A Turd of a Time

While every season has much to admire, I find springtime especially enthralling. Something new appears nearly every day. At first, maple sap runs heavy during March’s warm days and sub-freezing nights. Around then, a trickle of meltwater in a ditch and a bare patch of matted leaves on the edge of a snow bank promise room for other plants to break dormancy. Soon after, the first golden catkins appear on the hazelnut and gray alder. Rainy evenings bring amphibians out of hibernation. In a short time, the soon-to-flower ephemeral herbs emerge from the crust of leaves. By late April and early May, the forest canopy bursts to life again with bird song, the blossoms of red maple and quaking aspen, and finally the unfurling of leaves that will soon thoroughly shade the ground where I trod.

Each of these are little events that promise a lot more. I’m unsure if non-human animals contemplate these changes like I do. Yet, I’m certain they pay attention to them. Black bears, recently emerged from their dens, know the pattern and are eager to exploit the change of the season to their advantage. If I’m lucky, their efforts to find their first substantial meals of the year might allow me to investigate what they are up to.

A section of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument sits to the east of Sebois River. It’s a quiet area of the park since there are no campsites, less than a mile of developed hiking trails, and only a few maintained roads. Bicycling through it is fun and is made even more enjoyable when I afford myself the time to go slow and pay attention. It’s one of the best places in park that I’ve yet found to look for bear sign in the spring.

Riding the single lane spur that loops off and back to American Thread Road last weekend I came across many piles of bear scat, which I was hoping to see. Not because I particularly admire turds, but because bears are cryptic here. They are frequently hunted throughout northern Maine and consequently have a substantial fear of people. The thick forest also limits my ability to watch a bear if I happen to see one. The signs that bears leave behind—such as marking trees and scat—are like pages in a book. A single page may not reveal much but look at enough pages and you’ll get a good story. 

A large pile of dark colored, almost black, bear scat on gravel. The bear scat is framed by grass blades and wild strawberry leaves. The background is open forest.

In particular, scat can reveal how recently a bear was in the vicinity and what it was eating. Black bears are omnivores that are well adapted to survive on plants, and the vast majority of their annual calories come from plant foods. In north-central Maine, though, there are no calorie-rich berries to eat in the spring. Perhaps there are some leftover acorns, but oak trees are not common in the forests as this area is near the northern end of their range in the northeastern U.S. So other plant foods are a bear’s best springtime bet.

While a black bear’s digestive track remains essentially one of a carnivore, it utilizes adaptations such as an elongated gut and slightly flattened molars to extract nutrition from tough to digest plant foods. A bear also consumes plants when they are most nutritious and digestible. Newly emerged green vegetation like grass, sedge, and clover contains relatively high amounts of protein, for example. As those plants mature, protein content declines while indigestible fiber increases. Fiber helps keep the bear on a so-called regular schedule, but the bear is really after the protein. Even though hibernating bears maintain their muscle health without eating or exercise, if they’ve exhausted their fat reserves by springtime then their body is forced to tap into their lean tissue reserves. Young, tender veg helps bears stave off muscle loss and even build muscle before sugary, fat-building foods become available in mid to late summer.

All but one of the scat piles I found were filled with herbaceous plants. Although most looked older than a day–when bears eat green veg, the resulting scat quickly oxidizes when exposed to air to form a black surface crust–this was a promising sign. I knew that the lightly used roads are good travel corridors for bears and the sunlight reaching the road edges allows vegetation to green-up more quickly than the forest interior, which attracts bears to the roadsides. Perhaps I might see a bear if I pedaled slowly and remained observant.

The effort paid off near the crest of a hill when I spotted a dark mass of animal on the edge of the road. I stopped to watch.

The wind was at my back, which is a welcome push when cycling uphill but also carried my scent to the bear. Once it caught my scent, the bear only needed a couple of seconds to decide to run into the forest. Had the wind been blowing the other way, I probably could’ve watched it much longer with less chance of disturbing it unintentionally. Still, I was grateful for the moment and the small insights into its world.

Before widespread logging and, later, roadbuilding encroached on the area’s forests, grassy areas in northern Maine were likely much less common than today. Black bears always sought the first spring greens, but they had to look in other places—riverbanks, stream sides, and beaver meadows for example. They continue to go to those areas, of course, even as roadsides have opened another foraging opportunity. Roads are risky places that expose bears to people though. Bears weigh the risk along with the potential reward of a good meal.

I knew the bear I saw was eating well even as it still had a long way to go until it was fat enough to enter its winter den next fall. Its effort is a journey recorded in its scat—pages, if you will, in the Book of Turds.

Action Needed: Support a Permit System for Brooks River

Brooks River in Katmai National Park, Alaska is historically, culturally, and ecologically unique. The river corridor has harbored Alaska Native peoples for thousands of years, is one of the densest archeological sites in Alaska, and remains a place of profound significance for Alutiiq descendants of former Katmai residents. The underlying geology records stories of great volcanic and glacial change. Hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon annually use the river for migration and spawning. And, during the last 40 years it has become especially famous for its brown bears and wildlife viewing opportunities. There’s no other place like it.

A mother bears swims through water in front of a grassy shoreline. Her two first year cubs ride on her back. She swims from right to left.
Bear 482 Brett searches for salmon in Brooks River while her two cubs hang on for the ride. July 14, 2021.

Brooks Camp is also experiencing more people than ever before. 

In the midst of skyrocketing visitation last year, Katmai National Park implemented a pilot permit program for Brooks River. The permit system didn’t change wildlife distance regulations at Brooks River or limit the overall number of people who could visit. Instead, it applied only to those who wish to physically enter the river or its banks outside of the designated trails, roadways, bridge, and platforms. No one needed to reserve a permit unless they planned to enter the river or walk off trail along the riverbanks (two activities that I suggest should be avoided to give bears the space they need).

The pilot program appeared to be successful. It provided National Park Service (NPS) staff with an additional opportunity to communicate the special circumstances, rules, and responsibilities that apply to Brooks River. The NPS could revoke the permit in instances where permit holders did not adhere to wildlife distance or fishing regulations, which effectively prohibited the person(s) from reentering the river. It allowed approved Brooks River Guides to continue to give their clients the mandatory bear-safety orientations. And finally, it did not restrict or interfere with subsistence fishing associated with the traditional redfish harvest.

Now, the NPS is looking for public comments about the permit system. If you have the time and care about the bears who make the river their summer home, then please support the plan with a comment on or before April 28. As the Katmai Conservancy suggests, say yes to the permit and ask the NPS to limit the number of permits on a daily or weekly basis.

Modified satellite map image showing permit area for Brooks River. Title text reads, "Brooks River Permit Corridor (Permit Needed Within 50 Yards of River). Areas highlighted in blue represent the permit corridor. The area outlined in red represents the area closed to people from June 15 to August 15.

Why are permits necessary? The relative ease and accessibility of the bear-viewing experience at Brooks Camp has attracted increasing numbers of people. More than 16,000 people visited in 2022—an all time record high—and almost double the visitation of 2008. Brooks River is a mere 1.5 miles (2.6 km) long, yet dozens of brown bears use it during the salmon migration and spawning seasons of summer and early fall. 

People who enter in the river directly occupy the habitat that bears need to fish for salmon. Numerous scientific studies (reviewed here) have documented that human recreation can displace bears in time and space. The presence of people can cause bears to switch from diurnal to crepuscular activities in response to bear-viewing, angling, hiking, and camping. Bears decrease in number and are present for shorter time spans when exposed to people, angling, and bear-viewing. Bears also spend less time fishing and have less fishing success when anglers and bear-viewers are present.

View of river surrounded by boreal forest looking downstream. Five bears are in the water. Nearby, a group of four people stand in the water photographing the bears.
Bears gather at Brooks River to fish for salmon. People in Brooks River risk displacing bears from important foraging areas in the river. This is especially true for bears who do not habituate to our presence. In these situations, we unwittingly become a competitor in the bear’s mind for space, and most of the time that bear won’t challenge us for it.

Studies specific to Katmai National Park have found that the presence of people can affect when bears fish (Olson et al. 1998) and cause bears to avoid or alter their use of foraging areas (Rode et al. 2007; Smith 2002; Turner and Hamon 2016). Therefore, even a small number of well-behaved and well-intentioned people in the wrong place (like in the river) can have a disproportionately negative effect on brown bears. Disturbance of wildlife can also result in decreased visitor satisfaction (Skibins et al. 2012) and create user conflicts between visitors who are recreating in different ways (bear watching from the platforms or online via webcams vs fishing or photographing bears in the river).

Importantly, and tucked away in the park’s newsletter about the permits, is this: “There is no limit established to the number of permits issued during the permit-required time frame currently, but this will be considered if public feedback to the plan supports a limitation or if conditions change within the Brooks River Corridor to warrant a limitation.” Therefore, I recommend that comments ask the NPS to go beyond merely requiring permits. Comments about the permits should encourage the NPS to establish limits to permits on a daily or weekly basis and perhaps even greater seasonal closures to Brooks River to adequately protect habitat for bears.

I didn’t visit Brooks River in person last year, but rangers and some people I know who had traveled there reported to me that the pilot permit system worked well. While it does not address over-crowding and congestion issues at Brooks Camp caused by record-high levels of visitation, it is certainly a big step in the right direction to ensure the river’s bears have access to the habitat they need to survive. None of the existing regulations would change at Brooks Camp. The permits only make it easier for the NPS to enforce them. But permits alone are not enough. Existing protections for bears can be made more effective if permits were limited in availability. Our national parks, and indeed Brooks Camp, cannot support unlimited numbers of people. The Brooks River corridor is a small area overall. It has limited space for bears and a limited carrying capacity for a high-quality bear-viewing or fishing experiences. Please let the NPS know you support their efforts to protect habitat for bears in the river through the permit system and that the number of permits should be limited on a daily or weekly basis when bears are actively fishing in the river.

Submit your comments here on or before April 28, 2023.

For additional information, please see the comments I wrote on behalf of the Katmai Conservancy, an example comment that you can use, and my Brooks River pledge. As always, when commenting please stay polite and respectful. The people who manage Katmai are intelligent and well-meaning. They do not deserve insults or personal attacks.

Does Otis the Bear Inspire Support for Conservation?

I’ve long adhered to the opinion that individual animals matter in wildlife conservation. Well-known animals with well communicated stories, such as Otis in Katmai National Park or the mountain lion P-22 in southern California, help provide people with accessible ways to connect with entire species.

This may seem non-controversial. After all, wild animal populations are made of individuals just like human families and communities are composed of individual people. But this idea hasn’t been accepted widely among scientists and managers of national parks.

Thankfully that tide seems to be turning, and I’m pleased to be able to contribute to this scientific effort. Results from a survey of bear cam viewers on explore.org show that people who care about Otis and other individual bears are more likely support conservation efforts for brown bears compared to viewers who do said they could not identify individual bears. Please head over to my post on explore.org to learn more

bear sitting in water below waterfall
Bear 480 Otis sits in his office at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska.

I’d like to thank the researchers who made this study possible—Jeff Skibins (who drafted this paper and did the data analysis) and Lynne Lewis and Leslie Richardson (who were instrumental in the survey design and implementation). I’d also like to thank the Katmai Conservancy for covering the expense to make the paper available to everyone through open access.

Book Talk at Veteran’s Memorial Library

Mark your calendars if you’re based in northern Maine. I’ll be giving a talk at the Veteran’s Memorial Library in Patten at 6 p.m. on February 28. While I’ll discuss some of the main storylines in my book, The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River, I also talk about how those stories might provide lessons for our relationship with the Maine landscape.

This will be a new talk, so now it is time for me to stop procrastinating and get to work polishing the presentation. I hope to see you there.

Flyer for a book talk. Background image is a bear swimming through water with two cubs clinging to her back. Above the bears is a book cover with the title "The Bears of Brooks Falls." The descriptive text reads, "What can brown bears and Pacific salmon teach us in Maine? Join Mike Fitz as he discusses his book, The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River, and how that landscape offers lessons for our relationship with Maine’s wild spaces. Date: Tuesday, February 28, 2023. Time: 6 p.m. Location: Veteran’s Memorial Library at the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum."

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.


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.