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A chat with Jennifer Doubt, curator of the collections of the National Herbarium of Canada

(Version française de ce texte)

This past February, the Canadian Museum of Nature prepared a large photo display entitled This is Canada’s Arctic which was shown in Ottawa’s Confederation Park during Winterlude. One of the images featured in the exhibit was a portrait of Jennifer Doubt, the curator of National Herbarium of Canada, the museum’s plant collection.

Photo of Jennifer Doubt that was part of the outdoor exhibit "This is Canada’s Arctic"

Photo of Jennifer Doubt that was part of the outdoor exhibit “This is Canada’s Arctic”. Jennifer’s portrait by Justin Bastien.

Beside Jennifer’s portrait was the following quote:

The Arctic landscape is enchantingly beautiful on every scale. For Canadians from south of the 60th parallel who learn from a young age that the Arctic is an important part of Canada, travelling to the Arctic means coming home to a place that has lived in our imaginations for as long as we can remember.

Jennifer Doubt
Botany Curator, Canadian Museum of Nature

The outdoor exhibit "This is Canada’s Arctic" showing the portrait of Jennifer Doubt (on the left).

The outdoor exhibit “This is Canada’s Arctic” showing the portrait of Jennifer Doubt (on the left).

Just a few days ago, the Canadian Museum of Nature celebrated the opening of its latest exhibit, Flora of the Canadian Arctic, which features plants preserved in the National Herbarium. Half of the specimens shown were collected 100 years ago by members of the first Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913-1916). The other half were collected on recent trips by the Museum’s Arctic Botany Research team, including Jennifer herself.

Also, next weekend, April 20 & 21, The Museum of Nature’s team of Botany specialists and volunteers will be meeting the museum’s visitors to share how Arctic plants are collected, preserved and interpreted at the National Herbarium of Canada. The “Arctic Green Team” will be in the Museum’s Rotunda waiting to answer your questions.

With all this activity surrounding the National Herbarium, I thought now would be the perfect opportunity to have a chat with Jennifer about her love for the Arctic. Here is a transcript of my conversation with Jennifer. Enjoy!

Jennifer Doubt during an expedition to collect Arctic plants. Photo by Roger Bull, Canadian Museum of Nature

Jennifer Doubt during an expedition to collect Arctic plants. Photo by Roger Bull, Canadian Museum of Nature

At what age was your interest in the Arctic triggered?

Well! My father was also pretty intrigued by the Arctic so when I was very young he would read me stories. Eventually, when I started to read on my own, I did a lot of reading about Arctic adventures, fictional and real ones. And it continued in school as well. As a kid, when I was coloring in the map of Canada, I spent a lot of time coloring the Arctic. So, I had plenty of time to wonder what’s up there.

How often have you been in the Arctic? Which parts of the Arctic have you been to?

My first northern adventure occurred after I completed my master’s degree in Alberta. After I graduated, I was a consultant and I started working in Northern Alberta. That was my introduction to areas with lots of peat land, where the trees were much shorter than I was accustomed to in Ontario.

Then, I had a couple of opportunities on the Nahanni River (NWT). There was a study of hot springs where a student was looking for certain asters in the Nahanni National Park. Somehow I got the chance to go along to look at the mosses. I was bitten by the “Arctic Bug” when I went to Nahanni. There is so much rich history and story-telling about things that happened in that area, and they are very similar in some ways to some of the adventures, intrigues and hardship of Arctic explorations.

I didn’t get to the High Arctic until 2004. I was on a trip to try to rediscover a population of rare moss that had been documented in the 1960s. I have an image actually of the specimen that was collected originally by Guy Brassard. Guy works here in Ottawa now but at the time he was a graduate student. It was his first time in the High Arctic and he found the Porsild’s Bryum (Mielichhoferia macrocarpa) named after Alf Erling Porsild , the Reindeer Botanist. It is a rare species in Canada. It only occurs in Newfoundland, in the Alberta & BC Rockies and up in the Arctic. So we went to Tanquary Fjord (fjord on the north coast of Ellesmere Island located in the Quttinirpaaq National Park) to try to find this population of Porsild’s Bryum that Guy Brassard had found and… We found it! We only spent five days there at the beginning of August. It was already starting to be fall. On the first or second day we found what we were looking for. So, we spent the rest of our time around other plants.

I have also been on Victoria Island with the Canadian Museum of Nature. I was there for two weeks. We were mostly near Minto Inlet and a bit on the west side.

And then in summer 2012, I went up to the Arctic with Students on Ice for two weeks. We started in Iqaluit and took a ship up the south west coast of Baffin Island and then headed to Greenland.

Do you remember what your very first impressions were when you set foot in the Arctic for the first time?

When you land in the communities there is still a lot of evidence of people and sometimes there isn’t much vegetation around. My initial impression when getting off the plane was not what I had expected. But, after seeing the area over the course of a number of days, or in different seasons, you get to know it the same way you get to know a person.

Where is your favorite spot in the Arctic?

OMG! There are so many beautiful places that I would like to go back to but at the same time when you’re on a boat or you’re on a plane, you see these new places that are almost more enticing.

On Victoria Island we visited a beautiful lake where we caught fish for supper and it was such a beautiful spot so rich in wildlife. I certainly wouldn’t mind going back but there are thousands and thousands of other places. So, going back to places would be at the expense of discovering new ones.

What were some of your uncommon experiences/encounters or fondest moments up North?

The first one that comes to mind is Lady Franklin Island, a place where we were with Students on Ice. We had been watching, in the distance, a mother polar bear and two cubs from the ship. The captain slowed the ship and sort of turned it so that we could continue to watch them. They napped together for a little while. The students were watching every twitch the bears would make. Then we went to Lady Franklin Island. They were thinking of landing but we did a reconnaissance tour first. We got close to the island and there was a polar bear swimming. Then we looked and there was another polar bear on the shore. And then, a little ways apart, there was a polar bear and a cub. I think as we went around the island, we probably saw 10 or 12 polar bears. That was amazing to me! It never occurred to me that there we would see so many bears in one place.

The island is surrounded by steep cliffs. We’d see the bears on shallower slopes or sometimes on a little notch at the top of the cliffs and they’d be looking down at our boats. There were seventy some students in this expedition so there would be six or seven zodiacs. It must have made a bit of an impression on the bears. They sure made a big impression on me.

The other thing that comes to mind is the melting of the glaciers in Greenland. It was really fascinating. We would come down in this fjord and then big chunks of ice would fall off. Some of us had set up cameras and had let them run in the direction where this was happening so we wouldn’t have to anticipate when the pieces were going to fall. Afterwards, we could watch in slow motion.

I also have to mention a day we spent in Iqaluit, last summer. Although the ice in the Arctic is melting, Frobisher Bay was packed with ice. So we were stranded in the city and had to wait longer than expected to get to the ship. During that waiting period, I got the chance to speak with an Inuit elder, who was a plant expert. She took a few hours to just show us around a hill by Iqaluit. She showed us how she harvested, prepared and used certain plants. I was most impressed with all the different things she said. Actually, what she was saying was relayed to us by an interpreter who could speak Inuktitut and English.

At one point she picked up a bunch of petals and said that they were used by young women who wanted to be attractive for young men. She rubbed the petals all over her face. Then, she took a young fella who was with us and picked up petals and rubbed them all over his face.

I had the chance to ask her what they do with different mosses, since mosses are my specialty in botany. Again I was really impressed with all the different things she said. In books, they provide only very general uses such as to scrub pots or to absorb water. This elder was able to describe uses that are a lot more specific and direct. For example, a specific kind of moss is used to pick something out of your eye. Another one is for an upset stomach. Learning just how the plants are important and how that hillside was sort of her kitchen was fascinating. Everything had some sort of connection or purpose. She could talk about it all!

Did the Arctic teach you a lesson / change you in any way?

One of my colleagues has an expression that “he’s got the Arctic on the brain” when he comes back. When you go to the North you have to kind of rewire yourself to watch for different things. The kinds of hazards, for example, that you have when you’re in the south are often things that make noise. When you’re up there and you’re watching for bears, you’re watching for subtle movement. You have to make yourself more aware and more aware of different things. It requires an adjustment. That hyper-awareness makes you notice and appreciate what’s around you a lot more. When you come back, you still have “that Arctic on the brain”. I find that I come back with a different approach to my surroundings and to the people I am interacting with.

When you were up North was there something from the South that you were missing?

It was a bit of an adjustment to stop checking my email all the time.

What is the biggest misconception Southerners have about the Arctic?

That it’s always cold and that nothing grows there.

Any other comment / anecdote you would like to share?

The first time I was up in the Arctic when we had the midnight sun (24 hours daylight) was when we were on Victoria Island. It was mind-boggling to me how our day shifted. We were no longer necessarily getting up and leaving at 9AM to come back at 5PM. It could be 2PM when we’d finish pressing our plants. We could leave on the expedition at 5PM and come back at midnight and it was still daylight.

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