Alaska is Big….Really Big – Adam Eichenwald

Alaska is big. Very big. You won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the pharmacist, but that’s just peanuts to Alaska.

(Man, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy really hits it on the nose when it comes to attempts to describe vast distances. Kudos, Douglas Adams).

I’m butchering a quote from a beloved classic because I’d like to get across how astronomically huge this state is. It’s one thing to intellectually grasp the size of something, particularly when sitting at a computer looking at a map. It’s something quite different to actually stand in the middle of such vast enormity and appreciate the distances involved.

Traditional maps do us a disservice here. Most of them follow something called the “Mercator projection,” which basically means when you look at a 2D map of the world Alaska is distorted. Even though I’m experienced with GIS and remote sensing, I still fell into the trap of not appreciating distance when I was initially planning my project.

So when I landed in Nome at the beginning of May, it came as quite a shock to realize that my entire “small” study site was about the size of Massachusetts. And had only three roads. Which were just made of dirt. Plus, it’s much more difficult to actually hike around than you would anticipate. Even “flat” tundra is not actually flat, it’s covered in tall mounds of grass that shift and move under your feet as you walk – making every step a calculated risk in potentially twisted ankles. The closest I can compare it to is that it’s like walking on a partially deflated bouncy castle, but that is actively being inflated as you walk on it. Snow on the ground can make hiking even more difficult, as you risk falling through the snow up to your thigh on almost every step.

Yes, I know it sounds like I’m complaining. I’m not! (Well…maybe I am a little bit). You know what? I don’t need your sass.

Back to my point. When I got here, my plan was to track how gyrfalcon presence affected where ptarmigan could be found on the landscape, and whether that in turn affected where ptarmigan consumed plants. More on that later. (If you’ve been keeping up with my blogs, you’ve hopefully by now started to realize that I’ve been dripping you pieces of my research that are starting to fit together). I was going to survey my plant data by measuring ptarmigan foraging at increasing distances from gyrfalcon nests, which would require me to walk away from the nests and conduct my surveys as I walk.

However…gyrfalcons can forage for kilometers surrounding their nests. Actually walking far enough to obtain a decent overview of foraging behavior at distances from the falcon nests was going to be impossible, particularly since I only had about an hour and a half to do it.
What was my solution? Tune in next time to find out!

Dun dun dun!!!!

(Humor me. It’s late and chilly outside, and I’m bored).