Valley Voices: Ahtis

A Wells Gray honeymoon: Finnish botanists Leena Hämet-Ahti and Teuvo Ahti visit Wells Gray Park after their wedding

Finnish botanists Leena (l) and Ted Ahti have been regular visitors to Wells Gray Park for decades.

It is mid-July, 1961. The scene is a rolling subalpine meadow somewhere on the upper slopes of Battle Mountain in Wells Gray Provincial Park. The day is cold, raw, overcast, and threatening rain. Near the edge of the meadow two human forms, clad in heavy raingear, can be seen moving slowly about on hands and knees. From time to time one of them pauses, removes a notebook from a pocket, and then quickly writes something down. Most of the time, however, their hands, when free, are constantly swatting at mosquitoes. Meet Teuvo Ahti and Leena Hämet-Ahti … on their honeymoon.

Although Teuvo (“Ted” to his anglophone friends) and Leena are no strangers to western North America, home for them is Finland. Here Leena was born in Kuusamo in 1931, and Ted in Helsinki a few years later in 1934. Coming of age in Finland during World War II could not have been easy; perhaps it was this that instilled in both of them a love of wild green places.

Ted and Leena met at the University of Helsinki. They married late in 1960, just in time to plan a two-month “honeymoon” of intense botanical study in Wells Gray Provincial Park. On paper, Ted was hired (by Yorke Edwards of BC Parks) to study mountain caribou habitat. In practice he and Leena used the opportunity to make a first comprehensive inventory of the Wells Gray’s plants, lichens, mosses and hepatics.

Later that same year, 1961, Ted successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis: a world monograph on reindeer lichens (Cladonia subgenus Cladina). Leena earned her Ph.D. two years later with a dissertation on the birch forests of northern Norway and Finland. Both scientists would continue their association with the University of Helsinki throughout their careers.

Ted and Leena have traveled to many parts of the world. With more than 500 papers between them covering many fields of botany, mycology and plant geography, Ted and Leena have well-deserved international reputations.

The Ahtis’ first foreign allegiance, however, is to the wilds of western North America. The 1961 “honeymoon” trip was not Ted’s first visit to the west (he had already collected lichens in British View of TrophiesColumbia in 1958), nor would it be his, or Leena’s, last. In following decades, one or both of them would return many times, with visits to Wells Gray Park in 1980, 1987, 1992, 1994, and 2009.

By their own reckoning the Ahtis have assembled 10,500 plant specimens from western North America. These specimens are now housed at the University of Helsinki (H) – with duplicates at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the Canadian Museum of Nature (CANL). Taken together, their collections represent the largest extra-North American collection of western plants ever assembled.

From these collections of vascular plants, mosses, hepatics, lichens and unlichenized fungi have come numerous important publications, including Ted’s papers on Wells Gray Park mosses (1967) and Wells Gray Park macrolichens (1992). Ted was also instrumental in preparing the first and second checklists of British Columbia lichens (1967, 1987).

Meanwhile, Leena published on the vegetation zones of western Canada (1965a), the vascular flora of Wells Gray Park (1965b), and the timberline meadow phenomenon (1978).

Leena and Ted’s contributions to western botany extend far beyond their collections and publications. Through their personal charm and readiness to help, they have inspired more than one young career in botanical studies. Their early work in British Columbia led many European botanists to follow the “Ahti trail” westward to Pacific North America.

– Trevor Goward

 

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