Voyage to the AleutiansLatest update August 7, 2016 Started on June 1, 2016
We are tracing back the steps of Russian explorers in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to find out the origin of invasive monkeyflowers, a beautiful plant that invaded Europe and New Zealand in Victorian times, and which has become naturalised around the world.
Wrangell-St Elias and The accident
Today I drive from Glenallen to Chitina. Chitina is the gateway to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The park is enormous: the size of Switzerland or about several Yellowstones. It is also one of the coldest places on Earth. But is an amazing region, beautiful and remote. I barely scratch the surface as venturing into the park is an adventure on its own, and not something that could be attempted fully in a couple of days. One of the park guards tells me about a pilot who has been flying over the park for 20 years and reckons he only knows about a fifth of it.
After Chitina the highway becomes a gravel road. The park guard at Chitina suggests not to attempt it without a full-sized spare tire. The rental doesn’t have one (just a small tire version which they call a donut). Apparently the main risk of driving there is not potholes, but into the rusty rails that were left behind when they converted the old rail line into a road. Being there I cannot resist, and decide to drive anyway. I just need to get into the park itself. The weather looks foul, and after 15 miles I reach an old bridge crossing an enormous gorge. The Kuskulana Bridge was built in 1910 to allow trains to transport the mineral riches extracted from the Kennicott and McCarthy Mines, sixty miles from Chitina. It takes me a long time to get to the bridge as the roads are rough, and I am wary of not puncturing a tire. Along the way I see a red fox, an eagle, and some ptarmigans. The place is amazing!
But instead of camping in the Park, I decide to aim for Valdez where I need to catch a ferry on the 9th.
On the road I see a very terrible accident that happened just ahead of me. I see a cloud of smoke raise in the curve ahead, and as I turn, I see the crash between an RV and a tourist bus. The RV is in the middle of the road, but the bus has gone on to smash on a hill on the roadside. People are badly hurt and I stop to help. Some people are jumping out of the windows of the bus. The RV has the front destroyed and the people there are still trapped inside. A dog in the front seat howls. It makes me terribly sad but I cannot do much. The police arrive soon after and I leave. I thinkk of the poor people and their families that are ending their Alaskan trip in such a way. I’m sorry for them.
I continue driving towards Valdez, and in the evening I see Whorthington glacier and approach it to almost touch it. The glacier is dreary in the cold rain, yet beautiful. The ice of a glacier seems to always shine of a special blue colour. Then I drive through Thompson Pass, and can almost see the peaks of the mountains behind the thick fog and cloud. In Valdez, the city has been completely covered with fog. But now and then I glimpse the Valdez glacier and the amazing mountains. It is rainy and cold. And for the second day I have not seen any monkeyflowers. As this bleak day ends, I set up my camp near the glacier.
Last leg of the Trip: Mainland Alaska
The 6th of August was our last day in Unalaska. Jannice and I managed to resample one of the populations (UNA) to get the seed that was unripe when we saw it in the first day. It was a rush through the Overland Pass to Summer Bay in a cold and foggy morning. We found a few plants with seed and headed back to the hotel to check out and pick up Josh. The small plane at the airport arrived soon before our departure, exchanging passengers between Anchorage and Dutch Harbor.
At Anchorage we part ways. Jannice and Josh head back home, and I will stay a few more days to try sampling monkeyflowers in mainland Alaska. These populations will be useful as markers to compare against the monkeyflowers of the islands (Kodiak and the Aleutians) and Alaskan Peninsula. If our hunch is correct, the Scottish monkeyflowers should group closer to the Aleutian and Kodiak samples than to the ones I hope to find in mainland Alaska. But finding Mimulus in mainland Alaska is harder. They may not be as common as in the coast and islands further west.
Dried plants and the rat
This is our last full day in Unalaska. It is hard to resist the temptation to continue exploring the island, but today we must prepare and sort the material we have collected in nearly two weeks of the expedition. We set a working lab in the Grand Aleutian Hotel and begin sorting through hundreds of plant samples. The seeds are divided in three lots. The seeds collected here will fuel research in labs in North America and Europe. Who knows which of these populations we have sampled will hold unexpected secrets beyond the goals of this research trip. Josh and Jannice will take hundreds of seeds to their labs, and I will transport the remaining of the seed material, leaves stored in silica gel, and herbarium specimens.
The herbarium specimens are prepared and pressed between sheets of newspaper, porous paper, and cardboard. The black straps of the wooden press, hold and squeeze the pants dry. The resulting flattened plants will lose some of their colours.
But their essence will be maintained in this dried form.
Once prepared a herbarium specimen can last hundreds of years; Darwin’s herbarium specimens can still be seen in the Natural History Museum in London. The plants we are collecting in this trip will be deposited in Herbaria in Fairbanks and Edinburgh. A herbarium is a plant museum that serves both as a record of plant life across time and as a source for teaching and research. No matter how many notes you take in the field, or how many photos you shoot, despite all the genetic analyses you may perform, nothing will replace the dried plant pressed between old newspaper sheets. Details of the morphology that were overlooked, characteristics that define a population or even a species are preserved in this herbarium. And herbarium specimens can now also be used as repositories of genomic information. Using genetic tools similar to the ones used to study DNA in ancient human and animal bones, one can extract entire plant genomes from herbarium plants. Thus an herbarium is not only an individual plant preserved dried in a museum for arcane research. It also holds plants across different time points (from Linnaeus to nowadays) and becomes an ark of biological material, both morphological and genetic, which will allow future researchers to study how life continues changing and adapting through time.
By the end of the day we have finished preparing the material. The room is quite and seed envelopes, silica gel, plastic bags, and boxes lay all over the place. The three of us are satisfied and happy to have found and collected Mimulus in this amazing trip. Since we started the trip we have sampled more than 20 populations. Not bad. Not bad at all.
In the evening, we stopped by Suzi’s house to drop off the leftover gas canisters and supplies, and to return her walking stick and leave one more that Josh carved in the fire. I take the chance to shoot a few more photos of the Orthodox Cathedral. The thought crosses my mind that I never had the chance to pass the regards from Father Methodious to the Unalaskan priest, Father Ivan. The fireweed (Chamaerion angustifolium) puts out its best display of pink flowers outside the Cathedral. In the river opposite to the road, the salmon struggle against the current, their back breaking the water, and sploshing across the stream.
As a farewell night, and invited by the volcanologists that we met at the hotel a few days ago we head to the local bar (the ones that travel by helicopter and who kindly have spotted monkeyflowers in other parts of the island for us).
The bar is called The Norwegian Rat.
A wooden house near the water, surrounded by crab traps and wooden pallets, and a WWI bunker in the corner outside. Josh decides not to join in, and Jannice and I head to the rathole, a bit uncertain of what the heir of the Elbow Room may hold for us. (The Elbow Room was an infamous and rowdy bar in Unalaska, but is now closed. The closure brought infinite happiness to Suzi Golodoff who happened to live next door to it, and had to endure loudness and drunks for many years). As we walk in a sign requests closing the door immediately to avoid being taken out of its hinges due to strong winds. I wonder if this is a code phrase to keep The Rat isolated from the outside. Inside, there are a few pool tables, a shuffle board, and a well-stocked bar… with stuffed animals and pelts hanging from the ceiling. The night was full of encounters with local characters and a few other scientists. Although it is hard to tell who is really local. The best Jannice and I could do is to look at their shoes. Brown rubber boots of a specific brand seems to be a unifying character of who we thing are locals. At The Rat we met Kurt a fisherman, who was having the “happiest nigh of his life”. Theo, a bush pilot who has just come from the Pribiloff Islands, two ex-marines who are doing some surveying of the Bristol Bay with a large crew of geoscientists, a large and drunk Unalaskan who enjoys throwing pallets into the open fire pit until an even larger barman comes to tell him off, Amy or Annie and his local friend who are gracious about us accidentally knocking their beer on the floor. In just a couple hours, The Rat gives us a small taste of what nightlife in a place like Unalaska may be. Boring is not.
On 4th August 2016, we had another successful and breathtaking day collecting monkeyflowers in Unalaska. Here are some pictures, including some bees pollinating flowers in the Aleutians.
Dutch Harbor and Beaver Inlet
2, 3 August 2016.
I am having breakfast looking out of the hotel window. About 100m from here a seaplane sits in the calm waters, waiting to be sprung into action. The seaplane is a herring spotter, used by fishermen to help them locate schools of fish while at sea. Fishing in the Aleutians needs diverse strategies.
The second of August was a relaxed day. In the morning we picked up camp and came back to Unalaska. The weather was wet and a bit windy, and the chill slowed us down a bit. When we were ready to go it was too late to attempt a long hike given the weather conditions. Instead, we decided to explore the World War II embattlements in Mount Ballyhoo. Ballyhoo lies behind Dutch Harbor. The conical mountain that we climbed the first day is also the place where the Americans hurriedly built military defenses to protect Unalaska. After the bombing of Unalaska, local people were evacuated to the mainland, and the only residents left here were soldiers, digging trenches, building bunkers, and mounting guns and cannons into the cliffs overlooking the bay of Unalaska. When the locals were evacuated by the army they were not allowed to transport more than what they could carry in a small suitcase. When they were allowed to return years later, people have lost much, their houses and churches emptied and ransacked by opportunists. Today what remains of that dark time are the abandoned war buildings that spill in all directions into the island.
In the bunkers in the cliffs of Ballyhoo, the concrete walls were covered by the graffiti of subsequent visitors. The doors were broken and fallen, or gone altogether. Cables hung from the flat roofs, and a few structures collapsed under the weight of the earth used to hide them from Japanese attacks.
In the gray and rainy day, the place had an eerie feeling to it, and we walked among the ruins in silence. Among the cracked walls and floors, I found a very special plant: Arabidopsis kamchatica. Arabidopsis kamchatica is related to the model plant species thalecress (A. thaliana), and has a complicated family history. A. kamchatica originated through hybridization between two species, followed by one of the most significant mutations in nature: the doubling of the entire amount of DNA in their cells, a phenomenon called polyploidisation. Genome doubling, or polyploidy, has had a massive influence in the evolutionary history of plants, and it is one of the topics I study in my lab. It is the same process that produced the Scottish monkeyflower I discovered a few years ago (Mimulus peregrinus). I was glad to see a more ancient polyploid, A. kamchatica, growing in Unalaska. Labs around the world, including Diana Wolf’s in Fairbanks and Kentaro Shimizu in Zurich, have been studying this little plant for years. I hope to be able to help their research projects with our observations and collections of A. kamchatika in the Aleutians.
On the 3rd of August, we explored Peace of Mind Trail, which reaches Beaver Inlet, one cove away from Ugadaga Bay. It was a great hike. We collected Mimulus in waterfalls and lakes. When we reached the beach, an inquisitive red fox watched us from the rocks on the beach. We had lunch on a log brought to the sand by the ocean drift. A young bald eagle kept jealous watch on us, wondering why had we taken her favourite spot. In the afternoon, we met Suzi for dinner. We exchanged stories, and ate fresh seafood brought by the fishermen of Dutch Harbor.
We started exploring Unalaska in the company of local naturalist Suzi Golodoff. Suzi knows plants and pretty much anything to do with Unalaska and her company made this first day of exploration both fun and extremely useful.
The day was overcast, and the clouds covered the mountain tops. After getting land use permits from the Unalaska Native Corporation we drove and hiked around the island. There is much to say about all the places and plants we saw, and little time to do it.
The bottom line is that we have found Mimulus in Unalaska!
This plant is extremely common and occurs in a variety of habitats from rocky cliffs, to bogs, to hot springs.
There seems to be two main types of Mimulus, although we do not know for sure how much of this is genetic variation or the plastic response of plants to their local environments. All plants seem to be relatively large, robust, and clonal. The two types we have documented are, first, plants with red calyces (the usually green part of the flower that surrounds the yellow corolla) and with a faint red mark in the back of the petals at the tip, and, second, plants with green calyces, and no obvious red markings in the petal tips. There is no obvious separation in habitats between the two types, and the distinction may become blurred in some populations.
Unalaska has been fantastic to us. Full of monkeyflowers and great plants. And also wonderful wildlife including whales, sea otters, bald eagles, foxes, ravens, puffins, salmon runs, king fishers, and many more.
The town of Unalaska is also extremely interesting. A certain type of marine wild west. A frontier town that feels like a recently established village, despite the fact that humans have lived here for 9,000 years.
In 1805, Grigori von Langsdorff, a naturalist travelling with a Russian expedition, reached the island of Unalaska. Welcomed by the Unangan people that approached their ship in baidarkas (kayaks), Langsdorff and some of the crew crossed Beaver Inlet and reached the shore in Ugadaga Bay. Along the way, Langsdorff discovered two new plant species, and one of them would eventually spread as far as Scotland and New Zealand.
Today, we traced back the steps of Langsdorff in search of the plant he discovered 211 years ago: the yellow monkeyflower Mimulus guttatus.
As we descended into Ugadaga Bay, the Aleutians gave us a spectacular and very rare welcome. A cloudless, bright blue sky highlighted the intense green of the vegetation. The green mountains were only interrupted occasionally by rock screes and a few snow patches resisting the summer.
In the narrow and steep gorge cut by the stream crossing the valley, we found the first monkeyflowers. A few scattered plants hanging on the banks, and blooming profusely with yellow fury. Finding this plants is the culmination of our National Geographic expedition to the Aleutians.
It was easy to be thrilled and moved realising that we had found Langsdorff’s plants and walked the same ancient trail that he took to reach the village of Iliuliuk two centuries before.
As we descended onto the pebble beach, we saw and collected more monkeyflowers. We sat on the beach and dipped our toes in a salmon river at the south end of the bay. The Alaskan sun shone unimpeded by clouds. As we watched salmon in the river and bald eagles soaring above us I imagined the sense of discovery that Langsdorff must have felt as he travelled through the Aleutians.
In the afternoon, we set camp in Morris Cove and talked and watched the sun set in a sea teaming with sea otters and Steller sea lions. At midnight, after the sky finally darkened, the salmon approached the beach, jumping in search of the fresh water creek.
I sat on the pebbly beach for a while hearing the salmon come to shore. Far away, the lights of Dutch Harbour illuminated the long exposure shot I took of the Aleutian night sky.
The Aleutians: Akutan
The alarm went off while the cabin was still pitch dark. We had twenty minutes to get ready for sampling in the last stop of the ferry before reaching Unalaska. When the ship landed in Akutan the lights of trucks and floodlights around the harbour gave us a faint idea of how this island looked like. We had read the eastern Aleutians.
Three figures with headlamps raced away from the ferry as soon as the ramp was set, while everybody else remained on deck or greeting passengers at the harbour. We split into two groups to cover more ground, and I quickly found Mimulus growing along a small creek or burn that came down the mountain, near the helicopter pad. With nor landing strip for plans, the helipad is the only aerial link for Akutan’s few residents. On the way back I got chatting with the bartender of Akutan that was travelling to Unalaska for a weekend outing. He told me many stories of living there, hunting, and the difficult and often solitary live he endured. The stories I heard would make a post on their own, but I will save them for later as we are about to leave.
Arriving to Unalaska
We arrived in Dutch Harbor around 10am. As we came into the bay we saw a whale so close that you felt you could touch it. From the approach we could see Unalaska's Orthodox Cathedral, the iconic building that has come to be a synonym with this town.
We picked up the rental SUV and stopped for lunch at the Cathedral. We ate as a bald eagle kept watch on us from the highest cross of the church. This place has so many bald eagles, it is unbelievable. Later we learned from an excellent naturalist that in one Christmas census, the townspeople recorded 800!
In the afternoon, we met Steffi Ickert-Bond and Roger Topp from the Museum of the North and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The following day we would meet Suzi Golodoff, and with her the Langsdorff Expedition would be complete.
After meeting with Roger and Steffi, we decided to hike up Balyhoo, the pointy mountain overlooking Dutch Harbor. The steep ascent rewarded us with botanical prizes including a swan orchid, dwarf rhododendron, and a myriad of other wild flowers. At the top, we had a clear view of the bays of Unalaska, Iluliuk, and Capitains, as well as Hog island. Eagles and ravens circled and passed near us. The precipitous cliff on the other side was not enough to deter Jannice from sampling dwarf rhododendron for Steffi.
After the hike, we checked in the Grand Aleutian, probably the only hotel in town. We met a team of volcanologist travelling by helicopter to sample ash. It is easy to spot scientists here. The plastic bags full of samples, permanent markers in hand, and GPS devices. But most of all by the faces radiating a mix of exhaustion and excitement, and the thrill of exploring a beautifully remote land.
The day started early as the first port of cold was King Cove at 7:15am. King Cove is a small port surrounded by smooth conical peaks. The early sun painted the lenticular clouds above the summit, and the Tustumena landed in the shade of these gigantic mountains. This was a short stop, barely over half an hour. I asked one of the local crew members on the dock if they had seen monkeyflowers. “Yes, it is everywhere”, answered a girl about 20 that was securing the ferry with heavy ropes. “Where could I find the nearest ones?” I asked. It was hard for her to decide: “Go right, no, perhaps left, there are very many.” Lo and behold we found monkeyflowers in a yard to the left, where the fishermen kept crab traps and other gear. Strangely, Mimulus was growing on the dry ground away from a stream or an obvious water source. The soil, though, showed that at some point this area is flooded, and the drought is only transitory. We found many small plants, with lots of seeds. I picked a few plants for herbarium records. I walked a bit further, towards a sandy beach and I surprised a red fox searching for food on the edge of the water. Startled, the fox ran into the vegetation as I fruitlessly shot my camera to get some blurry pictures of a red dash. King Cove have given us a treasure of Mimulus, in about 20 minutes. Not a bad way to start the day.
The next stop was Cold Bay at around 11am. This is one of the most exciting stops of the trip, as it is here where the headquarters of Izembek National refuge is. On the ship we had met the new manager of the Refuge, who was travelling with his two dogs. Traditionally, the ferry holds a lottery to choose 20 lucky passengers that are then taken on a 2 hour tour of the Reserve. Josh and I were lucky enough to go, while Jannice had to stay behind picking cloudberries.
The tour was fantastic. We learned about this last frontier of US land conservation. A big reserve set to protect eelgrass, which feeds thousands of migratory birds including Brent goose who arrive here every year after migrating from Baja California. About 2km into the reserve, a passenger shouted “Bear!” and our truck slid into a halt. While everybody looked for the (non-exisitent bear) I spotted monkeyflowers on a stream. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to stop to collect so I could only mark the site with my GPS while we drove away. But our spirits were lifted when barely 1km away we did spot a brown bear. A large female bear rose from a low hill, followed by three cubs. The wind carried our scent and she stopped and looked, then ran a few dozen meters leaving the cubs to hurriedly catch up. Then she ran and stopped again, playing this game, while keeping an eye on us, until they reached a lake. It was a great sighting of this bear family. We continued with the tour of the refuge, hearing the story of the place, people and wildlife.
A definite highlight was to see the four volcanoes poking their head out from the clouds. Seeing these volcanoes is not assured in a short stop in Cold Bay. The ever present clouds is the very reason why the US military chose this site for a base during the warm up to the Second World War, hoping that they could hind military structures from the Japanese bombers.
The most interesting volcano was Pavlov, which was smoking, producing a thin flume that raised up far in the sky. Seeing a smoking volcano here was among the list of things I really wanted to see. After all we are sailing in the Ring of Fire, and an active volcano makes justice to this awesome name.
We eventually came back to the ferry a bit late, just to find that Jannice had fished a fairly good-sized fish with a borrowed rod that a kid and his dad take out at every stop. Oh, and I was forgetting, that when we arrived to Cold Bay we were also received by the locals, but this time two entrepreneurial kids were selling Japanese glass bubbles. These beautiful bubbles wash now and then in Alaskan beaches. They were used by Japanese fishermen to keep their nets afloat, and sometimes were lost or thrown overboard. Now replaced by plastic floaters, these glass bubbles are not only of historical interest but also extremely beautiful.
Next stop was False Bay. As we approached we kept an eye for wildlife. There were hundreds of tufted puffins floating on swirls at the mouth of the bay. Josh and Jannice also saw a bear and cubs. At port, we had a bit more than an hour and a half, and within a few minutes we found monkeyflowers on the side of the road. It was a successful stop into this small community with population of 54. At the end of the pier there was a bunch of entrepreneurial kids selling lemonade, banana loaf, and glass bubbles. I couldn’t resist and bought another bubble, this time still surrounded by the original net. And banana loaf which I am having with tea in my little homage to Gillian and Lucia back home in Scotland.
After dinner I sat in the front deck near the bow of the ship. The Captain pointed out the wreckage of the Oduna, a ship that sunk at the coast in 1965. The rusting hull lay inclined against the rock cliffs. The sunset was ferocious, with low cloud acting as a lid that touched the tops of the conical volcanos and jagged mountains. In a curious natural phenomenon, a hole pierced the cloud just above a lonely island, and showered the bare rock with light. In the background, what at first looked like clouds, turned out to be a massive mountain range with snow covered peaks, and even higher than the volcanos of the background. At 10:30pm a pod of eight whales passed on both sides of the ship. The ship rocks softly, and the sun refuses to abandon the mountain peaks.
It has been an hour since we left Chignik and two eventful things have happened. First, the general alarm sounded, with all crew reporting to their stations, and the intermittent call to abandon ship. It was a drill. The second is to be going around the geological cathedral of Castle Cape. Three jagged peaks of bare rock at the edge of the ocean, and multitoned layers of rock and ash at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
The last stop of the day was Sand Point. At around 11pm we pulled into the harbour of the large city in the Alaskan Peninsula (952 people). A welcome committee was waiting for us at the docks. We were offered smoke salmon. The trucks in the dock were waiting for the passengers that have come in the ferry from Homer. There was a young couple that were attending a wedding, and their friends were happy and overwhelmed when they saw their old friends. There was a woman and her 12 day-old baby that were here to meet the baby’s father for the first time. And there were many more with unbelievable stories.
Jannice, Josh and I had a mission. With less than an hour on port, and the night closing in, we had limited time to find monkeyflowers. We split into two groups, and after a fruitless search to the left of the port I headed upwards, along a gravel road. Theys stayed searching among a scrapyard, and Josh spotted the first flowers. Hurriedly they stuffed plants in a bag and brought them to the ferry. The crew and passengers were so happy that we have finally found the plant we talked about for so long! “So, that’s the monkeyweed?” Asked an incredulous Australian pilot. We were tired, and satisfied to have found it. We processed the samples and I prepared two herbarium specimens. Sand Point had not disappointed us.
We left Kodiak in a rainy afternoon on 27th July. The fog covered the mountains, and in the horizon the lead-coloured sea merged with the grey clouds. In the shore, not far from port, about twenty sea lions laid on the sand. As we pulled out we also saw sea otters, bald eagles and, later, horned puffins, humpback whales, gulls, and (maybe) a white-winged scoter. The sailing was smooth, and we spent a long time in the solarium, looking out to the sea. I finally had an early night with no insomnia, and walked up this morning at 7:30am, fully recovered.
When we got to the deck, the ship was passing Mount Aniakchak, a massive volcanic caldera, covered with snow. On the south side we had the Semidi Islands, a group between the Alaska Peninsula and Chirikof Island. This is what I imagined the trip to look like. And it was only the start of our sailing to the Aleutians. A few hours later we approached the port of Chignik, the first stop in our sea trip.
Chignik is a small fishing town on the Alaska Peninsula. A few fishing boats moved around the bay. Around it, sea cliffs, and snow-capped mountains with waterfalls catching the snow melt. The mountains are covered in vegetation, except where the slopes are so steep that the erosion prevents the green crust to accumulate. The cliffs reveal a layered structure of gray and dark material, and in other parts the mountain breaks into red cliffs. The parallel lines of the mountain face are pushed up at places, broken along fracture lines. The land is made by volcanos and it is continually broken by tectonic plaques crashing into each other.
The small village of Chignik is mostly a canning factory and a group of wooden houses near the harbour. The houses are full with character and of an age impossible to determine. They could be eight years old or eighty. It is hard to decide if the shedding paint is caused by old age or by the merciless weather.
At port, we only had about an hour to search for monkey flowers before the boat left again. We were both excited and nervous to try finding them there. As soon as we disembarked, we headed west and searched along the river and on the beach. The beach was made of irregularly shaped pebbles, and only in patches you could see a dark grey sand. Drift wood and seaweed marked the line of high tide. We saw many flowers and bumblebees, but no monkeyflowers. In a rush we crossed a dilapidated bridge over the river along the coast, so we could examine the rock cliffs on the other side. The cliffs were a miniature botanic garden, with dwarf willow, yellow paintbrush, blue bells, Jacob’s ladder, and Sorbus. But no Mimulus here either. On the way back to the boat, we went along an old board walk that took us through the houses, some abandoned, others occupied, but in either case silent and ancient. The vegetation on the side of the path and road included yellow rattle, Solidago, fireweed, and others.
The doughnut shop had run out of doughnuts. Buying doughnuts in Chignik was what most people that came down the ferry did. The locals instead, rushed into the ferry to buy food at the restaurant.
When we boarded back, one of the crew said “Pretty nice, eh?” with a ring of sarcasm perhaps thinking that the small town of Chignik had disappointed us for being so bleak. We truly thought, “Yes, very nice indeed”. Even without finding monkeyflowers, Chignik had lived to our expectations of what a rough, hard-working town, at the edge of Alaska might look like.
In our last day in Kodiak we went back to sample one more population of monkeyflowers. This was the first population we spotted in our arrival. It was a large one, with lots of clonality. Clonality is a weird and wonderful plant strategy, where an adult plant produces genetically identical copies of itself by branching out new physiological individuals capable of independent life after splitting off from the mother plant.
If Mimulus can be quite good at clonality, this last population was the master of them all. Using thin and long branches, the KCG population (acronym for Kodiak US Coast Guard, after the locality where we sampled), is able to send-off genetically identical copies of itself into the world. Plants were flowering and setting seeds, but in addition these beautiful, red coloured clones, were splitting and branching away in all directions.
The weather was moderately atrocious, but this did not detract from the beauty of the green island of Kodiak, and if anything it enhanced it. The low cloud hugged the mountains and coast line around Kodiak.
In this last day, we also decided to do some cultural exploration. We went to the Baranov museum, a building from the era of Russian ownership of Alaska. Built in solid wood, and kept to resemble the decoration and style of the time, the Baranov museum was a great way to start stepping into Langsdorff steps.
After Baranov, we went to the old Orthodox Cathedral. The marshmallow, blue-coloured domes are a quintessential component of these far-away reaches of western Alaska. The cathedral was closed, but we lucked out when we met Father Methodius who offered to show us instead the Orthodox Old Cathedral, which was built to resemble the original religious building in Kodiak. It was fantastic, and Father Methodious told us stories about the church and seminar. We saw the icons in the wooden, geometric cathedral, and talked about St. Innocent (Inokentis) a patron of the early Aleutian and Kodiak convert. We also talked about the three-hand saint who was also an artist, and to whom, after the Prince had cut off his hand so he could never paint again as beautiful work as the one he made for the Russian Prince, God decided to restore the amputated hand. When we told Father Methodius we were going to Unalaska, he asked us to send his regards to Father Ivan in Dutch Harbor’s church.
We rounded up the day with trips to the Aleutiik Museum to see the handwoven baskets made with rye grass. Basket weaving is an old Aleutian tradition, which has had a renaissance since the 1950s. It is so difficult and so time consuming, that a well-made basket the size of your hand was on sale for $2,800!
At 5:30pm, we boarded the US Tustumena. We are heading to the Aleutians!
There are not many roads in Kodiak, and most of the island can only be reached by boat of seaplane. Today we found a way to combine our search for monkey flowers with sightings of Kodiak bears. In the morning we flew to Frazer lake in a small seaplane. The views were unbelievable, and along the way we saw humpback whales.
We flew to the south of Kodiak, and there, in a river full of salmon we prepared to catch some brown bears feeding. Our first encounter with a bear, though, was on the trail, as a bear decided to use the same path as us. We quickly stepped off the path so the bear could go continue, but the bear was not keen in getting too close to strangers either. This brief encounter was enough to send our heart racing!
When we got to the falls and pools where the salmon passes, three Kodiak bears were waiting for us! A sow and her two cubs were gorging on salmon. They seemed to fish salmon with such little effort, and eat wastefully only the best parts of it (brain, belly, eggs, skin). There is so much salmon in the rivers, that bears don’t bother eating them whole, and a flock of seagulls was quick to finish off the meal. We had a good couple hours watching these bears as they fed and played, laying lazily in the water or on the shore. A second group of mum and two cubs followed the first one, and the show repeated itself. The new cubs were younger, and the tiniest of them was a charismatic little rascal with a penchant for fishing. And he did not want to share the tasty salmon not even with his mom, and an endearing but decisive growl made mom and brother desist in their attempts to steal his fish.
After viewing the bears, we ran down the path to a Mimulus population and collected some material and photos. This is a very special population, and somehow I managed to convince Jannice to call it “OSO”.
In the afternoon, we joined Josh and set off to explore the southernmost place in kodiak that you can reach by car. We arrived to Fossil Beach late afternoon, and were amazed by the thousands of mollusk fossils embedded in a lost very rock! And lo and behold, we found monkey flowers here too! We first saw them in some inaccessible cliffs, but a lucky scramble in a more gentle gully brought us first a few monkey flowers, and then more near a small lake or river. We were delighted to find more plants at this slightly more southern location. The perfect day ended when, as we drove back, near Pasagshack, we found one of the largest populations of Mimulus I have ever seen! Thousands of plants (more than 10,000 according to the expert eye of Josh and Jannice) covered the floor at the base of a cliff. The extremely diminutive plants had managed an undeniable success producing even more seeds.
What a wonderful 48 hours we have passed in Kodiak. In barely over two days we have accomplished one of the key goals of our expedition: Sample monkey flowers in the island that Langsdorff visited 210 years ago. Little by little, I feel we are closing into finding an answer to the mystery of where do Scottish monkey flowers come from.
Tomorrow we embark on a big adventure. In the afternoon, we will board the Trusty Tusty (an old and well-known Alaskan ferry), to travel for nearly three days along the Alaska peninsula and towards the Aleutian Islands.
Today we flew into Kodiak, the second largest US island after Hawaii.
The clouds were low, hugging the tree-covered coast, and only at he last minute we saw the green island appear. The slopes were covered with Sitka spruce, and everything seemed wet and coloured with deep tones of green. After landing we picked up the plant press and satellite phone that Steffi had mailed for us. We left the airport and stopped near a harbour for the Coast Guard.
Jannice was first to spot them. A yellow streak coming down in a small stream that cascaded down the black mountain. “I think I saw them”. Josh and I looked incredulous but when we stopped and started looking around we quickly discovered that there were Mimulus everywhere!
“Look at the stolons!” shouted Jannice in excitement of seeing the lateral branches that Mimulus uses to clone itself. We were thrilled to have found it so quickly! A trip across continents to find Mimulus in Alaska had started well!
After this quick scouting trip we headed back to Kodiak where we met Stacy Studebaker. She is the local expert in the botanical riches of the Alaskan archipelago. And what a knowledgable and kind person she is! With her help, exploring Kodiak has been fun and very rewarding. So far we have sampled four populations, and spotted many more. Along the way we saw bald eagles, waiting for salmon, “psycho” ravens stealing bagels and shouting high-pitched sounds with unknown purpose, several Alaskan-specialists plants, which are too numerous to name here, a salmon weir, and floatplanes flying low above our heads. All against the amazing backdrop of the green, lush vegetation of Kodiak.
The day ended with processing leaf and seed samples, herbarium material, and a trip to the local restaurant. What a great way to start the trip!
And the day after we had planned a trip in float plane to look for Mimulus in more remote parts of the island… and also to try to spot Kodiak bears. Stay tuned!
I arrived to Anchorage late on the night of the 24th of July, after almost missing my connection in San Francisco. Josh and Jannice had arrived a little earlier and we met at an Atlantic puffin-themed motel near the airport. The plan was to leave early next morning by plane to Kodiak Island.
We wanted to explore Kodiak a little bit and then take the two and a half day ferry to Unalaska. In a way we were trying to do the reverse route that Langsdorff had taken 210 years earlier. Langsdorff had set off from the Kamchatka peninsula, Russia, towards the Aleutian islands and further on the coast of Alaska. The Aleutian islands were Russian territory under the control of the Russian-American company, a state-controlled company which exploited the natural resources of Alaska, particularly animal pelts including sea otters and seals.
Kodiak had a permanent settlement of the Russian-American company, and for a while served as a major centre of operations. From Langsdorff travel diaries, we knew that he had stopped there during the expedition in which he first discovered monkeyflowers. Thus, we were particularly interested in sampling Kodiak's monkeyflowers so we could later check them genetically and see if we could link present-day European monkeyflowers to Kodiak Island.
On the 24th of July 2016, we set off on our expedition.
Josh left from Virginia and Jannice from Syracuse. I left from Edinburgh and the plan was for the three of us to meet in Anchorage. Roger and Steffi would catch up with us later.
While waiting for my flight in Edinburgh, I picked up a copy of the Sunday Times. Julia Horton had written a very nice article about our upcoming expedition to Alaska. It was very exciting to start the trip this way!
I find very cool how a plant that evolved in one side of the world can thrive in a new environment thousands of miles away. Yellow monkeyflowers (Mimulus guttatus) evolved in the Pacific slope of western North America, and have been in the Old World for no more than 200 years.
Monkeyflowers are relatively common in the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland. In some places, they form dense stands along small streams and rivers. At the peak of their flowering they lighten up riverbanks with a bright shade of yellow. The small red spots at the center of the flowers add a beautiful splash of colour to these blooms. Flies and bumblebees often visit monkeyflowers, and you can see bees flying around covered with monkeyflower pollen on their back.
Yellow monkeyflowers, despite being non-native, are often appreciated by local people. In places like the Shetland Isles in the north of Scotland, M. guttatus is now part of the wild landscape of the islands. The yellow flowers along ditches and streams add a lively touch of colour, especially when growing among native forget-me-nots, red campion and other native plants.
A trip to the Aleutians to find monkeyflowers required putting together a team with expertise in monkeyflowers and in plant collecting in far-flung places. They also needed to be willing to travel to the Aleutians! Three of us put together the initial plan:
- Mario Vallejo-Marin. Team Leader (Principal Investigator), National Geographic Explorer. University of Stirling, Scotland. Plant evolutionary biologist with a long wish to visit as many remote islands as possible.
- Joshua R. Puzey. Co-Investigator. National geographic Explorer. The College of William and Mary, Virginia. Expert in plant genomics and adventurer at heart.
- Steffi Ickert-Bond. Co-Investigator. University of Alaska, Fairbanks & Museum of the North. Steffi has enormous experience plant-collecting in Alaska and around the world and was key to make the most out of our expedition.
In addition to the core team, we were extremely lucky to attract the interest of some outstanding scientists, naturalists and story-tellers that joined our expedition:
- Jannice Friedman. Syracuse University. An expert on North American monkeyflowers, plant evolution, and always up for sampling plants in cool places, Jannice was the glue that kept our expedition together.
- Roger Topp. Museum of the North. Director of Exhibits, photographer, story-teller, and wonderful colleague for exploring the far north.
- Suzi Golodoff. Author of the flora of Unalaska, and the best guide one could ever wish to explore the history and nature of the Aleutians
- Stacy Studebaker. Author of the wildflowers of the Kodiak archipelago and other nature guides, children books, amazing photographer, artist... a true polymath and the best person we could have chosen to start our adventure in Alaska.
When the naturalist Grigori von Langsdorff, set off from the Kamchatka peninsula in 1805 to explore the Aleutian Islands, he could not suspect that he was going to discover a new species of monkeyflower. This new species, Mimulus guttatus, was to become a staple of the northern rivers and streams of the British Isles 200 years later. The expedition was an off-shoot of the first Russian attempt to circumnavigate the World, and had the objective to explore the then Russian territories of coastal Alaska. While visiting Unalaska Island, Langsdorff encountered the new monkeyflower, and collected specimens which by 1812 have found their way to the Cambridge Botanic Gardens. A few years later, M. guttatus escaped cultivation and became widely naturalised in the British Isles and beyond.
In 2016 we set off from Scotland to trace back the steps of Langsdorff's expedition to the Aleutians. Our goal was to find Langsdorff's monkeyflower, and establish if the invasive plants now found across three continents once came from a Russian expedition to the edge of the world.
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