Sounds From The Silence

I’ve blogged a couple of times regarding the incredible silence here in rural south central Alaska and it really remains quite amazing to me.  I find that with such silence comes an urge to look within myself but also to look outward and reflect upon all that makes up this amazing rural Alaskan landscape.  Indeed, it is so quiet so much of the time up here that I am immediately drawn to any unusual noise no matter how soft.  As I’ve immersed myself in this wonderful silence I am discovering new sounds which I either never previously heard because they were being drowned out by the ongoing cacophony around me or because they blended in so well with other noise that they were virtually indistinguishable.  Many of these noises are not all that unusual but some remain a mystery to me.  With time I may learn their source of they may remain mysterious.  In some cases I was not even sure I’d heard a given sound but at least twice I had the confirmation of my Alaskan Malamute (Anana) who perked up and immediately began scanning the direction from which I thought the noise originated.  My GSD (Qanuk) was also with us but he’s continually in motion and always playing with his tennis ball; as such he was absorbed in play and didn’t appear to hear what Anana and I did.  I found it pretty neat that both Anana and I heard some very soft and very unusual sound; it was my verification that I wasn’t just ‘hearing something that wasn’t really there’.  In this case the noise was a low volume but relatively high pitch sob kind of sound that trailed away to inaudibility.  My best guess was it came from some kind of wildlife but I didn’t see anything and even Anana, while intent upon the source of the noise for maybe 30 seconds, finally just went back to her slow wanderings of the eastern portion of the property.

There is a sound which I hear only when it’s completely still and it does seem to occur both during the day and at night.  Its best likened to the low-frequency rumble a jet aircraft will produce when its first spooling up its engines and is heard from a great distance.  Initially, there’s as much of a ‘feel’ to the sound as volume and because I’d lived around airports in the past and spent far more time than I’d have preferred sitting in their lounges or walking their concourses I always expect this sound to continue to grow in intensity and eventually become recognizable as a jet aircraft taking off.  However, while it may last for ten to fifteen seconds it never grows nor changes pitch; in fact it just disappears.  Because it’s as much a feeling as a vibration of the air its difficult to get a fix on in terms of direction.  I have sometimes heard it while walking the dogs and I can never see anything in the sky nor any indication that a plane has lifted off.  There are numerous small airports in this general area and a myriad of float planes as well but these are easily distinguished as prop or turbo prop engines which sound entirely different.  There are also a raft of military bases within 150 miles so it could be something they are doing but the interesting thing is when I’ve been able to get some sense of directionality it hasn’t been the same.  I may never know what this sound is; I will query the neighbors at some point but only once I get to know them a bit better as I’d hate to get a rep of being that ‘new guy from the lower 48 who hears things’!

While exploring this area on my own I enjoy getting into the boreal forest a ways and just standing still while I let my senses register what ever they may.  Frequently its tough to see much as the forest is often pretty dense and the local wildlife are true masters at blending into the background.  From an olfactory perspective there’s an overlying smell of moist earth mixed with the scents of some of the lichens and moss but that’s about it.  With this said by far my sense of smell is the weakest of the five normal senses so it’s entirely possible there’s a lot more to register if I had the acuity.  When it’s truly silent and I pause I can hear the sound of the breeze in the trees, especially the pines, and will often hear the random leaf falling through the natural growth.  It’s also not unusual to hear water droplets falling from the trees and bushes especially if it’s just a gentle breeze.  I’ve discovered that I can build a very good idea of what I’m hearing with sound alone; if I hear something moving in the forest its relatively easy to quickly determine if its big or not.  With time I can usually get a pretty good guess as to the relative size of the creature that’s creating the sound.  Normally birds and squirrels makes sounds that are low volume and higher in frequency like the scraping of claws on tree bark.  Moose make a much more definite sound although given their sheer size they still move with amazing silence.  I’ve never stayed put very long to really listen to the moose because I do not want to get into a confrontation with these monsters.  The only time I’ve heard a bear was in Denali NP&P and that was when it was in a blueberry patch maybe 100 yards away from me and I had stopped to take a break.  I must’ve been largely down wind from the grizzly because it didn’t react to me until I started slowly backing away from it.  At that point it stood up on its hind legs and made ‘woof’ sound.  I did as I’d been trained by the rangers; I froze, slowly waved my arms over my head and talked very softly to the bear hoping it would recognize me as a human.  Apparently it did so as it dropped to all fours and started walking the other direction.  I slowly backed away as well; once it disappeared into the underbrush I made better speed in continuing to back away and finally got the Hell out of that area!

As I’m still settling into my new home and it’s just so very quiet up here I’m having to learn a whole new set of sounds.  This has really reinforced just how much sound pollution there is in the lower 48!  It’s so very quiet in this area that I hear a lot of pops and creaks as the house responds to temperature differentials and humidity shifts.  Once in a while the dogs will throw me a curve.  Anana in particular will move about the house at night as she seeks the coolest location in which to sleep.  At 128 pounds she is a big girl and sometimes I will hear the stairs creak without hearing anything else.  This will cause me a bit of concern until I finally hear her breathing.  You might wonder why I’d be concerned with Anana on the main floor given her size; for anyone whose interacted with a Malamute you know they are terrible watch dogs as they love people.  In this Anana is the epitome of her breed as she would gladly help a thief carry out all my stuff if he or she would just scratch her belly a bit.  This is partly why I brought Qanuk on board; as a German Shepherd Dog he is much more protective of his house and friends but with that said Anana’s influence has made him very sedate for a GSD.  And, too, even though he’s just a bit over two years of age he’s a heavy sleeper; often I will awake to some noise yet he’s still snoring contentedly on my bed.

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the depth of the silence in this area; I knew Alaska in general seemed so much more quiet from my previous visits but I never really appreciated just how much more quiet until I moved up here.  There is a quality to this silence almost as though it has a ‘presence’ of its own.  I find it has a tendency to lull me into an almost hypnotic state and this is the reason I can spend so much time just sitting on my front porch immersed in the serene silence.  To begin to discover other sounds local to this area has been fun and peaks my curiosity.  All in all I wouldn’t trade if for the world and I truly enjoy listening to the sounds from the silence…

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