Alaska: Weird or what

By Paul Rush

Strange things are seen and done in the 'Land of the Midnight Sun', writes Paul Rush.

At 3cm long it is not easy to spot iceworms on the frozen surface. Photo / Paul Rush
At 3cm long it is not easy to spot iceworms on the frozen surface. Photo / Paul Rush

Iceworms have a face only a mother could love. The hideous creatures attach their posteriors to the ice of Alaskan glaciers and wriggle around looking for pollen grains, fern spores and red algae for their breakfast. Then they tangle themselves together in an ice puddle in a mating orgy and appear to be having a ball.

When the guide on an Alaskan road tour first talked about iceworms, I was more than skeptical.

"Surely that's a hoax, the stuff of legends," I scoffed with the arrogance of a sceptic.

Mother Nature has excelled herself in the wilds of Alaska, creating some fascinating oddities that defy logic, but iceworms was going too far.

But then, one day in the depths of Denali National Park, I saw them - threadlike, segmented, dark-brown, 3cm-long worms, wriggling in undisguised pleasure on the icesheet. It was an overcast day (they can't stand sunlight) and the tiny creatures formed a carpet over a patch of red algae on the ice.

The sceptic had to eat his words and ponder the question raised by our guide as to whether the weird annelid wrigglers could exist in the frozen ice of space. Could iceworms be the template for extra-terrestrial life?

Surprisingly, the biggest and boldest state in the US has a proliferation of such tiny things. Mosquitos are just one of the host of mighty bite mites. Alaskans frequently tell tourists that mossies are so large you have to beat them off with a stick. I was even told on good authority that these little monsters attack trucks and have been adopted as the Alaskan state bird.

"You've got to be joking," was my response to these claims. But 'probing' a little deeper I find that there are up to 40 species of the ubiquitous mosquito here. No Alaskan mosquitoes carry diseases, but these little mites can really bite. Researchers have found that an uncovered human body could receive 9000 bites per minute in a mosquito swarm. Don't worry about it - no one's going to stand still for that long are they?

My favourite Alaskan critter is the 'No-see-um', a small, biting midge, which you simply cannot see when it's flying solo. Go outside on a mild evening in July and walk into a swarm and it's a different story. The tiny, silver-winged gnat is all over you like a rash. It is very persistent but means you no harm.

The last things I expected to find on my Alaska visit were pygmy forests. I've always admired the tourist brochures that are replete with giant stands of spruce, aspen, alder and lodge pole pines, carpeting the steep slopes of jagged, snow-capped mountains. The reality is that much of the Alaskan forest is affected by permafrost. Permanent frozen ice exists under the surface layer of soil, so tree roots are shallow and deprived of nutrients.

I'm staggered to see that vast boreal forests stretching to the horizon, growing undisturbed for two hundred years, have spindly trunks that rise to pointed spires only six metres high. Recent warmer summers have produced the phenomenon of 'drunken forests', as the ice temporarily thaws into mush and the dwarf trees lose their root support and lean in different directions.

The boreal forests are a sad testament to the ravages of global warming in another way. The iniquitous spruce bark beetle, which hitherto was not a problem due to the severe cold of the north, is now ravaging forests. These wicked pests feed on a thin layer of nutrient tissue under the bark. At 2cm in length, they are even smaller than the iceworm, but they have destroyed millions of hectares of spruce forest in recent years.

One of the strangest quirks of nature I found in the Anchorage area was the giant vegetable. What an incredible paradox, that the land that creates dwarf trees due to crippling cold, also produces metre-wide cabbages under 23 hours of summer sunlight.

The biggest of Alaska's monster vegetables are grown for the glory and prize money at numerous fairs. At one Giant Cabbage Weigh-off in the town of Palmer, the winner weighed 48kg. From early July, seedlings shoot up like weeds, soaking up all day sunshine like there's no tomorrow.

Talking about the weather and temperatures is the common form of social interaction anywhere. In Alaska it's a mind-boggling exercise that defies common logic. At Barrow, the northernmost community in the US, the sun stays up all day every day, from May to July. However, in winter it does not bother to rise at all for 57 days.

Fairbanks has winter days with as little as three hours of daylight - just enough time to get the grocery shopping done. When it hits minus 60°C, state employees have the day off and planes stop flying as the landing gear freezes up. Car tyres mould to the flat surface of the road and pull off the rims when driven.

However, the biggie in winter is the 'seasonal affective disorder', which results from daylight deprivation. They say one in three people get the winter blues and find it hard to get out of bed, but if you're a state employee - then that's OK

The Eskimos in northern towns like Barrow and Inuvik, get through the brutal winters by using some pretty innovative tricks. For a start they eat 'akutak' ice cream, a native delicacy made of whipped soapberries, seal oil and freshly fallen snow. Scientists are currently studying a variety of Arctic stink beetle that survives the harsh winter cold, thanks to antifreeze-type proteins in its blood. A patent has been registered to use these proteins to preserve the consistency of ice cream - Alaska's favourite treat.

There are many unusual life forms that share this land with humans. Birds have acquired some pretty nifty survival tricks over the millennia. The peregrine falcon is no sluggard when diving down on its prey. This streamlined predator reaches speeds of 400kph in a steep dive. Some bird species in the southeast regions eat a type of ant that produces formic acid, which works very effectively as an avian flea repellent.

One of my favourite bird tricks is performed by the willow ptarmigan, a chicken-like brush bird. When a predator approaches its nest it quickly hops away to divert its foe, pretending that its wing is broken and flapping about in acute distress. The enemy instinctively follows the bird for some distance, thinking it's an easy catch. Suddenly the ptarmigan flies away leaving a perplexed predator behind.

My big Alaska moment was watching a grizzly bear feeding on spawning salmon in a stream. Grizzlies seem to capture the quintessential wild spirit of Alaska - they're big, powerful, aggressive and have a demeanour that conveys the message, 'Don't mess with me'. The mean-looking grizzlies are not necessarily good role models and father figures, as big boars have a propensity for eating their cubs.

Bears come in all colours but the strangest are blue bears, which have been spotted on very rare occasions. What really intrigues me about grizzlies is that these 400kg monsters give birth to cubs that weigh less than half a kilogram. That's right, bear cubs weigh only a fraction of the birth weight of a human baby. Of course they grow rapidly, being omnivores with no particular food fads, just an endless craving for berries, skunk cabbage and salmon roe.

Less common are the albino grizzlies known as the Kermode. A few lucky people have seen these rare specimens rolling around in green meadows amongst the dandelions. It is a white sub species of the black bear and is often called the 'Spirit Bear' or 'Ghost Bear'. It occurs when a black bear cub receives a recessive white coat gene from both parents.

Bears can double their body weight in late summer in preparation for the big freeze. They are not true hibernators as they occasionally emerge and forage for food in the snow. By way of contrast the Alaskan ground squirrel really knows how to get a long shuteye. Pull one out of its burrow in mid-winter, give it a good slap and it still doesn't wake up.

It all goes to show that anything is possible in the last frontier at the edge of the earth. The Land of the Midnight Sun is a strange and fascinating place. A place where you travel the highways and byways with an abiding sense of wonderment, thinking to yourself, 'Is that weird or what?' That's the unique spell of Alaska.

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