Ice Lens: Relics dot boreal landscape with glimpses into unwritten history

Mysterious machinery in the Bonanza Creek Long Term Ecological Research forest on June 11, 2012. 

Yesterday, we were trudging through a third of a mile of brush back to the car when my supervisor told me we had to swing by a tree stand. I glanced up. We were surrounded by a field of Labrador tea, young trees, and dead burnt black spruce twisted and bent like driftwood. Past that, a birch and alder forest signaled our upcoming uphill climb.

“We walked through that stand of trees to get here,” I thought. “Why are we walking out of our way to re-enter the same forest?”

I shifted the shovel to my other shoulder and tried to catch up. When I looked up again, I saw a platform of wood bridging two trees.

“Oh! Another moose lookout!”

“That’s what I was talking about,” my supervisor said. Oh, that kind of tree stand. Another reminder that I’m not up-to-date in hunter vernacular.

I can’t write about the Alaska outdoors without talking about the people who enjoy them. Rather, what they leave behind. We pass by reminders of human recreation and resourcefulness every day — logs that trucks haven’t collected, a moose camp with a gorgeous red-stone-ringed firepit and a derelict house boat surrounded by grassy dry land.

I’m no urban explorer, but Adak’s abandoned buildings tickled a newfound interest in these sorts of artifacts. How eerie it is to find buildings without residents. It’s nearly as enchanting to walk through a forest four days a week to spot our flagging, holes in the ground and plywood grids. Humanity’s leftovers are everywhere, inviting you to mull over their stories long after their owners forget about them.

The forest leaves its own teasers for us, too. We next visited a steep hillside with moss-covered quartz jutting out from under a thin layer of soil. We passed by a spot where the ground collapsed in on itself some years ago, revealing soil and rock and enterprising lichen. Much deeper, wider and longer than I am tall. Did an ice lens melt?

“Put some flagging around it and we could have called it the soil pit for this site,” I said. The hillside was cutting off its own clothing to reveal its history to us, but we ignored the mysterious offering for science’s sake. We kept our own slice of earth smaller and more symmetrical, but the degrading, rough-hewn, nature-made pit was more memorable.

More of the arm, surrounded by trees, fireweed and one very angry bird. June 11, 2012.

A few weeks ago, we discovered a crane arm in the alder off the road, rusted over and boasting well-greased pulleys. No telling why it was there — a forgotten mining dredge, perhaps? The alder and grasses ignored it, a bird chattered at us angrily from a nearby nest.

We spun the pulleys, created a story for the arm and went on our way.

What man-made have you seen around the Alaska forests? How do you feel when you see them?

(as a side note, if I had my phone on me yesterday, you all would be treated to a picture of me underneath the moose lookout with the caption “I under stand.” The low battery saved you from that one.)

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