The first several hours of the visit were a hike through the hilly forest all around the research station. The young women who were guiding us knew everything about the plants and animals of the forest. It was great to get the chance to pick their brains. We learned to avoid cow parsnip and devils club, and also that both plants produce berries that bears love to eat. Bear scat was all over the trails, as were many areas where bears had clearly torn away the bark of trees to get to the juicy sap underneath. We saw no bears though.
What we did see were tons of new birds and a new phenomenon for me, squirrel middens. I don’t know if the grey squirrels of my native biome do it, but red squirrels leave little piles of pinecone scraps. Once it was pointed out to me, I saw them everywhere, and could imagine a squirrel sitting and eating like Donald Duck with a corncob, pine scales flying all around him.
The forest all around us was a sea of green to my desert-hardened eyes. It was not, as we learned, technically a temperate rainforest. The precipitation clocks in just under the requisite 50 annual inches of rain. But as far as I was concerned it might as well have been. There was moss everywhere, even dangling as epiphytes from the branches of spruce in a formation called old man’s beard. It was fun to look at, but our favorite thing was learning what we could eat. Alaska has a surprising amount of edible plant life to hand. I don’t know if it’s because we are visiting in the right season or whether there is just so much more natural knowledge in a place that still has so many native people, but it’s a slightly paradoxical thing I’ve noticed about what I had imagined would be a fairly hostile landscape.
Our guides showed us how to pick and eat spruce tips, the green tips of branches. They taste… piney, but also slightly citrusy. Not a lot of caloric content, but tasty and full of vitamin-C. We ate quite a few. We also got to sample false azalea, a plant that grows little flowers that can be sucked in a manner much like honeysuckle. Just like that Virginia summer delicacy, they are delicious. Later in the day, we also tried a bit of beach greens growing by the mudflats. They had a taste that I called avocado and my son called oyster, not my favorite.
After our forest hike, we sat by the research station and ate our packed lunches. Ours were awful. I had hurriedly thrown together sandwiches that hadn’t fared well during the day’s hiking. I’m just that kind of dad. After lunch, we headed down to the beaches to see what we could find in the bay’s tidal pools. Right below the dock, we found an octopus’ den. It was just a hole under a rock, just above the waterline, but all around the hole you could see the remains of the cephalopod’s meals. I suppose that’s where the phrase octopus’ garden comes from. I had the damn song stuck in my head the rest of the afternoon, but it was an exciting find.
We walked through mud wearing boots we had been given and came to a high ridge dotted with whitened tree stumps. Apparently, this is the ghost forest, the remains of woods destroyed in the wake of the 1964 quake and tsunami. On the other side of the remnant stand of trees we found Otter Island, a formation of rocks that looks just like a floating sea otter. It even has little hands and feet in the right places.
All around Otter Island, we found tide pools. They were absolutely littered with sea stars. The more I looked, the more I could count. You make a first scan, spot one and then suddenly realize every crack in the rocks is filled with more squishy, purple aliens. And the sea stars weren’t alone. Every nook and cranny was filled with invertebrates all along the spectrum of disgustingness: barnacles, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, marine worms with multisyllabic names, and the aptly named Christmas anemones. These took first prize in gross anatomy, red and green placental blobs lurking by the water.
As we climbed around the rocks, a sea otter floated in the waves watching us, as if to say each time I found some strange life form, “Are you going to eat that?” I slipped a few times, once managing to get shards of black and broken barnacle shell embedded in my finger. It would take a day to get them out. That’s a lot better than my trip to the Dominican Republic, when it took weeks to fish out a broken purple sea urchin spine from my toe. I have bad luck with invertebrates. Maybe I should stop calling them disgusting.
After an hour or so of exploration, we trudged back to the research station to wait for our boat. I would have been fine sitting and waiting, but my son insisted on following the guides on another short nature walk. This one was to a small bog with carnivorous plants. Despite my fatigue, I did learn that the difference between a bog and a fen is that a fen has flowing water. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it. Even with the walk, we still had a few minutes to sit and chat with an older couple that were with us on the trip. I mentioned to them that we were contemplating a drive on the Dalton Highway and they gushed about having made the drive decades ago. I was on the fence a bit about doing it and they urged me not to miss the opportunity. We’re totally doing it now and that will be a later post.
The boat came to get us, and we made the splashy trip across the bay to Homer. My son insisted on sitting in the stern despite the spray warning and was accordingly demolished by water. I sat just in the lee of the cabin and watched him grin broadly the whole time. When we got to Homer, I was planning on making a tired return trip to our cabin in Nikiski. Instead, when I went to get gas, an old man came up to us and told us Mt. Augustine, a nearby volcano, was smoking. My son and I exchanged a look, jumped in the truck, and drove to a lookout on the highway above the city. Through binoculars, we could see a cloud circling the peak a bit more than fifty miles away. It wasn’t exactly the last days of Pompeii, but to see anything of the sort was a thrill. We were buzzing with it the whole drive home.
P.S. I checked the USGS webcam on Mt. Augustine that night and the smoking calmed down fairly quickly. Homer was safe.