Pre-trip Jitters for Wrangell St. Elias National Park Expedition

Nervous and excited energy has surrounded me for quite some time. I’m leaving for a three week journey through Wrangell St. Elias National Park in the Alaska wilderness. My group includes 14 of us who are all a part of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Expedition class. We will be backpacking and pack rafting from the end of Nebesna Road to McCarthy through the park in just roughly under two weeks with only one resupply in Chisana along the way. Once in McCarthy we will be resupplying and picking up our large multi person paddle and oar rafts to float the Copper River south to Cordova. We will have traveled nearly 300 miles over land and water to get there from Nebesna.

Route being taken by the 2018 UAA Expedition Class through Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Please note this map is a rough estimate of the route. For a PDF file of the map visit here: Wrangell St. Elias Route

I signed up for the trip back in January. My prior experience is only a number of overnight backpacking trips. The longest distance being 34 miles. I have now only pack rafted a river twice. I wonder nearly every day now if I am capable of completing this trip. Am I fit enough? Will my bad knees cooperate? What if I can’t continue on? These questions play through my mind frequently. As the trip nears I find myself trying to quiet these doubts more and often.

Oddly at the same time I feel confident and prepared to go. I have checked and rechecked my bag more times than I can count. I visit REI, the grocery store, or a hardware store every other day to get things to improve my systems, reduce weight, or make life more convenient for when I’m on the trail. I have prepared breakfast and dinner for my tent group, learning to dehydrate meals, count calories and consider weight. My DIY pack raft has been tested repeatedly for leaks and has been patched with glue. Everything gear wise and food wise is prepared.

Floating down the Kenai River. Photo by Jesse Munday.
Running the Schooner Bend Rapid on the Kenai River to test out my DIY pack raft. Photo by Jesse Munday.

I have also been keeping very active spending almost the entirety of all my weekends outdoors on the trails and frequently going for long evening strolls and hikes. My pack feels heavy on my back for the first mile, but then I settle into a pace and don’t notice it anymore. Maybe I can do this trip after all?

My mind also wanders to the people I won’t be able to talk to for three weeks. My mom, who I call on the phone three times a day, sometimes more, even though we live together at the moment. She is my advisor and problem solver for all things, my rock. My significant other, who makes me laugh like a fool and who brings light to my day with his caring attitude for all. His children who bring a smile to my face with their curiosity and boisterous energy. My dog, Aspen, even though she doesn’t talk, her companionship will be missed. My brother, step dad, friends and coworkers who are all so supportive, but wonder why I’m going on this crazy trip. I will miss them all. I know they each send me well wishes on this adventure and that is reassuring.

Their encouragement also makes me feel prepared. They constantly tell me I will be fine and have so much fun. I know I will, but anxiety about the trip has been very real. I am so excited to get out there though. To disconnect from social media, life’s daily grind, and modern convenience. It will be a simple three weeks. Simple sounds nice. I feel like my soul will have a chance to recharge and reconnect deeply with the mountains and outdoors. I draw energy from being outside in Alaska.

Western Wrangells and the Copper River. Photo by the National Park Service.

The ominous and inviting mountain peaks, the wildlife that scurries along the ground cover, the foliage that rustles in the wind, it draws me in. I feel so alive in moments when I am surrounded by that all. I get to be surrounded by it for three weeks and I can only imagine how much energy and inspiration I will have gained by the end of the expedition. I long for how relaxed I will feel mentally by being so close with nature.

My mind is kind of a goopy mess of thoughts  with the way I feel about this trip. I’m ready to go though. I hope the group joining me is too. We are embarking into the backcountry wilderness of Alaska and I couldn’t be more thrilled. So ta ta for now, I’ll be back in three weeks.

 

If you’re interested in tracking our progress while we are gone please visit HERE. This will begin being active when we start the trip and will update nearly every 30 minutes. Don’t worry about us all if it doesn’t though! No news is good news.

 

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Stickleback – The super fish

Darting through Cheney Lake in Anchorage, Alaska are thousands of small fish, about three inches in length, with three spiny projections that jut off the top of their bodies, pricking anything that dares touch them. The color of their scales varying in color depending on the season, sex, or population from which they descend. They gleam shiny silver, blue, or a dull brown, sometimes with a greenish hue. They’re named threespine stickleback, and they’ve become a powerhouse organism for study.  Found in nearly all Alaskan lakes and across most of the northern hemisphere, scientists have taken keen interest in these fish for the practical uses they hold for studying evolution and conducting research.

Threespine stickleback from Cheney Lake in Anchorage, Alaska during their reproductive stage of life. The fish with blue eyes is a reproductive male.

        At the University of Alaska Anchorage, Kat Milligan-Myhre, heads a laboratory of undergraduates, graduates, lab techs, and post docs who are all using threespine stickleback as a model organism for a variety of projects on host gut microbe interactions. The lab is able to study how the microbes within the gut of threespine stickleback, the host, affect a variety of things like development, physiology, behavior, and more. Milligan-Myhre developed a procedure that allows the lab to fertilize eggs of the fish and then make them free of all microbes. They can then add back in select microbes or none at all to study how the microbes are actually affecting the fish.

A 7-day-old transparent juvenile threespine stickleback. Milligan-Myhre has developed a protocol to rear threespine stickleback free of microbes until 14 days after the eggs they’ve hatched from have been fertilized.

        “Stickleback have a number of really cool qualities. One is that they are transparent so we can actually watch fluorescent microbes move around in the gut of a live stickleback,” said Milligan-Myhre, “We can make large amounts of genetically similar eggs from a single cross or a couple of crosses… with fish you can get 100 to up to 200, if you’re lucky, of genetically related fish. That allows us to have a lot of power so we can do some really good statistical analysis on these changes that we’re seeing when we treat these animals.”

Kelly Ireland and Kat Milligan-Myhre set traps for threespine stickleback in Cheney Lake in Anchorage, Alaska in May of 2017. The lab uses minnow traps that have a funnel and hole on either end of the trap that threespine stickleback then swim into and get trapped.

        They are studying a variety of populations from varying lakes across Alaska, but by far their most frequented lake of interest is Cheney Lake. The lake had threespine stickleback introduced to it in 2009 from a parental population found in Rabbit Slough, Alaska, by Frank Von Hippel, a former professor at UAA, who like Milligan-Myhre used them as a model organism. Von Hippel’s lab was interested primarily in the evolution of the fish, however.

Ryan Lucas, Emily Lescak, and Kelly Ireland of Kat Milligan-Myhre’s lab pull traps from Y Lake of the Talkeetna Lakes chain in Talkeetna, Alaska. The lab then does in field gut dissections to assess gut microbe composition within the threespine stickleback.

        “What really sets stickleback apart from zebrafish, which are the traditional go to fish model, is that we can take stickleback that have evolved in different environments and we can relate the environments in which they evolved to their physiological and genetic variation,” said Emily Lescak, former doctoral student of Von Hippel’s, currently working as a post-doctoral fellow in Milligan-Myhre’s lab, “Basically we can understand what selection pressures in the environment cause a fish to evolve in certain ways, so we can understand what sort of ecological pressures there are on fish populations.”

Threespine stickleback fish from Rabbit Slough, near Wasilla, Alaska. The Rabbit Slough population is anadromous meaning they’re born in freshwater, then travel to oceanic environments for most of their life, and then return to freshwater to mate.

 

       Incidentally there’s already evidence that the threespine stickleback Von Hippel introduced into Cheney Lake are already undergoing evolution from their anadromous (meaning the fish, like salmon, are born in freshwater, travel to the ocean, and then come back to the freshwater to mate) ancestral form, to freshwater forms. The threespine stickleback in Cheney Lake were introduced in 2009 after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game applied a Rotenone treatment in October, 2008, to the lake. Rotenone was used to eliminate northern pike that were introduced illegally. The Rotenone treatment wiped out all fish populations in the lake and allowed Fish and Game to restock Cheney Lake with rainbow trout, and Von Hippel to introduce threespine stickleback from a known population, Rabbit Slough. Milligan-Myhre’s lab has been collecting data on Cheney Lake and threespine stickleback from the lake monthly to assess the changes of the threespine stickleback population over time.

 

        “We can follow evolution in real time. That’s exciting,” said Milligan-Myhre.

        The lab is collaborating with a lab at Stony Brook University in New York to look at genetic differences as the population evolves. Milligan-Myhre’s lab hopes to also take a look at how as the population changes over time into their freshwater form the microbiota and threespine stickleback’s immune response to microbes also change.

Rachael Kramp an undergraduate student of Kat Milligan-Myhre’s lab, works with microbes from the guts of threespine stickleback from Cheney Lake in the anaerobic chamber of Milligan-Myhre’s lab at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

        The tools these fish offer are nearly limitless from using them as a model for biomedical research, as they have similar physiology to humans, to studying evolution, these fish also make great models for studying ecotoxicology, as well as, host microbe interactions, just to touch on a few of their benefits. The threespine stickleback came to be a model organism in the 1900s with the work of Nobel Prize laureates, Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch, because of the ease to which they could be manipulated in the lab, now in 2017 the threespine stickleback shows no signs of slowing down as being the model organism of many scientist’s dreams. In 2018, hundreds of researchers will even gather together for the 9th International Conference on Stickleback Behavior and Evolution in Kyoto, Japan. These prickly little fish may not seem like much to the majority of people, but to many scientists they are the crux of their entire careers.

 

Written by Kelly Ireland. Kelly Ireland is an undergraduate student doing research in Kat Milligan-Myhre’s lab.

Alaska outdoor culture: Fostering women in the outdoors

women wanderers

Alaska boasted as the largest state in the union, with the largest mountain in North America and the greatest abundance of wildlife is truly a wild place. The inherent nature of Alaska inspires people to get outside. One look at Denali and it’s plain to see that getting outside is one of the best parts about visiting or living in Alaska. Alaska is an incredibly unique place that invites those who live here to go play outside.

With so much to offer in ways of outdoor activities there is a definite outdoor culture in the state of Alaska. Women who are often underrepresented in outdoor spheres are active members of the outdoor community in Alaska. No one is pushed away from being an adventurer in Alaska, where adventure still runs rampant and solitude can actually be found.

Monika Fleming, a University of Alaska Anchorage student originally from Chewelah, Washington came to Alaska after a slew of adventures that took her all the way to Nepal. Fleming found her home in the last frontier where there is a strong community of outdoorsy people.

“Pretty much every Alaskan I’ve met has done some stuff, like every single one of them, and some crazy stuff too. Even if they don’t do it all the time, the stuff they have done has been really kind of advanced,” said Fleming of Alaska’s outdoor culture. “I’m just like ‘Oh!’ …In the classes I’ve taken there’s this one girl Courtney, she’s the head of the sororities or something like that. She’s really hardy and outdoorsy, but she just looks like you know, just Alaskans always surprise you.”

However, Alaskans who’ve been here their whole lives don’t feel like they are doing anything out of the ordinary. Lifetime Alaskan Kendyl Murakami, who currently studies biology at UAA, is inspired by how there’s so much to do. Despite the cold she feels like it’s impossible to stay indoors living in Alaska.

“I feel like most of us when we grow up in Alaska we grow up with all this expertise surviving outside so I don’t feel like we [women] have any crazy limitations. We all know how to make a fire. We could chop down some wood or cut it in half or whatever, so there’s not a lot of restraints,” Murakami said of Alaskan women.

Not only is Alaska accepting of women getting outside it actually provides a community for it.

“If women, or men, doesn’t matter, if they really want to do something in the outdoors I think Alaska has a phenomenal community to foster that,” said Molly Liston a P.E. teacher at Pacific Northern Academy, a private non-sectarian school in Anchorage.

Pacific Northern Academy is just another example of Alaskan’s self reliant and adventurous way of life. The school’s mission is to “educate students to be exceptional learners and independent thinkers of vision, courage, and integrity.” Students at PNA are encouraged to play and be creative in their learning.

This self reliant attitude about education doesn’t end in the elementary and middle school of Pacific Northern Academy though. At UAA, an outdoor leadership program is offered to students via the health, physical education and recreation program. T.J. Miller the director of the program was Liston’s mentor when she went to college. Miller has lived in both Alaska and Colorado, working as a guide or outdoor instructor for the entirety of his life.

“You know I think up here, gosh, I see more mountain guides on Denali that are women than I saw in Colorado. I guess I would have to say it seems that Alaska has incorporated and embraced women a little more than other areas and I’m kind of comparing Alaska to Colorado, those are my two main states. And again maybe it’s social media, but I have seen more women in the industry doing well and excelling up here than other places.”

Regardless of what it is that makes Alaska such an outdoorsy place, one thing is for sure, there is no end to the possibilities of what one can explore. Undoubtedly there are thousands maybe even millions of untouched acres in the state just waiting to be explored and maybe a woman will be the next to conquer some astounding untouched outdoor feat in Alaska.