Getting Acquainted with Interior Alaska

Because I want to become more connected with where I’ve decided to settle down, and I want to learn much more about how the ideas of permaculture can be applied to this unique environment, I’ve signed up for an online permaculture course put on by the Alaska Cold Climate Permaculture Institute based out of Eagle River.

Part of this course requires posting assignments on by blog, so you will intermittently see permaculture-related posts here. This is one such posting.

We have been asked to do a little research into where we live, about the wild plants, the animals and the seasons, and about the native people who inhabited this place first. I have to admit, I know very little about any of these things. Gen, I know about things that have a direct impact on my daily life – what temperature and light ranges to expect when, when to tap birch trees for collecting sap (the spring, usually in April, right before leaf-out), when the blueberries are ready to pick and where to pick them (depends on the year, but August is a good time to start looking), when to start my seedlings and when to put things in the ground, when to go salmon fishing, when to go look for moose or caribou (though this is more defined by Game Regs), and when to really concentrate on putting up firewood for the winter. Other obvious things stick in my brain too – like when I start to see and hear birds other than ravens and chickadees in the spring.

But I know nothing about weather patterns, even in my own yard. I have no idea what the predominant wind direction is, or where storms generally roll in from. I have no idea what our average rainfall is, outside of last year being uncharacteristically wet. A quick Google search tells me 10.83 inches is average, and that we broke several rain records last year. Where I grew up, the average is 50.04 inches per year. No wonder my skin’s dry ;).

Our first frost in the fall occurred September 8th, and our last spring frost is predicted to be May 15th this year. Our average low is 40F and high is 61.8F for April through September, and the average low is -5.8F  and high is 14F for October through March, according to U.S. Climate data. img_1645

Some of my favorite edible wild plants around here are dandelions (invasive maybe, but tasty and make good wine), pineapple weed (looks like chamomile), and rosehips (that make a wonderful addition to teas, jams, and baked goods). You can use the roses themselves on salads or candy them for a decorative topping for cookies or cakes. We also have Labrador tea (which is less edible and more for, you guessed it, tea!), cranberries slated to have the highest antioxidant levels around, and of course good ol’ Alaskan blueberries. That’s not to mention the mushrooms! Up here we have morels that fruit the next year after a burn, boletes, hedgehogs, and oysters. There are more, I’m sure, but I haven’t been hunting in earnest yet.

I am not sure what the barometer for environmental health for interior Alaska would be, and I’m not sure what our local endangered or threatened animals are. However, I can speak to birds! Resident species for my region are the raven, gray jay, black-capped chickadee, pine grosbeak, grouse, ptarmigan, and many owl species. There are tons of birds that move through this area – most notably the sandhill cranes that move through in groups of thousands. Robins often lead the charge, and are followed by Canada geese, ducks of many sorts, juncos, and many others. Creamer’s Field, an old dairy farm, has been dedicated as a migratory bird refuge because so many birds stop by the old fields in the spring and fall.

It seems from reading accounts of life in the interior at the turn of the century that the habitat was similar to now, with a few changes. Severe cold snaps (weeks of -60F and colder at a time) were commonplace. Lately, it’s been rare to even get -40F days. As the climate warms, the permafrost becomes more unstable.

The folks that lived here before the foreign fishermen, trappers, and gold miners moved in were the Athabascans, many of which remain here. In their traditional way of life, they migrated seasonally following seasonal food sources, setting up fish camps in the summer, hunting in the fall, and running traplines in the winter. A large part of the culture is sharing resources among community members. They crafted snowshoes out of hide, sinew, and birch bark, canoes out of birch bark, cottonwood and moose hide, and used dogs as freight animals. Much of their traditional technology, like mukluks, dogsleds, snowshoes, fur sewing, and trap design is still relevant and imitated today.

Climate change forecasts for interior Alaska predict a general warming and drying trend, resulting in a longer growing season (Yay!), loss of permafrost, increased wildfires, and drying of wetland habitat. Despite being a subarctic desert, the interior is an incredibly wet place, as water becomes perched on permafrost and remains at the surface. Much of our biodiversity (limited as it is) relies on these pockets of boggy wetland areas. In a hundred years, interior Alaska is going to look a hell of a lot different than it does today! While we don’t have to deal with the dramatic and accelerated changes occurring on Alaskan coasts (right now!), we will have some serious problems soon, as permafrost underlies an estimated 85% of Alaska, and we are already seeing increased melting and thawing.


Photo: Mikhail Kanevskiy; University of Alaska Fairbanks, Institute of Northern Engineering.

Stay tuned for some more permaculture goodness!


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