Sunday, July 12, 2015

Lagoons and Wilderness

"We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope."
 - Edward Abbey

Everywhere we went, Arctic and Aleutian Terns enthralled us with their beauty...
(Click picture to enlarge)

I love anything that eats their weight in bugs each day!

Our journey starts at Anigaaq – a small ranger cabin on the coastal edge of Cape Krusenstern National Monument. We are here to work with the Native Village of Kotzebue and National Park Service to better understand how coastal lagoons work – and most importantly the importance of food security for the fish themselves, their predators, and the local villagers who rely on whitefish, salmon, and sheefish for their own sustenance.

Anigaaq ranger cabin and outhouse with a view
Krusenstern lagoon is bordered by an amazing wetland filled with trumpeter swans, sand hill cranes, and a myriad of other waterbirds, waders, and shorebirds. It’s a National Park Unit that is remote enough to preclude visitation by most, but is a wonder of life, history, and beauty.

The 1.5 hour daily commute up the Anigaaq channel to get to Krusenstern Lagoon
Trevor and Marguerite lavaging a Sheefish - a method that allows us to see what the fish eat and release them back into the wild alive. This is one of the most important local food fish - Inconnu as it's called in Kotzebue.

After a few days at Krusenstern, we move about 40 miles north by small boat to work at Kotlik Lagoon. The gentle roar of the outflowing tide meeting the sea in a line of breaking waves is constant at our small camp. The narrow entrance to Kotlik Lagoon is lined with gravel and bordered with tundra filled with purple,magenta and yellow flowers. I was told to never forget to look at those flowers - often diminutive compared to the charismatic wildlife, but always beautiful.

Our Camp at Kotlik Lagoon
(Click picture to enlarge)

Starry flounder and saffron cod stir the shallows, probably eating the same mysids as the Arctic terns that casually leave their small colony and flit back and forth over the entrance, delicately stooping to the water to feed.

A seal, probably bearded, visited last night and this morning a cow and calf grey whale loll in the shallows for a few hours – only 10 meters from shore. They roll over and over and spy hop constantly. Another adult follows an hour later, but leaves as well. Then it's just the black-legged kittiwakes, mew gulls and terns that feed in the shallows and tide rips of our camp on the edge of Alaska.

A young gray whale surfaces for a look...
Parasitic and Pomarine jaegers sit casually around, lifting off periodically to harass a gull or tern until it drops their hard-won food to the ground. They then land and swallow the morsel in one smooth and almost instantaneous motion.

Pomarine Jaeger cruising the shoreline looking for trouble to make...
Musk oxen do nothing fast - this thinking moment went on for 5 hours

A couple of young bears had passed through yesterday, evidenced by their tracks, but we saw them later in the day moving away from camp. A pair of musk oxen sidle slowly to the end of the beach and then went to sleep to ponder their next moves. Sleeping in the edge of the term colony causes a ruckus; the terns scream their “Kack Kack!” and go sit nearby staring at the neanderthal looking goat relatives in the hopes they would leave – that didn’t happen for another two days!

Black Turnstones and semi-palmated plovers dither along the water’s edge and a Pacific loon plaintively calls from just offshore. A few pairs of eiders or a small flock of scoters fly past once in a while.

Black Turnstones among the gravel

When it's not the bugs, it's the bears!
There’s  a steady wind from the north keeping the bugs down – we all agree that this is a good place for the soul. It's a joy to be out on the edge of Alaska with good people. Backed by the blue of a summer's sky, puffy cumulus line the tops of the inland hills; the wind has pulled them into parallel lines of wispy cirrus here on the coast. Out to sea the fog builds and will ultimately keep us waiting for our pick-up flight for an extra day - not too hard a deal, given the company and place!

"Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless."
- Edward Abbey

Heading home in the trusty 185 on floats

Friday, June 08, 2012

Machan Dahan

“When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in.”
– D. H. Lawrence

The “6pm Cicada’s” start calling each night like an emergency siren in a strange town. How could an insect produce such a cacophony? 

This is the Wehea Forest in East Kalimantan, part of the Indonesian side of Borneo, a forest owned by the indigenous Wehea Dayak.  To get here, you'll need to fly to Balikpapan in the south of Kalimantan (6 flights for me, maybe less for you) and drive 17 hours north on a mix of pot-holed asphalt, gravel, mud (sometimes deep), and rocks – breaking for gas…food… and where necessary, to Band-Aid the road surface on a bridge that elsewhere would have been classed as collapsed.

The journey to the largely virgin rainforest of Wehea is preceded by almost Tolkienian excesses – fresh scars of bulldozed earth cutting through the verdant greenery of logging concessions; bare bruises of cleared forest and excavations gouging deeply within the massive coal mining operations; and the shaved-clean surface of the plantations, where the bleached remnant stubble of giant dipterocarps are the only visible remains of a forest, in a landscape converted to manicured rows and terraces of palm oil or banana palms.

We travelled three days from Fairbanks, Alaska to spend time with friends and colleagues of Ethical Expeditions who work with the Wehea Dayak; to keep this remaining patch of forest intact – to maintain a healthy integrated system of people, plants, and animals.

Once through the Post Portal entrance to the forest, where the sound and sights of chain saws and caterpillar heavy machinery give way to more natural processes, the Wehea forest doesn’t give up its secrets easily.  Paraphrasing Roger Kay on a trip to the Arctic Refuge a few years ago – “you can get to the forest in a day, but it takes a week to get to the wilderness.”

 Human presence in the rainforest seems to be always accompanied by some warning call – the caw, hoot, or enthusiastic chirping of an unseen bird, the guttural exclamation from an orangutan aware of our presence, the singing of gibbons sidling away through the canopy, or the jarring barks of the aptly named barking dear.  These warnings are quickly followed by a rustling of leaves or crash of branches, and then just background noise, or occasionally, a few prints left in the mud. As for actually seeing animals, each day we were blessed with momentary glimpses as the forest selectively gave up a few of its secrets…just for a precious moment.

 On the first night, travel weary from the road, I laid back on the balcony of our half-open forest dwelling to be rewarded by a flying lemur, almost a perfect saucer of skin and animal. Later that evening, a tarsier (picture courtesy Ethical Expeditions) pondered our presence on a night walk, just two meters away from us; four humans both marveling at the diminutive primate and chastising our neglect of cameras – although perhaps that would have ruined a perfect moment of connection. The following morning, a mouse dear idly wondered down the river next to our hut. On most days the white morph of the paradise flycatcher, elusive as far as photographs were concerned, would sweep by in an exquisitely sinuous path between perches. While hiking we were frequently greeted with the whoosh of air as a long-tailed hornbill changed position in the canopy. On our final day, the endemic bristlehead sat for a moment above the waterfall pool we showered in each day, before moving off with 5 of its compatriots in search of more insects.

Research camera traps bore some evidence of what we did not see with our own eyes. Within a few hours of installing new batteries and a few gigabytes of memory card, and only a few hundred meters from our sleeping perch on a fire tower, a clouded leopard, or Machan Dahan to the Dayak, inspected our work.  In the other direction, less than a kilometer away, an orangutan sidled by the camera trap we’d inspect the next day (camera trap pictures courtesy Ethical Expeditions).

Some of the wildlife was less elusive. The common palm civet, a relative of the mongoose strived to eke out scraps from around camp each night, leaving dirty prints on the usually clean tables and ulan (iron wood) floors. And then there were the leaches that we’d have liked to be more elusive. Although special socks kept feet and leaches apart during much of our time in the forest, our last day hiking up rivers and creeks to a large salt lick in running shoes and socks let the tenacious beasts in for a tropical bloodletting. It can be hard to appreciate the beauty and function of a tiger leach as it hangs engorged from an ankle, calf, or worse. Now sitting on a Lion Air flight to Jakarta a few days later, my ankles are pockmarked and itching, but mostly a bittersweet reminder of the forest and people I now miss.

Our days in the Wehea forest were usually accompanied by the PMs (forest guardians) from the indigenous Wehea Dayak. A tribe that we were proudly told bore a history of head-hunting...but not consuming. The sense of pride in all that is their forest is palpable – from their new conservation center being built in their main village Nehas, now some 30 km from the forest’s edge, to each new wildlife sighting, or story told. We shared the excitement of the reconnection of elders with the forest, and introduction of young apprentice PMs to the traditions of dance, music, and ceremony.  On our last night, we danced a meditation to the beat of dual gongs around a fire – the Dayak in traditional dress, most carrying ornately carved and decorated Mandau (bush knives), and two with ceremonial hats adorned with feathers of the great argus and hornbill - collected from the forest floor on earlier day's hikes.  For this night, four ebu (woman elders) joined us from Nehas, their first time back in the forest for a few years – sharing their betel nut, quai (sweets), songs, history, and joy to be in their ancient home.

Away from the Internet, phones and all that accompany them, and with limited electricity to power a disconnection from the forest's natural rhythms; under the stars, in the light of a fire, surrounded by the music and dance of people, the chorus of cicadas, and happy camaraderie; there was time to melt into the forest and contemplate the future. This is the Wehea Dayak’s forest, home to a people, Machan Dahan, and so much more.  A hundred meters from the entrance the loggers continue to tear at the edges...