Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Remember these characters from a previous post and the interesting uses of their spore powder?  (clubmoss, dusting powder for condoms)

I recently read another interesting use of this powder in a different field guide which said that it was used as a flash powder in photography back in "the day".  It didn't work so well with my DSLR though.  Considering those two diverse uses of this powder, there could be some potential bad consequences if these two features somehow combined.  POOF!  Be careful out there!

Trying to make something ugly pretty again on a frosty morning in the Muskeg Meadows N.P.

Does this look like some kind of reptile skull to anyone else?  It makes me think of some sort of lizard head but is actually some sedimentary rock that I found on a really interesting small island in the Wrangell vicinity.  The rocks on the island are much younger and different than the predominant geology of our area and it is possible to find fossils of shells there.  Any rock hounds out there would really find this place interesting.

A giant psychedelic octopus recently rampaged through the town of Petersburg leaving ink stains everywhere until those Norwegian fishermen took care of it.  Coastal Cold Storage has octopus pretty cheap while supplies last!  This was just a photo I took when I got an idea to do a post on nautical charts soon.  Nautical charts are works of art in and of themselves and are getting very difficult to get as marine electronics take over navigational needs with digital charts, GPS, etc.  A law enforcement officer from a federal agency recently told me that they are not permitted to use paper charts anymore, only electronics.  They are no longer available to purchase in Wrangell as demand declined and now I believe that they are mostly only available by downloading from the internet.  A nautical chart post coming soon!

A couple of local kayakers on a beautiful clear, cold sunny, still day.  I wanted to end this post with this photo to emphasis the importance of getting out and being closer to the natural world.  I realize the hypocrisy of what I am about to say here, but get out from in front of your screens, take your damn ear buds out of your ears, leave your damn phone AT HOME and spend some time disconnecting to reconnect to yourself and each other.  Spend more time staring into space and being in your own head thinking rather than being thought for.  WE are the thought police.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Lipstick cladonia

We are back into another stretch of clear, sunny and colder weather after that impressive storm system that blew through recently.  Better weather equals more time outside for me and after spending last week in wilderness first responder refresher class, I was eager to be outside!  My first jaunt yesterday was to the Muskeg Meadows Nature Preserve (aka Muskeg Meadows Golf Course) as the sun was coming up on a frosty morning. 

Just some frosty rocks on the beach while I was waiting for the sun to rise all the way.

I guess that is plenty of photos of a frosty spruce tree huh?  The stem of this particular very young and small spruce was particularly orangish especially when the rising sun hit it and it caught my eye and looked pretty to me.  This was a very small, about a 2-3 foot tall, Sitka spruce next to one of the cart paths, a miniature of a tree that can grow to over 200' tall and get well over 6' in diameter.  Have you ever heard of Howard Hughes and his airplane the Spruce Goose?  Its frame was made from Sitka spruce as were the propellers of many other airplanes during the World War 2 era.  Sitka spruce is very strong but flexible as well as having some excellent resonance qualities which also makes clear and tight grained Sitka spruce a very valuable wood for guitars and violins.  There are some commercial harvests of these trees that consist of only one tree which could fetch $60,000 or more depending on its quality for musical instruments.  This little tree wouldn't make an instrument but it made a pretty sight in the morning.

More lichens!  I included this strictly due to the fact that I had just spent all week immersed in wilderness medicine and treatments.  This is called Old Man's Beard here in Alaska and looks a lot like Spanish Moss.  It is actually a lichen in the Usnea genus and has many uses for a savvy wild Alaska man or woman - when dry it makes great fire starter and even when it is wet, it can be dried fairly quickly by keeping it close to your skin under your clothes.  It can also be used as insulating material in a wilderness survival situation or as a way to control bleeding with antimicrobial properties.  Usnea is effective against bacterial and fungal infections as well so would make an excellent wilderness bandage.  There is the wilderness medicine connection for ya!

And even more lichens!  This is the lichen that titled this post, Lipstick cladonia.  Pretty cool, huh?  The red edges are the fruiting bodies of the lichen which in science talk are called apothecia.  If you look closely at some of these, you'll notice at least one that looks like the logo of the Rolling Stones.  Mick Jagger's mouth as recreated by this fungus/algae combo.  My favorite Stones songs are "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Sympathy for the Devil" if anyone cares.  This lipstick cladonia is my favorite lichen.  What are your favorite Stones songs?

And now a nod to the fact that this really interesting area really is a golf course:

Friday, February 17, 2017

Stormy Weather

This was the last sunset on the last sunny day we have had now for a week.  We had a winter storm come raging in last weekend with a day of snow followed by several days of very high winds, torrential rain, and temperatures in the 40s.  Ahh, winter in SE AK can test the strongest of wills and constitutions.  Offering flights to Hawaii and Mexico (and now Costa Rica) was a brilliant business move by Alaska Airlines so vitamin D deprived, seasonal affected disordered Alaskans can get over the hump.  This latest storm brought winds of up to 80 knots in nearby Clarence Strait and some gusts here in Wrangell of at least 50 knots.  Things have quickly thawed out and for several days there, it was a wet sloppy mess.  Clear skies are coming up in the forecast though!

The winter this year has been our coldest and windiest in a long time.  We have had many weeks of temperatures below freezing, even down into the single digits, but not much snow which is concerning for summer water levels in all the salmon spawning streams.  I did not get to go up the Stikine this winter (although I have spent many, many hours wishing I was up there) but from what I have been told and seen in photos by some who have been up there, the river froze up much better than it has in many years.  Here are a few photos I was sent of the lower part of the river taken from a helicopter.

In this bottom photo, the mountain in the center right is Farm Island which is where I was fortunate enough to purchase a plot of land bordering the Forest Service wilderness boundary.  This blog will have many more posts regarding Farm Island in the future!

The stormy weather wasn't too conducive to a good time of being outside taking photos but it did give me some time to contemplate topics for future posts and photo projects, I'm also open to suggestions regarding things that whoever might be reading this might be interested in.  Spring is coming!

The recent storm kept me close to town and mostly under the cover of a roof over a warm house but I did get out for some rainy forays to one of our local nature preserves - Muskeg Meadows Golf Course.  I'm not much of a golfer, (if you just thought of the "obviously you're not a golfer" line from the perfect movie, The Big Lebowski, make yourself a White Russian and know that I think you are the best) but Wrangell's 9 hole golf course is a great place to do several non-golf activities.  The cart paths are excellent walking trails, a couple of the fairways give good access to a good clamming beach, there are interesting plants and birds to check out, and occasionally you might see a bear or a moose.  There isn't much golfing going on there this time of year so it can be a peaceful and interesting place to enjoy some SE AK nature.
Like these guys:

These are interesting plants called clubmosses which are mosses that really like to go out on a weekend night and dance until the early hours of the morning while wearing various glow-in-the-dark accoutrements.  These guys party!  Silliness aside, these plants aren't really mosses, they are vascular plants like the majority of plants you see daily.  A vascular plant has a system of pipes through which water and nutrients are transported, (remember xylem and phloem from basic biology class?), and are things like flowers and bushes and grass.  Real mosses do not have these well developed pipes which is what keeps them low and usually in wet places.  Mosses and other plants called liverworts are not vascular plants but are called bryophytes.  These clubmosses reproduce by releasing spores from those yellowish cone-like things growing from the top of the plant.  This particular clubmoss is called a stiff clubmoss, Lycopodium annotinum, and is a pretty common plant here in wetter areas of the forest.  A couple interesting things about this plant:  looking up Lyco- in my Latin and Greek references, tells me that it means "wolf" while pod means foot.  A deduction of my own based on that information is that Lycopodium means wolf foot.  (Martin, if you read this and find me to be wrong, let me know!)
Another interesting thing comes right out of the plant bible of this area, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, which tells me that the spore powder of this particular clubmoss was used as a drying agent for wounds and a treatment for nosebleeds and diaper rash.  And even more interestingly, "the spores may also be used today as a dusting powder for condoms"  The next time you wrap that rascal, thank this little party animal!  Personally, I would refrain from sharing this information with the other person involved in that situation until sometime well after business time has ended.  Unless obscure plant facts are what gets your partner "in the mood"!  A dusting powder that also is used as a drying agent could lead to serious injury in this context so be sure to thoroughly read the directions on your condoms before usage.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Timber Tiger

So, it's winter right?  A lot of animals have been hibernating or sleeping for several months now, others have long since headed south to warmer climates, and the ones that have done neither are doing what they need to do to survive this time of cold and scarcity.  The forests and muskegs and even the sea seem much quieter and empty than during the other seasons, even the deer have been scarce for the last few months.  A walk in the woods can be an incredibly silent experience except for the crunch of your footsteps on the frozen ground or the sound of your own heartbeat when you stop and listen.  The stark black and white of dormant plants and snow cover and the silence of winter make familiar places seem foreign and new.  The silence leads me to introspection, thoughts of what is to come during the year, darker thoughts of mortality, reveries of times past, longings for warm fires and blankets, dozing in the fleeting almost warm sun, and then..............

this guy starts chattering at me and makes the present come crashing back!  Keep it real little timber tiger!

It is almost the full moon and with all the silt in the air blown down the river over the last several days, it made an interesting looking moon early this morning.

Tides and tide books

I am going to simplify the mechanism behind the phenomenon of tides to avoid making this a very lengthy post and just say that tides are caused by the gravitational pull of both the moon and the sun on the earth.  The moon, being much closer to the earth than the sun, has a much greater effect on the tides than does the sun but the sun does contribute some influence.  The proximity of the moon in relation to the earth is the main factor in determining the tidal range which is the difference between the high and the low tides as well as other things such as geographical features. 
Typically, there are two high and two low tides per day with a roughly 6 hour period of time between each high and low tide, it is actually a little bit more than 6 hours but rounding to 6 suits our purposes just fine.  Here in the Wrangell area, our biggest tidal range is about 24 feet with the smallest being about 4 feet while the biggest tidal range in the world is found on the east coast of Canada in the Bay of Fundy which is between the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, aye.  24 feet is a lot of water but is less than half of what the Bay of Fundy sometimes gets - there is a maximum tidal range of 55 feet there!  These are the extreme ranges and occur only a few times a year but even a modest change of 4 feet can cause a person some problems if they do not properly plan for it.

So, how does a person plan for the tide?  With a tide book available for free from several local businesses in Wrangell!  (or whichever town you are in)  Since they are free and a very important reference book for anyone planning on boating, beachcombing, or really anything involving the ocean, most folks have several tide books in various places - in each boat and vehicle, float coat pockets, randomly scattered on countertops and desks, in backpacks, pretty much as many places as possible because you still sometimes can't find one when you want one!

Here are a few examples of tide books from Wrangell.

Now that you have a tide book, you probably should know how to read it so I'll make an attempt to do that now in as simple a way as possible.

Step 1:  make sure your tide book is for the correct year.  You can find that information on the front cover and on virtually every page inside the book.
Step 2:  open the book and find the appropriate district for your location
Step 3:  once you have found your district, find the page with the appropriate month for which you want to check the tide

Did you find that information at the top of the page in the above photo?  Very good, now on to the next steps.

Step 4:  you can see 3 columns on the page, the leftmost one contains the date and day of the month, the next has a heading of High February, meaning high tides in the month of February, and the last is Low February, meaning low tides in the month of February.  These columns are then divided into subcolumns of A.M. (morning), P.M. (after noon), and time and FT for feet (like the measurement not the things below your ankles).  To minimize confusion as much as possible, the P.M. tides are printed in bold print. 
Still there?  Hello?  Anyone?

Step 5:  find the particular day that you want to know the tide for.  I will use Wednesday, February 8th for this demonstration since that is what day I am doing this.  Find it?  Good. 

Step 6:  Now as you go across the 8 Wed row, you will see a big black dot which you should ignore for now, then you will come to 10:34 and then 17.7.  Looking at the top of the column shows you that the 10:34 is the time in the morning and the 17.7 is the amount of feet.  Looking further toward the top of the page shows you that you are in the High February column so you just discovered that at 10:34 a.m. on Wednesday, February 8th, there is a 17.7 foot high tide.  Got it?  It's not so hard right?
Keep moving to the right in that same row and you find in bold type, 11:34 15.5.  You are still in the High February column so you now know that at 11:34 tonight there will be a 15.5 foot high tide.  You have now mastered finding the high tide on Wednesday, February 8th!  (If you are a little confused just keep repeating these steps over and over until you get it or throw the book across the room)

Step 7:  to find the low tide, keep moving to the right on the same row until you are in the Low February column.  This works the same way as the High tide column.  Did you figure out that at 5:09 p.m. there will be a -1.9 low tide?  Why is the -1.9 green?  And what does -1.9 feet mean?  The green identifies the tides that are minus tides meaning that they are lower than the average low tide which would read as 0.0.  Just know that a minus low tide is a very low tide and you'll be fine.

Here is what that 17.7 foot high tide looked like at 10:34.

After 10:34 a.m., the tide will slowly start to go out again, or ebb, until it reaches that 5:09 p.m. low tide at which point it will then start to slowly come back in again, or flood.  An incoming tide is also called a flood tide, an outgoing tide is called an ebb tide.  "Ebb" could be a useful Scrabble word.

At 5:09 p.m., that -1.9 low tide looked like this.

With just some simple math, we can determine that between 10:34 a.m. and 5:09 p.m., there was 19.6 feet of change in the amount of water surrounding Wrangell - a 17.7 foot high tide goes down to that 0.0 average low tide level plus an additional 1.9 feet for the minus tide.  19.6 feet is a lot of water!  Knowing this information can tell you things like what sea conditions will be like in certain bodies of water, where and when to go fishing, if it is a good day to go clam digging, or how and where to anchor your boat so that it will still be afloat when you need it to be.

This works the same regardless of where you are in the world and the photo below is of a tide book from New Zealand showing all of the same information except that the unit of measurement is in meters instead of feet.

Hopefully this was informative and helpful and that you learned something new.  That was the goal anyway!  The next time we discuss tides, we'll get into the Rule of 12s which tells you how much water is still coming in or going out at any point in the tide cycle.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Horse Hair in Ice

This is a common plant found pretty much all over North America and is commonly known as horsetail or scouring rush.  There are several species of this plant in the genus, Equisetum, which means "horse bristles" (hence horse hair).  It is found in wet areas like river and stream banks, ponds, lakes, etc. and is interesting in the fact that it contains a high amount of silica.  This gives this plant a rough, abrasive texture that makes it useful for polishing or scouring which is where "scouring rush" comes from.  It makes a good wilderness scrubby pad for cleaning those dirty camp dishes or as a kind of sandpaper for smoothing and polishing wood and other soft materials.  Equisetum has some edible and medicinal qualities:  the roots and young fertile shoots can be peeled and cooked and then eaten but be sure to cook it first as the raw plant has an enzyme that will destroy vitamin B1, cooking makes it harmless; the plant is also high in calcium and teas made with it have been used as a urinary tract cleaner.  As with any edible or medicinal wild plant, research it extensively, talk to others who are familiar with it, and try only a small sample of it your first time!  DO NOT rely solely on any information you may read in this blog!
This photo was taken at a local lake which has been frozen for most of the winter now where this species of Equisetum is a common plant growing in the shallows.  This slab of ice is about one foot thick.

The next several photos are some experimenting with light, ice, camera settings, and computer editing.  As a former southern boy from rural Alabama, I am still a little wary whenever I am walking across a frozen lake despite the fact that this ice is about a foot thick. 

In case any of you readers out there have been waiting for another slightly blurry bird photo, here you go.

These avian buddies are pelagic cormorants,Phalacrocorax pelagicus, which are common loiterers on our city dock during the winter.  They always hang out at the farthest point of the dock making it very difficult to get very close.  They are sea birds that feed mostly on fish and are about the size of a small, slender goose.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Something ugly, beautiful

Just a few more photos trying to accomplish the task of making something ugly, beautiful.  I don't know if they are beautiful but I think they did make these things more appealing than they were.  The majority of the credit should go to the sun though as it did the hard work of providing the awesome lighting while it was setting last night.

The above two photos are of a burned post that is part of the remnants of an old building in the forest near where I live. 

Same old building, same setting sun.  Light is so cool!

Stikine Wind

A just amazingly beautiful day on Friday here in SE AK, temperature in the mid 20s but the sun is regaining some warmth so it felt warmer in the sunshine.  It was incredibly windy which is pretty typical here in the winter on sunny clear days as the Stikine River valley funnels the high pressure air from interior Canada down to us.  The wind was a little odd yesterday as there was also a strong wind coming from the southeast as well as those northerly Stikine winds.  We had steady winds of 30-35 mph with gusts much higher.  A great day for a walk in the woods!  Actually, it was a bit of a sketchy day to be walking in the woods, there were trees getting blown over in some parts of town, but I'm a bit of a junky for extreme natural events.

This video below is just under a minute long and is pretty loud so be sure to turn the volume down on your computer if you watch it and shows some hemlocks and spruces really getting pummeled by the wind.

These powerful winds were also making some small waterspouts and almost waterspouts out on the water which looked beautiful when the sun was setting. 

These next two photos are taken looking up at the Stikine River delta and the mouth of the Stikine River.  The river is normally frozen in the winter and its water level is very low which exposes a lot of sand and silt that is normally underwater.  I am very curious to know just how much sediment is moved downriver during the winter, it is a lot for sure, sometimes on days like this, the dust cloud coming out of the river is well over a thousand feet high!  The trees on the delta and on the islands in the area of the delta are full of fine silt in their bark and the moss growing on them, on a dry spring day on the delta, puffs of dust will spring up as you walk around and if you shake a small tree you will get a good dusting of silt.  One of the islands downwind of the mouth of the river, Rynda Island, was logged in the 1980s.  I knew one of the loggers who was part of the logging of that island and remember him telling me that when a tree would fall, a huge dust cloud would fly up and that he would be covered in silt at the end of each day.  There is so much silt embedded in some of these tree that they were wearing out the chains of their chainsaws much, much faster than normal.

The photo above was taken with a high ISO setting on the camera just after the sun had gone behind the mountains to give it the grainy look to go along with the idea of how much silt is in the air.    The small island in the foreground is Sergief Island which is an island of great interest to me.  There is a lot of really interesting nature going on on this small island.  This island is shown to be exactly 500 feet high on topographic maps so you can see just how high the clouds of silt extend above it.  There is the beginning of a little waterspout there on the water.

This photo is of  the mouth of the Stikine, the official ending of the river.  The dark point of land on the right is Point Rothsay, (locally pronounced "Rossi"), when you pass this point you are officially "on the river".