A writer, poet and musician in his spare time, research botanist Alain Cuerrier is unremittingly curious. Fascinated by the beauty of nature and the relationship between the First Nations and their environment, he’s traveled here and there in northern lands above the 60th parallel. And as part of his research in ethnobotany, he’s weathered his share of misadventures. Here are a few of them, taken from his exploration of the vast territories of Nunavik and Nunatsiavut.
We’re not alone
One fine afternoon in the field, in Hudson Strait, at Kangiqsujuaq, Alain made an accidental discovery. He was climbing a hill to gather some plant samples, and he reached the top without noticing a caribou stretched out in a hollow. Confronted with an apparent ambush, the animal suddenly jumped up, almost hurtling down the hill, while the researcher just managed to escape falling over backwards off the other side of the rocky slope.
He talks about this dawning awareness: “You realize that here’s a territory that isn’t inhabited only by humans. It’s a new territory from a research standpoint, and there are still a lot of things to discover. I learned afterwards that this was a special spot for caribou, because the snow beds allow them to enjoy a certain coolness and at the same time be less bothered by mosquitoes. At the beginning it was hard to grasp the attachment of the Inuit to the territory. Later on I saw the marks they’d been leaving on that place for hundreds of years, no doubt because it’s a prized spot for caribou hunting.”
A leap into the unknown
On his expeditions to Torngat Mountains National Park, Alain collected some anxious and unforeseen moments: crossing rivers with strong currents, working in water-filled boots, being scrutinized from too close by a polar bear…
But the experience that most strikes home involves a helicopter and a risky maneuver to harvest specimens of poplar. He recalls: “We were being pressed by the chopper pilot to hurry, because fog was moving in. When that happens, you can’t see anything and you can’t fly, so you’re stuck all night where you happen to be.”
He decided to make the most of his time in the field by venturing to the heart of the sought-after clump of poplar to pick leaves from different branches. On the spur of the moment he exited the helicopter, jumping to the center of the cluster and having the misfortune to pass right through because it had grown on an uneven surface on the valley floor. Fortunately, the scientist’s clothes got caught on the twisted branches, which stopped his fall three meters from the rocky ground below.
He describes the awkward situation: “I was suspended in midair with my torn clothes and I was trying to disentangle myself without falling, still carrying the pruner in my hand.” Once he’d freed himself, Alain had to get back in the helicopter empty-handed.
Letting ourselves be guided
The terrain isn’t always easy to access, and it’s difficult to foresee pitfalls when developing a protocol. On the basis of his many experiences, Alain has learned to persevere and adapt, supported by the local guides who accompany him on his visits and their in-depth knowledge of the territory. Having a guide is indispensable – and raising your eyes from the ground to look beyond the plant being studied, that’s a reflex that grows with time!
Taking it further
Every year in the month of November, Space for Life presents Researchers’ Night. It’s a one-of-a-kind event that celebrates research and makes it accessible to the general public.
Weren’t able to attend? Take in the rebroadcast of the talk show En terrain inconnu from the 2021 edition, one of the activities that took place at the Biodôme de Montréal. (In french only)