Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Estuary Next Door

This spring, I’ve been visiting a triangular estuary a half mile from my fourplex.  I’ve really just passed through it until recently, when I stepped off the asphalt trail and walked down to the meandering creek that feeds the wetland and found an undersized, unassuming natural world.

The estuary is part natural and part man-made.  It is bisected by a bike trail and cut off from the ocean by the last mile of the Richardson Highway’s two paved lanes and wide shoulders. The estuary’s inland demarcation is the senior center, which is the last structure you pass on your way into the wetland from the gentle neighborhoods of town.
When you approach from this side, you see the estuary gradually develop.  A rim of trees and alder line the trail, obscuring the stream running along the base of the steep mountain side.  Melting snow trickles into the waterway, giving it life.  It eventually widens out, then becomes an ooze, spreading out in a fan, dampening the ground.  It is a tributary of Crooked Creek, a glamorous beauty who gets all the attention. 

Crooked Creek is a frothing, foaming waterfall visible from the highway.  A Forest Service visitor center lauds its presence and people pour from buses, RVs, and rental cars to stand near.  The mountains which rise above Crooked Creek and my estuary form a solid 4,000-foot high unbroken wall of luscious green that gives Valdez, an otherwise nondescript town, its scenic heft.  Facing due south, the jagged ridgeline with its five unnamed summits and dramatic couloirs form a crown.

My little estuary boasts its own jewels:  a whispering stream, unruly alder, and more.  Last night, when I walked down from the bike path to the gravelly creek I found soft maroon-edged leaves of chocolate lilies.  I stepped over crops of sprouting false hellebore and mounds of lady fern.  Fiddleheads, still covered with the brown scales of youth, pushed through a thick layer of last year’s grasses and scum.  I ate one and pondered the taste of spring on my tongue, the crunch of fresh earthy vegetable.  

A garden of skunk cabbage grows thick in the wettest places, displaying the only color besides green and brown in the marsh.  Skunk cabbage looks prehistoric—its lemon yellow cone-shaped flower protrudes from the ground in waxy glory with lime-green leaves around its base.  The plant’s secret is that its modest springtime leaves will grow and grow and grow into enormous palm-tree-sized paddles. 

You can stroll downstream for a ways, but soon the land becomes sodden, then soaked, then there is standing water several feet deep.  The trees are sparse, one here and one there growing up along the margins of the estuary.  Electrical distribution poles jut through the clammy vegetative mat covering stagnant swamp water.

I like this unnamed estuary because it’s small, contained, defined.  Alaska, in so many ways, is too big for me.  It’s so big I can’t get my head around it, so big I can’t see it in one view.  Too big to grasp.  The estuary is comprehensible.  From here, I can see its source and its conclusion.  I can stand in one place and see the entire system—creek, protective treed borders, marshy wetlands.  I can tally the plants and watch each patch develop from spring greenery to bouquets of summer blossoms.  I can count the birds that inhabit this dime-sized habitat:  a pair of robins, one singing melodiously in the top of a cottonwood, a silhouette against the bright sky; a song sparrow hopping in and out of the brush on the ground, pecking at seeds; a chirping warbler; a knocking woodpecker.

The estuary will never find its way onto a tourist brochure or into the Top Ten Places to Visit in Alaska.  It’ll never be endangered, nor is it likely to harbor rare species.  No one will ever seek protected status for this sliced and diced land—it’s already been disturbed and regenerated several times.  It’ll remain a pass-through zone along the bike path access trail, east of the senior center, just a little catchment area for last winter’s snowmelt, in the shadow of a massive mountain wall.

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