East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. True or not in geopolitics, it fits the Kenai Peninsula’s two landscapes. There’s an unmarked border somewhere around Skilak Lake where a traveler from Anchorage — as I was in autumn 2014, ending a cross-country trip with my first drive across the peninsula — finds he’s run out of mountains. The winding road is now a line cut through a rolling swath of birch, aspen and black spruce. There are mountains on the far horizon, but they’re across the Inlet and, unless you trade your car for a charter plane, out of reach. It was autumn and the aspens were yellow, but I was sorry the road hadn’t stopped back in the mountains. Having recently lived in Vermont, I regretted that in Kenai I’d be a flatlander — though with snow-capped peaks in my eastern backyard.
As I jaunted back and forth between Chugach National Forest and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on my early weekend hikes, the two landscapes, two coastlines, and two forests impressed their division on me very quickly. But it wasn’t until I looked at a biome map that I saw how literal the division is. Just as the Pacific plate meets the North American plate at the fault line below us, the edges of two continent-spanning forests meet on the Kenai Peninsula, where they are split by the rain-shadowing Chugach Mountains. The northern boreal forest that sprawls across Canada covers the west peninsula. On the wetter east side of the Chugach, the Pacific Northwest’s thin sliver of temperate rainforest curls its northern tip around the side of the Chugachs along Prince William Sound.
Each forest occupies a distinct peninsula geography: rainforest in the eastern valleys, ravines and beaches; the boreal carpeting the lowlands of the west. Each has a signature tree — hemlock in the rainforest, black spruce in the boreal — that produces oddly whimsical growths. Climbing Mount Marathon or hiking the Primrose Trail, you’ll notice the pythonish way hemlocks wrap their roots around exposed hillside rocks. In the west the weak and unlucky black spruce, starved of phosphorus and nitrates in the acidic bog soil, make contorted shapes as they grope for sunlight.
In Vermont the hillsides of norway spruce, standing like ship masts, seem to have been there forever. This is a very false impression: the oldest of them date from the 1870s, and the norway spruce is an import from — of course — Norway, planted precisely to be made into ship masts. The Kenai Peninsula’s forests are more genuinely old and natural, but the word “timeless” is out of the question. Huge acreages of boreal forest are completely recycled by fire every few decades. Not only are the particular trees of this forest regularly remade, but the forest itself may be changing into something new. Research by ecologist Ed Burg suggests that some of our west peninsula black spruce might not be elderly dwarves but stunted youths, colonizing parts of a drying landscape that may have been too wet for them a few generations ago.
Perhaps this changing life accounts for the varied moods of the local forest. In their densest congregations the black spruce become claustrophobic and monotonous, huddling in exclusive island clusters in the middle of a bog. But in the uplands the boreal forest also breaks open in groves of birch and aspen — the two trees that bring some elegance to the swamp. Brooding over a river, one finds the ocassional (sometimes solitary) cottonwood. In the rainforest hemlocks grow in spacious columns through the fern and devil’s club, their scaley trunks hosting moss and fungi. The rain drips continually through the hanging moss on their branches. On lucky days of sunshine, light filters through the moss curtain, turning green. In the basic experience of walking in the woods — placing one foot ahead on the trail, then the other, until with persistence you enter the slow dream of water, soil and branches — the peninsula’s two forests become two states of mind. Hike through muskeg, morraine and meadow, or ascend through the hemlocks to the treeline, and you’re making two different mental walks as well: the difference, perhaps, between rumination and inspiration. Trailheads to both are within an easy weekend drive.
Reach Clarion reporter Ben Boettger at email@example.com.