Summer in the Arctic Circle

Cold days and nights with snow, ice, and few plants or animals: my initial thoughts on spending time in the Arctic Circle were well off the mark. Instead, the month I spent above 66° 33’ northern latitude didn’t drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, rarely included snow and even then only at high altitude, and gave me the chance to find some of the most remarkable alpine plants I’ve seen. I’ve taken loads of photos so I’ll talk through my last month with those!

The 800-mile Trans Alaska Pipeline, completed in 1977, transports 500,000 barrels of oil a day. The Dalton Highway was built to support it and is still primarily used for this reason. Land on either side of the pipeline is managed by the BLM, and this project is intended to gather the data necessary for developing Ecological Site Descriptions of alpine tundra and boreal forest habitat.
The trip began with a long drive up the Dalton Highway to just north of the Yukon River where we camped and surveyed from for the first week.
The two part inventory includes a thorough description of vegetation community structure using a modified Line-Point-Intercept methodology (in action above), along with detailed soil pit descriptions that often were dug to the depth of permafrost (in action below with some of that permafrost).
After week one we drove from the Yukon River site to our northern most sampling area, camping alongside the Dietrich River at Milepost 222 of the Dalton Highway. On one of our days off, Chris and I hiked to the top of that peak across the river! On the other side sits The Gates of the Arctic National Park – there are no roads in so it’s either a hike or flight away for those wanting to visit. We just crossed into the park while we were up there, and made some beautiful discoveries too.
One of the best photos I took on the trip, and my favorite plant find by far is pictured above. Silene uralensis, commonly known as Japanese Lanterns or Nodding Campion, are fantastic little alpine plants that thrive on rocky slopes. Well adapted to life this far north, their seed and root system has to withstand up to -50 degrees Fahrenheit, though the perennial pink benefits from spending most of the winter buried in multiple feet of snow.

Some other flowers found on this hike unknowingly living with incredible vistas:
Surprisingly the pink flowered species pictured above shares the same genus as the previous plant, though they look completely different. Silene acaulis, moss campion, grows in what look like small cushions or domes to retain moisture and nutrients, as well as to withstand strong winds. Interestingly, moss campion is thought to act as a ‘nurse plant’ at high elevations for the surrounding plant community; moderation of the harsh environmental factors on mountainsides is beneficial to its neighbors! The photo looks into The Gates of The Arctic National Park.
A mixture of Chamerion angustifolium, Fireweed (a beautiful pink flowered plant seen all over Alaska) along with the yellow flowered Arnica angustifolia, narrowleaf arnica.
Parrya naudicaulis, Parry’s Wallflower, with the Dietrich River and Dalton Highway in the background.
Packera cymbalaria, Dwarf Arctic Packera.
Dryas octopetala, White-Mountain Avens.
Another of my favorite plants on this trip, and one of the few orchids that can survive in the arctic: Cypripedium passerinum, Sparrow’s-egg Lady’s-slipper.
Back to work after exploring and searching for cool alpine plants. Our sample areas varied in distance to the road from a half a mile to almost 2 miles. While this isn’t too far of a hike, the terrain is often unforgiving. Much of the ground in this part of Alaska is composed of tussocks. The aptly named white cotton-like grass pictured above with the crew, Eriophorum vaginatum or Tussock Cotton-Grass, builds mounds over years of growth. Between them, gaps that are made deeper by the freeze-thaw cycle do not make for easy walking
The next stop after our second week on the Dietrich River brought us to the Marion Creek Campground, about 5 miles north of the town of Coldfoot, population 10.
We celebrated July 4th grilling brats on the Koyukuk River, skipping rocks, and having a quick dip in the cold water after a hot day of inventory!
On another day off we stopped into the town of Wiseman, just north of Coldfoot, for the Wiseman Music Festival! It was more of a potluck with a group of people playing folk music but it was a great time. There was even a paragliding entrance by a local that climbed up and jumped off the mountain in background with his parachute, you can see him in front of the clouds above.
Our final camping and sampling area before heading back to Fairbanks was at the Arctic Circle campground. We took a picture with the friendly volunteer campground manager Sheila and her pup Max. Smoke was in the air at this point from the Hess Creek wildfire 90 miles to the south, at the time the biggest in the country.
Ron, myself, Summer, Marc at the Arctic Circle sign (left to right).

We got a lot of work done in the month on the Dalton Highway and managed to make the most of the few days off we had. If you ever get the chance to make the trip up here, it is well worth your time. Here are a few more photos with wildlife, trees, and a few more pretty flowers…

Myself, Ron, and Summer with what we thought was the last spruce tree – the most northern tree (above)! The actual last spruce tree (below)!
Here’s me working on a plant ID and showing off the bear spray that never left my side. Thankfully, and I’m sure to the joy of our bear guide, it wasn’t needed while we were up there, though we did spot a bear along with plenty of other wildlife…
A moose sow and calf eating aquatic plants under the midnight sun with Sukapak Mountain in the background.
An arctic fox, arctic hare, arctic grayling (caught for dinner!), owl (not sure which in the bottom left), grizzly bear (taken from inside a vehicle!), and the great horned owl (bottom right).
Finally, from top left across to bottom right: Morel Mushroom, Papaver lapponicum (arctic poppy), Linnea borealis (twinflower), Siphula ceratites (waterfingers), Zigadenus elegans (center, mountain death camas – don’t touch or eat!), Polemonium caeruleum (Jacob’s ladder), Rubus chamaemorus (cloudberry), Pyrola asarifolia (liverleaf wintergreen), and Castilleja sp. (Indian paintbrush, working on this species!).

Floral Blooms and Birds of Prey

It’s been over a month now that I’ve been living in Fairbanks, Alaska, and I’ve been lucky enough to watch the rapid transition from snowy mornings to sunny ones. Variability in Alaskan weather, and short term variability at that, is noteworthy. Not long ago I was cycling to work with nothing but my eyes exposed and walking outside to see this on my bike one afternoon…

…now this morning I walked outside with shorts and a t-shirt on after a week of forest inventory and another of a raptor surveys. In my last post I mentioned the infamous abrupt change from winter to summer that occurs in Alaska (one I had only been told about by then); in this one I’ll tell you a little more about what that looks like, as well as some of the incredible things I’ve seen and been a part of so far.

Though I showed up in April, it felt as though winter wouldn’t end. Teasing days of warmth gave way to rain or snow for weeks at a time. The transition was subtle yet sudden. As the snow melted, golden grasses of yesteryear showed themselves – their jobs done and their previous summers work about to show itself off. After all, these grasses had spent 2018 creating seed now primed and ready for germination. They weren’t alone in their endeavors either. Following the transition from gold to green, dandelions showed up by lining the roadsides with their infamous yellow flower heads.

The bloom of dandelions only slightly preceded that of willows, birch trees, aspen, and cottonwoods which burst to life from their dormant winter. Green foliage appeared as buds and within a week unfurled into light absorbing leaves ready to transform sun and water into sugars for both themselves and for other wildlife. The city of Fairbanks followed suit. Restaurants that had been closed all winter opened, and I started seeing people standing outside enjoying ice cream in the sun where I had biked through the snow only a few weeks ago. I could see and feel the parallel between the awakening of the natural world and the manmade one.

With the average nightly temperature now above freezing, I was ready to explore more of the Fairbanks area with some overnight camping. Granite Tors became the first stop. Carved by glaciers thousands of years ago, these granite formations sit about an 8 mile hike off the highway to Chena Hot Springs and are well worth a visit. Some of the flowers I saw on the hike (from top left, clockwise) were Arctic Anemone (Anemone drummondii), Milky Draba (Draba lactea), Northern Kittentails (Synthyris borealis), Lowbush Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea; who’s delicious berries I’ll be eating in a couple of months!), and Arctic Lupine (Lupinus arcticus).

I even got lucky enough to avoid a bit of the commonplace afternoon rains on this trip by staying in the cabin on trail…

Leaving Granite Tors, I was excited to discover more arctic plants, but just as much to help out on a Peregrine Falcon survey on the Fortymile River. This trip marked the beginning of the field season for me, and was one incredible way to kick things off. Located six hours outside of Fairbanks toward the Canada border, Fortymile country embodies interior Alaska. There’s a mixture of majestic rolling hills and mountains, the occasional burned through tree stand, wandering families of moose, and constant reminders of remote wilderness. These things combine to bring both a smile to your face and a respectful uneasiness that often dictate if a person stays in Alaska or not.

After setting up the raft and camping riverside the first night, we set off on a sunny morning just outside of Chicken. Craig (a BLM biologist and my supervisor) had taken the truck up to our end point and caught a ride back to the put in. He, Teri (a BLM recreation specialist), and I floated about 30 miles in total, stopping across from potential Peregrine Falcon habitat to sit with our binoculars and scan cliff faces for signs of perches, nests, or the birds themselves. We rafted for a total of four days and spotted around 20 Peregrines, several Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, and plenty of Marmots. While paddling on our third day, I only just managed to avoid colliding with a moose and her calf; we spotted them after coming around a bend on the left bank. As I began paddling to the right to avoid disturbing them, they decided they’d cross the river so back to the left we went! From ten yards away, we sat and watched the mother moose and her calf swim to the right bank and continue their lunch, only a little perturbed by our presence. I don’t have the photo of this but here’s one from the trip…

The morning after I returned from the river trip, I drove out 3 hours from Fairbanks in the same direction as the Fortymile River to Tanacross for the first stage of a forest inventory project. A small airport with only a couple of buildings sits east of the native town with a population of 136. The forest surrounding the airport was the focus of our inventory, where BLM and Tribal Corporation land was torn through by winds raging up to 114 mph in 2012. The project involved measuring live and dead tree heights and their dbh (diameter at breast height), counting downed woody debris along transects, estimating forest canopy cover, and compiling a vegetation list with each species’ total coverage.

I learned how to distinguish white and black spruce on this trip, which I’ve been puzzling over for a few weeks now! The easiest method is to look at their cones (pictured below) – white spruce has long slender cones and black spruce cones are about as wide as they are long. In the absence of cones however, new branch growth can give a clue. White spruce have pubescence along the new growth whereas black spruce do not. It’s not always easy to spot but it works!

We stayed in Tok for this project where we had to stop by Mukluk Land after a long day in the field. This little amusement park/Alaskana museum has been around since 1986 and is run by an elderly lady anyone would be happy to call grandma. She even runs the local newspaper, and if you break 300 in skeeball you get your name in it. I managed to hit 310 after a try or two (or thirteen!), and am waiting for my copy of the June edition with my name and score! Another highlight was the smoked salmon mac and cheese we made for lunch and ate next to the airstrip…

On the 17th of June, I will leave for the Arctic Circle for a month to continue a forest inventory that began last year. I won’t be online until I’m back in town mid-July so my next post won’t be for a while. Good luck to all my fellow CLM-ers in the meantime, it’s been great reading through all of your blogs and hearing about your adventures.

-Andrew

The Alaskan Adventure Begins!

I arrived in Anchorage a couple of weeks prior to my start date with high hopes of seeing some wildlife, and at the off chance of catching the northern lights in a late winter sky. Almost a month later and two weeks into my work with the BLM Fairbanks office and I’ve seen moose, caribou, bald eagle, peregrine falcons, a black bear wandering the boreal forest, and even managed to catch a glimpse of the aurora.

Botanically speaking, we’re still a week or two from the legendary “green up” that occurs over a matter of days. The stoic frost covered landscape buttressed by white birch bark and evergreen spruce will soon give way to a flurry of spring foliage, the chirp of songbirds, and endless sun. Through phenological adaptations, vegetation has managed to survive harsh seasonal changes that limit their growth this far north. Dwarfism in arctic and alpine plants is common; warmth near the surface is highly valuable, and the differences in temperature between a few inches and a few feet above the ground is larger than in a more temperate climate. Staying small allows plants to hold on to moisture and warmth. Other struggles associated with harsh winters include freezing rain as well as the freeze thaw cycles that result in bowed and partially fallen trees. You can see in this photo the dramatic bowing of birch trees that are rooted into an expanding wetland – they’re often referred to as “drunk trees” because they’re falling all over the place! This is caused by pressure exerted on the soils through expansion during the winter freeze followed by a release of pressure in the spring thaw – it’s the same process that causes all those potholes in Chicago, just on a larger scale!

The real botanic work of the internship won’t begin until leaves and wildflowers sprout in the coming month, of course along with all those not so lovely invasive plants too. Nonetheless, preparations for the field season are well underway with bear awareness training, shotgun certifications, and the occasional field trip to make sure monitoring equipment survived the winter. We drove out to the White Mountains last week to check in on some stream monitoring gear and set up a camera to capture ice break up at Birch Creek with the BLM hydrologist in the photo below. Snowmobiling out there was a bit of an added bonus as up there in the Whites the truck couldn’t quite make it out to the creek!

The first couple of weeks have been an incredible welcome to Fairbanks and the state of Alaska as a whole. I can’t wait for more of the same as the field season kicks off soon!

-Andrew