Monthly Archives: September 2015

Denali

denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThere is a great mystery on this journey: the fact that I seem to choose some places to go, and that others call me to come. Alaska called. Before leaving home in 2011, I never gave any thought to going to Alaska; in the mayhem of leaving I barely gave thought to where I was going once I pulled out the driveway. But almost as soon as we left, Alaska started calling. And, every time I looked at the map, the voice seemed to be coming from Denali, the ‘Great One’ in the Athabascan language, the mountain and its surrounding wilderness, which create one of the largest preserved areas in the country. The only vast wilderness in Alaska with a road through it: a single road, two lanes at its best, 92 miles long.

From left: monkshood (Aconitum dephinifolium), eskimo potato (Hedysarum alpinum), tall Jacob's ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum)

From left: monkshood (Aconitum dephinifolium), eskimo potato (Hedysarum alpinum), tall Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum)

Despite that persistent call, the realities of visiting the park almost put me off.  In order to penetrate this wilderness, you need to spend 8 to 11 hours, depending on how far you go, on the equivalent of a school bus. This had little appeal to me, though I would have done it. But it would have been impossible for George. He is happy to have me go off on my own adventures, but this was a call to go together.

From left: Siberian aster (Aster sibericus), one-flowered cinquefoil (Potentilla uniflora)

From left: Siberian aster (Aster sibericus), one-flowered cinquefoil (Potentilla uniflora)

One evening, at our RV park in Seward, I started chatting with our neighbor. We discovered we were from the same part of the world, both full time travelers, so had lots to talk about, including the places in Alaska she had already been. She told me that they were able to get a pass to drive their own car through Denali because her partner has MS, and would not have been able to deal with a day on the bus.

An entire lichen village taking over an old tree stump, from the white and pink (common name: fairy barf) on the right to the tiny, gray green golf tees of cladonia cryptochlorophaea growing out of moss on the left

Lichen needs close-ups, but I was enchanted with this entire lichen village taking over an old tree stump, from the white and pink (common name: fairy barf) on the left to the tiny, gray green golf tees of cladonia cryptochlorophaea growing out of moss on the right. A click will give you a somewhat larger view.

So we went, and got the pass, good for four days, from a warm and helpful ranger. As we drove in the first day, I got teary, and George told me he had goosebumps. I went all four days, George three. The second day I planned to hike and see what wildflowers were still around, but, on discovering the amazing lichen world in the park, spent most of the afternoon lying on the ground. The third and fourth days we had a quick view of Denali itself, shimmering in the distance, having briefly emerged from its usual shroud of clouds. The last day we just kept driving, and went the entire 92 miles in and back, a nine hour adventure, discovering, at the far end of the road, a world of bog and muskeg different from the rest of the drive.

denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordDenali, though full of beauty, isn’t the most beautiful or the most intriguing place I’ve seen, and people don’t go for that reason. Its lure is the ability, via the road, to see the wildlife living and roaming freely within a sliver of its 5 million acres. The original impulse to create the park was to conserve this wildlife. And there’s plenty of it: we saw caribou, moose, eagles, ptarmigan, and lots of grizzlies, one digging up roots less than 20 feet away from us. (We were in the truck, needless to say.)

grizzly-bear-ursus-arctos-horribilis-denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordI loved seeing the animals and birds, and the flowers and lichen, but there was something about the land itself that made it hard to take my eyes off it. Denali is subarctic wilderness, definitely not a showy landscape, with lots of low shrubs, dark green spruce, small scale wildflowers and grasses, acres of moss, tons of lichen. They are all native to their place. With few roads to carry plant invaders, native plants have been able to form a vast, millenia-old ecosystem that supports both the animal life of the park, and the Athabascans, who have a 13,000 year history there, and still use the park for subsistence hunting and gathering.

denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2It filled my soul to float through mile on mile of this subtle tapestry of greens, browns, tan, yellows, punctuated with rivers and ponds, rimmed with snowy mountains, usually under a moody gray sky. To see the mountain itself show up one evening as the sun set on its western flank, and then to see her luminous presence the next morning, before the clouds veiled her. To lie on the ground with lichen. To see the last of the wildflowers. To have caribou walk by on the road, heading in the opposite direction. To watch a bear at close range.

caribou-rangifer-tarandus-denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThere is a crucial magic about this. It’s not just about seeing the animals, or the landscape. It’s about knowing, as we build and pave and improve and fix, that there are enough places left for life to go on as if humans were not rushing to dominate the rest of the planet.  Denali is one of the places where the heart of the world can beat undisturbed, and that is what makes it so important.

Why the call? I have no answer. The calls seldom explain themselves. The landscapes they leave on the heart take time to make their difference. I may never look back and say, this happened because I was there. But Denali called, I went, and I am changed.denali-denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

The Alaska icon: fireweed

Fireweed and the Grewingk Glacier in Homer

Fireweed and the Grewingk Glacier in Homer

If my passion were for fishing, or climbing mountains, or volcanoes, or glaciers, or mighty rivers, or wildlife, or liquid carbon geology, I might have chosen a different icon: salmon, Denali, Mt. Redoubt, the Matanuska Glacier, the Yukon River, the grizzly bear, the moose, the bald eagle, or even the Alaska pipeline. But, though I treasure many of them, not only is my passion for wildflowers, but all of those other icons never seem to appear, in summer, without fireweed somewhere in the picture. So, it’s my icon.

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Fireweed along the Alaska Highway

It’s the flower of summer, and it’s literally everywhere. It can match my height in the temperate rain forest, or cap out at less than a foot in the alpine tundra. The roadsides are magenta, open meadows are filled with it, the views of mountains and glaciers are seen through the tall, many-flowered racemes, dark green spruce forests form the backdrop of vast stands of it.

From left: buds, flowers and the pods they form, a rare white form

From left: buds, flowers and the pods they form, a rare white form

Fireweed is beautiful, sturdy, prolific, and always up to something. The new shoots can be eaten like asparagus. The leaves can be dried for tea. The flowers bloom over a long time, slowly opening from the lower stem to the tip. The first thing a local resident told me when I arrived in Valdez is that summer is over when the bloom gets to the top. While blooming, they make bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds very happy. According to a beekeeper, fireweed bees produce a white honey. Farmers’ markets sell pink fireweed jam.

As they bloom and fade, the ovaries under the petals continue to grow into long, slender pods, filled with so many seeds an individual plant can produce as much as 80,000. The pods continue the color scheme, sometimes almost as vivid as the flowers.

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A pod splitting open on a windy day

After a point, while flowers are still opening above them, the pods begin to split open, curving away from a slender, erect center, into four thin bracts, and 300 to 500 seeds from each pod start to float through the air. Once open, the curving bracts continue to encircle each other. As they dry, the color becomes gold in the sunlight. The leaves turn a bright, deep red, a memory of the vivid summer color still lingering on the roadsides as the flowers disappear completely.

Pods completely reflexed in autumn color

Pods completely reflexed in autumn gold

Eventually all those seeds land somewhere, and wait. If on open meadows or disturbed roadsides, they can germinate the next spring and bloom by their second year. If in the forest, they wait on nature. At some point, fire sweeps through, and, without the tree tops blocking their sun, or the roots taking all the water, fireweed is the first flower to burst into bloom, which is where it gets its name. It isn’t just fire —  it was the first plant to blossom in bomb craters in London in WWII, will take over a roadside immediately after the surfacing crews have left, and fills the swales of housing developments if it isn’t mowed down. Once established, the roots create rhizomes, spreading mat-like through the soil, forming a strong network of plants.

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Everything happening at once: flowers still blooming at the top, bright pods keeping the roadsice color going, fluffy seeds beginning to fly

So, it was a constant thrill. And now my truck is filled with these seeds. I picked a split pod one day and was intrigued to see clearly, for the first time, that slender center ‘pole’, and wondered if that tiny surface held all those hundreds of seeds, with their attendant feathery hairs caught by the four bracts as they curved away, pulling the seeds with them. Testing this further, I picked three pods that were just splitting open at the top, to see if I could catch this magic in the act. I put them on the dashboard, planning to take them back to the trailer and watch them.

fireweed-epilobium-angustifolium-Stewart-British-Columbia-Canada-by-Betsey-CrawfordA short time later I realized they had all burst wide open, right there on the dashboard, and the seeds were beginning to float around. They floated the whole day, showing a particular affinity for George, who had to keep blowing them away. I was utterly delighted. The next day, when I got into the truck, not a single feather was to be seen anywhere. Even the curling bracts had disappeared from the dashboard, though I later found one on the floor. Some of the seeds must have gone out the window on the trip, or the door when we got out, but the rest — hundreds of them — are still in there. So I have this vision of the truck, after many years of service, being put out to pasture, doors open, letting in sun, rain, dirt slowly accumulating, and all those fireweed seeds springing to life.fireweed-epilobium-angustifolium-Wynn-Nature-Center-Homer-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford