, though, was merited by conducting the bike ride (and hitchhike – oh, Yukon…) while armed with the .22, and using it to try to budge a spruce grouse blocking my way.

Mark and I remained at the river’s edge, and set to work cleaning and deflating the raft while chatting with a cast of locals coming down to fish. One group hauled out a reasonably sized bull trout from just off the boat launch. We made coffee. We waited. I walked up onto the bridge past a truck and trailer where there rested a moose head that so large I considered it might be a different species than ours. Oliver eventually returned, and we packed up the truck as the sun was setting. A bankside beer was drank, a stop at a restaurant got us good and sleepy for the drive to Whitehorse, and we were off. I think I was drifting in and out of consciousness at this point, but came-to long enough to catch a glimpse of a lynx crossing the road.

We were at Oliver’s door after midnight, and literally threw everything from his shed onto the lawn so we could air it out overnight before hanging the meat. Around then the aurora started to do crazy things. A crescendo of fast, transforming light, the entire sky bright with orange and green and pink. I questioned whether I had unknowingly eaten hallucinogenic flora at some point earlier in the day.

Living up here, I’m privy to reasonable aurora on a semi-regular basis. This, though, was pretty good, even for the aurora-jaded.

Alana rejoined us the next morning, and the four of us set to work disassembling enough of the moose such that I could fill a cooler with wrapped cuts before my flight the next day. Butchering on a porch in the sun with coffee - eventually beer - and good company. Kieran and Meghan passed through – more of the U of A contingent. At the end of the day my hand did not require stitches, making this entire trip a notable success. It should be mentioned that while I had a ticket to skip town, the butchering was far from over. I pulled a classic meat and run. 

A note on how easy the logistics of a trip like this are (specifically for me): Oliver did a shit ton of work to get this thing well in motion before I showed up. Having done it once or twice before was helpful I’m sure. The role of guide and outfitter suits him. Oliver, Mark and Alana also made sure I had what I needed up there, saving the excess baggage fees for my return trip. Truck, raft, dry bags, and a periwinkle blue PFD with space for my bosom - ideal for trail mix and a map. I’m putting in for a special guide license down south, and will return the favour during the winter poutine migration.

By the time I was unpacking the cooler into the freezer in my Montreal apartment it felt as though I was waking from a vivid, though already distant dream. Time to charge my phone and check the music listings I guess.