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

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