As Alaska Gets Darker

Fall colors amongst the short plants of the Alaskan alpine and tundra are beautiful!

I left Alaska on the 21st of September, the Fall equinox. When Alaska becomes darker than the rest of the world. Where Fairbanks loses 8 minutes of light everyday. On the winter solstice there isn’t even 4 hours of sunlight there. Now I’m just another seasonal employee who came to enjoy the easy months of the year while skipping out for the brutal winter. I’m alright with that. I don’t think I like winter enough to want 7 months of it!

Myself very excited about picking wild blueberries. In my hand is a blueberry-picker, which combs the berries off of bushes. I had no ideas these existed until I was in Alaska.

On top of Crow Pass, a classing Anchorage hike. It’s 23 miles, so I took three days to do it but many Alaskans I met enjoy it as a single day hike. Alaskans are crazy about the hardcore.

Over the course of my CLM internship I got to work with people from so many disciplines and agencies. Of course I worked with BLM employees, who gave me insight into the Federal world that is almost impossible to get from the outside. I worked with Soil and Water conservation district people, who end up being contracted out to all sorts of projects. I liked their gig a lot, because they were able to be full-time professional ecologists with fewer bureaucratic hoops. I spent lots of time with the University of Alaska botanists, who were more academic in their efforts. On one hitch, we camped with a private contracter who had a crew of 5 field techs that were doing forest inventories for the BLM. There were plenty of other types of natural resources people I got to meet and talk to. I understand the options in this field of work better than before, and know about some job pathways that I didn’t know were options before. The ‘career seasonal’, for example, where you only need to work 6 months out of the year but still get Federal benefits for the entire year, and can work up to 50 weeks a year if there is funding. This sounds like an awesome gig! Too bad there aren’t a ton of them out there…

Denali summit! Highest point in North America.

My supervisor suggested that I attend the Society of American Foresters conference in Portland for the end of my internship. He was there and thought it would be a good alternative training opportunity. I recently attended and learned more about forestry than I ever have before. I haven’t taken any classes on forestry and wouldn’t consider myself a forester by any stretch of the imagination. This meant that, while some of the talks were way over my head, I had a lot of room to learn during the conference. I networked with some industry professionals and participated in the job fairs, which are arguably the most important part of these events. My supervisor and I closed out there, and he headed off to Europe for a month to unwind from the crazy-busy Alaskan summer. Enjoy it over there, Eric! This is the second conference CBG has helped me attend. The first was the Entomology Society of America conference in Minneapolis in 2015 for my senior thesis in college. It’s so special that the CBG is willing to help out with these sorts of events, because they invigorate the imagination and allow for invaluable connections.

I can’t overstate how special it was to get to spend so much time in remote parts of Alaska. Places very few people every get to see. While the mosquitoes and rain and conditions were usually tough, I deeply appreciated being out there. This was ecology on a mega-landscape level, and there are precious few places left in the world where people can actually experience this sort of biologist’s dream. Growing up in Seattle, I have had a dream of seeing Wild Alaska since I was 4. My dream was certainly fulfilled this season, which means a lot to me. I got to see the salmon run up river and the bears who eat them. I saw where the fish remains sink into the soil to help the trees grow. I saw the caribou who eat the lichen and forage nomadically across millions of acres of wilderness. I saw the musk oxen, who stand stoically in -60F temperatures on the tundra. I got to experience endless sunlight for 2 months. My job brought me up to 70 degrees north. So species. Thank you, CBG, for employing me and offering me such an incredible internship.

A mandala we made on the beach out of natural materials in Seward, Alaska.

Arctic Dreams

Hanging out in camp after a day of work. I swear we didn’t quit early, its just always light up there in the summer! This was probably 10 pm.

This last hitch out was a month of on and off time in the Arctic. It’s a harsh place. Definitely not where humans are meant to thrive. This is understood by some quick Googling to figure out that, while the Arctic is about 10% of the Earth’s landmass, only 0.005 percent of humans live there, or about 4,000,000 people. I have a deep respect for anyone who lives there after experiencing firsthand how ruthless it is. Mosquitoes, wet ground, snow on August 6. No trees for shelter. Tough.

It was great to spend time up there, however. Jacob DeKraii, a former CLM intern in Alaska who currently works for the BLM through a contract, and myself spent a few days searching for non-native plants north of the Brooks Range. Very few invasives have proved hardy enough to make a reproductive living up here, but last year someone spotted some Hawksbeard (Crepis tectorum) in a BLM owned gravel pit up here. A team had gone out a treat it, and we were back to see if any remained. We found one lonely plant, along with two stems of non-native Timothy Grass (Phleum prantense). That’s about the best case scenario for a multiple day non-native plant search! However, it did make for some rather mundane and anti-climactic walking about.

Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. Out of the mountains on the other side is the North Slope, a barren, flat expanse of tundra that stretches all the way to the Arctic Ocean

A boardwalk at Toolik Field Station. They have installed boardwalks like this all around the area so that researchers don’t unknowingly affect the ecology of this place.

We took a trip up to the Toolik Field Station, which is the primary Arctic research facility in the U.S. Scientists from across the globe use this place to further P.h.D.’s, monitor permafrost, and measure climate change. The Arctic is warming 2-3x faster than the rest of the world. Huge amounts of methane are frozen in permafrost, but this permafrost is melting. The methane-permafrost feedback loop is among the least understood and most daunting of climate challenges. So that’s why Toolik is popular. We hung out in the sauna while it was snowing outside (again, August 6) and jumped in the bitter cold Toolik Lake. I’ve never heard such academic language in a sauna full of naked people. It was quite entertaining.

The view near our campsite in the Brooks Range

Just another awesome Alaskan expanse.

For the next few weeks we collected seeds with the University of Alaska Anchorage botanist, Justin Fulkerson, and his herbarium assistant.

I found that I could get deep into the zen of seed picking. Hours would go by and I wouldn’t notice. Just fill the pillowcase. Fill the pillowcase. For the most part the weather was good. That’s huge!

The Story of the Caribou and the Lichen

998 Tango Papa!

A giant blender vibrates the entire world. We approach it and let it whisk us into the air across this giant, sloppy tundra. A tundra where, in some places is so flat and so wild, that the rivers bend and loop upon themselves enough that they seem to go nowhere. Former oxbow lakes appear as slightly greener, U-shaped depressions hanging on to the river like forgotten appendages. Occasionally a pingo will appear on the horizon. This is an ice dome up to hundreds of feet tall that has heaved itself out of the tundra throughout the years, and sits on the tundra as a perfect lump of short plants. Just a foot beneath those plants is pure ice. This landscape never turns fully green. The tussocks (Eriophorum vaginatum, or cotton grass) that form it are plants decades old who build upon their former selves. Rising up to two feet above the mucky flats, these tufted tussock plants have dozens of dead leaves from previous years for every live leaf of this year. In places, this single plant can make up an astonishing amount of the total biomass. Therefore, it never gets truly green here in the arctic tundra, because even in the height of the growing season, most of the biomass is still dead. These landscape level features are so easy to see from a helicopter!

Views over the tundra from the chopper. The brown area is all cottongrass tussocks.

A caribou. This was in Denali National Park because there aren’t any where we were in the summer.

We were out there to collect AIM data on caribou and reindeer rangelands. Reindeer are simply domestic caribou. During winter, herds of these animals migrate to the Seward peninsula to forage on lichen atop windblown ridges. You know life is rough when your winter grounds get to -40F (or C, it’s the same at this temperature) and you can only eat nutrient scarce lichen on exposed areas with huge windchill. Yikes. This lichen, being a lacking and slow-growing commodity, can make caribou populations quite volatile. When a lot of lichen is exposed, herd numbers grow, and when it becomes overgrazed, they shrink. The BLM formerly let up to 80,000 reindeer use the Peninsula, which created a profitable reindeer meat industry in the 30’s and 40’s. However, scientists determined that reindeer were negatively impacting wild caribou herds by eating their food. Since this industry was competing with the largest caribou herd in North America, tensions flared. The BLM decided to increase restrictions on reindeer grazing permits. Currently there are very few reindeer in this part of Alaska. It’s sort of hard to imagine the BLM taking this sort of drastic action to stamp out local industry, given their multiple-use ethic. Until, that is, I realized they were dealing with Indians instead of white folks. I am aware I don’t have all of the information, but I just can’t imagine the BLM actively managing for conservation 60+ years ago at the expense of white cattle grazers in the lower 48. It would be great if that was the case, but I realize the BLM has a more missions than just conservation.

Here’s 20 species of lichen I collected on one of our days in the field. I got pretty good at identifying these creepy little creatures.

Anyways, we collected AIM data, along with supplementary data, to monitor caribou rangeland health on the peninsula. Parts of this project are new, whereas some permanent transects date back to 1980. The objective is to determine how the lichen resources are used.

Each year the caribou grow a new set of antlers. In the winter, they typically shed them on ridges where they forage for lichen.

We definitely saw use of lichen by caribou, and in some places they had ‘cratered’ the ground. This is where they eat the lichen all the way down and begin to dig up the ground beneath. And you might be wondering, as I did, how can lichen support big game? Well, this lichen isn’t like lower 48 lichen. This lichen forms mats up to a foot thick and can cover huge areas of ground, so in places there is a lot of it.

A view from the helicopter on our ride back to Nome, the regional metropolitan area of 3500 people.

This project was great. I got to spend quite a bit of time with my supervisor and the lead botanist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, along with lots of other fun folks. I’ve never been so removed from the rest of the world. It’s pretty tranquil out there.

And of course a salmon picture. This was taken just outside the BLM facility in Nome, Alaska. The pink salmon were swimming in huge numbers while I was there.