by: Don Bertolette, Alaska Big Tree Coordinator

Don Bertolette with his dog Lacey. Courtesy: Don Bertolette.

In the early 1990s when I moved to Alaska, there were several words and phrases that were explained to me that have withstood the test of time. Most visitors and/or first-timers to Alaska are known as a “cheechakos,” and a cheechako quickly learns that Things Are Different in Alaska (TADIA).

In many Alaskan eyes, I’m still a cheechako, as I haven’t shed my lower-48 clothes — or incorrectly wear the local garb. I survived my experience with “termination dust” — the first dusting of snow on the peaks, spelling the termination of the summer jobs season, like the one that brought me to Alaska — and after several decades and government jobs later retired here in Anchorage with my wonderful wife.

A lifelong forester (but for a few forays out into the private sector), I was pleased to have retired doing what I loved: taking a walk on the wild side through woods and wildernesses throughout the U.S. Retiring from Grand Canyon National Park, where I was a restoration forester, I had the unique opportunity to oversee vegetation mapping and management of the 150,000 acres of Grand Canyon’s forested ecosystems.

Though retired in Alaska, I wasn’t ready to withdraw from my life’s work and was very pleased when contacted by American Forests to take on the role of Alaska’s Big Tree Coordinator. One of the first things I learned through my Geographic Information System training was TADIA. Unlike the lower 48, Alaska’s USGS topographic maps aren’t to a 1:24,000 scale, but to a 1:63,360 scale — meaning Alaska’s a lot bigger than some people think. Despite the projections that most maps featuring the lower-48 states use, Alaska is not the little state you see in the corner of the weather page. If Alaska were overlaid onto the lower 48, three of Alaska’s four corners would extend beyond that of the contiguous U.S.

What does that mean to me? In the lower 48, I’d have said “road trip to big-tree nomination sites!” But with very few roads — [editor’s note: according to the state’s Department of Transportation, Alaska only has 4,900 miles of paved roads compared to 8,200 miles of unpaved roads for a state that is more than 660,000 square miles in size] — travel to big-tree nomination sites often involve lengthy drives, with travel necessary by boat and plane as well. Even if there were a tree nominated in our state’s capitol, Juneau, I’d have to take a commercial jet as there are no roads to get there on.

Some upcoming treks include:

  • A tree nomination located on Kuiu Island south and west of Juneau in Southeastern Alaska’s stretch of islands that make up the Inland Passage. My most likely means of transport would be to take commercial jet to Ketchikan and a float plane or boat.

    Kodiak, Alaska. Credit: Judy Malley (ShootsNikon)/Flickr

  • Closer to home, a nomination on the eastern edge of Kodiak Island. I can take commercial jet to Kodiak, but to get to the eastern edge, I need to take a smaller prop plane to get close, then meet with the nominator (no car rentals!) to get to his property and walk several miles through tall grass. Sound nice? An adventure? You bet: the largest of Alaska’s bears is the Kodiak brown bear and, as its name implies, is native to the island. No doubt, this spring, when the nominator and I go inspect the nomination, one of us will be carrying an appropriate firearm and the other, tree-measuring equipment. Things are different when you’re not on the top rung of the food chain!

Along with plans to visit the above sites, I am now laying the groundwork for starting an Anchorage Big Tree List, hoping to encourage half of Alaska — Anchorage has approximately half of the state’s population — to get out into the woods and find me some big trees!