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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.

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.

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