Denali stood at the edge of the trail, her attention focused on its grassy margins and head cocked as if trying to determine what might be moving along the ground. My mixed collie and I sometimes encounter voles, shrews, or birds in such places and I didn’t want her to give chase, so I shouted, “Leave it!” while rushing to her side.
I arrived just in time to see something small streaking through the grass; not the animal as much as its passage, a series of rapid skips along the ground that briefly pushed aside the blades of grass aside. It was similar, in a way, to how a skipping stone splashes along the surface of a pond.
Then the creature was gone, disappeared into the dense thickets that border the more open grasses. And all I could do was grin my happy surprise.
Only one local animal moves across the ground in such fashion: the wood frog.
In one sense, the setting was perfect for such a mid-summer encounter: we stood on a trail that passed through Kincaid Park’s birch-spruce woodlands.
On the other hand, the nearest body of freshwater, Little Campbell Lake, was close to a mile away, as measured across a map. For a critter that hops across the landscape, the distance traveled almost certainly had to be considerably longer, with lots of ups and downs and obstacles along the way. In short, the frog we encountered had trekked an unusually long distance by amphibian standards, especially one that measures only two to three inches long, with legs extended.
I suppose it’s possible, as a friend has since suggested, that this particular frog began its journey at a much closer vernal pool: a temporary body of water that forms in spring, fed by melting snow, then dries up as the season progresses. But I don’t know of any such nearby seasonal ponds or puddles inhabited by frogs.
Some online browsing I’ve done since that encounter indicates that scientists have documented wood frog movements of up to several hundred meters from the ponds and lakes (or vernal pools) where they are born and later mate as adults. But the longest confirmed distance I’ve found so far is less than a half-mile. Of course if the few wood frogs studied by researchers—and carrying a radio transmitter—are known to hop such distances, then it’s not unthinkable one might go a mile or more during its summertime wanderings.
I’ll also mention here that early to late summer—depending on the location of their birthplace—is also when members of this species make the remarkable transformation from water-dwelling tadpoles (or pollywogs, as we called them during my Connecticut boyhood) to land-living frogs.
These “juvenile” frogs are small enough to perch on my thumbnail (as the image accompanying this column demonstrates). So naturally they’re even harder to find than their elusive parents. In all the years I’ve kept watch for wood frogs throughout the Anchorage Bowl, it’s been my good fortune to find these tiny juveniles only a couple of times,.
Which brings me to this point: though an Alaskan outdoors and nature writer since the mid-1980s and a life-long frog lover, I didn’t know a thing about their local presence until 1998, when I joined other “citizen scientists” in Anchorage’s first-ever “frog watch” program. So I can appreciate the fact that many—and likely most—Anchorage residents have no idea that wood frogs swim, and mate, and hop among us.
For those who might wonder what they look like, wood frogs range from brown or bronze to a bright, coppery orange, speckled with dark spots. They wear a dark band across their faces, the species’ so-called “eye mask.” Beneath that mask, a thin, whitish “lip line” runs across their mouths.
More than two decades after my own discovery, I am still amazed by wood frogs’ mostly quiet—and overlooked—presence among us humans, not only in the Anchorage area, but most of Alaska, even deep into the Arctic. Who, after all, associates frogs with far-northern landscapes? (Wood frogs are in fact the only amphibians to occupy our state’s lands and waters beyond the relatively warm and wet Panhandle region, where six species reside.)
The more I’ve learned about them, the more I’ve become convinced that wood frogs are among the most amazing creatures to inhabit Alaska, in a variety of ways. For one thing, they survive far-north winters by having their bodies freeze solid after burrowing beneath leaves or other forest detritus (a topic I’ve discussed in a previous City Wilds column and likely will examine again sometime).
For another, wood frogs are considered “explosive breeders,” which engage in orgiastic mating episodes that last only a week or so. Accompanying those amphibian orgies, males engage in raucous singing competitions, their calls sometimes mistaken for the quacking of ducks.
Once mating and egg laying are completed, wood frogs abandon their watery habitat and head overland, to spend the next several months on terra firma, including the time they’re in suspended animation. In other words, these particular amphibians spend the great majority of their lives on land. Which is why you might cross their paths while walking through the woods or across a meadow.
This summer I’ve met wood frogs three times while walking Kincaid’s trails, all in different areas (though I suppose it’s possible I’ve met the same roving frog on each occasion). Each time the frog has been something of a blur, quickly disappearing from the edges of the trail into deeper, thicker cover.
I dream of some day finding a frog as it’s preparing for winter’s freeze-up and then later checking on the animal, alive yet icily inert. The odds seem infinitesimally small that such will happen. Yet wood frogs have already revealed some remarkable aspects of their lives to me, so maybe it’s not as silly a wish as it might appear.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.