28 Jul Home Sweet Dyea
Throughout time beyond memory, Dyea has served as a home to an array of beings. For many thousands of years, Dyea’s land and water were stewarded by the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, fur traders, entrepreneurs, and Klondike stampeders with golden aspirations called Dyea their new home in the north. Today, very few humans live permanently in Dyea. With its long tidal flats and dramatic seasonal changes, nothing much seems to be permanent. But Dyea is still someone’s home: it shelters bears, foxes, bald eagles, pink salmon, seals, and boreal toads.
With Jen Larsen, a park biologist and GIS specialist, I ventured out to Dyea to assist with an amphibian survey. We would be counting toads and assessing the health of the population.
The first thing that struck me (as it always does, no matter how much time I spend there) was the stunning beauty of the undeveloped land. Old-growth Sitka Spruce trees towered like castles overhead. Across the inlet, the brilliant blue of a glacier poked out through the clouds.
Once arriving at West Creek, Jen prepared me for toad-counting. We took note of the weather conditions: overcast and warm at 16.3 degrees Celcius.
Most of the toads we came across were metamorphosed. This means that they were no longer tadpoles, but they weren’t fully grown toads yet. They were roughly the size of a dime (or smaller) and were hard to spot among the mud with their black and dark brown colors.
Throughout the day, we saw two juvenile toads. This is unusual for the time of year (late July). Jen noticed a general pattern of the toads maturing this summer about a month earlier than they usually do. While unsure of exactly why this is, it may have had something to do with our comparatively warm and dry June.
Every time we moved sites, I wrestled with my waders – rubber boots attached to rubber overalls for trekking through mud and water. We have to wear these for practical reasons. Several times, I would fall into muddy holes up to my thigh. The waders kept me dry as I struggled my way through the swamp.
Another important reason for the waders is that each time we relocated, we would scrub them clean with bleach and water. The toads at the Slide Cemetary had recently tested positive for chytrid fungus, which can be fatal for toads and seriously damage the population. Bleaching our boots helps us prevent the transmission of chytrid between breeding sites. Sure enough, we didn’t spot a single toad at Slide Cemetary after searching for over an hour.
As we walked back to our vehicle, we stumbled upon some watermelon berries, otherwise known as White Twisted-stalk. They were purple and ripe just in time for late summer. I grabbed several from underneath the leaves and popped them in my mouth, enjoying the fresh afternoon snack.
Jen also pointed out some highbush cranberries. They weren’t ready to eat just yet – normally, they taste best after the first frost.
Finally, we encountered some textbook bear tracks. Bears tend to walk the same paths over and over again, even placing their feet in the exact same spots. Much like humans, they are creatures of habit. I followed the tracks, placing my feet in the soft indentations, wondering what it would be like to live as a bear in the quiet abundance of Dyea.
In total, the toads we counted were in the hundreds. It took me the course of the day to adjust myself to the careful attention to detail that this work required. Toad-spotting requires focus and patience, and a serious awareness of one’s surroundings that is often absent in the hectic pulse of quotidian life. Of human life, that is.
I am grateful to Jen Larsen for allowing me to accompany her and assist with the important work that she does, and to the boreal toads, for welcoming me into Dyea, their home.