Surprised by an unlikely wildness

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The day is a beauty, one of the finest an Alaskan could imagine or desire: spacious blue skies, a few scattered cotton-ball clouds, temperatures in the mid-60s - but much warmer in direct sunlight - with a gentle, cooling breeze and air that's been cleaned and freshened by rains. It's the sort of summer day that tugs a person outdoors and inspires one to go exploring, even demands it.

Normally, I might spend such a day hiking forested trails along Anchorage's edges or scrambling up ridges in the neighboring Chugach Mountains. Today, however, I have chosen to muck around in a roadside pond, along the western edge of the Anchorage International Airport.

Instead of solitude and quiet, I am immersed in the noisy mechanized whine and roar of jets, float planes, cars, and trucks. Today, this does not matter, for I am a man on a mission. I've come looking for frogs and their eggs. This search is part of a larger quest: to learn more about the wood frog, the only amphibian known to inhabit the Anchorage Bowl. My interest was stoked in 1998, when local residents were recruited to participate in the first-ever survey of Anchorage-area frogs. My curiosity piqued, I signed up. And before long my volunteer assignment had rekindled a long-dormant fascination with frogs.

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The airport pond was not one of my survey sites, but it was here, accompanied by a more experienced frogger, that I'd first heard the hiccupy late-night mating songs of male wood frogs. Such a delight, to hear croaking frogs in Alaska, of all places - though the wood frog's voice is more of a staccato ducklike quack than a croak.

More than a year later, I've come not for mating music (which locally peaks and ends in May and is best heard at sunset), but to find and observe the jellylike masses of frog eggs. Instead, I get two surprises. First, the eggs have already hatched to produce hundreds, if not thousands, of wiggling dark--brown tadpoles; second, the pond is teeming with strange, minuscule life forms.

The pond isn't much to look at, and most people who drive by pay it little attention, if any at all. Sixty paces long and 15 across at its widest point, the pond is hardly more than an oversize puddle that's nestled between the road and a barbed-wire-topped chain-link fence with airport no-trespassing signs.

It's likely a man-made wetland, perhaps formed during road construction. Yet the pond and its surrounding meadow is a place of unexpected vitality and diversity. A pair of ducks nests among shoreline grasses and sedges, and moose leave tracks in mud along the pond's edges.

Songbirds - robins, juncos, sparrows, and swallows - perch on the airport fence, forage along the ground among dandelions, fireweed, and wild rosebushes, or swoop through the air while feasting on insects. Some, I suspect, have built nests in the area's thick grasses, willow, and alder bushes, or perhaps across the road in the birch-cottonwood forest.

Yellow-brown dragonflies and loudly buzzing bumblebees dart along the pond's edge, while iridescent blue damselflies hover delicately and prettily on gossamer wings. Orb-weaving spiders build complex webs and hide in alder leaves they've wrapped into tunnel-like lairs with their silk. But on this bright Sunday afternoon, the pond's water is what most grabs my attention.

There are the frogs, of course, and polliwogs. I hope to catch some, to examine them, but most dive for cover before I get close. The one frog I do capture appears healthy; after a quick inspection I release it. Polliwogs hug the pond's mucky bottom, attach themselves to the submerged stalks of water horsetails, and swim, in tail-wiggling fashion, through the pond's darkly tea-colored water. Using a plastic strainer I borrowed from the kitchen, I scoop several half-inch-long tadpoles from the pond and see that some appear to be growing tiny appendages that will become legs.

Frogs and tadpoles share the water with a remarkably strange, yet familiar, assemblage of aquatic insects. Long-legged pond skaters - also known as water striders - streak lightly and swiftly across the pond's surface as they hunt other insects or escape my approach. Shiny black whirligig beetles dance in wildly gyrating groups, their circular paths turning the sun's reflection into dozens of swirling and sparkling explosions of light.

The more I look, the more I am drawn into the underwater world of tadpoles, boatmen, diving beetles, and even more alien larval forms. Stepping into the shallows with my hip boots, I sink several inches into the mud, squat down, and begin to observe closely.

I'm reminded of the recent documentary film "Microcosmos," which so marvelously takes viewers into the little universe to be found within a grassy meadow. It is a revelation to see the magnified shapes, colors, behaviors - and beauty - of tiny creatures rarely noticed or appreciated. Running my hand through the pond's muddy bottom and studying the odd shapes and remarkable adaptations of its inhabitants, I wish for a similarly enlarged bug's-eye view of this watery little universe.

I'm also reminded of the many hours I spent exploring the swamp near my Connecticut home as a boy. Sometimes with friends, but more often alone, I squished through mud, splashed through water, caught turtles and frogs, studied water striders, polliwogs, and dragonfly nymphs. Much of my love for the natural, nonhuman world was shaped along the edges of that swamp, a mysterious and sometimes magically wild place in the midst of a residential neighborhood.

This Anchorage pond, so small and ordinary and urban, holds its own minute mysteries. As I search for frogs and sift through muck, I'm reminded that wildness is sometimes to be found in the most unlikely ways and unexpected places.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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