Yukon Collared Pika
I once owned a hamster. Well, actually it was my kids’ hamster. A family pet. He lived to the ripe old age of five years - a long time, I am told, for a hamster. The little guy had his share of adventures, like the time he escaped, and was found two days later walking down the sidewalk near our house.
There is no doubt he was happy to come home - being a house hamster. I thought of that little rodent when I was doing some research about the Yukon pika. They look alike and are about the same size. About the size of a tennis ball, and cute. But the similarity ends there. The Yukon Collared Pika is one tough animal. Truly a special breed.
These tiny creatures live on isolated islands of rock rising out of the glaciers in the St. Elias Mountains. Their favourite foods – like willows and grasses -- are scarce, so they have adapted to life on the edge. They not only eat plants, but also dead birds.
Strange as it may seem, storms blow migrating songbirds onto the icefield glaciers, where they often die. The little pikas scurry out from the rocks and onto the glaciers to collect the dead birds, just as they collect alpine plants for drying. They are the only North American pikas known to eat meat.
The amazing creatures pile the dead birds like cordwood in their haystacks. Pikas build "haystacks" of dried grass in preparation for the winter. These so-called haystacks can be quite large. Building haystacks is essential to pika survival because they don’t hibernate and therefore need food for winter.
Since most rocky outcrops can support only one pair, pika juveniles are kicked out of the family home. Then, amazingly, the little creatures set off across the glacier to find another high mountain meadow and rocky outcrop.
It is hard to imagine an animal living in a more extreme environment. Food includes leaves of mountain avens, lupines, dwarf huckleberry, kinnikinnik, and grass. So if you are ever lucky enough to travel across the Kluane icefields, look and listen for the chattering call of the pika – a welcome sound in the often quiet landscape - the sound of an incredibly adapted
Yukon wild creature.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
In the old days, as we old timers like to succinctly say, things were different. Yep, when we used to make a rare trip to Carcross on the winding, narrow dirt road, we rarely stopped to take pictures at Rainbow Lake.
That’s what we used to call this most photographed of all Yukon scenes. There weren’t many tourists around in the fifties and we had precious little interest in taking pictures anyway. Getting to Carcross - fast - was the main goal. I forget why!
Today, of course, that most photographed location is called Emerald Lake. I don’t know when the name changed from Rainbow to Emerald. Anyway, it is a favourite photo-op because of the gorgeous blue-green colour. Why does Emerald Lake look like that? Well, scientists who study such things explain it this way.
The colour is created by sunlight reflecting off a white layer of "marl" on the lake bed. Marl is calcium carbonate clay that forms in the water and then settles onto the lake bottom. It forms when the carbonate from dissolving limestone reacts with calcium in the water.
The limestone, in the surrounding hills, was created about 200 million years ago in a shallow sea. Imagine what it was like around here two hundred million years ago.
The valley of Emerald and Spirit lakes - now known as the Watson River Valley - was at one time covered by a glacier during the last ice age. These lakes formed when the glaciers retreated about 14,000 years ago.
Retreating ice deposited limestone gravel, eroded from the surrounding hills, onto the valley floor. The carbonate rich gravel eventually led to the formation of marl in the lake. Thus, the colour of Emerald Lake.
Got that? Good! So the next time you stop to take a picture on your way to Carcross, impress your travelling companions with the story of why the beautiful Emerald Lake looks the way it does.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin