Tundra colors come early in Alaska

Posted: Friday, October 07, 2005

KIANA — Crimson comes early to the Arctic. The tundra seldom draws visitors strictly on the strength of its fall colors, but the horizon-to-horizon display is a visual feast for the fortunate few waiting for the caribou to arrive or who are here picking berries.

This abundant land along the Kobuk River sustains a variety of users, but primarily Inupiat Eskimos dependent upon the caribou. The Arctic deer migrate southward in bands of two to 200 or more in late summer and early fall.

This time of year, the clusters of aspen and birch trees lining the Kobuk Valley greet the dawn with shimmering yellow leaves. Conifers provide a blue-green backdrop for the grassy tussocks, mosses, sedges and bushes also common to the tundra.

Many of the smaller plants lie close to the ground; taking what warmth they can from the thin soils overlaying the permafrost. Temperatures fall frequently to 60 degrees below zero in winter. The sun doesn’t climb above the horizon for weeks.

September and October are the waning months for berries. Most of the bearberries are gone but the plant’s leathery leaves have turned a deep scarlet.

They make colorful combinations alongside the orange-brown leaves of low-bush cranberries and crimson blueberry bushes. No human decorator fashions a more attractive centerpiece.

Cranberries gathered in the Arctic or near-Arctic have a taste all their own — some say superior to that of their bog-grown, domesticated counterparts. Picking the tart fruit, however, is stoop labor. Better to kneel or lie prone as you gather berries by the handful to snack on immediately or freeze or dry for the pancakes, pies, marinades and preserves to come later.

‘‘They’re a little sweeter. Frost tends to develop the sugars,’’ says Page Spencer, a National Park Service ecologist based in Anchorage.

‘‘These are superior to the ones in the Lower 48. More intense. Their taste and color is richer. They’re really the lingonberries of Scandinavia.’’

The tundra’s color show isn’t altogether an autumnal display.

‘‘The bloom in spring is amazing. ... You have large flowers relative to their (plant) size,’’ Spencer says. ‘‘They burst into bloom right away as they come out of the snow. After a brief period of blooming, they move immediately into the berry stage. And then the fall colors you saw and the whole thing is over in a couple of months.

‘‘They tend to store starches below ground level so come spring they have a big burst of food. The load up their roots again during the short summer.’’

Tundra plants are difficult to transplant and develop unless you can provide them with similar habitat — ample moisture, long hours of sunlight.

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