E.P.A. Vetoes Pebble Mine!

On January 31, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the disposal of mine waste associated with the Pebble deposit in southwest Alaska. The mine could have become one of the largest open pit mines in the world and would have imperiled Earth’s last great salmon run. The EPA’s decision is a great victory for the Bristol Bay region and its salmon.

Seventy-nine million salmon returned collectively to Bristol Bay in 2022, setting a new record high for the region. Bristol Bay’s wholly intact watersheds make this possible. Water flows freely from snowmelt-fed rivulets and springs high in the mountains through the chains of lakes that occupy glacially-carved basins and into the lower stems of rivers that empty into the Bering Sea. Adult salmon swim upstream without encountering human-made obstructions or water diversions. And, instead of being displaced by shore-line hardening structures to protect buildings or roads, such as it is throughout much of the U.S. west coast, billions of salmon fry in Bristol Bay find ample refuge in the slack-waters along stream margins, grassy marshes, and lakes. Vast numbers of salmon don’t even see a bridge during their entire lives. The diversity and health of the watersheds make Bristol Bay whole. 

Turbulent water filled with salmon. A red-colored salmon's tail fin breaks the surface at upper left. At center, a more silver-colored salmon's face breaks the surface.
salmon jumping at waterfall. salmon are jumping from bottom center to lip of falls on upper left.
GIF of underwater footage of salmon fry. Water is clear. Salmon swim in current facing right over pebbly bottom.

I was late to the Pebble fight, only learning about the proposed mine in 2007 during my first summer as a park ranger in Katmai National Park. But many people in the Bristol Bay region have been advocating against Pebble Mine for 20 years. I hope the fishing boat captains and their deck hands; Alaska Native Tribes, village councils, and coalitions; lodge owners, employees, and fishing guides; chefs; scientists; those who work for non-profit and conservation organizations; and many others have the opportunity to rest well for at least a few days now that the threat of the mine is no longer looming. I thank them for their work.

Landscape scene from mountaintop. Scree slope in foreground transitions to lowland area with, forests, some mountains, and large lakes. No human development can be seen.
GIF of underwater footage of sockeye salmon. Salmon are facing left over stream bottom covered in cobbled

Before I had the fortune of living in the Bristol Bay area, I did not understand—or even fathom—the importance of salmon to place and people. The calendar in Bristol Bay is centered on salmon. The region’s economy is centered on salmon. Its ecology is centered on salmon. And it works, beautifully.

I’ve said many times before that our world is wounded. Too much of humanity seems to have a unique desire and capability to consume land, habitats, material without considering the rights of other creatures or the value that future generations of people might place on those things. I wish I could take everyone to Bristol Bay at the height of the summertime salmon run to see the fishing fleet and processors, to stand on the edge of a river while tens of thousands of salmon swim upstream, to watch brown bears gorge on their most important and sought-after food, to see an ecosystem functioning at its fully realized potential. It just might change your perspective on what should be and what is possible for our world.

Confessions of an EV Driver

Mid winter is the wonderful time of year when I wake up every morning wondering if I need to shovel snow. To be honest, I don’t mind the chore when I have the time to do it. I do mind that its work that I wouldn’t have to do if my household wasn’t reliant on a car. I’m thankful, though, that we made the move away from gas guzzlers. Our primary vehicles are my bicycles and an electric car.

You’ve probably seen the marketing campaigns for electric vehicles (EV) or a charging station along a highway. But given that EVs still represent a small portion of cars on the road then maybe you haven’t spoken to anyone who owns or drives one. As one such person, please allow me to share some of the advantages and frustrations of electric vehicles. 

My wife and I purchased a Chevy Bolt in 2019 when we lived in western Washington. She had an unreasonably long commute, her 2011 Subaru Forester wasn’t as efficient with gas compared to its youth, and gas had been hovering around $3.50 per gallon or higher at the time. Plus, the climate and pollution impacts of its internal combustion engines wasn’t something that I could ignore anymore. I did some basic math and found that driving an EV would be far less expensive than driving her Forester. We made the purchase and haven’t looked back. (BTW, we still own the gas guzzler, but we’ve hardly driven it in the last three years.)

We plug in the EV at home at our convenience and only need to consider using a commercial charging station on trips more than 200 miles. There’s no engine oil or transmission fluid to worry about. In fact, the only liquid I’ve ever given the car has been for the windshield washer. The Bolt has an approximately 65 kw battery* and we pay about $0.16 per kilowatt-hour for electricity so it costs us $10.50 to fully charge the car. Its range in summer is about 300 miles. In winter, it’s closer to 250 or 200 miles depending on how cold the air temperature is and how much we need to run the heat and defroster (more on that later).

*The battery’s true capacity might be a little less than this it’s but definitely above 60 kilowatts.

To compare that to a gas-powered car, let’s buy 3 gallons of gas at $3.50 per gallon, which is $10.50, exactly what it would cost us to fully charge the Bolt from a near dead battery. A gas car would need to get 67 miles per gallon to equal the Bolt’s charging cost when the batteries provide 200 miles of driving range. A gas car would need to get 100 miles per gallon to equal the Bolt over 300 miles. That’s just money, though, not true efficiency. A battery-powered car is able to apply more than 60% of its energy under ideal conditions toward propelling the vehicle. An internal combustion engine in a car is remarkably inefficient, using only 12-30% of its energy to move a vehicle forward.

Overall, the Bolt is quiet, clean (there are no emissions), and far cheaper to use than the Forester, yet we’ve never taken it on an extended trip until recently. In late November and early December 2022, my wife and I drove from northern Maine to Pittsburgh to Cleveland and back. We knew that we’d need a little more patience and time to get where we wanted to go. 

Nov. 23: Home to Augusta, Maine

Distance: ~200 miles.
Northern Maine is a bit of a EV charging station desert. Even Tesla, which has an extensive charging network for their vehicles, only has one charging station north of Bangor currently.

Screen shot from website PlugShare showing Maine north of Bangor. Green and orange icons represent EV charging stations. Quebec to the west has many. New Brunswick to the east has a line of them along their highways. Northern Maine has v
Northern Maine has very few public EV charging stations along the public road corridors. Screen capture from PlugShare.com.

We’ve made the mistake of almost running out of juice a couple of times returning home from central and southern Maine. It’s a bit alarming when the car no longer tells you an estimated range, starts beeping warnings, and flashes a low battery warning light. Thankfully, there’s no worry for us today. We leave home with a full charge and the weather cooperates with above freezing air temperatures. After 200 miles of mostly interstate driving, we use a high capacity (level 3) ChargePoint charger for about 45 minutes south of Augusta to push the battery up to about 66%. 

This being the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a lot of people were on the road. At the Gardiner rest stop on I-95, there are four L3 chargers, but only two were working reliably that evening and both were occupied when we arrived. We wait about a half hour for a space at a working charger. This turned out to be a prologue. High demand and too few working chargers would be a repeated frustration over the next several days of travel. It wasn’t the waiting that was the issue, necessarily, but waiting, instead, simply because the charging stations aren’t working.

Nov. 25 Augusta, Maine to Springfield, Massachusetts. 

Distance: ~250 miles.
During the past day and half, we mooched electricity from a regular wall outlet at my in-laws to top off the car’s battery. Starting the day fully charged, we drive south. At the Kittery rest stop just north of the Maine/New Hampshire border, one of the level 3 ChargePoint chargers is occupied while the other isn’t working. However, our afternoon destination is Lowell National Historical Park and we have more than enough juice to get there. At Lowell, we park in a garage with a level 2 charger, which is equivalent to our plug at home. This charges at about 6 kw per hour while we visit the national historic site and eat a late lunch. 

GIF of industrial weaving loom from 1920s. Rods move forward and back, up and down, to drive cotton threads into cloth.
A 1920s era weaving loom at the Boott Cotton Mills at Lowell National Historical Park.

Afterward, we drive in the dark via various interstate highways. I have trouble connecting the the car to a large bank of level 3 Electrify America chargers at a mall. It’s probably just a quirk of the electronics or car’s charging port because the issue repeats at several stations. The charging cords are stiff and heavy, which might hinder a proper connection. I found that holding the plug firmly while the charger initiates gets the station to connect without further issue. In Springfield we spend the night in a hotel with a L2 charger and plug in overnight. 

Nov. 26 Springfield, Massachusetts to East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

Distance: ~200 miles.
Breakfast is at an Italian bakery with a most excellent chocolate cannoli. We then spend an hour at the museum for Springfield Armory National Historic Site. On the drive south through Connecticut, the weather is mild with temperatures in the 40˚s and 50˚s F. The Bolt continues to get about 4 miles per kilowatt even while driving 65 miles per hour most of the way.

We stop at an Electrify America L3 charger located in a Walmart parking lot in Newburg, NY. A line of people already wait there. Two of the four chargers are out of service on one of the year’s busiest weekends for travel. We stay only about 15 minutes then leave when it looks like our place in the queue wouldn’t get us access to a working charger for at least an hour. This turned out to be the right choice anyway. There are few things I consider less pleasant than visiting Walmart and they are doubly hellish spaces on the weekend after Thanksgiving when the worst of the mass-consumption brainwashing compels people to buy garbage that they don’t need.

Our alternative was another level 3 charger about 30 miles away in Middletown, NY. This turned out to be one of the more enjoyable places we stopped to charge. The charger worked without issue, it accepted a credit card so we didn’t have to download and use a special app, and there was no one else waiting to charge, I could walk through the town to stretch my legs, and there were a few restaurants within easy walking distance. More towns should put EV chargers in their city center rather than sprawling parking lots surrounding monuments to runaway consumerism.

We detour through Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area at sunset on the way to our night’s destination. I wish we would’ve had more daylight to explore the forest and river. Our hotel for the night advertised an EV charger but neither of the two stations are working when we get there (lesson: call ahead and ask). We poach some electricity by using a 110 volt wall outlet on the outside of the hotel.

River and hillsides covered in trees. River is in shadow and flows toward lower right. Low sun lights trees on far bank in orange glow. Trees are bare of leaves due to the late fall season.
The Delaware River at sunset.

Nov. 27: East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Distance: ~200 miles.
We leave the hotel with the car’s battery charged to about 60%, which is more than enough to get us to an Electrify America L3 charger in Allentown. It’s early on a Sunday morning but three of the four charging spots are occupied and the fourth doesn’t work. We wait about 20 minutes to plug in to jump the battery from about 45% to 66%—enough to probably get us to Gettysburg without issue. We assist a couple who are driving a new Bolt but have never stopped at one of these chargers before.

After a rainy walk through Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, we plug into a free level 2 charger while we eat lunch at Furnace Creek State Park. I would’ve liked to have spent more time exploring here if it weren’t for the limited daylight hours of late fall.

We make it to Gettysburg with about 25% of our battery left and plug in for the evening at a hotel. At dusk, I walk along a nearby section of the battlefield and national cemetery feeling profoundly sad for the pain and death that happened there. Later, I can’t sleep and get up to unplug the car after it is fully charged at 1 a.m., you know, just in case some other EV drives up in the middle of the night.

U.S. Civil War cannons face away toward horizon. Deep overcast skies and bare trees fill the scene.
Canons near where U.S. troops repelled the last Confederate assault during the Battle of Gettysburg. In less than an hour on July 3, 1863, thousands of people died in the nearby fields.

Nov. 28: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Distance: ~200 miles.
We tour the park’s museum and battlefield in the morning. The level 3 chargers at the museum don’t work so I’m glad for the hotel’s overnight charging option. 

We mostly follow U.S. 30 to Pittsburgh, which is a mountainous route by PA standards. On the steep, long climbs the car uses a lot of electricity, but on the way down we recoup some of that energy using the regenerative braking system. This helps to milk the best range out of the battery. Trying to drive in the most efficient manner also motivates you to not drive like an asshole. We add a kilowatt of energy to the battery when dropping off Laurel Ridge into Ligonier.

In Bedford, we wait about 15 minutes for space at a level 3 charger. Almost predictably, one of the four chargers was out of order. We leave after bumping the battery up to 80% full since at least two other EVs are waiting in line.

A stop at the Flight 93 National Memorial breaks up the day but triggers a lot of emotions. Around dinner time, we get to Pittsburgh with about half the battery’s charge left in the tank. At my sister’s house we can’t plug in for the night. Her house is perched on a steep hill—one of those Pittsburgh houses you need to ascend the equivalent of two flights of stairs to get into. Adopting an EV would be a challenge for her and others who live where the only parking option is on the street. (And, FWIW, my sister doesn’t own a car which is much more of an environmentally friendly choice than owning an EV. She does, however, have a Pittsburgh toilet.)

Nov. 29: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cleveland, Ohio

Distance: ~170 miles.
At a gas station surrounded by four to six lane highways in Cranberry, northwest of Pittsburgh, two of the four Electrify America chargers aren’t working. Luckily, we only had to wait about 5 minutes for a spot. Once plugged in, our charge speed varied between 20 – 30 kw, which is typical for our Bolt at all level 3 chargers we’ve used. Since our car is a 2019 model, the electrical system doesn’t seem accept the same amount of juice as a newer versions. Eavesdropping on the charging speeds of most other EVs plugged in at the same time, they’ll get 50, 75, even 125 kw of power.

I get dropped off to visit my mom for a few days while my other half continues to Cleveland for a conference. Before she departs, I take the car to the level 2 charger at Jennings Environmental Education Center, which I love. It boasts an extensive, well maintained trail system that takes you through some unique habitats with locally endangered species. I grew up nearby but didn’t fully appreciate the spot when I was younger. The car is almost fully charged when my wife needs to leave about three hours later. She drives to Cleveland without needing to stop anywhere to charge.

A few days later, I take a bus from downtown Pittsburgh to downtown Cleveland in the morning. My wife parked the EV at a nearby garage to charge during the morning so I go pick it up. The charge was free but parking in the garage was expensive.

Dec. 3: Cleveland, Ohio to Canandaigua, New York

Distance: ~275 miles.
We leave Cleveland with a full charge and head east on I-90. Some of the level 3 chargers on the way to Buffalo were reportedly not working (surprise!) so we stop in Erie after about 100 miles of driving. No one is at the Electrify America station when we arrive. The chargers are in another crummy location—another Walmart parking lot surrounded by more parking lots and big box stores. At least we can see the lake in the distance.

The weather remains mild for the season and the roads are free of snow. Outside of Buffalo, we stop at another level three Electrify America station where, once again, only 3 out of 4 chargers are working. It’s located at another Walmart in retail sprawl. Ugh. But it gives us the juice to get us to our night’s destination with a 50 mile buffer in case the hotel’s charger doesn’t work, which at first it did not.

Unable to charge, I go to the hotel’s front desk to find that the attendant couldn’t help because there was no maintenance person on duty that day. This was a non-networked station, which meant that there was no customer service to call. I searched and found a wall outlet to plug into but decided to try the charger again after noticing that the light indicating a fault error on the charger was off. I plugged in and it worked, thankfully.

Temperatures remained in the 40˚s throughout the day and the car got about 4 mi/kw again despite driving almost entirely at interstate speeds of about 65 miles per hour.

Dec. 4: Canandaigua, New York to Saratoga Springs, New York

Distance: ~233 miles.
Full charge by the morning. We get to Women’s Rights National Historic Site to explore its museum as soon as it opens. After continuing east, we take a break to walk outside the fort at Fort Stanwix National Monument even though the visitor center, fort, and the parking garage with a charger are closed for the day. We hit a L3 charger in downtown Utica, and spent the charging time looking for a place for me to pee, finally deciding just to sneak into a hotel and use their restroom since the few open shops didn’t provide the proper facilities. It was getting to a point where I was considering using an alley. After a short stop to Saratoga National Historical Park at sunset, we charge the car overnight at a hotel in Saratoga Springs.

Dec. 5: Saratoga Springs, New York to Augusta, Maine

Distance: ~300 miles.
We drive a meandering and hilly route back to Maine through Vermont (one of three U.S. states I’d yet to visit) and New Hampshire. In Rutland, VT, we stop at a L3 Charge Point charger for about 45 minutes to get the battery up to 80 percent. One of two wasn’t working but luckily no one was at the chargers when we arrived. Through New Hampshire and back in Maine at dusk, we stop at another L3 charger in Windham. This was also surrounded by retail sprawl but at least there was a decent sushi restaurant nearby where we could eat dinner while the car did its thing. Finally, and less than 10 miles from the in-laws’ house, we use the L3 chargers at the West Gardiner rest area on I-95. 

Dec. 6: Augusta, Maine to Home

Distance: 200 miles.
By jumping the car’s batteries back up to 80% the night before and combining that with the juice we get from the in-laws’ 110v wall outlet overnight we have a near full charge by morning when we make our way home. Temperatures stay in the 40˚s F. We make it home with about one-third of the battery to spare.


You may have noticed that we weren’t in a hurry. Our itinerary was relaxed, giving us the opportunity to take lots of breaks and make many stops. We looked for charging stations more frequently than necessary too since so many were broken. I didn’t want to deplete the battery too far and limp to a charger that didn’t work. We were also fortunate on the road trip since there was no particularly cold weather or snow. As I write this in late January, I’ve had plenty of time to become reacquainted with the wintertime complications of the EV driving experience. 

Car parked in deep snow. Car remains snow covered. A snow shovel sticks upright in snow to left of car. A row of snow-covered trees fill the background.
The Bolt at home after a snow storm.

First, the Bolt’s batteries are certainly less efficient when temperatures are below 30˚F (-1˚C). This is especially true when temperatures are below 10˚F (-18˚C). We don’t have a garage (and there’s no way I’m building one), so the car sits outside and during cold days the batteries will use some energy to condition themselves for more optimal performance. Using any climate control accessories like the windshield defroster and heater also eats noticeably into the batteries’ energy stores. Instead of the 300 miles per full charge the Bolt gets in the summer, it is much closer to 200 miles and sometimes less in winter. Gas guzzlers are far less efficient in cold weather too. To me, however, the impacts to the EV’s driving range seem more conspicuous compared to a traditional car.

I should note that I don’t typically enjoy driving and I often find road trips to be frustrating endeavors. The pace is too quick and travel by car insulates you from the landscape in a negative way. And, before you comment about how EVs are not the best solution to our transportation issues and climate change woes: I agree. Roadway deaths in the U.S. are as high or higher than ever before even as cars get safer. Automobiles are a disaster for wildlife too. Tires leach chemicals that kill salmon, and hundreds of millions of vertebrate animals in the U.S. are killed when they are struck by cars. In more ways than one, EVs perpetuate this unacceptable status quo. My favorite vehicle remains my trusty steed, Rocinante, and we certainly need to prioritize passenger trains, buses, and safe biking routes over more cars. The environmental impacts of mining minerals to produce EV batteries can’t be ignored either.

And, before you comment about how EV’s are too inconvenient to usurp internal combustion engines for commuting and long-distance passenger travel, please consider instead that convenience should not be our first consideration in today’s world. Certainly not with a very real climate crisis. We could’ve and should’ve started transitioning to renewable energy and electrifying our transportation grid in the 1990s when it was already clear that climate change was coming fast. But our elected leaders did virtually nothing and the public wasn’t demanding change, partly because the threat seemed abstract and distant (at least that’s how I remember thinking about it; people—including me—generally aren’t good at seeing past our immediate needs and wants) and also because fossil fuel companies used a disinformation campaign straight out of the tobacco company playbook to successfully sow doubt about climate science and create apathy for change within the public. It worked on me too. I can remember stating that the consequences of climate change were not well understood during programs that I gave as a park ranger. Now the stakes are higher and the changes necessary to stave off the worst climate impacts are harder. Convenience, therefore, cannot rule the day. That opportunity is long gone.

So if you’re going to buy a car or another car, should it be an EV? Get a traditional bicycle or an electric-assist bicycle, first. Then if that can’t work for you then get an EV. If it’s not for the pollution benefits, then get it for the low operating and maintenance cost (cheap to drive, no oil changes, no expensive gas, etc). Although a little more patience is necessary on long trips currently, an EV will get you where you need to go.

Ten Years of Bear Cam and Counting

Last summer, explore.org celebrated the 10th anniversary of the bear cams at Brooks River in Katmai National Park. These webcams offer an in-depth look at the behavior and ecology of a population of brown bears, allow us to observe the same individual bears over many years–giving us the chance to learn about their personalities and habits–and provide a platform for rangers and other experts to host live programs and commentary about the bears and their stories. It’s a wildlife watching experience like no other.

As part of the celebration, I chose to highlight some the moments that I thought were most memorable from the last ten years of bear cam. Some explore point-in-time events. Others celebrate the behavior of individual bears who have left their mark on Brooks River in ways we can’t forget or ignore. Each was unforgettable from my perspective. I hope you enjoy them.

Most Defensive Mother: 128 Grazer 

Grazer is an archetypal mother bear. Don’t get in her way and don’t approach her cubs.

Lefty Learns to Fish at Brooks Falls

Old bears can definitely learn new tricks. In July 2015, we watched a fully mature adult male brown bear figure out how to fish where he’d never fished before.

Otis Eats 42 Salmon in a Sitting

Be awed by the capacity of his stomach.

Death of 451’s Spring Cub

When a bear cub falls ill the world will watch.

503’s Saga

A lone yearling finds a new family.

Reign of 856

Few bears will ever experience the prolonged dominance and advantage earned by 856.

2020 Salmon Smorgasbord

What happens when bears have access to unlimited salmon? The 2020 salmon run gave us the answer.

History of Fat Bear Week

A goofy idea becomes a world famous internet sensation.

We are Family: 909, 910, and Cubs

Sister bears reunite while raising cubs to create an extended family.

If that’s not enough, the bear cam community complied links to all of our bear cam live events from 2022. Two stand out in my mind: 1. The impromptu Q&A about a fight between and mother bear and a dominant male, and 2. The bear cam 10th anniversary live chat.

We’ve seen a lot of special moments on the cams during the last ten summers–perhaps too many to recall–so these are only a small snippet of the larger story. What are your most memorable moments from the bear cams?

Little Bog of Horrors

I find the urge to explore bogs and boggy habitats difficult to resist. Other people avoid them, which gives me space to be alone. They’re mucky, which is often a fun and challenging substrate underfoot. They contain unique species, which I find fascinating. They are full of life. And they offer surprises.

On an unseasonably warm late October day, I found myself poking around the edges of Little Messer Pond, an approximately 27-acre pond in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine.

Photo of pond and surrounding vegetation. Pond is at lower right. Short shrubs and sedge at lower left. Pines, spruce, and large line pond.
Little Messer Pond
Photo of pond. Trees line the pond in the middle and background. Short shrubs form the pond's border in the foreground.
Little Messer Pond

While exploring the pond’s northern flank, on a shelf of sphagnum peat that cups the pond’s shore, I found several purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea), one of the most iconic bog species in this area. The purple pitcher lives an uncommon, carnivorous lifestyle for a photosynthesizing organism. Pitcher plants supplement their growth by capturing small animal prey, typically insects. Unlike Venus fly-traps, however, which ensnare prey using a trigger-like mechanism, pitcher plants use a passive, gravity-driven process. Their leaves form bell or cone-shaped bowls that fill with rainwater. The top of the each leaf has a flaring lip lined with nectar glands to attract insects. If a hapless insect falls inside, downward pointing hairs resist its escape attempts. 

Several pitcher plants growing out of reddish-colored sphagnum moss.
Purple Pitcher Plant

Pitcher plants can’t move, so they have unsurprisingly indiscriminate tastes. To cite just one example, a study from Newfoundland documented 12 insect orders serving as prey in pitcher plants. Prey eventually drowns in the pitcher’s water where enzymes as well as inquilines (microorganisms adapted to live in the pitchers such as midge larvae, nematodes, bacteria, protozoa, and rotifers among others) break down the trapped prey, releasing nitrogen and phosphorus for the plant. Purple pitcher plants, in particular, seem to be particularly rich in inquilines, hosting at least 165 different species across its range. Pitchers are habitats of their own making and their adaptations allow them to live in nutrient poor soils where competition from tall plants in minimal.

Looking at the pitchers on the edge of Little Messer, I found ants, beetles, flies, dragonflies, various bits of unidentified insects, and a sludge of the leftovers in their bowls.

They’d eat me if I were small enough. 

GIF from Little Shop of Horrors. Plant says "Feed Me!" while Seymour looks at it.

None of the prey was unusual or unexpected until I stumbled upon a curious sight—a spotted salamander inside a pitcher.

Spotted salamander floating in a pitcher plant's bowl.

I was taken aback by the sight. I had never seen something like this before, and I remember exclaiming “What the?” even though I was alone. Was this a big payday for the plant or was the salamander only a temporary resident?

Small vertebrates are exceedingly scarce as a prey item for purple pitcher plants. In the scientific literature, I couldn’t find much documentation of it. A study from Massachusetts documented red-spotted newts as a food source for pitcher plants. A more recent study from an Ontario bog found that spotted salamanders are a potentially rich prey for pitcher plants. (One of the researchers leading that study described his sighting of a salamander in a pitcher plant felt like a “WTF moment” so I guess I wasn’t alone in my surprise.) In August 2017, researchers at that study site searched the contents of 144 pitcher plants. They found, as expected, mostly insects but also several recently metamorphosed spotted salamanders. In August 2018, they investigated 58 plants and found three spotted salamanders. The physical condition of the salamanders varied. Some were in an advanced state of decay while others were lively and were able to swim to the bottom of the pitcher when disturbed.

Plenty of uncertainty surrounds pitcher plants and the importance of small vertebrate prey to them like salamanders and newts. No one has yet tested what might attract a salamander into a pitcher since a salamander has to climb up to get into one. If the salamander can escape, then pitchers could be a refuge for salamanders who have recently emerged from the water onto the land. Perhaps salamanders are attracted to the pitcher by small insects visiting to feed on the plant’s nectaries. Their apparent capture could be random too, although, dead salamanders apparently break down quickly inside pitcher plants so maybe their true rate of capture is greater than anyone realizes.

I wonder if it might happen only in places with the right combination of habitats. Purple pitcher plants typically (but not exclusively) grow in nutrient poor bogs, places that don’t always support breeding populations of spotted salamanders. Adult spotted salamanders migrate en masse during spring to vernal pools where they breed. They may also use permanent ponds for reproduction as long as those don’t contain fish, which eat salamander eggs and larval salamanders. Newts, in contrast, breed in a greater variety of wetlands including ponds and lakes that contain fish. 

At the Ontario study site, pitcher plants grow on bog islands in permanent and fish free ponds where spotted salamanders gather to breed every spring. This seems to provide a combination of habitats that increase the likelihood of pitcher plants capturing salamanders later in the year when the juvenile salamanders metamorphose and begin their terrestrial lives. Little Messer Pond, in contrast, is home to fish, snapping turtles, and presumably other salamander predators.

A salamander or newt, even a juvenile, is a significant catch for a pitcher plant. A newt of about 500 mg of dry mass contains about 5 mg of nitrogen, which is several orders of magnitude more than an ant, a pitcher’s most common prey. That’s enough nitrogen to increase the probability of the plant flowering the next summer. If the salamander I saw had indeed perished in the pitcher, maybe it’ll dignified in death by a marvelous pitcher plant flower next summer.

Pitcher plant flower. Petals are fleshy. Flower is radially symmetrical.
In my area, purple pitcher plants flowers appear in early summer.

Pitcher plants are wonderfully adapted to secure nutrients and survive in habitats that most plants cannot tolerate. If they’re lucky enough to capture something as large and nutrient rich as a salamander, then their physical structure can hinder escape. Their acidic water (often lower than pH 4 by mid summer) can weaken salamanders through electrolyte imbalance. And, the water within them might contain compounds that inebriate or paralyze small prey. 

The fate of the salamander that I found remains unknown. I returned a week later with the intention of relocating it, but I could not find it despite my best efforts. Although I can’t be sure, I think it is unlikely that I missed it since the boggy area with the pitcher plants isn’t large and the pitchers are easy to locate. If it were still alive, perhaps it fled to the bottom of the pitcher upon my approach. However, if it were still in the pitcher after seven days, then it should’ve been dead. Did it escape the trap that so many other victims of pitcher plants could not? I wish I knew the end of this story—a drama of uncertainty, survival, life, and death.

Fitz’s Fat Bear Week 2022 Endorsement

As is tradition—going way back to the before times (2017)—I’ve endorsed a bear for Fat Bear Week. This year’s bracket might be difficult to predict, but with voting commencing today at 12 p.m. Eastern and continuing through October 11, it’s time to throw my weight behind a Fat Bear Week contender. 

I’d let him speak for himself but his mouth is usually too full of salmon.

Friends, humans, and ursids, let us stand in awe of a true competitor. A candidate with conviction. A candidate with strength. A candidate that stands up for what he believes. A candidate the size of a double-wide refrigerator. This Fat Bear Week vote for the mighty 747. 

747 returns to Brooks River every summer as a giant and just keeps getting bigger.

Two photos of same bear, 747. Top photo is a bear standing facing left with medium-brown fur and wounds on his right ear. Bear is facing right. Photo taken on June 25, 20222. Bottom photo is a dark brown and fat bear standing in shallow water facing right. Photo taken September 6, 2022.

Perhaps you don’t want to listen to me. After all, I’ve endorsed 747 before and it hasn’t usually led to his victory. Our culture is celebrity obsessed, though, so maybe you’ll listen the expert opinions of these randos. 

Homer remarked that 747 is the only other individual whose blubber flies like his.

GIF of shirtless Homer Simpson walking on beach wearing red speedo. Woman on chair yelps when she sees him.

Pee Wee Herman agreed that 747 was the fattest bear, but he was incredulous when Amazing Larry said he might vote for another candidate.

GIF. Pee Wee Herman yells at man with mohawk, "You're not going to vote for another bear are you?!?" Man looks at Pee Wee with alarm.

large brown bear stands in shallow water at the base of a waterfall. He's facing directly toward the photographer.r at
*Stares in 747*
National Park Service / L. Law

Dr. Evil threatened world destruction if 747 fails to win.

GIF of Dr. Evil from movie Austin Powers. Camera zooms in on his face while text says, "Vote for 747

I spoke with the President too, believe it or not. (He seems to clear his schedule when you have something to say about Fat Bear Week.) Joe Biden noted that 747 grew proportionally faster than this year’s inflation rate. 

GIF of Joe Biden at podium looking surprised.

747’s summer was one of competition and success. In June and July, he yielded space to bear 856. By August, however, 747 turned the tables. He frequently challenged and displaced his long-time rival. 

It’s hard work staying dominant and getting fat too. Bears as large as 747 tend to overheat easily, and while their limb bones are built to support their great mass sometimes climbing those hills is a struggle.

You also can’t get that fat without eating a lot of food, and 747 excels in this life goal. Although we don’t know exactly how many fish 747 ate this year, a study about brown bears on Kodiak Island may provide some insight. 

Brown bears shed their fur once per year in early to mid summer. Since new fur grows during a bear’s active season, it contains a record of what the bear ate during that time. Studies of captive bears had previously determined the relationship between the mercury content in food and the mercury content in hair. To apply this to bears on Kodiak, researchers first determined how much mercury is found in the Pacific salmon that spawn on Kodiak. They then analyzed the mercury content found in the bears’ hair to gain an estimate of salmon consumption. Large adult males, on average, ate 6,146 pounds (2,788 kg) per bear per year! Some adult males ate a lot more, though, as much as 10,000 pounds of salmon. Since 747 fished at Brooks Falls almost every day between late June and mid September this summer, then his total salmon consumption may likely have been near the upper end of that spectrum.

For fisheries managers and biologists, these statistics are more than pieces of trivia. They are necessary to help inform decisions about salmon escapement goals, so that salmon runs are sustainable for people and the wildlife who depend on them. The aforementioned Kodiak study found that “the estimated population of 2,300 subadult and adult bears [on Kodiak] consumed 3.77 million kg of salmon annually, a mass equal to ~6 percent of the combined escapement and commercial [salmon] harvest (57.6 million kg).” Katmai National Park’s bear population is about as large as Kodiak’s, and when we work to sustain salmon runs we’re also celebrating the life they provide to many other species and individuals, such as bear 747.

Bears get fat to survive winter hibernation, and Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week bears are well positioned to weather the oncoming famine. But there’s candidate who eclipses the rest. Your bear might be a 10 but 747 is 1,400 pounds. I’m voting for 747, are you? 

GIF of Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy nodding in agreement.

Download your bracket from FatBearWeek.org and go there to vote in each Fat Bear Week match from October 5 to 11.

THE THING ABOUT BEARS IS THAT A LOT OF THEM ARE BIG. BUT LIKE HAVE YOU SEEN 747?? HE’S SO BIG. A GIANT, REALLY. HE JUST SITS THERE AND FISHES LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW. I MEAN HE HARDLY LEFT THE FALLS ALL SUMMER. DOESN’T MATTER HOW COLD THE WATER IS OR WHICH OTHER BEARS ARE THERE….

teenage girl talks loudly into the ear of a teenage boy. Boy does not look amused or interested.

An Unexpected Forest

Last August, I disappeared for a much anticipated week of bicycling, camping, and hiking. I hadn’t taken a bicycle trip longer than three nights in far too long, so it felt good to get back on Rocinante and pedal away from home with no phone or internet to distract me. Despite nagging high humidity and some heavy rain during the middle of the trip, it was a blissful time when I disconnected from everything but the immediate world around me (a privilege, yes I realize, but one I’ve worked to maintain).

In total, I didn’t ride my bike all that much. It was about 140 miles, so a reasonable fit person could cover my route in two days—and a younger version of me would’ve felt antsy when taking so much time to cover so little distance, but the point wasn’t to move quickly. Instead, I sought experiences best gathered through careful observation. Each day offered new discoveries, even if they were within the confines of the familiarity that accompanies travel near your home turf. Toward the end of the trip, for example, a day-long hike showcased groves of trees that had experienced a great deal of change, and offered a chance to consider how they might change in the near future.

Bicycle with drop handle bars, gray paint, and bags on racks on front and rear. Bike is surrounded by goldenrods and other plants.
Rocinante loaded and ready to carry me on the journey.

Starting near Patten on a Friday afternoon, I headed west to the Matagamon Gate at the northeast corner of Baxter State Park where, long story short, I spent the next four nights. After a fifth night of camping closer to the small town of Millinocket and resupplying on food, I made my way north into Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

I spent the remainder of my trip at Esker Camp in the national monument. On my next to last day, I ventured to the top of Deasey Mountain, one of the highest points in the park, on the International Appalachian Trail (IAT). While many hikers see the mountaintop and its historic fire lookout as the highlight, I find myself still thinking of the mountain’s trees. 

Maine’s modern history is intertwined with logging. A lot of trees and a lot of water to transport logs and power sawmills made the state ideal for this industry. In the 1800s, Bangor earned a reputation as the lumber capital of the world. Lumberers looked first for the tall, straight-boled white pines that were so valuable for ship masts. When Henry David Thoreau journeyed to the Katahdin region in the late 1850s, he could not find a mature standing white pine. Trees for lumber were the next to go. Then once the paper-making industry arrived, almost every tree more than a foot in diameter at its base was on the market. Harvest rates increased through much of the 1900s until the paper industry began to decline and eventually collapsed in the state.

The timber industry isn’t what it used to be in Maine, but harvesting of trees remains heavy, and anything more than a quick glance on a drive in northern Maine reveals there’s a wide variety in logging strategies depending on the landowner’s wants and the harvest company’s practices. Overall though, most of the forests you’ll see in Maine are relatively young. In a lot of the cuts I’ve visited at random, many trees are harvested at the tender age of 50 years old and sometimes younger. The national monument’s forests are no exception. On satellite images, the landscape is a checkerboard of logging roads, many of which were blazed in the last 60 years to truck out logs.

Gravel road surrounded by white-barked birch and other trees.
Young paper birch and other trees line a section of the monument loop road.
Satellite image of forested area. Logging roads and trails can be seen as scars in between trees. A large stream flows at upper right. Image taken in April 2016. Green represents spruce, fir, and pine. Brown indicates deciduous trees.
Dendritic-patterned logging roads and trails occupy much of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. This is the area near the Wassataquoik lean-to and tent site along the IAT.

Deasey Mountain’s modest height (1,942 feet in elevation) and its proximity to Wassataquoik Stream and the East Branch of Penobscot River—major river drive watersheds before road building reached the area’s forests—made its trees a prime target for logging crews. Dozens of dams, including one not far upstream of Esker Camp, were built in the Wassataquoik and East Branch watersheds to facilitate the river drives. Large, human-caused fires had also burned through the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With so much recent disturbance I expected to hike through a regenerating forest for most if not the whole way to the summit.

The first task was to ford Wassataquoik Stream at the IAT crossing, which was straightforward due to the river’s knee-deep water that day. After leaving the Wassataquoik’s immediate floodplain the IAT utilized an old road for a brief clip that roughly followed the route used by some of the first Katahdin climbers, then ox teams in early logging efforts, then the heavy equipment of 20th century industrial logging. On the old road north from the Wassataquoik I walked through relatively young, even-aged trees. 

dense small trees, both evergreen and deciduous, surround a footpath that follows an old road
A section of the IAT follows the Old Keep Path, a long abandoned road.
Moss covered stump at lower left sits among young trees in background and forest floor covered in brown leaves and twigs
Stumps hidden among the young trees hinted at a harvest within the last few decades.

But to my surprise, the forest immediately changed after the trail left the old roads. Instead of spindly, closely spaced trees, i was surrounded by groves of large eastern hemlocks with plenty of big sugar maple, white ash, and spruce. Although the views from the mountain summit I experienced later that day were enjoyable, it was this section of forest which most captured my attention and curiosity.

tall trees in a maturing forest, primarily hemlock, maple, and ash.
A grove of older large trees on the slopes of Deasey Mountain

Now, these weren’t the largest trees I’ve ever seen and if you’re used to hiking through the old-growth forests of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon or the Smokies of North Carolina and Tennessee, then I’ll excuse you if you consider these trees to be modest at best. While eastern hemlocks have the potential to live more than 500 hundred years and grow more than 150 feet tall, the natural disturbance regimes in eastern North America coupled with modern logging practices and invasive insects such as hemlock woolly adelgid rarely allow them to reach their maximum age or size. 

The pocket of older trees extended along at least a mile of trail. Despite looking, I didn’t find stumps from cut trees or long-abandoned roads or skidder trails, which would have been the obvious signs of harvest in this stand during the last 100 years. I also failed to find charcoaled stumps. By a stroke of luck, this patch of forest did not burn during the large wildfires in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Parts of the Wassataquoik watershed were made near barren after an intense fire in 1903, for example. Short-lived and fast growing trees that fill recently harvested and fire-burned areas such as aspen were also largely absent, which suggests this forest hadn’t seen a major disturbance from an axe, chainsaw, fire, or windstorm in a very long time—at least long enough for the relatively slow growing hemlocks to mature to their current stature.

boles of two trees, a large hemlock at right and a large spruce at left, fill the foreground of a photo of a grove of large trees

5' 7" tall person leans against a 3-4 feet DBH sugar maple
Hemlocks weren’t the only large trees in the grove. This absolute unit of a sugar maple loomed in a shady, sheltered swale. Sugar maples of this size are uncommon in the working forests of northern Maine.

I would be surprised if this pocket of forest had not experienced at least some harvest in the last 200 years. Before the modern era of roads and feller bunchers (machines that cut, trim, and stack trees), loggers used sluiceways, ox and horse teams, and sometimes Lombard Steam Haulers to transport timber to places where the logs could be left until the river drives of spring thaw. Even the headwaters of the Wassataquoik watershed, now occupying the wildest portions of Baxter State Park, saw intense logging in the late 1800s.

Although I couldn’t find evidence of recent logging and there’s no recorded history of agriculture on the mountain, I suspect this section of forest isn’t old growth, at least not yet. The definition of old growth remains a subject of debate among scientists, yet most seem to agree that old growth forests are complex. Rather than even-aged trees, old growth stands in the northeastern U.S. contain a wide spectrum of tree ages and sizes. Certainly they often contain very large trees but also lots of dead wood. The canopy is complex with trees of different heights and broken tops. If browsing by deer and moose isn’t too intense, the understory is filled with a diversity of shrubs, small trees, and ephemeral herbs.

Other than the large trees, I saw only modest representations of these features on Deasey. Large dead trees, either standing or on the ground, were not common (although there were some thrilling examples of standing dead snags), and the understory was thin in some places. Sometimes this is the result of heavy deer and moose browse, but here I wondered if it was more of the product of the deep shade cast by the hemlocks and spruce. When storms and insects cull the live trees the subsequent gaps flood the forest floor with light, which allows the shade suppressed plants to burst upward. 

With much of Katahdin Woods and Waters in stages of early succession after 20th and early 21st century logging and fires, it’ll be many decades before large areas of the national monument’s forests grow into anything that partially resembles the structure they held before industry arrived in the region. Even then, it won’t be the same as before. Ignoring the fact that North America no longer harbors its large Pleistocene mammals which exerted great influence on plants, and the losses associated with Indigenous forestry across most of the landscape, such as burning which maintained open woodlands and prairies, the disturbance regimes now forced on the land in the last 200 years have created novel forest communities. Many forest types we consider “normal” such as stands of near-continually young birch and aspen have no past analogs. 

Beyond that, if people never manipulate this forest through harvest or with fire (purposeful or accidental) again we’ve already set into motion a cascade of effects that will influence the forest for many thousands of years. Introduced disease has ravaged Maine’s American beech—a formerly large, long-lived, shade tolerant tree. Hemlock woolly adelgid and emerald ash borer continue to advance and will likely kill most of the ash and hemlock they encounter. Climate change will make the area less hospitable to spruce, balsam fir, and sugar maple while perhaps improving growing conditions for oaks. Species that live farther south currently such as tulip tree and hickories could become new additions to Maine’s forests as annual temperatures rise. High levels of atmospheric CO2 may accelerate tree growth, but at the same time new diseases, new insect infestations, and increased forest fire potential—all fueled by climate change—are likely to be greater threats to these forests than today. Whatever emerges as a result of these influences will be largely a forest of our own making, whether we want it to be that way or not. 

Sometimes I wish I could live long enough to experience the distant future, mostly out of curiosity. I wonder if we have the collective foresight and the will to protect what’s left, to ensure that hemlock and ash trees aren’t reduced to functional extinction like the American chestnut. Could I return in 200 years and find hemlocks on Deasey Mountain? In 500 years?

Welcome, dear trees, to the Anthropocene. It might be a rough ride, but I hope we’ll help you get through it.

The Remarkable Hummingbird Tongue

In the northern third of Maine spring weather is fitful, and I sometimes wonder if winter will ever break its hold. Eventually, though, usually in mid March, snow cover begins to thin as the sun travels higher in the sky and daylight hours lengthen. Around this time, maple sap runs heavy. As April arrives the hazelnut, speckled alder, and aspen (or “popples” as they are locally called) break bud as the ground thaws in earnest. I might see my first dark-eyed junco of the year about that time, followed by flickers and sapsuckers who drum from the trees as they establish nesting territories. Wood frogs, spring peepers, and salamanders wake from hibernation and migrate to their breeding pools on rainy nights. The warblers return in May along with early ephemeral wildflowers and the first expanding tree leaves in the canopy.

Although I welcome these changes like a reunion with friends, there’s one event beyond any other (even the appearance of biting insects), that to me signals the full arrival of spring—the return of hummingbirds.

A male ruby-throated hummingbird.

On May 12, I was treated to the first hummingbirds of the year at my feeders. Only one hummingbird species, the ruby-throated, nests in the northeast U.S. and southeastern Canada. The ruby-throats that establish summer residency near me may have migrated from wintering areas in Central America, probably by flying over the Gulf of Mexico before making their way farther north.

With a heart that pounds at several hundred beats per minute and wings that buzz at a too-fast-to-see pace, an active hummingbird is a powerful metabolic furnace. While insects and spiders are important foods, the fat and protein the bird ingests from invertebrate prey goes only so far in its effort to sustain their exceptionally high metabolism and energy-intensive flight. An active hummingbird’s metabolism is so high that it must eat about half its body weight in sugar each day, and it digests sugar so rapidly that it essentially refuels in flight.

The energetic costs of this lifestyle are great, so if you are a tiny bird that weighs only a few grams then it pays to be as efficient in your nectar gathering as possible. For a hummingbird, the process begins with an ingenious adaptation of the tongue.

Scientists long assumed that hummingbirds utilized the passive work of capillary action to drink nectar—stick your tongue into a flower, contact nectar with it, and allow the liquid’s surface tension to coat the tongue. However, in a 2011 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science,* Alejandro Rico-Guevara and Margaret Rubega discovered that that a hummingbird tongue works in a much more efficient manner.

A hummingbird’s tongue is forked, somewhat tubular, and supported by stiff rods. That anatomy has been known for quite some time, but Rico-Guevara and Rubega found that the tongue utilizes no capillary action. Instead it is a shape shifter, a fluid trap, and in the author’s words, “a dynamic liquid trapping device.”

As the bird sticks its tongue out the tips remain adhered together. At this point, it looks like a long pin. Once the tongue contacts nectar, though, the real magic of the tongue’s anatomy begins its work. First, the tongue splits as curved lamellae (parallel hair like structures) along the tongue tips unfurl in the liquid.

GIF of
In nectar, a hummingbird’s unrolled tongue tips substantially increase the surface area in contact with the nectar. Timestamp is in milliseconds. Movie SM01 from (2011) Rico-Guevara and Rubega.

As the bird retracts its tongue, the lamellae re-furl over the supporting rods and trap a tube of nectar inside each tongue tip.

A view of a hummingbird’s tongue re-furling as it is withdrawn from nectar. Air is on the left. Liquid is on the right. Timestamp is in milliseconds. Movie SM03 from (2011) Rico-Guevara and Rubega.
A closer view of the tongue re-furling. Air is on the left. Liquid is on the right. Timestamp is in milliseconds. Movie SM04 from (2011) Rico-Guevara and Rubega.

Amazingly, the tongue’s transformation and liquid trapping properties are driven not by muscles, but by fluid and gaseous forces acting directly on the tongue. The tongue’s structure is hydrophilic, so when the tongue contacts air the lamellae curl around the nectar and traps it inside. The bird releases the nectar by squeezing and slightly flattening the tongue as it is pulled into the bill.

Nectar can be a difficult to access food. Hummingbirds exploit it like no other bird because they can hover in flight and, as a group, have diverse beak lengths and curvatures to probe flowers of different sizes and shapes. They are also clever enough to trapline—that is, they’ll visit the same food sources like patches of flowers on a regular basis to minimize competition and maximize nectar availability.

But knowing how specialized the hummingbird’s tongue is, I’ll never look at a feeding hummingbird the same way. The hummingbird tongue, long thought to be a passive part of the process, is a superb adaption that plays no small role in helping these tiny birds live a large life.

*The paper is a fascinating bit of natural history and is open-access, so I encourage you to read if you want to learn more about this topic.

Bird, Bird, Bird, Bird is the Word

Bird Week 2022 on explore.org has come and gone, but if you missed it I hosted a series of live events to celebrate birds and learn more about their amazing lives.

World Migratory Bird Day Live Chat (May 14)

California Condor Q&A

Osprey Q&A

Bald eagle Q&A

Atlantic Puffin Q&A

I also wrote and narrated a video series highlighting a few superpowers of birds.

Migratory Endurance

Feathers

Woodpecker Skulls

Finally, in my most recent blog post on explore.org I examine the phenomenon of siblicide in certain birds. Life in the nest can be harsh, and some birds take their sibling rivalry to the extreme.

I thank the crew at explore.org for helping to produce Bird Week and showcase these wonderful and amazing creatures. I hope you’ve had an opportunity to enjoy some time watching our feathered neighbors. If not, do yourself a favor and make the effort. Even the most common and overlooked birds have incredible stories to tell.

A chestnut-sided warbler--a small perching bird with a yellow cap, whitish breast, and chestnut colored flanks under the wing--stands on a willow twig.
Chestnut-sided warbler

Are national parks accessible to everyone?

Brooks Falls is, without question, the most famous place in Katmai National Park and one of the most famous wildlife-watching destinations in North America. Even if you can’t place it on a map, you’ve likely seen it in a wildlife film, in a photograph, or on TV. Search “bear catching salmon,” for example, and nearly all of the first 50 photos are of a bear standing on the lip of Brooks Falls.

On a sunny, warm morning in mid July 2021, I arrive at the boardwalk leading to the falls after hiking the short trail through the surrounding spruce forest. It’s a promising time to visit. The early summer sockeye salmon migration is in full swing and hungry bears are eager to catch them. But about halfway along the boardwalk, I realize the chances of reaching the falls in a timely manner are slim. At a covered platform nicknamed the Treehouse, where the boardwalk forks and leads to different viewpoints of the river, there’s a wall of people.

Under the Treehouse roof, about 25 people surround a frazzled park ranger who clutches a metal clipboard. The clipboard and the scribble of names he places on it are the ranger’s only lifeline to a semblance of order—it’s the waitlist for the groups wanting to gain access to the platform overlooking the falls. Like a restaurant maître d’, the ranger greets new arrivals, take their names, and asks others to wait their turn when people fill the Falls platform to its 40-person capacity. He also imposes a one-hour time limit for people at the Falls so that those who are waiting have a chance to go there.

Few people normally hang out at the Treehouse voluntarily, since if offers no lines of sight to the river and its bears. Therefore, the crowd at the Treehouse this morning indicates that the wait time to access the falls is substantial. Having staffed the platforms as a ranger in the past, I don’t wish to add to this ranger’s workload or anyone’s wait time this morning. Instead, I look for space at the adjacent Riffles Platform where rangers don’t manage a specific capacity.

I don’t find much space there either. About 20 people occupy it already. Even more fill in gaps within a few minutes of my arrival as the queue for the Falls platform grows larger. With 40 people at the falls, 25 in the treehouse, 30 or more at the nearby Riffles platform, and surely more to come, I leave for a a less crowded space.

people standing shoulder to shoulder on a platform at the edge of a river. People are at lower left.
The view from the Riffles platform on a crowding morning in July 2021.

The lower fourth of Brooks River meanders through seasonally flooded marshes and gravel bars before spilling into the glacially-fed and turquoise-colored Naknek Lake, the largest lake wholly contained within any U.S. national park. The lower river offers space and safety for mother bears and their cubs who choose to avoid the risks posed by the larger males fishing at the falls. Young, recently weaned bears also use the area as a place to socialize and graze on tender grass with less risk of encountering a larger, more dominant competitor. It’s also the most ecologically diverse place along the river so even if there are no bears in sight, there’s usually something to catch your eye.

About 20 minutes after leaving the falls boardwalk I arrive at the lower river and station myself on a platform adjacent to the long footbridge that leads to Brooks Lodge and the park visitor center. The perch allows me to see most of the river mouth as well as the meandering reverse S-curve upstream. Few bears use the lower river as I sit, although the vicinity remains filled with activity. A near continuous high-decibel, high-pitched whine fills the air as float planes arrive and taxi to the lakeshore. They disgorge their passengers out of my line of sight, but each plane must’ve been filled to capacity. Over the next hour, I count more than 200 people crossing the bridge toward the falls. Almost none walk in the opposite direction. I sympathize mentally with the Treehouse ranger who is likely clutching his clipboard even more tightly.

Later in the day, another ranger reports to me that the wait to reach the Falls platform exceeded two hours at its peak. In total more than 350 people arrived at Brooks Camp this day, which doesn’t seem like much, but that’s on top of the pilots and guides who brought people here, the 30 people who stayed in the campground, the 50-60 people who stayed in the lodge, the 30 concession employees, and the 20 park staff. Even with my conservative math, about 500 people occupied Brooks Camp, all attempting to share a 1.5 mile-long river corridor with two to three dozen brown bears. 

By the end of summer 2021 more than 15,000 people visited Brooks Camp—most of whom arrived in July and all of whom used infrastructure largely designed in the 1980s and 1990s to accommodate about half to two-thirds as much at most. It’s double the visitation of 2007, the first year I worked as a ranger at Brooks Camp.

The increasing popularity of Brooks Camp is no surprise. It’s a continuation of a pre-COVID pandemic trend that began around 2010. The surge in visitation is not unique to Katmai either. Many national parks are no longer just crowded; they are overwhelmed. About 5 million people visited Yellowstone in 2021 — 800,000 more than in 2019. More than 14 million people visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2021.  Sixteen million visited Blue Ridge Parkway.

The popularity of national parks is a welcome sign that these spaces are important and meaningful to broad swaths of the public. It wasn’t that long ago, that a National Park Service director wondered aloud whether parks were losing their relevancy. However, at the same time that our national parks experience record high visitation many more people encounter significant barriers that inhibit them from experiencing these places. I might’ve been sharing Brooks River with 500 people that day last July, but millions more are denied the opportunity. In an era of great crowding in our national parks, I wonder, do we have the determination to make parks accessible to everyone? 

The first national parks in the United States were protected for their scenic splendor, unique features, and wildlife. Nothing compares to Yellowstone’s geyser basins, Yosemite’s towering granitic cliffs, or Sequoia’s majestic trees. However, broad public support for these areas in the late 1800s was lacking. Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite and Mount Rainier—the first four national parks created by Congress—were remote and difficult to access. Upon their establishment, they lacked the facilities and basic infrastructure necessary to accommodate large numbers of people. Even so, the park boosters, advocates, and visitors who had experienced these landscapes understood they were special places. 

To build a constituency for parks and facilitate a national park experience for more people, the earliest park managers built roads, trails, campgrounds, and visitor centers. They hired rangers. They allowed concessioners to build and operate hotels, lodges, restaurants, and trinket shops. After Congress established the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, the fledging agency doubled down on infrastructure development. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration constructed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles of trails and roads within park boundaries. Soon after, a post-WWII travel boom highlighted a need to modernize parks and accommodate a tsunami of people (visitation to all national parks combined increased from about 3.5 million to almost 30 million between 1931 and 1948). The effort was sanctioned by Congress in 1956 through the Mission 66 program, a 10-year-long and billion-dollar plan to expand and modernize facilities and infrastructure in national parks.

Making parks physically accessible to greater numbers of travelers established the experiential paradigm that national parks function within today. Namely, a physical visit to a park inspires people and leads them to become park stewards and supporters.

The effort, it can be convincingly argued, worked. More people visited. More people had great experiences. More people cared for parks. It helped fuel a burgeoning environmental awareness and protection movement. The paradigm, it seemed, had created more stewards than ever before. But not everyone was pleased with the trajectory of tourism in national parks.

black and white aerial photo of a large parking lot with boat docks and a marina carved into the adjacent water. Mangroves thickets are found near the development.
The construction of the Flamingo visitor center and marina in Everglades National Park was a Mission 66 project.

In Desert Solitaire, one of Ed Abbey’s most well known essays is “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and National Parks.” Much of the book and “Polemic,” especially, is based on Abbey’s experience working as a ranger at then Arches National Monument in the 1950s, a time before pavement bisected the little visited park in southeast Utah. 

Abbey seemed to enjoy his job. He muses something that probably every ranger, including me, has thought at one time or another: “On the rare occasions when I peer into the future more than a few days I can foresee myself returning here for season after season, year after year, indefinitely. What better sinecure could a man with small needs, infinite desires, and philosophic pretensions ask for?”

But, as Abbey saw it, not all was rosy at Arches. He writes, “For there is a cloud on my horizon. A small dark cloud no bigger than my hand. Its name is Progress.” Under the direction of the National Park Service, Arches soon transitioned from an off-the-beaten-path retreat to a major tourist destination.

Abbey experienced Arches as the NPS implemented its Mission 66 plan. He worried and warned that national parks were threatened by “industrial tourism” whose “chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks.”

Abbey’s “Polemic,” true to the title word’s meaning, is a scathing criticism of development in national parks and the NPS’s efforts to expand it. “Where once a few adventurous people came on weekends to camp for a night or two and enjoy a taste of the primitive and remote, you will now find serpentine streams of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic when I worked there: from 3,000 to 30,000 to 300,000 per year.” * 

*Abbey might have exaggerated the numbers here, although visitation did increase substantially between the time Abbey last worked at Arches in 1957 when, according to National Park Service statistics, annual visitation was 25,400 to 135,000 visitors in 1968 when Desert Solitaire was published. In 2021, visitation exceeded 1.7 million.*

Abbey outlined several ways to alleviate crowding and further development such as an end to road building in parks, putting more rangers into the field, and banning cars from parks. “No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk,” he writes. “The automotive combine has almost succeeded in strangling our cities; we need not let it also destroy our national parks.”

If Abbey was angry then, he might feel a rage today. More than 297 million people visited national parks in 2021 during a pandemic. More than 327 million people visited national park areas in 2019. Record high visitation stresses the already expansive and often underfunded infrastructure of parks. Parking lots are consistently full; excess cars line the road or their drivers shove their vehicles onto narrow shoulders. Some areas, such as Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain that you need a permit to get in the park parking lot. Herds of us overwhelm trails and overlooks too. Climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome requires a permit awarded through lottery as does Zion’s Angels Landing. You now need a “timed entry permit” to enter Rocky Mountain National Park and drive Glacier National Park’s iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road. Remote hiking areas, where Abbey’s preferred visitors go, are often filled too. When I worked as a backcountry ranger at North Cascades in summer 2017, most every backcountry campsite filled during summer weekends. The overflow spilled into the surrounding national forests, public lands with significantly fewer rangers than national parks. 

Clearly, the industry of tourism has grown substantially during the last several decades. Although the pros and cons of this reality is not something I wish to tackle in this essay, our national parks are at a tipping point beyond which I worry the experience of visiting them as well as its wildlife, plants, and scenery will suffer. While I support rethinking how we use cars in national parks and we certainly should not be building new roads, denigrating those who experience parks by car is not the answer. I now see Abbey’s objections to visiting parks by car as ableist. 

As an aside, I should note how far my thinking has evolved on this issue. Staring my career twenty years ago, I agreed with Abbey’s no-cars-in-parks stance. Cars are a menace, I thought. (And to be honest, that remains true in many ways. Automobiles kill tens of thousands of people and hundreds of millions of vertebrate animals in the U.S. each year. Transportation also accounts for about 30% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. Driving less would do our world a lot of good.)

Fresh out of college and equipped with good health, I privately sneered at those who drove through parks without riding a bicycle or spending time on the trail. Like Abbey, I wondered, are you really having valid national park experience if you don’t risk hypothermia or sunburn? Yet, most of the time I drove into parks, parked my car and then rode my bike or hiked. I was, hypocritically, dependent on the car and, more importantly, I didn’t consider that the experience of those visiting parks primarily by car as equally valid an experience as my own. Of equal or perhaps even more concern was my rejection of the needs of people who couldn’t visit. “Oh, you can’t come,” I thought, “That sucks but what am I supposed to do about it?” Nature deficit disorder is real, but let’s not pretend that experiencing a national park by car is a cause. There are other much more systemic issues at heart. 

When we’ve traditionally explored how to address crowding in national parks, most of the ideas, especially those that have emerged out of the NPS bureaucracy, center around encouraging people to visit less crowded parks, to use shuttles where available like at Zion and Acadia, to visit during less crowded times and seasons, and to encourage people to do more planning or plan like like ranger. Comparatively little thought has been given toward efforts designed to connect parks with people who experience barriers that hinder them from visiting. 

Perhaps your employer doesn’t provide time off. Perhaps you cannot afford the time and money to visit parks. Perhaps you are among the two-thirds of Americans who experience chronic disease, some of which are serious enough to hinder travel and outdoor activities. Perhaps the COVID-pandemic exacerbates this, especially if you are among the immunocompromised that society seems willing to leave behind. Perhaps you have a decent salary and are relatively healthy from a physical standpoint, yet experience stress or depression that negatively impact your ability to travel. After all, we seem to be more stressed than ever. Perhaps you’re not White and the legacies of segregation in parks, discrimination in the conservation movement, and lynchings in rural areas create feelings of unwelcome and fear in outdoor spaces. Perhaps micro-aggressions from the largely White visitation and ranger staff make you feel like an outsider. Perhaps you’re Indigenous and parks are places of historical trauma where the U.S. government warred with and forcibly removed your ancestors to advance Euro-American settlement.

With these barriers in place, focusing primarily on congestion in parks is like rearranging chairs in a crowded room, while ignoring everyone that can’t even get in the building.

No panacea exists to solve accessibility issues in our parks. And, thankfully, a growing number of organizations are working toward solutions such as Brown People Camping, Disabled Hikers, Latino Outdoors, National Ability Center, Outdoor Afro, Unlikely Hikers, and Wilderness Inquiry to name a few. There’s one way, however, that the NPS can break the prevailing paradigm almost immediately to provide people from all backgrounds with meaningful national park experiences, and with little more than an internet connection, which brings me back to Katmai. 

While at Brooks River, I don’t share the river with only the few hundred people on the ground with me. I share every moment with many thousands of people watching from around the world. In 2012, Katmai National Park partnered with explore.org to host streaming webcams at Brooks River. Several webcams (collectively and affectionately known as the bearcams) stream live footage of Brooks River each summer and fall, allowing anyone with an internet connection the opportunity to watch bears fishing for salmon.

Each year, the bearcams receive millions of views. During 2021, for example, the bearcams saw 16.5 million page views on explore.org. People also watched from 110 countries and all 50 states. The programs that rangers and I host on the bearcams reached hundreds of thousands of people collectively. These numbers are several orders of magnitude larger than even the record setting visitation experienced at Brooks River during the same year. 

Although the bearcam experience lacks the immersiveness of an on-site visit, its depth far surpasses anything you’d typically get in person. A webcam experience isn’t limited by flight schedules, vacation days, outdoor skills, fitness, or wellness. It lasts as long as you want. It is accessible whenever you want. Through the bearcams, we watch bears not for a hurried few hours. We watch across weeks, seasons, and years. We see bears return to the river every year of their lives. We watch mother bears rear multiple litters of cubs, and those cubs, in turn, mature through sub-adulthood and adulthood. We discern the breadth of each bear’s individuality as it decides how to make a living. We witness the ebb and flow of the largest salmon runs left on the planet, how the fish underpin Katmai’s ecosystem, and how their year-to-year variability influences the behavior of bears and other wildlife. There’s no wildlife-watching experience quite like it.

If you haven’t experienced a national park through a webcam, then it might be difficult to envision that watching a park through a webcam can be meaningful. But, friends, it is true. A study comparing and contrasting on-site (i.e. in-person) and online (webcam) visitors to Brooks River found that webcam viewers emotionally connected with bears at higher levels than on-site visitors. The same study found that webcam viewers also support protections for bears at higher levels than people who visit in-person. In fact, support for bears and national parks among webcam viewers equalled or exceeded those reported by on-site visitors on almost all metrics evaluated in the study. Subsequent research has found that the bearcams provide mental health benefits and that people greatly value the individual animals that they see through webcams. To expand these lines of research, I’m collaborating with Dr. Lynne Lewis from Bates College, Dr. Leslie Richardson from the NPS and Dr. Jeffrey Skibins from East Carolina University to conduct and analyze more on-site and online surveys of Katmai’s visitors. Our analyses of online surveys from 2019 and 2020, for example, have confirmed previous results and have even underscored the importance of individual, easily recognized bears in people’s experience.

As the aforementioned crowding issues demonstrate, providing space for everyone who wants to visit parks in-person isn’t feasible or sustainable for Katmai or any other national park. It is feasible, however, to provide meaningful, memorable wildlife and nature-based experiences through the democratizing and stewardship-raising force of webcams. (And if you don’t believe me after all this, please go to the bearcams and ask for yourself in the comments.) It’s long past time for more national parks to utilize webcams to bridge barriers that hinder people from finding meaning and value in national parks and other wild spaces.

  • Kcanada / 4 hours ago. My comment about the webcams: Explore, and specifically the Katmai webcams, have been the most profound experience of a National Park and wild animals in my life. We see intimate views of wild brown bears living their lives. It’s extraordinary. But, for me, there are two things that define the experience. - the fact that I have had the chance to know these bears as individual animals, and to appreciate that individuality. I have not felt the same connection with webcams where the opportunity is not the same. It changes from being generic or abstract bears, to bears that I can individually know, whether it is a twenty nine year old female or a very small young female bear on her first year on her own struggling to find her way. - the fact that the park and Explore are intensively committed to the webcams. The ongoing presence of the bearcam fellow and the rangers building the knowledge and promoting a webcam community of people who are passionate about the well-being of these bears and the wilderness more broadly. These two factors have enriched my experience and my knowledge in a way that can’t be overstated. It wouldn’t be the same without them.
  • AnitaFederalWay / 4 hours ago. I have been watching the bear cams for about 5 years. It has profoundly changed my view of brown bears. Before the cams I was afraid of them and while a huge national park advocate and visitor i was not in support of their reintroduction. Now my views have completely changed and i totally support their reintroduction. I spent countless hours enjoying the bears and ear interaction. It is great to be able to experience this with others who also enjoy them. I have found that I am much more observant of my environment.
  • Wuvtail / 4 hours ago. Until I found this cam from explore several years ago, I had never given our national parks much thought at all as being important. This cam has given me a window into a world I would never be able to see in person and a much greater appreciation of our national parks and the need for them to be preserved.
  • Stacey / 4 hours ago. The bear cams inspired me to want to become a national park ranger! I never thought about bears—or about national parks—until I started watching the cams in 2013. But thanks to the cams, I talk about bears to anyone who will listen! :-) And I was inspired to volunteer at Katmai last summer. Thanks to all for all you’ve helped us learn through the cams!

I’ll be the first to admit that the bearcam experience is different than visiting Katmai in-person, and my advocacy for the use of webcams does not mean I believe webcams can or should replace the in-person park experience. Nothing that a computer screen provides can truly replicate the wellspring of awe that I feel while standing at Brooks Falls and seeing a dozen bears compete for fishing spots.  But, for almost everyone except very fortunate individuals like me, the in-person bear watching experience is ephemeral. Only a tiny fraction of Brooks Camp’s visitors return more than once, according to the two most recent in-depth visitor surveys (2006 and 2014). It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many. For others, it’s not feasible at all.

We can’t build our way out of crowding and access issues like we did after the post-WWII tourism boom or try to shove people into parks during increasingly crowded “non-peak hours” or “shoulder” seasons, not if we want to ensure a high-quality experience, the integrity of park ecosystems, or address the systemic barriers that prevent many people from visiting parks. In contrast, webcams in national parks can provide a form of nature-based equity. They create life-long and devoted stewards among those who may never visit in-person. They help our nature-starved societies find connections with the non-human realm. They heal people.

National parks rank among the nation’s most revered landscapes, and their place within American culture is no accident. In the 150 years since Yellowstone National Park’s establishment, the national park idea has evolved. Yellowstone and other parks are much more than places “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” We value parks for the solace they give us, the fun we experience in them, the wonder and awe they inspire, the opportunity to consider our shared history, and, of course, for the plants, animals, and natural processes that parks harbor. I cherish my time in parks. Everyone deserves access to similar opportunities. 

In the United States at least, many of us are eager to return to some semblance of normalcy in a COVID-positive world. Our governments and public discourse are a hot mess of arguments about how to best achieve this. In the context of national parks, other public lands, and wild areas, however, “normal” does not equate universal access. It never has. This upcoming spring and summer, national parks will once again be overwhelmed with people. Rangers will do their best to cope, but without more rangers and the regulatory and policy tools to address congestion, the NPS will go back to its default mode: put out active fires, ignore the tinder, and hope the flames don’t spread.

Katmai National Park existed within the standard visitation paradigm for decades. For those who visit to watch bears in-person, it is an amazing and profound experience. When I worked there as an interpretive ranger, when I’ve visited during my free time, and when I’ve returned as a fellow with explore.org, those moments when I watched bears expressing their survival instincts are experiences more meaningful and memorable than almost any thing else I’ve done in my life thus far. 

I last worked as a ranger in Katmai in 2016 though. Without webcams Brooks River would be a fading memory by now, no matter how many photos I took or journal pages I wrote. With the bearcams I, along with anyone else with an internet connection, can return at any time to find inspiration in the beauty of our world as well as the tenacity and intelligence of wild animals. Watching bears, whether in-person on online, creates life-long memories and inspires stewardship. Are national parks truly spaces for everyone? Not yet, but if more parks use webcams as a tool to reach people there’s no reason they can’t be.

A Most Impressive Bog

Some people who know me well poke fun at my penchant for exploring mucky places. At one national park where I worked as a ranger, it took a few years of turnover among the seasonal staff before their friendly prodding about a short lecture I once gave on the differences between bogs, fens, and muskegs died away.

I suppose my fascination with wetlands began on camping trips when I was young (probably no older than eight or nine years). In those good ol’ days of the 1980s my cousins, me, and any temporary campground friends we found spent hours alone exploring a “swamp.” It was little more than a shallow, cattail-filled ditch at the end of one of the state park campground’s cul-de-sacs, but armed with dip nets, fishing nets, and plastic buckets, we pulled more than a few frogs, tadpoles, and crayfish out of it, and sometimes a leech or two off of us.

Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I now understand that I was drawn to that place because it seemed so alive. I’ve never outgrown the urge to slog into habitats where I feel like other life forms envelope my whole being. A trial-and-error bushwhack is a small burden to pay so that I can experience that feeling again, which is how I found myself shoving through tangles of spruce and larch last June.

In a broad lowland a few miles south of Patten, Maine lives a most impressive bog. The difficulties I experienced getting into the bog were far surpassed by the beauty one experiences in a rarely trammeled landscape. Crystal Bog is the most spectacular bog I’ve ever seen.

Photo of peat bog with pond at center left, yellow-colored sphagnum moss at center, and red-colored sphagnum at right. Horizon is lined by sparse conifer trees.
Google Earth image of Crystal Bog area. Scale at lower right marks 3000 feet.

Getting into Crystal Bog (also known as the Thousand-Acre Bog) is not an easy task—a fact I discovered when I first explored it in 2020. No trails enter the bog proper, and the adjacent ATV trails only skirt the extensive swampy thickets that surround it. Choosing the wrong route is easy in such habitat, especially on overcast days when clouds obscure the sun and any hint of which direction might be north or south.

I don’t carry a GPS device or a smart phone, so I navigate via compass when vegetation is too thick and landmarks too obscure to provide orientation. During my attempt to access Crystal Bog in 2020 I rode my bicycle a little too far on the ATV trail that cups the north side of the wetland, started south at the wrong place, didn’t utilize my compass often enough, and bushwhacked much farther than expected or necessary. With those lessons learned, however, I felt better prepared to avoid the thickest muskeg and swampiest areas to reach the open bog more easily.

I locked Rocinante to a sturdy tree once I located a good starting point…

photo of bicycle leaning against a tree in dense vegetation

…and set off through the trees.

thick forest with ferns, shrubs, and tall trees filling the entire frame

Crystal Bog is part of a large wetland complex. On every side of it, streams meander through forested swamps and sedge-filled fens. The sphagnum peat lands at the center of this complex was my destination, though.

After 20 minutes of travel (a remarkably short time span compared to the two hours of bushwhacking I needed the previous year), the forest began to transition into a more open woodland. Sphagnum moss and low-growing ericaceous shrubs became common and spindly black spruce and eastern larch were the only trees.

open forest with tall conifers and thick, low shrubs in understory

Shortly after, I reached the open expanses of the bog proper.

bog with widely scattered small trees

As I moved from swamp to muskeg to sphagnum bog, I moved progressively into harsher habitats, at least from a botanical perspective.

Bogs are a type of peat-land that generally get water from aerial precipitation rather than flowing surface or ground water. Sphagnum thrives here. The tannins and acids released by sphagnum lower soil pH to levels inhospitable for most plants. While a bog’s edges might be richer in minerals and productivity due to ground or surface water flow, the sphagnum-dominated areas in and around its center offer very different conditions. The pH at Orono Bog near Bangor, for example, progresses from 6.6 (a pH you find in milk) at the forested edge to 3.8 (a pH approaching that of grapefruit juice) at its sphagnum-dominated center. Since the pH scale is logarithmic, rather than linear, this difference represents almost a 1,000-fold change in acidity.

close up view of deep red sphagnum moss

Sphagnum moss

As more sphagnum grows on the surface, it buries and compacts previous generations to form peat. Decomposition is also hindered by the low oxygen conditions found in the bog’s supersaturated soils. But, sphagnum is really good at growing on top of itself. In this manner, sphagnum begets sphagnum. Under the right climatic conditions, sphagnum bogs can sustain themselves for thousands of years and peat accumulations can grow many meters thick. Peat also preserves a botanical record of the plants that lived in the bog and the pollen that settled on it, a paleontological record on present and extinct animals that died within them, and even an archeological record of the people who utilized these places.

On top of this wealth of partial decay exists a living veneer. Minute gradations in topography and drainage create micro-habitats for the plants that are adapted to the bog’s stressful conditions. The higher above the bog’s water table, the more oxygen can diffuse into the soil and the more O2 is available for plant roots that need oxygen. Relatively few plant species survive in bogs compared to nearby forests. Yet those that do are often abundant.

Larch and black spruce in bogs receive ample sunlight, have access to plenty of water, and experience little competition from other tall plants, but the peat enveloping their root systems offers little to sustain their growth. Small-statured trees in a bog may be many decades old, while growing little more than the height of an average adult person. At the Orono Bog, some 7-foot tall spruce trees were found to be about 100 years old. (FWIW a tree, I think, cares not for its appearance, only its ability to reproduce.)

island of small-statured black spruce surrounded by dwarf bog plants

These small-statured black spruce (Picea mariana) may be many decades old.

Ericaecous shrubs such as Labrador tea, bog rosemary, and laurels survive in bogs only where their shallow roots remain perched above the flooded peats and sphagnum. Yet, although bogs are classified as wetlands, summertime drought can cause drastic lowering of the water table. The thick, leathery leaves of these plants might help them retain moisture under those conditions.

flowers of Labrador tea. Flowers are white and clustered at the top of the stem.

Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum)

flowers of sheep laurel. Pink flowers are clustered at a node in the stem.

Sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia)

Orchids tap mycorrhizal fungi to overcome the lack of nutrients, a trick utilized by the ericaceous plants as well.

flower of grass pink. Flower is pink and bilateral in symmetry. The lower lobes are bright pink.

Grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus)

Other bog plants evolved means to capture nutrients from animals. Bladderworts capture prey in small sacs attached to their thread-like underwater leaves. When a tiny zooplankton contacts sensitive hairs on the outside of the bladder, it triggers the bladder to inflate. The sudden action sucks in water and the hapless prey. The plant then absorbs its nutrients.

bladderwort flower. Single yellow flower at top of thin stem.

Bladderwort (Utricularia sp.)

Sundews ensnare small insects using sticky secretions on the ends of glandular hairs on their leaves. An insect alights on the leaf and becomes stuck. The hairs and the leaf margins then slowly fold over and envelope the insect. The leaf hairs also release an anesthetic to stupefy the prey as well as enzymes to dissolve its soft tissues.

Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). An unlucky insect is trapped on the leaf in the right photo.

Pitcher plants use specialized leaves to create a basin of water. Insects that fall into the basin, aided by downward pointing hairs on the inside of the leaf’s rim and numbing secretions, are slowly decomposed by bacteria and possibly plant enzymes that live in the water. Specialized cells at the bottom of the pitcher absorb the insects nitrogen and other nutrients.

Pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea)

I paused often as I wandered through the bog to marvel at the tenacity and beauty of the life around me. I also marveled at the lack of a human presence. The ability to experience a landscape that wasn’t overtly altered by people was a special treat, even in one of the least populated U.S. states.

Maine is lushly vegetated. Forest covers a greater percentage of its land than any other state. That forest, though, is heavily manipulated by people—by a timber industry that often harvests trees before they reach age 50, by a warming climate, by tens of thousands of miles of roads, and by invasive species. But human-caused changes are not limited to the land. Off the coast, the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming bodies of water in the world. There is virtually no Atlantic cod fishery because cod haven’t recovered from the devastation of overfishing in the 20th century. Ditto for Atlantic salmon, which hang on by a thread. Places where evidence of humanity’s heavy hand is absent or at least minimized are difficult to find even in parks such as Acadia, Baxter, and Katahdin Woods and Waters.

Bogs are often overlooked at best or viewed as wastelands to be “reclaimed” for agriculture or mined for peat at worst, but they rank among the worlds most important habitats, especially when we consider their ability to capture and sequester atmospheric carbon. Like old-growth forests, peat is a non-renewable resource since we humans lack the patience and self-restraint to harvest it at sustainable levels (please buy peat-free soil products for this reason).

While the area surrounding Crystal Bog is full of roads, early successional timberland, potato fields, homes, and small towns, this bog remains remarkably unmarred. It is one of the few places in modern day Maine that would be recognizable to a Wabanaki traveler from the 15th century. In the middle of Crystal Bog, it’s easy to let your mind drift to a place where the world is well. This is an illusion, I realize, but one we all must escape into every once in a while.

bog landscape. Small pond sits at upper right. Yellow and red sphagnum moss are at center and left.