Springtime in the Muskeg

“Muskeg” is what Alaskans call a bog, and we have a lot of it – covering more than 10% of southeast Alaska.  Clay or bedrock prevents an area from draining, and decomposing vegetation builds up and forms peat – a gigantic acidic sponge that holds water, covered by a top layer of sphagnum moss.  The moss can hold 15 to 30 times its weight in water – impressive stuff!  If you build a house in Petersburg you have to put it on pilings to keep it from sinking into the muskeg, which can be as much as 20′ deep!Because of the acidic mossy soil, trees (such as these shore pines) are stunted and twisted.  It seems like an inhospitable place, but there are many wildflowers that love the environment such as buckbean, labrador tea, and my favorite – the bog kalmia.Spring also brings the roundleaf sundew to the muskeg – a carnivorous plant.  It’s pretty tiny and can be hard to spot, but if you look closely in the photograph you’ll see the little droplets on the ends of its “mouths”.We’ve gotten out to hike a few times this spring, and I particularly like trails that switch between muskeg and forest.Notice the yellow flowers on the side of the trail boards?  They’re another spring arrival – skunk cabbage.  Their leaves will grow quite tall and large over the summer, unfolding from a tight center.The plant starts out with a large yellow blossom – something deer like to snack on….…and it seems to prefer wetter low-lying areas, creating a bright splash of color against the deep green of the forest.Skunk cabbage is sort-of edible, but it will cause raging diarrhea.  Normally this is not a good thing unless you’re a bear that has just awakened from hibernation – then it’s pretty useful to help “wake up” the digestive system!

Spring also means that the forest’s ferns are unfolding, and the coiled up leaves are called fern fiddles which can be harvested and sauteed or pickled.  I just like to photograph them.No walk in the woods would be complete without a nod to my favorite lichen – fairy barf.  I love the way it looks, and the name is just perfect as I imagine tiny little forest nymphs suffering from too much partying.

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