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!).