Kenai Fjords NP
Blue like Glaciers, Grass, and Glassy Seas
Aboard the Serac, the Park research vessel, we bob gently in Aialik Bay, listening to the sound of gulls, surf, and an ancient tidewater glacier calving. Every 5 minutes or so, a piece of the massive ice wall half a mile ahead rips away with a noise like thunder and gunshots all at once, plunging into the sea below and sending up a cloud of spray. Icebergs float by on either side, gliding serenely across the surface of green-blue silt-tinted water. Day 3 on the coast, and I’m still being blown away by the sheer power present in this landscape.
This is our small world for a few days out on the coast: a boat named for glacial ice cliffs, with a deck for sunbathing, fish cleaning and glacier watching, and the whole grand realm of the Kenai Fjords coast ahead. Tim, from the Regional Office and Eric, the EPMT Education SCA, are joining Travis and I this week to help with the monumental task of pulling weeds in the furthest reaches of the park. Most of Kenai Fjords National Park is inaccessible unless you have a boat, a helicopter, or both. That’s a big reason why there are so few weeds here—with few boots and wheels to track seed in, the glaciers and fjords remain pure, untainted. This is probably one of the most beautiful places in the universe, these rugged miles of spruce-set coastline home to whales and otters and birds and salmon. But there are a few nasties here. Bluegrass and dandelions ride in on kayak gear, or boots hauled from Colorado. “Bluegrass? I’m tryna grow that in my front yard!” one visitor laughs. “I wish it grew as well back there as it does here!”
Plants are a blessing in one place and a curse in another. Such is the way of ecological invasion. We’re all cursing dandelions (and maybe the people who brought them) when we’re pulling Taraxacum officiale ssp. officiale by the pound on the mosquito-ridden cliffs of Dinglestadt Glacier, Day 2. The bugs are vicious, biting through gloves and clothes, hurling themselves with audible thunking noises against our meshy bug shirts. We look like aliens, or Druids, in our heavy green hoods. We’ve been blessed with a window of glorious weather for four days—and subsequently cursed with bugs. Clouds of black flies, moose flies, and mosquitoes, commonly quipped as “Alaska’s state bird,” storm the shores, out for blood.
The view from the top of the cliffs is stunning. The glacier slumps down toward the shore on one side, pocked and riven with clear blue. The creek delta beyond winds across gravelly glacial deposit into the sea; all waters become light in the sun today. “It’s so beautiful,” I moan. “But I can’t enjoy it because I can’t sit still!” And because Dinglestadt is still infested with dandelions, even after years of manual control. The lines and polygons of infestation data seem like they grow every year with the population, interrupting ecological succession on the freshly-shed glacial moraines. It can be discouraging to face the hordes of dandelions and mosquitoes and wonder if your blood and sweat and tears shed on the cliffs are all for naught. After we finally pull a last lone dandelion, pass a population nodding cheerfully up a cliff, and plunge down a slick vegetated ravine to the shore, we pile into the Zodiac and zoom off across the water with no small sigh of relief.
— Later, we take a detour to McCarthy Glacier on a mission. The otter that we’d hauled out the day before needs to stay fresh enough to be autopsied when we get back, and the little bag packed with the salad cooler ain’t gonna cut it in the heat. It’s the second one that’s been found dead this year, and Inventory and Monitoring wants to know what’s up. When the first chunk of ice floats by the boat, I have to blink. Is this for real? It was my first tidewater glacier, its great crevassed front toe stuck out in the water where it crumbles away into icebergs. Then a whole flotilla of ice chunks cruises by, complete with basking harbor seals. They’re delicate sculptures shaped like seals, and waves, and the gentle curl of a columbine petal. We stood clustered at the wheelhouse, watching the depth sounder—889, 886, 885—watching fossilized ice float past and melt into dissolution. There, it mingles with the recycled depths of the sea—all of it water circulated ‘round the bottom of the Pacific and back on deep-sea convection currents and rainclouds. What goes around, comes around, on ice. And here we are, sitting in the biggest mixed drink in the world, packing a cooler with ice that froze several thousand years ago, to keep a dead sea otter from rotting long enough for an autopsy on shore. “I’ve done a lot of weird things in my life,” Eric comments. “But this has got to be the weirdest.” — We’re back out in Aialik Bay the next day, surveying a new beach for weeds. Freshly uncovered by the receding glacier, this is newly birthed land susceptible to invasion without the inoculation of a native ecosystem. We find no weeds, but document a poppy to key out later. (It turns out to be a native). As we watch from the beach, a large chunk of the front face, a vertical sheet of ice maybe a hundred meters long and weighing several tons, shears off with a thunderous rumble and falls into the sea. A cascade of snowy ice follows, pouring down from shelf liberated above it. Watching the chain reaction of glacial calving is addicting. In the warmth of the afternoon sun, I am watching thousands of tons of ice build and break and melt and pass away in the forward march of time and tidal recession. Who needs TV when you have this? The closest thing that watching thundering glacial ice evokes, ironically, is watching a lava flow. Echoes of the islands in the ice. The electricity of impending icefall, or lava bubbling, or surf pounding, is energy apparent in the world around us. The power to reshape a landscape in the merciless flow of molten rock, or the breaking power of tons of moving ice—it’s intoxicating. Landscapes are historically static backgrounds, mere backdrops to be shaped, resources to be used, or even just habitats for wildlife. Watching bergs break off at the waterline, ripping away clear crystalline sizes as the whole massive slump of ice sloughs into the sea, is a present reminder that nature is anything but static. Even the dandelions that return relentlessly every year, spreading into far-flung pockets of the coast, don’t just sitting around waiting to be pulled. There is no status quo on the ice. It is perilous territory to stand before a grinding glacier and dare house-sized chunks to plummet suddenly out of the air. Or to plunge beneath the surface of water cold enough to sustain icebergs, or carry the tsunami-like energy of an icefall across the bay. This is a landscape that is anything but still. And time heals all things, in a way. As the glacier recedes, it leaves moraines sown with grass and geraniums, and blueglaical silt, and warmth, and the beauty of a calm fjordland bay on a sunny day. But I’ll be sad to see the tidewaters go. That power stilled and the landscape altered? The ecology of the North faces dire shifts with climate change, and the future, too, melts into dissolution—recycled, evaporated, the cold-loving seals and otters and glaciers long lost to the relentless northward march of climate warming. And dandelions.
Down and out — cheating death on Mount Marathon
At the fire hall, tension crackled. In between gleaming fire engines, volunteers in rain gear and torn flannel murmured to each other, speculating about the lost racer—where he was last seen, what he was wearing, where he might have gone off the narrow race trail and into the bush. Standing in the back, I shifted nervously from one foot to the other as the fire crew outlined the mountain, divvied up into segments on a map. I’d never been on a search and rescue operation before, but the methodology seemed simple enough: get on the ground, spread out, and sweep the mountainside for any clue to a missing mountain runner.
Every year on July 4th, hundreds of burly mountain runners climb a punishing 3,022 ft in under a mile to Race Point on Mount Marathon and back down into Seward. The trail is slippery, almost straight up in places, and treacherous at best. The top finishers are under 45 minutes. It’s a race where prestige, and reputations, are built and broken—among other things. Runners break ribs, sprain ankles, twist wrists and elbows hurtling down the scree and snow. But the number of casualties is remarkably low; only one person in each race was seriously injured this year. So far, no one has gone missing. Until this year, at least.
When one man didn’t finish the race on Wednesday, checking in at the summit halfway point three hours late, the search began. An Army Blackhawk was called in to scan the mountain with thermal sensors; warm rocks, bears, and hikers foiled them.
On Thursday, the Seward Volunteer Fire Department organized a foot search with dogs. All day, from my office in Petro Plaza and the apartments, I heard helicopters roaring overhead, flying over in hopes of sighting the lost racer. Despite scouring the mountain methodically, no trace of Michael LeMaitre was found. Not a scrap of clothing, footprint, or scent—just vegetation and flagging and the lonely south wind sighing over the slopes.
Temperatures dropped below freezing in the mountains, and new snow dusted the peaks that night. Murmurs about bodies and birds began to make the rounds. The search continued on Friday, with a crew of 55 volunteers and 3 dog teams. On Friday afternoon, I sank into my office chair with a small sigh of relief. I’d been out on the Harding Icefield trail all day, helping flag it to its bitterly cold end, and was finally sitting down to do some data entry. A moment later, the park superintendent walked in. He was asking for volunteers to join the Search and Rescue crew Saturday. It wouldn’t be easy. The mountain was steep, and it would probably entail a bushwhack through groves of devil’s club, a thorny and mildly toxic plant with spiny stems and massive rayed leaves. Hesitantly, I gave him my cell phone number. And so it was that Saturday afternoon I was climbing into the copilot seat of an Alaska Troopers helicopter, on deployment to investigate a steep forested ravine. NPS Search Teams 2 and 3, all volunteers from Kenai Fjords, were headed out on special ops to scour a couple of areas that were too treacherous for other volunteer teams.
As the chopper lifted off with a roar, I felt buoyant—floating on air, rising above the bay and the town and the river valley. Resurrection River split and wound through the trees; the buildings in town grew tiny; the mountains loomed close, approachable, on eye level. I’d never seen Seward from this perspective before. Heck, I’d never ridden in a helicopter before. When we’d been briefed at the hangar, I’d had no idea what to expect. We were asked to get our gear together, to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. “One word of advice: Most of Search and Rescue is standing around,” one of the interp rangers had confided with a kindly smile. “We’ll go as far as we can—without cheating death,” our crew lead for the day admonished. “Let’s be safe out there.” From the waterfall bench, we had a spectacular view of Resurrection River, Seward, and the Bay beyond. Whitecaps scudded over the water; gray clouds loomed on the horizon over Fox Island in the distance. I took my place in line, spacing ten feet from Luke on my left, and called in on the radio. “Search 3, this is Search 2.” “Search 3.” “We’re walking.” “Copy that. We’ll see you at the bottom.” Going down, I used an ice axe to dig holds into the soft slippy pine needles and moss for purchase. The only way out was down—I think that was kind of how I felt once I got to the hangar. The only way out today was down, up the mountain, through the bushes looking for bodies, conscious or unconscious, and then out the other side of the woods onto the streets of Seward. And that morning, we hadn’t gotten in a chopper like the original plan had dictated. Instead, we drove up a Jeep trail and hiked out to the waterfall, then swept a sector of dense spruce and alder down slope towards town. Scanning the shrubbery on either side, I swung from springy alders and slid over mossy trunks as we worked our way down the near-vertical slope. “It’s like a jungle gym! Oh wait, this is what jungle gyms are based off of!” Nature does it first, again. And nature, too, had maybe claimed Michael Le Maitre. We didn’t find him at the end of the day. But we did find giant mama spruces, a porcupine, and a way down. I learned a lot about what it takes to mobilize a crew, to organize a movement of lots of different people and agencies to find a missing mountain racer—and how defeating, and disappointing, it can be when the search fails. Down and out. We’re all headed that way, eventually, and it’s a sobering thought. Sometimes you get a lift in a chopper. Sometimes it’s a slog. Just keep going down, and dig your heels in, and you’ll be okay. And help each other out along the way, resting our knees, learning to breathe, cheating death with every step.
The right way to restore a streambank
Standing precariously on a gravelly chunk of riverbank, I reach over a thick sheaf of willow cuttings to grab the bucket being waved in front of me. And nearly drop it—it feels like cement hung from my hands. Pointy stems dig into my stomach; overhanging cottonwood branches brush my eyelids. With a mighty heave, I overturn the bucket and empty an avalanche of wet gravel and fine-grained topsoil over the baby willows. “How many more?” my supervisor Christina calls over as I’m passed the bucket. Hefting the bucket of dirt, I squint down at the trench in front of me. How much more topsoil needs to go in? How much fine dirt and organic matter, how much nitrogen and phosphorus, how much gravel and sand and clay can we pack into, around, these fragile willow stems without overtopping or building up a slowly settling foundation? Without silting into the river and drowning the fish in fine glacial dirt?
We’re filling in the last trench on a streambank restoration project on Scheffler Creek. Over the last several years, the narrow bank has been heavily used as a beach access trail and thus eroded down to muddy, devegetated slop at the water’s edge. After hauling trees and dirt and rocks all day, this is the last gap between our built-up base on the eroded bank, and the raw edge three feet above. At this point, we’re literally putting the icing (topsoil, gravel, and alder and saltgrass plantings) on a layer cake of coir (coconut fiber log), gravel and topsoil “burritos” wrapped in burlap, and densely packed willow cuttings.
Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, a local conservation nonprofit, has pulled together the resources and volunteer manpower and pizza. The mission? rebuild the stream edge, reduce erosion, and improve Scheffler Creek both aesthetically and as habitat for salmon fry, which need clear, cold, silt-free water to thrive. I’m here as part of the exotic plants management team (EPMT) crew from Kenai Fjords National Park—it’s a change of pace, today; we’re planting instead of pulling, filling scars, healing the land in a very different way than our usual shoveling and uprooting. It’s the details that matter in projects like this—how much dirt, how you tuck in carefully measured burlap, how you stake the massive coconut fiber logs that serve as a “toe” base. Questions keep coming up—how should we anchor the silt fence? How should we tuck in the base? What’s the right way to rebuild a stream? “Is there an exact science to dirt and willow cuttings?” I ask, laughing. Willows are, I’m told, almost notoriously easy to root. Take a bare winter willow branch, cut a decent-sized length, leave it dormant in a snowbank or a refrigerated cooler until you spring, and then stick it in the ground. Ta-da, instant reveg. Christina shrugs, smiles, raises her eyebrows. “As much soil contact as possible! Other than that…” We have to laugh at the absurdity of it all, at my elbows covered in mud, at our hip waders immersed in frigid stream water, at our ridiculously long bucket brigade, at our attempts to put nature in a box and fix it.
Is there an exact science to streambank restoration? Not really. If anything, it seems, restoration calls for rebellion against scientific method. It’s a total paradigm shift. The traditional scientific method seeks pattern in chaos, breaking down random phenomena into timetables and categories and numbers. Easy quantification—biomass weights, transect percent cover, miles tracked and area treated—is the key to doing “good science” in ecology. Restoration seems to asks the opposite. How can you take an easily quantifiable pattern of damage, or invasion, or abuse and allow nature to take back the wild randomness of growth?
Landowners, our visiting streambank expert from Alaska Fish and Game tells us, often want straight lines, clean-cut waterfront edges, grassy lawns that run straight down to the water (and channel fertilizer and runoff, too). But restoration often entails getting messy, and making messy; natural shorelines are never straight, but scraggly, brushy, uneven, filled with dead logs and heaped gravel that make great habitat for freshwater critters. You follow a few simple rules—create as much soil contact as possible with cuttings, count on making a mess and use a silt fence to mitigate it, sandwich willow cuttings between gravel-soil-burlap burritos, check the tide tables to make sure your site won’t be overrun while you restore it—and make the rest up along the way. And in the end, maybe there is no right way to rebuild a stream. We run out of time, and build up a trench with vertical willow plants staked along the edge, instead of a second berm of burlapped soil. On an 8-hour day, maybe we don’t have time to finish the job the way I’d want to. Maybe streambanks don’t adhere to schedules either, or scientific methods, or straight lines.
At the end of the world
At the end of the Harding Icefield Trail, it feels like the end of the world. There is no grand finale, no plunging cliff, no soaring overlook. Just flags through the snow, and tracks, and then nothing. Snow, and rock, and Exit Glacier, and the far reaches of the Harding Icefield on the horizon, still heavy-coated with thick sugary white.
It felt slightly anticlimactic—but all good things must come to an end. So does this trail. Last week, our crew braved rain, cold, and biting katabatic winds from over the icefield to flag the route through the crumbly rock and snow of the alpine zone. It was cold enough for a dusting of fresh snow on the mountaintops just above us—in July. Our toes were numb through rubber boots and wool socks, and visibility was low. But morale was high as we reached the end of the trail, at the end of the world, snapped photos, and called in a radio check to the Exit Glacier Nature Center. Morale was not quite so high when they didn’t answer back, perhaps too far to hear.
After working on it all summer, flagging it and grooming the snow, the trail feels like an old friend. We hike it twice a week, hauling in flags and re-vegetation signs, shoveling snow off the summer trails and sending hikers up the stabler routes over rocks. We know the plants, looking up geoms and Sitka valerian and buttercups in Pojar’s Guide to the Plants of the Pacific Northwest. “You packin’ the Poj today?” I’m asked pretty much every other day. Over lunch on the rocks overlooking the glacier, we key out flowers, learn taxon, argue over the defining characteristics of a saxifrage. We’re learning the birds, varied thrushes and ptarmigans and possibly a white warbler. We watch for marmots in the meadows, and bears, and wolverines on the hike up.
It’s our trail, in a way. And our gift to visitors and staff at Kenai Fjords. It’s our legacy, albeit a fast-melting one, this shoveled-marked path in the snow. Even at the end of the world, that has to mean something.
Slow down and shovel
Erryday I’m shovelin’. (Shovelin’, shovelin’.) Shovelin’ out the Harding Icefield Trail, that is—scooping snow out of the track, piling it on switchbacks or trampled vegetation to protect plants and the trail from erosion. Prevention is the best medicine, and preservation the second—so shoveling out the summer Icefield trail, keeping people on the path and off the veg, is the best way to save our vegetation, prevent trail erosion, and preclude the need for restoration. We track the trail beneath the snow with a Trimble GPS unit (which pinpoints with sub-meter accuracy), flagging tracks and switchbacks into the blank slate of the snow slope. It’s almost intoxicating, the power that these little orange flags have, to steer hikers across the winter-white paradise up to the Top of the Cliffs.
But sometimes there’s trouble in paradise. “Kay boys, and girls,” our lead biotech sighs as we reach yet another patch of dormant cow parsnip already trampled into the mud by hikers headed off-trail. “It’s shovel time.” So we shovel, chiseling deep into snowbanks, piling torso-sized snowballs along the eroded edge of the melting slope. The trail seems like a gravelly flat illusion that might or might not exist (reinforced by potholing, or falling thigh-deep through a layer of rotten snow into the hollow space melted out underneath). Sometimes you scrape bottom with a satisfying clang, and come up with a chunk that peels off the bottom like loose skin off a wound. Sometimes you miss, and you hit an impenetrable layer of clear ice, or sink into the muddy bank of vegetation (ouch!).
It’s a demanding, creative process. Carving out blocks of crystallized water and stacking them on the muddy trail banks, newly grown with grass. Crafting shelves and stairways, inviting paths on a steep slide of melting snow, to entice travelers back onto the trail five feet under. Snow is an incredibly plastic media. With the flourish of a snow shovel and a couple of scooping motions, you can reroute an entire trail, scooping flat the new track twenty feet upslope and pile dirty snow rubble on the old. It’s all a psychological game: how can we convince hikers, intent on pursuing the fastest, easiest route to the top of the cliffs, to walk in the middle of a muddy, melted slop of a trail instead of on the vulnerably vegetated berms two feet away? For all our flagging, and shoveling, and stair-building, there will be glissaders, marauders, scalawags who slide willy-nilly through carefully engineered snow stairs and trample the veg. But they’re people too, with desires and needs and goals. And I almost can’t blame them for not wanting to follow our winding path across the side of the mountain. Though you’d think people would know better than to walk straight across a pile of snow rubble on top of fragile newly-emerged grass. Nope. Trail building may be an investment in the future, but hiking, unless you watch birds, or you hike the same trails over and over because you either love them or work on them (and I have now done both), is a thing of the moment, a route, a track onward and upward as fast and efficiently as you can. But efficiency isn’t necessarily the name of the game here. More often than not, it takes us twice as long as most people do to reach the Top of the Cliffs, the 3/4 point on the trail, than it normally would. It’s because we take our time, pace ourselves, work hard and shovel steadily. We take care with every shovelful, conserving energy and fast-melting snow, to make sure that we send people down the right track. Faster isn’t necessarily better in trail-shoveling, or cooking, or living. Speed kills, trampling slow-sprouting fragile life in the mud. Slow down, nature says. Tread carefully. And live more richly with your leafy neighbors.
Silly human, grow some fur
“Stupendous.” “Singularly stupendous.” “Indeed, simply marvelous, sir.” “Even though the rain put a dapper on the day, it was splendid nonetheless.” “DAMPER, not dapper, you idiot.” “Quit being such a nuisance.” They call over to us as we cross the Exit Glacier parking lot. “Hey, are we a nuisance yet?”
I can’t help but burst out laughing at the YCCs. Perhaps they are a “bit of a nuisance.” But we’re cold, tired, and soaked to the skin. After climbing up the side of a glacial slope and shoveling snow and fielding tourists who won’t stay on our hard-earned snow trail all day, they still have the spirit to banter in bad English accents. It was a rather marvelous day indeed, in spite of the rain. Half an hour up the trail, we ran into a marmot munching cow parsley on the trail, half a leaf still dangling from his mouth. We held our breaths as he chewed, and swallowed, and peered at us curiously with his head cocked. The groundhogs of Alaska, I suppose, herbivorous, and ground-dwelling, and relatively commonplace. But much larger, and furrier, and wilder—a full-grown marmot hefts around twenty pounds and burrows good-sized holes in trails, under rocks and through the stony soil left behind by glacial growth.
A brace of marmots frolicked in the meadow, chasing each other across the islands of vegetation cropping up through the snow. And then the kicker, the holy grail, the trump card of wildlife awesomeness. Perched on a stony outcrop of uplifted slate, we’ve stopped to eat lunch and enjoy the Top of the Cliffs. It feels like a different world up here, in the snow and the silence; on one side, gentle white slough stretches upward as far as the eye can see. Directly in front, the icy river of Exit Glacier crawls interminably slow, its undulating surface raked with deep crevasses, wounds of summer sun and weight of snow. And on the other side, mostly obscured by cloud, Exit Creek and the Resurrection River snake across the Outwash Plain down the river valley, cutting swathes of gray through the cottonwoods beneath the mountains.
Up above, our biotech points out a dark shape on the white-coated slope. “It’s moving too fast for a bear… it’d be kinda ambling.” “A wolverine?” “Maybe.” “Whoa.” Wolverines are a big deal. They’re almost never seen on this side of the peninsula. A lot of tourists apparently come through the Nature Center and report seeing wolverines, only to show the rangers, when asked for verification, pictures of marmots, or squirrels, or even Dall’s sheep. Though it does happen on rare occasion that the ranger agrees to take a look at a camera LCD and finds a perfect picture of a wolverine snarling back. The black shape, lithe and almost wolf-like, trots from outcrop to outcrop on the cliffs above, taking cover on the dark patches of exposed stone. He’s on the roam. A lone hiker drops across the horizon, on point for intercept. He stops, probably not believing his eyes—then starts running. And the wolverine takes off. He leaps effortlessly across the snow, traversing slippery slopes that would take a human ten times as long to cross. The hiker is left in the dust. T is snapping pictures like crazy. The YCCs and I watch, forgetting our sandwiches for a moment. I always feel kind of silly in the face of such elegance. Here is a creature adapted for life on the snow slopes, made to race ptarmigans and marmots across rock and ice. His out-sized snowshoes are permanently attached, self-repairing and never soaked down with snow; his outerwear is naturally made to shed water and keep out cold. He’s got teeth and claws for hunting, and burrowing, and a body system that shuts down in extreme cold to survive. And here’s me, plodding along in layers of polyester and wool and leather and Gore-Tex, hauling a pack with 20 pounds of gear and food that I need to survive for a few hours out in the snow. Marking and carving out a trail that blind, numb human beings can’t miss, a trail that a wolverine could probably find blindfolded. Silly human, I think to myself. Go grow some fur.
Destiny, Dirt and Weed Pulling
“EPMT training, day four: Today, I pulled out baby trees by the roots and left them by the side of the road to die. And I feel great about it.” I pulled a mock sad face. One of the biotechs working in eastern Alaska laughed. “You should totally feel great about doing some good for the ecosystem.” She hefted a bright orange weed wrench and grinned. With mud streaked across her face and her black nylon rain gear, she was rather imposing. “Besides, I kind of like killing plants… it makes me feel tough.” “I don’t know. It’s kind of weird. Killing trees to save trees?” “I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.”
I’ve been working for over a month at Kenai Fjords National Park with the exotic plants management team (EPMT). Sometimes I still feel conflicted, about our role as “exotic plants managers.” Does it really work to save plants by killing plants? The answer, in short, is yes. And with an impending invasion of European bird cherry (Prunus padus) in Anchorage, fortunately, there’s still a lot that can be done.
Over 90% of sprouting baby trees in the city of Anchorage were European bird cherry last year. Prunus padus is outcompeting native willow and alder; left unchecked, it will become the only tree in Anchorage as older natives die and only young bird cherry trees succeed them. But Prunus padus is also responsible for the deaths of several young moose this winter—small amounts of cyanide in the cherry pits accumulated in their stomachs, killing these beloved ton-weight browsers. This week, I’m in Anchorage for the Alaska Regional Exotic Plants Management Training. After three days of intense GPS and plant ID training in the regional office, we’re finally getting our hands dirty and managing (pulling) some exotic plants (European bird cherry) at Chester Creek Park in Anchorage. The park is a quiet channel of green tranquility, a vein of tree-lined asphalt through the center of Alaska’s biggest, most grimily urban city. Bikers and runners zip by as we pull trees and stack them on the banks of the trail, roots up. The pile of dead baby trees is almost head-high already, only an hour in.
Even in the city, in Alaska, there are trees. It reminds me of Hawai’i in some ways. And people here seem to be just as supportive of our work, too. Passing bikers along the Chester Creek Trail cheered us on as they whizzed by in the rain. “Thank you!” “You guys are doing great!” “Thank you so much for your work!” Growing up in Hawai’i, where the difference between a native and a non-native was an integral part of learning who you are, what your landscape looks like (or should look like) and part of what makes the island where you live so singularly ecologically significant and special, I’ve never questioned that invasive species do real damage to an ecosystem—that they’re in the wrong place and need to be controlled. An invasive species, by definition, is an organism that is introduced from another place, usually on a human (Western) vector, and establishes itself in an ecosystem so well that it takes away resources from other organisms and starts to take over.
Invasives in Alaska are special in the fact that they are actually pretty rare. It takes a plucky plant, or animal, to survive brutal winter tundra, or even coastal rainforest, conditions, and then still have energy to reproduce in the short summer season. As a result, we have the luxury of controlling relatively innocuous (but still dangerously rampant) dandelions and sweet clover, tracking their every move by GPS. Enormous databases of invasive plants have been kept over the last ten years (check out AKEPIC, where you can see every record of every invasive plant in Alaska over the last 100 years, at http://aknhp.uaa.alaska.edu/maps/akepic/) It’s true: species are being introduced all the time, all over the place. Birds carry seeds in their guts, bears in their fur, the jet stream by wind across the sea. But now, especially in a changing climate, invasion is running amok. It’s a bit like the current anthropocentric age of extinction: on a scale that’s far, far greater than ever historically recorded, or would possibly happen without human intervention. And there’s the complication that when you start classifying organisms as invasive, you come to the realization that we are probably the most invasive species on the planet, multiplying and using more resources than is sustainable. Historically, human beings tend to do more harm than good when they enter an ecosystem, causing extinction, erosion, and imbalance. So in some ways, we’re here pulling dandelions, killing bird cherry and plantain, to redeem humanity. Here’s to you; I’m pulling this dandelion, cutting short its life and its ability to take over forest floors, for you. But what a place to be working in, amidst breathing trees and humidity and the moist breath of the forest…As we wrest more trees from the ground, sometimes teaming up with steel bar weed wrenches to pull particularly stubborn roots from the soil, we leave more space for the forest to breathe, I think. We take space from greedy bird cherry, and make space for birch and willow and alder. We make biodiversity possible with each fistful of soil and root. At the end of the week, we all part ways, our little band of SCAs and biotechs, and go off to our separate parks in the wildest, rangiest corners of Alaska, from Klondike to Wrangell to Kenai, to pull weeds in pairs and map new invasions. We’ve been given a task, a few tools, the shapes of leaves and the shape of the future. Grasping firmly, we take hold of our destinies as stewards of the forests and pull with all our might.