To Every Season…

I awoke this morning to the sound of rain against the metal roof and my German Shepherd Dog’s (Qanuk) slight but definite urgings that even though it was just 05:43 it was time to get up.  Qanuk doesn’t have my Alaskan Malamute’s (Anana) manners; she has always shied away from any interaction with me in the morning until I am awake.  Not sure why this is, I only know it to be true.  Qanuk lies next to me and very softly ‘talks’ to me with a series of grunts, groans and whines; if I in any way acknowledge his amazing repertoire of vocalizations he immediately increases both the volume and the repetition of his noises.  He knows if he does this long enough he will eventually make such an absurd noise that I will bust out laughing and then I have to arise.  I’ve encouraged both my canine companions to be vocal with me and while this is a dual edged sword I do enjoy ‘talking’ with them.

Anyway, as I stretched out my legs prior to arising it occurred to me I hadn’t heard that rhythmic ‘tap tap’ of rain against the roof since last fall.  I warned Qanuk as I arose that he wasn’t going to like the morning weather as it was raining; of late I’ve been taking both dogs out for an early morning walk to start accumulating my current target of 8,000 daily steps (working on making 10,000 daily steps) and to allow them to stretch their legs and work those ole noses.  However, given the 40 F air temp and sheeting rain this would not be one of those mornings.  Still and all it was soothing to again hear the rain and see it peppering the white and black pines and birch trees outside my kitchen window as I prepared my morning coffee.  I began to reflect upon my first ten months in Alaska from an environmental perspective and then compared this to what I’ve experienced while living in the lower 48.  No surprise in many ways its quite different and true to ‘Alaskan reality’ most of it is exaggerated over what I experienced in SE Michigan and other Midwest locations I’ve called ‘home’.

Fall is the season with which I have the most Alaskan experience as I not only experienced a full season last year but in my previous trips from 1996 through 2005 I almost always visited in September.  Last fall was rather aberrant in terms of precipitation with September seeing 192% of normal rainfall and October a whooping 291% of normal; in addition both months were well above normal in terms of temperature.  The beauty of fall in the lower 48 is based largely upon hardwood trees and there just are not many of these in south central Alaska so our fall colors are mainly yellow and gold.  In addition the time the first leaves began to change color until winds blew the last of them from the birches was just a bit more than two weeks.  And this occurred by early October which is far earlier than I experienced in the lower 48.  November started out warm but finally succumbed to the Arctic air and our first measurable snowfall was a 13″ dump across November 9th and 10th.  This was a bit earlier than I was used to seeing in SE Michigan.

Our winter was truly anomalous and in a huge way.  November was actually a bit cooler than usual with December seeing a bit above normal temps until the end when it started into an extremely warm cycle which extended across almost all of January.  In fact, January 2014 set records all over the state for warmth and was the warmest on record for this area.  Our precipitation all but vanished which was a good thing because when it did occur it was often nasty freezing rain.  February saw more seasonable temps occur but the snow did not return; we ended our winter precipitation with just 33% of normal snow pack by early April.  While much of the lower 48 set records for a harsh winter Alaska set records for warmth and lack of snowfall.

Spring arrived early and with it break up occurred much earlier than normal.  I was house hunting up here from April 7th through April 13th in 2013 and waded 30+ inches of snow pack and saw day time highs well below freezing and overnight lows often into the minus single digits and even a couple of minus double-digit mornings.  Yet by April 1st this year we had only a foot of mostly ice remaining on the ground and it vanished by the end of the month.  The locals tell me this was at least a month early but then the air temps in April continued the well above normal routine.  With the dramatic increase in sunshine its easy to see why the spring seemed to just explode upon the landscape; we had a muddy period common to break up but it only lasted for maybe 10 to 12 days and from what I was told that’s about half the usual time.  By early May the snow and ice were history and the mosquitoes out in force; of course they were biting while there was still a foot of snow/ice on the ground so this wasn’t a surprise.  Around the second week in May the birch trees suddenly exploded into life by shedding incredible amounts of yellow/green pollen followed by leaves; within a week all the trees were sporting leaves and within another week they were fully dressed down in summer plumage.

And so it is I find myself wondering what the summer will bring.  Granted I did experience almost all of August up here last year but it was largely showery and warm.  There’s no doubt the mosquitoes will be nasty but I have discovered ‘Deep Woods Off’ which functions amazingly well in this mosquito saturated environment.  After applying it to any exposed skin I’m actually able to spend hours outside and suffer only a few bites even as I’m working and sweating.  As stated I use this on any exposed skin and rub dryer sheets on my external clothing and I’m good to go.  This is a miracle as I’m a true ‘mosquito magnet’!!  I’m dealing with the current dearth of darkness as best I can; it never gets dark any longer and as of today the sun rose at 04:25 AKDT and will set at 23:33 AKDT yielding 19 hours, 8 minutes and 7 seconds of direct light.  And we’re still three weeks from the Summer Solstice!  I knew from previous experience the extended light would be more of a challenge for me than the darkness of winter and that’s been borne out thus far.  In true Alaskan style I’m learning to adapt to the extremes although I still prefer the extended darkness to a total lack of night.  I’m not exaggerating the latter; I was up at 02:20 this morning and outside it was light enough to clearly see the trees, their foliage and even ground features – I believe this is termed ‘nautical twilight’.  And this was with a solid overcast as well.

Local wildlife have their own rhythms within the seasonal cycles; the moose are largely ubiquitous although they do disappear from early April through early May when I believe they are birthing their spring calves back in the boreal forest.  The bears are around from middle to late April through early November.  The foxes (mainly Red) seem to be year round as is the single Wolverine that apparently calls this area ‘home’.  There is a shift in avian population with the waterfowl, robins and similar disappearing in October and returning in early May.  The Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers and Red Breasted Nuthatches seem to winter over as do the huge ravens which can almost rival the Bald Eagles in size.  I didn’t see the large Magpies during winter but they are once again in attendance now that its warmer so they may migrate as well.  There just are not a lot of Red Squirrels in this area but I know they remain across winter.

I’m only now (May 31st) beginning to see a few flowers in the boreal forest, most are small and tend towards white although I’ve seen various shades of red and some purples as well.  I know there are many blossoms to come and I suspect this will occur within a week or two.  Without question as spring arrived Nature seemed to go into overdrive regarding life; it literally is an explosion unlike anything I’ve previously witnessed.  Given the abbreviated growing season I guess it’s no surprise that once spring arrives its in a hurry to get down to business.  I’m now coming up on having spent all four seasons in my new home and without question I remain fascinated by and enamored of this magnificent land.  Living up here truly is a ‘give and take’ situation as learning to deal with the mosquitoes and tourists of summer as well as the rain of the late summer/early fall and the mud of break up can be a challenge but then overall its just part of amazing Alaska.  I feel so privileged I can finally live within its mystery and majesty; doing so has really nourished my soul as well as brought me into a much closer relationship with Nature and I couldn’t ask for more.  As such its a true pleasure just to experience Alaska’s many moods and learn to live within her extreme conditions.  Let the adventure continue…!!

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A gorgeous purple-red bloom just off East Barge Drive in the boreal forest

Gorgeous purple flowers along East Barge Drive

Gorgeous purple flowers along East Barge Drive

Smoke And Questions…

Across the past four days I’ve been reminded once again of some of the prices one pays for living in this majestic state; this time said ‘price’ is in the form of the residue from wildfires.  Last Thursday I made my every other week drive into Palmer to pick up donated food stuffs for the Upper Susitna Valley Food Pantry at which I’m a volunteer; just south of Willow (maybe 35 miles south of Talkeetna) I noticed the Talkeetna Mountains were shrouded in what appeared to be fog.  Within another five miles I knew this was not fog as I could smell the smoke from wildfires.  I knew there were two blazes burning in the Kenai (the Funny River fire and the Tyonek fire) but I was unaware the smoke from these fires had managed to make it so far to the northeast.  By the time I arrived at the warehouse in Palmer visibility was down to less than a mile and the acrid smell of wildfire was everywhere.  By the time I finished getting my own donations and assisting others with their loads my eyes felt like they’d been sandblasted; thankfully I keep Visine in my car so I could mitigate the effects of the smokey air.  It was a shock to realize I couldn’t see the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountains normally so prominent in this small town just north of Anchorage; as I tuned in local radio stations I heard of the air quality warnings for the entire Anchorage Bowl.  NWS was advising people remain indoors and if outside not to indulge in any strenuous activities.   As I began my 70 mile drive north to the Pantry and home I couldn’t help but notice the thick, acrid smoke which was even blotting out the sun.  And this started me thinking…

I wondered about our four brave fallen heroes from the Benghazi mission:  Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty.  I wondered if the last thing they saw as they fought for their lives and prayed for the assistance that inexcusably would never arrive was thick, acrid smoke.  I wondered if Woods and Doherty’s eyes burned with the same gritty, roughness that my own did while they heroically held off a hugely superior force for many hours.  And I hoped and prayed that none of them realized that they struggled in vain, that politics and ineptitude were coming together to ensure there would be no rescue that dark, fiery night in Benghazi.

It’s now been almost two full years yet ‘We the People’ still have no answers regarding crucial questions in this outright attack upon America.  There have been no arrests and although our lame-stream media has been able to interview the supposed perpetrators in local cafes we still do not know where our Commander In Chief was that evening or what exactly happened during those first four dreadful hours.  We do not know how the administration initially responded to this horrific news.  We do know the symbol of America in Libya, our ambassador, was slain along with another state department employee and two heroic ex-SEALs working as protective officers.  We know they begged for assistance for hours while they fought against numerically superior numbers armed with larger and more diverse weaponry.  And we know that ultimately they were abandoned and allowed to die at the hands of their aggressors.

Getting all the facts after such an event should supersede any political partisanship; there should be no question we should know the truth within a few months time and there is no question we should have left no stone unturned and no avenue untraveled to bring the perpetrators to justice.  Yet here we are, twenty months from this cowardly attack upon our country, and we have few answers and we have brought no one to justice.  Instead partisan squabbling has turned the deaths of these four proud and brave Americans into a media sideshow featuring bellicose politicians from both parties posturing for the cameras and working to get their faces and their voices on TV.  And still we do not know the real truth.  Is this what our great country has devolved into..?  And maybe more importantly are ‘We the People’ okay with brushing this horrific event under the rug especially as it has the stench of political maneuvering to cover up the truth as well as putting one man’s, and one party’s, ‘needs’ ahead of the country’s?

Maybe we are okay with just ignoring the need to find out the truth behind what transpired within our government on that sad September 11th; maybe we’d rather just tune this out while we celebrate a day off work, eat barbecue and watch baseball.  And maybe we will be okay when a leading figure in this scandal, someone whom was at the helm of the State Department that dark evening, runs for President in a couple of years.  I do not know how the American people would answer these questions but I do know something; as sure as I can once again smell smoke on this Memorial Day morning if we continue down the path we currently tread we’re doomed to become a third-rate power on the world stage bereft of dignity and honor.

Intruding Upon A Silence…

I’m truly struggling with ambivalence regarding writing this piece for reasons which will soon become clear; I just do not want to appear elitist or condescending but by the same token I, along with many of my neighbors and fellow ‘Talkeetna-ites’, are not pleased of late.  Perhaps most irritating to me is the wonderfully immense Alaskan silence is now being broken on a routine basis by the sounds of human beings…in this case the tourists!  The final straw in breaking my ambivalence regarding writing on this subject came just 18 minutes earlier when the peaceful silence of the pre-08:00 Saturday morning was shattered by a distant siren.  It occurred to me that I have only heard sirens three times since I moved up here almost ten months back; the previous two times were late last summer and then once in late November for a local dwelling fire.  But this has not been the only assault upon my precious Alaskan silence; across the last three weeks there has been a gradually increasing influx of vehicular traffic into Talkeetna.  The road now regularly sees lines of RVs, campers, travel trailers and those lousy, noisy motorcycles!  It’s hard to even drive in town because there are people walking everywhere; last night I had to wait the passage of a throng of tourists just to make the left turn from the Spur onto Second Street to get to KTNA for my newscast.  The bad thing is the locals tell me ‘tourist season’ normally doesn’t begin until this (Memorial Day) weekend; in addition they’ve told me this is far more people than is normal for May visits.  I’m wondering just what it will be like come July..?

With all this said I must confess that I am only too well aware that from 1996 through 2005 I was one of these tourists.  And, yes, I did ride a motorcycle in the lower 48 although mine was a vintage BMW K 75 and was very quiet.  In addition when I visited Alaska I was always respectful of the rules and signage and especially of private property.  Sadly I’ve already heard reports of RVs ripping down ‘No Overnight Parking’ signs and setting up.  A small unopened camping area south of town had its barrier illegally removed and now there’s a myriad of RVs and trailers occupying the site; when the owners do finally return they are in for a surprise!  I will no longer walk the dogs even close to the Spur because its gone from seeing one vehicle every hour or so to seeing tens of vehicles every few minutes.  In short so much of what I loved about this area in terms of the silence, the slow pace and the lack of human density have all disappeared in the dust clouds behind trailers and RVs and the crowds of people milling about the town.

My sense of fairness will not allow me to just rag against the tourists; I know this is Talkeetna’s life blood and without the tourist dollars each year this magical little town wouldn’t be half of what it is but I already long for the quiet and slow pace that exists from middle September through early May.  But this is also my first experience with living in a location that draws a large tourist crowd and thus far I’m finding little I like about this facet of Talkeetna life!  Its been a while since I really struggled with the duality of ambivalence but I’m now getting a chance to once again experience the instability of these feelings as I try to find common ground.  To be honest I can largely ignore the influx by remaining in this immediate area and trying to stay away from the town; there’s no reason for any tourists to be on East Barge Drive unless they’re lost.  But I cannot escape the noise that they bring with them and this is unsettling.  In addition my routine runs into Palmer and Anchorage on behalf of the Pantry are now greatly complicated by the plethora of trailers, campers, RVs and rubber- necking tourists now crowding the Parks Highway.  It’s easy to develop a definite dislike for these intruders until I remember that I was one of ‘those’ folks just a few years back.  And so once again the ambivalence manifests its unsettling presence in my existence.

In the grand scheme this influx of ‘the great unwashed masses’ lasts only three months and a couple of weeks (mid-May though August); after that time life will return to the ‘norm’ that I so enjoy.  All these people pump significant dollars into the Alaskan economy in general and into Talkeetna in particular so their presence has to at the very least be tolerated.  I am now coming to really understand that observation I heard not long after I moved up here; that Alaskans would have open season on tourists were it not for their dollars.  I’m sure most tourists would view this as a bit of rural Alaskan humor but the truth is it’s an accurate appraisal.  However, I’m just going to have to learn to be more ‘Alaskan’ in this regard and just deal with the issues brought about by tourism.  Come September it will be interesting to see whether the tourists have displaced the mosquitoes with respect to being the biggest pain in the ass during Alaskan summers.  Right now the jury is out and given what I’ve seen to date I sure wouldn’t be willing to make a call!

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This image of ‘downtown’ Talkeetna was taken last September when the number of tourists had already decreased and we actually had precipitation!

Alaska’s Common Sense…

Recently while assisting with the cataloging of donated food stuffs I was espousing how my Alaskan relocation had taught me a myriad of lessons and was continuing to do so.  I speculated that I’d be learning lessons regarding living in rural south central Alaska for the remainder of my life because the lifestyle is so different in so many ways from the urban lower 48 existence I embraced for the first 59 years of my life.  At this point I was asked what was the most important lesson I’d learned to date.  This immediately caused me to pause and reflect – maybe that was the reason I was asked such a question in the first place – for a minute or so as I reviewed all the key learnings to date.  I wanted to give an honest and accurate answer as versed with the first thought in my head so I needed a bit of time.  I finally answered it was the value of being prepared.  This is a definite nod to the Boy Scouts although I never was a member but only since moving to rural Talkeetna has the value of being prepared really become clear.

There are so many levels of said preparedness; it can be as minor as hanging my small and light weight broom just outside the front door when the snow arrives so I can brush off boots, legs and dog bellies before entering the mud room.  Or it can be as major – and potentially lifesaving – as insuring there are a minimum of 10 gallons of fresh gasoline in containers next to the generator on my front porch come winter.  And there so many additional ‘flavors’ of being prepared when living up here.  Regarding said generator; I was very lucky my buddy recommended I have a can of ether starter spray handy because one cold (-18 F) early morning when the power had been off for five hours and was still down the generator was refusing to start.  Only after spraying the starter fluid into the air intake could I get it to catch and fire up.  Some lessons regarding preparedness were taught by dealing with not being so; I have a storage shed maybe 15 feet from the house which contains a raft of tools and implements.  The shed sits on stout and sizable logs which puts the base of the door maybe 18 inches off the ground.  However, this winter I saw enough snow – and it was a very mild winter in terms of snow fall and temps – that I couldn’t get into the shed without extensive snow shoveling.  This wouldn’t have been a big deal except I’d left the battery charger and the long extension cord for powering the Escape’s battery blanket within the shed.  Given the grief I went through to get into the shed when there was 28 inches of snow pack you best bet I won’t make that error come this winter!  I learned that one had best have a reasonable shovel of some type within one’s vehicle cause ya can never tell when you’ll get stuck in a manner that five minutes of shoveling will free you but if ya have no shovel you are outta luck; and, yes, I learned this lesson the hard way as well.  I was smart enough to insure I have at least two weeks worth of food on-hand come winter; thankfully this past winter I never needed to dig into the ongoing balance but after seeing some aspects of this ‘mild’ winter I can see why two weeks is the minimum I would recommend.

It’s very common for Alaskan houses to be built atop crawl spaces to allow for moisture reduction but still give the house the ability to ‘float’ a bit in earthquakes.  Because of the potential for extreme winter cold it’s also common to have small heating units included in the crawl space to warm winter air just enough to keep pipes from freezing when the air temp drops below -15 F for extended periods of time.  In my place running said heater requires I manually switch it on and off at the main floor breaker box.  While I was good about turning it on I was not so great at turning it off; allowing it to run across most of January when it was so unseasonably warm doubled my monthly electric bill.  You bet I’m going to be wiring in a functioning temp switch this summer which will toggle the heater around an air temp of -15 F!  In the depths of the winter I learned the value of having multiple candles staged around both floors along with butane lighters readily available.  When the sun doesn’t rise until 09:30 and sets around 17:00 there are long periods of darkness.  If one awakens to such darkness and no electricity its the wrong time to be stumbling around trying to find one’s way down stairs and to the outer wear so the generator can be started and engaged.  Flashlights are an option but it always seems as though the batteries will die when most needed.  A lighter and a few strategically placed candles can be toe and knee savers on such dark and cold mornings.  Before this coming winter I will be rigging a few sections of LEDs that are wired right into a tape backing and can be powered by a twelve volt battery.  A few of these in the stairwell and in a couple of the hallways use little energy but would provide safe lighting in the dark if the power fails.

Seasonally based preparedness is also very important.  Thankfully I did not learn the hard way regarding parking one’s vehicle in such a location as to be clear of the falling built up snow and ice which is going to drop from one’s roof.  When there’s two feet of snow mixed with ice breaking free in large chunks I can tell you the house shakes when one let’s go and answers gravity’s call.  I would not want to see what it would do to any vehicle in its path.  I learned this spring that as soon as there’s substantial sunlight – I’d say by early April – the mosquitoes will begin to appear even with a foot of snow on the ground so its important to have exterior barriers like netting for the porch ready to be mounted.  In SE Michigan seeing mosquitoes when snow was on the ground was non sequitur; up here that’s the way it is…  It’s important to recognize the natural rhythms of the wildlife around us and that’s especially true for the larger mammals.  Bears are around from late April through early November; during that time it’s very important to remain ‘bear aware’.  Trash has to be burned or immediately disposed of if it smells of food; leaving it lying around, even within a shed or similar, will attract bears.  Trust me, no one up here wants to encourage any type of bruin to hang around their homes!  Moose are here year ’round in large numbers; I’ve seen moose in my yard every season to this point.  They were almost ubiquitous from mid-March into early April; then they largely disappeared.  Only now are they starting to re-appear and many cows have spring calves in tow; this is also true of many of the bear sows with their spring cubs.  I’m not sure which combination is more dangerous but rest assured as a mere human you do not want to surprise either one or even give the adults the inkling you could be a potential predator.

Something which never did occur to me until a friend mentioned it a few months back – more proof I still think like a lower 48er – is the wisdom of keeping cash in one’s dwelling.  While this is rural Alaska we have the same debit card fanaticism up here and people regularly withdraw money from the only local banking service’s – Matanuska Valley Federal Credit Union – ATMs.  But what would happen if a major earthquake or wild fire seriously damaged our electrical infrastructure?  If our broadband connections alone were cut any kind of plastic could not be used because it could not be verified as valid; in addition the ATMs would no longer function.  In the event of a fairly substantial quake we could be without such services for a week or more.  If one needed to purchase gasoline or food about the only way to make such transactions is via currency.  Therefore the wisdom of keeping $400 to $600 of cash available in one’s dwelling becomes not just prudent but a darn good idea.  Whilst this might seem like an invite to burglars all of us have firearms of varying natures and numbers up here and most everyone is proficient in their use.

I could go on and on but this distills down not just key learnings regarding rural south central Alaskan life but also the value of being prepared.  What so many lower 48er’s fail to recognize is that things are different in Alaska; this is part of the state’s draw.  While we have cell service along most of the Parks Highway (AK 3 – runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks) if you get even a few miles off the main road you can be cut off from such communication.  In addition once you leave one of the four or five ‘metropolitan’ areas you need to be fairly self-sufficient as state troopers often have to cover patrol areas that encompass hundreds of square miles.  Local responders can be hours or even days away depending upon one’s location.  And perhaps the most telling fact I can offer up as to the importance of being prepared in Alaska is to relate the number one killer of humans every year in the state is hypothermia.  Reflect upon this fact as you consider wading that braided river in the back country; or better yet, reflect upon this fact long before you consider such a move…

Denali Clothed In Some New Attire…

One of my favorite past times since moving to Talkeetna has been to regularly view the Alaska Range in general and Denali in particular.  In this blog I’ve shared images of ‘the big three’ (Mount Foraker @ 17,400 feet, Mount Hunter at 14,700 feet and Denali @ 20,237 feet) as a group and as individuals.  While all are impressive Denali remains my favorite for its sheer size; it’s just so ‘Alaskan’!  Throughout most of the late fall and winter the mountains were visible mainly on clear days as just snow-covered peaks.  Of late, however, there’s been warmer air that’s carried more moisture aloft and that has translated into more clouds of the layered kind as versed with the just plain thick cloud cover which obscures the range.  The following are a couple of images taken last week of ‘the Mountain’ adorned with some interesting cloud formations.  I’d love to see a lenticular cloud crowning Denali’s majestic peaks – there are both a north and south peak with the north being the highest – but I suspect such a situation would be extremely rare as the winds that blow around the peak are generally very strong and would most likely shred any large lenticular cloud.  However, I am an avid Denali watcher and hope to some day catch such an event.

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This image was taken from Mile 5.2 of the Spur which leads from The Parks Highway (AK 3) to ‘downtown’ Talkeetna

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This image of Denali was taken a bit later last week and shows a feathery white cloud mass almost conforming to the top of ‘the Mountain’s’ peak.  A careful review of the flanks of Denali reveals some of its rocky massif is visible which is indicative of slowly melting ice and snow due to the warm weather and long periods of daylight which is now around 18 hours of direct sunlight

Outta The Box

Hi All!  I took the plunge and created another blog site on ‘WordPress’ which I will use for my philosophically based meanderings and political/societal commentary.  Currently you will have to access it via: ‘alatla.wordpress.com’ although once the system recycles it should be accessible via ‘outtathebox.in’.  I will continue to use ‘talkeetnatraces.com’ as the site for my Alaskan experiences and learnings; as this site was my first blog and deals with a situation very near and dear to my heart it will continue to see regular postings.  I cannot tell how much I will be using ‘Outta The Box’ right now; I suspect it will see less routine additions.  Surprisingly I already received two very positive reviews for the initially posting on the evils of political correctness; it’s surprising because I only posted this piece a half hour back.  Anyway, just wanted to let everyone know this second site is up and functioning.

Chaga & Herbal Medicine

As I expand my knowledge of my new Alaskan home I continue to meet new people and with these acquaintances come new and often exciting information.  One such area involves recognizing and utilizing the amazing wealth of plants that live in what most people still see as an ice and snow locked land.  To say I am a neophyte in this realm is a bit like calling Denali a ‘big hill’ but I’m finding more and more folks who do possess a wonderful knowledge of the local fauna and its many uses.  Last Monday a friend spoke to me about a fungus I’d heretofore been unaware; it’s called ‘chaga’ and after doing some additional research on-line I was impressed but it’s long history of use by many north living peoples and its range of uses.  I was equally impressed by the lack of any real investigation into its components or its believed contributions to health.  I was given a verbal description of what to look for and much to my surprise I spotted this growth of chaga along East Barge Road while walking the dogs:

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Apparently this is a fungus (Inonotus obliquus) which grows on birch trees and is well known in the north country and is sometimes referred to as the ‘mushroom of immortality’.  Chaga (pronounced “tsjaa-ga”) is a parasitic organism and generally appears on a birch after it is dead although the tree I spotted was still showing at least a few spring leaves.  Its texture is like wood and its color is due to an abundance of melanin which is the compound which colors human skin among other functions.  The following is an extract from a piece written by Chris Kilham who is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France.

“Relatively unused in the west, chaga is a potent immune enhancing agent that is highly popular in Russia and parts of Europe, and it enjoys a major body of science for its health benefits.

Unlike most fungus, chaga is hard and woody, bearing no resemblance to mushrooms. Instead, it looks more like a cracked piece of burned charcoal. Chaga’s black color is due to a concentration of melanin, the same pigment that colors human skin. Because chaga can be used to start fires, it is also known as the “tinder fungus.”

The name chaga derives from the Komi-Permyak language of Russia’s Kama River Basin, where the fungus has played a role in traditional medicine for centuries. Chaga can be found throughout northern Asia and in Canada, Norway, northern and eastern Europe and northern parts of the United Sates.

Chaga is rich in natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phenols, containing the compounds betulin and betulinic acid – which derive directly from host birch trees. Both betulin and betulinic acid demonstrate anti-tumor effects, which explain why chaga is known as an anti-cancer agent. Additionally, some science shows that betulin can play a beneficial role in controlling metabolic disorders, such as obesity and metabolic syndrome. A group of compounds in chaga called lanostanoids also appear to play significant anti-cancer roles.

The exact anti-cancer activity of chaga is not completely understood, but some compounds in the fungus boost immune activity, some specifically prevent cancer cells from replicating, and others cause premature cancer cell death. This argues for the utilization of a whole chaga extract, rather than isolating a single compound. In chaga, many agents appear to be active against cancer.

One of the most surprising benefits of chaga is in regards to psoriasis. In one Russian study, psoriasis patients who took chaga recovered from their condition. Given that psoriasis is notoriously difficult to treat and responds to very little therapies, this effect alone could be of enormous benefit to many.

The compound ergosterol in chaga, along with related agents, shows anti-inflammatory activity. This may account for why chaga is thought of as a life-extending agent in China, as inflammation is part of every chronic, degenerative disease. Reducing systemic inflammation can mitigate or help prevent a variety of health problems, leading to a healthier life – and presumably a longer one.

Traditionally, chaga has been used for a variety of purposes. Scientific investigation chaga’s use as an anti-allergy agent shows that in animals, the fungus has the ability to prevent anaphylactic shock – a serious and potentially fatal consequence of a severe allergy. In another study, administration of an extract of chaga reduced infection due to the Herpes simplex virus.

In a cell study, chaga showed potent activity against the hepatitis C virus. Whether this same activity will prove true in living humans remains to be seen, but if it does, then chaga will benefit thousands of people who often suffer for many years with this crippling disease.

Chaga products are widely available in natural food stores and on the Internet. One chaga product I like is made in Vermont and is available at http://www.Mariefrohlich.com.”

This information is also present in numerous other postings and articles I’ve since read on chaga; if there’s any suspected negative its that the functional compounds within the fungus may negatively interact with some medicines.  This is not an issue for me as I take no medicines other than my morning caffeine and an occasional Ibuprofen when I overdo exercise.  I was surprised to see the fungus is sold over the ‘Net in all kinds of forms from chunks to powders; two ounces of the powder used to make tea seems to run around $12.00 and one pound of chunks seem to sell for around $45.00.  However, I need not avail myself of purchasing the fungus as its growing right in the neighborhood!  Getting to some of the growths I’ve seen will be a bit of a challenge but nothing I cannot handle.  I hope to find more on my property; any I locate on my neighbor’s land cannot be harvested until I check with them.

I did have a chance to taste some of the tea locally prepared and it has a very mild flavor, almost undetectable.  There’s a definite ‘woody’ taste but as I mentioned its so mild as to be almost undetectable.  Given its proclaimed benefits and its lack of any real negatives as well as the ease of identifying it I’m going to be adding this fungus to my daily doses of cinnamon which I take via my coffee and in carbonated mixes I produce myself.  I know there’s a whole lot more of these kinds of natural treasures contained within the boreal forest; I just need to hear about them, research them and then partake of their wonders.  So much for Alaska being viewed by so many as an ice and snow locked land of igloos and polar bears!

Open Question…

A recent comment from a good friend of mine is the basis for the following question which I’m putting out to any and all readers of my current blog.  But first a little background.  I created ‘talkeetnatraces.com’ with the idea it would be a collection of thoughts and observations on the experiences of a sixty year old man newly relocated to rural south central Alaska after living his entire life within urban settings in the lower 48.  I entertain the vague notion of using these observations along with other writings in the form of emails and similar to one day write a book on my experiences.  Initially I was true to this idea and wrote mainly about my experiences and learnings regarding my new Alaskan lifestyle.  But then topics off this theme began to creep into my writings.  At first they were few but have been increasing in frequency of late.  The aforementioned friend suggested I might think about creating a separate blog for topics like politics, philosophical discussions or evaluations of current events and cultural leanings.  Initially I thought this might be too much but now I am not so sure.  Without question doing so would keep my existing blog ‘cleaner’ in the sense it would truly focus on my life, experience and learnings in rural Alaskan living.  So with this in mind I’m seeking any feedback regarding creating a second blog site to deal exclusively with my wanderings in the political and philosophical arenas.  Please feel free to offer up any thoughts; as always I welcome all serious, civilized comments…

Judging – All Too Human

A response to a recent posting of mine caused me to once again reflect upon the whole concept of judging and being judgmental.  This is something I’ve spent much time considering and testing various ideas and perspectives with regards to the term and its meaning.  There are a number of definitions in the dictionary but when people speak of being judgmental or of judging another person I believe the following definition is the one in play: to form a judgment or opinion of; decide upon critically.  I often hear people speak negatively about those who judge others and initially this would seem to make sense.  From a philosophical standpoint no human is really in a position to critically judge another person simply because we are all human and hence struggle with the same frailties and subjective perspectives as those we might judge.  Okay, on the surface this seems to make sense.

But rather than just accept this concept and move on I was troubled because the more I thought about the act of judging the less I could see how this could be so negative.  Indeed, after considerable reflection and pondering I’ve come to believe that to be human is to judge and that it is virtually impossible to live one’s life without almost continually making judgments.  This definitely seems to fly in the face of the concept that we humans shouldn’t judge. Let’s start with some simple examples involving judgment, in this case of what most would deem are inanimate objects.  This weekend I was relaxing in my living room enjoying the sunshine and middle sixty degree air temps and listening to music. I’ve been an audiophile from my college ‘daze’ and have always tried to own as good a stereo system as I could afford.  A few years back I was finally able to add a pair of Klipsch Reference Series RF-88 II tower speakers to my stereo system and they are undoubtedly one of the finest audio speakers available eclipsed only by those floor standing tower RF-7’s and, of course, the incredible towers in Klipsch’s ‘Palladium’ series.  If only I could afford the $20,000 to own a pair of those monsters!  Anyway, I was truly enjoying some Rush played at a fairly substantial volume when it occurred to me that I ‘judged’ these speakers to be far superior to say, a cheap pair of Realistic speakers from Radio Shack.  I could base this ‘judgment’ upon a whole list of facts like lower distortion, better power handling, more accurate sound and similar but that’s not the point.  Rather, I ‘judged’ these speakers superior to smaller, less expensive models.  Was this wrong?  Should I not judge these speakers at all and hence be happy with any type regardless of whether they sounded better or worse?  I immediately decided that to judge the performance of speakers was a good thing as my ears wouldn’t have enjoyed the sound from cheap speakers pushed to their breaking point by my sound system.

Upon realizing this I was suddenly flooded with the myriad of judgments I had made in my life and continue to make.  I prefer cool weather to hot because I am uncomfortable in air temps above 75 F; therefore I judge cooler temps to be better for me.  Although I am an animal lover in general I prefer to share my life with canines as I judge them to be more compatible with my lifestyle.  And as to canines; I do enjoy virtually all breeds but I prefer Germans Shepherd Dogs because I judge their traits (intelligence, size, loyalty, protective nature, etc.) to be better than say a Dachshund.  With this said I readily accept others may prefer different breeds over my choice and that’s fine as well as their right.  I could’ve retired in many different places but I chose Alaska because I judged it to be a ‘better’ choice given my preferences for weather, population density and environment.  I even chose to live rural even though I’d never done so in my previous 60 years simply because I judged the lifestyle would be more in-line with my current desires; thankfully I was correct!  I could go on and on but I think you get the picture. To be human is to make judgments and said judgments are generally particular to the person making them although they might overlap with others and even be in agreement with some people.  Is doing this somehow bad or negative?  I don’t think the aforementioned judgments have any moral or ethical value attached to them; they are simply choices I’ve made based upon my own reasons.  I do believe it’s important to be open to re-examining one’s judgments from time to time; if I hadn’t been willing to do this then I most likely would’ve retired someplace urban in the lower 48.  So for me making judgments is almost a daily occurrence and I believe this is the same for most other human beings.  How does one ‘square’ this observation with the expectations that one shouldn’t judge?

Perhaps to be more accurate is the concept one shouldn’t judge other people as versed with just judging things or ideas..?  Again, on the surface this seems to make sense but then I began to reflect upon situations in my past and suddenly the ‘wisdom’ in trying not to judge other people was less clear.  I thought back to my rather turbulent teenage years when I made some very questionable choices; to be honest I made a plethora of really stupid decisions.  I remember hanging out briefly with a group of my peers in my early teen years that were into things like destruction of property, petty theft and drinking.  In some convoluted thought process only a teen could conjure up let alone understand I thought I was being ‘cool’.  Yet as I heard about some of this group’s ‘accomplishments’ I began to realize I was uncomfortable with what they were doing in the name of ‘being cool’.  I can thank my wonderful upbringing from my parents for allowing me to finally realize this not only wasn’t cool but it was causing harm and grief to others; as such I didn’t want to be a part of this crowd!  At this time I judged these people as being destructive and causing harm to others and hence I didn’t want to associate with them.  Was I wrong in judging these peers?  I don’t think so.  Last I’d heard a couple had actually ended up being arrested; had my judging these people and deciding I didn’t want to be like them been something that was inherently bad?  Hardly; the way they were living their lives was what was inherently bad – another judgment from me – and I judged I didn’t want to live that way.  So here I’d judged my fellow humans, found them to not be up to the standards I was raised with and hence shunned associating with them.  Was this a case of judging my fellow-man and hence undertaking something which was not good..?  While I don’t believe anyone could make a case for my continuing to run with that questionable crowd my decision to not so required I judge them by their actions.

As I’ve matured I’ve been involved in judging my fellow humans on a regular basis yet I would mostly say these acts were not bad or untoward.  During my working years I often had to fill positions at my place of employment; as such I had to interview potential candidates and using predetermined criteria judge their ‘fit’ for the position.  Without question this was judging other human beings yet was it wrong?  I never thought so at the time nor do I believe so now; I was asked to fill job openings and the only way to effect this in an acceptable manner was to review candidate’s skills, backgrounds and experience and the make a selection.  So once again I was doing what at some time seemed wrong; I was judging other human beings.  If one was to truly take to heart the concept that one shouldn’t judge another human being how could one select a candidate for an open position?  The more I pondered these concepts the more examples I found in my own life and those of my fellow humans which required judging.  When seeking a relationship with other people one must look at said people with some degree of judgment.  If seeking a partner one must evaluate a possible partner in terms of their lifestyle, likes, dislikes, morals and a myriad of other characteristics.  This evaluation by nature involves making judgments; I see no other way it can be accomplished.  But there’s that rub once again; one is judging another human being.  So now what seemed so right on the surface has, with deeper consideration and reflection, proved to be something that we humans can almost not avoid doing and, indeed, is often required of us in our culture and society.

Okay, then maybe what those who espoused being non-judgmental were really trying to say was that we shouldn’t judge our fellow human beings in terms of morals or ethics..?  Once again on the surface this would seem to be a good thing but when one really digs into the issue it’s not so clear-cut.  Philosophies abound within human civilization and many are not mutually agreeable and some are downright at odds. We’ve all heard of ‘the ends justify the means’ and for the most part this is not something that is acceptable nowadays for some very solid reasons.  Yet more than just a few people can see situations when this concept is valid.  How do those of us who feel this can never be an acceptable approach to life deal with people who do accept the concept to varying degrees?  We can choose to argue this viewpoint or not to associate with these people but in so doing we’ve judged them on their beliefs.  A large tenant of Islam is that it is the only ‘true’ religion and as such should be practiced by all.  What of the Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or Wiccans out there; are they all non-believers?  If so has the religion of Islam – and hence those who do practice it – not judged all people who do not practice that religion?  Quite suddenly the concept of not judging other humans based on their moral, ethical or philosophical beliefs doesn’t seem to make much sense.

As I’ve reflected and considered the whole idea of being non-judgmental I’ve come to the conclusion it’s probably a ‘nice’ idea in theory and if the world were a perfect place perhaps none of us would judge others in any way although I cannot see how this would be possible.  I go back to something I was taught by my wonderful parents: life is all about making choices and with these choices will come consequences so as you make choices there is an unspoken deal that you will accept the consequences.  Often to make choices requires using one’s judgment; there’s just no way around this fact.  Rather than to feel guilt at making judgments perhaps it’s better to strive to make the very best judgments one can and then be willing to live with the consequences.  I also believe that trying to foster being non-judgmental (something I have pretty much shown to be impossible) in others often acts as a barrier to open, honest and clear communication.  I firmly believe that the Nazi party was evil and I base this judgment on historical facts yet if someone was to chide me for being judgmental – and in this case I truly am being just that – it fails to take into account the reasoning behind my judgment.  If there’s one thing this country desperately needs its open, honest and clear communication in all facets of life.  And, yes, this is a judgment of my own!  And now I’ll make yet another judgment: I believe the whole concept of pushing people to try to be non-judgmental is often just another form of trying to control speech and ultimately thought.  In my previous meanderings I think I’ve pretty much shown that we humans cannot be non-judgmental (Ooooops, I made yet another judgment!) yet function in today’s world.  Trying to completely do away with making judgments would largely mean we humans would basically exist as lumps of protoplasm doing little except respiring; even trying to feed ourselves requires making judgments.  So I fall back to the observation I made much earlier on – to be human is to be judgmental. That’s just how it is and I’m not going to feel ‘bad’ about my judgmental nature or guilty that I make many judgments each day; that would entail feeling bad or guilty because I’m human.  But I can try to remain on guard against judging others without knowing or understanding all the facts.  I think this might be about the best I can hope for…

Nine Months

As I stare out my office window at the rapidly disappearing snow piles and listen to the songs of numerous birds I cannot help but be reminded that spring is well underway here in Talkeetna.  Of course the fact that’s its once again sunny (it has been so for almost three continuous weeks, now..!) and 58.9 F at 10:54 AKDT reinforces this realization as did yesterday’s far too warm high of 69.5 F.  With the advent of spring I realize I’ve now experienced the tail end of an Alaskan summer, fall, winter and a piece of spring as of this writing.  Indeed, it was August 6, 2013 when I pulled my Escape into my new home’s driveway followed soon thereafter by my buddy Sarge driving the 26′ U-Haul van.  So much has happened since that time and I am coming up on having spent a full year in my new albeit amazing Alaskan home.  I’ve started the process of truly putting down roots for the first time since college; that in itself says something as I will be 61 years of age come October.  It also speaks to the rather harried life I made for myself by a number of basic choices; many of these did not seem to carry their ultimate import when i was considering them and a few just seemed more like ‘normal’ decisions.  However, they all played a large part in molding and refining the current ‘me’ for better or for worse.

Without question the single biggest decision I made with respect to having sweeping effects upon my life was to pursue a traditional form of employment within the business structure of America.  This was a direct extension of having ‘played by the rules’ I was raised within which said one graduates high school, goes on to college, gets a degree and then goes to work most probably within the area of one’s major.  In this sense, after a rocky start thanks to the dysfunctional economy of the final Carter years, I followed this plan without really questioning its validity or even imagining there was something different.  In my mind I always saw myself as working until I was 62, then retiring and living ‘the good life’.  Although the world’s economy in general and the US economy in particular had other ideas regarding the length of my employment I did work until I was 53.  At that point the job market began to contract, the bottom fell out of the IT job market thanks to outsourcing and after seeking work for almost 2 years I was finally forced to take an early retirement.  Because I’d listened to many much wiser than me and because in the course of pursuing ever more lofty employment goals I never found the time to foster either a long-lasting relationship let alone a family I was able to effect this early retirement and live off a SEPP (Substantially Equalized Periodic Payment) until 59 1/2 years of age when I shut this down and worked on some fund reallocation with my dear friend and awesome financial adviser (Kev).  Thanks to his wisdom and expertise along with earlier lifestyle choices I was able to retire and live comfortably.  In this sense I did receive the expected reward for almost 30 years of continuous employment: I was able to retire comfortably albeit earlier than expected and I did have options regarding where I could retire.  From 2007 through the end of 2011 I had all but given up on my dream to retire to Alaska but thanks again to Kev’s wizardry I was finally able to make it happen.  And I turned my 16 year dream into my reality when I pulled out of the driveway of the rental dump I’d inhabited in Northville (MI) and started the 4,224 mile drive to Talkeetna.

And so it might seem that I did live the American dream born in the 50’s and early 60’s; I graduated college, worked most of my life, saved money, retired and was able to fulfill a late in life dream as to the location and lifestyle.  To most this would seem kinda the end of the story but I’ve always had a deeply reflective side – sometimes to my detriment – and hence of late I’ve been looking back over the amazing and sometimes tortuous path that brought me to my current situation.  It’s of interest to me that I only realized once I started volunteering with elderly dementia victims  in 2010 I experienced real job satisfaction; it was almost intoxicating to recognize that even if I could just make a few seconds of some senior’s dementia ridden existence a bit brighter – even though I often knew it would be forgotten within a few seconds – I’d made a positive difference in another human being’s life!  The feeling of fulfillment and joy was unlike anything I experienced while initially working in food manufacturing (QC, QA and R&D) and later in IT Field Support.  In reflection this is sad as it tells me of the lack of real reward in the human sense inherent to all the positions I held for almost three decades.  I also noticed that within three months of ‘retiring’ in 2006 my sleep habits went from being lucky to get six and a half hours of shut-eye to regularly getting eight to nine hours a night.  With this came much better health and a much more optimistic outlook on my life and my future.  In hindsight this is a reflection of the stress and angst I felt while working; regardless of whether it was ‘real’ or I induced it myself it did have a very tangible and negative effect.  Yet I was totally unaware of this negative throughout my employment career.  This offers up a glimpse of some of the ‘bargains’ I made with myself regarding what I would endure to live that ‘American Dream’.

As I progressed through my working life I aspired to continue to take positions with more responsibility – mainly for the increased pay – and this often required relocation.  Initially it didn’t seem so bad but as I aged a feeling of a definite loss began to manifest itself.  I finally came to recognize in my late forties that I had made yet another ‘unconscious’ deal with myself; I’d forgo having any real roots as well as no family so I could continue to pursue more money.  It pains me to re-read that last line as it’s the personification of a shallow, materialistic outlook on life.  I never consciously recall making this decision; I suspect on a deeper level I did so but then shoved it into the realm of denial and ‘the past’ and continued forward.  In so doing I never really considered the potential effects of such a choice nor their far-reaching ramifications.  During my employment with four companies and the state of Ohio which spanned almost three decades I moved eleven times which figures down to a move every 2 years and 8.7 months.  In calculating this number it’s no surprise I was unable to establish any roots as I was never in one place long enough to do so!  This was exacerbated by the fact that the last ten years of my almost 19 year ‘service’ with The Clorox Company I was traveling anywhere from 30% to 80% of the time.  When I now look back on that time in my life I see it as a kind of societal blessed ‘madness’ which while paying well exhausted me emotionally and spiritually.  However I was so hooked on ‘the dream’ that I remember being concerned how I could survive without making $80k to $100 every year!  Of course this was utter nonsense; I live on a tiny fraction of that now and do so very comfortably so I suspect it was just another coping mechanism.

An almost as major choice was included in the aforementioned; without any roots and rarely spending more than two and a half years in a physical location I had no real social life and hence the odds were stacked against me in terms of finding a truly compatible partner and establishing a relationship and a family.  To be honest my luck with the opposite sex was pretty lousy and I now understand this was almost entirely based upon a series of very poor choices on my part.  Relationships came and went, rarely longer than a year and always ending badly.  By my middle fifties I could feel the emotional exhaustion wrought by almost forty years of failed relationships.  I finally accepted the concept that I wasn’t ‘meant’ to have such a relationship; this helped me reach an understanding of my existence as a single person although I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit I suspect this was another coping mechanism of my own creation.  In my middle forties I must admit to starting to look at those around me who were married often with families and being just a bit envious.  As I age I’ve come to recognize more and more what I lost by not working to establish and nurture such a situation.

While it may seem that I’m lamenting my earlier choices in reality this is not the case; as I stated earlier I’m given to moments of reflection and that’s what has driven this exercise.  But I also was raised to understand and accept that life is all about making choices and with any choice comes consequences.  Unlike so many in the recent generation I fully accept responsibilities for my choices regardless of their consequences.  In addition I recognize that my current idyllic existence would most likely have been impossible without having elected to live a solo existence and chase higher paying jobs across my life.  I grant the premise that anything is possible and ultimately I’ll never know for sure but I suspect the concept of me retiring to Alaska would not have even been a consideration if I had a family.  I only discovered Alaska on a three-week backpacking trip with two college buddies in September of 1996; prior to that I had no experience with the state and not a lot of interest in visiting.  If married with a family its unlikely I could’ve made such a trip let alone visited at least annually the following nine years.  Then there’s the entire concept of retiring to Alaska; by far most folks considering retirement to warmer places like the SE or the Sun Belt.  Retirement to Alaska obviously flies in direct contradiction to this concept.  In addition if I had a family my monetary situation would be much less likely to support such a dream; in fact it would probably preclude even considering such a move.  So while I may have given up a lot I also inadvertently allowed myself to not only discover my dream of becoming an Alaskan but make it a reality.

And so I’ve come full circle in my reflections; no real surprise here as such free form ruminations often have a way of returning to their genesis.  I’ve come to realize that I missed a lot during my employment years but in so doing I also paved the way for me to learn of a dream and then make it happen.  I truly love my rural Alaskan lifestyle and I can no longer imagine living in the lower 48; the concept of living urban is completely non sequitur.  I know I’ve made the best choice for myself as I’m very comfortable in my current lifestyle yet I’m also truly stretching myself in terms of efforts and activities.  While there is no option for volunteering with seniors with dementia in this area I am volunteering time at the local radio station (KTNA) as a newscaster and the host of a music show and I’m also donating time to the Upper Susitna Food Pantry – it’s a volunteer organization that distributes food to local needy families and people – in the form of driving to Palmer and Anchorage to pick up donated food stuffs and providing PC support.  And my lessons on rural Alaskan living continue unabated; I have so much yet to learn.  Yes, life is all about making choices and then dealing with the consequences; at this point in my existence I can honestly say I have no major regrets regarding my decisions and feel I’m in the best place I can be given my situation.  And I suppose that says ultimately the Universe has seen fit to take care of me; I needed only to recognize I needed to let go, go with the flow and always keep my mind open to any and all possibilities..!