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.
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.
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.
None of the prey was unusual or unexpected until I stumbled upon a curious sight—a spotted salamander inside a pitcher.
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 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.
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.
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.
Pee Wee Herman agreed that 747 was the fattest bear, but he was incredulous when Amazing Larry said he might vote for another candidate.
Dr. Evil threatened world destruction if 747 fails to win.
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.
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?
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As the bird retracts its tongue, the lamellae re-furl over the supporting rods and trap a tube of nectar inside each tongue tip.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
…and set off through the trees.
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.
Shortly after, I reached the open expanses of the bog proper.
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.
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.)
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.
Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum)
Sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia)
Orchids tap mycorrhizal fungi to overcome the lack of nutrients, a trick utilized by the ericaceous plants as well.
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 (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.
Life as a champ is rough. Rivals look to take advantage of any weakness you might show. Arm chair critics analyze your every move. Fans expect perfection. When the next championship tournament rolls into town your body has aged another year and your preferred food has worked its hardest to evade and escape you. Meanwhile, you’re trying to live your best life, because you are a bear and the concerns of humans matter not to you.
Yet, for those of us who recognize greatness and celebrate success when we see it, there is one clear choice for Fat Bear Week 2021—the mighty 747.
Long-time readers of this blog may be thinking, “This again?”
…Let me tell you dear friends: 747 is as fat as ever. He deserves your Fat Bear Week vote.
Brown bears get fat to survive. Their obesity (and it is that since a bear’s body fat percentage is routinely 20-30 percent or more when they begin hibernation) is a savings account. In the den, bears do not eat or drink. They stay warm and hydrated by burning body fat. Unlike utilizing muscle for energy—a process that produces metabolic wastes that must be recycled, sequestered, or purged from the body—burning fat is a relatively clean fuel as I write in chapter 4 of my book, The Bears of Brooks Falls.
It’s akin to cultivating mass only to carefully harvest it later. Just not for vanity’s sake, bro.
747 cultivates mass at an exceptional rate. This summer, he reigned as Brooks River’s most dominant adult male. Even the river’s long-time dominant bear, 856, would not challenge him, and as a result 747 had nearly free access to any fishing spot of his desire.
A single brown bear can eat thousands of pounds of salmon per year. The largest can eat 6,000 to 10,000 pounds. Given his size, appetite, high rank in the bear hierarchy, and his keen fishing skills, 747 is more than capable of eating many thousands of pounds of salmon each summer. At Brooks Falls, he intercepts a great deal of fish by being at the right place at the right time and waiting for his food to come to him. When Brooks River’s sockeye migrated upstream, 747 was primed to harvest them.
He’s so successful that in September 2019 and again in September 2020, he was estimated to weigh more than 1,400 pounds. This places him, as I estimate, among the top one percent of brown bears based on body mass.
Even with his size, he remains agile.
Well, maybe not always that agile.
When he walks close to the webcams at Brooks River, he eclipses the sun.
And yes, that is a tapeworm hanging on for a ride.
Fat Bear Week celebrates the success of Brooks River’s bears, the ecosystem and salmon that sustain them, and the bears’ abilities to get fat and survive. 747 exemplifies success among adult male brown bears. He deserves your vote and a repeat Fat Bear Week victory.
Unlike too many (i.e. most) of our politicians, I’ll admit a mistake. New evidence has recently emerged—well not really since the evidence was always there, I just failed to notice it—that I incorrectly identified one of the bears on the cover of my audio book. Here’s how that happened.
In my last post, I noted that 32 Chunk is at lower left on the cover. I based the identification on the bear’s swept back ears, face, and light bulb shaped body, all traits that I associated with Chunk in his younger days. However, I neglected to note the prominent wounds on the bear’s forehead and right side, which Chunk did not have when the photo was taken.
Typically, only the largest wounds produce lasting and conspicuous scars on brown bears, and you wouldn’t be able to pick this bear out of the crowd at Brooks River today by looking for remnants of the particular injuries in the photo. They would blend with the bear’s many battle scars, if they were visible at all.
Nevertheless, wounds are important identifying characteristics on bears while they last. The wounds on this bear reveal it’s not Chunk but the mighty 747.
2011, the year of the cover photo, was the first year I remember 747 ballooning into a large bear, but he had not yet achieved the girth of a champion. During 2011, his place in the hierarchy was constantly challenged by two larger bears—856 and 814 Lurch—who frequently displaced 747. Lurch was a bold competitor and even went so far as to steal salmon from 747. 856, meanwhile, would continue to displace 747 from fishing spots and mating opportunities for most of the next ten years. Perhaps 747’s ear position and facial expression in the cover photo is a reaction to the approach of one of his rivals.
Several people correctly identified 747 on the audio book cover for my Guess the Cover Bear contest, so I thought it only fair to offer that group a chance to win a copy of the audio book. Congratulations to Megan Meier from Maryland. Megan will receive a free copy of The Bears of Brooks Falls.
Thanks to everyone who participated—and if you won previously and haven’t reached out to claim your prize, please check your email.