As Alaska Gets Darker

Fall colors amongst the short plants of the Alaskan alpine and tundra are beautiful!

I left Alaska on the 21st of September, the Fall equinox. When Alaska becomes darker than the rest of the world. Where Fairbanks loses 8 minutes of light everyday. On the winter solstice there isn’t even 4 hours of sunlight there. Now I’m just another seasonal employee who came to enjoy the easy months of the year while skipping out for the brutal winter. I’m alright with that. I don’t think I like winter enough to want 7 months of it!

Myself very excited about picking wild blueberries. In my hand is a blueberry-picker, which combs the berries off of bushes. I had no ideas these existed until I was in Alaska.

On top of Crow Pass, a classing Anchorage hike. It’s 23 miles, so I took three days to do it but many Alaskans I met enjoy it as a single day hike. Alaskans are crazy about the hardcore.

Over the course of my CLM internship I got to work with people from so many disciplines and agencies. Of course I worked with BLM employees, who gave me insight into the Federal world that is almost impossible to get from the outside. I worked with Soil and Water conservation district people, who end up being contracted out to all sorts of projects. I liked their gig a lot, because they were able to be full-time professional ecologists with fewer bureaucratic hoops. I spent lots of time with the University of Alaska botanists, who were more academic in their efforts. On one hitch, we camped with a private contracter who had a crew of 5 field techs that were doing forest inventories for the BLM. There were plenty of other types of natural resources people I got to meet and talk to. I understand the options in this field of work better than before, and know about some job pathways that I didn’t know were options before. The ‘career seasonal’, for example, where you only need to work 6 months out of the year but still get Federal benefits for the entire year, and can work up to 50 weeks a year if there is funding. This sounds like an awesome gig! Too bad there aren’t a ton of them out there…

Denali summit! Highest point in North America.

My supervisor suggested that I attend the Society of American Foresters conference in Portland for the end of my internship. He was there and thought it would be a good alternative training opportunity. I recently attended and learned more about forestry than I ever have before. I haven’t taken any classes on forestry and wouldn’t consider myself a forester by any stretch of the imagination. This meant that, while some of the talks were way over my head, I had a lot of room to learn during the conference. I networked with some industry professionals and participated in the job fairs, which are arguably the most important part of these events. My supervisor and I closed out there, and he headed off to Europe for a month to unwind from the crazy-busy Alaskan summer. Enjoy it over there, Eric! This is the second conference CBG has helped me attend. The first was the Entomology Society of America conference in Minneapolis in 2015 for my senior thesis in college. It’s so special that the CBG is willing to help out with these sorts of events, because they invigorate the imagination and allow for invaluable connections.

I can’t overstate how special it was to get to spend so much time in remote parts of Alaska. Places very few people every get to see. While the mosquitoes and rain and conditions were usually tough, I deeply appreciated being out there. This was ecology on a mega-landscape level, and there are precious few places left in the world where people can actually experience this sort of biologist’s dream. Growing up in Seattle, I have had a dream of seeing Wild Alaska since I was 4. My dream was certainly fulfilled this season, which means a lot to me. I got to see the salmon run up river and the bears who eat them. I saw where the fish remains sink into the soil to help the trees grow. I saw the caribou who eat the lichen and forage nomadically across millions of acres of wilderness. I saw the musk oxen, who stand stoically in -60F temperatures on the tundra. I got to experience endless sunlight for 2 months. My job brought me up to 70 degrees north. So species. Thank you, CBG, for employing me and offering me such an incredible internship.

A mandala we made on the beach out of natural materials in Seward, Alaska.

Arctic Dreams

Hanging out in camp after a day of work. I swear we didn’t quit early, its just always light up there in the summer! This was probably 10 pm.

This last hitch out was a month of on and off time in the Arctic. It’s a harsh place. Definitely not where humans are meant to thrive. This is understood by some quick Googling to figure out that, while the Arctic is about 10% of the Earth’s landmass, only 0.005 percent of humans live there, or about 4,000,000 people. I have a deep respect for anyone who lives there after experiencing firsthand how ruthless it is. Mosquitoes, wet ground, snow on August 6. No trees for shelter. Tough.

It was great to spend time up there, however. Jacob DeKraii, a former CLM intern in Alaska who currently works for the BLM through a contract, and myself spent a few days searching for non-native plants north of the Brooks Range. Very few invasives have proved hardy enough to make a reproductive living up here, but last year someone spotted some Hawksbeard (Crepis tectorum) in a BLM owned gravel pit up here. A team had gone out a treat it, and we were back to see if any remained. We found one lonely plant, along with two stems of non-native Timothy Grass (Phleum prantense). That’s about the best case scenario for a multiple day non-native plant search! However, it did make for some rather mundane and anti-climactic walking about.

Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. Out of the mountains on the other side is the North Slope, a barren, flat expanse of tundra that stretches all the way to the Arctic Ocean

A boardwalk at Toolik Field Station. They have installed boardwalks like this all around the area so that researchers don’t unknowingly affect the ecology of this place.

We took a trip up to the Toolik Field Station, which is the primary Arctic research facility in the U.S. Scientists from across the globe use this place to further P.h.D.’s, monitor permafrost, and measure climate change. The Arctic is warming 2-3x faster than the rest of the world. Huge amounts of methane are frozen in permafrost, but this permafrost is melting. The methane-permafrost feedback loop is among the least understood and most daunting of climate challenges. So that’s why Toolik is popular. We hung out in the sauna while it was snowing outside (again, August 6) and jumped in the bitter cold Toolik Lake. I’ve never heard such academic language in a sauna full of naked people. It was quite entertaining.

The view near our campsite in the Brooks Range

Just another awesome Alaskan expanse.

For the next few weeks we collected seeds with the University of Alaska Anchorage botanist, Justin Fulkerson, and his herbarium assistant.

I found that I could get deep into the zen of seed picking. Hours would go by and I wouldn’t notice. Just fill the pillowcase. Fill the pillowcase. For the most part the weather was good. That’s huge!

The Story of the Caribou and the Lichen

998 Tango Papa!

A giant blender vibrates the entire world. We approach it and let it whisk us into the air across this giant, sloppy tundra. A tundra where, in some places is so flat and so wild, that the rivers bend and loop upon themselves enough that they seem to go nowhere. Former oxbow lakes appear as slightly greener, U-shaped depressions hanging on to the river like forgotten appendages. Occasionally a pingo will appear on the horizon. This is an ice dome up to hundreds of feet tall that has heaved itself out of the tundra throughout the years, and sits on the tundra as a perfect lump of short plants. Just a foot beneath those plants is pure ice. This landscape never turns fully green. The tussocks (Eriophorum vaginatum, or cotton grass) that form it are plants decades old who build upon their former selves. Rising up to two feet above the mucky flats, these tufted tussock plants have dozens of dead leaves from previous years for every live leaf of this year. In places, this single plant can make up an astonishing amount of the total biomass. Therefore, it never gets truly green here in the arctic tundra, because even in the height of the growing season, most of the biomass is still dead. These landscape level features are so easy to see from a helicopter!

Views over the tundra from the chopper. The brown area is all cottongrass tussocks.

A caribou. This was in Denali National Park because there aren’t any where we were in the summer.

We were out there to collect AIM data on caribou and reindeer rangelands. Reindeer are simply domestic caribou. During winter, herds of these animals migrate to the Seward peninsula to forage on lichen atop windblown ridges. You know life is rough when your winter grounds get to -40F (or C, it’s the same at this temperature) and you can only eat nutrient scarce lichen on exposed areas with huge windchill. Yikes. This lichen, being a lacking and slow-growing commodity, can make caribou populations quite volatile. When a lot of lichen is exposed, herd numbers grow, and when it becomes overgrazed, they shrink. The BLM formerly let up to 80,000 reindeer use the Peninsula, which created a profitable reindeer meat industry in the 30’s and 40’s. However, scientists determined that reindeer were negatively impacting wild caribou herds by eating their food. Since this industry was competing with the largest caribou herd in North America, tensions flared. The BLM decided to increase restrictions on reindeer grazing permits. Currently there are very few reindeer in this part of Alaska. It’s sort of hard to imagine the BLM taking this sort of drastic action to stamp out local industry, given their multiple-use ethic. Until, that is, I realized they were dealing with Indians instead of white folks. I am aware I don’t have all of the information, but I just can’t imagine the BLM actively managing for conservation 60+ years ago at the expense of white cattle grazers in the lower 48. It would be great if that was the case, but I realize the BLM has a more missions than just conservation.

Here’s 20 species of lichen I collected on one of our days in the field. I got pretty good at identifying these creepy little creatures.

Anyways, we collected AIM data, along with supplementary data, to monitor caribou rangeland health on the peninsula. Parts of this project are new, whereas some permanent transects date back to 1980. The objective is to determine how the lichen resources are used.

Each year the caribou grow a new set of antlers. In the winter, they typically shed them on ridges where they forage for lichen.

We definitely saw use of lichen by caribou, and in some places they had ‘cratered’ the ground. This is where they eat the lichen all the way down and begin to dig up the ground beneath. And you might be wondering, as I did, how can lichen support big game? Well, this lichen isn’t like lower 48 lichen. This lichen forms mats up to a foot thick and can cover huge areas of ground, so in places there is a lot of it.

A view from the helicopter on our ride back to Nome, the regional metropolitan area of 3500 people.

This project was great. I got to spend quite a bit of time with my supervisor and the lead botanist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, along with lots of other fun folks. I’ve never been so removed from the rest of the world. It’s pretty tranquil out there.

And of course a salmon picture. This was taken just outside the BLM facility in Nome, Alaska. The pink salmon were swimming in huge numbers while I was there.

North Star

A little saxifrage in Chugach State Park, just outside of Anchorage. The lake below was still frozen at the beginning of June

I was skeptical that my first real week in the field would begin June 11. Doesn’t that seem late? When I left Colorado at the end of April the trees were out to play and flowers had begun to poke their colorful little heads out. Well, it snowed on us during our first day of field work. The temperature didn’t rise much above 50 degrees for the entire week. Most days had a bit of ice and frost in the morning. So, in retrospect, I’m glad I wasn’t out much earlier than this. It seems like winter can hack as far as it wants into the short summer in Alaska. The project lead kept saying “if summer doesn’t come, people get pissed.” Its mid-June and most of the plant haven’t completely leafed-out yet. Apparently its a real possibility that a true summer can skip these parts.

I drove up to Fairbanks for this three-week project on Placer Mine restoration. Fairbanks is one of the northernmost cities in the world. These days, the sun is up nearly 22 hours a day and it never gets totally dark. The name of the borough (Alaska has these instead of counties) is the Fairbanks-North Star borough. Something about this name is quite pretty and poetic to me.

Nome Creek. This area of the stream was mined sometime in the early 2000’s. The white mountains are in the background.

I hadn’t heard of placer mining before coming up here. Chances are, you haven’t either. Gold lives in the bottoms of rivers in the Alaskan interior. Where there’s gold, there’s development. Placer mining reroutes entire rivers, dredges out their historic channel, and sifts through all that material for gold. Sometimes the mining companies will return the river to its historic channel when they are finished. Sometimes they will restore the habitat. Sometimes they wont. Currently, most placer mining companies can only actively mine a small area of land, say, 5-acres. Before they move on to a new area in their lease, they need to restore these five acres. Our four person crew is collecting data on sites that have been restored after mining with various treatments, and comparing those different treatments to control sites and sites that haven’t been restored at all. This project will eventually influence BLM policy on how placer mining restoration should be conducted.

The forest around Nome creek burned in 2004 in a 500,000 acre wildfire. These are the haunting skeletons of thousands of black spruce trees.

Two of the people on my crew are men who work for the Soil and Water Conservation District in Delta, a community east of Fairbanks. They have been in this area for decades and have a great grasp on the general ecology of the place. Jeff is an excellent birder. He has helped me learn the calls for most of the birds we encountered during our first week. I quickly noticed that he was always passively listening for birds, even when in conversation. He knew all the species that were around, and in what abundance. I got my binoculars on some new lifers, including the Northern Hawk Owl, Blackpoll Warbler, Grey-cheeked thrush, and Fox Sparrow.

Crossing Nome Creek on the way out of our field site.

Bryan, the other ecologist, focuses on wetlands. When prompted, he will give long discourses on the permafrost, soil layers, and strange the phenomena that ice creates in the Arctic. Renee is a grad student in entomology. She spent time collecting and finding bugs in all sorts of ways, including Winkler samples, bee bowls, and general searches. It turns out we all play music, so we made some nice tunes to wind down after long days of work. Together, we conducted LPI, counted small and large mammal scat, recorded bird observations, collected insects, diagrammed and collected  soil layers, assessed animal browse, measured downed wood and snags, conducted pollinator observations, trapped small mammals, and summarized the flora of each site along Nome Creek. Most of these assessments were new to me. I enjoy the concept of taking data on such a wide array of flora, fauna, and abiotic factors in an ecosystem because it helps get a picture of the entire community rather than just a part of it. Working with this team of highly tuned-in ecologists is educational and goofy at every opportunity.

Next week we head up to the Brooks Range to do the same surveys. I’ll get to be north of the Arctic Circle on the summer solstice, which means a halo of sunshine all 24 hours of the day. 14-hour work days go surprisingly quick with this amount of sunshine because I can never tell what time it is. The week after that we head a little south to the Denali highway for another week of surveys. I’m looking forward to spending two more weeks with these folks, and two more weeks in the North Star.

Somewhere in the millions of miles of boreal forest…

Onboarding to the Outpost

They say that this is a dreary Spring. I agree. Anchorage is typically sunny and mild this time of year, but since I arrived last week I’ve seen more rain than sun, and typically been wearing 2 jackets. Highs in town have been in the low 50’s. The mountains have been getting hammered with snow – up to 12 feet of fresh fluff in some areas – which will keep the alpine plants asleep for the rest of this month and a lot of June. On the bright side (quite literally), first light is at 4 am and last light is at midnight!

I’ve only got a bicycle to get around town, and there is a lovely pedestrian/cyclist trail from the house I’ve rented to the BLM office. It runs along a sinuous creek that is lined by paper birch (Betula papyrifera) and black spruce (Picea mariana). The birch have been cautiously sending out their fresh, nuclear green leaves. Each day feels more like Spring with musky smells and new foliage and bird chirps. Needless to say, this late Spring is making it difficult to botanize. My mentor sent me out to a particular south-facing slope that is known to green up before the rest of the area. I met some old friends from Colorado (Quaking Aspen – Populus tremuloides, Wild Raspberry – Rubus idaeus, and Mountain Ash – Sorbus scopulina) and some new Alaskan folk (Balsam Poplar – Populus balsamifera, Red Fruited Pixie Cup – Cladonia pleurota, Meadow Rue – Thalictrum sparsiflorum).

Red fruited pixie cup lichen nested in a moss I have yet to learn

Apparently there are only 5 tree species in most of Alaska, so they won’t be difficult. A definite challenge, however, will be improving on keying the tough groups. Almost 40% of Alaska is a wetland, and with wetlands come plenty of willows, sedges, lichens and mosses. In fact, Alaska has the highest diversity of sedges in the world, with 155 recognized species and subspecies. In the past I’ve purposefully avoided these tough groups, but I’ll have no excuse to ignore them this time. Catkins…perigynia…gynaecandrous…aphyllopodic…apothecia. Yikes!

An aspen had fallen down a day or two before, allowing me to see the crown of the tree. I’d never gotten such a close look at their catkins before!

Currently I’m in the BLM office in downtown Anchorage, but it looks like I’ll be spending most of my time in the field or at other sites around the city. The Plant Materials Center (PMC) is a research facility up the valley where all of the Seeds of Success material is processed. The state funded this facility to kickstart a native seed industry for the state of Alaska in 1972. Certain wild-collected seeds are grown at the facility to increase the available quantity. The harvested seeds are then sold to local farmers who scale-up the project to sell native seeds to companies for restoration efforts. The PMC cleans about 100,000 pounds of native seeds annually, most of which are grown by these independent farmers. The PMC also works on developing varieties of potato, apple and grains that grow well in Alaska’s climate. I’ll be helping Lyubo, the seed expert there, on some of his spring planting in the upcoming weeks. 

A view of the Chugach mountains from Hope

The University of Alaska Anchorage has a herbarium managed by botanist extraordinaire, Justin Fulkerson. I will collect seeds with him around the state once August comes around. In the meantime, he has plenty of plants than need to be mounted and sorted. I enjoy these sorts of repetitive, mediative tasks. I’ll certainly be using the herbarium as a resource to familiarize myself with Alaskan flora over the next month. In general, it looks like my field season won’t begin until the second week of June, when the plants are really out to play. Until then, I’ll be lending a hand here and there to various projects, familiarizing myself with Alaskan flora, and getting all the BLM trainings I need to shoot shotguns, fly on helicopters, and live safely out of a tent with bears. 

The cycling crew! I’ve never biked with so many folks. What fun!

This weekend I biked to a the small town of Hope with some lovely people who are friends of my housemates. We biked 50 miles out there and 50 back. Notable encounters included 25 bald eagles fishing together and seeing my first arctic tern! This was the opening (or Hopening, as they say) weekend for the bar and the other 2 businesses in the tiny Alaskan town. Plenty of young, recreation oriented people gathered to listen to music, celebrate spring, share stories and fires, and have fun. It was good medicine and soul food. I’m really enjoying how warm and welcoming Alaskans are. I have been adopted into a few different circles of friends, which makes the transition of moving to a new place alone a lot easier.

Fun fact: Marmots are more blonde when they come out of hibernation rather than later in the season because they hibernate in groups, often on top of each other. Throughout their 9-month sleep, they need to urinate, and frequently they do so on their furry comrades. The ammonia in the urine bleaches their fur, hence blonde marmots! While this may make marmots seem strange, humans are perhaps even more wild, because we have done this intentionally. From the Roman empire until just 100 years ago in Japan, human urine was collected to clean spots out of clothes. Ammonia is an important ingredient in many cleaning products today…but it comes from elsewhere. If you see a marmot in the next few weeks, spread the word!

The marshes off of Turnagain Arm provide excellent fish and bird habitat. This is where I saw dozens of eagles. They were too far off to photograph