The largest terrestrial ecosystem on the Planet Earth is the boreal forest. Standing on top of a bluff or mountain, with a view of the interior, invokes a sense of awe that at this moment I cannot express in words. When attempting to describe how it feels to gently walk on a soft sphagnum carpet through the spruce/aspen stands, weaving through a berry-rich understory, lichens crumbling under my feet, sentences fail and language becomes ineffective. I have come to the conclusion that ecosystems of the north are otherworldly.
During the course of this summer, I have come to understand the allure of Alaska. So much can be accomplished under the summer sun, with days reaching 24 hours in length. Since the commencement of our field season, I have had the opportunity to see countless mountains, glaciers, river deltas and forests, both interior and coastal. Our primary goal has been the detection and management of exotic plant populations in the park. If you know anything about exotics in the lower 48, then 13,000,000 acres and with merely 4 people is completely ludicrous, but in Alaska, many of these infestations are only just establishing and can be controlled if detected early. And so we have set off to survey the most highly visited areas of the park, both road accessible and not, to search for these human-transported exotics.
One of our primary targets, Elodea canadensis, has led us to better understand a plant community that I was completely unfamiliar with before this season. Aquatics!
It’s not surprising an interest in the natural world has introduced to me an all-embracing appreciation for biological life, but I never expected to experience such beauty in submerged, freshwater plant life until observing 3-4 meter tall Potamogeton praelongus forests. How fascinating the plant kingdom, occupying such extremes as mountaintops, subarctic freshwater, and gravel fill lots.
A few of the lakes we surveyed had no prior submerged aquatic plant inventories. Being proud botanists, we happily took advantage of the opportunity to describe the flora as best we could. This task proved a bit more arduous than expected given the frequency of hybridization between freshwater aquatics.
Though we have found no Elodea in the 8 lakes surveyed thus far, other non-natives have been detected in areas of prior occurrence in previous seasons. To list a few, we have been conducting treatments to eliminated infestations of Melilotus albus, Melilotus officinalis, Crepis tectorum, Leucanthemum vulgare and Capsella bursa-pastoris.
Along with the search for Elodea, our surveys for terrestrial invasives, rare plant monitoring, and other miscellaneous tasks have led us to a few phenomenal places in the park. We are regularly left to survey in the backcountry, dropped off via bushplane, with the only barrier between us and densely grizzly-populated environment being a thin tent wall and can of bear spray. Sleepless nights aren’t uncommon, especially in coastal bear territory, but proper bear safety practices have prevented encounters so far. For now, we exist together in peace.
Of the most unforgettable experiences thus far, our trek across Root Glacier to monitor the northernmost recorded population of Cypripedium montanum in Alaska reigns supreme. Our target population resided on a 45 degree scree slope between Kennicott and Root Glacier. Upon finding the meadow of wildflowers, we quickly realized the extent of the population and the incredible color variation within it (see below photo). To see this rare organism growing so viciously with such abundance at its most northern extent was beyond exciting. It’s as if all the stars aligned, with every biotic and abiotic factor creating for this small moment in time a perfect environment for something to grow and thrive… It’s the improbable occurrences of the universe that make me laugh and smile.
“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we not take a trip; a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck
When I first accepted my internship with the National Park Service in Wrangell-St. Elias, AK, I immediately began planning for my return to the lower 48. Living in Alaska and experiencing its wilderness engulfed my thought and I was ecstatic about the opportunity. Yet, there was no doubt in my mind there was more for me below the Canadian border. As the summer unfolded I was quite intimately exposed to the awesome, humbling nature of the 13 million acre park and the life that inhabits it. Needless to say, I quickly fell into the enticing spell of the boreal forest and the alpine ecosystems extending beyond treeline. So intriguing is the ability to understand and utilize the resources provided by the waters and forests for food and medicine. In a land of such fruitful, dynamic summer season, fueled by the lengthened day, I feel I must experience the cold, unforgiving winter to truly respect life in this region.
Until next time!
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, AK
OH, almost forgot… the number one question of late summer is, “What is the correct ratio of blueberries to sugar?”