“Up to the Land of the Midnight Sun…”

Rafting the Copper River and searching for invasives at campsites along the way

Rafting the Copper River and keeping an eye out for invasive plants and amazing sights along the way.

For the past 3 months, my CLM internship has placed me in Alaska, specifically Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, our largest national park and a land of superlatives within this gigantic land.  As a member of the Exotic Plants Management Team (EPMT) for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, it has been my duty, along with the 4 other EPMT workers in the park, to identify, prioritize and weed populations of invasive plants throughout this 13.2 million acre park (about 2.6 million acres per person!).  Luckily, Alaska is somewhat ahead of the invasive species curve, compared to the majority of places in the lower 48, and the immensity of this park lends a few perks to my job.  For example, it is unreasonable to survey large swaths of the park from headquarters on foot, so this summer I have had the opportunity to tag along on a 5 day raft trip, multiple day hiking trips, and multiple flights into the backcountry, all while inventorying for invasive plant species and learning the native plants and animals throughout this park’s many ecosystems.  When we find a population of invasive plants, we use Trimble GPS units to take GPS coordinates, describe the population, and, when manpower allows, weed it.  The most common invasive plants encountered this summer have been oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), narrowleaf hawksbeard (Crepis tectorum), white sweetclover (Melilotus alba), lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum), and the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).  Not all of these species are actively weeded by the park’s EMPT program, particularly the common dandelion, but it is still important to monitor all invasive species populations to determine their potential to negatively affect these nearly pristine Alaskan ecosystems.

inventory for invasives

Inventorying for invasive plants on the Jumbo Mine Trail among the blooming fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)

The immensity of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park makes it inaccessible to most visitors, and because invasive species usually arrive in new areas with the help of humans, we have focused on inventorying and weeding more highly visited areas, including backcountry destinations, airplane landing strips, campsites, trails into the park, and town centers.  Wrangell-St. Elias National Park differs from many other parks in the US because there are private inholders within the park.  In fact, there’s an entire town located in the center of the park—McCarthy, Alaska—which is where I have been stationed this summer.  Before arriving, I was told that the ‘nearest’ grocery store to McCarthy is a 7-8 hour drive away, comparable to the drive from my home in Ohio to Chicago—and just for some groceries!  The reality has been a bit easier (a general store in town does stock a limited and expensive selection of food), but the people of McCarthy definitely live a different way of life from the majority of Americans.  For the past three and a half months I have lived in McCarthy and traveled around the park, but during the remaining month and a half of my internship, I will be stationed at Copper Center, on the western edge of the park, since McCarthy is shutting down now that tourist season is over.


Porphry mountain in fall, bordering McCarthy

Thus, my internship has challenged me not only in learning the plants, animals and processes of new ecosystems (boreal forest, alpine tundra, glaciers, and temperate rainforest!), hiking for days to inventory invasive species populations, and honing my GPS/GIS and report writing skills, but it has also challenged my way of life.  In McCarthy, many people live out life from a different time: when homes were heated by wood stove, water was hauled from nearby creeks, and people lived off the land.  Cell phones and television hardly exist here, internet is slower than dialup, and mail comes only twice a week.  Yet it has been extremely rewarding to see this way of life, experience some of it, learn about these Alaskan ecosystems, and realize that real wilderness still does exist in this world, an exciting thought for someone who grew up in the Midwest.

Overlooking the Root Glacier moraine

Kennecott, an abandoned mining town four miles from McCarthy, overlooking the Root Glacier moraine and bordering mountains

-Joe Donohue, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

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