This weekend was my first weekend to get out and enjoy the beautiful fall weather of Alaska. It had been a pretty rainy, dreary week. But at 11AM on Saturday morn the sun broke through the clouds and has been shining ever since! I headed up to Murphy Dome (http://goo.gl/X9dL3k) for some grouse and ptarmigan hunting. I was blown away by the mixture of spruce and fiery birch that were EVERYWHERE. Up here we have the ‘alaskan paper birch’, which is very similar to the white paper birch of the mid-west.
One of the unusual things about this fall in Fairbanks has been the amount of rain we received. Of course, I can’t say ‘unusual’ from my experience here, rather just based on what others have said. Because of the amount of rain that we received the fall fungi have been very common! I love how their dark reds, browns and yellows offset the golden carpet of birch leaves around them. I think they are very beautiful, however, don’t eat these ones! I’m not sure of the exact species, I think it could be amanita muscaria, but I know others in this family will kill you. It’s been described to me as such : “yup, you’ll trip balls, then you’ll die”. So, please, re-frame from any licks or bites. Interested in a bit more information about these shrooms? Check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_muscaria
Once I got past the fall colors (and it truly is more of a physical barrier than a metaphorical one!) I headed up to Ester Dome region and started to walk around looking for grouse and ptarmigan. As I headed up a powerline cut I was immediately astounded by the volume of blueberries and low bush cranberries. They were EVERYwhere. I had never seen blueberries like that in my life. During my walk I foraged until my stomach told me “no more!”; I imagine I was at the 1/2 gallon point of blueberries and cranberries in my stomach. However, my blueberry findings only got better. After a time I started to walk down this steep draw to a river bed. The trickling stream I found at the bottom was filled with blueberry plants that were almost waist high and could have been bowing to the ground by the numbers of blueberries on them. I knew that I had to do some picking here soon ( that’s called foreshadowing… 🙂 ) and would be back. However, with no grouse in sight I headed back up the draw and found out that walking up moss covered hill sides is absolutely grueling! The best analogy I can think of is walking on a thermopedic mattress that’s 8 inches deep and doesn’t have a box spring to stop you at the bottom. Its like quick sand. The moss and lichen absorbed each step, much like I was wearing moon boots. Coupled with a 15 – 20 % grade and a 3/4 mile straight-up ascent I was beat when hit the ridge again. However, I was rewarded soon after with 2 spruce grouse, my first ever!
After this I met up with a guy named Ross and we headed up to the top of Murphy Dome looking for Ptarmigan. Murphy dome was the highest point for miles around, and the view were truly incredible. We never did see any ptarmigan, but the hike and the day were incredible!
The next day I went back for the blueberries. In a nutshell I was able to pick about 18 pints of blueberries in 1.75 hours! I have never, never,never seen wild blueberry picking like it was in this place. The berries were ready to fall off the bushes, so all you had to do was get your box under and shake the branches. The disadvantage of this technique was the sticks and leaves that fell into the box as well, however, by placing the blueberries in water when I got home they separated out perfectly as the blueberries sank and the sticks/leaves floated! I am looking forward to going back for more berries as this patch. Of course one of the challenges of this location is carrying 20lbs of blueberries in a box up thermopedic mattress hill. Challenge accepted!
I’m truly looking forward to blueberry pie when winter sets in! I’m also thinking of doing some bartering for some moose or caribou. Also, I just thought I’d throw out there that if you ever get a chance to ‘spruce’ up your stir-fry. Try spruce grouse stirfry! Pretty tasty. Pictured here are broccoli, carrots, tomato, green pepper, and mushroom stirfry with spruce grouse 🙂
So readers, that’s a little bit about fall here in AK over the weekend! We have consistent frost at this time, and the ground is frozen in many of the low places. Currently it is dark at about 8:30 and light about 7:30, however we are losing an average of 7 minutes of light PER DAY, so ~50 minutes per week. It will not be long before our days are short and cold. Winter will be setting in soon! I hope to keep you updated as I continue to explore and learn about my region and AK in general!
We always associate certain pivotal life events with the places where we were; the events we remember often have very similar themes. Where was your first kiss? Where were you when you found out you were pregnant? Where were you when your grandmother died? Where were you when your son was born? There are points in our life so significant that we can remember the color of the walls, what she was wearing, how fresh the grass was cut and if we enjoyed the food. We can smell, sense, hear, touch, feel the environment we were in. We may even reach out when thinking about it in an almost trance. These events in life tie us together because they are part of being human and human nature.
Today is 9/11/2013 and we all know what happened 12 years ago. But where were you? I know that’s really the question that everyone asks when we talk about this event. It’s the only way many of can relate to it. We weren’t there to feel the fear, the uncertainty, the death, the ash, and see the bravery. So, we connect to it any way we can. I personally was in Mr. Hanson’s math class. It was 8th grade and I had never heard of the Trade Centers. I remember watching with curiosity trying to understand why the event was so important to me that class had been postponed so we could watch. I have to thank the naiveness of my mid-western, rural upbringing to even think “it must be an accident” when the first plane hit. When the second plane smashed into the towers I did not even understand the significance of ‘terroristic act’. I understand now how lucky I was/am, because at my age of 14, there are so many people who do know, and it fills their lives with constant fear.
Today’s ceremonies and memorial services remembered those who gave their lives. They also acknowledged our ground forces in the middle east and the ongoing conflict Syria which has left 10’s of thousands dead with no end in sight. However, I think remembering 9/11 should also cause you to think further than the US border. I think that remembering 9/11 should also bring you closer to those current events which still haunt, torment and demean people everywhere. Where were they the day their families and lives were changed by terrorist acts? As you go through your daily lives please take time to remember where you were and what that means to you.
As part of my thoughts on 9/11 today Amazing Grace came into my head; it actually is what drove me to even write this blog in the first place. I find it to be one of the most moving songs and entirely applicable to the world around us. I sat and thought about world events as I played over and over on my guitar. I recorded the piece below and the lyrics are as follow (not that you don’t know them):
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.
When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.
I’m just back from an exceptional three days at the Toolik Field Station (http://goo.gl/NlH6e6). My travels up north are a fulfillment of a childhood dream. This field station is located over the Brooks Range, on the North Slope Tundra of Alaska. It’s a 10 hour trip up the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to this very remote location. The area had just had its first snow of the year which was slowly melting off the Tundra, but in my opinion it was there to stay in the mountains. Apparently, it’s typical for snow to start to hang around by the middle of September! Temps were dropping down to the low 20s at night, and were only raising up to about 35 during the daytime. Late fall and winter are already setting in this far north, and should be headed towards the U.S. 48 any day! The trip up there was part of my graduate orientation. I was accompanied by 7 other new graduate students. Our goal was to enjoy the arctic, understand the Toolik field station and get to know everyone in the group.
Toolik is located above the arctic circle which is 66′ 33″. This arbitrary line is determined by the latitude where the sun can be seen at midnight during the summer solstice. Hence, once you cross in the arctic you are officially in the land of the “midnight sun”. The dark nights are famous in this area and are very difficult for some to cope with. However, without further ado I’m looking forward to taking you along the journey up the Dalton Highway and to the Toolik Field Station!
GEOLOGY and TUNDRA-ISTICS
One of the great pieces to this trip was the knowledge of the staff and personnel who were with us. I learned a lot about the geology of tundra features. One of the prominent features on the tundra were the Thermokarsts. These features are formed when permafrost (ie: ground that stays frozen) begins to thaw and collapse. Some thermokarsts are capable of sinking 10s of feet, while others may only drop several inches. The significance of this is that a large amount of carbon is released from the soil as it thaws and collapses. The released carbon can cause changes to the ecology, biology, and communities around the thermokarst. As much as 1/3 of the tundra across the world is made up of material that would collapse in a warming world. So, what do these thermokarsts look like? Here you go:
Each of the images that you are looking at are examples of a specific type of Thermokarst. They are “active detachment layers”. The active layer is the permafrost that thaws each year. In these spots the permfrost has thawed in the top layer and had begun to slide down the hillside. This landslide is occurring overtop of the still frozen soil below.
During a 6 mile hike up the Atigun Gorge we encountered another feature that were looking for. Geodes and fossils. The geodes found in the area ranged from golfball to watermelon sized. Once you cracked them open the crystals inside looked like many small diamonds! We also found an a shale area laden with fossils of shells from ages past. I have never seen a concentration of fossils like that!
PLANTS OF THE TUNDRA
Everything regarding plants happens slowly in the Tundra. Dwarf birch may stand 8 inches tall and be 50 years old! The trees in the tundra are limited by the growing season and nutrients in the soils. However, they still cover manyof the areas that you walk in. In the pictures here you can see the dwarf birch in the reds and yellows throughout the area. Hopefully it demonstrates the blanketing of these plants as well as the height. Notice the caribou antlers for Scale? These pictures were taken in Atigun Gorge, Finger Mountain and along the Dalton Highway.
Another common species of tree is the black spruce. It’s the iconic tree of the boreal forest and is VERY slow growing. Fully mature trees may be only 6 inches in diameter and over 100 years old! Here you can see the different sizes of spruce. The growth rings on the tree are so tiny that I couldn’t even count them. Scientists age these tress while alive by taking a core sample of the tree. The plug resembles a skinny pencil.
One of the common berries that we found were the low-bush cranberry. Some of you may be familiar with these berries from Minnesota in the bogs. These plants have a tart red berry which is loaded with vitamin C. I thought that the tundra berries didn’t have as much flavor as the ones that I found in bogs. Perhaps a research project in the making?? We also found cloud berry, blue berry, crow berry and bear berry. All of those berries are edible, but the cloud berries are by far the best! There is also several species of peas found in the tundra. I couldn’t find any with pods, but I guess they get them. The pea plants are found among rocky outcrops and are very low to the ground.
Cotton grass is aptly named for its cotton like heads. This grass is very common through the tundra, and during the right times of year will cause the tundra to look like a cloud with all of the fluffy white heads.
THE ALASKA PIPELINE
The Alaskan pipeline is HUGE. I’ll just start by saying that. It also is an engineering marvel. The pipeline is prevalent along the entire Dalton Highway and continues to to run north past Toolik another 120 miles up to Prudhoe Bay. The pipeline was built back between 1974 and 1977 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Alaska_Pipeline_System), it’s nearly 40 years old. It is earthquake resistant as well as cooled to avoid melting into the permafrost. Many of the poles have heat vents coupled with refrigerator coolent. These radiators keep the pipe from thawing the soil. The pipe is suspended on teflon pads, and the pipe can slide over the pads during an earthquake, which gives it a lot of security. In the case emergency a pump station can shut down the flow of the pipe in any given spot. However, spills are pretty uncommon, and the only one that anyone talked about was an incident involving a drunken man with a gun who managed to shoot a hole through the pipe. Most of the pipe is layed above ground, but there are certain sections that are underground. It’s also necessary for the pipe to cross many rivers, including the Mighty Yukon.
LIFE IN TOOLIK FIELD STATION
The scenery never truly stopped no matter where you looked throughout the station. The TFS houses up to 150 scientists in the summer, but tapers of to 10 – 15 throughout the winter. The remote setting ensures that only a skeleton crew is left to man the needs of the researchers and facilities. The TFS sits to the north of the Brooks range and offers unprecedented views of the mountains. Wildlife abound in the area and yellow-billed loons live on the lake. Wolves, caribou, wolverines, musk ox, ground squirrels and many other species of animal may be found in the area.
This research looked at the response of the tundra to fire. In 2004 and 2005 over 6 millions acres of Tundra burned which is an unheard of number! Black spruce, which may have been growing for 200 years were torched. The research found that the tundra actually recovered pretty fast, and that the amount of carbon released was the equivalent to the accumulation of about 30 years. So, overall it might have been worse. However, an increased fire regime is expected on the tundra due to the warming climate, so more fires like these 8 years ago may occur.
We were incredibly blessed when we got there. The sky had just cleared off after nearly a week of foggy, rainy, snowy weather. The first night the Aurora appeared about 12AM. It started as light green haze in the sky and continued to intensify until ribbons of pink and green floated for miles around us. Areas of the aurora would build and fade so quickly it was hard to take it all in. As my eyes dashed about the sky there was always something else to see. However, it was almost impossible to comprehend. In some regards it can be related to a Rainbow because as you stand and look at it it connects to the earth and you feel there is a source to the light. However, chasing it would never yield a starting location. I’ve throught a lot about the best ways to describe how I felt the first night that it boomed and loomed over my head. Here’s some of the inadequate descriptions that I thought of:
Undulating Jelly fish
On the night we had a bonfire which can be seen in many of the aurora photo. Again, it started in a light green haze that continued to grow and become saturated. The aurora the second night was so much different that the first! Rather than the organized bands it saturated everything and damped out the skies. You can see in the ground that the snow was green from the surreal light above! Again, words truly cannot describe how these lights effect your senses, your mood and your heart. Everything in in your person is drawn to them and you cannot help but watch.