early August, 118 miles from the Arctic Circle. Time for a walk
The last time I wrote about hiking through the North Campus
of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, summer was a puppy crashing
into your shin. Now it has a white muzzle.
I note this maturity while moving through a nice chunk of boreal
forest in the mile between my workplace and my home. For a lot of
reasons, Im lucky to be able to commute on foot, bike or ski
August is a wet time for us here in Fairbanks. A somewhat predictable
shift in the jet stream shuttles airborne moisture through the green
alley between the Kuskokwim Mountains and the Alaska Range. In other
seasons, snow and rain slam into mountain walls, keeping us dry.
This summer has been different from remembered ones, with twice
the average amounts of rain falling on my little world in June and
July. This has swelled the sluggish creeks that ooze through this
1,000-plus acres of spruce, birch, and Labrador tea. On days of
heavy rain, wood chips carted in to enhance trails have floated
in unison, a regatta sailing on.
In addition to requiring more labor from the attentive trail
groomers who work for the university, the coolness and inches of
rain in June and July have resulted in the following observations.
1. Fabulous mushrooms. The fruiting bodies of fungi beneath
the surface have popped up like sudden trolls. Some are wet and
phallic. Others have spongy heads as large as dinner plates.
2. Ample mosquitoes. Enduring pockets of water throughout the
forest have provided the females convenient places to lay eggs.
The incubating cups have remained liquid, allowing remarkable birthing
3. No fire smoke. The nostalgic scent of vaporized spruce and
willow has drifted in just once, from a large fire on the Kenai
Peninsula. For most of the summer, the air has been clear and smells
like the color green, bitter and fresh.
4. Happy trees. Spruces in these parts have been thirsty in
recent summers, but the muskeg is now sopping. The spruce tops are
nodding with green cones. Red squirrels, which feed almost exclusively
on the seeds within the cones, are in great number. White-winged
crossbills chitter their happy songs from the treetops. Their beaks,
which fit together like crossed fingers, allow the year-round residents
to open cones with ease. Perhaps they sense prosperity.
5. A gathering of sandhill cranes. A few dozen birds stride
inside a fenced plantation of balsam poplar trees, maybe feeding
on grasshoppers. The group spent the summer somewhere to the north,
some of them emerging from eggs on tundra. Their prehistoric croaks
ring when a runner passes with his dog.
6. A return to stillness. All the Townsends warblers and
ruby-crowned kinglets have done their thing. The males spend no
more energy on their lovely, rhythmic, brief songs. The new birds
of the year are invisibly gobbling up insects as they prepare for
epic journeys southward. Somehow, they will never forget these trees
of their birthplace. Most will return to perch on a crooked black
spruce branch here next April or May.
Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks
Scientists at the Geophysical Institute study geophysical processes
in action from the center of Earth to the surface of the sun and beyond.
The Institute turns data and observations into information useful
for research, state and national needs. Much of this research is performed
by Institute faculty, staff and students as part of their regular