Katie Eberhart - Writing & Observations
The Environment and Seasons of the Matanuska Valley, Alaska
The Matanuska Valley in Southcentral Alaska as seen from the road to Hatcher Pass.
Birch, spruce and cottonwoods are the largest trees in the bit of forest that I visit frequently. This forest coexists with human habitations, activities, and infrastructure--houses, farms, roads, and commercial activities. As you travel away from the main transportation corridors to the narrower, less traveled roads, you'll drive along the edges of fields and forests, lakes and bogs, even remnants of the last ice age. A series of small steep ridges transect the Matanuska Valley, moraine remembrances from the last glacial period when the Matanuska Glacier lay heavily on the land. The narrow valleys between the moraines often hold deep lakes or poorly drained peat bogs. The hills themselves are covered by a mixed forest of birch, cottonwood and spruce with smaller willows and alders along edges or in wetter places. Understory shrubs and forbes vary depending on soil type, elevation, and microclimate.
The bit of forest that I've been exploring is not particularly exceptional when you speed past it on the road. But slather on the insect repellant and take a walk through it. There's a lot of detail all of which tells a story, or leads one to speculate as to what the story might be.
The Matanuska Valley has distinct seasons. Winter lasts the longest, often beginning in mid-October and going through March or into April. Spring is fast, occurring between the end of winter and the second or third week of May. If you define Autumn as beginning when most of the garden vegetables are frosted, that typically happens by the end of the first week of September. The deciduous forests, primarily birch, cottonwood, and aspen, become a brilliant yellow by the second or third week of September and the leaves have dropped or blown from the trees by the first or second week of October. Travel to higher elevations such as Independence and Hatcher Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains and the brevity of summer is compressed even more. On June 16, 2001 a hike around Independence Bowl at about 4,000 feet included slogging through snow fields. The alpine willow hadn't leafed out yet, although the south facing slopes were green to a higher elevation.
Summer is a favorite time for wildflower viewing. With easy access to the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountains, there is abundant opportunity to enjoy the tremendous diversity and beauty of Alaska wildflowers. Alaska Wildflowers
In June the bluebells (Chiming Bells/Languid Lady) bloom along one side of the road. The other side is covered with the feathery equisetum, an ancient plant that lived on earth when the dinosaurs were alive. Overhead the sky arches slightly between the ragged forest edges. Look up and see what's in store for weather--wisps of high, thin cirrus "mare's tails"--feathery fronds, windswept, suggesting upper atmosphere moisture, a change of weather. Or in June, the awesome spectacle of thunderheads (cumulonimbus clouds) build over the Talkeetna Mountains. Shiny white on top with an ominous black underbelly they may bring thunder, lightening, rain, and even rainbows to the valley below.
If you walk through these woods in the summer, it will be difficult to spend much time looking at the sky because you just about need a machete to whack a trail through the dense understory of shrubs and flowers. The cow parsnips often are more than six feet tall and the fireweed is more than five feet tall.
Why do plants grow so tall here? The soil is a key ingredient in this phenomenon. This region is in a constant state of soil renewal. New soil may be deposited in thin layers in just about any month of the year, but most often in November through January by the Matanuska Wind and during April and May by the Knik Wind. These winds, each named after a glacier, travels along their respective river valley picking up a load of fine glacial silt along the way. These clouds of glacial dust may be carried many miles and deposited when the wind slows.
In the Matanuska Valley, the cooler days of late August and the Alaska State Fair is a sure sign that Autumn has arrived. By mid September the trees are changing color and the Talkeetna Mountains are turning spectacular shades of red and yellow. By late September there is snow on the mountains and a definite chill in the air. We are lucky if the killing frost holds off until September 12.
Winter becomes spring when--
Forests with deep top soil and plenty of moisture often become jungles of vegetation in the summer--8 foot high cowparsnips, thickets of roses, masses of fireweed... Now, though, after the snow melts and before the plants emerge is a great time to take a look at a special type of organism--lichens. Lichens may look like plants but they are actually a type of ecosystem which are made up of two or three organisms. The main organism is a fungus which depends on a colony of algae or cyanobacteria (or both) to make food through photosynthesis. Lichens
Notes about these pages:*
The quality of these pages depends somewhat on the type of computer and its settings that you use. On my computer, I am happiest with the results if I leave it set on "true color." Otherwise, with 256 colors or less, the system can't cope with all the colors present when there are several different pictures on the same page.
There are also some programs embedded in these pages. One, on the "bird page" is an audio clip of a chickadee in the woods in the Matanuska Valley. There is a small button to the right of the picture of the chickadee which you can click with the mouse to have the clip repeat. You will only be able to hear the chickadee if you are using a multi-media system with sound capability.
*Note on the notes, March 18, 2001. I developed the first version of this page in 1997 when indeed it was difficult to have 256 colors on a personal computer and audio clips in web pages were pretty unusual. I decided to leaves these notes in this page as a footnote on the history of the 'net and this site in particular.
This page last updated April 13, 2012