Category Archives: Nature

Feeling Grateful on an Autumn Day

Some days are destined to be better than others and due to the probability of the seasons it has a 25% chance of being a day in autumn. There is something magical to the season wrapped into the death, color, and distinct smells it manifests each year. Fall mornings immerse all of your senses: the bite on your nose of frost in the morning, musk of decaying leaves, the sound or crunching leaves, and brilliant colors of foliage make the season like none other.
The magic and of the day started as soon as my eyes opened. I stepped from my bedroom to watch a subtle and beautiful sunrise over Neka Mountain and Port Frederick. As I sipped my coffee and watched from the window the warm colors of low sunlight started from the peak of Neka Mountain and progressed to its base. I smiled and thought through the possibilities of the day. The plan for the day was simple : go fishing and bring a camera.

Sunrise, Port Frederick, Hoonah, Neka Mountain
I enjoyed the sunrise over Port Frederick in Hoonah, Alaska while I sipped on a cup of coffee. You can see the autumn colors of the muskegs near the summit of the mountain

Down in the River

Eight miles out of town Spasski River held the promise of fish and bears. I strolled through a muskeg full of color. 4-leaved, 4-inch tall, Bunchberry Dogwoods had transformed into red fireworks with colors nearing a poinsettia and lingering frost framed the sharp edges of sedges and grass. I crossed out of the muskeg and descended the banks of the river passing giant sentinels of Hemlocks and Spruces. Once in the river the circular ripples in the surface of the water over my fishing hole gave hint to the presence of Cohos below. Peering in I counted fourty 40 or more fish and noted some of them had turned the dark red of the season.
After 15 minutes of fruitlessly flinging my pink fly into the school of Cohos a pair of bears showed up on the river bank. I watched as the sow and cub came closer and stepped into the open so they could see me. The cub trailed closely behind the mother and after a couple of my woops acknowledging I was there they passed into the tall grass of the river bank.

Coastal Brown Bear, Spasski, Spasski River, Icy Strait Point
A sow and cub meanered up the bank of Spasski River. This encounter gave me insight into the cub’s behavior when I observed it later.

When brown fur came into view again I had the privilege of gaining some insight into bear behavior. The cub emerged alone in the tall grass and it was evident it was very nervous. It stood on its rear feet to sniff the air and then sprinted forward in the long grass while looking back over its shoulder as though being chased by shadows. The young bear stood three more times to look and smell for its mother, but she was not to be found. Mother bears have a reputation of being helicopter parents to protect their cubs from aggressive males trying to kill them. It was evident the cub appreciated the protection of the mother and was nervous to be out of her shadow. When I left the cub and sow had not been reunited, but I was sure the sow had not left the cub as isolated as it thought.

Coastal Brown Bear, Spasski, Spasski River, Icy Strait Point
When I saw the cub next it was looking for mom. It stood up to sniff the air several times.
Coastal Brown Bear, Spasski, Spasski River, Icy Strait Point
You can almost see the worry on the cub’s face. It was looking back and forth in the search for Mom.

With the bears on my brain I decided it was best to stop fishing. I needed to be alert and was not keen on carrying Cohos out knowing the bears may interested in them too. I turned my attention to the scene in front of me. Yellow Salmon Berries reflected off the surface of the river. My eye was led down the scene to the flat top of ear mountain presided over the river. It was a special place to be and I was there to enjoy it alone.

Spasski River, Salmon Berry, Yellow, Foliage, Autumn
The colors of Salmon Berries were accented by the presiding presence of Ear Mountain above Spasski River
Spasski River, Salmon Berry, Yellow, Foliage, Autumn
I framed up the tall spruces along the bank to bring your eye into this shot of autumn colors and mountain

The American Marten

Leaving the bears I encountered the next fiercest mammal of the forests of Chichagof Island : the American Marten. I found it in the compromising position of scavenging trash, and snuck closer whenever it dropped into the green garbage can in front of me. I was about 30 feet away when it spotted me and the necessity for me to move closer was negated by the curious creature. Before long it approached me to within 10 feet and was perhaps trying to decide if I was edible. I stood stock still and it curiously twisted its head back and forth to size me up and stared my camera each time it clicked. The Marten, not totally trusting the large bi-pedal in front of it, dashed into the grass several times as though testing to see if I would pursue. Each time it poked its head up from the grass by standing on its rear feet. Finally bored or perhaps hungry it left the grinning human for good.

American Marten, Chichagof Island, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
A curious American Marten stares at me from just a few feet away.
American Marten, Chichagof Island, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
After popping out the grass several times the marten approached closely from my right side and looked directly at the camera as it snapped and clicked.

Muskegs on Fire

Throughout the day I had stopped several times to stare at and admire the incredible reds and oranges of the muskegs. Red leaves of Wild Blueberry plants transformed the floor the muskeg into fire. The read were accented by the evergreen trees sprouting from the muskeg and by the crystal clear blue skies. However, in one place the red colors were especially vibrant, rivalling the reds of the Maple trees that I grew up with in the Midwest. The beauty of that place held me there for a long time as I photographed it and felt privileged to be there.

Muskeg, Bluberry, Red, Autumn, Colors, Foliage
I was astonished by the intenstity of the red in the muskeg. Fiery reds were resplendent!
Muskeg, Bluberry, Red, Autumn, Colors, Foliage
A parting shot. Adios to autumn colors!
Muskeg, Bluberry, Red, Autumn, Colors, Foliage
The sun shines brighly over brilliant red Wild Blueberries

Transition in Suntaheen

From the fiery muskeg I descended to the quenching silence of the Suntaheen River valley. Along the river I found autumn to be in full progress. Red Alders sheltered the slow flowing river with amber leaves. The fallen leaves of those trees covered the rocky river bank like the yellow brick road. Beams of sunlight backlit trickled through the canopy and individually lit some of the fallen leaves. Groves of Devils Club along the river’s bank were turning a vibrant yellow and sunlight poked through their decaying leaves.

Devil's Club, Autumn, Color, Yellow
A Devil’s Club transitions from green to yellow.
Devil's Club, Autumn, Color, Yellow
Sunlight streams through the decaying leaf of a Devils’ Club.
Devil's Club, Autumn, Color, Yellow ,River
Suntaheen river floats lazily by rocks and shores covered in the gold of fallen leaves.
A frost-kissed Oak Fern was stripped of its green cholorphyll, and sunslight streamed through its white skeleton.

In the river I was reminded by of the salmon that had choked its waters only a month before. Scattered ribs, spines, and salmon jaws lay where the carcass had been eaten by a bear or had simply died. The bones were devoid of flesh and provided evidence the fish’s energy had already been absorbed by its sourrounding environment. Its nitrogen and energy mingled with the decaying leaves of the trees above cycling to ultimately feed to tiny fish emerging from the eggs buried in the gravel. Some days are just better than others. On this beautiful day I felt blessed to watch nature, learn something new, enjoy the transition of seasons, and observe the cycle of seasons.

Pink Salmn, Alaska, Jaw, Teeth,
A Pink Salmon’s jaw and its jutting teeth perches along the river. The river bank was littered with dozens of these jawbones from months-old dead salmon.

Life at -4.6 Feet

A couple of times every year the moon and sun align – literally – to bring about very large tides. In June this year, a full moon delivered a -4.6 tide to Hoonah, Alaska and provided a glimpse of life under the sea. Rocky shorelines were converted into tide pools full of life trapped there by the receding waters. The first time I experienced one of these monster tides was  in May 2016 right after moving to Hoonah. The joy I find in perusing the beaches and flipping rocks to see what is beneath has not diminished since that time. Thanks to Bob Armstrong’s guide, I am able to identify some of the creatures we found.

The Star Fish

Of all the animals in a tide pool, Sea Stars seem to provide the most variety to the color, textures, shapes, and sizes that have evolved in the ocean. In some places they cover every rock surface or bottoms of tide pools. They are the ever-present predator scouring for crustaceans, snails, and clams. We enjoyed looking at their colors and touching their rough (and sometimes slimy) skins.

Blood Star.
Mottled sea star
The close, rough texture of a Mottled sea star
Slime Star (species not known)
Mottle Sea Stars cover the bottom of a tide pool.

Tide Pools, Alaska, Wrinkled slime star
Wrinkled slime star

The Octopus

We found the crab shells before we found the octopus den. The tell-tale shells were only a foot or two away from a crevice containing 8 arms with quarter-sized suckers. Th octopus was so large that we could only see one arm, and wait as we might it never came out of the den. Fortunately a smaller octopus – about the size of a football- motored by us. They are intelligent and lithe creates known for their camouflage. It was amazing to watch the colors of the small octopus’s skin turn from a light pink to dark red as it moved from rock to rock and tried to blend in.  It was the first time I had watched a wild octopus! The 12″ deep water provided a window into its life below.

A crab shell let us know that an octopus den was near.

Tide Pools, Alaska,
An octopus swims by in the shallow waters of the low tide. It was a real treat to watch this animal hunt!

Crabs

Crabs are really remarkable creatures. They have adapted themselves to all areas (niches) of the inter-tidal zone in search of food. We must have found 8 or 10 different species, but some of them stood out for their uniqueness. Spines, claws, and camouflage make them fit for the niche they fill. The most bizarre was the Butterfly Crab – it is hard to imagine what its oblong shell would provide. Perhaps it camouflage?

A young king crab hangs out in the inter-tidal. Eventually this crab will descend to deeper water.
Tide Pools, Alaska, Butterfly crab
A butterfly crab was one of the most bizarre creatures I have every found! I cannot imagine why its shell needs to be shaped like that.
A Decorator Crab attaches pieces of seaweed to itself to provide almost perfect camouflage.

Bobbin’ Around Under Water

Below the inter-tidal we found this bright orange sponge. This sponge was accessible because of the low tide.

Broadbase tunicate 

A day spent looking into tide pools is time well spent! Exploration allows you to discover new things, observe new behaviors, and breath in the sea air. I look forward to the next big tide!

End Of the Rope : Disentangling a Humpback Whale

It is not every day you get to save the life a whale. In fact, it may not be more than once in a lifetime. However, I can say with certainty, that if you are able to successfully save a whale from entanglement it is the best feeling in the world. You will feel like life just cannot get much better!

On September 16th, 2018, the 35-foot landing craft, Silver Spoon, cruised through the flat waters of Chatam Strait about 30 miles south of Juneau, Alaska. The bluebird day was abnormally sunny for autumn in Southeast Alaska. On board, Captain Billy Mills was taking Kurt Pesch, Kathy Pesch, Kassie Pesch-Johnson and myself up the coast looking for wildlife. We passed False Bay on the east side of Chichagof Island and were near when Wukuklook River when we spotted a whale on the surface.

Marine Mammal Entanglement, Humpback Whale, Alaska
We spotted a whale on the surface. At first we thought the whale was sleeping, but we soon discovered it was towing a rope and buoys.

Ordinarily a whale on the surface is just a sleeping whale. In a typical encounter they wake up, swim a bit, and may eventually take a dive. However, this whale displayed some peculiar behavior by keeping its nose above the water. As we got closer we could see it was pulling a set of buoys behind it and those buoys were keeping it from diving. We watched the whale from a distance to determine the extent of entanglement. The whale never dove and was making distressed chirping sounds with its blowhole. Armed with this information Billy radioed the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau to report the entangled whale. They collected information on the whales condition and informed NOAA, and informed us they not have any vessels in the region to reach us soon. The whale was moving quickly so the likelihood of NOAA resighting and disentangling the whale was low. Billy made the call to go about helping the whale as we could.

Marine Mammal Entanglement, Humpback Whale, Alaska
The entangled whale had the buoy line through its mouth with a hundred feet or so of line dragging on the left side and about 40 feet of line attached to the buoys. The buoys were keeping the whale from diving.

Before I start into the rest of this tale I need to put out a disclaimer. Humpback Whales and ALL marine mammals deserve your respect. You need to respect all rules regarding minimum distances from whales and we only made the decision to approach this whale after knowing that professionals were not available to help in this situation.  We felt the likelihood of the whale dying were high if we did not at least try to fix the situation.

We approached the whale slowly and encountered the loose green buoy line (the end not attached to the buoys) behind the whale about 100 feet. Using a boat hook we picked up the end and then began to pull the line into the boat. We pulled in much of the line before the whale panicked and took off. I was able to sever the line before the whale stripped it back out of the boat. Not many people can say they’ve had a whale on the line! The whale dove briefly but came back up a few hundred yards way to continue its pattern of swimming with its nose above the water. This just proved to us that the whale could not function without removing the buoys.

The whale was moving quickly, perhaps 12 knots, but we slowly came up behind it for a second approach. With boat-hook in hand our goal was to snag the buoys and complete the disentanglement. Soon I had the buoys in hand and we began to draw more line into the boat. We were fortunate! The loose end of the line began to slide through the whales mouth essentially “flossing” it. This allowed us to remove much of the line.

After pulling much of the line through the whale’s mouth something truly incredible happened. The whale stopped in the water, opened its mouth, and slid backwards into the ocean. It was almost as though it knew we were trying to save it! After sliding backwards into the water the whale began to move and pull the line. More slid through its mouth before finally catching. I severed the line and the whale gave a half breach, a flip of its fluke, and then we did not see it again. Although some of the line was left on the whale it was able to dive and stay down!! We felt confident the rest of the line would eventually get removed. We had done it!!!!

After freeing the whale from most of the line and the buoy it gave a half breach and dove beneath the surface. We did not see it again! Image credit : Kurt Pesch

One of the puzzling things was why this whale was unable to stay down. Although the four crab pot boys attached it were very buoyant, it did not seem like enough to keep the whale on the surface of the ocean. The whale was medium-sized and pretty young. My theory is that the whale acted much like a horse would to the pressure of a bridle and reigns. The upward pressure of the buoys may have kept the whale on the surface. I do not have any proof that, just a theory.

After doing some research I discovered that crab pots like the one this whale entangled in are the most commonly reported. I know I will be doing my part by being as responsible as I can with my sets. Do not use floating line as was used on this crab pot set.

There are times when doing nothing can be better for the animal than doing something. It is likely in this case that the whale would have become more entangled in the long rope and would have injured itself or been unable to swim. I am proud of us all for giving this whale a far better chance for survival!

If you find a in injured, stranded, or entangled marine animal, please report it through NOAA. You can find their number for any region by visiting their website.

The Waters, Wildlife, and Culture Between the Glaciers and Hoonah, Alaska

It is always a big deal when family comes to visit. For me, being a “big deal” is a positive thing! My wife and I are fortunate to live in a place surrounded by natural beauty with something to see or do around every corner. I always strive to show off my little corner of the world in Hoonah, Alaska  and decided that my parents, uncle, and two cousins needed to see Glacier Bay National Park and the local whales around Hoonah during their visit. It’s nice when all the right things come together to bring “the full package”! We enjoyed incredible weather and wildlife sightings over 2.5 days.

Whale Tail, Hoonah, Alaska

Glacier Bay Tribal House

Over the last 2 years I have had the incredible experience to be at the dedication of the tribal house and to take part in the raising of two totems at the tribal house. Those two events were so very important to the Huna Tlingit, but they also gave me a tremendous connection to Bartlett Cove and the land where the Huna Shuka Hit resides. When I visit the tribal house I remember the stories of the people, the emotions of the day, and the power of the place. Stepping into the tribal house to observe the house poles, place my hand on the intricate carving of the screens, and smell the sweet aroma of cedar give me a sense of peace. I enjoyed sharing my stories of the raising and dedication with family as we toured around that special place.

Glacier Bay National Park, Tribal House, Huna Shuka Hit, Totem Pole, Carving, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
This is the inside screen of Huna Shuka Hit. This place is incredible to behold and every sense has a new observation to provide your brain as you probe into it complex artistry.

Into the Park

Glacier Bay National Park is almost completely inaccessible unless you have a boat. Its long fjords and glacially-carved mountains extend nearly 90 miles from the entrance of the park at Bartlett Cove.  The “Day Boat” of Glacier Bay provides access to visitors all the way to the end of the bitter end of the west arm where Margerie Glacier butts against the ocean and the Grand Pacific Glacier (responsible for carving the fjord of the park) recedes into the distance further than the eye can see.  250 years ago the Grand Pacific Glacier was responsible for pushing the Huna Tlingit out of Glacier Bay National Park when it advanced over 75 miles in only only a few decades. Traditional stories say that at times the glacier moved as fast as a running dog! Science has backed those claims, and it is truly amazing to think what that wall of ice must have looked like!

Family, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
We made it to the glacier! My mom, dad, and I in front of Magerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park.
Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
The face of Margerie glacier stands over 200 feet high and is a mile wide. It “calves” ice into the water creating a maze of jumbled ice.

Glacier Bay National Park protected area full of marine and terrestrial wildlife. During our tour we had incredible view of breaching Humpback Whales, families of grizzlies, harems of sealions, rafts of otters, flocks of puffins, and families of goats. Each of these sightings added to the richness of the day and the overpowering feeling that we were in a very special place!

Stellar Sea Lion, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A Stellar Sealion bull chases a pup on the rocks of South Marble Island.
Porcupine, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A porcupine keeps a wary eye on me – half trusting that I meant it no harm.
Brown Bear, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A family of 4 Coastal Brown Bears surveys the scene.
Gloomy Knob, Mountain Goat, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A nanny Mountain Goat and her young (~ 2 week old) kid
Humpback Whale, Breaching, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A breaching Humpback Whale as we trekked into Glacier Bay National Park.
Sea Otter, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A Sea Otter floats on by. Sea Otters have risen to such numbers in the park that they are at risk of eating themselves out of house and home.

The Whale Tail to End the Tale

We got a pickup in Gustavus from our good friend Capt. Billy Mills of Wooshketaan Tours.  He took us across Icy Strait to Point Adolphus which is renowned for its whale watching. The rich waters are fed by the currents coming in from the ocean and from Glacier Bay and create abundant fish populations that bring in apex predators such as whales and sea lions.

Whale, Eagle, Alaska, Southeast Alaska, Whale Watching
A Humpback Whale emerges from the water with an eagle in the background.

As we sped along the 20 miles from Point Adolphus to Hoonah I admired the mountains, the tall groves of Sitka Spruce and Hemlock, and the abundant Sea Otters and Whales.  The trip went quickly, and as we approached Flynn cove about 8 miles from Hoonah a gigantic splash ahead of us flung water high in the air. The Humpback Whale that caused it obliged us by breaching 5 times in total! It was the closest I had ever been to a breaching humpback and it was a thrill to share my giddiness with all on board!

Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours
A breaching Humpback Whale erupts from the water outside of Hoonah, Alaska. What a sight!!
Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours
A breaching Humpback Whale erupts from the water outside of Hoonah, Alaska. What a sight!!

With the memory of the breaching still fresh in  our memory we turned into Port Frederick and after a brief stop ashore made our way up bay . The spouts of water ahead quickly gave the location of what we were looking for – a large pod of Humpback Whales were bubble net feeding in front of us! In the smooth waters we watched the circle of bubbles form on the surface from the whales below and the mouths of 40-foot humbpacks rise agape through the surface. We were the only boat on the water and got to enjoy the show in the lingering sunset and surrounded by family. I (we) were incredibly blessed to be in that incredible place together.

Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours, Bubblenet Feeding
Bubble Net Feeding Humpback Whales erupt from the water in Port Frederick, Hoonah, Alaska. In the behavior, the whales coordinate an under water screen of bubbles that concentrate baitfish before the whale synchronously scoop of the ball of fish.
Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours
Two Humpback Whales begin to dive in search of food.

A Mink in the Mussels

A few months back I was walking the shores of Hoonah, Alaska with my wife when we saw a furry brown streak shoot out of the rocks along the ocean. With smiles of pleasure we watched as the mink dove under a thick bed of green, leafy, rock weed that covered the rocks exposed by the low-tide and erupted from it a few feet from where its nose had entered. Like a swimmer diving through water it dove and emerged again and then it changed tactics. Like a cat playing with its paws inside of an empty brown bag it shuffled and flipped the weeds looking for any wriggling food underneath. I knew that the weeds hide small fish, crabs, and sea-cucumbers and any of those would have been a feast for this small mammal.

In its focused pursuit of food, the Mink payed me little regard as I moved closer. Soon I was within 10 feet of this active animal. I followed it along the shore for 50 yards enjoying  and watching its behaviors. I had not considered how many holes were in the rocks until the Mink poked its head into nearly every one of them systematically!  The Mink disappeared into a rock outcropping thick with rock weed and emerged with a sculpin as its prize. Although sculpin have heavy spines in their head, the mink crunched through the whole carcasses and even the bony head before heading to another rock outcropping to find some more.

The Mink consumes a sculpin that it scavenged from under the rock weed.

The Mink disappeared under a large bolder laced in blue mussels. I made my move and walked across the beach and stepped on top of the bolder. When the Mink reemerged it looked up and me and ducked back into the rocks. Obviously unsure if it was safe to come out but too curious to care it soon reappeared, took a glance at me, and then started to forage in the rocks under my feet. I was only 7 feet away from the lithe body as it scurried and poked and made me smile.

I’ve thought quite a bit about that Mink in the mussels since then because the opportunity was, well, opportune and I took the chance to watch and learn. In a world where everything is the next biggest priority this Mink was a reminder to stop and smell the roses. My advice to you is when you have a chance to sit, watch, and learn, take it. Whatever comes next can wait a bit.

A mink comes out of the rocks after scouting around for food. I watched this cute little bugger dive around in the rocks for almost 40 minutes.

Local Fungi to Dye For

Everyone knows that some mushrooms are edible, but did you know that certain species of fungi and lichen can create dye for yarn and other materials in every spectrum of the rainbow?  When Bessette wrote her book “The Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyers Field Guide”, she was being quite literal! I had the unique opportunity to scout for local dyeing mushrooms as part of a workshop led by SE Alaska mycologist Karen Dillman. We used the newly acquired mushrooms to dye yarn and silks. There is no doubt that I look at the forest floor with a different level of detail now! I think I may be hooked on this unique form of creating color.

All of these colors and more can be produced by mushrooms and lichens. Colors vary on species and treatment of the fungi while boiling.

A Bit of History

Natural dyes extracted from plants, minerals, and even fungi and lichens have been used for more than 5,000 years. In Europe, Karen explained that classic tweed colors in Scotland were extracted from lichens (Parmelia saxatilis). In Southeast Alaska, the bright yellow colors for Tlingit Chilkat Robes were derived from a lichen now called wolf moss. Within the United States the formalization of the process  of dyeing with mushrooms and the resulting mushroom dyeing renaissance occurred when Miriam C. Rice began experimenting with and documenting the colors that each species of fungi and lichen created. Her resulting publications have inspired countless research studies since then and a wave of newborn mushroom dyeing enthusiasts.

The Fungi and Lichens of Dyeing

Picking the right fungi or lichen for the right color is a crucial first step in producing your dyes.  Fortunately the old growth forests in Southeast Alaska are ripe with many colorful species of fungi and lichens (a side fact – there are thousands of species of fungi and about 1000 documented lichen in Southeast Alaska).  For each of the species of fungi that we dyed with during the workshop I have included the color they produce and the general region they may be found.

  • Lobaria pulmanaria – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lungwort”
  • Lobaria oregana – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lettuce lichen”
  • Letharia vulpina – bright yellow and green (Idaho up through the Yukon)
  • Parmelia saxatillis – apricot and rusty browns (Southeast Alaska)
  • Orsalia (Umbillicaria genus) – purples (Nova Scotia), Rock Tripe (Umbellicaria) found in Southeast Alaska can produce purples as well.
  • Hydenellum peckii – blue (Southeast Alaska)
  • Hydnellum regium – black (Southeast Alaska)
  • Phaeolus schwinitzii – golds and greens (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called the dyer’s polypore
  • Dermocybes spp. – oranges and yellows (Southeast Alaska)

Fungi and Lichen are picky about the habitats they live in. Most species strongly associate with certain plant communities,  individual species of plants, or types of food (wood, bone, sphagnum, and many other things). For each of the fungi and lichen above you can increase the efficiency of your search by understanding their ecology. Dermocybe species are found at the bases of old growth spruces and hemlocks and the Rock Tripe (Umbella caria) lichen is associated with rock faces, and often grow in the alpine. Of course, mushroom diversity differs by region, so as you are walking around take note of the locations you find your dye mushrooms and look for similar features elsewhere.

Cortinarius, Dermocybe, Dye, Red, Orange
These two species of Dermocybe mushrooms (in the Cortinarius family) are found in Southeast Alaska. One provides vibrant reds and one provides a vibrant orange.
Cortinarius, Dermocybe, Dye, Red, Orange
These are both species of Dermocybe mushrooms found outside of Hoonah, Alaska. It’s pretty obvious which one produces red and which produces orange!

The Process of Dyeing With Fungi

Dyeing with mushrooms is actually quite easy – in many ways finding the mushrooms and getting them in enough quantity to dye with can be the difficult part! The most important thing is to add equal parts fiber (yarn, silks, grass, cedar bark) and mushrooms. The amount of water will not lighten the color of your dye because the dye is attracted to the mordanted yarn, so be sure to add enough water cover your fiber.  Once the mushrooms are in the water, bring the water to a boil. As it heats you’ll immediately see the colors extruded from the mushrooms. You can boil the mushrooms for various amounts of time, and the longer you boil the more intense the colors will become. Straining the mushrooms from the dye is optional. Add the fiber to the dye and simmer the fiber for awhile – it will transform from white to bright!

Fungi Dye, Mushroom, Red
Look at the intense reds that resulted from boiling red Dermocybe mushrooms! When dying with red Dermocybe, be sure to removed their stems or you will end up with an orange dye because the stems are yellow.

When you first begin you may be uncertain of which color will come from each species of mushrooms. To save some time and precious mushrooms you can boil up a bit of water and pour it over a mushroom sample. After 10-15 minutes the color should be evident if the mushroom is useful for dyeing. To test lichens, try adding them to a bit of bleach (be sure it’s newish bleach, old will not work) to extrude the colors.  If you like the colors produced by the test you can boil up the rest of your mushrooms right away or preserve them for later by drying or freezing.

Fungi Dye, mushroom, dye, yarn
Testing your mushroom for color is as simple as pouring some boiling water into it and waiting to see what colors emerge.

In order to derive the most vibrant colors and best results, you will need a bit of luck, some patience and a small knowledge of chemistry. Several of the mushrooms and lichens that we dyed with could be modified by adding alum or iron to the water. These two minerals are preferred because they are non-toxic and can be dumped out safely after the dye is used up. Adding iron to yellow dyes will generally make them turn brown. By changing the pH with soda ash to basic water (pH 9 or 10) you can transform the colors from black to blue when dyeing with Hydnellum suaveolens.  You can keep experimenting to find new chemistry that changes the color – just be sure to closely document what you did!

Most of the fiber materials are “raw” and need to be prepared to accept the dye. You can mordant wool yarn with iron or cream of tarter to achieve different colors. However, mordant is not necessary for lichen dyes, only mushrooms!

The Results

We used the dyes that we created to stain wool yarn and silk scarves. We also experimented with chiton shells from gumboots, and spruce roots. The results were incredible and stunning! Each skein of yarn extracted from the water baths  was draped over the back of a chair to dry and added to the spectrum of color created by it is predecessors.  We were pleased to see that some of the dyes were penetrating enough to color the bone-hard chiton shells and the tough, lignin of the spruce roots. I am a novice knitter, and the incredible vibrancy of the colors produced got me thinking about my next project – whatever that may be.

Fungi Dye, Yarn, Color, Red, Blue, Purple, Orange, Brown, Gray
All of these colors were made from mushrooms and lichens that we boiled during the workshop!
Fungi Dye, Yarn, Color, Red, Blue, Purple, Orange, Brown, Gray
Each of the colors were associated with the mushrooms that they came from on this sheet.
Chiton, Dye, Fungi, Musrhoom, Dermocybe
The red Dermocybe mushrooms were able to dye bone-hard chiton shells.

Thank you to Karen Dillman for introducing these techniques to us! Also thank you to Ron Hamill for his unwavering and undoutable knowledge of fungi. Karen attempted to pass on years of learning and experiments in a short day. To learn more about dyeing with fungi and lichen check out the resource books she recommended.This unique form of creating color is a learn-by-doing process. So, I hope you get out there and do it!

These books can provide a great resource for new and advanced dyers.

Birding on “Barrow-ed” Time

Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska is the furthest north city in the United States, and just a few miles north of that on a small spit of land is Point Barrow where you can go no further north and still be on U.S. soil. At that point, the expanse of the ivory ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas stretches in front of you further than the eye can see. Looking south you will see no hills greater than a few feet tall – a tundra so flat that it seems like a wasteland. However, the tundra is fueled by perpetual sunlight for over 65 days each season and becomes an oasis for dozens of species of birds that come from multiple continents. With the flocks of birds come the flocks of birders to watch and observe their beauty and behavior under the midnight sun.  We birded from June 16th to the 20th, recorded total 41 species of birds (although I think we missed a few on our final list) and 9 “lifer” birds which we had never seen before.

Barrow, Utqiaġvik, Alaska, Bowhead Whale, Sun, Composite
The sun arches of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. This image was captured from 12AM – 4AM on June 19th.

I realize not all of you reading this article are birders, so you may be wondering, “why would you take the time, hassle, and money to travel to the furthest point in the U.S. just to look at birds”.  It’s because the birds are at their very best. You can think of this way : there are always cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and they are very beautiful to look at year around. However, during spring when they are in bloom the common cherry tree is transformed into an incredible spectacle. The birds in Barrow are the same – each is dressed to the nines in order to attract and breed with a female. They also show off behaviors and calls which you will see at no other time of the year.

Utqiaġvik, Tundra, Alaska
There are almost no hills or topography of any time in the tundra surrounding Barrow, Alaska.

The Snowy Owl

Barrow, Alaska was known as Ukpiaġvik before it was it was given its European name in 1826 . This tradtional name translates to “Place that we hunt for snowy owls“, and was given that because of the high densities of owls in the area. They are reliant on high densities of lemmings (small rodents) for food. Snowy Owl numbers wax-and-wane with the volatile population of lemmings, but when food is up, researchers have found as many as 72 lemmings at one time at a Snow Owl nest!

The first owl we saw was the whitest owl (perhaps even bird) that I’ve ever seen. Typically Snowy Owls have some black in their wings, but this bird was almost sheer white with a few specks of black. The lack of color is indicative of the age of the bird and sex. Males are whiter than females and older birds are whiter than young birds. We can conclude from those two facts that this incredibly beautiful individual is an old, adult male.

Utqiaġvik, Barrow, Alaska
A male snowy owl sits on the tundra outside of Utqiaġvik, Alaska

“The Eiders” and Other Waterfowl

Eiders are a family of sea-duck with four different species, and a circumpolar distribution. Each of the species is stunningly colored and have incredible plumage and sexual dimorphism (i.e., the males are dressy, the females are plain). Barrow provides relatively easy viewing of all four species of eiders in one place. We found Stellar’s, King, and Spectacled Eiders feeding in shallow ponds in the tundra. Each of them were paired and simply waiting for the snow to melt further, and the tundra to sprout before laying eggs. We observed Common Eider flying over the Chukchi sea on their way to different breeding grounds. Many other species of ducks and geese were found throughout the tundra to compliment the eiders.

Stellar's Eider, Utqiaġvik, Alaska
A male Stellar’s Eider stands in stark contrast to the female behind him.
King Eider, Alaska
The King Eider has an incredible face and plumage!
Spectacled Eider, Alaska, Utqiaġvik
The Spectacled Eider is well named – you can see that monocle on this beautiful male’s face.

Shorebirds

Shorebirds in Barrow have their tuxedos on, are wearing Rolexes, and are ready to do whatever it takes to impress their female counterparts. They are a far cry from the drab, brown birds they become any other time of the year. The breeding displays vary from puffing out chest feathers, strutting with quivering wingtips, or taking to the air and flying high for all of the females to see. While we were there, the most vocal were the Pectoral Sandpipers. Male birds flew over their territories with chests feathers puffed out and made an indescribable-in-words galunking sound.

There was much more to see than just the breeding behavior of the shorebirds, and probably the most entertaining of these small birds were the phalaropes. Both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes feed by standing in shallow water and spinning in circles to stir up the bottom with their feet.  They push their bill and head under the water to pick up their unsuspecting and confused prey. Their behavior reminds me of a dog chasing its tale, and its very hard not to smile when watching them.

Point Barrow

North of Barrow is Point Barrow. This small spit of land has been used for millennia to capture whales and sea mammals for subsistence by the Iñupiaq  people, and I was astounded by the number of Bowhead Whale skulls and bones along the beach (just for the record I 100% support this subsistence and cultural way of life). The bones helped answer some of the questions I had about whale structure and morphology.

Baleen is a key feature of non-predatory whales, but I’ve never quite understood how it was arranged in the mouth.  In the jawbones of a couple of whale skulls, I saw that multiple (>50) plates of baleen lay parallel to each other on the left and right side of the mouth. Their arrangement allows the tongue to slide between the plates to push the water out and capture their food.

Baleen, Bowhead Whale, Alaska, Barrow
The baleen of a Bowhead Whale has hairy edges that works to capture food as the tongue is pushed up and water is pressed out.
Baleen, Bowhead Whale, Barrow, Alaska
Many plates of baleen lie together in this skull of this Bowhead Whale giving insight into the function of the baleen to capture food.

The many bones along the beach also put into perspective just how huge Bowhead Whales are. Jawbones may reach 13 feet in length, the  vertebrae can be 20 inches or more wide, and the ribs can be 10 feet long. These are incredibly huge animals that must have been difficult to capture with seal-skin boats and bone-tipped spears. But somehow, in the face of this immense challenge, that is what the ancient Iñupiaq were able to accomplish.

Barrow, Alaska, Bowhead Whale, Vertebrae
The vertebrae of Bowhead Whales are huge!
Point Barrow, Sea Ice, Arctic Ocean
My wife, Kassie, and I on the edge of the Arctic Ocean at Point Barrow.

Across the expanse of the sea-ice were cigar-shaped black specks. Most of the specks turned out to be seals. These seals provide a food source for humans and bears. I believe the most common species we observed were the Spotted Seal, but three other species may are present in the region.  Although we scanned the ice pack for Polar Bears, there were none to be found.

Barrow-ed Time

In the summer, Barrow is the city that never sleeps. We were amazed at the amount of activity at all hours of the day throughout the community that can be attributed to the never setting sun. 24 hours of daylight ensured that the birds were active and visible during all parts of the day. We “Barrow-ed” our time schedule by staying up until 2AM or later on all of the nights we were in town. After four days we were exhausted, but thrilled to had a glimpse of this incredible area and the birds it holds.

Barrow, Umiaq, umiak
The frame of a traditional boat, an umiaq, leans against a building outside of Barrow.
Barrow, Alaska
Jawbone arches offer tourists a place to take picture.
Barrow, Alaska, Midnight Sun, Composite
The midnight sun swings over the Chukchi sea on June 19th. In Barrow, there are 65 days that the sun never sets.
Muktuk, Barrow, Pickled
Muktuk is the traditional way to prepare Bowhead Whale. We had the incredible opportunity to try pickled muktuk pictured on the left. It was very delicious! The black rind is the skin of the whale, and the white part if the fat.

Species list (some likely missing) from June 16 – 20, 2017:

  1. Snow Bunting,
  2. Greater Scaup,
  3. Red-necked Phalarope,
  4. Glacous Gull,
  5. Pomeraine Jaeger,
  6. White-fronted Goose,
  7. Semipalmated Sandpiper,
  8. Long-tailed Duck,
  9. Red Phalarope,
  10. American Golden Plover,
  11. Pectoral Sandpiper,
  12. Short-billed Dowitcher,
  13. Cackling Goose,
  14. Dunlin,
  15. Arctic Tern,
  16. Pacific Loon,
  17. Semi-palmated Plover,
  18. Northern Pintail,
  19. Lesser Scaup,
  20. Lapland Longspur,
  21. Savannah Sparrow,
  22. Greather white-fronted Goose,
  23. Pectoral Sandpiper,
  24. Dowitcher,
  25. Raven,
  26. Western Sandpiper,
  27. King Eider,
  28. Stellar’s Eider,
  29. Spectacled Eider,
  30. Dunlin,
  31. Green-winged Teal,
  32. Northern Shovelor,
  33. Tundra Swan,
  34. Parasitic Jaeger,
  35. Red-throated Loon,
  36. Sabine’s Gull,
  37. Snow Goose,
  38. Black Scoter,
  39. Ruddty Turnstone,
  40. Baird’s Sandpiper,
  41. Common Eider.

 

The Hooligans of Haines

The Great Hooligan Run

Alaska is known for its runs of salmon, but each year in the spring an equally impressive and ecologically important run of fish ascend the streams of Southeast Alaska and as far north as Norton Sound. The small, silvery fish, provide bountiful food for birds, bears, and people and signify that spring is here. I had the opportunity to observe the abundance of life that greet the Hooligan in the Chilkoot River, just north of Haines, Alaska.

Thousands of gulls, dozens of eagles, and tens of Stellars Sealions gather at the mouth of the Chilkoot River to feed on Hooligan.

The Chilkoot River system where I stood watching schools of Hooligan is surrounded in spectacular scenery. The 70 yard-wide river valley is dotted with large boulders which were deposited there by retreating glaciers.  High mountains that rise along each shore are covered with snow and feed the cold-water system for several months, until mid-summer.  During April and May, its shallow, clear waters, house thousands of shimmering gray shapes. Hooligan (Thaleichthys pacificus, also known as “eulachon” or “candle fish”) return by the hundreds of thousands to deposit their eggs.

The Ecology of Hooligan

Hooligan are anadromous fish, meaning they spend most of their adult life in the ocean, but return to freshwater to breed. The most well-known example of anadromous fish are salmon species, however Hooligan do not necessarily return to the same river like salmon do.  The timing of their spawning run is determined by water temperature and hence shifts later into the year as you move from Southeast Alaska up to the western coast. After breeding, a majority of Hooligan die, but there are some fish that return to the river. Why only some die after spawning is just one of the many things that are not known about this fish. For instance biologists are also unsure what effects the size of the run which has varied highly in recent years. In the Chilkoot River, the run was estimated at 300,000 in 2015 but >1.8 million in 2016. That is quite a difference! After talking to the locals, it sounds like this year’s run in the Chilkoot was strong and echoed the strong run of 2016.

Hooligan Run, Alaska, Haines, Chilkoot
Thousands of Hooligan swim in the shallow waters of the Chilkoot River.

The Effect of Hooligan

You do not really have to see the effect of Hooligan to understand their importance to the ecosystem – closing your eyes and listening will probably tell you the story that needs to be told. Envision the sound of the lapping surf at your feet and the hum of the wind past your ears. Now layer in the raucous sound of thousands of gulls from multiple species raising from the beaches in an excited chorus. Add the grunting, bold, bellow of an adult, bull, sealion. The chir and ki-ki-ki of many bald eagles. The whistle of a goldeneye’s wingbeats. This is the audio picture of the Hooligan run and I was astounded by its magnitude.

Hooligan, Chilkoot, Haines, Alaska
A rainbow high-lights the amazing scenery around Haines. Gulls, Eagles and Stellars Sealions feed on Hooligan at the mouth of the Chilkoot River.

It was obvious from watching the behavior of various animals that they had mastered the art of catching an easy meal and nutritious meal. Hooligan are an important food source because of their high energy value. Dried Hooligan are so oily they were traditionally burned by Tlingits as candles. One of the most impressive behaviors was how Stellar’s Sealions herded the fish against the shore. Working together the sealions breached from the water in a wall to spook the fish upstream. The breaches ocurred in synchronized sequences, with the whole body of the sealion coming out of the waters, followed shortly by another individual. If the maneuver was successful a large school of finned-dinners would be pinned against the shore and a feeding frenzy ensued. Swirling waters and flippers were all that was visible of the fast-moving sealions as they snatched up fish below the water’s surface. The gulls were equally effective at catching Hooligan and dove repeatedly into the water, coming up with a fish frequently. After successful dives, the fish protruded from the gull’s mouth and were consumed on the wing . It’s amazing to think they could swallow them at all! The bodies of the fish were not the only thing being consumed. Countless eggs (they lay up to 30,000 per female!) were strewn across the beach, stranded as the tide went out. I watched a tiny, Least Sandpiper scoop up mouth-fulls of the eggs, providing a high-calorie caviar snack.

Hooligan, Chilkoot River, Haines, Alaska
A Bonaparte’s gull consume a Hooligan on the wing moments after snatching it from the river.

I wish that my time at the Chilkoot River could have been longer. Two evenings observing it just did not seem like enough! What any one-person takes away from an experience can vary vastly. My viewpoint is one a naturalist and scientist looking to sponge knowledge and learn from what I observe. I hope that you, the reader, can see it some day to see what you learn. Alaska is known for its larger-than-life wildlife spectacles, and in my opinion the Hooligan run and the abundance of life it creates is an experience that should be seen, felt, and heard by anyone that appreciates the wild places of earth.

Sources (also used in hyperlinks through the article):

  • http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=eulachon.main
  • http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/fish/searun-fish/page.aspx?id=6448
  • http://www.subsistence.adfg.state.ak.us/techpap/tp213.pdf
  • https://www.afsc.noaa.gov/Publications/ProcRpt/PR%202006-12.pdf
  • http://www.alaskapublic.org/2016/04/28/hooligan-make-strong-return-to-chilkoot-and-chilkat/

Subsisting in Southeast Alaska

The Numerous Benefits of Subsistence

When many people think of Alaska they imagine wild places and providing for themselves while taking on the harshness of the wilderness. This notion is true. In fact, up to 70% of Alaskans report harvesting wildlife and almost 100% of Alaskans report harvesting fish. However, in hundreds of small communities which are deemed as “rural” Alaska for regulatory purposes,  harvesting local food can offset the high cost of store-bought food.  It is simply impossible  for many to live on $15/lb beef, 6$ gallons of milk, and $5 loaves of bread. The Alaska Department of Game Division of Subsistence estimates that nearly 37 million pounds of wild, subsistence food are harvested in rural Alaska. In Hoonah, many of the harvested foods are just as important for cultural reasons as they are sustenance. The rich, Native Alaskan history of Hoonah ensures that regardless of whether you are pursuing shellfish, halibut, deer, crab, salmon, berries, or plants, that there is plenty of advice on how to prepare and store your catch.

Every day I appreciate the wealth of food in my freezer and in jars on my shelves. Five mornings a week I eat the same thing for breakfast – oatmeal with wild blueberries from the freezer. The other two mornings of the week pancakes are likely to be spread with thimbleberry jam or other preserves made from wild berries. For lunch? Well, there’s a good chance that it was a simple fair of halibut with a salad and at the end of a long day of work its venison, not beef, that finds its way onto my plate. These are just a few of the foods that I have grown to enjoy and expect in my first year of living in Hoonah, Alaska. Although I have always enjoyed harvesting wild foods, they have never been more abundant, accessible, or important than here in this small, rural community. I wanted to convey a fraction of what I’ve learned and of the general subistence culture in Hoonah.

Berry Quest

Once the summer warms up it doesn’t take long for the first berries of the year to come into season. Orange and red salmon berries are the first to ripen. These luscious berries are best enjoyed fresh and are found in the sun of the tidelands and open river corridors. They are a staple of the bears on the island which feast on them until the salmon runs begin. While on the subject of bears, it’s impossible not to have them on your mind when out picking. Chichagof Island has the highest density of brown bears in the world and contains no black bears. The best berry patches are those where you have good visibility to see the bears coming, but just in case always make lots of noise and carry protection.  Throughout the season there are upwards of 15 species of wild berries that can be harvested and used. To date I’ve harvested or tried blueberries, thimbleberries, raspberries, strawberries, lingonberries, cloud berries, salmonberries, huckleberries, crow berries, high bush cranberries, black currents, gray currants, nagoonberries, and red currants.

Brown Bear, Southeast, Alaska, Hoonah
Bears are common and need to be taken seriously. In my time in Hoonah I think I can say I’ve seen hundreds now!
Brown Bear, Southeast, Alaska, Hoonah
This large bear was seen during a morning of deer hunting. Bears love deer, so once you harvest one its important to stay alert as you smell pretty good to a bear!
Although not evident in this picture, we found this bear consuming a deer.

A caveat of wild berries is they are never sprayed with pesticides, and hence you have to clean them to separate them from the wriggling chunks of protein that like to live on them and in them. We experimented a lot this year on how to quickly sort and clean blueberries which we found had about a 25% chance of having a small to medium (0 – 4mm) worm inside of them. The best solution was to roll the berries down a towel to remove the leaves and then float them in water. I scooped off the floating berries with the assumption that trapped air inside meant a worm or some defect. The rest of the berries were quickly examined and then frozen. Although that all sounds simple, there was a steep learning curve and lots of trial and error – it’s a necessity to clean them quickly as two people can pick 5 gallons in about an hour in a good patch.

All wild berries can be made into a jam or jelly, but of all the berries picked last summer we found that high bush cranberries and thimbleberries made the best jam. Each are tart, sweet, and full of flavor. When making highbush cranberry jelly, be sure to save the pulp! We found this cranberry catsup recipe from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to be incredible! It is sweet and tangy and excellent of poultry.

Mollusks and Fish

Moving on from the produce aisle, the seafood aisle in Hoonah is an excellent next choice. Dungeness and Tanner crab are abundant all year around and subsistence/pots use is permitted rural Alaskans. If shellfish legs is not your thing, pick up a rake and scrape the beach for six different species of clams. Many people enjoy Butter Clams, and steamers (Pacific Little-Necks), but the real pride-and-joy of Hoonah is the cockle. This bi-valve is abundant and coveted.  Their ruffled shell makes them easy to identify, and once smoked-and-jarred they make incredible fare for the summer months. Unlike some clam species they are not very chewy, and they soak up the smoky flavor of smoldering alder readily.

Each of the 5 species of Alaskan salmon may be caught in Hoonah or its surrounding waters. King salmon are pursued by boat all year in Hoonah, with “winter kings” being one of the most sought after fish for their delicate meat and flavor. Huge runs of pink salmon, chum salmon, and cohos surge up the rivers around Hoonah each year and they can be caught with hook-and-line once in the rivers. In the salt water subsistence fishers often use nets to capture salmon. Sockeye salmon may be caught near Hoonah, although most sockeye fisherman cast their nets at Hoktaheen inlet.  When trolling for salmon you are very likely to catch a halibut. Although these flat fish are most associated with the bottom, schools of fish may feed in the middle of the water column as well. Because of the rural status of Hoonah, many halibut are caught on skates – subsistence longlines of up to 30 hooks allowing users to rapidly fill their freezers.

Deer Hunting

Sitka Blacktail are the only ungulate on Chichagof Island, and are extremely important as a red-meat source. Hunting here is far, far different than the White-tailed Deer hunting that I grew up with in Minnesota. First of all, trophy hunting is all but non-existent in Hoonah. Although many hunters target bucks so as not to be too detrimental to the deer population, the subsistence lifestyle here is all about filling the freezer and any-buck or nice deer will do. Hoonah enjoys some extra benefit as a rural community including up to six deer per person and a one-month extended season which ends in January. Many hunters proxy hunt for elders in the community and much of the venison that is shot is shared around quickly. I saw this first hand this year as although I shot 3 deer, I ended up giving away about half of what I shot, but received that same half back from others who were willing to share.

Deer Hunting, Alaska, Subsistence
A subsistence deer! This young blacktail is no trophy but was a great addition to the freezer during a late-season hunt.

The last aspect of the Hoonah subsistence lifestyle that I’d like to leave you with is the idea maximizing effort. For example, a day out in berry picking isn’t just a trip for berries. We often cut and gather firewood or fish for salmon at the same time. When taking a skiff out to go ‘beach combing’ for winter Sitka Blacktail, that same trip will involve checking a crab pot, trolling for salmon and perhaps jigging for a halibut. If you find a couple of deer on the beach and can harvest one all the better! Stretching a dollar by capitalizing on multiple opportunities at once, and then taking the time to properly prepare your harvest and store it for the winter is rewarding, healthy, and can save your some money to boot. Happy Harvesting!

The Pine Marten Transplants of Chichagof Island

When I think of the American Pine Marten (Martes americana), it invokes an image of giant, rotund spruces and hemlocks in an old growth forest. In my mind, the lithe body of a Pine Marten scurries around in the branches perhaps a hundred feet from the forest floor in search of a red squirrel or bird’s nest. A small squeak indicates that the small mustelid has connected with its prey. This vision could be considered “classic” in the fact that martens are strongly associated with mature, old growth forests (Greg 1995). In fact, their dependence on old growth forests is so strong that traditional logging methods have been cited as a driver of large scale declines of marten populations (Davies 1983). In some regions of Southeast Alaska marten are still abundant, and in general the Tongass National Forest offers great habitat for marten. However, they are most often found on the mainland, and I was told by a friend that they were introduced to Chichagof Island by people. That tidbit of information intrigued me, and as I dove into Pine Marten history on Chichagof I was very interested to find out a marten I crossed paths with is a descendant from a small introduction of intentional transplants.

DSC_5516

Transplanting wildlife to new areas in Alaska has been going on since the Russians began to settle  here (Paul 2009). Frequently transplants happened on the Aleutian Islands or the islands of Southeast Alaska and often the incentive revolved around economic opportunity. A well-known example of this is the transplant of Blue Fox to the Aleutians so they could be farmed and harvested for trapping.  The fox were responsible for extirpating several species of birds from the islands.  Over the years many species including Caribou, Sitka Blacktail, Mountain Goats and Elk have been introduced to new areas throughout Alaska. The first martens were introduced to Chichagof Island in 1949 to create a population for trapping (in fact Pine Martens are still Alaska’s largest fur market earning 1-2 million annually (Alaska Department of Fish and Game)). By 1954, 21 marten had been introduced to the Island and despite the low number of starting individuals, their numbers climbed rapidly in their new environment. It is estimated in 2006 over 2,200 marten were trapped on Chichagof Island. It’s a remarkably successful population here!

Blue Fox
It was fascinating to see this account from the early 1900s of Blue Fox farming. At the time it was implemented as a branch of the USDA. You can read the full text at : https://archive.org/details/bluefoxfarmingin1350ashb

Since transplants can have negative effects on resident populations, did the transplant of marten to Chichagof Island impact populations there? Anecdotally I have been told that Dusky Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus) numbers have declined on the island and that Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) are not as abundant as they used to be.  Certainly each of these prey items are consumed by the martens. Buskirk (1983) found birds and squirrels made up a strong majority of the marten’s diet in Southcentral Alaska, but that voles, mice, and shrews were the most important items in the diet.  On Chichagof Island, the diet patterns are the same, although Ben-David et al. (1997) found high variation in the autumn and the presence of salmon and crab.  In the summer a marten’s diet may be made up 80% of birds and squirrels. Marten populations are normally not very large and hence would be unlikely to strongly influence prey, but Chichagof Island holds the highest abundance in the region (Flynn and Ben-David 2004). With these high populations and a diet favoring birds and squirrels, is it is possible that marten populations on Chichagof Island exert a top-down pressure on their prey? I believe based on the effect of being a successful transplant makes it it possible. However, I can find no data on the population trends of Dusky Grouse or Flying Squirrels on Chichagof Island and there are many other factors at play. For instance,  Dusky Grouse may find protection from predators in old growth  and flying squirrels are likely to benefit from old growth structure. Hence, removal of old growth by logging may lead to a reduced population. Rather than conjecture on a speculative answer, I will put it out there that a graduate student and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game could pair up on this venture.

I will leave you with a description of my encounter with an American Pine Marten. On October 16th, Hoonah received measurable snow before Fairbanks, Alaska.  The 14 inches of snow that lay on the ground was the first time Southeast Alaska had beat the Interior to snow in over 70 years. I started up my truck, my wife jumped in, and we headed out the road with the hope of photographing a bear in the snow. The lower elevations were slick and wet. 6 inches of slush lay heavy on the roads, but we made it the 10 miles to the turn towards False Bay. As we slowly climbed the pass the truck seemed to shrink into the ground as the snow levels rose. After only a couple of miles we were plowing snow with the bumper of the truck and it was evident that we would not go much further. The only catch was we could not find a place to turn around. On we drove hoping that our luck held out, when up the road we saw a small figure bound into the ditch. It plowed into a snow drift and then burst back out again. In a flash I was out with my camera clicking away. Pursing my lips I made small rodent sounds which intrigued the inquisitive creature. Turning its head rapidly it dove back into a snow bank and emerged a few feet away. To me it seemed as if the little fellow was simply enjoying the snow rather than doing anything too serious. He wove in and out of cover, posed for me and eventually bounded into the woods in search of greener (or whiter) pastures.

Pine Marten, American Pine Marten, Chichagof Island, Hoonah, Southeast Alaska, Martes americana
American Pine Marten on Chichagof Island near Hoonah, Alaska.

 

Cited:

R. Flynn and M. Ben-David. 2004. Abundance, prey availability and diets of American martens: implications for the design of old growth reserves in Southeast Alaska. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grant final report. Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Ben-David, M., Flynn R.W., Schell D.M. 1997. Annual and seasonal changes in diets of martens: evidence from stable isotope analysis. Oecologia. 111:280-291.

Buskirk, S.W. 1983. The Ecology of Marten in Southcentral Alaska. Doctoral Disertation. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Dendragapus_obscurus/

Davis, Mark H. “Post-release movements of introduced marten.” The Journal of Wildlife Management (1983): 59-66.

Drew, G. 1995. WINTER HABITAT SELECTION BY AMERICAN MARTEN (Martesamericana) IN NEWFOUNDLAND: WHY OLD GROWTH?. Dissertation.

Paul, T. 2009. Game transplants in Alaska. Technical bulletin #4. 2nd Edition.

Schoen, J., Flynn R., Clark B. American Marten. Southeast Alaska Conservation Assessment. Chapter 6.5

Ashbrook, F.G. Blue Fox Farming in Alaska. Accessed : https://archive.org/details/bluefoxfarmingin1350ashb 10/27/2016

https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Alaska_Maritime/what_we_do/conservation.html