Walking through the tundra.

The tundra is a pretty unique landscape that few people have experienced so I think it deserves some attention. The flatness and vastness of it is fairly well captured in pictures. The plants found include tussocks (kind of a dense clump of grass), some small shrubs, and many colorful mosses. But this is all well described in field guides. What’s harder to convey without feeling it yourself, is the physical sensations of walking through the tundra. The best way I can describe it is a very lumpy, wet sponge. With most steps you sink deeper into the ground than you anticipate. Trying to run across tundra is futile and will quickly end with an ankle injury. It often doesn’t appear wet, but if you’re not wearing a pair of tall rubber boots then your socks will be soaked within minutes. Sometimes you can step up on the tussocks and hop from one to the next to avoid this, but inevitably you will run out of tussocks and be forced to land on the soggy garden of mosses below and your socks will quickly be soaked. If you squat down and dig below the mosses, you’ll find that the soil below is rock hard and cold – it is in fact frozen solid. In some places you see polygon shaped sections of tundra about ten to twenty feet across, surrounded by a small mote of water. This is formed by cracks that develop from the repeated freezing and thawing of the soil. Occasionally voles (small mice like creatures) scurry past you. Birds are often found scampering about, singing or protecting their nests. Some of these birds travel from the other side of the planet just to pick out a small spot on the tundra to lay their eggs. The other prominent wildlife species are mosquitoes, which will devour you if not protected by a bug jacket. As much as I can try to describe it, it’s not quite going to make sense until you experience it for yourself. Many of the scientists up here think that the tussock dominated tundra is going to wane over time as more shrubby vegetation takes over. This is being driven by climate change, wildfires, and other disturbances. So the endless stretches of tussocks may be a sight available only for a limited time. Granted, getting to the tundra is no easy task. But if you ever find yourself in Fairbanks with a day of free time, get on the Dalton highway and go North. Eventually the trees will disappear. Pull over to the side, walk 50 meters off the road, and experience tundra!

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