The Alaskan Peninsula: Ecological Summary

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7/8/19  My Place Hotel, Anchorage, Alaska

We are back now from our mini-trip to the Alaskan Peninsula.  The Alaskan Odyssey is organized as a series of four or five smaller trips, all originating out of Anchorage.  The first one was to southeastern Alaska, also known as the panhandle.  We saw three parks there and spent time in Juneau, Skagway, Gustavus, and Sitka.  We flew to Juneau and had a terrific small-plane flight from Skagway to Gustavus, but mostly we moved around the Inland Passageway on the ferry boat, a typical Alaskan mode of transportation.  On the second leg of the trip we took the Alaskan Railroad down to Seward and saw Kenai Fjords National Park.  The train is another important mode of transportation in Alaska.

Parked on the Beach at Surprise Lake inside Aniakchak

The third mini-trip was all about airplanes – we flew everywhere on at least three different ‘airlines’.  Katmai Air took us first to King Salmon and there we changed to a floatplane to get to Brooks Camp – the central location in Katmai National Park, world famous for viewing bears.  Then we flew back to King Salmon and spent three nights at a very special place, Gold Creek Lodge, waiting for a very special event, a flightsee (another airplane ride) to Aniakchak National Monument, the least visited park in the entire system!  Then Lake and Pen Air flew us to Port Alsworth for our final stop on this leg, Lake Clark.  Clearly this trip was all about small planes (six different flights on three different ‘airlines’).  It is very clear why Alaska has more pilots, and airplanes, per capita than any other state – because flying is the main way people get around here.

Aniakchak National Monument is a one-of-a-kind place and I am still ‘totally’ ecstatic that we got to see that place.  Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks are both huge parks that embrace and protect significant areas of forest, glaciers, mountains, rivers, lakes, and volcanoes.  I have argued that Lake Clark is more of a wilderness area than a ‘Park’, but that doesn’t take away from how beautiful it is; it just restricts how much there is for most of us to do and see.

Have to have my standard ecology lesson.  It is interesting how different all four  parks were that we have seen on this leg and that really isn’t too surprising since each of them lies in a different ecological zone.  Kenai Fjords spanned two zones, the Coastal Western Hemlock – Sitka Spruce-Hemlock maritime  forest at the edges and shorelines  and the Pacific Coastal Mountains at the higher elevations.  Those are the same zones, with the same topography and vegetation as was found in the panhandle part of Alaska.  In part, the similar ecology explains why I found Kenai Fjords so similar to Glacier Bay.

The Gates at Aniakchak

The three parks on the Alaskan Peninsula were in new zones and I enjoyed the differences.  Aniakchak, a volcano, is obviously part of the Alaska Peninsula Mountain Zone.  In comparing this zone with the Pacific Coastal Mountains along the rest of the Gulf of Alaska, there aren’t too many differences.  The Alaskan Peninsula mountains appear to be a little bit shorter in elevation and a little less steep than the other zone, but both share similar scrub vegetation, were both heavily glaciated during the Pleistocene era, and are generally free of permafrost.  From what I can tell, it appears that the Alaskan Peninsula has more active volcanoes so we might assume it is at a slightly younger stage in mountain building.

Bristol Bay – Nushagak Lowlands Tundra

King Salmon, Brooks Camp, and large portions of Katmai National Park are located in the Bristol Bay – Nushagak Lowlands zone.  This, in stark contrast  to the mountainous ridge of the southeastern edge of the peninsula, is an area mostly of glacial and alluvial outwash from those mountains.  In elevation it rarely exceeds about 450 feet.  Vegetation varies, depending on drainage with some areas showing scrub bogs and herbal plants in wetter areas, and dwarf scrub bushes and trees in dryer areas.  This is considered a zone of Tundra, although it is generally free from permafrost, although some isolated regions can be found.

Mixed Forests of the Interior

The environment changed dramatically again when we went to Port Alsworth and hiked the Tanalian Trails.  This area, bordering the southwestern portion of Lake Clark, is called the Interior Forested Lowlands and Uplands.  It is characterized as rolling lowlands, plateaus, and hills with elevations up to about 1500 feet.  Grades are not nearly as steep as in the mountainous regions.  Importantly, this area was NOT subject to glaciation in the Pleistocene, forming a glacier free zone that sweeps up from Lake Clark and around the central part of Alaska and into Canada.  It is also located in a continental climate zone which, basically means it gets colder in the winter and warmer in the summer than the maritime regions.  The result of these factors is a forest cover that includes more broadleaf and mixed needle- and broad-leaf forests than we see in the maritime forests.  Our hike experience confirms that.

Parts of the Alaska Range

Flying out of Port Alsworth, we headed north into the Alaska Range zone.  This zone forms an arc of steep rugged mountains that arcs up from Lake Clark, includes the Alaska Range Mountains, and on into Canada.  Technically this mountain forested zone continues, with variations on down into the Rockies and into even northern New Mexico – our homespot.

We are done now with seven parks and have pretty much covered the panhandle, and the Kenai and Alaskan Peninsulas.  Tomorrow we will be moving on to our fourth mini-trip, which isn’t so ‘mini’.  Next post I’ll tell you what we are doing.