Walking in high cotton

Walking in the arctic is hard. Basektball-sized mounds of grass called tussocks transform flat land into a hill workout. These Bosu balls of vegetation test balance and eat ankles. Try stepping between, and you risk submerging your boot in the network of moats that protect the tussocks. You’re better off keeping to the high ground, lurching from tussock to tussock like a child avoiding cracks in the sidewalk.

It’s tempting to look at your feet while walking in the arctic. Gauge the distance to the next tussock; measuring that gap against the water table in the adjacent moat. Wet feet or wobbly lunge: those are the options. I spread my arms for balance; I tuck my hands under my pack straps to keep it from shifting. Either way, I walk unbalanced and unsure.

Walking in high cotton. Photo © Andrea Laue.

Seasonal cycles cause the top-heavy tussocks to form. New growth sprouts from a central root ball in the spring, displacing the old to the perimeter. Cold temperatures slow the decay of last years’ growth, leading to a solid core of living sedge surrounded by soft nests of brown blades.

The tussocky bogs were covered in arctic cotton during our 2014 trip through ANWR. Waving their muppet-head blooms in the breeze, sedges spread their seeds on the wind. In the arctic, the fluffy white stuff also acts like down, insulating the seeds against cold spells. The landscape shimmers as wave upon wave of cotton balls sway to the sound of the wind. I came to savor the slow pace of tussock walking. It taught me to look down, and around.

Arctic cotton. Photo © Andrea Laue.

Drier soil offers carpets of tiny wildflowers interrupted only by lichen. Photos of alpine meadows in the lower-48 feature explosions of waist-high lupine. Photos of the arctic coastal plain are macro. The plants are miniature, and the flowers bittersweet in their delicate vulnerability. Blur the background to highlight the intricate detail. Bend down and consider the flowers at their level. Savor the round-the-clock light.

Arctic Primrose. Photo © Andrea Laue

On drier ground you are also more likely to find forage. Who knew you could make a salad of arctic fireweed. Morels hidden beneath willow litter near the banks of dry streams: no way! We treasured a few tastes of arctic raspberries, ripe ahead of schedule in early July that year and full of micronutrients worthy of a nutritional fad.

Our resident paleontologist alerted us to an ancient community at our feet. Fossils. The river beds are full of them. The coastal plain used to be covered by sea, as now evidenced by an abundance of fossilized coral. At first our attentiveness to each and every stone along the river charmed our guides. Eventually I believe they came to calculate the risk of each stop along the river, padding their estimates to allow for yet more fossil hunting. Having come to expect wonders beneath our feet, we walked, heads down and eyes peeled.

Fossilized coral. Photo courtesy David K. Smith.

As in my previous post, I offer these reflections following Obama’s recent move to strengthen protections for ANWR. While I dreamed in advance of our trip of spotting polar bears and following giant herds of caribou, I rejoiced in the minute and wondered at the common while on the trip. Arctic raspberries and tussocky bogs are as vulnerable to human impact as are large mammals.

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