Twentymile River – The wind and rain that have long defined late-summer and fall in this corner of Alaska stormed into the country on Sunday, but the drought of ’19 – the hot, dry Summer to Die For in the minds of some – remained visible in the marshes that sprawl around the end of Turnagain Arm.
The tops of the wild celery remained burnt crisp from the rays of the relentless midnight sun. Some of the buckbean had cooked, and the sweetgale had flourished. It rose as a nasty wall of shoulder-high brush on the edges of the wetland marshes.
Everywhere, the water was low. Where it would be regularly crotch deep, it was thigh deep or less, and many places that on a normal Sept. 1 required wading were walkable.
It made the hiking both easier and harder. Easier where the bog mats of sphagnum moss and sedges had dried out enough to support the weight of man and dog. Harder where the bottoms of ponds, which normally offer some of the easier walking, had bubbled to life only to fill themselves with muck.
For the waterfowl, judging by their abundance, the long spell of warm, dry weather had clearly been good, but then that was probably to be expected. The chief source of mortality for young ducks is cold, wet weather, and most of the birds found at the end of summer in the state’s Southcentral region are the result of local breeding even if they Sunday appeared regularly bunched up in such numbers that they looked to be migrating flocks.
They weren’t; they were but huge broods.
The long walk
We found them in few of the usual places, but we found them far back in the valley in the duckweed ponds that hadn’t been much of anything in higher water last year. There were big flocks of pintails where once it was rare to see that species and the usual healthy production of mallards.
On the big lake, there were scaup, but we saw nary a widgeon, a common species in past years, and few teal, a species that has sometimes been everywhere as the common snipe asthis year.
Lars was flushing snipe at every turn it seemed. Startled by wingbeats, I was getting a good workout snapping the shotgun to near the shoulder before realizing what had flushed. It was an exhausting and interesting day.
The water levels, the vegetation, the ponds from last year gone only to replaced by new ponds this year, the constant encroachment of shrubs into a landscape that dropped with the Good Friday earthquake of 1964 and has been rebounding slowly ever since, and the mixture of ducks were all reminders of the only constant in nature: change.
Humans like to believe that what is now is what has always been, but that’s not how the planet works.
The geologic evidence would indicate that the valleys here at the head of Turnagain Arm might have remained buried under ice until as little as 1,400 years ago and were certainly hidden beneath glaciers 11,000 years ago, a blip in geologic time.
Scientists studying pollen buried in peat bogs near the communities of Hope and Girdwood east of here concluded that spruce trees “had begun to colonize western Turnagain Amr at least as far east as the Hope area by approximately 6800 calendar years BP (before present). In contrast, eastern Turnagain Arm was blanketed mostly by Alnus (alder) thickets and ferns for thousands of years after boreal forests arrived in western Turnagain Arm, even though no physical barriers prevented boreal forest vegetation from spreading farther eastward.”
When the coniferous trees did finally arrive, they came from the south on the winds similar to those still blowing in from Prince William Sound on Sunday. That pattern appears not to have changed in all these years, but who knows what the future could bring.
Global warming fears have focused attention on climate change. And last September in Anchorage, the climate did seem to be changing. The regular storms that bring wind and rain through the month were not that regular.
The weather was better for sitting on the deck watching the sunset than for waterfowl hunting, and Lars and I love waterfowl hunting in the most arduous of ways.
He was bred to it and then conditioned to my marsh-slogging from an early age. Where and how I came to it is impossible to explain. Blame, in part, a family and friends who were hunters all, but their passion was to sit in a blind and wait.
A lot of hours as a youth were spent in blinds, but I could never really sit still. There was always the urge to get out and wander. One might think that would fade with age, but it has largely been the opposite.
More sedentary activities from angling to fly-tying to rod building to beer brewing to God only knows what else have faded only to be replaced by activities linked to the need to move: bog slogging, cycling, hiking, still some running now and then.
The only time I sit now is to research and write, and then the mind is racing. It was going good today. It made me a little jealous of Lars who spent the day resting and recovering.
All of which, in turn, reminded me of those days with Arlo and Magic in the house, and then Bailey and Hoss; those days when two Labrador retrievers were necessary because after a brutal day in the marsh whichever had done the work would need a day of recovery when I was ready to go again.
For better or worse, those days have passed. It is to be expected in a world where change is constant even if that is easy to forget in these times when human survival is easier than it has ever been.
But birth, life, death – a progression of constant change – remains.