Monday, January 05, 2009
NOTE: Thanks to Dawn Reeder for ALL of the photos in this post, including the slideshow at the end!
The wide open, breath-taking views of the Interior’s sweeping tundra are typically marred by something. A cloud of mosquitoes so dense that a single slap slaughters thousands of them. Horizontal rains, blowing unimpeded from Russia, with cynical affection, so that each and every drop defies the best modern technology has to offer, leaving your skin plump, pale, and cold. Or simply, the wind, the relentless wind, buffeting each step, exhausting you before your day has even started.
Only divine intervention can explain the two solid weeks of perfect weather we enjoyed, brilliant fall colors, and temperatures just perfect for walking miles across the tundra that sleeps beneath the DeLong Mountains, east of Kivalina. The tussocks weave a microscopic elfin forest, their valleys home to a wealth of tiny plant life, mosses, ferns, and at least a few rodents whose tell-tale scat paths wind through the channels. The tussock heads host plants that I know, yet they are so much smaller. The land exhales the astringent perfume of labrador tea, clean, spicy, and familiar. It is a perfect day to lie face down on a furry patch and hunt for our coveted Hylocomium splendens. This moss is ubiquitous in northern and coastal climates, but it is unique. H. splendens is likely the easiest moss to age, owing to its unique “stair-step” pattern. Each year, it shoots a new branch at a discrete angle from its former growth. At first glance, you see only a soft, verdant carpet, sometimes moist, and soft to the touch, others so dry and brittle it crumbles under each step. You have to pay attention, to look a little deeper, to look at each strand closely, but once you see it, it’s so evident, it’s crystal clear, there is no ageism in this crowd, each tiny plant boasts its tenure proudly stair stepping its path from birth to wisdom.
The ease of aging H. splendens makes it an excellent air quality indicator, especially for metals. Airborne chemicals from traffic and road dust, mining operations, and even radioactive and chemical fallout, such as that from an accident like Chernobyl or Union Carbide accumulate on the moss’s surface, and may even be absorbed by its tissue. Knowing the moss’s age makes it easier to answer very basic questions: was this plant here before or after an event or operation? does it contain more or less of a contaminant than older specimens? younger specimens? If you Google “air pollution” and “H. splendens,” you’ll find countless references to this common but special plant. The more time I spent looking at it closely, laying in beds of it atop the tussocks, pawing at its soft fronds, the more enamored I was. Even after our work was done and the valley was far behind us, I’d keep an eye open for this humble moss along the trails and paths I frequented, until the first winter snow put the forest to rest.
Amidst the beauty of the western Brooks Range, the Noatak River Valley, the DeLong Mountains, the gentle chant of a mild breeze, and in the company of a dear friend, I’d spent the last week head down, elbows up, picking through the tundra for the perfect patch of Hylocomium “splendor.”
The work is very peaceful. I need to pay attention because my samples must be pure, with no other mosses tucked or twined into the strands. They must be of equal mass, and of the right age. I have to remove leaf debris and pieces of other plants from the sample, without removing any of the dust that might contain valuable data. It’s very relaxing. Often, Dawn and I work in silence, which is very comfortable for both of us. We’ve known each other for years, and have often enjoyed sharing the quiet. And occasionally, one or the other will perforate the silence. “Dawn, do you think you’ll ever come back to Alaska?” or “AK, I know a very cool gardener who would love to put you to work, I’ll bet. Why don’t you come down to Paonia for a few months?”
Each morning, Quentin, our helicopter pilot, drops us off at a sample location that we’ve loaded into our GPS. As we work, he goes off to support another crew or project, or get practice flight maneuvers in, to meet his training requirements. While we’re on the ground, our only contact with him is via a two-way Motorola hand-held radio. For most of the day, the two-way sits silent. Occasionally, we hear tidbits of radio traffic between truckers or hunters near the port or going to or from Kivalina. It’s easy to fall into deep thought on this job, so I’m surprised when the radio crackles with Quentin’s voice. “Behind you. Coming up over that small rise.” Without getting up, Dawn and I each turn, slowly, and look over our shoulders in time to see a small family of caribou trot right by us, only a few meters away, the brilliant bull’s head bobbing slightly under the weight of his ivory rack. A doe and her calf follow behind, and they don’t even see us. They take a few steps, and stop, ears pricked, eyes gazing into my soul, it seems. They are so close. The staccato click of the tendons that slide across their ankle bones is soft, but clear. They pause again. We stay still and watch. They take a few steps more, and stop again, repeating the process for five or ten meters. And then, they move on. My eyes follow them until they are beyond a small rise, and I am once again looking across the open fields of tussocks, crimson patches of bearberry, and the gentle sway of golden-tipped willow. Dawn and I exchange gleeful smiles, and then we go back to picking through the moss, piece by piece, looking closely at each strand before we add it to the small plastic bag dangling from our scales.
These are the Western Arctic Caribou herd. The migration is coming any day now, when nearly half a million caribou will cross the valley and continue south to the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta. When the stampede begins, the valley becomes theirs. By law, nothing may interfere with their passage. The caribou are very twitchy. One sound captures their attention, and anything unfamiliar, unpredicted, or unwelcome can alter their path. All road traffic stops when they converge upon the corridor. Everything must wait. Only once does this affect us, directly, and only for an hour or so. The truckers on the Kivalina Road, however, are not so lucky. For an entire day, they stop along the side of the road and watch. And wait. Interestingly, the scattered chatter on the two-way belies no irritation, merely boredom. In the Inupiaq tradition, the chat is minimal and quiet.
“I think that’s the last of them.”
And then silence.
“No, I see more on the ridge, north-side.”
“Do you see ‘em?”
Though darkness doesn’t fall for another 5 or 6 hours in these long August days, our day is over, and just for a moment, the peace of the day is broken by the propeller whir of the helicopter and Quentin’s voice on the two-way. “Team 2, I comin’ to gitcha.”
We collect the days bounty, numerous parcels of Hylocomium we’ve collected from points across the valley. Boxes. Scales. Water bottles. Backpacks. Light as a feather and ever on point, Quentin touches the skid down right at our feet, just touching the tips of our toes. Ear plugs in and seat belts fastened, our half hour commute passes much too quickly. I press my face against the window, eyes scanning the horizon for whomever else wanders the valley.
Labels: caribou hylocomium splendens