In keeping with the ‘everything’s bigger up here’ trend I share this image. The vehicle was left over the weekend just to the west of my place on East Barge Drive. Its the perfect engineering answer to the need to cut back growth from the boreal forest that encroaches on the power lines. These units are remarkably effective and appear to be able to go just about anywhere!
In keeping with the ‘winter that wasn’t’ and the mild fall our break up has come earlier than usual and now spring is in full bloom. We’ve seen five consecutive days of high temps in the fifties along with abundant sunshine. The icy roads have finally surrendered to the warm sun’s kiss and now they are mainly just muddy although the higher points have also dried off to the point they are becoming dusty. I see the ‘average’ highs in April for Talkeetna are around 46 F but we’ve been easily five degrees above this value; interestingly the average low is listed as 26 F and we’ve been right on that mark. We’re approaching 16 hours of daylight on this Earth Day but the eastern sky begins to lighten around 05:10 AKDT and there’s faint light in the western sky even at 22:45 AKDT. More and more bare patches of earth are visible in the boreal forest although anywhere the winter’s snow was heaped such as the sides of the local roads there are still piles of wet, rotting snow and ice. While walking my dogs yesterday late morning I took the following image from around intersection of East Barge Drive and the Spur; it’s looking east down East Barge towards some foothills of The Alaska Range which are still solidly cloaked in white.
Every day I see more and more returning birds and I’m hearing more Red Squirrels as well. The moose remain absent after being virtually ubiquitous the last ten days of March and the first few days in April. I suspect the cows are back in the forest birthing their spring calves; with this underway the appearance of the local bears cannot be far off. As soon as the low temps stop dropping below freezing I will hang my Hummingbird feeder; actually given the amount of sugar in the water I could hang it now as the high concentration of soluble solids will depress the freezing point of the water based mixture quite a bit. Today I hope to place at least one of my Field Swallow birdhouses; I need to get them up so the returning swallows can hopefully build their nests within them. All told spring has definitely ‘sprung’ for Talkeetna and the timeless dance of the seasons continues in full force.
I knew Alaskan insects were a breed apart in terms of being hearty since June of 1997 when I observed live mosquito larvae swimming in a small pool of water collected in a depression on a piece of ice in Denali NP&P! Sure, the air temp was in the upper forties and it was sunny but that water had to be just above 32 F. In the lower 48 one rarely saw insects in action while snow remained on the ground but this is definitely not the case in Alaska. While writing some email over the weekend I happened to glance outside my office window on a late albeit sunny Saturday morning; to my surprise I could see numerous winged insects of various sizes fluttering about in the warm air. When I really started observing I quickly counted fifteen flying insects just in my field of view and I know there were many more. Even more surprising was having to brush away a mosquito yesterday early afternoon as I was working around the front porch. One wonders how these little beggars survive night lows in the middle twenties but they must manage as once it warms up during the day they are very active. Yesterday I took the following image of the sensor platform of my Davis Vantage Pro 2 wireless weather station mounted in my front yard. Notice the unbroken snow in the background; it’s still around a foot deep in that section of my front yard. If you look closely at the solar cell area you can see a large fly. It was largely immobile soaking up the sun but when I caused a shadow to pass over it the fly did indeed take flight. It never ceases to amaze me just how tenacious Nature can be; life will find a way even under harsh and demanding circumstances!
As the weather is once again gorgeous today I initially decided I’d get the dogs out for a walk. However, break up is in full swing and I quickly found the roads to be extremely treacherous in terms of traction; I was using one of my snow shoe poles and even with this tripod stance I almost fell on butt a number of times. After just 0.4 miles I threw in the towel and slipped and slid my way back home. Given the gorgeous weather – 48.5 F with clear skies and abundant sunshine – I just couldn’t go back inside. Therefore I decided to get with the whole ‘spring cleaning’ idea and I started moving lots of empty boxes onto the front porch:
As you can see from the image I amassed a goodly quantity although many were already residing on the porch. The gentleman that clears my driveway of snow buried my burn barrel in the process so I haven’t been able to get to it since November 10th. Because the bears were in hibernation I could stack boxes smelling of food on the front porch; the local foxes and even the wolverine didn’t bother any of them. Now, however, its time to once again become ‘bear aware’ and hence I need to get the cardboard out to the burn barrel and burned very soon. I do not want to encourage the local bruins to hang around my front porch in search of food.
I already have a challenge in this respect; if you look at the furthest distant porch support pole and look to where the cross member meets it you’ll see a small sunflower feeder I hung last fall – it even has a Chickadee perched on it. This has become very popular with the local Chickadees, Nuthatches, Tit Mice and Downy Woodpeckers and hence I do not want to stop using it as a bird feeding station. However, this could well attract bears and that’s not acceptable so I’m conflicted as to what to do. Short term I’ll leave it in place but I will have to monitor any and all wildlife activity around it; if I see bear tracks or other signs I will have to move it or discontinue feeding until the bears return to hibernation.
Looking to the lower portion of the image and bit left of center you see a large wooden box with bird houses set atop it; that wooden crate shelters my generator which is wired into the house circuitry. I built three swallow houses from plans on-line and I set them atop the generator enclosure to varnish them before I mount them in nearby trees. According to what I’ve read I need to keep them widely spaced and attached to birch tree trunks at least 12 feet in elevation. I’m hoping to entice field swallows into nesting in them because they are voracious mosquito eaters and the insect season will soon be upon us. With a bit of luck these natural insect controls will work with my ‘Mosquito Magnet’ which I’ll soon be setting up and operating in an attempt to keep the numbers of blood sucking insects in check. I’m also going to set up mosquito netting around the porch just to ensure I have a mosquito/black fly free area to sit on and enjoy the Alaskan solitude. I’ll be installing the latter once the rest of the snow melts away.
Right in the lower center of the image is my rocking chair; since I was varnishing the bird houses I figured I’d put a coat on it as well. I brought it inside during the winter but now will be leaving it on the porch with the milder weather. I’ve always been a ‘rocker’ even as a child and I discovered last fall that it’s almost heaven on earth to be able to sit on my front porch here in the boreal forest surrounding the Talkeetna area and rock while I observe all the wildlife and the environment. In this sense I really am ‘the old man in his rocking chair on the front porch’! The dogs were grateful for the chance to remain outside after their abbreviated walk although I did have to shoo the always curious Qanuk (my male GSD) away from the rocker a few times; I did not want to have to try to clean varnish out of his coat. In addition he’s been shedding his coat for the past ten days and I really wanted to keep the amount of dog fur ‘preserved’ in the varnish to a minimum.
So my early terminated walk did bear some fruit in getting the house cleared of boxes and getting coats of varnish on the swallow homes and my rocking chair; that’s kinda how it works up here – if you cannot do something because Mother Nature has other ideas ya just go with the flow and find something else to do.
In conversations with my realtor and good friend Holly she’s often stated that break up is her least favorite time in Alaska; in talking with other Alaskans I’ve heard this same lament. In my ignorance I wrote a while back I couldn’t see how it could be any worse than last September and October when we saw 191% and 292% of normal rainfall for those months. Hah, once again Alaska has shown me I’d best just keep my mouth shut and my eyes and mind open at least for the first few years I’m up here because I’m discovering why break up is not such a great thing to endure. While its great to see the sun climbing higher and higher in the sky and the temps slowly warming as the ice and snow begin to give way they leave behind a real mess as evidenced by this image taken at the intersection of the Spur and East Barge Drive maybe 0.4 miles from my home.
The remaining snow is really more rotting ice than snow and its often very slippery. The ruts in the above image are six to ten inches deep; while my Escape is hardly a true off-road vehicle it does have a relatively high ground clearance and I bottomed out driving through this mess earlier today. The remaining ‘ice pack’ is heavy with water and truly tests the waterproofing of hiking boots. My trusty pair of mid-weight hiking boots went through the winter snows keeping my feet warm and dry but just 30 minutes of slogging through this mush and I could feel the beginnings of water seepage on my socks. I do have a pair of ‘break up boots’ which are really just knee-high rubber wading boots; I can see where these will be coming in very handy across the next few weeks.
More and more areas of bare ground are appearing especially during sunny days; the sun is already strong enough that it can melt the snow and ice even if the air temperature remains a bit below the freezing mark. Of late the temps have been dropping into the single digits by early morning but rising into the upper thirties to middle forties by late afternoon. This morning we’re seeing a bit of snow but as of 08:38 AKDT the temp is 31.1 F on its way to 40 F so whatever small accumulation of snow we get will melt especially if the current light snow turns to rain. The cooler overnight temps re-freeze the melted snow and ice and this makes morning walks a bit slippery; this morning it was downright treacherous as there’s maybe 0.4″ of fluffy snow covering the roads and the ice. Of late I’ve taken to carrying one of my snow shoeing poles with me on every walk simply because a tripod is more stable than a bi-pod. The dogs just love to get out and run regardless of the conditions although the slippery surfaces have caused a few hilarious ‘crash and burn’ events especially when they are playing while running. I can see that until the snow and ice completely melt the footing will remain questionable and one must often devote more attention to the ground and its condition than is normally true while walking. The birds are beginning to re-appear with the most notable being Trumpeter Swans again populating the marshy lake area just outside Talkeetna. The moose were very common across the last week in March and for the first few days in April but now have completely disappeared. I suspect the cows may have returned to the forest to birth their spring calves; if this if correct than the grizzlies should soon be emerging from their hibernation as they are in sync with the birth of the moose calves. This allows them the opportunity to get a solid meal of protein which they need after hibernating all winter. In addition many of the sows will have their own spring cubs and that’s always a bit of a concern as grizzly sows are very protective. Once bear signs have been confirmed I’ll be carrying my ‘Counter Assault’ pepper spray for a month or more when walking the dogs. While it’s a rather uncommon treat to see a grizzly in the wild around Talkeetna it’s hardly a rare occurrence and if one is observant there are grizzly signs all around this area in season. The reappearance of these apex predators just means that all us locals have to once again be ‘bear aware’ and ensure that any sloppy habits from the winter like putting garbage outdoors are corrected. I do enjoy living so close to so many large mammals and that’s part of this area’s charm; we humans are really the trespassers into the kingdom of the grizzly and moose and hence we should learn to co-exist with these magnificent animals.
The dogs enjoy the beginnings of break up during a walk along East Barge Drive
Although it’s a good three weeks earlier than normal even the naysayers in the Talkeetna area have conceded that our ‘winter that wasn’t’ is now history and break up has taken hold. We’ve seen afternoon temps above freezing for the past 17 days – I’ve included today but given its already 31.7 F and sunny at 11:46 AKDT I’m confident we’ll break 32 F – and even the hard packed ice of the gravel side roads is beginning to yield to the solar blitz leaving patches of brown earth not seen since last November 9th. We are approaching fourteen hours of daylight and it is indeed very noticeable; as I returned from doing my Monday evening music show on KTNA I drove home in twilight at 21:10 with the western sky still ablaze from the sun which officially set at 20:34 that evening. There remained even a dim glow on the western horizon a bit past 22:00. This morning I noticed a faint glow on the eastern horizon around 06:30 and it was light enough to read outdoors by a bit after 07:00. We are really seeing the flip side of the darkness that pervades winter in the higher latitudes!
As the light becomes more and more persistent I find myself having more difficulties falling asleep even when I’m tired. For some reason my body seems to resist sleeping when its light outside; this could well explain why I’ve never been a successful napper. While my retirement makes my sleeping schedule less of an issue I do have some routines such as my weekly trip to a Palmer warehouse to load up donated food stuffs for ‘the Pantry’ (technically the ‘Upper Susitna Valley Food Bank’…see why we just use ‘the Pantry’?) which requires I depart here by 07:15 so I can guarantee an arrival by 08:50. Since I enjoy a quiet cup of coffee before I head south I find myself needing to be up and about by 06:00 on Thursdays. Once a month I make a similar trip to Anchorage and I have to be on the road by 06:30 on that Thursday morning so I can make the warehouse in the Muldoon area by 09:00. Since retiring I found my sleep has moved from barely 6.5 hours to something approaching 9 hours a night; I also noticed I feel so much better with more sleep. As the season progresses it will be blazing sunshine even at 22:00 and that’s the time I need to be falling asleep. I’d read a while back that folks in the higher latitudes often use aluminum foil to cover south and west-facing windows in their bedrooms to promote sleeping in the late spring through early fall time period. Yesterday I did cover my one south-facing window in the master bedroom with a layer of aluminum foil and it made a wonderful difference. Yes, I do have light blocking drapes on all my bedroom windows but far too much light leaks around the four edges to make them really effective at blocking sunlight. My aluminum foil cover guarantees no sunlight leaks through and is easily held in place by duct tape.
This is working so well I plan to cut up some paperboard boxes awaiting the burn barrel and fabricate large panels which can be pressed into the window recesses and fit via friction. I will cover one side with the aluminum foil and thus I can use them season after season; this saves on aluminum foil usage. While I suspect this will not look particularly ‘stylish’ from the outside I’ve learned that living in Alaska is much more about functionality as versed with style. If the solution to an issue works well Alaskans embrace it and move on with life; after all, up here there is just so much life to experience..!!