Friday, May 4, 2018

Oplopanax horridus

One of my favorite plants commonly found here in the temperate jungle is Oplopanax horridus, or Devil's Club.  Devil's Club is a very appropriate name for this beautiful horrible plant as one can easily imagine some damned soul being eternally scourged with it by some sadistic and cruel demon.  Think I am exaggerating?  Take a look at this.

These are just the biggest and most obvious of the spines that cover this plant.  These are woody spines found on the stem of the plant which rarely break off into your skin, just puncture it like needles.  There are also smaller, more delicate spines that do penetrate the skin where they then break off and lie in wait to cause you pain and discomfort many hours and days later.  Every part of this plant, the woody stem, the leaf stalks, and the leaves themselves have spines that hurt, except the roots, they are the only spineless part of the plant.  This is the cactus of the rainforest. 

I have honestly become very fond of this plant, to me it represents just how rugged, wild, and difficult this part of the world is.  Devil's Club grows in more open areas where the sunlight can actually penetrate the forest canopy and can grow to over 10' tall while never getting any bigger in diameter than a half dollar.  This results in a plant with a long stem with a lot of spring and given the fact that Devil's Club tends to grow in fairly dense thickets, it has a sinister tendency to smack you on some part of your body when you least expect it, step on one stem and another one that you didn't notice will whack you across your T-shirt clad back!  Devil's Club is also very good at being the only available usable handhold when you are climbing a steep forested slope and only the thickest of leather gloves can armor your hands against its woody spines.  The softer, more delicate spines can actually be much worse than the big, obvious ones.  You usually don't feel them enter you and only realize they are there hours later when you feel a sharp, piercing pain.  These things get in deep somehow and are nearly impossible to extract unless you know the proper technique which I will share with you so that you know what to do should you ever encounter this plant.  The proper technique for removing these insidious little things is to suck it up and deal with their discomfort for 2-3 days until they begin to fester slightly then you can easily squeeze them out.  For real.  This is what I have found to be the best anyway and it gives me great and sadistic pleasure when those little hairlike spines pop up out of my skin.
I started that paragraph by stating that I was fond of Devil's Club didn't I?  I truly am which may give some disturbing insight into my personality.  I have hiked so many miles in this jungle now that only the densest of Devil's Club thickets makes me alter my course and I carry my Devil's Club spines and scars as a badge of timber beast pride!  And, picking out those little spines over the next several days gives a person something to do if you get bored!

I may have given a bad first impression of Devil's Club but it is also a beautiful plant as you can see from the above photo of a fully grown leaf.  The leaves can get quite large and have a very attractive symmetry somewhat like a maple leaf.  I have always thought that some sort of Devil's Club leaf design would make a cool tattoo.  Devil's Club may be so well armored and protected due to its wealth and value as a medicine and food source.  Devil's Club is related to ginseng and has been used for centuries to treat a wide variety of medical issues like arthritis, rheumatism, diabetes, dandruff, digestive issues, menstruation issues, colds, tuberculosis, and many other things.  It is used as a tea, poultice, and salve.  Putting a Devil's Club stem above your doorway is also supposed to keep evil spirits from entering your house and seems to work as I have not had a single evil spirit in my house since putting it above my door.  The plant also has pretty red berries later in the year which are also edible and are an important food source for some animals especially bears.  Devil's Club also has a very distinctive and pleasant smell.  This plant is truly, truly a natural wonder.

A Day on the Stikine River

In the past, I had been hesitant to describe the Stikine to people as the last river of its kind in North America.  Now, I regularly describe it as such with no hesitation and no feeling of exaggeration or grandiosity, it is just the truth.  There are, of course, many rivers in North America larger, longer, and much more well known than the Stikine but that to me, just adds to the mystery and magnificence and importance of this river.  The Stikine is born from Tuaton Lake on the Spatsizi Plateau of British Columbia and starts out small and fast like any other pristine mountain river.  From there, it passes through some of the most uninhabited and unaltered country left on the continent while increasing in both size and volume from the many tributary rivers feeding into it.  The total length of the Stikine from source to sea is approximately 360 miles, Tuaton Lake to the Pacific Ocean just north of Wrangell, with a watershed draining approximately 25,000 square miles.
In all of this vast area, along this river's entire length there is only one highway bridge, Highway 37, crossing the Stikine and one old and unused railway bridge.  There is also only one community along the river, the village of Telegraph Creek, BC, which has a year round population of about 100 people.  There are a few scattered homesteads along the river and a fish cannery on the Canadian side but other than those few human habitations, this is as uninhabited and pristine a place as you could hope for in North America in the 21st century.

This photo is not of Tuaton Lake, my apologies for the deception but I have never been there so do not have a photo of it!  These lakes are somewhat similar though and are the headwaters lakes of the Iskut River which is the largest tributary of the Stikine so hopefully give an example of what the headwaters country of the Stikine looks like.  This photo was taken from high up on the Todagin Plateau looking over at the mountains of the Mt Edziza Provincial Park.

More pictures from and of the Todagin Plateau.  There is unfortunately some new mining activity going on in these beautiful remote Canadian plateaus which has a lot of us who live downstream of these activities concerned for the future health of several transboundary rivers including the Stikine.  There is a mine called the Red Chris Mine currently in production just on the other side of the high point in the photo below with part of the mine's operating plan to dump tailings into the small, barely visible lake on the right side of the above photo.  That lake is also one of the headwaters lake of the Iskut River.  These mines are primarily gold and copper mines made financially viable by some shady "green energy" projects funded by the Canadian government.  Since I am currently typing this blog on a computer which requires the metals being mined in these mines, I'll avoid hypocritical and heavy handed condemnation of the resource extraction which allows the vast majority of us to have all the "conveniences" that we now think we need.  Just don't be fooled by Canada!  It is not the polite, innocent country it likes people to think it is!

This photo is of Mt Edziza, a dormant volcano that is a prominent feature of the Stikine River country.  This region has a significant amount of volcanic influence with many dormant volcanoes, basalt cliffs, thermal springs, and a very high grade of obsidian found on Mt Edziza that was traded up and down the coast and all the way out to the Aleutian Islands.

The one and only road crossing the Stikine River marks the end of the Upper Stikine and the beginning of the Lower Stikine.  This is Canadian Highway 37, also called the Cassiar Highway which will eventually connect to the Alaska-Canada Highway further north. 
The physical feature which separates the Stikine into an Upper portion and a Lower portion is the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, a truly grand canyon in everyone sense that has only been run by some of the best whitewater kayakers in the world, it is very difficult and challenging whitewater and has been called the Mt Everest of whitewater kayaking. There are several interesting YouTube videos of kayakers in the canyon as well as a very interesting one of a helicopter flying through its entire 60 mile length that are well worth watching.

Looking upriver from just passed the bridge into the headwaters country of the Stikine River.

Looking downriver with the Highway 37 bridge in the background and my friend Jen who joined me on a bicycle trip on the Cassiar Highway.

Looking down at a portion of the canyon from the rugged, remote, and occasionally very steep road leading to Telegraph Creek.  The river is hidden deep within.

A couple views of the very end of the canyon where the Telegraph Road allows for an easy view.  These basalt cliffs give way to the more typical granitic rock found here in Southeast AK as you travel further downriver.

Just a few photos from a past float trip down the 160 miles of the Lower Stikine to show the changing geology, vegetation, and volume of the river as it travels through the Coast Mountains to the sea.

This is one of several glaciers that contribute their sediments to the river's flow and have carved these beautiful valleys.  This one is called Great Glacier and is a short way across the border in Canada.

Kate's Needle, one of the tallest peaks in our region, is one of the border mountains separating Alaska from British Columbia.  Kate's Needle just exceeds 10,000 feet in height and is visible from a boat out on the ocean on a clear day.

What a misleading title to a blog post this one is!  A Day on the Stikine River has used photos spanning several years covering a very large area of land not possible to see in just one day!  This river and its watershed is just too big, too spectacular, and too important to try to sum up in a post covering just one day.  We are almost in Alaska now where the following photos will demonstrate what is easily seen and done in one day from Wrangell.  The Stikine is a favorite destination for many of us Wrangellites, maybe for differing reasons at times, but still it is a physical feature that influences our area, our weather, and our lives.  The very existence and history of Wrangell is intimately linked to this grand river.

I'll start out with some of the wildlife that the river hides.

Hey, this is technically wildlife!  Maybe not megafauna but still Stikine River wildlife.

A calf moose trying to hide in the most conspicuous of hiding places.  Mom was very nearby keeping a close eye on us as we floated safely in the skiff.  It's challenging trying to keep a boat still in current and take a moose picture at the same time hence the slight blurriness of this guy.

I'm going to interrupt the wildlife for a moment to better explain the forthcoming wildlife photos.  This is Shakes Lake which is an incredibly scenic glacier lake that connects to the Stikine.  This area is the epitome of ruggedness but is also the home of a lot of different animals.  It is not uncommon to see both black and brown bears, mountain goats, and marmots either on the shoreline or somewhere high above among the broken cliffs lining this lake.  That beautiful mountain in the distance is another of the peaks separating Alaska and British Columbia and is aptly named Castle Mountain.  These icebergs in the foreground come from Shakes Glacier which is further down this lake to the left.

Glaciers, along with whales, are two things that always make me feel the power and beauty of this place.  I doubt that I will ever get bored with seeing either one.  The icebergs birthed by the glaciers are constantly changing and present such an incredible array of shapes and sculptures that no two days are ever identical. 

And finally, here is Shakes Glacier itself.  It is a rather docile glacier in the sense that it does not calve very often which allows for a closer inspection of it by boat.

Back to the wildlife of Shakes Lake.  This black bear traversed this steep snow field, the remnant of avalanches pouring into the lake during the winter, over to the even steeper rock ledges rising straight up out of the lake.  Bears are more frequently seen here than one would think making me really curious to know what they find for food?  There are no fish runs in this lake and while there are berries, a small population of marmots, and maybe the occasional mountain goat kid or carcass, it just doesn't seem like there would be enough food to support the amount of bears seen here.  I've seen female bears with cubs, and as I mentioned earlier, both species of bears are here together. 

Another bear traversing the rugged terrain above the lake watching us watch him.

Look in the center of this photo toward the top and you will see two young mountain goats perched above the lake.  I've never seen them in this area so it was a rewarding sight!

Seagulls take advantage of the steep rock faces around Shakes Lake to nest.  There are a few places where they nest low enough to safely get to the nest to get a few quick shots while getting divebombed by the irate parents!  It looks like these eggs weren't far from hatching judging by the cracks that look a lot like the kind of cracks a young seagull beak would make as it tries to emerge into the world.

Moving back down to the main river from Shakes Lake, I'll revisit my developing obsession with photographing wildflowers.

This is a pretty plant found on the terminal moraine at the outlet of Shakes Lake called Roseroot or King's Crown.  A beauty but also delicate and not a common plant.

One of the wild orchids found in Southeast AK is this one, the white bog orchid.  It is not the most beautiful of the orchids but is a fairly common one and is still a pretty sight.

A common sight to see on the river at this time of year is local people subsistence fishing for sockeye salmon with small gillnets.  As a rural community, we in Wrangell can obtain a permit to use gillnets to harvest up to 40 sockeye salmon per household which then typically get smoked and canned providing us with a delicious, healthy, and local food to eat throughout the year.  I typically eat salmon of one kind or another 3-6 times per week every week of the year so this subsistence fishery is an important part of my life.  It is also a fun way to hang out with friends and share the labor and the bounty of that labor.

I'll end this post with a sunset shining down on the mouth of the Stikine. 


It is hard to believe we are starting another season of tours already! The long winter has finally given way to spring with all of its promise of things to come in 2018.  Despite the particularly cool and wet weather we had from May until September in 2017, the wilds of Southeast Alaska still wove their magic on us and our visitors.  The Stikine doesn't stop flowing, the bears don't stop fishing, and the whales don't stop bubble netting just because of some rainy days, if anything, the rain and mists add to the beauty and mystery of this primeval place.  A warm boat and good company make the rainiest of trips memorable and unique.

The Anan Wildlife Observatory was particularly outstanding in 2017 as the fish were in the creek over a week earlier than usual and were still there in good numbers in mid September.  The prolific fish run in combination with a scarcity of wild berries in the forest made last year's bear viewing at Anan one of the best in recent memory.  The number of black bear cubs at Anan this last year promises many generations of fishing bears in the future and the 5 different juvenile brown bears who made Anan their regular summer spot kept things interesting!

We were privileged to spend many hours watching one my favorite Anan bears, Volverine, as she spent the summer of 2017 as a new mom to a little male cub.  He had some close calls throughout the year and at one point, had a pretty significant limp that seemed like a nail in the coffin for a very young bear, but, the tough little guy pushed through and has hopefully gotten through the winter to accompany mom to Anan again this year. 
This photo below was my favorite moment at Anan in 2017:  watching Volverine nurse her cub no more than 10 feet away from the deck after a rather busy and hectic day at Anan.  I owe a big THANK YOU to my New Zealand guests on this day for being such cool Kiwis who just had a blast and wanted to stay to the last possible minute, well after all of the other bear viewers had left for the day.  If not for them and their enthusiasm, we would never have seen this incredible moment.  Just a few minutes before the viewing hours ended, Volverine came out of nowhere and, seeing that things were peaceful and calm, decided to take a rest and bond with her baby.  A transcendent moment for me and my Kiwi friends.

Early in the summer, several Anan visitors were fortunate enough to have a truly rare and exhilarating experience - a lone wolf made a few appearances at Anan before moving on to some other area!

A group of juvenile ravens also made for some interesting entertainment on the observatory last summer providing some avian comic relief occasionally.

But, of course, the main attraction of Anan is the bears and they did not disappoint!

For me, the most outstanding sights I was privileged to witness were some incredible whale encounters.  We have upped our whale watching game here at Alaska Charters with a whale identification book with over 20 whales identified and photographed and, best of all, a hydrophone!  The hydrophone really helps paint the whole picture on a whale watching trip allowing you to get a sense of what is going on down there in that marine world.  Wrangell is not on the whale watching "map" but does offer some truly spectacular opportunities to experience these awesome creatures.  Not being on the "map" lets you have the whales to yourself with no other tour boats crowding in or ruining a photo of a lifetime.

We are all looking forward to meeting our new clients, reuniting with our repeat clients, and of course, getting out into this spectacular land to see what stories it will tell in 2018.  Come join us!