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Blue-Eyed Lake

Petals among peaks
Published 7-27-2022 | Last updated 7-17-2022
61.184, -149.070


[Unofficial name, no GNIS Entry]


Two backcountry travelers hiking next to each other can have vastly different experiences, depending on what they each notice and know. This project is dedicated to the idea that knowing geographic names and the history of a landscape adds a depth to the experience of being in it. Recognizing the species of plants and animals which populate the environment is its own universe of knowledge, which can enrich an already familiar route or add familiarity to a place never visited before.

In the early decades of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska, from the 1960s to 1980s, many of the core members were hobbyist or professional naturalists who delighted in the species they saw while out bagging peaks. When Greg Higgins crested a pass deep in the Chugach in 1980 he found Sisyrinchium littorale, or Alaska Blue-Eyed Grass, was waiting there on the banks of an alpine lake. The species is rare in the Chugach, but thanks to years of studying field guides Greg “knew the plant by the lake immediately although [he] had never seen it before.”[1] In his words:

Mountains and Nature

by Greg Higgins, reproduced with permission.[2]

The Oxford Dictionary describes a naturalist as an expert or student of natural history. I have no claims for the former, but have long considered myself the latter. My interest in botany began nearly simultaneously with my interest in mountaineering. I was a student at UAA in 1972 which was the same year I took the MCA's Introductory Mountaineering class. The next year I took a Plant Morphology course and that started my interest in botany. I wanted to study Plant Taxonomy, but the class was never offered while I was at university so I essentially taught myself. I pored over the two ‘Bible’ texts of Alaskan botany, Anderson and Hulten.* I found ‘collecting’ plants was easily done while on various trips for climbing. By ‘collecting’ I essentially mean listing although in my early days I did do herbarium specimen collection. I still have those originals tucked away in my memorabilia drawer. While away in medical school from 1974 to 1978 I got through my homesickness for Alaska by compiling a cross reference of both texts. That is of value because Anderson gives excellent descriptions, but Hulten tried to include drawings of every plant he listed.

In 1972 I joined Bob Spurr for an attempt to climb Montana Peak in the Talkeetna Mountains. I was a neophyte, but Bob only needed someone who could belay. He was a passionate birder so this was my first exposure to this. It apparently rubbed off as I got more serious about bird watching in the coming years. My interest in both subjects was further encouraged by the fact that when I moved to Alaska Methodist University for my bachelor’s degree, Bob was the head of the Physics Department. The university had a very strong Biology program (my degree) and my plant interest was always encouraged by the faculty. Even though I left Alaska for many years to practice medicine in California, I never lost my interest in botany and birding. I annotated my own copy of The Jepson Manual, California's plant taxonomy ‘Bible.’ I attended classes from the chief illustrator for the manual in the use of its binomial key for plant identification. By the time I took the class I had years of experience. The other students jokingly referred to me as “the graduate student.”

I have always liked connecting things. The fact that I had four years of Latin in high school made it easier for me to learn plants by their scientific names. These names often give information about the plant so they are substantially better than common names for remembering a specific plant. Hence Fritillaria camschatcensis is easy to remember as the northern Fritillary first described in Kamchatka while its rarer cousin F. liliacea found to the south in California is the Fritillary that looks like a lily. At one time I was at war with common names, but I have mellowed as I have aged. In birding common names are not such a problem as the number of birds is so small compared to plants. Virtually everyone uses common names for birds including the ‘purists.’

The Chugach Mountains are the range that I consider the birthplace of my botanical interest. I was raised in Akron Ohio where wilderness meant a local park with uncut trees. My first travels outside of Ohio took me first to Texas and then Japan in the Air Force. My last tour of duty was in Alaska and I arrived in 1969. I fell in love with the Chugach several years later once I was out of the military and able to begin exploring the local range. The plants, especially the alpine ones, drew me with their toughness, beauty and diversity. It did not hurt that one of my favorite Biology professors was one of the world's authorities on our alpine Black Oxytrope (Oxytropis nigrescens) which was the subject of his doctorate degree.

When I climbed to Blue-Eyed Lake on the way to the Eklutna Glacier with Rick O'Kelly and Shawn Wilson in 1980 I was aware that Mt. Soggy had only one ascent. My source for the history of the local peaks in those days was Bob Spurr and the MCA Club Library housed at Tom Meacham's house. The bonus of stumbling onto a lake with its margin colonized by Blue -Eyed Grass was an exciting and unexpected bonus. You learn plants by colors and I knew at once we were seeing something unusual when we got there. I had never seen this plant before and have only seen it in the wild a few times since then. It is one of the ‘showy’ monocots which include many drab members like grasses, sedges and rushes as well as more spectacular plants including the lilies and orchids. The family that Blue-Eyed Grass is a member of (Iridaceae) has very limited presence in Alaska.


Sisyrinchium littorale, commonly called Alaska Blue-Eyed Grass. Ancient Greeks saw a coarse goat’s hair peasant tunic, or sisýra, in the shaggy root tuber of members of the genus Sisyrinchium,[3] and littorale, adopted into English as the adjective ‘littoral,’ means ‘shoreside.’
Photo © John D. Reynolds, under a Creative Commons non-commercial license. Click to expand.

We liked the location by the lake so well we elected to stay there for two nights. The first day we climbed Mt. Soggy by its East Ridge. The route was circuitous and involved maneuvering huge blocks and chutes to find the best way. We roped over some sections of it. The summit register was an old Armour Star ham can and the original entries were soaked. The following day Shawn and I took a very vague route to climb Yukla from the east. We went southwest of the lake to gain the ridge at 5400+ above the lake. Then we ran the ridge to a notch at 5600+ and roped onto the hanging glacier to the east of Yukla. We then got on the East Ridge staying mostly to the north. This area required roped climbing. After reaching the lower east summit we slogged through the waist deep snow to the true summit. While Shawn and I were doing this climb Rick spent his day solo climbing Peak 5775 which he dubbed as Vertigo Spire.

On the slopes above Blue-Eyed Lake we found my favorite plant in Alaska, a little Mustard named Draba stenopetala. The species name indicates it has short petals along with its typical four sepals and six stamens. I first found it high in the Chugach above the Eklutna Glacier system in 1973, but not many times afterwards. It does not look like much from at first but the dwarf yellow petals that stand out like a miniature crucifix are lovely under magnification. It is a typical Draba, tough and resilient. It is one of those plants that you have to be looking for as it will not reach out and grab you with its presence.

Interest in plants and birds has made my years of climbing and traveling a much richer experience. I associate certain plants and birds seen on the various trips and these connections enrich the memories. Even when you get stuck in a tent in bad weather you can use the time to study what is around you surviving the stormy time just as you are doing.


Draba stenopetala, commonly called Anadyr Whitlow-Grass. Photo © Sam Wilson, under a Creative Commons non-commercial license. Cropped from original.

Fritillaria camschatcensis, commonly called Kamchatka Fritillary, or Rice Lily. Photo © hillanddale, under a Creative Commons non-commercial license.

Oxytropis nigrescens, commonly called Black Oxytrope. Photo © Andy Fyon, under a Creative Commons non-commercial license.

With gratitude to Greg Higgins.

*Further Resources


Anderson, Jacob Peter. Flora of Alaska and Adjacent Parts of Canada. Ames, Iowa: The Iowa State University, 1959. (now available for free at Iowa State University: iastatedigitalpress.com/plugins/books/1/)

Hulten, Eric. Flora of Alaska and Neighboring Territories: A Manual of the Vascular Plants. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1968.

Sources


[1] Higgins, Greg, in discussion with the author. April 2022.

[2] Higgins, Greg, in discussion with the author. July 2022.

[3] Goldblatt, Peter, and John C. Manning. The Iris Family: Natural History & Classification. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press Inc., 2008. 221.