USA: Alaska #12 Kupreanof Muskeg Walk

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Muskeg bog plateau © JT of jtdytravels; P1130820

Once we had reached the border between the forest and the wet boggy Muskeg Plateau on the hill above Petersburg, the walking was much easier, the steps were not so steep and we had a different lot of plants to look for and photograph. The first one was obvious. All the way along the side of the path were the fluffy white seed heads of cotton plants, Eriophorum. 

Eriophorum chamissonis ©  JT  of  jtdytravels; P1130833

Eriophorum chamissonis © JT of jtdytravels; P1130833

David and I have seen various cotton grass species in many wet boggy areas in Europe, especially in the peat bogs of Ireland.  Eriophorum chamissonis, is one of the two cotton grasses common in the muskegs of this part of Alaska. This species has a solitary spikelet at the tip of a rounded slender stem. The plant grows from spreading rhizomes, so if conditions are right, they can spread rather quickly.

In fact, cotton grass is so extensive on these muskegs that, in a good year, the whole plateau can look white like snow because of the fluffy heads.

Blechnum spicant ©  JT  of  jtdytravels; P1130816

Blechnum spicant © JT of jtdytravels; P1130816

One of the plants growing just at the border between forest and bog was this upright fern commonly called Deer Fern; Blechnum spicant. I’ve read that some indiginous peoples used to chew the very young leaves as hunger suppressants! Others used the leaves to treat skin sores. Apparently, the people had noticed that the deer, who love to eat this plant, would rub their antlers on the leaves after their antlers had fallen off.

The problem for us as plant photographers here in the muskeg was that plants were often just tantalisingly out of reach; we couldn’t step off the boardwalk onto the grass to take photos as it was very, very wet; and, in any case, our footsteps would harm the environment.

Moose fotsteps in the bog ©  JT  of  jtdytravels; P1130842

Moose footsteps in the bog © JT of jtdytravels; P1130842

Of course, the native animals didn’t use the boardwalk, as these moose footsteps show… at least we were told that they belonged to a moose. That’s all we saw of any moose.

Our naturalist, Caroline ©  JT  of  jtdytravels; P1130828

Our naturalist, Caroline Jezierski © JT of jtdytravels; P1130828

A single file line up of walkers is not the easiest place to give a talk about muskeg bogs. However, our very knowledgeable and delightful naturalist, Caroline Jezierski, solved the problem… she found a dryish patch off the boardwalk so that she could talk to us all about this very different environment. So what is muskeg? The name is used in Western Canada and Alaska to describe peat bog that is formed, often over millennia, by an accumulation of slowly decaying matter in undrained or poorly drained land. Because of the wetness and lack of phosphates and nitrates in the soil, trees are scattered and generally stunted. 

The land behind Caroline clearly shows the line where the muskeg, on the plateau, meets the forest, on the downward slope of the hill. It’s all about drainage and decomposition.

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Reflections in bog pool © JT of jtdytravels; P1130821

Muskeg forms in areas that have abundant rain, cool summers and very poor drainage. It’s permanently waterlogged with stagnant pools. The soil is acidic and relatively infertile, preventing the growth of the large trees to 33 m (100 ft) such as those we’d seen growing further down on the slope where drainage is more normal.

Down there, in the forest that we’d just walked through, the soil is drier and, when a plant dies there, it is attacked by bacteria and fungi and rots away relatively quickly. But here in this bog, dead plants decompose differently.  Cool temperatures and less oxygen in water-logged soils combine to cause bacterial and fungal growth to markedly slow down and so the whole process of decomposition is much slower; so slow that, over time, as plant debris gradually accumulates, it forms peat and eventually becomes a muskeg environment of specialised bog loving plants.

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Bog plants © JT of jtdytravels; P1130826

It was hard to believe the notion of cool summers as the sun beat down on us that hot afternoon. But this was a dry summer; many of the bog pools were drying out and conditions were too warm and dry for a normal month of June. The roots of these bog plants would soon dry out if normal conditions didn’t soon return. The balance of nature is very much effected by changes in climate and June had been the driest month on record for the area.

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Dry bog pool © JT of jtdytravels; P1130852

This ‘pool’ was already too dry to support any of the usual bog plants.

Dry, warm summers might be good for visitors to the area

but they are not good for muskeg plants.

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Jake’s Seat © DY of jtdytravels; P1130838

At this point in our walk, there was a small rest platform for which a number of us were very thankful. I was also grateful to the family of “Jake” who had placed a wooden seat on this platform. I took the opportunity to rest for a few minutes and take in the scenery.

Stunted tree ©  JT  of  jtdytravels; P1130869

Stunted tree © JT of jtdytravels; P1130869

The main group continued with the walk across the plateau towards the higher slope where the forest began again. Someone thought they could see an eagle’s nest. With fewer people on the board walk, David took the chance to get some photos of the plants that he found growing in these boggy conditions. Good plant photography can’t be rushed and, with most bog plants growing so low to the ground, you really do need a bit of space to kneel. David’s results were well worth the effort as we shall see.

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Eriophorum angustifolium © DY of jtdytravels; P1100500

The well named Arctic Cotton, or Cotton Grass, Eriophorum angustifolium is the other local species of Cotton grass plant on the muskeg. It, too, enjoys wet roots in peaty bogs. But,unlike the single headed  Eriophorum chamissonis, which I’d photographed earlier, this plant has 2 to 8 fluffy spikelets on each stem, drooping in a cluster.

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Fauria crista-galli © DY of jtdytravels; P1100518

This Deer Cabbage flower, Fauria crista-galli, had several small visitors!

David says he didn’t actually see the mites when taking the photo…

they are really very tiny!

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Drosera rotundifolia © DY of jtdytravels; P1100503

My favourite muskeg plants were the Sundews; insectivorous plants that thrive here in the bogs where nutrients are low. These are Drosera rotundifolia, which are very small plants and you really do have to get down to see them clearly. But to see them was well worth the long, hot hike up that hill.

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Drosera rotundifolia © DY of jtdytravels; P1100502

A close up of the stunningly beautiful Round-leaved Sundew; Drosera rotundifolia. The leaves are covered with sticky gland-tipped hairs that capture and digest insects. How amazing is the evolution of plant species! I always delight in finding plants like these.

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Drosera anglica © DY of jtdytravels; P1100508

And this is another species of Sundew found in a nearby bog pool.

This one is the Great Sundew;  Drosera anglica.

It’s much less common than the Round-leaved Sundew; Drosera rotundifolia

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Drosera anglica © DY of jtdytravels; P1100516

A close up of a Great Sundew;  Drosera anglica.

Different shaped leaves but the same mechanism for catching insects.

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Linnaea borealis © DY  of  jtdytravels; P1100484

Another very low-growing plant is Linnaea borealis or Twin Flower. I enjoyed seeing this delightful pink flowering plant which David had seen on an earlier walk. It seemed quite at home growing amongst the sphagnum moss on the muskeg.

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Sphagnum sp. © JT of jtdytravels; P1130872

Various types of sphagnum are the most common plants on the muskeg.

They are the original colonising plants of these areas and

they help to provide some nutrients for plants such as the Twin Flower.

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Unknown flower © DY of jtdytravels; P1100489

This is one flower we found that we haven’t been able to identify. Although David does know many plant names, when he is out of area in places like this bog in Alaska, many of the plants are new to him. We’ve had to search our books and the internet to name many of the plants in this Alaskan diary. We find that Images on Google is a great place to go to help in verification after a first effort at naming. Sometimes, however, we come up with a blank. If anyone can help with the correct naming of this flower, please leave a comment at the end of the post.

Platanthera dilitata ©  DY  of  jtdytravels; P1100495

Platanthera dilitata © DY of jtdytravels; P1100495

The lovely White Bog-Orchid,  Platanthera dilitata, was much easier to identify. The waxy flowers of this orchid might be small but they are very fragrant, smelling, some say, of a mixture of cloves, vanilla and mock orange.  The plant is poisonous and extracts from it were used by some indigenous groups to act as bait for bears. Pretty but poisonous!

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© JT of jtdytravels; P1130848

While David was photographing all of these low growing plants,

I was enjoying the sculptural shapes of stunted trees.

And this one had a small visitor.

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Dragonfly © JT of jtdytravels; P1130859

A dragonfly; it seemed to take little notice of me or of my camera.

I was able to observe it closely and was delighted by those delicate, gauzy wings.

Sometimes it pays to be on your own… take time … and be still..

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Linnaea borealis © JT of jtdytravels; P1130873

Just as we left the plateau to make our way back down the hill, I noticed this patch of Twin flowers, Linnaea borealis. The small piece of wood beside them gives some idea of relative scale. They are tiny; but so beautiful.

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Rubus pedatus © DY of jtdytravels; P1100498

Back in the edges of the old growth forest, David found this perennial trailing plant that likes to grow on moss, Rubus pedatus, or Five-leaved Bramble. The leaves, as the name suggests, are divided into five toothed leaflets. They give the plant its species name, pedatus, or foot. The fruit forms a small juicy flavourful cluster, like a raspberry.

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Interesting leaf shapes © DY of jtdytravels; P1100519

More interesting leaf shapes caught David’s eye. A quick photo and after that there was no chance to photograph anything. The rest of the group seemed anxious to return to Petersburg and have time to explore there.

So it was a very quick and anything but an easy descent on those unevenly spaced and sized steps of the boardwalk. With my brand new bifocals, I was having a bit of trouble gauging the distances down the steps and there were no hand rails!  I was grateful to my companions, teenagers Alex and Rachael, who told me not to hurry and promised help if I should falter!

I was quite relieved to reach the level path in the lower forest that lead us back to the shore.

 

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Back to the jetty © DY of jtdytravels; P1100526

While we’d been out walking, the tide had come in quite a way. At least the ramp down to the pontoon would not be nearly so steep, but still steep enough.

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The view back to Petersburg © DY of jtdytravels; P1100527

While waiting for our DIB, David took one last view of Petersburg and the mountains beyond.

No wonder they call it ‘little Norway”!

More anon

Jennie and David

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Greenland, Fjord Cruise 15th August 2012

I woke up in the delightful small town of Tasiilaq. Where was I? Greenland. And I was looking forward very much to the planned cruise through the icebergs along a couple of the Fjords.

For some reason, unknown even to me,  I’d had the idea that this cruise would be for just a couple of hours, at the most, in a Zodiac-type boat – shades of the same activity we had done when in the Antarctic.  But no. We were to go out again in the same cruiser that brought us to the hotel – and the cruise would last for eight hours.  One of our group decided she could not manage for so long on a boat, and so there were only the three of us plus the crew of two.

Looking back at the village of Tasiilaq   (P1010120 © DY of jtdytravels)

As we left the dock and looked back I was reminded of the colourful small houses in the north of Norway. These are all ‘flat-pack’ construction kit houses which have to brought in by boat. Similar houses, different colours.

One of the icebergs   (P1010130 © DY of jtdytravels)

On the way up the Fjord,we were entranced by the size and majesty of the icebergs.  This one estimated to be the equivalent of 6 stories high. And that was only a fraction, about a ninth,  of the iceberg that we could see – the rest, and by far the largest section, is under water.

Another iceberg, another shape!   (P1010129 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Up close and personal! (P1010134 © DY of jtdytravels)

And up even closer, they were totally awesome.

Some were really weird and wonderful. (P1010136 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Translucent green beneath pure white (P1010138 © DY of jtdytravels)

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A very stark land/ice scape.   (P1010139 © DY of jtdytravels)

We had much further to go that day so we had to leave those icebergs with the promise of more to come.  Our next destination was totally unpronounceable – the tiny settlement of Qernertivartivit!

Houses in Qernertivartivit   (P1010273 © DY of jtdytravels)

The settlement of Qernertivartivit is a permanent home to only around 100 people. It must be a hard, hard life here – extremely hard!  We spent an hour wandering around the houses and the only small store, owned by the same company which owns the two shops in Tasiilaq.

Part of the settlement   (P1010131 © DY of jtdytravels)

The small houses were strung out a long the rocky shoreline.

Maybe another visitor, exploring the Fjord   (P1010269 © DY of jtdytravels)

We wondered if this sleek yacht belonged to someone in the village but thought maybe not – perhaps another visitor.

One of the locals (P1010274 © DY of jtdytravels)

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A house with a view (P1010278 © DY of jtdytravels)

The sun’s out, the washing’s on the line but there’s still a lot of ice out there in the waters around this small island.

Fish drying (P1010290 © DY of jtdytravels)

Fish hung out to dry – maybe for a winter’s meal or two when the water is frozen over.

A sad sight! (P1010277 © DY of jtdytravels)

They say a picture tells a thousand words – there’s a story to be told about this house. I wonder what happened.

I hoped that people who owned this house hadn’t been burned or injured.  If they did, they would have had to use  the helicopter to be evacuated. There is a helipad marked out on a flat piece of ground at the far end of the village where some supplies are brought in during the winter and for emergency evacuations.

The cemetery at Qernertivartivit (P1010288 © DY of jtdytravels)

And if they had perished in the blaze, or for that matter, when any of the inhabitants dies, they have to be buried in a very rocky cemetery. The ground is so hard and rocky that it is impossible to bury a body under the ground, so rocks and sods of moss are used as a covering. When we visited the cemetery we saw the odd bone exposed.

View from the settlement   (P1010280 © DY of jtdytravels)

From this vantage point we saw across the bogs filled with cotton grass, across the ice filled waters, and look up the fjord to where all the ice was coming from.  There are a couple of glaciers here that empty into the head of the fjord.  The whole area was jam packed with bits of ice, some of the bigger ones we could hear creaking and crashing as they split apart.

An interesting low angle view   (P1010281 © DY of jtdytravels)

This ‘get-down-low’ view across the arctic cotton grass gives a different perspective to the ice flow.

From another view point on the island   (P1010282 © DY of jtdytravels)

No matter where we walked on this small island, the views were spectacular. We would have to make our way through those ice chunks when we returned to the boat to continue the cruise. That, I was looking forward to.

Ice reflections   (P1010284 © Dy of jtdytravels)

Climbing down over the rocks gave me the chance to photograph some of those reflections in the mirror still water.

Thrift  [Armeria maritima] (P1010289 © DY of jtdytravels)

Apart from the great drifts of snowy white cotton grass, there was the odd late summer plant still showing its colours like this pink sea-side Thrift.

All too soon, our hour on the island and in this small settlement was up and we made our way back to the boat for the next part of our fiord cruise – and that will be the subject of the next musings. D

ALL PHOTOGRAPHY COPYRIGHT  © DY of jtdytravels

The Shetlands, Puffins, 6th August 2012

From visiting all of those historical ruins, we moved around the coast to a Robert Stevenson lighthouse, built in 1821.  This lighthouse sits atop Sumburgh Head, the southern most tip of the Mainland, the biggest island in the Shetland group.  When this light was automated in 1991, the keepers’ houses were converted into holiday accommodation.  The lighthouse is protected as a category A listed building and is presently undergoing restoration work including the building of an Information Centre.

Of more importance to me than the lighthouse were the cliffs the lighthouse was built on. Sumburgh Head is a busy place in summer, when thousands of seabirds return to breed. Then the cliffs teem with birds such as kittiwakes, gullets, razorbills, fulmars and those great little characters, puffins.  I’d only seen fleeting glimpses of puffins before but here they were quite close. They were fascinating to watch… and photograph.

Puffin at Sumburgh Head   (P1000311 © DY of jtdytravels)

Puffins mate for life, and return to the same burrow every year. Laying only one egg, both parents take turns incubating their egg for around 40 days. Once the egg hatches, the adults are kept busy finding fish, particularly sandeels, to feed their hungry chick until it is ready to leave the burrow under the cover of darkness and fend for itself.

A pair of puffins   (P1000304 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Puffin (P1000329 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Puffin (P1000343 © DY of jtdytravels)

I’m quite sure that puffin photography could become quite addictive – they are such wonderfully interesting creatures.  I was mesmerised.

Puffin (P1000348 © DY of jtdytravels)

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There were other birds – like this gull. (P1000356 © DY of jtdytravels)

After spending lots of time’ with those puffins, I turned my attention to finding wild flowers.

Daisies at the cliffs (P1000321 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Puffin surrounded by grasses (P1000317 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Tiny, delicate, Eyebright, Euphrasia sp.   (P1000361 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca (P1000359 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Cotton grass (P1000375 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Monkey flower, Mimulus guttatus (P1000238 © DY of jtdytravels)

This beautiful Mimulus is not really a wild flower in the Shetland Islands.  It’s a naturalised garden escapee that originates in North America.

A stunning view (P1000371 © DY of jtdytravels)

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All this and wonderful views as well.  A day to remember.   D

Photography  ©  DY of jtdytravels

The Shetland Islands, Puffins, 6th August 2012

 

From visiting all of those historical ruins, we moved around the coast to a Robert Stevenson lighthouse, built in 1821.  This lighthouse sits atop Sumburgh Head, the southern most tip of the Mainland, the biggest island in the Shetland group.  When this light was automated in 1991, the keepers’ houses were converted into holiday accommodation.  The lighthouse is protected as a category A listed building and is presently undergoing restoration work including the building of an Information Centre.

Of more importance to me than the lighthouse were the cliffs the lighthouse was built on. Sumburgh Head is a busy place in summer, when thousands of seabirds return to breed. Then the cliffs teem with birds such as kittiwakes, gullets, razorbills, fulmars and those great little characters, puffins.  I’d only seen fleeting glimpses of puffins before but here they were quite close. They were fascinating to watch… and photograph.

Puffin at Sumburgh Head   (P1000311 © DY of jtdytravels)

Puffins mate for life, and return to the same burrow every year. Laying only one egg, both parents take turns incubating their egg for around 40 days. Once the egg hatches, the adults are kept busy finding fish, particularly sandeels, to feed their hungry chick until it is ready to leave the burrow under the cover of darkness and fend for itself.

A pair of puffins   (P1000304 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Puffin (P1000329 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Puffin (P1000343 © DY of jtdytravels)

I’m quite sure that puffin photography could become quite addictive – they are such wonderfully interesting creatures.  I was mesmerised.

Puffin (P1000348 © DY of jtdytravels)

.

There were other birds – like this gull. (P1000356 © DY of jtdytravels)

After spending lots of time’ with those puffins, I turned my attention to finding wild flowers.

 

Daisies at the cliffs (P1000321 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Puffin surrounded by grasses (P1000317 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Tiny, delicate, Eyebright, Euphrasi”Tufted Vetch”a sp.   (P1000361 © DY of jtdytravels)

 

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Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca (P1000359 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Cotton grass (P1000375 © Dy of jtdytravels)

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Monkey flower, Mimulus guttatus (P1000238 © DY of jtdytravels)

This beautiful Mimulus is not really a wild flower in the Shetland Islands.  It’s a naturalised garden escapee that originates in North America.

A stunning view (P1000371 © DY of jtdytravels)

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All this and wonderful views as well.  A day to remember.   D

Photography  ©  DY of jtdytravels