Today Simon pointed out lemming tracks to me in the snow. Other than the polar bear tracks we saw just after crossing the Akshayuk Pass in Auyuittuq National Park, these were the first tracks I had seen since we started climbing over the waterfalls.
The upper reaches of the pass were wind-scoured and almost completely free of snow. Without the snow for shelter, there seemed to be very little margin for life. The low temperatures and the high winds made dangerously low wind chills, even for furry rodents. At the lower elevations near the village of Qikiqtarjuaq and in the lee of some mountains where snow could collect, life seems to be more present.
Lemmings are three to six inch long rodents that stay active all year long. Lemmings are food for Arctic animals like fox, snowy owls, weasels, ermines and skuas.
In the summer, lemmings collect grasses, sedges, leaves and roots and stash them away for the winter. In the winter, they live in burrows and tunnels under the snow. The burrows under the snow are insulated from the cold surface temperatures and harsh winds. During the winter, the lemmings rarely emerge onto the surface.
Mild winter temperatures, soft snow and rain can make the lemmings’ snow burrows collapse. Crusty ice caused by thawing and refreezing can reduce the insulation of the snow. Poor snow conditions can lead to declines in lemming populations, which impacts their predators. In the Arctic, snow cover extent has declined about 10% in the last 30 years (ACIA, 2004).
I felt lucky to have Simon show me the lemming tracks on the snow. He has the keen eyes of a hunter who intimately knows the land. When I ride on the sled, my eyes tend to be fixed on the far-away mountains, the clouds, the dogs and the other sleds. The Inuit hunters on our team, however, notice animal tracks, changes in the snow and ice, shifts in the wind and other subtleties of the Arctic land.
=”images/stories/baffin/dispatchimages/Day32/Sheila.jpg” alt=”Sheila.jpg” width=”333″ height=”217″ />Again I am reminded of the truth in the words of Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Shelia is the International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. She asserts that the Inuit, as they travel and live on the land, can act as sentries for the rest of the world. They warn us of environmental changes that we do not yet notice.