Barrenland community supports plants seen nowhere else in the Arctic

The blooming beauties of Bathurst Inlet


A rainbow of blue dwarf lupins, white nubs of Arctic cotton and bright yellow anemones brighten the land near the community of Bathurst Inlet throughout the summer, along with more than 100 other plants – many found nowhere else in the Canadian Arctic.

The single yellow poppy growing among purple-blue dwarf beach peas lures Sam Kapolak, who co-manages the Bathurst Inlet Lodge, to lie down on the ground to take the perfect close-up shot of the flowers.

Beach peas are world travelers, but it's still surprising to see how they blanket small islands in Bathurst Inlet.

Beach pea seeds can float in seawater for up to five years, enabling them to drift around the world. They germinate when sand or gravel break their hard outer seed case.

That's how beach peas end up growing in Bathurst Inlet.

But you won't see beach peas in most places in Nunavut because of the colder weather conditions.

Page Burt, who lives in Rankin Inlet, has worked as a naturalist at the Bathurst Inlet Lodge, which lies at the bottom of Kingaun, during the summer for about 30 years.

Burt first visited the lodge in 1973 and fell in love with the inlet's luxuriant vegetation.

Burt, now a specialist in the inlet's local plants, compiled "Barrenland Beauties," a field guide to the plants found around Bathurst Inlet, with assistance from Kapolak.

Every July, when the Bathurst Inlet Lodge opens to visitors, Burt and Kapolak shepherd visitors around the inlet in the lodge's small pontoon barge.

Stopping on one tiny island, popular with nesting birds, Burt points out circles of dandelions, which thrive in big bunches where ducks once nested and deposited a rich bed of nutrients.

In a nook between rocks on another island, Burt discovers tiny purple butterworts. They're carnivorous plants, which use sticky leaves to lure, trap, and digest insects – something Bathurst Inlet has plenty of during the warm summer.

The community of Bathurst Inlet owes some of its rich vegetation to a cover of topsoil, which once allowed missionaries and traders to cultivate their own garden plots.

But even where there's no soil, plants grow. Prickly saxifrage, whose Latin name, Saxifraga, means "stone-breaker," grows among rocks and uses its roots to break down the stone.

Tiny sea bluebells also can be found along the rocky shoreline by the water, where it looks like nothing could grow. The bluebell leaves, which can be eaten raw or cooked, taste like oysters.

Among the other unusual flowers in Bathurst Inlet are yellow anemones, called Richardson's anemones after John Richardson, the surgeon-naturalist with the Franklin expedition of 1819-22. Fields of anemones sprout where the last snow banks are melting away and in moist, sheltered areas under willows.

Willow and birch trees, also common in Bathurst Inlet, are used for firewood.

The woody willow root is called qiati or amaap silappianga in Innuinaqtun. Its flexible branches are good for building drying racks, drum hoops, kakivak spears and kayak ribs, while the young leaves and buds, eaten in the spring, are rich sources of vitamins.

The children of Bathurst Inlet say they eat the "fat of the willow," by stripping away the outer bark of twigs, then scraping off the layer with their teeth – they says it tastes sweet.

And unfolded birch leaves are sticky on the underside. Children stick them to their ears and make "earrings," Burt says.

Many other plants found around Bathurst Inlet usually grow much further south, like lupins, which thrive in clearings and along slopes in California and Nevada.

But these blue dwarf lupins coat the land around Kingaun, the nose-shaped mountain that overlooks behind the community of Bathurst Inlet.

Swaths of arctic cotton resemble white brush strokes on the mountain's slopes – a display people in Bathurst Inlet said they'd never seen before.

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