Friday, May 22, 2015

Arctic Hiking 101

If you're like me, and grew up in "The Lower 48," hiking in boreal forest or tundra feels really weird.  For one, in most places the ground is covered in a thick layer of moss or lichen.  It feels exactly like what it is:  walking on a living thing.  In other places, such as clearings in the forest, or wide open fields further north, the ground is covered in tussocks, tiny hills of grass that look temptingly like stepping stones, but don't support weight very well, and are more likely to twist your ankle than keep your feet out of the pools of water you can often find between them.

Standing in a tussock clearing on a hill near Wiseman.

I also had to quickly adjust to the idea of hiking without a trail.  In this region, no trails are maintained in any of the federal lands, so hiking involves a different kind of decision making.  Essentially it boils down to a few simple questions:  Where do you want to go?  Where do you want to start?  What ground do you want to walk through in between?  Lately my fellow volunteers and I have been staring at the mountains during our road trips up and down the Dalton, looking for mountains that look climbable (whoa, that's a weird looking word), yet challenging.

Left: Midnight Dome; right: Wiseman Peak

Most of us seem happy enough to take on the challenge of the hike itself, ready to get to the destination, enjoy it for a spell, and head back on the same or a different path.  But I like to stop when I find an unusual or unusually large and slow-moving bug.  Another volunteer stops for birds, minerals, and certain plants, and wanders off to look for more when we take breaks.  I've got a growing collection of pictures of the landscape with her as a purple or blue speck somewhere in it, like a Where's Waldo? puzzle.

Near Galbraith Lake, on Alaska's North Slope, bordering the Brooks Range

I've also begun to take pictures of flowers, animal scat, unusual lichens, and selfies, but I don't spend much time doing so.  Perhaps each of these will get a theme post at some point.

On a hike near Wiseman, I asked Bob if any poisonous plants grew in the area.  He mentioned some kind of lily (I think), but didn't provide any details of what it looked like, so I assumed we wouldn't find any, and didn't eat any flowers, just in case.  But I did start sampling pretty much anything I'd been told was eaten by caribou or moose, just to satisfy my curiosity.  (Edit:  don't do this, unless you know for absolute certain something is edible.)  Caribou lichen refers to a couple varieties caribou are known to eat.  When dry and brittle, they have no flavor whatsoever, but when moist and living, they both taste just like fresh store-bought mushrooms.  Delicious!  Even so, I only had them a couple times each.  Moose are known to eat the leaf buds off of willows and alders in the spring, and they basically just taste like sap, but are quite easy to chew.

A lot about a hike depends on water.  Not just having enough water to drink, but also dealing with water you find on the ground.  The interior of Alaska has an interesting mix of wet and dry conditions.  Overall, it doesn't see much precipitation year-round.  It's essentially a desert.  However, beginning with the first snows in fall, the precipitation that does fall sticks around until the end of winter, since temperatures never get warm enough to melt it.  In spring, the melting snow soaks through the parched soil, but quickly encounters the layer of permafrost underneath.  Water can soak into rock easier than it can permafrost, so this spring melt overwhelms the soil, raising creeks and rivers and leaving the land flooded and marshy.

And this is what the mosquitos have been waiting for.  Mosquitos spend their larval stage in still, shallow water, and spring and summer in Alaska provide an abundance of it.  So far this year we haven't seen the infamous swarms, but there are still plenty of mosquitos ready for anyone to stand or sit still for a minute.  A breeze is enough to keep most at bay, and they have trouble keeping up with anyone on the move, so they aren't enough of a problem on our hikes so far to bother with bug nets or repellent.  But soon, we've been repeatedly warned, they'll be out in such numbers that we won't be able to keep from breathing them in.  So that'll be fun.

My next day hike will likely be a week from today or tomorrow, and I'd like to see if traveling along a river or creek will be possible then.  Lately they've been too flooded to walk alongside, which is why we've stuck to mountain hikes.  And while I do get pretty exhausted and my feet get really angry at me, I can't complain too much, because when we reach the top...

View north from the hill near Wiseman: Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River and the Dalton Highway

... it's totally worth it.

Thanks for reading.



  1. Careful with your nibbling! There are definitely plants that are safely eaten by (non-human) animals, but poisonous to us.

    1. Oh yes, I realize what I'm doing is not recommended, but I usually check with someone more experienced with the area either before or right after I sample something. I still avoid all mushrooms, flowers, and anything brightly colored. Don't try this at home, kids!

  2. Love reading your blog Rob - keep the posts coming! Alaska sounds amazing :-) Hope opening weekend is going well.

  3. Hi Rob, checking in to your blog - haven't been to it for ages.
    In your description of tundra you say there's lotsa moss, which makes me ask, have you read Gathering Moss A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer? seems like a very good book for you to read while up there, if you haven't. I have been reading it and not wanting to finish it.
    Thanks for all the good reports.
    Cirrelda in Albuquerque

    1. I haven't heard of it, but I'll look into it if I can!