Denali and Cordova

This month, Josh and I got to do some more travelling outside our known areas in the Chugach. The first weekend in August we were able to do some backpacking in Denali. This 6 million acre park was originally created to protect wildlife, as wildlife biologist Adolf Murie studied the decline in Dall sheep. He has been called “Denali’s Wilderness Conscience”, as he spent 30 years rigorously studying ecological relationships, writing articles for popular conservation magazines, and favored restricted human development in the park. This mentality is still withheld today, as there is a landslide blocking the road roughly around mile 35, making the remaining 55 miles of road impossible to travel via vehicle. The woman who gave us a ride worked there a while back and she said there is some controversy on re-opening the road. Apparently it would be easier to construct an entirely new road, however, this completely goes against Adolf Murie’s advocacy. On the issue to improve the park road during his time, he wrote “my point of view will stress intruding and injuring the spirit of wilderness as little as possible, with sometimes a little inconvenience resulting. I would rather err in that direction.” There is also a surprisingly low amount of trails throughout the park, it is just literally 6 million acres for you to roam around. Although we went on a day that had mostly clear sky, you can only barely see Mt. Denali, which unfortunately is like going to the most acclaimed restaurant only to smell the food. The views were still great, and it was nice to see a new ecosystem. There is a shuttle bus around every 30 minutes that takes you to where the landslide is so you can see more of the park.

Looking out on the park road a little past mile 20
Cathedral Mountain in Denali National Park: the gray area is the Cantewell Formation, a thick bed of sedimentary rocks. This is toppled and intruded by the volcanic activity of the Teklanika Formation. The Teklanika Formation is younger and characterized by reddish- or yellow-brown rocks.
Dall sheep ewe with her calf. The populations within the original boundary of the park are not hunted (because of Adolf Murie) and still share their range with other larger predators.

Cottongrass, Eriophorum species. This grows commonly in the Alaskan tundra

Another cool area we traveled to the second week of August was Cordova, one of the other districts of the Chugach National Forest. Although the town of Cordova is only 139 air miles away from this side of the Chugach, it is not connected to the main Alaskan road systems, making it only accessible by ferry. This 7 hour boat ride took us through Port Wells, between Glacier Island, then into Orca Bay. After speaking with the terrestrial crew leader, she advised for us to have a goal to make a grass and a Carex collection by the end of the week, I think this is because she wanted to have seeds for a wetter area and seeds for a drier area. It was exciting to get to a new place with different species that were more prevalent on our list. Cordova seemed as if it gets 2x the amount of rain Moose Pass does, and a lot of plants seemed to be behind in phenology, especially in the glacier area. Cordova also has way more bears than on the other side of the Chugach, and to be in on a trail anywhere out there, you need to be gun certified. At first I was rather bummed that we weren’t hiking as much, but then our 2nd to last day we saw a grizzly nearby our mapped Carex site. I had thought it was a car on the dirt road and then I saw the 4 legs moving into the forested area. After hiking most the Chugach without a bear encounter, I was rather scared. I turned some music on a portable speaker, clenched my bear spray tight and continued to pick Carex in the pouring rain.

Low tide sunset in Cordova
Josh getting ready to create a Lupinus nootkatensis polygon at the base of Sheridan Glacier
The trees in Cordova are absolutely covered in Usnea, a beard lichen. It is very stringy and flexible, the presence of Usnea in an environment is a good indicator of clean air.
Glacier right outside Whittier where we got the ferry ride

Another interesting fact about Alaska in general is in 1964, a 9.2 magnitude megathrust earthquake caused ground fissures, collapsing structures, and tsunamis. This was caused by an oceanic plate sinking under a continental plate. In the Turnagain Arm area closer to Anchorage that Josh and I are more familiar with, the earthquake dropped this area around 8 feet. This is seen today by the ‘ghost tree forest’, from all the spruce that became water logged after 1964. However in Cordova, the ground was raised, causing new wetlands to emerge. Overall, it has been cool to learn about how this recent history has affected the ecosystem differently from the ground shifting to opposite elevations.

Stolen from ‘’ but I wanted to show a good visual of the ‘Ghost Tree Forest’ from all the spruce that got flooded by the 1964 earthquake.

Overall, we have collected 1,562,248 seeds from 22 populations, consisting of 12 different species and 12 different locations. Other than a couple more collections of grass and maybe some Juncus, we should be finished and starting to process all of this for storage.

This is another cool time of year for the fish viewing sites. These are what most locals refer to as ‘zombie salmon’, where they are typically at the end of their life. If you can see them this far upstream, they typically stop eating and put all of their energy into spawning. These fish do NOT taste good, but it’s easy pickins’ for the bears.

Reaching New Heights: Alpine Hikes

Clouds come and go, but the mountains remain. The dew point temperature in the morning is typically always reached here with the cooler mornings. The increased condensation in the atmosphere makes the mountains invisible, as the surrounding clouds block your view for miles. But now that we’ve finally had 70 degree days up here, the warming temperature deviates from the dew point temperature, and all the clouds evaporate to leave a stunning view. This is one of the best ways to experience the Alaskan alpine hikes, almost as if mother nature is revealing a secret to you.

These have been my favorite places to go on the Chugach, although the flowers are still barely emerging. As my eyes scan across the land, surprisingly it is the smallest plants that catch my attention. Drosera angelica, the English Sundew, is inconspicuously about 5 cm tall and found in most peatbogs in Southcentral Alaska. This interesting character is a carnivorous plant, that uses leaves covered in red mucilaginous glands with a resin tip to lure in their prey. Once the unlucky insect is trapped, the tentacle like structures then bend toward the prey and center of the leaf to maximize contact. This unique adaptation is a survival technique to live in nitrogen deficient areas, such as bogs.

Another plant we had to get down on our hands and knees to search for is the rare Aphragmus eschscholtzianus, or Aleutian Cress. This mustard is so small, it was first described in the last 75 years. One of the terrestrial crew’s projects is to monitor the subalpine valleys saturated with snowmelt to observe long-term population change. This involves going to previously mapped plots, finding due north and due east from a monument stake, measuring a 5×4 m plot, and using quadrats to measure Aleutian Cress abundance in a given area of the plot. This work also involved traversing the hillslopes off trail to ideal habitat areas to find new populations. At first I hated it, as this work is like finding a needle in a very large haystack. After hiking all day, our crew finally found a population of about 5, giving us all a euphoria and sense of accomplishment. I thought I could rule out rare plant monitoring from my career goals but instead, this experience has only made me more indecisive.

The Soggy, Sunless Days on the Chugach

Much of what we saw on our early hikes up near Moose Pass, AK were the opening fiddle head ferns just barely rising out of the ground. According to our mentor, this spring is unlike most with all the cool temperatures and rain. It took until late June for plants to start flowering. Overall, Josh and I have counted 3 days that we’ve seen the sun shine where we live off Kenai Lake. This has been a blessing and a curse, as it has given us ample time to practice and prepare, but also shortens our window for our seed collections.

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Fiddle Head Ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris, along Ptarmigan Lake Trail

Up until this point, we have been floating around different departments to help with projects. One of them involved putting up fencing along the Russian River to prevent any damage or loss to the vegetation along the bank during sport fishing season, where ~150,000 people come to this small campground area to fish over the course of two months. Another project we worked on was treating European Bird Cherry, Prunus padus. In a team of about 4 people, we went in to off-trail National Forest land areas around Hope, AK to find invasive Bird Cherry trees and used Field Maps to create a polygon and record data. The actual treatment entailed hand sawing the smaller saplings and hanging them about 4 feet above the ground to prevent regrowth from the nodes. Herbicide was also applied by our mentor. Another project we participated in was goshawk surveying. This ongoing project focuses on goshawk nesting habitat because habitat degradation is understood to be one of the primary causes of reduced breeding goshawks, thus making it a sensitive and rare species. This process involves going out to previously recorded nest sites, playing a goshawk distress call to see if one shows up, and checking the area for hatchling feathers and fresh feces near the base of the old nests.

One of the areas we are covering for a plant phenology project on iNaturalist is the Trail of Blue Ice, where you’re able to see glaciers that hang from the gullies and ravines in the mountains that border the portage valley. Although there isn’t much flowering right now, we were able to observe small populations of Achillea millefolium, Lupinus nootkatensis, and Geum macrophyllum from our priority species list that are just beginning to bud. We also found Carex macrochaeta, which is common along some of the trails we have hiked. After verifying the species and discussing with our mentor, we agreed that it should be included in our priority species list, as it is a wetland indicator. Because this is the first year the Chugach has had seed collectors, it has been quite exciting to bust out the old plant presses and be a part of building the foundation for future CLM interns.

We have be able to document collection sites for about 7 species on our list. I expect to collect Lupinus nootkatensis seeds first, as they are starting to fruit. We have also practiced collecting data and pressing plants for voucher specimens, which has been another challenge to dry out the material in this humid environment. I cant wait for what July will bring!

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Enjoying the rare glimpse of sunshine and some homemade cheesecake off the shore of Kenai Lake