Towards the end of one’s college career people begin to ask the question, “So what are you going to do once you graduate?” Some people have a particular career path in mind, many dream of international travel, others plan on immediately continuing their education. I simply wanted to go to Alaska. Having been born in the Rocky Mountains and having spent my college years in the Redwood forest of California, Alaska just seemed like the next logical step. Here, snow-capped granite mountains rise directly from the Pacific Ocean and are covered in tall trees blanketed in a wide array of mosses and lichens. A colorful smattering of flowers and fungi decorate a landscape where a half a dozen varieties of edible berries ripen throughout the summer. The birds sing, black bears and bald eagles feast at rivers teeming with salmon, seals rest on the docks, owls hoot in the night, and even the whales come to visit from time to time. In short, I have found what some would consider to be a naturalist’s paradise.
Volunteering for the US Forest Service as an SCA member is great. The three other members of my crew and I are based in Hollis on Prince of Wales Island during our days off, but we spend most of our time at remote sites across Southeast Alaska. The project we are working on is known as TWYGS, or the Tongass Wide Young Growth Study. It’s really exciting to be working on the most well-funded research project that the US Forest Service currently operates, in the largest national forest in the world! It is in itself gratifying to know that the data we are collecting might eventually be used to develop forest management plans on a national scale.<p>A typical work week goes like this: We load up all our field gear into a float-plane which picks us up in Hollis. We then fly to a location as close as possible to the TWYGS installation in the forest where we’ll be working. Once we get the plane unloaded the first task is to find an appropriate campsite. Tide books and ocular estimation skills are employed to ensure that the extreme Alaskan tide doesn’t sneak up on us in the night. Setting up basecamp usually requires several hours of cutting small to mid-sized trees, leveling ground, finding an appropriate branch from which to hang our food, and putting up tarps to protect our gear from the rain. Only when that’s done are we able to set up our own tents which often requires more tree cutting and ground leveling. Then the real work begins.
TWYGS aims to determine how different silvicultural treatments (varying combinations of thinning and pruning) affect the productivity of young-growth forests following a clear cut. The forests we enter in this particular year of the study were clear cut 35-45 years ago. Our work includes measuring tree heights and diameters, coring boles, recording vegetation, and collecting data on canopy coverage on twenty plots in four treatments spread out around the island. By far the most challenging part is hiking to and moving between the plots with a 35 pound backpack full of gear. The slope ranges anywhere from 50-82% and much of the ground is covered with up to three meters of heavy slash (fallen trees and branches). Navigation requires a lot of balance and careful foot placement; thankfully we were issued cork boots which lace up to the calf and are studded with dozens of sharp spikes in order to dig into the wood. It typically takes us six days to complete an installation. Once we have successfully collected all the necessary data, we dismantle camp and radio dispatch for pickup.<p>Last week we were at George Inlet on Revillagigedo Island. We set up camp at a location near the edge of the forest on a grassy plain which stretched for about 70 meters before giving way to the inter-tidal zone and the ocean. The spot where I set up my tent was right next to a nearby creek. I love the sound of running water especially when I’m trying to fall asleep. Our work plots were closer and the terrain was kinder than it was at any of the other remote sites we had previously visited; we were all extremely grateful. The weather was particularly hot and muggy but the refreshing saltwater of the ocean was never far away once we returned to camp. Friday was my birthday! We celebrated by staying up a little later than usual until dark so we could light off some fireworks (completely legal in Alaska, by the way). After several days in the field we managed to finish a little early, at which point we returned to Prince of Wales to assist another TWYGS crew in completing their treatments.<p>The time I’ve spent in Alaska has already proven to be quite the adventure. I never thought that I would look so forward to the work week!