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Welcome to the Alaska interior, welcome to the boreal forest.
This is a unique biome. Coniferous trees dominate the landscape, yet stands of birch and aspen remain plentiful in many places. The leafy trees love the sunny southern slopes. Permafrost stunts tree growth over large areas, especially in valleys and depressions. Branches, leaves, and needles don’t spread far from the trunks.
Walking in the woods, I can almost always find an open view to the sky. Interesting things happen in the sky at night here. The aurora borealis often takes the evening. Aurora not only provides shimmering colors, but stunning contrast to the otherwise blackened sky.
Part of the largest ecosystem on earth, the boreal forest, or taiga, borders the Arctic Circle across Canada and Alaska, Russia and Scandanavia. The average annual temperature in this subarctic zone hovers near freezing. People, animals, and vegetation living here must stick out and survive long, cold winters.
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Off-road travel is tough in the summer. The taiga floor tends to be composed of ankle to shoulder deep swamp, and it’s hard to know the depth of your next step. The mosquitoes might carry you away. In the winter, it’s easy to travel over the snow and ice by foot, snowmachine, or dog team.
It’s not uncommon for the first snow to stick in early October and not melt until April or May. In these subarctic forests, long winters with persistent snow cover lead to the nickname “snowforest”. As the long winter drags on, even the needles on the spruce start to lose their color. The world turns monochrome. Shallow angle sunrises and sunsets of orange or pink and the green and crimson aurora borealis provide the only respite from a world of black and white.
Despite the harsh climate, winter can provide outstanding beauty. A willingness to wander in the cold brings incredible visual reward. After the snow falls, spruce trees become like charcoal stenciled on a white canvas. The northern lights slither and crawl across the sky.
There is a stillness that seems to echo a time when glaciers* covered much of what is now taiga. The birch and willow start to lean, yet rarely seem to fall. It’s always at the very last minute, when they can’t seem to take any more of the weighty cold the sun returns to save them from a slow, frozen demise.
* Interestingly, the interior of Alaska was not glaciated during the last ice age: Geophysical Institute