- Author: Karen Metz
When I initially read the itinerary for the Inside Passage, Southeast Alaska cruise I was especially interested in the hike to an Alaskan bog, or muskeg. That certainly sounded unique. Well, of course, our June 2020 cruise never happened. I'll admit I was surprised that it was allowed to go in June of 2021. But it was a small vessel, with all passengers and staff vaccinated and testing negative twice in the three days before departure.
Well, our first full day of adventure had included traveling in Zodiacs to the face of a glacier and seeing harbor seals and their pups, as well as bears. I wondered how they would manage to keep up the momentum after a start like that. But on June 8 we docked in Petersburg and took a Zodiac over to Kupreanof Island. We hiked through a beautifully dappled forest and then continued up an incline to come out of the forest into a totally different landscape.
Although we walked on a raised boardwalk, it was very narrow. We had all been prepped beforehand to wear our tall, waterproof boots just in case. The ground was saturated with water the color of strong tea. Most of the plants were low growing and the scattered trees were twisted and stunted.
Our naturalist explained that the area had once been covered with ice. When the ice retreated it left behind rock, pebbles, and dirt that formed a base that didn't drain. Add copious amounts of rain and cold temperatures and you have the makings of muskeg or bog.
Then sphagnum moss joins the mix. It takes up minerals from the water in exchange for hydrogen ions which in turn makes the water acidic. Sphagnum sp. can hold up to 20 times the weight of water. This keeps the water from draining and decreases water movement which leads to decreased oxygen levels in the water.
These conditions slow both the growth of bog plants and their decomposition. Since growth is still somewhat greater than decomposition, you end up with layers of partially decomposed organic matter that accumulate as peat. The peat can end up being several yards deep.
In addition to the Sphagnum, there were three other bog plants that especially impressed me. The Shore Pines, Pinus contorta, were extremely bent and stunted. They can normally grow 25-30 feet tall. Here they were 5-10 feet tall. Our naturalist told us they were 200-300 years old. We did see a Stellar Blue Jay fly in and perch in one while we were there.
Next, our naturalist reached down and showed us a Sundew, Drosera rotundifolia. This little beauty looks like an alien creature and is carnivorous. It secretes a sticky mucous that traps any insect that lands on it. Then the little tubercles lean in and encircle the insect. Enzymes are released that dissolve the insect and the resulting nutrients are absorbed by the plant. The plant wasn't very big, but there were thousands of them.
The next plant I had to include for sentimental reasons. Alaskan cotton is also known as Cottongrass, Eriophorum spp., can grow from 4-36 inches tall. They are in the sedge family. Their soft, fibrous, white seed heads look like cotton caught in the grass. The wind catches the fibers and disperses the seeds. Historically, the fibers have been used as wicks for oil candles or as stuffing for bedding.
When I was in the third grade my father was stationed on a small island in the middle of the Aleutian Island chain. Adak was our home for 18 months. I remember the stark beauty of the island and the incredibly harsh weather and wind. I loved the fuzzy little plant we called Adak Cotton. I remember fields of it. I even picked and pressed a little seed head in a book. I still have it in a framed memory box my father made for me. To see it growing again after all these years was magical.