ALASKA, Land of the Midnight Sun
Alaska is an impressive 586,412 square miles – that’s 2½ times the size of Texas! It has over 3,000,000 lakes, 6,640 miles of coastline, and 70 potentially active volcanoes. There are more active glaciers and ice fields in Alaska than the rest of the inhabited world. Of the 20 highest mountain peaks in the United States, 17 are in Alaska. At 20,320 feet, Mt. McKinley, or Denali, is the tallest mountain in North America!
Alaska is a land of extremes: above the Arctic Circle, the sun does not set for 6 weeks in the summer, nor does it rise above the horizon for 6 weeks in the winter. This means that, between solstices*, the days are either getting shorter or longer by almost half an hour a week!
The Alaska flag was designed by a 7th- grade Aleut student named Bennie Benson who chose eight stars of gold on a field of blue to represent the Big Dipper and North Star and the vast Alaska skies.
Alaska is the northernmost and westernmost state … and also the easternmost because part of the state, the Aleutian Islands, crosses the 180-dgree longitude meridian.
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are caused by charged particles from the sun that get caught in earth’s magnetic field and slam into atmospheric gas atoms, releasing light energy.
There are 25-plus different Alaska Native cultures throughout the state. Each culture expresses its diverse and challenging lifestyle through its unique artwork, dance, language, clothing and customs.
The Iditarod Trail began as a mail and supply route, and became famous as dog sleds rushed the 1,150 miles to bring lifesaving medicine to epidemic-stricken Nome. Today dog mushers come from all over the world to compete in the annual Iditarod race.
Kachemak Bay is located about 225 miles south of Anchorage on the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula.* Among the coastal communities along Kachemak Bay, the largest are Homer and Seldovia, where many locals make their living on and from the sea. Thousands of visitors also come to fish the rich waters for salmon and halibut. The Homer Boat Harbor, home to commercial salmon seiners, crab fishing boats, and other commercial and private vessels, is located at the end of the Homer “Spit.” This thin projection of land, which extends 4½ miles into Kachemak Bay, is all that remains of the sand and gravel that was pushed in front of an advancing glacier 10,000 years ago. Deserted in winter and as crowded as a state fair in the summer, the Spit is home to The Salty Dawg, a famous Homer landmark with a long history. The “Dawg” housed the original post office, a school house and a coal depot and is now a saloon where locals and tourists can tell and hear tall tales. Visitors from around Alaska and the world come to camp on the beach, enjoy late sunsets, and marvel at everything from playful otters to the steaming silhouette of Mount Augustine, an island volcano which loosely marks the adjacent open waters of Cook Inlet*.
The Homer Spit is also the key launching point for Kachemak Bay State Park, and the Village of Seldovia. The Bay is laced with many spectacular coves for kayaking, trails for hiking and bushes of berries which are as big as the end of your thumb. Berry picking around Kachemak Bay is a popular pass-time and Homer & Seldovia are well-known for delicious jams and jellies.
TIDE POOLS & BEACHES
Tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon. In Kachemak Bay, there are two tide cycles every day. Here, the tides can go from 22½ feet above to 6 feet below sea level – a range of 28½ feet, an astounding volume of water to move in just 6 hours! As the tide goes out, pockets of sea water get trapped in tide pools, revealing unusual plants and creatures that would normally be hidden. Many of these are edible. Natives say, “When the tide goes out, the tablet is set.”
Storms and high tides can wash an assortment of organic “litter” onto the beach. Entire trees, fallen from coastal cliffs, wash ashore and provide stacks of driftwood. Bull Kelp, which can grow up to 10 inches a day and reach 60 feet in length, snarl into tangled bundles. Dotting the beach is a bounty of shells, discarded homes of various mollusks, now beginning their slow journey to becoming sand.
The long hours of sunlight, mixed with the nutrient-rich waters from the Gulf of Alaska, combine to make Kachemak Bay one of the most productive estuaries* in the world. From the smallest plankton* to the largest marine mammals, Kachemak Bay hosts a vast diversity of plants and animals, creating a complex web of life. Even the small sample of creatures illustrated on your poster represents five distinct scientific categories, called phyla.
Arthropods: Shrimp Crabs Barnacles
Chordata (Fish & Mammals): Halibut, Salmon, Cod, Herring, Whales, Otters, Sea Lions, Seals
Echinoderms: Sea Stars, Sea Urchins
Mollusks: Octopus, Clams, Mussels, Pteropods
Cnidarians: Jelly Fish, Anemones
Octopus are very intelligent and can squeeze through an opening the size of their beaks.
Cnidarians have stinging cells to harpoon their prey.
Sea Stars can grow new arms if they get chewed off!
Barnacles are abundant creatures which glue themselves to rocks, ships, pilings and even whales, and wait for food to wash by, kicking it into their mouths with their waving feather-like feet.
Salmon can swim 10,000 miles in the ocean before returning to their birth-stream to lay eggs and die.
Killer Whales live in family groups with an alpha female leader.
GULL ISLAND & BAY BIRDS
Gull Island is a rookery* for several kinds of seabirds including Puffins, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous-winged Gulls and the rare Red-faced Cormorant. By mid-summer, when all the chicks have hatched, there may be over 20,000 birds on the island; by mid-September, the rocks are bare. GULL ISLAND WEBCAM
Puffins sometimes referred to as “sea parrots,” have bright, red and yellow beaks and black bodies. Horned Puffins make their nests in nooks and crannies in the cliff face, while Tufted Puffins live in burrows on the top of the island.
Bald Eagles, our national bird, are abundant around Kachemak Bay. These magnificent raptors* can boast a wing span of up to 7 feet and can live 30 years. Young eagles have white and brown feathers – eagles do not get their solid body color and white heads and tail feathers until they are 5 years old.
Sandhill Cranes are summer visitors to the area, migrating up from California. They are joined by tens of thousands of smaller shorebirds who use Kachemak Bay as a feeding and rest stop on their annual migration route towards their nesting grounds in the Arctic.
Visit http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/shorebirds/pacific_migration.html to see the impressive migration routes flown by birds such as the Bristle-thighed and Long-billed Curlews. Arctic Terns are the masters of long distance flying, migrating each year from one polar region to the other – an impressive 20,000 miles round trip!
An area of 1,920,000 square acres of the Kenai Peninsula is protected habitat called the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. It is home to many land mammals including Moose, Wolves, Coyotes, Red Fox, Lynx, Wolverines, River Otters, Marmots, Snowshoe Hares, Mountain Goats, Dall Sheep, Porcupines, Beavers, Black and Brown Bears.
Moose are the largest member of the deer family; Alaskan Moose are the biggest in North America. Males grow a huge set of antlers that they shed every year. Females give birth the last week of May, often to twins. Babies’ first steps are on long, wobbly legs within 45 minutes of being born!
Bears are intelligent and curious and driven by appetite – they have only 5 months to accumulate enough fat before their winter sleep. Black Bears are common in forested areas; Brown Bears prefer more open areas and are considerably larger than Black Bears. Bears are omnivores* and scavengers – they eat everything from grassy sedges and berries to small mammals and moose calves. They love to catch salmon from rivers and streams. Brown Bears can also be seen digging clams.
There is a rainbow of color in an Alaskan bouquet: The first to appear in the springtime are Lupine which are dark purple. Next to bloom are Wild Poppies (orange and lemon yellow), the Arctic Rose (pale pink) and the Dogwood (white). Fireweed begins its epic 1-inch-a-day growth in May; the bright pink flowers bud in July. As the stalk grows, so does the stretch of flowers, until August when the blossom cluster can reach 2 feet tall! In autumn the leaves turn bright rusty-red as the cottony seeds disperse in the wind, hinting at the approach of winter.
Glossary and Maps
*Solstice: Either of two times a year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the equator. In the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice occurs about June 21 when the sun is in the zenith at the tropic of Cancer; the winter solstice occurs about December 21 when the sun is over the tropic of Capricorn. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and the winter solstice is the shortest.
*Kenai Peninsula: A large peninsula jutting from the southern coast of Alaska with over 16,000 square miles of majestic mountains, fish-filled rivers and abundant wildlife.
*estuaries: An estuary is a semi-enclosed coastal body of water which has a free connection with the open sea and within which sea water mixes with fresh water. Estuaries form a transition zone between river environments and ocean environments.
*plankton: A collection of small or microscopic organisms, including algae and protozoa, which float or drift in great numbers in fresh or salt water, especially at or near the surface, and serve as food for fish and other larger organisms.
*rookery: A colony of breeding animals, generally birds.
*raptor: A bird of prey; any of numerous carnivorous birds which hunt and kill other animals. Hawks, eagles, falcons, osprey and owls are all raptors.
*Cook Inlet: A body of water stretching from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage in south-central Alaska.
*pteropod: An ocean mollusk that uses wing shaped lobes for swimming. Pteropods are a key element in the salmon food cycle and are being studied as major indicators in the study of climate change on marine habitat.
*intertidal zone: A coastal area where air, earth and water interact. Marine biologists divide the region between high tide and low tide into 3 zones where an abundance of marine life thrives.
*splash zone: A typical rocky shore which is above the highest tide line but directly affected by the water particularly when sprayed by the winds and waves during spring and winter storms. Kachemak Bay is essentially one big beautiful Splash Zone; it is a complex, diverse and fragile habitat driven by the ever changing climate and extreme tides.