Cactus Hunting at 56 Degrees North

We live in a pretty incredible region here in the Peace Country. Located in the Northeast corner of British Columbia, we border the Rocky Mountains to the West and Alberta Grasslands to the East. The Peace Region is larger than the entire United Kingdom in size, and curator at the Royal BC Museum, Richard Hebda has described the Peace Region as "one of the most magnificent places on earth." 

And surprising as it sounds - when winter temperatures drop below 20-40 degrees Celsius for nearly 6 months of the year - you can find native cactus growing on the south facing slopes of the river valleys.

Little Prickly Pear, or Opuntia fragilis, is widespread through Canada, but is the most northerly cactus species in THE WORLD.

My friend Sheena is an Agrologist and general nature lover, and after talking about our cactus hunt for a while, we finally made it happen this past weekend. And while the cactus are quite easy to find in certain spots (there are even rec trails in the area dubbed 'Cactus Trails') - we were on the hunt for the MOST northerly of these hardy little cacti.

We started heading NE from town towards Cecil Lake, where the road curves and climbs along the banks of the Beatton River. We stopped and walked along a ridge to a clear grassy point and sat down to take in the view, enjoy a snack, and chatter before looking in the grassy slopes too seriously.

Well, as Sheena casually leaned back into the slope we found our first cactus of the day, who clung to her shirt sleeve as though hoping to transplant himself at our next stop along the road and claim the "most northerly" title for himself!

 Found 'em! Prickly Pear Cactus on the south slopes of the Beatton River, NEBC

Found 'em! Prickly Pear Cactus on the south slopes of the Beatton River, NEBC

After some laughter, and realizing the Beatton hillside was literally covered in cactus, and our search could best be described as "shooting fish in a barrell" we hiked back to the truck and made our way towards the Doig Community Pasture, briefly passing through Doig River First Nations Reserve along the way.

There was a slope with grassland habitat where Sheena had stopped the previous year, and wanted to check again for little prickly pear. We saw a huge garter snake, easily two feet long and as thick as a loonie around his middle. He startled me, but I reminded myself there is an advantage to not living in the actual desert, as he'd never be mistaken for a venomous rattler way up here.

After a little searching, we found them again! And what was funny was their shape - there were plenty of them with two appendages off a single trunk, and we laughed about how they seemed to be waving at us, beckoning us to find them like little snowmen peeking out of the grass and dirt!

 Hello there! Most Northerly Cacti in the world near the Doig River in NEBC (unofficial)

Hello there! Most Northerly Cacti in the world near the Doig River in NEBC (unofficial)

Considering I live in a home that is designed to adapt to extreme temperatures by design in order to conserve energy - it wasn't hard to recognize the similarities between #passivehouse and #cacti in terms of temperature adaptations - after just a quick google search about the little prickly pear.

Obviously they are unique - they can withstand extreme freezing temperatures in the far north. But they are also a rare type of cactus where photosynthesis occurs at night, so that they can conserve moisture.

This makes it hard for them to cool off during the hot days, and it's thought they've adapted their funny shapes and spines as a way to reflect and radiate heat, and adapt to thermal loading (overheating.) A well designed home will also protect from overheating, and our passive house has large overhangs to provide shading, and conserve energy by minimizing the need for active cooling.

I didn't think a day of cactus hunting would bring me back round to building science - but how fun is it to write about the most northern Cactus in the World from the comfort of the most northern Passive House in North America. It's these kinds of connections that make my life so fun and interesting!