The North thins out, and therefore tends to clarify, natural phenomena. Because of their elevations and relatively sterile soils, this is especially true of eskers. One's second impression is that eskers are marvelous museums, created purposely, with supernatural artistry and intelligence, to display and explain certain ecological principles.
Walking a quarter of a mile across an esker one passes through microenvironments that duplicate virtually all of the macroenvironments that would be met on a 500-mile north-south journey. Each of these tiny life zones is as discrete, distinctly separated from others, as the dioramas of a museum. And like, say, a small room or alcove of the Smithsonian, hours can be happily and profitably spent in each one of them.
About halfway up the north side of an esker. between the wet muskeg at the foot and the windswept, often bare, sandy ridge top, there is an interesting exhibit of tough little plants, none of which can be, because of the weather they must endure, more than a few inches high. Among them are crocuses and legumes that make up for what they lack in stoutness by being in a sense botanical sprinters. In the 10 or 12 weeks between the last of the snow and the first killing frosts, they rush along at a great rate, putting up leaves, flowering and setting fruit. Individual plants that have not done so by mid-August are goners. Below them are the endurance specialists, flat little heathlike evergreens, crow-and cranberries that hang on to their leaves and fruits until they hit the wall of dead winter.
Quaking aspens are normally a south-slope tree: However, we found a grove of them in a 20-foot-deep hollow on the north side. This appeared to be a particularly warm and fertile spot because the aspen were exceptionally stout there. but they were of peculiar shape, the tops of the trees being flat. They were so because they can grow only up to the rim of the hollow. If they get above it the north wind shears off the tender shoots.
In the transition zone, where esker and muskeg meet, a frail-appearing perennial is common. It bears clusters of lovely, white, bell-shaped flowers and a lovely name—Grass of Parnassus. But it belongs to the saxifrage, not the grass, family and is not at all scented.
For travelers the little esker penisula that we used as a camp in Fortunate Lake was a dead end. But according to the signs it had often been used by wolves. The first night, and several times thereafter, we heard a wolf singing in the hills beyond the shoreline. ("Howling" does not do justice to the rising, falling music of the wolf call.) It is a good guess that he was singing about us, wolves being insatiably curious and communicative animals, given to calling out the news to one another. One day we worked across a plateau in the central hills. On the opposite side of a ravine a white wolf separated himself from the camouflage of a spruce windfall and trotted off, disappearing into the scrub. There is no way of knowing, but the chances are he had made us much earlier and had sat down to study our party, because knowing what is going on in the neighborhood is the regular business of wolves and, I think, one of their principal pleasures.
Certainly in numbers, probably in terms of total biomass, the major mammal of the Scented Grass Hills and many other northern regions is the lemming. Except on bare esker ridges and rocky islands it is likely that we were never more than 25 feet away from at least one of these little rodents. They were constantly scurrying and squeaking in their tunnels: If a boot came down too heavily or too close, one often would pop up like a spring toy and, lemmings being pugnacious creatures, would chatter challenges and curses at us.
Lemmings are the staff of life for everything that takes its protein straight, a regular item of diet, and sometimes the main one, for everything from gulls to grizzlies. Nevertheless they are one of the most, if not the most, successful mammals in the Arctic. They are little affected by the ferocious weather, and in fact winter seems to be a particularly secure and comfortable time for them.
They remain active during the coldest months. It is the good times, paradoxically, that get lemmings. In unusually benign years their population may explode so that by summer's end there are many more lemmings than any combination of predators can consume. It is then that their famous "death marches" occur, thousands of the animals wandering aimlessly across the country. (The notion that they are suicidally heading toward the sea is inaccurate. The lemming armies generally march downhill, perhaps because that is easier, and therefore by and by come to water. Apparently by accident rather than design, many enter the water and die in it.)
Because of their nature and numbers we did not work up any particular affection for any individual lemming. But with a loon family (hen, drake and single chick), it was different. We met them on the first day we were on the lake, subsequently saw them often and found them entertaining and instructive. In the first week of August the chick was fairly feeble and clumsy. In canoes, we met the family on the water, and the parents would hoot, holler and splash noisily off to decoy us away from the vulnerable offspring. Thereafter the loons became more tolerant of us, and the chick grew stronger and more learned. We watched it taking what appeared to be diving lessons from its mother. She would duck under the water briefly, then surface by the young bird, swim around it, sticking her head encouragingly into the lake. A few days later it was diving regularly, if not expertly. However, as the summer ended, the young bird still did not seem able to fly. We began to worry about this, since these fish eaters must migrate to the south before the lakes freeze.