By Janelle Eklund
We put our rafts in the Gulkana River at the highway bridge next to Gulkana Village. It was a nice sunny day with some puffy white clouds lingering about. The river wound its way back and forth cutting a snake like path through the boreal forest. Bald eagles stood watch along the banks giving us their wary eye from the tops of spruce trees and exposed bluffs. We let the river take us on its journey to marry with the Copper River. The Copper has many brides, including the Slana, Gakona, Tazlina, Klutina, Tonsina Rivers and many more. All these rivers bring a nutrient dense dowry to its marriage with the Copper. The shoulders of the mighty Copper teem with plants and wildlife. We made camp on one of its sandy shoulders where flowers and grasses bobbed their heads in acknowledgment of the rivers breath.
Foxtail barley was adorned in its beautiful pinkish-red glossy flowing dress. Such a stunning grass in its prime, but looks don't account for the hidden roughness of this prolific plant. Before it flowers it is palatable to animals. But once the seeds develop - watch out! The seeds are about 1/4" long and have barbs that are pointed backward and are very sharp. When something like an animal or human brushes against it those tricky barbs catch on fur or clothing and are very irritating. Imagine fishhook, only much smaller. On humans they are annoying as they can catch on clothing. But animals don't have the advantage of clothing and foxtail can be very irritating, especially around the soft tissues of their eyes, nose, mouth and intestine if ingested. If swallowed it can eventually be fatal to the animal.
The leaves of this plant are covered in short dense hairs that are rough rather than soft. So even though they look soft in their graceful flowing dance they can be irritating when touched. Foxtail barely sucks up and stores a lot of salt in its leaves and roots. So it can tolerate saline soils thereby lowering soil salinity. Its root system is shallow, it can be very prolific, and a nuisance to farmers.
As the plant matures it loses its pinkish-red color to a grassy tan, spreads its leaves wide open, and drops its summer beauty, putting on its wabi-sabi decomposing dress.
I was able to capture the beauty of this plant in the evening sun as we lounged on the river's edge enjoying the evening sky, the colorful splash of wildflowers, birds communicating, the rush of wings overhead. The river is a sanctuary to my spirit. The next day was our second and last to be one with the river. A sad day to leave but a renewed spirit to take with.
I'd like to share the poem "Advice From a River by Ilan Shamir:
Dear friend, Go with the flow
Be thoughtful of those downstream
Slow down and meander
Follow the path of least resistance for rapid success
Immerse yourself in nature, trickling streams, roaring waterfalls, sparkles of light dancing on water
Delight in life's adventures around every bend
Let difficulties stream away
Live simply and gracefully in your own true nature moving, flowing, allowing, serene and on course
It takes time to carve the beauty of the canyon
Rough waters become smooth
Go around the obstacles
The beauty is in the journey!
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.