Traditional knowledge accompanies researchers on the river

Ignoring more than 25,000 years of Yukon River watershed knowledge doesn’t make scientific sense.

Ignoring more than 25,000 years of Yukon River watershed knowledge doesn’t make scientific sense.

But that’s what science has done, says biologist and chemist Brian Maracle.

Traditional First Nation knowledge is not being used to understand the river system.

And no complete study of the most basic information about North America’s fourth-largest watershed exists.

Maracle and the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed council are trying to redress this.

And they’ll tap 25,000 years of traditional knowledge and basic science to build a foundation of fact.

Friday, the council started a two-week canoe expedition down the Porcupine River, from Old Crow to Fort Yukon, Alaska.

It’s a small part of a larger project mapping the watershed’s chemical makeup.

The information will help document how climate change affects the river system.

Gathering elders’ stories of the river system and its changes is a big part of the project.

“It’s an essential element to this project,” said Maracle.

Science must rethink the research process, he added.

Too often, experiments and research revolve around the question not the observation.

“To do this we have to change the way we think about doing science,” said Maracle.

“Current scientists don’t really use the true scientific method.”

Researchers develop a question and experiments based on it, and then make observations followed by conclusions.

“By working in that order, we’ve introduced a subconscious bias into our experiment that has the potential to see what we want to see.” 

The true method is to start with observation, build a hypothesis on it, conduct experiments to test it, gather data and make conclusions.

By using traditional knowledge to guide research, scientists would start with an observation, said Maracle.

“But it takes so much more time — it takes relationships, communicating in a culturally relevant way,” he said.

“It deals with people on a personal level, with communities, and science isn’t: here’s my question, here’s my work-plan, give me money.”

The idea of mixing traditional knowledge and science is not new, and rarely is the methodology explained.

The blend remains as mysterious as the Colonel’s recipe.

“How do we integrate traditional knowledge with Western science in a real, tangible way?” said Maracle.

“We’re at the beginning of the process of learning how to do that.”

The council will gather the basic information, mix in traditional knowledge, then, based on the combination, start conducting experiments.

The Porcupine trip follows one last year, when the team studied the logistics for a more comprehensive science journey.

The project aims to collect the baseline information — the most basic facts, like chemical make-up and temperature — about the watershed, which stretches from Atlin to the Bering Sea.

“The information is essentially about what makes the water water,” said Maracle.

This would mark the first attempt at completing a profile of the river system.

A small cylinder will dangle behind the canoe gathering data as the crew navigates the Porcupine River.

The probe takes continuous water readings, measuring temperature, acidity, the ‘cloudiness’ and oxygen concentration.

Oxygen suggests how habitable a river system is for aquatic life.

An onboard solar-powered computer records the data every five minutes and uploads it to a website every hour via satellite.

The equipment sat outside on the balcony of the council’s downtown office Wednesday afternoon, allowing the sun to charge solar cells.

Inside, a large rectangle of oatmeal, dried goods and cooking supplies is spread across the carpet as the team makes last-minute preparations.

A canoe journey is needed because of the sensitive equipment.

Another boat, with an aluminum shell and leaking fuel, might contaminate the results.

Council scientist Jon Waterhouse, and John Francis, a UN goodwill ambassador and well-travelled environmentalist, are making the trip with Maracle.

“(Francis) can share in other parts of the world this unique way of gathering research through traditional knowledge,” said Rob Rosefeld, who does international development and policy with the council.

Through the Northern Strategy Trust, the territory will give the council about $350,000 over three years.

The project is a partnership between the Yukon, Alaska, the US Geological Survey and 64 First Nations in the Yukon River watershed.

The council is an international non profit group dedicated to the preservation of the Yukon River watershed.

“Organizations and groups come and go,” said Rosefeld.

“We’re not a reactionary group; we’re getting hard science, good information so that community leaders can make good decisions.”

As the territory moves to a better understanding of climate change in the North, basic information like water quality is needed, said Bob Trueleson, water quality manager in the Environment department.

“We’ve only become interested in climate change in the last little while,” he said.

Only sporadic, partial studies of the watershed exist.

The impetus of climate change didn’t exist until recently, said Trueleson.

Most studies were focused not on the watershed but on portions affected by proposed industrial activity or transportation work.

“(The studies) tended to be shortsighted and focused on development, so we only have snapshots,” said Trueleson.

Researchers are beginning to see transformation in the Yukon River.

“Once we know the state of the river, then we can understand what changes are being made,” said Rosefeld.

Major Yukon River tributaries, like the Porcupine, need to be studied to understand just how those changes are made.

“Things live on a narrow threshold in the North,” said Maracle.

With a one-degree rise in temperature, permafrost melts and microbe material in the soil wakes up.

The dissolved organic carbon — the basic building block of fish habitat— in the water is decreasing.

“The Yukon River is the biggest exporter of dissolved organic carbon for the entire Circumpolar North,” said Maracle.

“If that changes, it’s going to affect fish runs, how productive fisheries are, and basic growing seasons.”

The further north one goes, the more tangible are the effects of climate change, said Trueleson.

Melting permafrost can have significant influence on water quality, and the territory wants to know just how bad it could get.

The changes can rattle the food chain, said Trueleson.

“It’ll have an impact right through the food chain,” he said.

“Already algae blooms have been found in the mid-Yukon River basin.”

Algae blooms contribute to the decline of aquatic life like fish and insects by increasing the bacteria and sucking up oxygen in the water.

The tributaries carry sediment into the Yukon River.

Nitrate levels are up in certain areas, which could be caused by a number of factors.

It could be agricultural runoff, a toxic spill, mine tailings leeching or simply melting permafrost.

Researchers usually rely on the three Ms to determine what caused chemical changes: municipal waste, mining and military.

“We can’t say it’s one thing,” said Maracle.

The eight-year project establishes community-based work to serve communities well into the future.

In the short term, the territory wants to train people in communities along the river to sustain monitoring activities.

Specialized water-quality training will take place in communities like Teslin, Mayo, Dawson, Carcross and Carmacks.

“We don’t have regular technicians in these areas — we have two in Whitehorse, so we’re spread thin,” said Trueleson.