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Wulik River Valley, AK

June 14, 2006

June 14 - While tussocks provide something less than "desirable" walking, sometimes the energy and time required to negotiate short sections are worth the alternatives - usually comprised of very long circumnavigation routes.

It has been estimated that more than five trillion tussocks exist in Arctic Alaska.

The tussocks in this photo can be seen as the ball-shaped clumps of grasses. These are formed by sedge grasses known as Eriphora, commonly called "cottongrass" or "Alaskan cotton", after their fluffy seed clusters that get blown across the tundra later in the season.

These mounds are deceivingly ball-shaped. They look like "half-basketballs" and invite what Keith Nyitray (who traversed the length of the Brooks Range in 1989-1990 and wrote about his engaging adventure in National Geographic) called the "Tussock Two Step", that action by which one might dance across the tops of the balls on tiptoes. Interestingly, Nyitray found that sneakers provided the most efficient means of walking through a field of tussocks, noting that crossing such fields in light shoes could be done "easily".

But here's the problem.

Tussocks aren't half-basketballs when they are mature.

They are top-heavy mushrooms that threaten your center of gravity to such a degree that no amount of ankle support or strength can stabilize you atop their crests.

Walking across their tops is extremely fatiguing and injury-prone.

So where does that leave you?

Carefully placing your feet in the usually-hidden crevices between the mushroom stalks, often not knowing how deep those crevices are, and whether they are lined with soft plants, bog water, ice, or in the worst cases, deep mud.

Most Arctic hikers report paces of less than one half mile per hour through the worst tussock fields. We managed a pace of about one mile per hour through these fields. Light shoes gave us the ability to negotiate precise foot placements, especially on the downstep, which allowed us to stride through tussock fields quickly, rather than simply place one foot at a time in a self-contained action.

From the air, and even from afar, tussock fields are benign looking, akin to "sucker holes" of easy terrain. It does not take long, however, for the Arctic tundra to make a sucker out of you and you learn to avoid them, if not for the facts that they are stressful on your body and provide slow passage, but for the fact that you must always be looking down at your feet for safety - you don't want to miss a moment of beauty or opportunity in this great ecosystem by staring at tussocks.

Even the tussocks, however, provide an intricate beauty that required me to get down upon my knees to appreciate. The delicate sedge grasses are narrow and sharp, for hardiness in the dessicating Arctic climate, but graceful as they blow in the breeze. The plants that occupy the trenches - heathers, ground birch, and marsh grass - are few in species. This is a simple microecology. But tussocks are not tussocks without those species, and they intertwine with each other to form a cohesive whole not unlike the ecological colonies found in arboreal forests, microbiological biofilms, or high tundra lichen communities.

When you get on your hands and knees, view the beauty at the ground level, complete with its spiders, beetles, and lemmings, or when you watch the big animals stroll through the fields "gracefully enough" (be they caribou, musoxen, or grizzly bear), you realize that tussocks are as much a part of the Arctic experience as the great bear, the dramatic valleys, or the high ridges.