Moose, Bears, Dogs & Fall

The continuing run of mostly clear days followed by clear nights has definitely played a major role in dropping the 24 hour average temperatures across the past couple of weeks. This was best illustrated with this morning’s low of 5.2 F under clear skies; this is actually a bit lower than Talkeetna’s average January low temp of 6.0 F. Yesterday’s mean temp was a cool 16.9 F which is a value I’d expect to see in December. Of course the continually shortening days are playing their part as well; today we’ll just eight hours and thirty five minutes of direct sunlight which is a decrease of five minutes and fifty seconds from yesterday. All this is combining to bring a real feel of winter to south central Alaska even though calendar winter doesn’t begin for fifty three days.

With the cooler weather I’ve finished up all my preparations for winter and now eagerly await the snow and real cold. On these cool October mornings I can really feel winter in the air and I’m not the only one. My Alaskan Malamute, Anana, once again has a real spring in her step and is beginning to wander further afield requiring more consistent vigilance on my part when we’re outdoors. I’ve seen her exhibit this trait more strongly with the advent of cold; she is without question true to her breed. I do remain a bit concerned about my German Shepherd Dog, Qanuk, who lives to run and be outdoors; so much so he will forgo coming inside when his paws are beginning to suffer from the cold and snow. Last season he bled from all four paws and I quickly learned I had to limit his outdoor activity based upon the air temp. Poor guy struggled across all of April to beat back the infection and heal the area between his pads. Then, in early July, the condition struck again requiring a vet visit and much more drastic steps to finally kill the infection and heal his paws. I have booties of the kind used by the local dog teams and when the snow begins I will try to get him to wear them. I plan to let him outside, tether him to a corner pole on the front porch, ‘suit him up’ and then take him out for a long run. I’m hoping he’ll build the association between putting on the booties – I already know he will hate wearing them – and getting a good run in the cold and snow. The things we do for our four legged companions..!

Qanuk and Anana getting tough in the back yard; although they can really mix it up they are the best of friends

Qanuk and Anana getting tough in the back yard; although they can really mix it up they are the best of friends

A welcome change across the past couple of weeks has been a sudden resurgence in the local moose; I believe I counted just three sightings across May through September which was extremely low. Last year I saw at least ten moose from just August through October and a pair were in my yard. In addition although we saw moose in the boreal forest at least once a week during our 2013 walks this year I’ve seen a moose just once and that was the one Anana irritated and consequently had to run for dear life. Across the last three weeks in October I’ve sighted five moose including this guy awaiting his chance to cross ‘the Spur’ a few miles south of my street. When he realized I had stopped and was taking pictures he ambled across the road and into the forest.

Young bull moose patiently waiting his turn to cross the Spur around 10 miles south of talkeetna

Young bull moose patiently waiting his turn to cross the Spur around 10 miles south of Talkeetna

Bear sightings have been off as well this year; to this point in 2014 I’ve seen just two grizzlies and a black bear. To this point I’ve read only one ‘bear alert’ for Talkeetna on my Friday evening KTNA newscast and that was in the spring. Even the bear sign has been more dispersed and fewer in number. I suspect weather plays a role and given the locals tell me this year’s crop of tourists was by far the most they’ve ever seen I suspect this might be influencing the wildlife living and foraging patterns as well. I certainly hope this is not the beginning of a trend as while I have great respect for all the local wildlife I also take immense joy from just observing it from a safe distance and seeing signs that it’s around the immediate area. For me Alaska just wouldn’t be Alaska without the large ungulates and bruins.

‘Sourdough’ Here I Come…

Heading into my second year of living in rural south central Alaska I’m feeling better prepared in terms of my preparations for the pending winter and also much more settled regarding the likelihood of major surprises with respect to living conditions. With this said I also know full well Alaska is nothing if not unpredictable and often full of surprises many of which are downright nasty. I’ve been humbled enough times during my previous 14 months to recognize I need to remain aware of what goes on around me and practice the incredibly important ‘art’ of being prepared. A simple example of this is the now routine practice of rotating the front door handle back and forth a couple of times before venturing outside onto my front porch. Doing this allows any ‘critters’ the chance to recognize something ‘human’ is ongoing and most likely depart from the immediate area. I learned this routine the hard way when I inadvertently surprised a large cow moose early one morning last March when it was still dark outside. I was running a bit late for a Pantry trip and was rushing; as I popped out the door I saw a large dark shape no more than 20 feet in front of me. I froze; it snorted and took off in the opposite direction. I knew it wasn’t a bear as it was still too early in the season but that hardly made me feel any better because an irate moose is just as dangerous!

Yet I do feel this winter will see me much more comfortable with respect to living in my home and correspondingly saving money on fuel oil and electricity. My college buddy Sarge is finishing up a two week visit and we’ve been busy; there’s an additional layer of R30 insulation in the attic and there’s a large hole cut into the second story floor just above the Toyo stove on the main floor. Said hole has a custom built (Thank You Sarge!!!) cluster of four ducted DC fans which are reversible and variable speed; these have dramatically increased the convection loop between the first and second floors. Previously there was virtually no exchange of air which allowed the second floor to become quite cool in the dead of winter and far too warm during the summer. Just since the unit was installed a week back I’ve seen the air temperatures in the master bedroom and one of the two ‘spare’ bedrooms increase from 59 F to 63 F and that’s with no change to the Toyo’s thermostat and no decrease in the air temp on the main floor. We also did a much better job sealing up the two external doors; this has made quite a difference in the mud room. I can now leave it open to the rest of the house as it is just a couple degrees cooler; previous to the sealing work it would be anywhere from six to nine degrees cooler based upon the outside temp. Being able to leave it open to the main floor is important because the dog’s food and water station is in the mud room; last year I had to move it once the snow arrived and given they are not careful eaters and drinkers I had dog food and water all over my bamboo floor. We also assembled a 12’ x 20’ x 8’ ‘ShelterLogic’ steel tube and tarp enclosure for my 2011 Ford Escape. It’ll be great to get it out of the weather especially during the winter months; already I’ve enjoyed not having to scrape frosty windows in the early morning. These are but a few of the myriad of home improvements we’ve made during his visit.

He’s also mounted a set of ‘moose lights’ – folks in the lower 48 often refer to these as ‘driving lights’ – to the front of my Escape. In a stroke of genius he wired them into the bright beams relay for the headlights such that they are operated in tandem with the high beams! This simplified the wiring and negated having to run wiring through the firewall for an independent switch. It’s a given if I’m operating the moose lights I’ll be using the high beams as well so I love this elegant solution! Because I will be making my first series of trips for the Pantry in the dead of winter this year – I started volunteering with them in early March of this year and hence missed making the runs to Anchorage and Palmer in December, January and February – I really do not have a feel for the conditions. But I do know there are moose all along the Parks Highway and the first 40 miles of that road between the ‘Y’ and the outskirts of Wasilla have no lighting of any kind. Using those 130 watt pencil beams to light up the sides of the road far out in front of me could well save me from colliding with a moose during the cold dark of a December or January morning.

With all this said I’m feeling pretty good about improved living this upcoming year. Given this current late summer into middle fall period I’m already seeing just how aberrant last year’s weather was across this same time frame regarding temperatures and precipitation. It has been much drier and cooler which is much more in line with the ‘typical’ conditions for the period. Along with the weather shift I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the much lower density and activity of the local insect population. During the late summer and through early November the mosquitoes were a continual bother requiring long sleeved shirts and ample applications of ‘Deep Woods Off’ if I was to be outdoors for even a few minutes. This year the mosquitoes disappeared by the third week in August; they were replaced by two weeks of black flies but these vanished around the second week in September. After that I’ve only had to deal with gnats which while annoying are much easier to tolerate. And across the past week the weather has been gorgeous with clear to partly sunny days running high temps in the upper thirties to low forties and crystal clear nights with lows in the upper teens to twenties. Consequently I’ve observed the aurora on a nightly basis and really enjoyed the meteorites which have been so prevalent across the last five days. While the auroral displays have been mono-colored – pale blue – and rather subdued I’m not complaining as given the past week I’ve seen more aurora than I did all last winter! We’ve even seen a couple of dustings of snow although most of us are chomping at the bit to see winter really move in and unload.

All told I’m truly looking forward to my second year in this magnificent state; according to the locals once I make it through my second winter I’ll officially be a ‘Sourdough’. Like most ‘Talkeetnans’ I’m hoping for a long, cold winter with more than the average five and three quarters feet of snowfall. Of course Mother Nature will do as she will and we’re just along to observe and participate in her seasonal dance. So in accordance with this observation all I can say is; “Let’s Dance..!!!”

Reversible, variable speed ducted fan assembly in office floor

Reversible, variable speed ducted fan assembly in office floor

ShelterLogic 20' x 12' x 8' enclosure for Escape

ShelterLogic 20′ x 12′ x 8′ enclosure for Escape

Of Lunar Eclipses and Technology…

Gorgeous 'Blood Moon'

Gorgeous ‘Blood Moon’

 

Mother Nature once again delighted last night with clear skies which allowed perfect viewing of the full lunar eclipse which was gorgeous in the brisk albeit clear 16 F air. As the night was without wind the conditions were just about perfect and I took full advantage of them to enjoy yet another of Nature’s plethora of light shows. Right around 02:00 AKDT one of the local dog teams was spooked as they really began to kick up a ruckus of barking which eventually changed over to howling before finally dissipating. Without question this seemed the perfect accent to the slowly darkening moon.

In an odd coincidence Matanuska Electric Association (MEA) decided to add a bit of its own ‘atmosphere’ to the evening by dropping power to this area around 02:55 AKDT which almost matched the moon’s fully eclipsed surface. I didn’t notice at first as I was on my back porch with all the lights out to facilitate the viewing. Only when I went inside to grab a cup of hot tea did I realize there were no readouts on any of the appliances; even in my rather sleepy state I immediately recognized the power was down. Interesting that it should occur on a clear, windless evening with just slightly below normal temperatures. This was the tenth time MEA has seen the power fail in this area during 2014. To be fair five of those times saw interruptions of less than three minutes but even so they’re on track to see one power interruption per month. Because they have a checkered past with respect to reliable electricity I am well prepared with strategically placed candles, lighters and flashlights and so took the event in stride. Power was finally restored around 06:30.

As I returned to my back porch it dawned on me that now I was watching this majestic natural occurrence just as folks would have viewed it back one hundred years and more. While a warm drink would’ve been nice standing on my back porch viewing the celestial event with just my warm three layers of clothing, down booties and gloves was probably much closer to how my distant relatives might have been dressed had they chanced upon such an occurrence. With the infrequent howls of the local canines providing a dramatic back drop for the slowly progressing lunar eclipse I really felt at one with my natural surroundings. Except for the aforementioned canine contributions the night was incredible silent and it was somehow peaceful to watch the moonlight slowly decrease as the earth’s shadow marched inexorably across the lunar surface. I wondered how my ancestors would’ve stayed warm in such conditions and what they would’ve thought of the lunar eclipse creating the ‘blood moon’.

Currently most humans have some amazing technology which allows us to be comfortable in otherwise uncomfortable conditions and allows us to do just what I was doing – viewing a full lunar eclipse outside – in comfort. But I also recognized on this cool, clear morning that this same technology removes us from being truly close to Nature and I’m not so sure this is a good thing. While I am not suggesting we return to a lifestyle before electricity, sewage systems and natural gas or fuel oil I have come to believe that most of us are so insulated from our natural surroundings we’ve almost completely lost touch. We’re so consumed with our portable communication devices, our computers, TVs and virtual realities we pay little to no attention to the natural world. I now understand better why I so love my rural Alaskan lifestyle; it not only allows me but forces me to be in touch with my natural surroundings. And in so doing I’m so much more balanced, more centered and more serene. I’m hardly ready to give up a lot of my ‘creature comforts’ yet I do understand their negatives with respect to isolating me from my natural surroundings and so I can choose to forgo them to any degree in order to maintain the harmony and balance I receive from being closer to Nature. So now I much better understand my slow drift away from all things technological and my outright embracing of a simpler, more basic lifestyle…