Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. -- Ferris Bueller
The way Alex Britzius sees it, hiking is a metaphor for life.
Britzius is a 23-year-old from Wisconsin spending the summer in Alaska as a housekeeper at Alaska Wildland Adventures in Cooper Landing.
He studied computers for three years in college, but dropped out to pursue interests in yoga, outdoor living and Native technologies.
"It's about slowing down," Britzius said. "That's one of the reasons why I dropped out of school. It's too high-speed.
"So much is going on, and we're walking by it all the time. I like slowing down to notice things."
Britzius' words were a mantra for a nature hike put on by the Kenai Watershed Forum Saturday at the Russian Lakes trail head 12 miles out Snug Harbor Road in Cooper Landing.
The hike took about five hours but covered less than 2 miles. In the words of attendee Mary Hutchison of Kasilof, "I didn't even consider it a hike. I felt like it was more an educational class on flora and fauna."
Dwarf dogwood grows alongside a trail in the Kenai Mountains near Cooper Landing. The delicate plant was one of many discussed on a nature walk last weekend.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
But Hutchison, Britzius and some 25 other hikers didn't mind the relaxed pace.
"Some days, I'll do a 15-mile hike without stopping," Britzius said. "But I also like to hang out a half mile from camp and just sit and listen.
"One day, while I was sitting there, I had a red-backed vole running around by my feet."
The leader of the hike was Dominique Collet, a carpenter and self-described amateur naturalist. Collet volunteered to do the hike for the Kenai Watershed Forum, a nonprofit group that works to maintain the health of the Kenai River watershed.
Collet, who's an amateur naturalist in much the same way Bobby Jones was an amateur golfer, ticked off the names of at least 50 plants during the hike. Numerous birds and insects also were identified.
But the point wasn't to cram all these names into memory like some med student frantically preparing for the board exam. The point was to begin to notice all the things the forest has to offer to those willing to accept a slower pace and a few more mosquito bites.
Dominique Collet stops to talk about the relationships between plants during the stroll.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"I wasn't trying to stuff names," said Collet, who lived in Belgium before coming to Alaska in 1978 and the Kenai Peninsula around 1990. "I was more trying to show relationships, ecology and interrelations. That's what I'm interested in.
"You can do a laundry list of names, but I think that's just one tool to get to what's interesting."
Britzius got the message.
"The point wasn't to remember all the names," he said. "The point was to appreciate the biodiversity.
"There was so much he talked about that I didn't even try and remember it all."
But Collet also talked about so much that he managed to satiate the varied interests of the group.
Carm and Kathy Bongiovanni retired to Sterling from Wisconsin this spring. The two are interested in wildflowers, so they decided to give the hike a try.
"When we hike, we do it for exercise and scenery," Carm, 60, said. "We cover serious miles. We never move as slow as we're moving here.
"But taking time to examine everything like this is interesting. The variety of life is amazing."
Kathy, 58, said she was happy to finally learn how to identify a high-brush cranberry.
Glenn and Cheryl Flothe, both 51, have both been in Alaska for pretty much their whole lives. Glenn is a retired Alaska State Trooper, and the two moved to Cooper Landing permanently two years ago.
Despite a lifetime spent in Alaska, the two are just starting to get into the intricacies a forest has to offer.
"After this, I have a deeper appreciation for how everything interacts," Glenn said. "Understanding that, I also now understand how important it is to protect the river system.
"It makes you feel sorry when you step on plants."
Of particular interest to the Flothes is work Collet is doing on willows. Crossing a small stream that flows into Cooper Lake, Collet explained how some types of willows use flowing water to spread.
Stems will break off and float down the river, and the willow can begin anew on a bank downstream from just that stem. Collet is working on a project to identify the various conditions that allow the certain types of willows to do this. This knowledge is being used in bank restoration projects.
"I've seen limbs sticking out of the ground at Jim's Landing and I never knew why," Glenn said. "This shows the money spent on that study is money well-spent."
The Flothes also thought it would be neat to have middle-school students spend time outdoors learning from somebody like Collet.
This point was driven home by Hutchison, who brought her kids 12-year-old Michaela, 10-year-old Monica, 7-year-old Hannah and 1-year-old Gideon on the hike. By the end, the group had put together a stirring bouquet of wildflowers.
"It was good because (Collet) kept repeating stuff, so that made it easier to learn," Hutchison said. "But what you'd really need is 10 hikes like this instead of a couple."
Wendy Bryden, 35, is a park ranger at Kenai Fjords National Park who has lived in Moose Pass for eight years.
Bryden is no stranger to hiking fast. Just a few days before Saturday's stroll, she had burned up and down Seward's 3,022-foot Mount Marathon in 1 hour, 29 minutes and 56 seconds.
But Bryden also is no stranger to stopping to soak up the wonders of a forest. She enjoyed Collet's knowledge of the galls found on willows. A gall is an abnormal growth of tissue induced by an outside agent.
"This hike also was an excuse to drive out here," Bryden said. "This is a special place and I love coming up here, but I don't get up here often."
Finally, Emily Sims, 42, recently moved to the central peninsula from eastern Oregon. She will be teaching culinary arts this fall at Skyview High School, and food was one of the things that brought her out Saturday.
"I came out to meet people and to learn about picking berries for jams and jellies," Sims said.
Like everybody else interviewed on the hike, Sims said she would try and do a hike Collet will lead Aug. 10 about mushrooms.
And that's appropriate. As Collet repeatedly said Saturday, one thing in the forest always leads to another.
Of course, that's only if you stop and look around once in a while.
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