Harbingers of Spring/Summer, National Trails Day and National Get Outdoors (GO) Day

Western Skunk Cabbage, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

Western Skunk Cabbage, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

One sure sign of spring is the appearance of Western Skunk Cabbage, also known as simply Skunk Cabbage or Swamp Lantern (Lysichiton americanus in the west and Symplocarpus foetidus in the east), pushing its way up through the snow to claim the title of the earliest sentinel of spring. Skunk Cabbage, in addition to its beautiful bright yellow hood, or spathe, and large green leaves is fascinating because of its ability to melt the snow in order to make its way to the sun. For about 12-14 days in late winter it consumes oxygen as it breaks down starch stored in its roots. This process generates enough heat for the plant to maintain a temperature of 36 degrees as it melts its way through the snow.

Hummingbirds also signal the arrival of spring when they return from their winter homes in Panama and southern Mexico and fly around in search of hummingbird feeders and colorful hanging fuchsia baskets that keep them nourished until the wildflowers burst with blossoms. Arctic terns also have returned, flying in from Southern South America and Antarctica, making the longest migration of any bird or animal, traveling over 12,000 miles to nesting sites in Alaska. In Juneau, about 80 terns gather near Mendenhall Lake and will stay in the area until they fly south again in mid-August. They can be seen through binoculars from the shore and through spotting scopes from the Tongass National Forest Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. Looking through spotting scopes from the visitor center or from locations on Douglas Island or downtown Juneau we also watch bears that have come out of hibernation and mountain goats and their kids making their way into the lower elevations in search of tender spring vegetation.

Fiddlehead Ferns, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Fiddlehead Ferns, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Local human residents also venture out in search of spring greens, especially the tender, succulent curled heads of the fiddlehead ferns that are so yummy sautéed in butter or added to a salad. We also see the lowest tides of the year, providing an opportunity to explore what the winter storms have deposited on local beaches and tide flats.

Spring, with summer hot on its heels, has arrived. The Carnival Spirit, the first cruise ship of the year, with many more to follow in its wake, arrived on Friday May 6 bringing 2,000 visitors into our community. Close to a million visitors will arrive by ship over the next four months. The 2011 cruise season will end when the Century, the final ship of the year, sets sail at 8:30 PM on September 24. Between now and then visitors rule downtown Juneau and frequent many of our trails and favorite places we go to enjoy good weather. On clear days they seem to own the skies as well, with helicopters and float planes a constant presence overhead. The helicopters flying visitors up and around the Juneau Icefield are known around town as the “mosquito fleet” for the buzzing sound they make overhead, often five or six in a row, as they fly from their pad near the airport up and over the Mendenhall Glacier.

Cruise Ship, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Cruise Ship, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Three ships arrived on Wednesday May 11 and they made their presence known long before they docked. You didn’t have to see them to know they were arriving and you didn’t have to open your eyes and look out the window to know the fog was thick. In fact, when I did look out I couldn’t see the ships through the fog, and they couldn’t see each other. As a result, starting at the tender hour of 4:00 A.M. , they began sounding their fog horns every five minutes, blanketing the town with a loud noise that reverberated from the mountains behind the city across to the mountains on Douglas Island where I live and back again. It was like having an obnoxious alarm clock that went off every five minutes and no way to turn it off! Finally the ships docked safely, their horns silenced and the fog lifted to disclose a beautiful sunny day to be enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

Spring events trip over each other as we transition from winter to summer. There is the Juneau Audubon Society bird watching cruise to Berners Bay, just north of Juneau, in April. We barely have time to catch our breath after the week-long Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau, also in April, when Juneau Jazz and Classics begins its three week run of jazz, blues, and classical music concerts. There are free concerts at lunch time in the State Office Building and free and reasonably priced evening concerts at a variety of venues around town, including local churches, the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and the Centennial Hall convention center. Guest artists (always an amazing line-up) also perform for students in area schools and teach workshops while they are in town. Juneau Jazz and Classics also sponsors a free Saturday of fun and music at the University of Alaska’s Auke Lake Campus. This year the event was on May 14, 2011. The Second Annual Maritime Festival was happening in downtown Juneau on the same day. (It was an amazingly beautiful day!) The Southeast Master Gardeners Association held their Annual Plant Sale May 7, the same morning that brave runners dashed across the mudflats between Douglas Island and the Juneau airport in the Spring Tide Scramble, sponsored by Southeast Road Runners.

Farther north the Nenana Ice Classic has come to an end for another year with the ice going out on the Tanana River on May 4, 2011 at 4:24 PM. As their reward for guessing the date and time of the breakup 22 winners will split the $338,062 purse and enjoy the celebrity of being this year’s winners.

Looking into the future, Saturday June 4 is National Trails Day. This day celebrates America’s 200,000 miles of trails, and the boundless energy of trail supporters and volunteers. The American Hiking Society and sponsors Backpacker Magazine, Columbia, Eastern Mountain Sports, Fetzer, Merrell, The North Face and partners REI and American Park Network are hosting over two thousand events around the country. The 2011 theme is Made With All Natural Ingredients. The American Hiking Society encourages everyone to get outdoors and to invite someone new to the outdoors to come along. For more information or to find an event near you go to www.AmericanHiking.org.

June 11 is National Get Outdoors (GO) Day celebrating America’s Great Outdoors and encouraging kids and their families to explore the outdoors together. Lead by the USDA Forest Service and the American Recreation Coalition this effort builds partnerships between public and private sector interests. The focus of GO day is to influence Americans, especially youth, to participate in outdoor activities and to make outdoor recreation a part of healthy lifestyles. For more information about GO Day events go to www.nationalgetoutdoorsday.org.

How will YOU celebrate National Trails Day and National Get Outdoors Day?

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America’s Great Outdoors

“The function of protecting and developing health must rank even above that of restoring it when it is impaired.” Hippocrates

At a White House ceremony on February 16, President Obama released America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations. The report is one outcome of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. Over the past year more than 10,000 people participated in over 50 listening sessions held around the country. More than 105,000 comments were received. Twenty-one sessions were held specifically to hear from young people. In his remarks the President commented on the need to “break free from the routine and reconnect with the world around us … to make it easier for families to spend time outside no matter where they live … and to make it easier to access public lands.”

The AGO Report recommends establishing a new Conservation Service Corps to engage young people in stewardship, conservation, and recreation, and calls for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the source of funding for federal land acquisition and state grant programs. The President called these efforts steps to help spur the economy. He said, “They create jobs by putting more Americans back to work in tourism and recreation. They help inspire a new generation of scientists to learn how the world works. They help Americans stay healthier by making it easier to spend time outside. And they’ll help carry forth our legacy as a people who don’t just make decisions based on short-term gains of any one group but on what’s best for the entire nation in the long run.”

Federal agencies provide recreational opportunities and facilities on more than 635 million acres of public land, host over a billion visits each year (USDA report on Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2002) and provide a wide range of opportunities to connect to the outdoors. The Report calls on all Americans “to share in the responsibility to conserve, restore, and provide better access to our lands and waters in order to leave a healthy, vibrant outdoor legacy for generations yet to come.” Not only will these efforts leave a legacy for future generations but they also will provide important benefits today.

Between 1991 and 2001 obesity increased 75 percent among adults and today more than one in three adults, over 72 million people, are medically obese and are more likely to suffer from or develop type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Childhood obesity has tripled in the last generation and today, one in five young people between the ages of 6 and 19 is obese. If the current trend continues one in three Americans who was born in 2000 will develop diabetes. The World Health Organization predicts that diabetes will rise 50 percent in the next decade, with diabetes deaths doubling in the next ten years (WHO, 2010).

The cost of healthcare is nearly 17% of our total economic output and is projected to rise to 20% by the end of this year. Healthcare experts tell us that 70% of the total cost – $2.7 trillion in 2009 – is lifestyle induced with over $150 billion a year spent on obesity-related illnesses. We also know that children are spending only half as much time outdoors as their parents did. Our public lands can play a role in reversing this trend.  “Studies show that access to the outdoors can help reverse the obesity epidemic . . . ,  reduce stress and anxiety, promote learning and personal growth, and foster mental and physical health” (AGO 2011).

The AGO Report calls for engaging young people in its implementation. In addition to the Conservation Service Corps, the AGO Report calls for improved capacity for recruiting, training, and managing volunteers and volunteer programs “to create a new generation of citizen stewards and mentors.” The Report calls for community-based efforts to increase access to outdoor recreation and a campaign to “cultivate stewardship and appreciation of America’s natural, cultural, and historic resources through innovative awareness-raising partnership initiatives and through education” to make the outdoors relevant and exciting and to “advance awareness and understanding of the benefits of nature.”

The AGO Report also calls for managing public land for long-term health and resilience in light of climate change, empowering local communities to work together to establish recreation opportunities and to restore and connect with their rich water-based natural resources, and supporting restoration and conservation of rivers, bays, coasts, lakes, and estuaries for recreation, healthy fisheries, and wildlife habitat.

I encourage you to access and read the complete report and identify ways you can help implement the Report’s recommendations. America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations can be downloaded at www.doi.gov/AmericasGreatOutdoors.