Subsistence and Fall in Alaska

Hello Readers!

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.

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The sun cut through the yellow canopy of these birch. These yellow birch stands are breathtaking and made it hard to drive while constantly looking over your shoulder!
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Here are the yellow birches and interspersed spruce trees as I headed up Spinach Creek Road. They provide incredible fall colors!
A view of the landscape from Ester Dome. The birches and spruce are incredible. Plus... no clouds!
A view of the landscape from Ester Dome. The birches and spruce are incredible. Plus… no clouds!

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

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This mushroom is bursting through the fall foilage, boosted by the rain we’ve had in the last 2 weeks. Gotta love the colors!
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This mushroom hasn’t unfurled its cap yet. However, I bet within 24 hours of this picture it will have. Mushrooms were very common in the birch forests.
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On more pretty mushroom coming through the golden blanket!

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!

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Kill confirmed! My first two wild game animals in AK, and my first 2 spruce grouse!

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!

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Panoramic view from the top of Murphy Dome, Ross included. The mountains in the distance don’t show up well here, but trust me, they were pretty amazing!
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When the hunting is slow sometimes you start feeling a bit frisky. So, I did a little posing on top of this rock at Murphy Dome. If we didn’t get birds we got stylish instead!

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!

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Blueberries Galore! This is an example of an average bush in this place (spot x for secrecy 😉 but come to AK and I’ll show you). I have never seen anything like it!
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A nice little closeup of one of the blueberry bushes.
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The final haul! About 18 pints in just under 2 hours! That’s almost a winters supply or a lot of pies!!
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The final haul of blueberries spread out on the stable at the Sustainable Village.

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 🙂

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My ‘spruced’ up stir-fry ! 🙂

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!

Griz

Where were you?

Hello Readers,

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.

Amazing Grace – Ian Johnson Cover

So, I don’t want this to be too melancholy, but I hope meditate on where you were and use it to connect you to the world around you. I would love to hear where you were in the comments below!

Griz

In The Land of the Midnight Sun

Hello Readers!

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!

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The official crossing into the Arctic circle along the Dalton Highway.
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My journey became official with my crossing certificate!

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:

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Active Detachment layer (Thermokarst)
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Active Detachment layer (Thermokarst)

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!

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Crystals inside of a large Geode found in the Atigun Gorge

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.

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A panorama of the area around Finger Mountain. This area was used by hunters who like to sit high above everything else and watch for Caribou. Look how many trees ARE NOT there! It’s the Tundra!
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Life and death on the tundra. This caribous died in the Atigun gorge and has provided nutrition (calcium) for many ground squirrels which have chewed on its antlers.

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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.

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Look at just how slowly this black spruce grows! The larges core is 72 years old, and the smaller one is over 50. Growth occurs at a truly snailish rate in the Tundra!

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.

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Pea plant in the tundra. only about 1.5 cm tall!
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Bear Berry and low bush cranberry.

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.

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Cottongrass

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.

Alaska pipeline. Here you can see the radiators as well as the teflon pads.
Alaska pipeline. Here you can see the radiators as well as the teflon pads.
The Alaskan pipeline snaking its way after just crossing the Yukon
The Alaskan pipeline snaking its way after just crossing the Yukon
Welcome to the Might Yukon River!
Welcome to the Mighty Yukon River!

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 is the Brooks range as seen from the Toolik Field Station.
This is the Brooks range as seen from the Toolik Field Station.
I could not resist taking this shot through the window of the mess hall. This is what we looked at as we ate our meals.
I could not resist taking this shot through the window of the mess hall. This is what we looked at as we ate our meals.
Sorry this panorama is so large, but it captures about 180 degrees of the view from the field station.
Sorry this panorama is so large, but it captures about 180 degrees of the view from the field station.
Toolik Lake behind the station.
Toolik Lake behind the station.
The sunset during our first night at the Station. Toolik Lake is in the foreground.
The sunset during our first night at the Station. Toolik Lake is in the foreground.
This is just one of the diesel generators that power the Station. They are loud and huge!
This is just one of the diesel generators that power the Station. They are loud and huge!

If you would like to read about one of the recent research projects from the Toolik Field station you can here: http://www.iab.uaf.edu/news/news_release_by_id.php?release_id=112

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.

AURORA BOREALIS

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
  • watermelon bacon
  • Overwhelmed
  • Temporary ribbons
  • Natural Psychedelia
  • Infinity

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.

Want to do some technical reading about the Aurora? Head to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurora_Borealis)

Aurora borealis in the sunset over Toolik Field Station
Aurora borealis in the sunset over Toolik Field StationAurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.
Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.
Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.
Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.
Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.
Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.
Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.
Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.
Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.
Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.
Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.
Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station.

That’s all for now readers! I’ve included a few more images from the trip here that didn’t make it into the text. Thanks for checking in!!

Griz

EXTRA PICTURES:

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What a huge wolf track! The wolves were common in this area, however we weren’t fortunate enough to see them. i think they were closer to the caribou herd about 50 miles away.
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A nice sunny shot through some seeded grass in Coldfoot.
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Fireweed is prevalent on the landscape and can be used to make jelly from the flowers. It’s seed now, and the curls and fluff appealed to me.
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Some bearberry melting through the snow in the Atigun gorge.
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Crossbill! Apparently these birds are hit and miss in Coldfoot where we were, so i was happy to have this one pose in front of me.