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Outside in 2013

In the natural world, change reigns supreme

Posted: January 3, 2014 - 12:00am
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Ancient spruce trees, once part of a prehistoric forest that grew in Southeast Alaska before the last ice advance, have emerged from beneath the retreating Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska in the summer of 2013. They were first discovered still under the ice a few years ago by a team of students and scientists from the University of Alaska Southeast.  ABBY LOWELL | Juneau Empire
ABBY LOWELL | Juneau Empire
Ancient spruce trees, once part of a prehistoric forest that grew in Southeast Alaska before the last ice advance, have emerged from beneath the retreating Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska in the summer of 2013. They were first discovered still under the ice a few years ago by a team of students and scientists from the University of Alaska Southeast.

Change is one thing that remains constant about our natural world, whether it’s the shifting of the seasons or the much bigger natural modifications like glacial recession or record-breaking salmon runs; not much remains the same.

And it’s for that very reason, I believe, outdoor enthusiasts keep going back. There’s always something new to see, hear and feel. Take the weekly Wild Shots feature that has been going strong since I took over as Outdoors editor in September of 2009. The many photos I receive each week are all unique, many breathtaking and each depicts our Southeast region in a unique, though familiar way.

As we launch deeper into the winter of 2014, it’s motivating to remember of the glorious days of last summer (our hours of sunlight are coming back!), exhilarating to think of the deep powder days to come and, for me, a source of pride to recall the good people doing important research, as well as work to improve our outdoor experiences.

Here’s some of the highlights, in no particular order, from the Outdoor section in 2013:

Friends, family and supporters put forth an effort to name a peak on Heintlzman Ridge to honor Jon Scribner, a longtime and influential Alaskan who found solace in the mountains and on the water. The proposal was approved by the State of Alaska, and has since moved on to review by the Federal government

The Turner Lake cabins were featured as a local getaway both for the scenery, as well as for the trophy trout fishing that exists in the lake. Both cabins — East and West Turner Lake — have a history as unique as the location, an ancient glacial fjord featuring the best of Southeast Alaska scenery.

This Outdoor editor tagged along with a pod of teenage rippers on the slopes of Eaglecrest Ski Area to observe the first of last year’s Mountain Savvy Courses, an educational effort aimed at teaching youngsters how to ride safely off piste in the mountains. Last year’s course taught more than two dozen young skiers how to evaluate terrain, dig a snow pit, use an avalanche beacon and probe, as well as much more. This year’s course is kicking off again this month; check out this week’s Outdoor section for more information.

Mark Kelley opened up about why he’s chosen to make Juneau his home and his reasoning was simple: A beautiful place, makes for breathtaking images — oh, and there’s a whole host of wonderful people who live here, too.

“We’re on the edge of this unbelievable wilderness,” Kelley said. “I think, that’s what keeps me here. And that’s why I won’t leave.”

Kelley kicked off last year’s Fireside Lecture series at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.

Merrill Jensen gave a tour in early May of his primula collection at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum, which has now topped 200 varieties — the largest collection in North America. He said he’s caught the “primrose bug,” the same one that figuratively bit Caroline Jensen decades ago when she sowed the first seeds of the Pacific giant. While Jensen’s collection keeps changing (and growing!) with the times, the local public garden hosts an annual open house each May on Alaska Public Garden’s Day. Each year that event is free and open to the public.

Our locally owned and operated fly fishing shop — Alaska Fly Fishing Goods — not only officially changed their name and revamped their logo, but they also celebrated 15 years this spring. There was never an official fly fishing shop in Juneau before Brad Elfers opened Juneau Fly Fishing Goods on the second floor of the Senate Mall building in April of 1998. Today, thanks to healthy web sales, in-store expertise and strong customer service, the little store is bustling both in the winter and in the days of summer.

In July, a team of SAGA volunteers, headed up by John Hudson with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, revamped and revegetated a bend on the Mendenhall River to help enhance the surrounding ecosystem. In just a few sunny days the team added dirt, planted trees, shrubs and plants as a way to help reinforce a slope of large shot rock called rip rap. It’s a step they hope will catch on as a way to both beautify an otherwise drab area, as well as encourage back the insects, fish life, bird and small animal varieties that would otherwise be nonexistent in the stream side moonscape.

It’s been a while since northern Southeast Alaska got a positive outlook on deer season, but this year’s report from biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game bucked that trend. Ahem, no pun intended. The positive outlook comes on the heels of a record breaking harsh winter in 2006-7 that decimated the deer population in the region. As a result, the freezers of many hunters were left empty as managers imposed emergency closures on the areas hit the hardest by winter’s grip. Yet officials said the trend lines from recent pellet studies were looking good this past fall, which means good things for our native Sitka black-tailed deer, as well as the hunters who pursue them.

A rag-what? Ragfish. Yes, this is quite the fitting name for the seven-foot long bag of cartilage and flesh that washed up on a Lena Point beach this summer. It was the second sighting in 2013. Seeing this fish, especially on the beach, is certainly rare, according to local naturalists and scientists who said the fish are widespread throughout Alaska waters off the Bering Sea slope, hanging out deep, around 1,420 meters. However, they’re not as common near Juneau — NOAA’s Auke Bay Laboratories usually only get a few sightings of the fish each year.

Gwen Baluss, a wildlife technicial with the U.S. Forest Service, spent the better part of her spring and summer catching, tagging and studying the Rufous hummingbird population in and around Juneau. She found these little birds to be surprisingly resilient and well-adapted to Alaska’s often harsh climate. In all, the team banded more than 130 birds, with the hope they would learn more about the hummers, “what they do when they’re here and when they’re migrating.” The focus in on hummingbirds this year also revealed one surprising visitor — the first Rufous-Anna’s juvenile hybrid, which was spotted by local Gus van Vleet and reported upon by Wildlife Spy Columnist Beth Peluso. U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Technician Baluss said these earlier records of Anna’s hummingbirds showing up in Alaska (a departure from their traditional range) and young birds “are the smoking gun that something new is going on.”

Change continued this year as an ancient forest began to emerge from beneath the receding Mendenhall Glacier. Trees, stumps and ice-preserved wood was first spotted by Cathy Connor and her team a few years ago when they were still hidden in glacial caves. Connor said the stumps are between 1,400 and 1,200 years old. The oldest she’s tested are around 2,350 years old. She’s also dated some at around 1,870 to 2,000 years old. Studies are revealing our local glacier has experienced much waxing and waning over the course of its history, so it’s certainly no stranger to transformation.

Some things, however, stay mostly the same. Take the friendship of Patrick Leamer and Lyle Hadsel, both 75, for example. The two friends have shared nearly a lifetime of outdoor experiences together in Southeast Alaska. This year, they were photographed hiking up the mountain access road at Eaglecrest Ski Area as Leamer worked to prepare for his hike to the summit of Mount Rainier in early September. Hadsel had taken on the task of being his partner, his training buddy. He couldn’t accompany his longtime partner up Mount Rainier, but they both know the value of a good friendship, despite how their lives have changed over the years. “When you have a good friendship you don’t break it,” Leamer said.

Rounding out the year of great outdoor memories is the record-breaking fishing season that was had this year in Southeast. According to the report we ran in mid-September, “more than 100 million salmon (were) caught in the region for the first time ever. Coho have returned to Southeast in the highest numbers since 1994, leading the troll fishery to almost double last year’s catch. Purse seiners have topped their previous overall salmon catch record by more than 10 million. Gillnetters’ top three years on record are the last three, with this year the highest. Pink salmon have also returned to Southeast in record numbers, trollers have caught more chum than they have since statehood.” Congrats to good management, good fishing and a great season.

2014 is sure to bring new adventures, new sights, sounds and a host of more great stories. Because one thing is for certain, our natural world never stays the same.

 

Contact Outdoors Editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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