Friday, July 27, 2012

On a field trip in Southwestern Alaskan wilderness

Last week was very exciting for me (Piia) since I got to take part in a field trip to Southwestern Alaskan wilderness. Trip was part of a project that SNAP is participating and the goal is to better understand environmental changes and take these changes under consideration when making conservation and land management decisions. The goal of the field trip was to check the landscape by floating rivers and maybe find rare plant species in a new project area.

I started my trip on Sunday morning by flying to Anchorage, using a 20-seat mini plane. Travelling went well, thought I found out in Anchorage that the company had left my backpack to Fairbanks. Without outdoor gear you can’t really do a field trip, so I was really hoping they would bring the backpack to me in time. In afternoon I met the field group: Keith Boggs, the leader (Natural Heritage Program), Scott Guyer (Bureau of Land Management, BLM) and Aliza Segal (BLM) and we spent a couple of hours packing and checking out the gear. All looked ready for the morning so I headed to my hotel and spent my evening eating candy and watching TV which I call getting ready for a field trip. My backpack arrived at the hotel as well, so all good!

Day 1 

On Monday morning I arrived at a busy small plane airport where our planes were already waiting for us. Because the project area is located, really, in middle-of-nowhere, we had to first fly there by two small planes. Because of the weather conditions we had to wait until afternoon for the take-off.

The flight to the wilderness was amazing experience! I was sitting in a copilot seat and the view was great! First we saw the coastal tide area and some white whales swimming around. And then we crossed the Alaska Range mountains and saw volcanoes (Mt. Spur and Mt. Redoubt) and many glaciers very close. Amazing! The flight lasted over two hours and after we landed on Two Lakes safely and smoothly. 

We unpacked the planes and they headed straight away back to Anchorage. Then we put the rafts together and started the trip floating down Necons River. Because it was already pretty late afternoon, we floated only about an hour and then stopped on a gravel bar and stayed the night there.

Evening was very windy and the ground pretty soft and wet, so it was a bit challenging to put up my ultralight tent. I think the group may had had doubts about my wilderness skills at that point, but hopefully they changed they minds later. It was just very interesting experience to be part of a wilderness trip that doesn’t include any weight limit. We had all kinds of luxury items with us, like chairs, table, coolers, and a big mosquito tent and so on. You could have had as much food as you can eat, any kind of food, but of course I realized it just when we were enjoying the first evening with wine mugs. I think I did fine anyway, even with a half of amount of gear comparing the others…

For dinner Keith made some delicious nut sauce with rice, and then we had a small walk along bear trails along the river bank. We saw a Yellowlegs and Grey Jay, and lots of animal traces. Night was peaceful, and I slept well and deep.

Day 2

We woke up on Tuesday morning, men at 6 and girls at 7.30, and had some breakfast. As we were packing the boats we suddenly saw a grizzly bear walking on an island near us. It went around and then swam to the other side of the river. That was something to see I can tell you! In Finland we are not used to seeing bears and here they are part of any kinds of trips you do at least near good salmon rivers. Pretty amazing!

We spent the whole day floating knowing we had many miles to go until Friday. We had still some changes to stop at gravel bars and observe the environment in case of rare species and animal tracks.

While floating with Keith we talked about Alaska and exchanged experiences. I learned a lot about environment and vegetation here, and also about doing field work in Alaskan wilderness. That was very fascinating! We both rowed and I got to try some bigger streams as well. I would say it wasn’t a waste to learn how to row with my dad and his fishing nets. 

Amazing landscapes!
In afternoon we joined the bigger stream, Stony river.

We also got excited about observing birds with Keith, and on Tuesday we saw at least Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Chickadees, Ravens, Thrushes, Mergansers, Loons, Sandpipers and a King Fisher. We also saw a weasel and beavers. Salmons were jumping around.

And of course the most exciting thing was to see 13 bear altogether and six of them were cubs! You can’t really do anything else than watch the bear from a few meters distance and respect it while it’s trying to decide, whether you are food or something to be afraid of. All of them run away eventually, so we didn’t have any problems, just nice experience.

 This mom bear was waiting for a good moment to catch some fish...

 And jumped to water...

But only got eyes on us!

For the evening we found a beautiful gravel/sand bar and even putting my tent up was faster this time. We enjoyed Scott’s while bean chili –dinner and then hiked to a hill to check the vegetation and landscape structure.

You could say dwarf birch grows pretty big here…

The night was windy and it went well and the tent didn’t fly away.

Day 3

Wednesday was very sunny day and I started to feel it in my face. We had pretty strong headwind the whole day and to go on the river we had to row the whole time. Otherwise the boat would just stop. The landscape was very beautiful and we floated through some impressive canyons.

Keith told me stories about Alaskan history and again I learned a lot. We didn’t see any bears anymore, but we did some bird observations: Bank Swallow, Spotted Sandpiper, Rough-legged Hawk and Gyr Falcon were the new species we saw.

After almost 10 hours of floating we found a gravel bar to stay the night, and I managed to put up the tent pretty easily this time. Aliza made nice chili for dinner and I made chocolate pudding pie. It was a really amazing day! Do people really call this work?

Day 4

On Thursday we had good tailwind and we floated twice as fast as on previous day. I was with Scott now and heard many exciting stories about working on field, and I kept wondering how I could have a job like this… It was a fast day on the river with nice landscapes and some rapids.

This time finding a good place to sleep was more difficult but finally we managed to find a gravel bar pretty near our final destination, a native village called Lime Village. This also meant we saw the first sings of settlements in three days.

Tonight was my turn to cook, an honor I had been waiting for with great fear. Others, following the no-weight-limit philosophy, had so great food with them, my pasta-with-tomato-paste-sauce sounded a bit ridiculous. And actually, Scott, the meat-eater, had done a field trip with a few vegetarians with similar menu to mine, and he wasn’t sure if he could call that kind of food “dinner”. My back was sweating. Aliza saved me at the end, since she had made her chili for maybe 20 people. So my job was to cook pasta and serve it with the chili already made. I was happy!
The last evening we spent talking, drinking wine and watching Aliza doing some hardcore plant recognitions. Keith, the leader and the man with the plan, confirmed that the trip had gone according to the plan. What the plan was, no one really knew, but we were feeling happy.

Day 5

Friday morning was relaxing since we didn’t have to hurry and Keith didn’t have to use so much voice to get us girls up. While we floated the last miles, we started to see more and more people and settlements along the river. Here people live, hundreds of miles away from roads, living the Alaskan dream in real wilderness.

The air a bit smoky, they said it's because of Siperian forest fires...

We arrived at Lime Village before noon and had a warm welcoming. We met a few women who borrowed us their four-wheeler so we could get our gear to the village’s airport, meaning runway. After that we got to know to the village, and the women showed us their fish preparation and drying, and we also got to taste some. At the end, everyone agreed to buy some pieces of dried salmon to bring home.

Tour in Lime Village

In afternoon, two planes came to pick us up and we headed back to Anchorage, and the trip was done.

This week was amazing experience for me and I learned a lot and enjoyed every moment. I know feel like I know a little bit of real Alaskan wilderness, what it is about and I respect this place even more.

Thank you Keith, Scott and Aliza for making this trip happening, having me along and making this something unforgettable.