City Wilds

Late season harebell flower found along Turnagain Arm Trail





Flora of Chugach State Park Project, first of two parts:With winter at Anchorage’s doorstep—the season’s first wet snow covering my Turnagain lawn on the mid-October morning that I begin this column—it seems a good time to look back over my first year of participating in the Flora of Chugach State Park project.

As I reported back in July, this project is a cooperative effort between the Alaska Native Plant Society and Chugach State Park (CSP) staff, intended to inventory and map the park’s flora and fungi “including vascular plants, bryophytes, lichens and fungi.”

Begun in 2020, this volunteer endeavor is intended to “serve as a baseline to help understand future changes and to inform future conservation and land management activities.”

Some of the data accumulated so far comes from “voucher specimens” collected within the park. But the great majority of it has been compiled through the use of the “nature app” iNaturalist, which I described in some detail back in July and won’t go into here, except to say that it allows just about anyone with an interest in wild nature (and a smartphone) to participate in a “citizen science” project like this one.

Given my longtime love of both Chugach State Park and Alaska’s wildflowers, and a recent infatuation with iNaturalist, it was perhaps inevitable that I would get pulled wholeheartedly into this project, once I discovered its existence, which happened this past spring.

On numerous visits to the Chugach Front Range these past six months or so, I’ve used iNaturalist to document the presence of wildflowers and other flora, where cell phone service allowed it.

Among my many discoveries this year was that substantial parts of the Front Range don’t have cell phone service. That’s no great revelation I suppose, but I was surprised that some easily accessible areas along the edges of Anchorage, including parts of the Turnagain Arm Trail, don’t have cell phone reception. Which brings up another point: I’m not sure whether the Turnagain Arm Trail is technically part of the Chugach Front Range, but for my purposes it is, largely being at the base of two Front Range mountains, McHugh and Rainbow Peaks. Whether or not that’s so, there’s no question it’s within the project area.

The lack of cell phone service in much of the park is significant, because it contributes to what the project leaders call “data gaps.” Most of the information compiled so far is concentrated along the park’s western and southern borders, for two simple reasons: that’s where most people—including iNaturalist observers—recreate; and it’s where there’s adequate cell phone coverage to download flora IDs and locations while using the app.

Being new to the project, in spring and early summer I found an abundance of wildflowers and other plants to add to the project’s database. At times I got carried away, one might even say obsessive, in my pursuit of iNaturalist observations, as my girlfriend Jan can testify. At times I spent long minutes trying to get sufficient cell phone reception so I could share my findings with the larger online world. Doing this repeatedly can test a partner’s patience.

After a couple of hikes that left Jan exasperated, and rightly so, I resolved to do most of my iNaturalist explorations while hiking alone. Or to be more accurate, I did so when accompanied only by my collie mix, Denali, who seemed content to sniff around the landscape while I fiddled with my iPhone.

When she’s done sufficient sniffing, my dog has learned to simply curl up and nap, as she routinely does while I hunt morels or pick blueberries. Still, I can’t help but wonder if in her own canine way, Denali too occasionally grumbles quietly about my more obsessive behaviors.

Back to the project. Participants using iNaturalist can be both “observers” and “identifiers.” I found the greatest pleasure and satisfaction in simply being an observer, that is one who makes a discovery while in the wilds and uses iNaturalist to come up with an ID (or substantiate what the observer already knew) and then enter it into the project’s online database.

Identifiers, meanwhile, either confirm or challenge the online identifications other observers have made. That of course means more time is spent indoors, in front of a computer, smartphone or other screen device, and I’d rather be out in the hills and woodlands while devoting time and energy to the project. Still, identifiers are essential to the inventory process, because only when other participants have confirmed an observation does it become a “research grade” data point. And ultimately only research-grade information is entered into the park’s official flora inventory.

The tricky part, it seems to me, is that the system assumes identifiers really know their plants, lichens, and fungal life forms. I suppose that project leaders must seek out known experts when questionable IDs are made.

When I began writing this column, my most recent contributions to the flora project had been made on Oct. 12, while hiking along the Turnagain Arm and McHugh Lake Trails on a glorious late-autumn day. I figured those might be my last observations of the season, given winter’s approach.

Alas, I had to interrupt these written ramblings on Monday, Oct. 18, when lured back to the Turnagain Arm Trail by the sun’s afternoon appearance in the sky, brightening the day and local landscape, which at lower elevations remains free of snow and in places still glows golden on such days.

While walking that trail with Denali, I also couldn’t resist using my iNaturalist app to add several more observations to my own growing database, nearly all of them late-blooming wildflowers (harebell, pretty Jacob’s ladder, mouse-ears chickweed, and northern yarrow among them). It didn’t matter that they repeated observations I’d made earlier in the year, I wanted to document these October wildflowers, among the last to still be blossoming locally.

As of now, according to the iNaturalist online summary, I’ve compiled 850 observations in 2021, which include 284 different species of plants, fungi, and lichens, found in several different park locales.

While for most of the spring and summer I focused on wildflowers and other plant types, this fall I’ve spent considerable time concentrating on fungi (my most recent outing being a notable exception), most of those fungal forms being brand new to me. I’m relying heavily on identifiers to confirm or correct those observations.

This year’s overall iNaturalist numbers through Oct. 18 were 6,440 observations and 818 species, documented by 509 observers and 457 identifiers. But here’s an important, even crucial, caveat: much of the information collected in 2021 is not yet “research grade.” In fact less than half of this year’s iNaturalist observations (3,109 out of 6,440) have attained that status through Oct. 18. So the preliminary total of 818 species is likely to drop, once given a closer look by qualified identifiers.

Aaron Wells, the Alaska Native Plant Society’s treasurer and leader of this project, emphasizes that iNaturalist is only one source of information being used to create the park’s flora inventory, and ultimately only research-grade identifications using the app will be incorporated into the project’s database (as noted above). For that reason, on Oct. 17, Wells sent out both a thank you to participants and a call for help: “Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to the Flora of Chugach State Park Project thus far in 2021! Over the past few months we have received many new observations from this past summer and fall! This is very exciting! However, only about 48% of the observations in the Flora of Chugach State Park project are currently Research Grade. We are now in need of folks to provide high quality identifications to get as many of the observations ranked as ‘research grade’ as possible.”

I’ve gained important insights from Aaron while working on this column and it’s clear I don’t have enough room here to discuss all that I’d like to share about my personal experiences and the bigger picture. So I’ll continue my 2021 recap in next weeks’ City Wilds column.

For now I’ll end with a couple more personal observations.

First, thanks in large part to the Flora of CSP project, I’ve discovered that the Turnagain Arm Trail is not only the best place locally to see the first blooming wildflowers of spring (something I’ve known for years), but perhaps also the best locale to find the last flowering plants of fall—or early winter.

Second, and most importantly, though iNaturalist (like many things) can become a distraction, I’ve found that when used mindfully, the nature app can help me pay closer attention to the diverse plants, fungi, and lichens that are key members of local ecosystems. Over the past several months I’ve “discovered” many species that I’ve previously overlooked and learned the names of plants that I’d long noticed but couldn’t identify. I’ve also come to better recognize different communities of wildflowers and other plants within Chugach State Park.

In short, both iNaturalist and the Flora of Chugach State Project have expanded my knowledge and appreciation of many life forms that are integral to the park’s varied landscapes. Need I add that this is a good and valuable thing? It is, certainly, for one who continues to deepen his relationship with Anchorage’s backyard wilderness.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate 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 akgriz@hotmail.com

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