Plants and People: the final chapter

It has taken me a long time to write my final post; I thought that this would be the easiest to compose, but it has turned out to be the hardest. In short, this internship was an amazing experience. It was the best I could have hoped for – I had a great time working with my team, made many new friends, and adventured in the Alaskan wilderness in my free time.

First, a huge thank you to the Chicago Botanic Garden and the CLM internship program for this opportunity. I also want to thank my mentor and co-workers – I had a blast working with you all! And finally, thanks to all of the other great people that I met along way.

Conducting an internship at a national park was an even more complex and dynamic experience than I had imagined. National parks and other protected lands are integral places that are rooted in not only breathtaking landscapes, but also often contain hidden histories and rich cultural backgrounds. Working at Wrangell-St. Elias NPP, I was plunged into an environment consisting of abandoned mining areas, tensions with local residents, and long histories with old homesteaders and Native Alaskans. One of the most meaningful aspects of this internship was the opportunity to interact with so many different people and places.

Thanks to the recommendation from CLM intern Sophie, I began reading “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer towards the end of my field season. I was immediately struck by how applicable the content was to my own experiences during this internship. Her teachings on the inextricable link between plants and people especially resonated with me. I think that the majority of us as CLM interns already understand at least a small part of the importance of this relationship, or we wouldn’t be here today. My time in Alaska gave me room to consider my own relationship with plants and with land. Admittedly it was a very emotional transition; I felt such a strong connection to the natural world of the North, even though I had been there such a short amount of time. My position on the EPMT (exotic plant management team) took me to many regions of untouched backcountry. Rather than experience desolation or panic (which was plausible as I was born a city girl), these were some of the most peaceful times I have experienced.

It is easy to become disconnected from the land that we live on. I have always loved the Northwest and have felt a sense of “home” for many years. But being in Alaska challenged my (in many ways) static relationship with land. So many of the people that I met had such a strong relationship with the Alaskan wilderness that irrevocably changed not only how I see natural systems, but broadened my perception to how my own relationships could be. The symbiotic dynamic between people and land often becomes grossly uneven, resulting in much more “take” from the land. Kimmerer and many of the people I talked to reminded me of a much healthier and prosperous relationship where there is much more even distribution between what is taken and given. Largely as a culture we need to remember our connection to our ecosystems; our forests, deserts, etc. In order to enact and perpetuate efficient and effective conservation, people need to shift how they perceive the land they occupy.

I remain passionate for conservation, and certainly have a broader and more well-informed notion of the complex mechanisms that go into it. Working for a national park and preserve allowed me to be at a fulcrum point for people and plants. I hope to continue to work towards further understanding this dynamic relationship, and I want to continue to do this by working for similar organizations such as the park service. I don’t know exactly where I want to go from here, but as long as I am among plants, I will be happy.

Signing off,

Natalie Balkam

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Plants and People

If there is one concept that has been reinforced during my time on the Exotic Plant Management crew, it is that invasive plants grow where people go. When we create a new settlement or adventure into an unknown land, we carry with us tiny seeds that germinate and grow. And so, while I was drawn to this internship because I wanted to learn more about plants, what I didn’t anticipate was learning more about people. Much of our work involves surveying places that humans once occupied, as well as land that they continue to use today. What has struck me is standing in a place that was once a part of someone’s life; a part of someone’s story. Looking at an abandoned house can give us a glimpse into a place once full of life and meaning.

A few weeks ago I went to an abandoned homestead near an old copper mine that once belonged to a family that had an infamous battle with the park service. Being on that property and learning the history that had occurred there revealed another layer to the job that I once thought I understood in its entirety; not only am I surveying for plants, but I am also gathering small tidbits of data on humans as well.

Last week I went back to another district of the park, in the towns of McCarthy and Kennecott. Though this was not my first time there, it was my first experience being up close to some of the mines in Kennecott, an abandoned mining town. Kennecott struck me as such an interesting place mostly because of its oddity as an industrial town in the middle of Alaskan wilderness. Further, as an abandoned town, it remains (mostly due to restoration) in the state it once was so many years ago. This place serves as a memory of a very specific and unique time and place that was once shared by so many people.

~Remnants from Kennecott~

~Remnants from Kennecott~

While I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between plants and people, rest assured, I have had plenty of time among the plants. A couple of weeks ago, I was able to go to a new region of Alaska, to the coastal region of Yakutat, as well as to Dry Bay in Glacier National Park. The similarity of the ecoregion to PNW was both spectacularly beautiful, as well as a comfort in its likeness to my Oregon/Washington roots. I even got to see my old friend, Mimulus guttatus, for the first time outside of a greenhouse! There were so many other beautiful flowers to be seen, including Fritillaria camschatcensis and Dodecatheon pulchellum, however both were past their flowering time. I could have only imagined these fields with both of them in flower. One of the plants that we definitely saw in flower was Leucanthemum vulgare, a beautiful invasive that we monitor. It is possibly the only invasive that I have slight remorse while removing.

~Yakutat sunset~

~Yakutat sunset~

~Leucanthemum vulgare~

~Leucanthemum vulgare~

Though the bulk of our field season is winding down, our team is keeping busy. I will be going on more Elodea surveys in lakes throughout the park later this month, as well teaching a course on plant identification at a culture camp. I am particularly excited for the culture camp, as our preparation for it has brought together many of the themes surrounding people and plants I have encountered this season. People and plants are inseparable entities, and when we learn about one, we inevitably learn more about the other.



Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve



Holidays in Alaska

The end of June was peaceful and beautiful. I celebrated the summer solstice with a gorgeous view!

~Happy Solstice~

~Happy Solstice~

This month has so far been a whirlwind – I am out doing field work in the back country pretty much every day of work this month. Two weeks ago I went on a backpacking excursion on a nearby trail to survey for invasive plants. I mapped invasive species that I observed on the trail (which were mostly dandelions), while singing a lot of middle school throwbacks with my field partner to keep the bears away (There might have been some R. Kelly and Dixie Chicks in the mix). Along the trail I saw some pretty cool plants, including this super beautiful orchid, Cypripedium passerinum, otherwise known as Sparrow-egg lady’s-slipper.

Cypripedium passerinum

Cypripedium passerinum

Last week, along with my fellow CLM intern, Jacob, I traveled to a different branch within the Wrangell-St. Elias park to a town called McCarthy. For the Fourth of July, we set up a booth in the town center. Our objective was to increase awareness of invasive species and educate people about specific plants that they should watch out for. It was a super positive experience – people were genuinely interested in learning about invasive species. We had a lot of people come up to us asking about plants on their property or garden. I met a lot of fascinating people from all over the world (who knew McCarthy, AK was such a destination for July 4th??) including the U.K. and Austria! There was even a parade that came through town, as well as a rather intense egg toss competition, which I participated in, but sadly, did not win.

Our booth on Fourth of July!

Our booth on Fourth of July!

The rest of last week consisted of surveying for Elodea spp. Elodea is an invasive aquatic plant that our team has been monitoring in bodies of water throughout the park. Jacob and I traveled to 3 different lakes on our way back from McCarthy. At each lake we used a double headed rake attached to a line which we tossed into the water and ran along the bottom of the lake, which is where the Elodea has been known to grow. Additionally, we took eDNA samples, as well as collected specimens to identify and keep for park records. We didn’t find any Elodea (yay!) but found some cool specimens, including a pond lily, Nuphar lutea.

Me vs. Chara: pulling up Chara spp. from a lake survey.

Girl vs. Chara: pulling up Chara spp. from a lake survey at Strelna Lake.

View of Silver Lake, featuring Nuphar lutea

View of Silver Lake, featuring Nuphar lutea. Photo by Jacob Dekraai

I am looking forward to the trips we have planned for the rest of this month. We are sure to keep busy! The work never stops in the war against invasive plants!



Finding butterworts in a new home

My first two weeks up in Alaska have been an adventure. Most of my time so far has been general exotic plant management training (in Anchorage) and some additional training (ATV and bear safety training whoo!) at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, where I will be working for the rest of the season.


My first view of a glacier! Spotted along the Glenn Hwy during my trip from Anchorage to Wrangell-St. Elias Park

Most of my job will consist of surveying exotic plants in the park. Though we haven’t done much fieldwork yet, I have been learning to identify the various invasive plants and getting to use my plant ID skills! One of the most common invasive plants here is Taraxacum officinale, known more affectionately as the common dandelion. We just found a native dandelion near the office, which looks very similar to the invasive dandelion, so we have to be pretty careful when we are removing the invasive plants.


Native dandelion (Taraxacum ceratophorum)


Invasive dandelion (Taraxacum offinale)

Two other main invasive plants at the park are Melilotus albus (white sweetclover) and Crepis tectorum (narrowleaf hawksbeard). During training in Anchorage we also learned how to survey for an invasive aquatic plant, Elodea spp. They are trying very hard to control populations of Elodea in Alaska, as it has become an invasive species in many bodies of water, due to dumping of household aquariums into nearby ponds and streams.

Another long-term project that me and my fellow CLM intern, Jacob, will be working on this season is mounting and organizing collections of specimens from the park. Most of the specimens were collected and dried over 10 years ago by botanists at Wrangell-St. Elias, so we are now going through and mounting these specimens and recording them into the park’s database. This project has fulfilled a personal lifelong dream of getting to try herbarium work. It involves a lot of artistic detail in organizing the specimens on the mounting paper, and is a very careful process. I am having so much fun mounting these plants! Not only the creative aspect of it, but I get to learn about the various (and potentially rare) plants that have been found in the park. I have found it to be a very orienting experience, as it in part allows me to familiarize myself with the park and with the plant species in Alaska.

One particularly cool specimen that I mounted was Pinguicula villosa, also known as hairy butterwort. Butterworts obtain much of their diet through the ingestion of insects and other small invertebrates. I have never seen a butterwort in person, and didn’t know they they consumed insects, so getting to not only see this specimen, but learn about it as well, was a unique introduction to some of the interesting plants that this park has to offer.


In summary, my time in Alaska has so far been amazing – how can you not fall in love with Alaska? I am looking forward to be able to get out and do some more field work and survey for invasive species and getting to see more of the hidden gems in Wrangell-St. Elias.



Exotic Plant Management Intern, Wrangell-St. Elias Park