Orchid Acres. That’s an oxymoron isn’t it? “Orchid” and “Acres” are two words that just don’t belong together.
Where in the world do you find acres of orchids? You’re lucky to see a single, wild orchid in an acre of tropical rainforest.
Except, except for Orchid Acres, in West Dawson, Yukon, off Sunnydale Road on the Top of the World Highway, overlooking Dawson City.
I’d never have known about Orchid Acres if it weren’t for the helpful staff in the Parks Canada Visitors’ Centre in Dawson City. After collecting a stack of pamphlets and brochures, I asked one of the attendants if there was anything else I should know. That’s when she brought out a single-page “brochure” advertising an upcoming tour. “If you’re here on June 13, we’re offering a tour, a short hike to see the orchids in our area. There’s a map on the back.” Ruth Ann was going to be back in Cochrane by then and Magellan and I would be on enroute to Tuktoyaktak.
“Will they still be in bloom ten days from now?” I asked her. Her answer was yes, they bloom until mid-July. I kept the brochure, one more treat to convince Magellan we needed a day in Dawson City on our way home.
A single species of orchid blooms in abundance at Orchid Acres—The Spotted Lady’s Slipper orchid. Cypripedium guttatum. Cypripedium (Kypris=the Greek goddess of love, Podion=Greek for a slipper, the shape of the flower). Guttatum (Gutta=Latin for drop, referring to the purple spots on the petals.) It’s sometimes referred to as Alaskan Lady’s Slipper orchid, although you can also find them in Russia, Belarus, Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet and of course, Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories—subalpine places on continents connected by land bridges during the last Ice Age.
However, Spotted Lady’s Slippers are considered rare in most of the Yukon.
Now here’s another thing that makes Orchid Acres special. These little flowers are usually loners. So the fact that thousands of Spotted Lady’s Slippers dress the slopes of Orchid Acres has deemed the site to be ecologically significant.
Spotted Lady’s Slippers prefer the hillsides and cliffs of deciduous and spruce forests. They need a certain type of fungus in the soil to germinate and bloom. Although Dawson City is in a zone of discontinuous permafrost, the hilly site of Orchid Acres doesn’t have any. Is the lack permafrost the reason Spotted Lady’s Slippers flourish here? As a result of this anomaly, Orchid Acres is one of ten places in the Klondike where research on permafrost is being conducted, which you can read about on descriptive panels on the trail.
Within five minutes of walking on the right-hand loop of the trail, we spotted the first of many congregations of orchids.
Each single beauty has two clasping leaves and a stem with a single, distinctive flower. The pouch-like labellum is pitcher shaped with an out-turned mouth painted…how do you describe this luscious colour? Magenta-wine? Magenta-mulberry? Magenta-grape? I’ll settle for “wild magenta” dotted with arctic white, the same rich colouration as its lateral petals. The dorsal sepal tilting over the lip is white, lightly bordered with that same exotic shade of regality, which appears again on the veins in its underside. Classical, voluptuous, unique: if the Spotted Lady’s Slipper were a woman she’d be Isabella Rossellini.
These little gems are pollinated by various Lasioglossum bees, common throughout the Yukon. Undoubtedly, so are the other wildflowers, dressed in sunlight, hoping not all of the bees’ attention will go to their gorgeous girlfriends, the orchids.
We were so busy exclaiming about the proliferation of orchids, the sunlight perfecting another patch for an even better photo, that the trail felt shorter than two kilometres. Constructed by the Youth Crew of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government’s Heritage Department, the trail was carefully planned to ensure you’re alongside the best swatches of orchids.
Spotted Lady’s Slippers—thousands more reasons to see Dawson City.
You can read a bit more about the updating of the trail, descriptive panels and viewing platforms, completed in 2014 at Orchid Acres, here.