Piled high with gear, our van heads out early from the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology trailer in Fairbanks for a long, dusty day on the haul road. During this second trip to Toolik this year, the apparent fog obscuring our views actually contains little moisture. One sniff reveals the acrid scent of over 1.8 million acres of burned forest: a statewide fire record this early in the season. Likely the consequence of an early and relatively dry spring, the spruce and alders, which comprise much of the interior’s canopy, ignite easily from lightening strikes or careless humans. Currently, over 300 wild fires burn across the state of Alaska, bringing shifts of firefighters, many housed in the dorms of the UAF campus and identifiable by their windswept hair and slightly toasty aroma. Throughout Fairbanks and at times on the road, only hints of “campfire” tint the air. At other times along our trip, we see recent and proximate signs of wild fire, which approached close enough to the road that the ground and trees appear charred, and the air hangs heavy with the stringent smell of smoke. The smokey haze hanging low in the sky follows us all the way up the Dalton Highway to Atigun Pass, where the sun shines briefly before rain clouds engulf us on the North Slope of the Brooks Mountain Range as we approach Toolik Field Station.
Blasts of bright magenta from this pioneer species, called fireweed, represents one awesome benefit of disturbances, such as fire. This plant colors once charred ground a purplish-pink and decorates road sides and other disturbed areas, as well.