This summer, I have the opportunity to do a couple months field botany in Alaska. It’s in the islands and inlets of Southeast Alaska. Before this, I had only worked on the tundra, north of the Brooks Range.
On the way to the tundra and back, I flew over vast stretches of Alaska, and looked down in wonder. These coastal islands intrigued me. Dense forests are great, sure, but it gets interesting when meadows are mixed in. From the air, I could tell; the coastal Alaska landscape had — something — mixed in. The forests seemed, well, threadbare. In places, I could see down between the trees. What was that? What gave them that texture of nappy velvet?
When I got here, I found part of the answer was “muskeg”. There are areas where the forest just peters out. A few scattered trees grow, but overall it’s open. I suppose “meadow” would mean grass and flowers, while “swamp” you’d expect to suck you down. Muskeg you can walk across, but your boots generally make a wet sound. Come to think, your footsteps sound like “mus-keg mus-keg mus-keg …”.
You see a border of muskeg around a lake, where the water table is high. Trees are stunted and sparse because they can’t get their roots deep. But then you see muskeg on level ground where there is no particular lake, just an occasional shallow pond. And then you see muskeg on ridges, where there is no excuse for poor drainage, except the incessant rain can’t run off fast enough.
In interior Alaska, I was shown muskeg. The story was, it’s wet and sparsely treed because of permafrost. But there is no permafrost in southeast Alaska. So, what exactly is “muskeg”?
Let’s back up. What, say, is “forest”? In Alabama you have forest because, even though that latitude around the world is supposed to be desert, a quirk of climate patterns brings in moisture, and so trees grow. In the Cascade mountains of Oregon you have forest because, even on rocky slopes with no soil, the sodden clouds keep things watered, and so trees grow. In the sand hills of Nebraska you have a forest because somebody planted it. All forests, but not one tree species in common between them.
The muskeg of interior Alaska is dwarf birch, cottongrass, and water sedge. The trees are mostly black spruce, many leaning drunkenly above their inadequate roots. Muskeg here in southeast Alaska is deer cabbage, bulrush, and sundew. The trees are the full suite of forest species, upright but dwarfed.
There are warm sunny days when, incredibly, Alaska here reminds me of the deep South. In Dixie, there are areas of swampy poor soil and skimpy trees. If people in the South who first named landforms had known the word “muskeg”, they might well have applied it.
I never have got an exact definition of muskeg. Nobody can quite explain to me why it forms where it does. But one thing’s clear. People here kind of like muskeg. When you clamber from the tangled obstacle course of a forest out into muskeg, suddenly your stride relaxes, and you can walk. You can see a distance, and enjoy the view. Hunters like it because they can spot their quarry. People go there to pick berries, to gather herbs, to cut Christmas trees. There’s no problem with the wet walk because everybody here wears rubber boots.
Another aspect of why the forests here look threadbare is more sad. When I first arrived, and looked at the green hills backing the town of Ketchickan, I thought it was old growth forest. Scattered in with the rich green of live trees was the occasional silver of a dead one. Like grey hairs on a mature head. I assumed those trees had lived out their long lives and finally gone. And by extension, that the green trees with them were about as old and big as they could get, and would be naturally dying, a few at at time. I had seen this pattern in protected stands of old growth on the Olympic Peninsula.
But no, the Ketchikan locals said. All that forest was cut. So, why would trees grow healthy for decades, grow as tall as any of the others, and then die?
The term is “cedar decline”. As it was explained to me, the dead trees are Alaska yellow cedar. This is a tree I knew from the mountains of Washington and Oregon. There, I would come across it at some thousands of feet elevation. I had always thought of yellow cedar as the hoary patriarch of the mountains; big trees, clinging to lofty crags. I assumed such a tree could withstand any winter.
One thing I did not understand about plants for a long time is that their roots can be much less cold-hardy than their tops. The roots don’t have to be, because they are always insulated in the ground. Since roots never get that cold, they never evolved to survive deep cold. Evidently, this is especially so for yellow cedar. Not only do they depend on the normal insulation of the soil, but also a deep blanket of snow. Snow feels cold to us, but it actually keeps the temperature beneath it from dropping much below freezing.
Formerly, the yellow cedars here always had a blanket of winter snow over their roots. Now, winters are warmer, and there may be no snow. A cold snap arrives. The cold freezes the open ground, and kills the cedar roots. And so Alaska yellow cedar is in decline. This is occurring at low elevations. The cedar at higher elevation, where there is still dependable snow, is safe for now.
I suppose this is why yellow cedar is strictly a mountain tree in Washington and Oregon. It doesn’t get down to zero very often west of the Cascades, but there is nothing to keep it from happening. If it happens, even once, in the long life of a tree, the tree species does not continue.
Whatever factors might make the forests here thin in places, there is still lots of thick. I quickly learned the trees.
Sitka spruce. It’s easy to tell a spruce is a spruce. The cornflake bark. The sharp needles. The peggy needle bases along the twig. But, if you can’t see the cones and the needles and all, it can be tricky to tell different species of spruce apart. Often, the spruces here are tall, and hold all those clues out of reach. But I have it easy. Only one spruce. Sitka spruce.
Cedar. I’m not sure I had ever seen western red cedar and Alaska yellow cedar growing together, but here they do all the time. I never thought I’d have any trouble telling them apart either! Red cedar has a distinctive formal look. The individual sprays along a limb repeat in almost mathematical similarity. Yellow cedar, in addition to being less regular, always has strongly downward-sweeping fine branchlets. Or so I thought! The yellow cedar here is nothing like so weepy. Usually, I can tell red from yellow cedar at a glance, but every now and then there’s one where I have to go up close and look.
Hemlock. I suppose there must be some elevation range in the Cascades where the lowland western hemlock and the upland mountain hemlock mix. Here, it’s the whole forest. Usually, one is more prevalent than the other, but I have to look sharp. The forest may be mostly western hemlock. But, just to keep things interesting, there will be a tree festooned with the little stars of mountain hemlock.
Then, what’s missing.
Douglas fir. The most common tree west of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon is nowhere to be found here. From time to time, I keep thinking I see one, but I look close, and it’s always something else.
True firs are rare. No grand fir. No subalpine fir. There are supposedly a few silver firs on another part of the island. If I ever find any more, the Powers that Be want to know. Pacific yew is so rare as to be the stuff of legend. If I ever find one, the Powers that Be really want to know.
In the forest, there is a tall understory and a short understory. The tall understory is mostly made of two kinds of huckleberry, both about head height, and hard to tell apart. The easiest way to distinguish is if they have berries: Vaccinum alaskense has dark purple-black berries, usually single, while V. ovalifolium berries have a blue bloom and tend to be in clusters. There is a lot of rusty menziesia, and occasional red huckleberry. Fortunately, none of these are prickly. For that, we have patches of devil’s club.
When I was first on the job, I was out with the wildlife crew. They were looking for goshawks. Their protocol is to play a recording of a goshawk call, and see if a live bird responded. To assure they cover the terrain, they make calls from points in a grid, some hundreds of meters apart. At each point, they spend some time, making multiple calls, and writing down various observations. Then, beeline to the next point. Since I was traveling with them, it was up cliffs, and through swamps, never mind the thickets of fallen trees, and stands of devil’s club.
After I was on my own, however, I realized, since I am searching for rare plants, the more ground I cover, the more likely I am to find them. Therefore, a more rambling route. No need to slide straight down a bank. No reason not to skirt a swamp. And my rare plants are never never under devil’s club!
The short understory is made of bunchberry, strawberry bramble, and fernleaf goldthread, all only about 10 cm high. The forest ecologist mentioned that, where these are abundant, it’s good winter deer habitat. The deer paw through the snow to browse. I guess it’s a good sign that, in most places, these plants are ubiquitous.
In addition there are about five kinds of ferns. And skunk cabbage. In Oregon, skunk cabbage grows in swamps. Here, it’s so wet, skunk cabbage grows wherever it may please. On banks. In moss. Even, occasionally, in rock crevices. It does seem happiest in the muddy swales between the ridges. It is a way of gauging bears.
I walk through a patch of skunk cabbage, the big slick leaves squeaking at the brush of my boots. Here and there, in place of a plant, is a scatter of leaves around a hole. The bears dig up the roots and eat them. I am impressed. I assume that skunk cabbage, like everything else in the arum family, if full of raphides, microscopic needle-like crystals in the plant tissue.
When I was a teenager in the Midwest, there was this nasty trick kids would play on other kids. I never played it on anybody, but I told my good friend Dale about it. I showed him the plant, in that case jack-in-the-pulpit, a wild arum that grew in the woods. I dug away the soil enough to show the small tuber beneath. I took a tiny fingernail scratch off the tuber and had him carefully taste it. Notice that prickling on the tip of your tongue, I warned. if you were to dig up the tuber and try to eat it, it would taste sweet at first. But then your throat and tongue would start prickling and burning, as the needle-like crystals pierced your cells. It takes quite a while for the pain to fade.
Dale lived in a different neighborhood. The next time I visited him, the prank was making the rounds. Dale, always the trickster, had named the tubers “chew berries”. All the kids who had already had the prank played on them would conspire on the next victim, slyly convincing him how good a chew berry was going to be.
I don’t know if the bears here are immune to that prickling and burning, or just tough it out. But, in every patch of skunk cabbage, there are some dug up. If it was a long time ago, the detached leaves are pretty much composted into the ground, and new little sprouts are coming up from pieces of root left in the hole. There is every gradation of brown leaves, yellowed leaves, and leaves barely wilted, that tell you how recently the bear was here. If the leaves look very fresh and green, the bear could be right over there looking at you from behind a tree.
When I talk to people back home, they always ask, “Have you seen any bears?” Of course I see bears. Fortunately, I have only seen them when we drive around a corner and surprise one or two. They take off into the country as fast as they can go. I am long over the romance of seeing bears. I most definitely do not want to see bears when I’m out working in the woods. Usually, they take off into the country as fast as they can go, but you never know.
It would look really, really bad for the Forest Service to have an employee mauled by a bear. Thus, the protocol is never to work alone. What exactly is “alone”? In the bear training videos, the example is hikers marching together along a trail. When the bear appears, the humans step up side by side into a phalanx, bear-spray canisters at the ready.
Well, we are never anywhere near a trail. A good part of the work, such as wildlife and botany, is “a whole lot of nothing”. This means, we are looking for something, rare plants or animals, and the overwhelming majority of the time do not find it. The point of the work is to thoroughly document the rare thing is safely absent.
To do this with any kind of efficiency, we end up widely dispersed. How widely? In sight of each other? In earshot? Well, in reality it usually means within a couple miles, in radio contact.
This actually can work. An example illustrates why we humans have taken over the planet. One day, Ted, the wildlife biologist radioed, “We came down on a sow bear and half grown cub.” Later, he related in more gripping detail: Seeing the tall salmonberry bushes moving up ahead. The cub trying to climb a tree. The sketchy view, through the thick brush, of where the mother bear was. Mostly going by sound, and slight motions of trees. The tense moments of both sides feeling out what to do. The uneasy standoff till the bears decided to retreat. Summed up, on the radio, “She seems to be headed uphill, parallel to the P road, towards unit 854”.
Now, I had the same maps on my iPad. In one second, I knew exactly where the encounter had taken place. In my mental geography, “unit 854” was bright orange. If the bear shared any such concept, she probably knew it as an area of thicker timber. However, the “P road” had no physical existence. The term means “proposed road”. It was merely a dotted line on our maps, marked by at most a few strands of flagging. Yet it was real to us as a superhighway.
I was actually headed over to survey the P road. From this news about the bears, I angled to intersect the road at the other end. And so, we avoided the bears. However, suppose we had been a group of hunters who wanted those bears? Even with their superior senses, they would have stood little chance.
My whole summer has been like a trapeze act, for getting my work done. Some weeks, the wildlife people had work off on another part of the forest, so I clasped hands with the fisheries crew. They walked up streams, documenting salmon habitat while I surveyed the woods nearby. One week, though, all the other teams had commitments far away. At the last minute, it turned out the geologists were coming over from another district.
I enjoyed working with the geologists. They took routes through the forest similar to mine, but with a slightly different focus.
When I was looking at this job, the organizers had talked excitedly about “karst”. Karst means land underlain by minerals that dissolve, such a limestone. This can form features like pinnacles and caves. To get an idea, search for keywords “china karst images”. These landforms, as well as the chemistry of the minerals themselves, can give rise to interesting botany.
“We have karst here in the forest!” was the word. I pictured knobbly ridges poking out above the trees. Since this was Alaska, they would have long views out across the sea. I would be sent to these places. They would be a wonderland of rare herbs and flowers I had never seen before. Many years ago I came up with a term for this: “The heaven, and hell, of field botany”. Heaven, because of all the interesting new species. Hell, for exactly the same reason, identifying what all those species are!
From time to time, after I got here and was working on the forest, someone would refer to “that band of karst that runs through here”. They waved vaguely at the map. To me, the forest was all so thick and cliffy, I couldn’t tell the difference. Finally, I was going to be out with the geologists. I would get to see the karst!
Well, it turned out I had been back and forth across the karst already, numerous times, without knowing it. It didn’t look any different. Just tall trees. No views. The geologist had maps showing where it was. We went in there.
Since karst bedrock can dissolve out from underneath, a common feature is streams that disappear. One of the main things the geologist were looking for was these “ingresses”. Water is flowing down a course, and then finds it easier to go underground and follow one of the solution channels. The water re-emerges somewhere else as springs. If logging operations run over an ingress, they can clog it with sediment, and upset the hydrology of the springs. The geologists were marking no-cut buffers around the ingresses. This meant they had to find the ingresses.
Until recently, the main way to do this was simply to walk all the flow channels and look. But now they had a new tool: LIDAR maps that showed closed basins. It was amazing how well this worked. We targeted these areas of the forest. Following down a stream, we would typically come to land that had character of wetland edge. The geologist explained that during heavy rains, there might be standing water for a while, when it could not drain down the ingress fast enough. To my botanist eyes, it was like the suite of species I had got used to seeing where trees blew down and let more sunlight in to the forest floor: Merten’ sedge, star sedge, pioneer violet, enchanter’s nightshade, and various shrubs and grasses.
Eagerly, I sought for new flora. But the only unique thing I found was miners’ lettuce, Montia sibirica. In Washington and Oregon, this little herb is one of the most common understory species west of the Cascades. I found a bit of it in the marshy flow channels at two different karst ingresses, and I saw it nowhere else in all Alaska. So much for rare herbs and blossoms. And so much for sweeping views. Still, it’s sweet to work in the forest.
One weekend in Ketchikan, I was waiting for the bus and got talking to a woman. When I mentioned I was working here as a botanist, she got kind of dreamy. “You mean, all you do is walk in the woods, and look at plants?” Well, then the bus came, before I could explain.
In a town the size of Ketchickan, the phone book is slim. If you live here, as you leaf through, you see people on every page you know. Well, the difference between being kind-of-into-plants, and being a field botanist is like that. Everywhere you go you see plants you know. But for the field work, you have to know every name in the book.
I suppose every job gets to its limit. A couple weeks ago, once I knew all the plants, it was feeling like enough. Slogging through the wet woods, seeing the same old species. And never, never finding any of my rare plants.
But I had agreed to stay for the extension. From the original thirty days, to a total of sixty days. About three more weeks. I was ready for a change.
The word came down for a change. I was asked to switch from routine track-through-the-forest surveys, to instead checking rock pits for invasive species. The idea is, if there is going to be logging on the forests, they will need gravel for the roads. They may be taking this gravel from diggings developed decades ago. If invasive species have got into those rock pits, it could be bad news. Seeds and roots would be spread all through the forest.
So I have been doing this the last week or so, and it is rather more interesting. It took a while to figure out. You would think old rock pits would be obvious. The first time, I drove the whole south end of the island and didn’t see a single one. Then I got the GIS coordinates, and put the locations on my maps.
The first one I went to, I thought I still hadn’t found it. I parked along a road, and looked at the solid wall of trees. On faith, I walked in. I found myself in a grove of alders with a flat floor. Around the sides were the rock cuts into the hillsides. There were no invasive species. Nothing like that could live in the dense shade of the alders.
This has turned out to be rather typical. Many of the old rock pits, when I find them, are now alder woodlands. A good number of them have standing water. This, again, discourages most invasive species. There is some reed canarygrass, but there is far more along the road right-of-ways. After logging, the Forest Service planted this pestiferous grass for erosion control. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Some of the diggings are real quarries, with steep sides that harbor interesting cliff species. In one north-facing hollow, I came upon purple mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), a plant more typical of the high arctic.
Exploring old rock pits is kind of fun, but nothing in the way of invasive species alerts. Over the decades since the major logging, people have occasionally visited here. As with most National Forest, it is public land. However this area is only accessible by sea. People would have to get here by boat, and then travel the roads by whatever scooter or buggy they could bring on their boat. This typically happens in hunting season. The result is that any weeds, such as oxeye daisy, would be spread along the roads. But seldom would anyone have reason to go into the rock pits.
At one site, I stepped into the forest. While I stood setting up my data screens, a tiny animal, maybe a shrew, scurried out of the duff. It nosed my boots, walked around them, and slipped back into the undergrowth. All, so quick I never got a good look. But, that seemed a kind of welcome. Or at least unceremonial acknowledgement that I was now part of this world.
One day, I had been to the far south end of the island, or at least as far as I could go. There were more rock pits on my map, but I couldn’t get to them. Roads were bermed off, and bridges over streams had been removed. I had spent a long day, probing down each branch of the road system till I got to the point of diminishing returns.
The past week of rainy weather had finally broken up. There had been sun breaks through the day, and now as I drove out, the afternoon was golden. I passed through shady forest, and out into muskeg, crossed creeks and skirted little lakes. All, surpassingly lovely, and peaceful. Through all this terrain, in the track of the road, mile after mile, were — toads.
I respect toads, and would not knowingly harm one. Their stolid little forms were no more apparent than chunks of road gravel, until they would move. Fortunately, something in their instinct told them to hop at right angles to the truck that was trundling down upon them. Pathetic little hops. Not the graceful leap of a frog. Only the inch-or-two jumps that toads can manage. They got the idea, though. Hop hop hop hop hop. And each one would be out of the road. I hope I didn’t squash any.
But, where had they all come from? Why, on this particular sun-splashed afternoon, were they suddenly there? I could not remember seeing even one toad in the forest, ever before. In the bigger picture, how had a little fresh water amphibian managed to get to an island all surrounded by deep salt water, and which had been so since the ice age glaciers melted?
In a few weeks I go home. I know how government bureaucracy works, and wonder if anybody will ever use my data. I never found any rare plants. I did not even find many invasive plants.
I did find one patch, of a really bad invasive species called orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum). It spreads by seeds, tracked on shoes and tires, and by blowing in the wind. It forms dense patches that spread, and persist, from underground runners. Once it gets into an area, it is almost impossible to eradicate. By far the best practice is prevention. Prevent the spread. The good news is, at this time, there is only one known patch on the entire south island road system. The bad news is, this is right where the Forest Service parks the trucks and four-wheelers, which then drive all over the forest.
I know how bureaucracy works. Probably, nobody will ever look at my data.