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Day 13: Russians

Reaching Fort Bragg, at over 4000 residents the largest town I’ve hit on the coast since San Francisco, I had a lovely gift waiting for me!  My girlfriend sent me a care package, general delivery to the Fort Bragg P.O.  I never knew about this service provided by the USPS — if you’re on the road, anyone can send a letter or package to a town’s local post office, and they’ll hold it for free until you arrive.  Pretty sweet, and it’s a welcome moment for the weary and lonely traveler to rip it open and see what’s inside.  Mine held almonds, even more almonds (the chocolate-covered kind), dried mango, dried lentil soup, triscuit crackers, Inian Islands Institute cards to hand out to folks on the road, and of course, a love note.  Ahhh, Emily, you’re the best!  Not too many girlfriends would be so understanding about being gone for this long, and send care packages to boot.

Most of us are at least vaguely aware of Alaska’s Russian history, but fewer of us remember the short-lived Russian occupation of California.  I recently walked past one of the more curious historical landmarks on the North California Coast, called Fort Ross, established in 1812 by 25 hopeful Russians and 80 enslaved Native Alaskans.  The Russians weren’t new to California; for decades they had been traveling south along the American coast with their Aleut hunters, seeking otter pelts.  But this was their southernmost attempt at a permanent colony — established atop a tall bluff above what’s now called Ross Cove, a strategic position they bought from the native Pomo people from which to compete with the Spaniards for the territory.  Pomo Natives, Spaniards, Russians, Native Alaskans… with such a confluence of different peoples, who could have guessed that within a short generation California would be the 31st member of the United States?  What’s clear is that the California coast has been attracting people for millennia, and its population, now higher than ever, keeps on growing.

Fort Ross.  Image courtesy of California State Parks.

Fort Ross. Image courtesy of California State Parks.

A big reason that people have migrated here throughout history is the abject richness of marine life.  Such fecundity arises from the fierce northerly winds, which (besides pushing me backwards and sandblasting me as I walk towards Alaska), drive upwelling of deep, nutrient-rich waters along the coast.  This coastal upwelling gives us our frigid waters (thick wetsuits required for surfing!), the infamous San Francisco fog, and most importantly, all our wealth of marine life, from the sardines of Steinbeck’s cannery row, to the great white sharks hunting seals.  Much of this marine plenty congregates in the huge kelp forests just offshore — thick stalks of giant and bull kelp that attach to the rocky bottom and grow in the nutrient-rich waters every spring by as much as 2 feet per day.  For myriad species of fish, mammals, and countless invertebrates, the forests of kelp provide food, shelter, hiding and resting places, surfaces for development, growth, and all the life processes.  They provide the physical structure for the entire ecosystem, much as coral reefs do for tropical coastal waters.

The Russians, for their part, were drawn to the California coast for the sea otters — more specifically, for their pelts.  As a member of the weasel family, and a relative newcomer to the cold Pacific ocean, the sea otter lacks the thick insulating blubber that characterizes other marine mammals such as seals and whales.  But it makes up for this shortcoming with the thickest, softest pelt in the world.  So thick, at around 1 million hairs per square inch, that the cold Pacific waters never actually touch a sea otter’s skin.  The Chinese aristocracy paid handsomely and insatiably for these luxurious pelts, and the Russians answered with the supply — first in Alaska, and as those became depleted, further and further south along the sea otter’s range, all the way down to Baja California.  As the sea otters neared extinction, so too did the Russian presence in America: Fort Ross was abandoned by 1842, Alaska was sold to the U.S. in 1859, and the Russians would never again get a foothold in America (that is, barring a surprising new development in their current imperialism).

But something else happened as the sea otter disappeared: the magnificent kelp forests began to fall apart.  The stalks washed up on the beaches in great decaying mats, and refused to grow back.  The shores became barren — an impoverished wasteland, like a clear-cut forest.  Why?  It turns out that one of the sea otters’ main prey species is sea urchins, the spiny cousins of sea stars.  Urchins, in turn, eat kelp, nibbling at its holdfast where it attaches to the rock, and, if left unchecked, eventually setting the kelp adrift.  Remove the sea otter, and the urchin population balloons, decimating the kelp forests in the process.  So what began as a misguided slaughter of a single species brought ruin and collapse to an entire ecosystem composed of thousands of species.

This makes the sea otter what ecologists call a keystone species — one whose importance to its ecosystem cannot be overstated, because it keeps the whole thing running.  We know other keystone species out there, like the beaver, which transforms a stream into a swamp or pond, or the African elephant, whose trampling of trees creates the rich mosaic grassland in what would otherwise convert to woody shrub or forest.  But ecology is too complex and too immature a science to be predictive — we can’t look at an ecosystem and predict which species is the keystone, whose removal will cause the whole thing to fold and plummet like a snapped kite.  There are a hundred reasons not to knowingly allow any species to go extinct — moral, aesthetic, cultural, generational, scientific, economic — but the lesson I take from the ephemeral Russian tenure at Fort Ross is that the ecological reasons may be most profound.  We just don’t know what dams will be broken by the loss of a species, and what cascades may follow — including those that imperil human life.

Sea otter in Glacier Bay.  Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Sea otter in Glacier Bay. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Today, you can look out to sea from Fort Ross and see kelp heads bobbing once more.  The otters, barely averting total extinguishment, were re-introduced to the California coast from small holdouts.  They were re-introduced to Glacier Bay too — there, some would contend that their re-introduction has been almost too successful — in parts of Southeast Alaska, these vociferous eaters are chomping their way through whole populations of dungeness crabs, sea cucumbers, and other important fishery species.  And culling the sea otter herd is out of the question (unless you’re a Native Alaskan) thanks to our Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.  What a shift from one century to the next — from outright slaughter to forbidding the populace from touching one hair on an otter’s head!  How will the new chapter of the sea otter and kelp forest history play out over this century?  Sounds like a fascinating social and ecological question for students at Inian Islands Institute.


Well my friends, I’m going off-line for awhile.  I’m approaching California’s famed Lost Coast region, where public computers will be sparse.  My next check-in will probably come in a week or so, from Eureka — nearing the Oregon border!  For now, keep spreading the word about Inian Islands Institute!  Like us on Facebook and share our project and my trek over your social media.  Let’s try to find that Angel who can help us protect the special Hobbit Hole property for a wonderful legacy!


3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tom Lee #

    Hi Zach! I’m enjoying your posts. As you travel north, might I advise you stay on the road–as much of a road as it might be–and NEVER!–EVER!!–enter a gate or slip through a fence posted No Trespassing. I’m sure you are familiar with the Green Triangle, and you’ll be right on the fringe. Those people up there don’t hanker to strangers. But, then again, you might fit in just fine. If you get time, head out on the South Jetty of Humboldt Bay just north of Table Bluff and tell me if the gate is still locked. Bad side of that is you’ll have to walk all the way back down and around. Check out Loleta too…a quaint little place.

    May 8, 2014
  2. Katrina Fetterman #

    This was really interesting and inspired made me to want to make a better set of lessons about food webs, ecosystems, and extinction for next year. Keep being awesome Zach!

    May 13, 2014
  3. Dawn Walker #

    This was a fascinating read! I love the way you can make a huge science lesson/concept turn into a fun and understandable read. I never lost track of where the path was taking me as I read and the way it wrapped around to what we are watching for today! We are all so lucky to have you as a leader/teacher and beyond lucky to have you as a friend! (You actually had me hooked at Godzilla! Big fans at our house)

    August 6, 2014

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