1909 Yukon Nuggets
As if it wasn't cold enough in the Klondike, the legendary Yukon poet Robert Service had to create a mythical creature that nested on glaciers. Iceworms in a cocktail was the poet's idea of a practical joke. But the worms weren't fanciful.
In 1909, Stroller White, a brash reporter with the Whitehorse Star, faked a newspaper interview with a one hundred-year-old Yukon native, who told him the life history of the iceworm.
The ancient native, said White, described a slithering worm one and a half meters long, with a head on both ends of its body. The creature appeared only when the temperature dropped below minus 7.
Not to be outdone, Robert Service, took up the ice worm challenge and penned a rakish poem called "the Ballad of the Ice Worm Cocktail".
Today, nearly one hundred years after Robert Service penned the parody, visitors travel to Alaska and the Yukon in great numbers to gaze at glaciers, marvel at the mountains and toast their trip with a cocktail named for a mythical worm.
Mythical, however, it is not!
They do exist. By the millions on some coastal glaciers of Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon, and are possibly the least studied creature on the planet.
Dan Shain, a biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is one of a handful of scientists in North America studying the remarkable life of the ice worm. A few years ago, he spent the summer trekking over coastal glaciers determined to find out everything he could about them.
He has jars of the critters in his lab in New Jersey where his DNA sampling has shown that the iceworm might be the most highly adapted multi-celled creature on the planet.
About one to two centimeters long, they look like pieces of dark thread in the ice. For tiny creatures, they have big mouths which is all the better to eat the single-celled red algae and bacteria that grow on glaciers.
Their ideal habitat temperature is about 0 Celsius. If the temperature drops below minus 7, they will die of the cold and at plus 10, they can live for about a week. At room temperature, they survive for about an hour.
Iceworms usually stay in small water pockets amidst the ice crystals at or near the glacial surface and spend their days tunneling up and down through the ice.
Luckily, Pacific coastal glaciers have a moderate climate. By burrowing into the ice, the worms can find a fairly constant temperate range.
They seem to have few predators and their only real threat may be from global warming. The coastal glaciers are about 0 degrees Celsius and most are retreating. If it gets any warmer, they will melt more quickly. If the glaciers disappear, so will the iceworms.
The iceworm might also reveal clues about life in the solar system such as on Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter, which may harbour an ocean of water where worm-like creatures may not be any more fanciful than they were in the poems of Robert Service.
The biologist Shain is still haunted by the iceworm mythology created by the Klondike poet. At times he has trouble getting people to believe his stories. Even some park wardens in Alaska question his sincerity when he tells them about the massive worm populations on nearby glaciers.
Native legends may not help either, since they tell of giant iceworms that appear on the glaciers of the St. Elias Mountains of the southwestern Yukon.
When the Midnight Sun disappears from the northern sky, they terrorize humans who dare trespass inside their mountain lair, and woe begot any human caught. The giant worm attaches itself to exposed flesh and sucks the heat from the body, leaving behind a grey trail of dead skin.
But the real worms - tiny though they are - exist by the millions on the glaciers of the north.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.