Sunday, June 26, 2011

heading out

It's been less than three weeks since I arrived in Southeast Alaska, but it feels like it could have been four times that long. I suppose it's because there have been so many changes and developments while I've been here. My surroundings have changed incrementally as I've traveled from Fairbanks to Haines to Juneau to Sitka. Juneau, the town I grew up in, felt oddly alien now that my family have all moved away and I was visiting for work. A day or two before I left, I went out and visited "the glacier." It was so scrawny and anemic--hardly the valley-filling outwash of serrated ice that had been a backdrop to my childhood. Maybe some older Southeasterners have similar impressions of today's yellow cedar forests as ghosts of what they once were. Low snowpack has taken its toll on both glaciers and cedars.

This project is changing and evolving daily, as is my understanding of the subject matter and methodology. Lauren, Kate, Paul and Caitlin, one by one, have "evolved" from folks I knew only abstractly to real-life colleagues; to fun, interesting, and exciting people. Even the way I look at the Southeast rainforest has changed a lot since I arrived in Haines on June 5th. There are quite a few plants around here that are extremely common, yet just weren't charismatic enough to pry their way into my head. There's one called goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) that probably lines every single roadside in Southeast. Till recently, I had only a vague consciousness of it as a leafy, weed-like thing growing all over the place. Now, when I walk around town, I find myself paying as much attention to plants and trees as to streets, buildings, and mountains. There's goatsbeard and cow-parsnip next to that buttercup species we can't identify...and is that western hemlock or mountain hemlock growing above those plants? Occasionally, me and Kate (she's also focusing on understory plants) have been waylaid for many minutes trying to ID some roadside herb...or worse, stumping ourselves on a non-native plant in someone's yard, which wouldn't be in our plant guides and which neither of us would have much chance of knowing. We're probably in the early stages of understory neurosis...

I'm thinking about my experiences, and about the changes so far this summer, because I know these first few weeks have been only the tip of the iceberg, the "crown of the cedar," compared to what we're about to learn and experience. Slocum Arm is still pretty abstract to me. I've never been there. I know what it looks like on a map, and I've filled in that map with general impressions of the Tongass, Chichagof Island, the Gulf of Alaska, forests full of dead cedars. But I don't have any idea of what it actually feels like to be in Slocum Arm. I don't know what it will be like to stand on the beaches (are they rocky? gravelly?) and look across the fjord at rounded, glacier-scoured mountains reflected in the rippling ocean water. I don't know how I'll feel when I'm in the middle of a stand of dead cedar, clawing my way through six-foot-high blueberry bushes just like our friend the brown bear. I don't know how I'll feel after ten straight days of counting and measuring those six-foot-high blueberries. And, I don't know how the four (sometimes six) of us out there will relate to each other after two weeks of working and living together in the woods, in the brush, on the beach, on the ocean.

By the time we come back from this first trip, I'm sure my understanding of everything about this project will be totally different than it is now. It even seems likely that my entire understanding of the Southeast Alaska rainforest will have thorougly changed--if not right away, then at least by the end of the summer. I'm looking forward to it! ...I'm writing, of course, with the assumption that the brown bears and all the capricious spirits out there accept us as their guests, and let us live with them for a little while.

- Odin

preparation, action

Juneau seems like forever ago and Sitka is about to feel the same way. We take a boat to Slocum Arm tomorrow morning and somehow we managed some down time this afternoon. The past week has been a hustle of food and equipment prep, revising the research surveys plans, developing data sheets, working on digital data management, and a hundred other tasks. Lauren’s brain is a tornado of schedules, contacts, to-do lists, and action plans. She especially is doing a remarkable job of keeping her cool despite the manic schedule.

Juneau was great for me, typified by beautiful mountains, great trail runs, and GPS units. Lauren was mostly busy meeting with Forest Service ecologists and statisticians to hammer out the kinks in her in-field research design. I ran around town checking tasks off of to-do lists: color copies of topographic maps, dropping the car we were using at the ferry for the owners, picking up .44 ammo and mechanical pencils at Walmart, etc. It was a good way to see the city outside of the tourist zone near the enormous our boat terminals.

While in Juneau we took time for some recreation each day. Lauren pointed me towards trail runs up Perseverance trail along the first mining road in Juneau, along a fabulously challenging trail at the end of our driveway terminating at a secluded beach on Gastineau Channel, and up Mount Roberts to where the gondola stops and great views of the Chilkat Mountains, Juneau, and the channel. We swung past the Mendenhall Glacier, blue and over-run with tourists but isolated and beautiful in the winter. One afternoon in the Forest Service office someone stopped by trying to unload one of nine salmon she had caught but couldn’t keep for herself, which motivated an impromptu salmon bake at our house/base with some of Lauren’s friends from the area.

Juneau down town is a surprisingly cute city, if you can ignore the bizarre mechanical behemoths mounting the waterfront, filled with tourists. Most of the 30,000 people seem to live scattered elsewhere in the glacial valley, creating a car-dependant way of life for an area that isn’t accessible by road. I read the forests around Juneau offer 250 miles of recreational trails close at hand. While that sounds fantastic, there are no other options unless you leave the by plane or boat. I suspect this sort of isolation, particularly in previous decades, created the self-reliant attitude I am beginning to sense in Alaskans.

I learned a lot from my three days with Lauren. She has involved me (and Odin and Kate too) quite a bit in her tribulations developing the field research component, for which I am grateful – the alternative is to be a field grunt. Watching her go through this phase of her PhD reveals quite a bit about the level of commitment I would need to go into a PhD program – more than I have now. Her yellow cedar research has been years in the making, if only a year or so in academia. For her, having a sense of connection to a community and ecosystem is the foundation for her research. Southeast Alaska forest is the only place she would be willing to work this hard. I think about my own thesis work in forest carbon and more generally about how I relate to where I live and the ecosystems around me, how my connection seems weak compared to Lauren’s, and how I wonder where I am and to what kind of work I dedicate myself.

The froth of activity continued into Sitka. After the gorgeous and productive four-hour ferry ride, including a humpback whale sighting, Kate and Caitlin met as at the ferry terminal and we loaded up our big duffel bags, bear boxes, backpacks, and Pelican cases for the final bout of preparation. Caitlin is our handler in Sitka. A Stanford student, Caitlin is from Sitka and provides invaluable support in town for transportation, knowing who to talk to and where to get what we need, moral support, and (with her mother Stacey) baker of fabulous cookies. Lodging at the Forest Service bunks is a notable step down in quality from the wood-and-window house overlooking the channel in Juneau, but it will get the job done. Many of the same activities continued in Sitka – wrestling with GPS equipment, developing data collection details, and data management for me, research design and myriad other details for Lauren, and food, equipment, and camp logistics for Odin and Kate. Plus some training and meetings for us all.

Odin and I, bunkhouse buddies, have spent a lot of time together over the past few days. He is about to start a Master’s degree in Siberian cultural studies, having traveled to Siberia a couple of times on research projects. Raised in Juneau, Odin provides the team with Alaska street cred. I particularly enjoy his colloquialisms – a garbage bag is the Southeast Samsonite (after the luggage company), and he regularly calls garbage bags Samonsites. XtraTuffs, rubber boots that are the footwear of any reputable Southeast Alaskan and incredibly functional in the perpetual rain and drizzle of this part of the world, are the Juneau Tennies. I now own a pair, and they are function and style sublime.

I got to spend some time at the shooting range with the .44 magnum handgun and .338-caliber rifle we will be taking into the field with us as a last resort for grizzly bear protection. Nearly all of our bear-prep efforts are going into bear avoidance and conflict mitigation – keeping a meticulously clean campsite, making noise wherever we go, and interpreting bear actions to know how to act to alleviate difficult encounters. It sounds like there will be a lot of bears where we are headed, a density of around one per square mile, and encounters are inevitable if not common. I will consider my work complete when I see a big grizzly bear scratching his back on a tree.

Tomorrow morning we begin. It was easy to lose sight of the field experience when we have all been so focused on completing preparation tasks. I think we are all excited – we are well prepared, we have a solid research plan, and we will have a breathtaking backdrop in the Chichagof Wilderness. Wish us luck!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

walking through time

after thinking about this project for about a year now, i traipsed amidst my first dead yellow-cedars. i couldn’t help but close my eyes and remember what i saw in the healthy forests in Glacier Bay National Park just a week ago. it felt like walking through time. i want to know what happens when the yellow-cedars die. we're not trying to predict where they’ll decline in this study. but, there, standing amidst the dead, i couldn’t help wonder – will i witness these changes further North in my lifetime? i looked up at the canopy and remembered the first fish eye photos i shot of the dense canopy cover in the healthy forests. there, in the dead, the canopy opened. the sun penetrated through. the sound, the silence, the way the wind moved through the forest, was distinctly different. yellow-cedars stood starkly above. below, the green boomed.

we are going to have one heck of a summer measuring trees and counting stems to figure out what happens next.

kate and odin took off to sitka to get our food together, piece together some equipment, and get down to some plants on the ground. paul and i spent the week in Juneau finalizing maps, troubleshooting GPS units, getting data sheets printed. he is a problem-solver and a determined soul. one of those always-positive-i-have-endless-energy people. i feel grateful for the team that has come together.

still haven’t figured how to get a photo album on this blog (no time or maybe it’s not possible)… so feel free to take a tour of facebook.

we leave at the crack of dawn tomorrow to boat out to west chichagof for our first two week stint. we begin at waterfall cove. we’ll soon be setting up base camp and marking the perimeter with flagging (and pee) so we all know “our territory.” really, it’s what the bear biologist recommends. with the temperature sensors prorgrammed, DBH tape, plant books, and tree borers packed (along with enough cous cous to feed a small army), and a new revised sampling plan thanks to stats captain steele, we are ready at last. more upon return July 8th…

Thursday, June 23, 2011

first impressions

From above, the clouds are white and pewter, with small but steep ravines like rolling prairie hills cut by a stream. Descending through the clouds, tufts of blue flash above. Forested peaks take shape, scattered and emerging from the clear blue Pacific Ocean, and I see Alaska for the first time.

Riding the light rail to the airport felt like any other rushed trip around Seattle. I was sad to say goodbye to Marie for the summer, but not as sad as she seemed to be. I was amazed at how fast my stress and preoccupation with obligations of a few hours earlier dissipated after the plane took off. Waiting in Ketchican for my transfer, I enjoyed the last swigs of Seattle tap water from my bottle.

Lauren met me at the airport in Juneau. We’d Skyped for the interview and emailed plenty but it is still exciting to meet in person for the first time. Lauren had previewed the other teammates accurately: Odin is tall, competent, reserved, Alaskan; Kate is enthusiastic, industrious, and motivating. We met up with them at the easternmost house in Juneau, where miles and miles of national forest extend north and east, and the Gastineau Channel, long ago carved by the now-receding glacier, passes to the south. Lauren secured the house from her out-of-town friends, and it is beautiful and simple, with thick wood and abundant windows. The house is my first indication of Lauren’s knack for getting people excited about her work. After a team meeting we go to bed; Odin and Kate leave early in the morning to catch the ferry to Sitka. I will stay with Lauren in Juneau. I am surprisingly doubtless that this will be a fantastic project.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

lasers & green friends

kate and i spent the afternoon testing out the "impulse" -- a fun laser gun kind of thing that we will use to measure tree heights. we traipsed around one of the local trails in juneau while the crows and eagles sang from above. i am starting to see at last how this whole forest frolick thing is a walk through time. it's like piecing a puzzle together -- how old is that tree, how old is this tree, which one grew tall and perhaps why... i found myself enjoying a familiar place in a whole new way. measuring trees asks you to stand still, to look, listen, and get to know a community in an entirely different way than the usual pass-through hike. we also played with a clinometer old school style.

so the top photo is actually from glacier bay. that's a tag on one of my first cores in a yellow-cedar forest. middle photo is kate tearing it up with the impulse (you should also see her with a rifle). and bottom shot is devil's club's_Club. undoubtedly we will all be oozing from some spine sticking by this legendary southeast plant.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

a lord of the rings kind of day.

so we are frolicking in forests at last. a short, too short, trip today to glacier bay national park to check out some of the protected live yellow-cedar stands at the northern extent of the study area. it is true, there is something totally magical about stepping into an old growth forest. even when you're running around for as many tree cores as you can get in 37 minutes and it's raining down on the fisheye lens, there's still a sense of calm that wisdom and history imparts. i tried hard to soak it in amidst the tasks at hand, as it will be a while until we walk in a healthy forest like the ones we saw today. i want to be able to close my eyes in the dying yellow-cedar forests and remember how they might have once been. we installed some climate sensors in both the soil and air to be able to collect at least a year of data -- so as of tonight at 12:00am those guys will be doing their job like champs. i'd like to give special thanks to mcdonald's for the first time in my life. it turns out that they source the best straws for storing tree cores.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

compass points north.

maps printed, batteries charging, brace yourself for my crates, TSA... it's just about go time! kind of hard to believe that in just a little bit, we will be dropping into what i am hearing is one of the most magical spots in southeast alaska. i kinda can't imagine that reality after all the time with my head in the books. i still have yet to do first prism sweeps to assess basal area (read: aspiring forest geek) and we have a lot of little green plant friends to learn. but the adventure starts here...
the plan is to do a fly over the whole study area to assess feasibility of sites when i get there. we have paper maps and digital ones too, if technology & power stay on our side. the black circles in this map illustrate areas of yellow-cedar decline that forest health researchers mapped by hand, aerially. the blue lines are from what are called digital elevation models (DEMs) - basically top notch maps that show elevation around the globe at various resolutions. needless the say, the alaska resolution is not the best! yellow-cedars tend to die-off at lower elevations, in poorly drained soils. we hope to be able to hit up a lot of forests across a large area (paddling, hiking, whatever it takes) so we plan to stay low in the coastal "niche" of these trees and their neighbors (below the blue).

team outer coast is accepting summertime cookies (as well as donations for the insane costs of research in alaska!). welcome paul fischer, who emerged like a champ from the pack forest of washington to join us. when we are drying out and downloading data, we will be accessible through the Sitka Sound Science Center: 834 Lincoln St # 20, Sitka, AK 99835.

ok --- more from glacier bay national park next week... thank you to the very long list of people from north to south who have helped get everything in order this spring and to those who told me to just keep at it, with a leap of faith into the wilderness. - Lauren