As some people know about me I am not a big fan of driving. If given the option I will ride my bike or walk, but I accept the fact that most of the best adventures are not in my backyard, so I'll hop in my car to find cool stuff to do. Well, that said, I love driving in Alaska. The scenery is simply spectacular, I don't encounter many other cars or people, and I stop fairly regularly to botanize and take photos. Last Monday I took off down the Steese Highway northeast of Fairbanks. The road is mostly unpaved and quickly rises above the tree line providing great views and plant life. Additionally, as I was driving along I could tell there was something special about this highway but it took me a bit to place it - there wasn't a single billboard or power line for 100 miles! It was amazing. I should note this wasn't just a joyride - I have a bunch of plants documented from the highest pass on the Steese...but it was still a frozen tundra up there and flowering plants hadn't yet popped. I did stop a bit lower on the highway to check out some tundra flowers and was thrilled to find Micranthes nelsoniana. It is a pretty common plant but this made for my first collection of this species in Alaska (I did collect it in China) so I was excited.
I next drove south down the Richardson Highway towards Delta Junction. I didn't think it could get better than the Steese... and then it did. I stopped at one point to search around a rather obscure lake for Micranthes hieraciifolia. I didn't find that plant but I did see a pair of tundra swans in the wild! It never occurred to me that I would see a wild swan, so, though botanically speaking, that walkabout was not fruitful I'll take my cool fauna sighting.
I didn't think it could get any better than the Richardson Highway... but then I drove the Denali Highway! The Denali Highway was the first road to Denali National Park but now it is just a lightly-used dirt road running 135 miles east-west between Paxson and Cantwell. And it is spectacular! It was a bit too early for my flowers but I stopped around mile marker 100 and went for a job on the road. It was one of the best runs of my life - epic mountains all around, crisp air, and no traffic. Also, the road had these, um, what's the word? Oh yeah "hills" (we don't have those in Florida). I enjoyed it so much - and it was probably helpful it was 30˚F cooler than I am used to - I ran some of the fastest mile times I have run in awhile.
The next day I swung back to Denali National Park to meet with a group of park employees and participate in a flower walk. That wasn't until the afternoon so I had an enjoyable jaunt up towards Sugarloaf Mountain outside of the park. There isn't a set trail up there so it was fun to pick my way up the side of the mountain. There were tons of Micranthes reflexa in bloom along the way but I already have three collections of that species, so I left that population untouched for future generations. There happened to be a bluegrass band in town that night so I enjoyed some excellent live music (BrownChicken BrownCow String Band) before hitting the road again the next day.
On Friday I made my way south towards Palmer, AK. For fun I decided to hike up the seemingly ironically named Lazy Mountain. There is nothing lazy about it - there are no switchbacks, it is just straight up. It was a great hike and I'm counting it as my first peak bag of the summer. There were interesting flowers the whole way including northern groundcones (Boschniakia rossica). These plants are holoparasites meaning they are a non-photosynthetic flowering plant that parasitize the roots of alders and other woody plants. Cool stuff huh?
I've spent the last few days in the Kenai Peninsula, and holy geeze, if you get one shot at Alaska I'd recommend driving the Seward Highway south of Anchorage and spending a week exploring this part of the state. Yesterday I hiked ten miles and found three different species of Micranthes, I chose a campground on a whim and it just happened to have spectacular views, and today I hiked to a glacier. The glacier hike included a great bear sighting = close enough to get a good look, far enough away to not feel threatened/be threatening. It was a black bear mom and cub climbing up a tree. What more could you want in an Alaska trip?!?
This Friday I am giving a 45 minute (!) talk at the Murie Science and Learning Center at Denali National Park. If you happen to be in the area come check it out! As a final note, for at least the last five years whenever I am on a very long hike and I start to get cold or my feet hurt or I'm just ready to be done hiking I compose haikus to help pass the time. So, I'll be concluding today's post with my favorite haiku from last week: