The second Tuesday of April brings yet another day of expansive blue skies, warm sunlight, and spring fever, Alaska style. So for the second day in a row I’m unable to resist a pull to the Chugach foothills east of town. This time Coya and I head for the Prospect Heights trailhead and a leisurely, sun-drenched walk on paths of deeply packed snow.
On my approach to the South Fork Campbell Creek bridge crossing, I notice a small dark form moving atop the melting snow. Bending over for a closer look, I am cheered to see a stonefly walking slowly but determinedly across the white crystalline surface.
I have a habit of keeping an eye out for insects and spiders throughout the year, while on my own walks in and around the Anchorage Bowl. In 2011, I managed to see some sort of bug (used in the most general sense of the term, here including arachnids) every month of the year. My streak stopped this past January, a very cold month; but I’ve again seen crawlers and the occasional flying insect in every month since then.
Now that the days are warming, I’m seeing some sort of insect or spider almost daily. But a stonefly is always a good sighting, and today it adds a touch of variety to the “snow spiders,” flies, and midges I’ve lately been seeing here and there.
In my experience, when you see one stonefly there’s a good chance you’ll see others and that’s certainly the case on this mild and sunny afternoon. The closer I get to the creek, the more stoneflies I see. All are grounded and in my curiosity to see if I can get one to fly, I pick up a couple, hoping my bare hands will warm the creature enough to lift off and fly away. The best they’ll do, however, is flutter back to the snow.
This hatch seems to be a huge one and by the end of my walk I’ve passed scores of stoneflies, along with a few buzzing flies and small, fierce-looking spiders. (While later writing these words, I am inspired to learn more about stoneflies, so I grab my copy of “Insects of South-central Alaska,” by Dominique M. Collett and learn that Alaska is home to at least eight families and seventy-two species. Though the presence of so many stoneflies hiking around on a still thick snow pack seems strange to me—why would they hatch in such relatively harsh conditions?—the book does note that some varieties of willowflies or “winter stoneflies” apparently do tend to “emerge in late winter or in the spring.”)
In their own way, these teeming stoneflies seem as remarkable to me as a grizzly wandering about the Anchorage Bowl in late November (as you’ll recall happened last year) or five species of owl being seen in one winter day, as also occurred this past winter, near the airport. (I encountered neither the bear nor the five species of owl, but felt pretty darn privileged to spot a gray owl and a hawk owl on different afternoons during the depths of winter.)
Coya, of course, has other delights in mind. Besides the many smells that get her attention, she finds an open, shallow, and relatively slow-moving stretch of creek water that is perfect for an April plunge and takes her first swim of the year. Jumping back out, she wiggles her body, smiles broadly, and rubs her body in the snow, clearly pleased with herself. The two of us are very happy hikers.
On arriving back at the trailhead, already satisfied by the day’s discoveries, I am once again stopped in my tracks, this time by what at first seems an apparition: a butterfly is dancing brightly through the air, as if the surrounding landscape were green and lush, not a stark mix of winter’s white and still-bare trees. This particular butterfly is one of the few that I can readily identify: mostly colored brown, with some purplish spots and yellowish trim along the edges, this lovely flyer is a mourning cloak. I know they’re among the first to appear each spring, but a butterfly juxtaposed against wintry hills doesn’t easily compute. (Collett explains that mourning cloaks overwinter as adults, helping to explain why this early riser might be flying about, warmed enough by today’s bright sun to leave its winter hideaway and get an early start on spring.)
The butterfly is my third great surprise (well, actually fourth if I count Coya’s cold-water swim) of this unusual April day. The biggest surprise of all might be the Alaska Legislature’s vote to deny Lynn Keogh Jr. a spot on the Alaska Board of Game.
Though I was among those to strongly oppose Gov. Sean Parnell’s appointment of Keogh to the BOG, few of us wildlife conservationists figured the legislature would reject it, given Alaska’s wildlife politics and the fact that gubernatorial appointments are uncommonly challenged (of the dozens of this year’s Parnell appointments to various boards and commissions, only Keogh was denied).
Keogh clearly was a bad choice, given the criteria that is supposed to govern such appointments to the board, namely that it should be on the “basis of interest in public affairs, good judgment, knowledge, and ability in the field of interest of action of the board, and with a view to providing diversity of interest and points of view in the membership.”
The simple and obvious fact is that Keogh would add NOTHING to the BOG’s already minimal diversity. As several wildlife advocates wrote in a letter to the Senate Resources Committee (to which I signed on), “After reviewing Mr. Keogh’s resume, observing him at the Board of Game meetings, and reviewing his voting record, we are confident that Mr. Keogh does not add any diversity or expertise to this board.” In fact he fits the narrow profile of all the other current BOG members: either hunter or trapper or big-game guide (or some combination of those) who are staunch predator-control advocates who’ve demonstrated a willingness to use ever-more extreme measures to remove wolves and bears from substantial—and growing—areas of our state.
It also turns out that Lynn Keogh Jr. has, on a number of occasions, showed poor judgment: as a driver (he has a long list of traffic citations), businessman (he reportedly has had some past “financial issues”), and guide (he was cited and fined for using an overly big engine while working as a fishing guide on the Kenai River). Though Keogh described his violations as “hiccups,” certain legislators disagreed. Two of the three who spoke against his appointment mentioned his violations and the shadow they cast upon him; a third brought up his blatant disregard for Kenai Peninsula residents’ comments to the board (not a good thing, given Keogh’s own peninsula connections).
Sadly, not a single legislator mentioned lack of diversity as a reason to refuse his appointment. In the end, Keogh’s own hiccupy behavior appeared to ruin his chances of being confirmed. It was mighty close—31 “yea” votes are needed and he picked up 29 (with 28 “nays”), but close didn’t matter to those of us celebrating a rare victory in the wildlife politics arena.
The legislators’ vote on Keogh and their unanimous support of Teresa Sager Albaugh—among the most extreme predator-kill advocates on the BOG—show there’s a strong need to continue pushing for a more diverse board, and remind those who govern us that it’s part of Alaska’s statutes. And I’ll likely have more to say about that in future commentaries. But for now, on a glorious April day, I am simply delighted by the wondrous surprises to be found in the wild places near my home and sometimes, even in our state’s capitol.