The Micranthes Mother Lode

Flight suit!

On the 6th of July after taking a youth group out botanizing in Denali National Park I drove nine hours east to McCarthy, Alaska. I arrived late at night and was greeted by my new friend Morgan, who works for Wrangell St. Elias National Park. I hastily threw together my pack for a 3 to 4 day backpacking trip in the Wrangell Mountains and tried to go to sleep. I was nervous I had forgotten to pack something needed for survival in Alaska, so I didn't sleep that well. Luckily, the next morning I was very excited for the trip, which kept me energized.

Super Cub landing on the Mountain Plateau in front of Morgan. From the Super Cub website: "The Cub is considered by many to be the ultimate backcountry airplane. It can land and take off where no other airplane dares to go." Yup.

We walked across the footbridge into McCarthy (public cars aren't allowed in the town - more on this later) where we were picked up by Elizabeth, a front country and wilderness ranger (and total badass) for the park, and drove to the airstrip. Fun fact - when flying with the Park Service all passengers are required to wear flight suits á la Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Which makes everything better. We had to fly in this special little plane called a Super Cub because we had to land on “a very short landing strip on top of a mountain.” This plane barely held the pilot plus one other person, had huge squishy wheels, and seemed to be mostly windows. I've never really seen, nor been in, anything like it. Since we could only fly one at a time Morgan went first to survey the area for her job. As an aside, while Elizabeth and I were waiting for the plane to return we watched the airport's mechanic walk over to a different plane and inspect it. He then produced a roll of duct tape and applied it to the front of the plane. I looked at Elizabeth asked her to confirm that they were fixing one of their planes with duct tape. She nodded and laughed. Great! 

I flew next. I crawled into the passenger seat located behind the pilot and he gave me a brief safety talk that I will sum up as, "if we crash none of this safety talk will matter." We took off pretty quickly and the views were spectacular. After a few minutes it seemed we were flying much to close to an approaching mountain. It dawned on me that we were headed towards a large plateau that could, in fact, pass as a place to land. This thought made me nervous which resulted in me giggling incessantly as the plane neared the plateau. Before I could think anything of it we touched down on the rocky mountain ridge and came to a stop not long after that. The clouds were rolling in so I quickly jumped out, and the pilot flipped the plane around and took off a few seconds (and a few hundred feet) later to go get Elizabeth. The views from the plateau were spectacular, but I'd barely explored by the time I heard the plane coming in again with the third member of our team. 

Maybe the best panorama I took while in Alaska. Wrangell St. Elias National Park near Nikolai Pass.

I had a few records of Micranthes from near the plateau so we made sure our packs were bear-secure and left them to go explore. In a very short amount of time I found four Micranthes, two of which I had not yet collected in Alaska! Of the two, one was not even recorded from this part of the Wrangells! I was stoked. Additionally, that area was in full bloom so the botanizing in general was excellent. I made my collections, we regrouped, and schlepped on our packs. There weren't any trails back there so Elizabeth had asked around and she had drawn a rough sketch of where we wanted to hike based on advice from locals. Many of the locals knew of this hike because it was renowned for the scenery - referred to as Nikolai Pass - so we felt pretty confident in the plan. We started walking towards our campsite for that night covering only a small percentage of this plateau. I mention this only because as a botanist who studies small plants I am constantly staring at my feet -- always aware of the flowers that are nearby (but maybe not the fauna). Well, simply through luck we walked right through a small patch of the next Micranthes I had wanted to find! If we had walked ten feet in either direction we wouldn't have seen the plant! I know this because the three of us split up trying to find more plants and we couldn't find any besides the first dozen. It was such a small population that I only collected one specimen. I had not seen this plant, M. calycina, anywhere else in Alaska so it was an important collection to make. As we continued on to where we wanted to camp I saw three more Micranthes, all of which I already had ample collections of in Alaska so I didn't need to stop for them. By the time we made it to where we were setting up our tents I had seen seven Micranthes in one day - three of which were new collections for me. A personal best for sure.

Our first night camping in the wrangells. Epic.

We camped in the most beautiful place ever (see photo) and had a nice, yet very windy, evening. The next day began with us side-hilling on a scree slope. We were all worried about how dangerous this was going to be but the slope was more stable than it looked, and we made it to the next ridge without incident. The ridge walk from here on out was mellow and we bagged a small unnamed peak along the way. We made it to the end of the ridge to begin our descent down to the creek. And the descent was gnarly. It was steep, brushy, dangerous, hot, and dusty. I'll spare you the details but when we made it down to the creek we all had to splash water on our faces and regroup in silence. From there anything was an improvement, and though we had to walk in the creek in wet boots with water cresting our knees for over an hour, it still seemed better than our descent. By the time we made it to a good camp spot for the night we were all exhausted. That day it took us nine hours to cover six miles (six miles normally takes about three hours for me) and when I told Elizabeth this she laughed and remarked that those times sound about right for a "true Alaska hike". We all slept great that night. 

Collecting Micranthes Spicata in Wrangell St. Elias National Park. This species has not been recorded from the park, nor even this region of Alaska. I am covered from head to toes because the mosquitos were terrible. Worth it for this plant!

At this point we just had to walk along the McCarthy River back to town. Sounds easy right? Wrong. We either had to be bushwhacking up and over riverside bluffs or walking in the river, which at points was deep and moving fast. It was far from easy-going but we made the best of it. At one point after walking in the brush for awhile we emerged out to the river and about 50 feet away was a rock outcropping covered in plants with long-petioled basal rosettes. I just presumed it was a Heuchera or some other member of Saxifragaceae, but I went to check it out anyhow. Much to my surprise it was Micranthes spicata - which is not recorded from Wrangell St. Elias National Park at all and not even anywhere in that region! I was shocked and elated. I had been looking for this plant off and on for the past few weeks and I had begun to think I was never going to find it. It is a microhabitat specialist and it was going to have to be pure luck if I was ever going to find it. And that is exactly what happened. It was a large, healthy population of plants, though limited to a very specific rock-outcropping, so I quickly made my collections while swatting off mosquitos before hitting the trail again. We eventually made it back to town and I knew that I had found my people because as we neared the main street Morgan mentioned really wanting a beer so we agreed to head straight to the bar with wet feet, packs, and all. We had beers and burritos (well, not Elizabeth because she was in a National Park Service uniform so no beer for her) and it was one of the tastiest beers ever.

Kennecott mine.

That night I went to the Golden Saloon in McCarthy and mingled with the locals. McCarthy is a bizarre and wonderful place. Apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks that - there is a reality tv show filmed there called Edge of Alaska. There aren't any vehicles allowed in the town so every time I entered I rode a borrowed bike across the foot bridge. There's also a shuttle and lots of people use ATVS; one of my favorite sights was two women in their 70s blazing through town on a 4-wheeler together. McCarthy arose in the early 1900s in conjunction with the Kennecott copper mine which holds the record as the most lucrative copper mine in the world. As the story goes, because alcohol was forbidden in Kennecott, the adjacent McCarthy grew as an area to provide illicit services (think alcohol and women) not available in the company town. Then when the mine was abandoned (it's now a ghost town managed by the Park Service) McCarthy almost vanished into oblivion. Interests in the area resurged in the 70s by those seeking adventure/isolation and was solidified when Wrangell St. Elias National Park was designated in the 80s. In present day, McCarthy is still very isolated, yet it is filled with a diverse grouping of people who choose to live pretty far removed from the rest of the world. After our night out Morgan and I had a delicious breakfast at the Slow Down Cafe (which I highly recommend next time you are in McCarthy) followed by a walk through Kennecott to a hike out on a glacier. I've never been that interested in ghost towns (too touristy) but Kennecott was really interesting, and it's fascinating to think of the amount of man hours that went into making such an elaborate and expansive operation so far removed society in the early 20th century. You also have to walk through it to get to the Root Glacier - which is probably one of the coolest things I've done in Alaska (no pun intended). 

I'm so good at changing tires. An important part of being a botanist.

I got a bee in my bonnet to hit the road that night so I retrieved my fixed flat tire (did I mention that I, unsurprisingly, had a flat after driving way too fast down the gravel road leading to McCarthy? Luckily, there is an interesting character who fixes flats in town so for a reasonable fee and some light discussion about how we live in a dictatorship my tire was fixed in less than a few days!) and I left the magical town of McCarthy. I drove south for an hour to Thompson Pass just north of Valdez, AK and set up my tent among the grand Chugach Mountains. I meandered around the pass finding three Micranthes that I had not collected in the park. In total, between the Wrangells and Thompson Pass I saw 11 species of Micranthes in five days! I'm not sure I will ever have that much collecting success ever again. 

I'm currently sitting at the airport in Anchorage waiting for my flight to Nome, Alaska. Look up Nome on a map - it is out there. There are quite a few Micranthes in the Seward Peninsula (where Nome is) but I have one plant there - M. nudicaulis - that in the entire world only occurs around Nome and directly across the Bering Sea in Russia. If I find it I will officially have every Micranthes in Alaska. Wish me luck! 

Micranthes ferruginea at Thompson Pass in the Chugach Mountains.