Beauty and the Bog
In pursuit of the weird, wet and wonderful
By Allison W. Bell
AMC Outdoors, July/August 2010
It was the glimmer of green that attracted our attention. Not dark green, for my brother and I had seen plenty of that on this Adirondack bushwhack. It was a sunnier tone that beckoned through the spruce branches and, like so many fairy tale travelers, we veered off our chosen route, drawn to the color and light. Forcing our way through a last tangle of trees, we emerged like Dorothy into a Technicolor Oz. I had never seen one before, but I had a feeling. "It's a bog!" I whispered.
We stood dazzled, sweating in the August sun as waves of humidity rose up from the spongy ground. Before us, a ring of bushes embraced a mossy mat tufted with plants—white-topped sedges, yellow flowers, and blood-red moss—splashes of primary color in a spectrum of greens. We ventured into the open, curious and cautious, for we were not on botanical or geological solid ground. The surface sagged and burped. Puddles sloshed around our feet. Testing the way, our walking sticks sank to their handles in the mire, and we squished back to the forest edge to admire this secret garden.
Watch your feet
Indeed, bogs are nothing if not wet. Unlike marshes and swamps, in which circulating water brings oxygen and minerals for plant life, bogs form where there is little or no water movement at all. Water and nutrients come chiefly from precipitation. Oxygen levels are low, so as dead plant material accumulates it is slow to decompose. Acidity builds and, over time, layers of peat form, pickled and well preserved.
Bogs and other peatlands occur worldwide, but are most dominant in the northern hemisphere, where they cover very large areas of Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia. Conditions are favorable in these cold climates—lots of rain and snow, a limited summer season for evaporation, and a permafrost zone that prevents drainage through the soil.
In the warmer northeastern U.S., bogs occur in depressions that collect and hold water. Lakes may develop into bogs as open water is replaced by encroaching vegetation. Classic kettle hole bogs form in basins left by retreating glacial ice. Relatively small, kettle bogs display a nesting symmetry of open water surrounded by a carpet of moss, encircled by shrubs, and ringed with dwarfed trees. Approached through these vegetative zones, the bog center is revealed as the plant curtain shrinks. Stepping out onto an open quaking bog mat is an exciting transition, as dramatic as crossing treeline into alpine tundra.
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