NWT Ice Patch Study, 2010

Tom Andrews (NWT Archaeologist’s Permit 2010-014)

From August 15 – 20, Glen MacKay, Leon Andrew, Amy Barker, and Tom Andrews revisited 19 ice patches in the Selwyn Mountains of the Northwest Territories. Conducted in partnership with the Tulita Dene Band, the NWT Ice Patch Study, begun in 2005, has documented 8 archaeological ice patches where we have recovered remains of ancient hunting implements representing archery, throwing-dart, and snare technologies. An additional 20 ice patches are being monitored but, as yet, have not produced artifacts. Ice patches occur on north and northeast-facing mountains at elevations between 1675 and 1980 metres A.S.L. (5500 – 6500 ft), which protects them from being melted during the summer. Caribou use the ice patches to cool off on warm summer days, finding additional benefit in relief from biting and parasitic insects. Many of the ice patches in the NWT surround a high alpine plain, called Katieh (‘willow flats’) by the Shuhtagot’ine or Mountain Dene.

The 2010 research was marked by extensive melting of several key ice patches. Though our research has shown that the ice patches have been relatively stable for more than 5000 years, recent global climatic changes, particularly global warming, is leading to rapid melting. In fact, over the course of the last 5 years, 8 of the ice patches involved in our study have disappeared entirely. Despite the extensive melting, we recovered no new artifacts from any of the ice patches.

We did discover a new archaeological site, likely a campsite where hunters would stay before and after hunting on the nearby ice patches. With test excavations, we determined that there are two components, or occupations, separated by a band of volcanic ash, quite likely White River Ash, resulting from the eruption of a volcano located on the Alaskan Panhandle, near the border with British Columbia and Yukon, about 1200 years ago. Unlike the ice patches, where preservation of fragile organic remains is common, only remains of stone tools were discovered at the campsite.

(Edited by Shelley Crouch, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)