An “Aha” Moment Blooms


110+ exotic plant species in Southeast Alaska

by Kevin Hauser

Sometimes, when you least expect it, doors that you never knew existed can open right in front of you. 

It was one of our first hikes of the season. I had just made it to Skagway, Alaska for my internship with SCA, and some friends and I wanted to see what was out there.  Every time my buddies stopped to look up, I caught myself looking down. Instead of gazing at the snow-capped mountain peaks that soared above the clouds, I found myself more interested in the beauty and complexity of the wildflowers beside my feet. 

That’s how I realized my new and growing interest in botany. 

This summer, I worked with the Alaska Exotic Plant Management Team (EPMT), one of many across the country working to limit and contain the spread of invasive species.

More specifically, I worked for the National Park Service in Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (KLGO). This park is of particular interest as it is the most visited national park in all of Alaska and as a result is home to 45 invasive species. In fact, KLGO is second only to Glacier Bay National Park, right next door, in the amount of documented invasive species in Alaska, though this is likely to change in upcoming years.

As a student at the State University of New York at Geneseo studying geography and environmental studies, biology and botany were not my key areas of focus. I knew I would be applying my geography skills by collecting GPS data on known infestations and using GIS to determine treatment strategies, but I did not expect to become an expert in identifying plants. 

Already, I can identify 110 (and counting) plant species within southeast Alaska alone. 

To me, it’s like a scavenger hunt. You read textbooks and browse picture after picture of each species until you go out in the field and you finally find it. It’s that “aha” moment you experience when you find that one plant that you’ve been learning about for the past month and it matches the descriptions you’ve found in your research. Not only did you find it, but you know all about the plant’s traditional and historical uses, medicinal properties and its ecological importance. It’s very rewarding and makes you feel like you have been doing something right all along.

Never in my life would I have pictured myself working alongside biologists in a Natural Resources department. Yet, here I am surveying invasive plant species and even assessing and monitoring amphibian habitats. This was when I discovered that life is about continuously learning and acquiring new knowledge each and every day. As a result of this remarkable experience, I am now more environmentally conscious about invasive plants in my hometown in New York and I have a new hobby that I can use wherever else this world may take me.

Just when I thought it was too late for me to “get into plants,” I found I couldn’t have been more wrong.  And that’s alright with me.

There are not many orange flowers in Alaska making this plant hard to miss. Nonetheless, the discovery of invasive orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum) was news in the town of Skagway. Prior to this season, it had never been documented or reported within the area despite its presence in many other nearby southeast Alaskan cities.

Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) is documented at a single location on the Klondike Highway leading into Skagway, making it a potential candidate for eradication in future years. 

This is the area’s most invasive plant, reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea). Luckily, this plant is found in sporadic, isolated patches that are small and manageable to treat. A large restoration project took place this season at a campsite along the cultural and historic Chilkoot Trail after the removal of dense, monotypic stands of reed canarygrass.