Forest Inventory Analysis- Year 1: Chicken, Tok, Healy and Kantishna

After moving to Fairbanks in late 2017, I struggled to find something that I actually wanted to do.  During the winter, I intermittently helped with small aspects of research projects at the University and also returned to guiding tours, spending long days driving guests up to the Arctic Circle. As I settled into Fairbanks, I continued to meet new people and make new friends, including my friend Andrew, who at the time was the assistant director for the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) project.  Throughout the winter, I heard tales of how they would go to far flung places each day via helicopter and spend nearly the whole summer outside travelling around the state.  I wasn’t sure what the day to day necessarily entailed, but I was intrigued, put in my application and interviewed for a field technician position. I was coming from an unusual background, one with a plethora of outdoor recreation experience and without much scientific background and field work experience.  

In 1928, the United States Congress passed the McSweeny-McNary Forest Research Act, which introduced the Forest Inventory & Analysis (FIA) program within the country.  The idea was to create a program, administered by the Forest Service, that would compile a census of the nation’s forests, so that researchers could evaluate how the forests change year over year. This program began in all 48 contiguous states, with field technicians collecting data on trees and vegetation on randomized 1-acre plots of land throughout the country.  The information gathered from these plots is extrapolated to represent 5,000 acres of the surrounding area and the technicians return once every 5 years to remeasure and update their data. While this program was supposed to occur in all states, it didn’t make its way to Alaska until the 1990s. The Forest Service then began the program, but only in southeast Alaska, not the entire state.  It wasn’t until 2015 that the Interior Alaska Forest Inventory and Analysis program began, based out of Fairbanks. Because Alaska is so vast, each individual acre would represent not 5,000 but rather ~40,000 acres, with remeasuring occurring every 10 years.

Training began in May and lasted for 3 weeks.  Most days we would head to the university, where we’d spend the morning learning about the program’s protocol for measuring, before heading out to practice in the forests on campus later in the afternoon.  There were all kinds of new tools and practices that were crammed in. Logger’s tapes, inclinometers, lasers, measuring canopy cover, tree damages, moss and lichen class identification… the list went on.  Whether we were ready or not, training concluded at the end of the month.  Those who joined me in the second shift, set off to Chicken for 9 days, our first base for our field operations.

The perception of Alaska from afar is that it is littered with mountains and glaciers, with big trees towering high above, covering all parts of the land for as far as the eye can see.  While that is true in some areas of the state (like the coast), muskegs and swamps are the dominating terrain type with small matchstick trees. Most vegetation’s ability to grow is limited due to the permafrost that underlies much of the state, preventing the roots from going deep and providing a strong base.  As a result, a large portion of Alaska’s forest is comprised of black spruce trees, 1-3 inches in diameter and usually topping off around 17 feet tall. Far from the romantic visions of coastal Alaska.

Markie, Henry and Shannon hiking through some burned black spruce

In Chicken, we flew north each day into the 40-mile country, flying over the winding forks of the 40-mile River and among the surrounding mountains. Not having flown in a helicopter before, my eyes were glued to the windows with each flight, watching with curiosity and awe as we passed over all kinds of unique terrain features, mining camps, old cabins, caribou, and wolves among other things. Most days we were dropped off on a ridge, hiking along the ridge for a while before descending down to our plot. Blessed with good weather, we worked to iron out any kinks in the field among our crew. At night after processing, we’d wander into town, exploring the limited amenities the town had to offer, like the saloon.

We did the same thing more or less each day, only the duration and location would change.  The morning briefing began at 7:30 am, where the shift supervisor went over the plan for the day and associated details.  The first crew would go out after the briefing, leaving the other crews, if time allowed, to finish up any other work if necessary or spend the time in leisure, reading a book, listening to music, working out and so on.  Since we weren’t landing at pre cleared landing zones, most of the time we had to walk to our plots. This depended on where we would land, and could range anywhere from a few hundred feet to 3 miles, across all types of terrain. Arriving at the plot, we’d go about taking our measurements, measuring things like tree height, diameter, tree damages, vegetation species present and moss/lichen representation. We would also collect samples, taking home multiple soil samples and tree cores. These would be sent to researchers in Fairbanks and Anchorage, where they could be studied to understand things such as carbon storage within the soil. Most plots would take somewhere in the range of 4-6 hours, lower if there are more people and less trees and higher for the reverse. After hiking back to the landing zone, we’d fly back and work to process and upload the data.  Most days we would be done by 6 pm and we’d enjoy whatever time we had left in the evening, before returning to our tents and beginning the whole cycle over the next morning.

We returned to Fairbanks after our 9 days in Chicken, off for 5 days before starting all over again.  The next go around we went to Tok, where we were based out of for the next 2 months.  No longer were we fortunate enough to travel and work on the mountains and ridgelines.  We now found ourselves in the flatlands and muskeg like hills that characterize much of the Interior. Our hikes were much more difficult due to the terrain and as a result we were finishing later. Tok left little for exploration during our limited time off each evening, resulting in more books, campfires and time hanging around our camp.

Middle (?) Fork of the 40 mile. A pleasant LZ on a hot day

That summer, I was part of a crew of 4 with Shannon as our crew leader.  Shannon had worked FIA the previous summer, the only one of our group to do so.  Henry and Markie joined me as the other crew members.  Henry, who lives in Fairbanks, is obsessed with all things related to birds, bicycles and beer and loves to tell anyone who will listen.  Meanwhile, Markie, originally from Wasilla, was quiet, fell asleep immediately in any moving vehicle (including the helicopter), always had grapefruits in the field and 3-4 bulky wool sweaters. It made for a fun dynamic and we worked well together, working efficiently and quickly to finish our assigned plots each day.

Shannon, our fearless leader, hard at work

In August, we switched bases once more, moving further west to Healy.  With the fall weather, we had more weather days, finding ourselves trapped at our base at Faith Hill Lodge, doing indoor team building exercises.  The days we were able to get out brought us back through and to the mountains.  We began working in Denali National Park, working in plots far north of the park road, where hardly any visitors have travelled.  The route to our plots each day took us over the Stampede Road and Chris McCandless’ Magic Bus.  It was still there at the time, and on one of our trips back we took a low orbit over the site. After work, I would escape to explore the mountains in the surrounding area, picking blueberries with Shannon and walking some of the trails around the Denali Park entrance.

In the Wood River valley
Henry and Shannon looking for blueberries

The final base for the year was located at the end of the Denali Park Road, in the old mining community of Kantishna. Denali National Park is unique in Alaska in the sense that there is a 100-mile-long road running nearly straight west through the middle of the park.  It is unique compared to other national parks nationwide in that the public is not allowed to drive this road past mile 12. One can more or less only access further points of the road by taking one of the Park’s buses. As a condition of our work, we were able to drive the work vehicles in and out to Kantishna. Because of the predictable nature of traffic, many animals will feed and hang out close to the road. As a result, we ended up seeing many animals including grizzlies, caribou, moose and even a wolverine that scampered across the road.

Caribou antlers off Denali Park Road

Kantishna offered a much richer experience than the other sites.  The community felt like real Alaska, with a rich history of mining and subsistence.  Each day we’d fly out east or south to the flats, and were granted grand views of Denali, just 30 miles away.  The nearby hills offered excellent hiking opportunities and with no cell service, there was much more interaction in the evenings among the shift as a whole. We spent two different stretches there, 18 days in total, and it remains my favorite location from all my time in FIA.

Markie on the job
Kantishna Flats

The experience was far more enjoyable than I could have imagined. I had the opportunity to spend each day outside, make new friends, travel across different landscapes by foot and by helicopter and in many places that I had not traveled before.  There was little doubt in my mind that I would come back the following year and I eagerly awaited what new adventures that would bring.

Denali (center) and Mt Foraker (right)

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