My final OT session was yesterday (Thursday, June 25th) and so I had reason to make the 64 mile drive south down the Parks Highway to Wasilla; in so doing I drove through the Willow area. It occurred to me I’ve never actually seen an area recently burned by a wildfire and so I was basically clueless as to what I would see. Much to my surprise it was actually rather limited in scope but then this was only what I could view from the highway as I had no intention of wandering around the area. I began to see burned areas perhaps four miles north of Willow and recognized the destruction was extremely haphazard in nature; in some areas wide swaths of forest were burned but in others just pockets of forest and grassy areas were blackened with other areas immediately adjacent untouched. I also witnessed a couple of apparently intact dwellings surrounded by blackened forest; this bore testimony to the valor and skill of the hero firefighters and possibly some die-hard locals.The air was just a bit hazy but I believe this was due to the slowly breaking down temperature inversion we’ve experienced across this week but the instantly recognizable smell of ‘wildfire’ was everywhere. Along with the smell were numerous signs thanking the firefighters; in addition there were official signs designating command centers, a heli-pad, and marshaling points. I also did see a few fire vehicles off the road in burned areas. The main town of Willow appeared to be untouched by the fire but was mostly surrounded by burned areas especially to the north and east. While driving through Willow I tried to imagine how it would have appeared with smoke and active fire all around the outskirts; it would have been very frightening!
I must admit that I had expected to see more damage given all the reports and aerial coverage but was very pleased to see a relative dearth of destroyed buildings. This is not to minimize the destruction wrought by the Sockeye Fire; it was very costly and only because of the heroic actions of the firefighters and immediate action on the part of the Mat-Su Borough in getting evacuation plans functioning were no lives lost. Even so it was a debilitating fire and something no one would want to experience if given a choice. It is up to we Alaskans to insure our sisters and brothers receive all the assistance they require to put their lives back together. While heartbreaking to lose one’s home and possessions to such an event in the end it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been especially as Mother Nature did not cooperate. In the final analysis possessions are just ‘things’ but life is special and also irreplaceable.
Concentration of firefighting vehicles just north of Willow
Burned areas on both sides of the Parks north of Willow
Close up of burned Boreal Forest
Fire truck heading north on the Parks Highway
As I approach my second full year of living in semi-rural south central Alaska I’ve learned so many things but one of the biggest learnings involves the fact that one never knows what a new day will bring in ‘The Great Land’. Life is a lot more ‘real’ for me in this area and as is true in all Alaska Nature is ‘in your face’ where ever you turn so it is tough not to become very much aware of the natural world. As I learned last week wildfires can explode from almost nothing and become a dangerous threat in just hours; but for the grace of God all of us in this area might have been forced to evacuate if the winds had blown from the south instead of the north. We were extremely lucky and this feeds our need to be there for all those displaced by the Sockeye Fire; we certainly would hope to see such support from our neighbors if and when our time comes!
And I learned over this weekend that local situations involving wildlife remain an ever present potential for danger. Living rural in Alaska virtually guarantees one will observe all kinds of wildlife from small but energetic Red Squirrels through the apex predators embodied in the Polar and Brown bears. One just accepts we humans are living in their world and as such we must learn to live by their rules. Indeed, it is the presence of such large mammals like bears, moose, caribou, wolves and similar that give an excitement to our daily lives but also task us with being aware and changing our habits so as to remain safe. I had to relearn how to manage my garbage after moving up here, at least during bear season. One never, ever leaves food or packaging having contained food outside; it is either stored inside until it can be transported to the garbage collection sites or burned. It is just a good idea to rattle the front door handle before walking outside in the darker times because one never knows what might be just outside the door. I’ve seen both grizzlies and moose on my property and seen many signs of their presence both on my land and on the nearby roads. We have become accustomed to understanding we’re just sharing this land with these animals and because they are wild animals unusual and exciting things can occur.
Such was the case last Saturday when I received a phone call around 11:30 ADKT from my neighbor John Strasenburg maybe 0.4 miles east on East Barge Drive (EBD) warning me that maybe another 0.4 miles to the east there had just been an encounter between a grizzly and a cow moose with two calves. Apparently it was quite an altercation with the cow being injured and one of the calves mauled and having difficulty walking. The second calf was apparently okay. The bear did disappear but given the injuries to the cow and especially the calf it’s virtually guaranteed it remains in the area. Grizzlies are very intelligent and opportunistic hunters; if the bear knew it fatally injured either the cow or the calf it might well just hang back and allow Nature to make the kill for it. For now this remains a potentially dangerous situation as many folks in this immediate area have dogs and walk them up and down EBD and Riven Street. After receiving this call I posted a notice for the locals on the ‘Talkeetna Traders’ Facebook site and walked to all my immediate neighbor’s houses informing them of what I’d heard. ‘The Kidz’ were never allowed off my property Saturday or Sunday and when outside I was with them carrying my fully loaded rifled barrel 12 gauge pump shotgun; it has solid shot magnum loads which will take down a grizzly. Mostly I just hope we do not run into the bear or the moose. For all you ‘lower 48er’s’ out there most Alaskans fear moose more than bears as moose kill far more people in Alaska each year than polar bears, grizzlies (i.e. brown bears) and black bears combined.
As of this Monday I’ve heard no more regarding this incident but then I expected this would be the case. In all likelihood the bear either wandered just a ways deeper into the boreal forest and waited for Nature to make its kill – bears are very intelligent and opportunistic hunters and they would gladly forgo tangling with an adult moose – given the injuries to the one calf or it did finish off the injured calf and possibly the cow and then dragged the kills further into the forest. Regardless, this is just the rhythm of Nature and something we Alaskans accept and actually enjoy. Without question just another day in rural south central Alaska…
Every June the wonderful staff of KTNA (88.9 FM or ktna.org) throws a great BBQ to honor the volunteers who help make the station function. This is always a great time as there’s an abundance of food, drink and fellowship. We also get a group image for posterity’s sake. A bit into the gig some of the locals provided musical entertainment. I did bring Anana along to work on her socialization; she worked the crowd and made some new friends but she was also very warm as it was 88 F and sunny. She mainly stayed in the shade and did get her share of great food. Images follow:
The grills are started and the early volunteers work with the staff to prepare for the main event
The BBQ grill masters are hard at work cooking delicious food
Now that’s a barbecue!
Just a few of the many KTNA volunteers
Just an all-round great time!
Alaska has an amazing way of demonstrating just how little real ‘control’ we humans can exert upon this awesome state and yesterday we saw another humbling example of this truism. My friend Mark stopped in around 14:30 and told me a wildfire was burning to the south around Mile 78 of the Parks Highway. We immediately turned on the television but had to wait until 17:00 to get an Anchorage newscast; from it we learned a wildfire was burning out of control along the western side of the Parks at Mile 76 and had jumped the Parks Highway and was now burning along the east side as well. The state troopers had closed the Parks at Mile 78 to any traffic south bound; they were also diverting folks trying to drive north. At that time the fire was believed to be about 30 acres in size. Around 17:20 we decided to make the 7 mile trip to Cubby’s – a small grocery store – at the intersection of the Spur and the Parks Highway. As we approached the entrance to Cubby’s from the Parks we could see a huge cloud to the south along with the upwelling of ash brown smoke. This was our first glimpse of what was to become the Sockeye Wildfire.
The parking lot of Cubby’s was filled and inside it was a mess; many locals and tourists didn’t even know there was a fire and those that did were scrambling. The RVer’s were buying anything they could grab and many tourists in cars were panicking because they needed to get south. Few people had even the scant information we possessed so we disseminated what little we knew to the crowds. Upon finishing our shopping we headed back to the Spur; in so doing we saw a trooper parked on the side of the road stopping folks southbound on the Parks. They were allowing anyone access who lived at Mile 80 or further north; all others were being diverted to Talkeetna or asked to head north. Driving north on the Spur I saw three large Princess Cruise Lines buses pulled off on the side of the road; I’m sure they were trying to figure out what to do. As tourist season is in full bloom most of the rooms in Talkeetna were occupied and I’m sure by Sunday evening there was no lodging to be had in the village or outlying areas.
Our weather was about the worst it could be with blazing sunshine, an air temp of 84 F along with 30+ mph northerly winds and a relative humidity of just 22%. Sadly today is the same but as of 13:12 AKDT the outdoor temp is already 84.2 F with just 26% RH and 25+ mph northerly winds. Given our maximum temps are now occurring around 20:00 we will most likely set a record with temps near if not exceeding 90 F. Because of the northerly winds this area is safe; in this sense we are extremely lucky. But the fire continues to burn out of control and within a bit over 12 hours it has grown from just 30 acres to more than 6,200 acres; that’s an increase in size of almost 207 times!! The Parks is currently open but is just one lane through the Willow area and vehicles can only drive this area when led by a pilot car. Given the usual amount of summer traffic on the Parks coupled with a very busy tourist season there are a lot of rightly worried people. Sadly many tourists are getting a taste of what it is like to live in Alaska!
Out of control due to high winds and hot temps with low humidity the Sockeye Fire burns ever onward
The tenuous hold we humans have in ‘The Great Land’ is highlighted by this fire; in just 24 hours the blaze has cut the only road from Anchorage and the Palmer/Wasilla area to the interior and is destroying homes and properties. Normally the state allows wildfires to burn uncontrolled unless lives or property are in danger; in this case they are working feverishly to contain the fire. Six ‘hot shot’ teams were flown in from the lower 48 last night and are on the fire lines along with every available firefighting team from the state. As of this writing it has spread to the outskirts of the Nancy Lake area which is large and densely populated – at least by Alaskan terms – with expensive homes, summer cabins and lots of docks with lake access. Just to the SE is Houston; it really lies at the northernmost reaches of the Wasilla area. These folks are being evacuated as are those in the Nancy Lake area.
Iditarod contestant Jan Steve’s Willow home
Alaskans know Mother Nature will largely do as she will and there’s little we can do about it but go with the flow. But we can support our neighbors and do all we can to help them not just survive this disaster but also rebuild. For the near term just trying to organize to assist them is a huge chore; no one knows just how much work will be required in the future to help them re-establish their lives. Not that most of us needed the reminder but we humans exist in this majestic state at the benevolence of Mother Nature; as such we must always remember she can be a fickle landlord. Please say a prayer for all our neighbors to the immediate south and for all the brave firefighters!
Water tanker aircraft makes a run on the Sockeye Wildfire around Willow
Across the past few weeks I’ve had more than enough time on my hands as I continue to heal from my severely fractured left radius and ulna and restrain myself from undertaking much in terms of physical activities per my OT Jen. It has been almost ten weeks since that cloudy and cool March day when a smallest of motions changed my current existence and set me off on a voyage of discovery once the pain was managed. In hindsight I now recognize I went through a number of ‘phases’ with the severe injury: initially it was extreme pain and hoping the arm was just wrenched or similar, then western medicine intervened and I learned I had broken my left arm although determining the severity had to wait – along with a cast and pain meds – until I drove myself the 65 miles or so to the Mat Su Regional Health Clinic, then the long wait to schedule a visit to the orthopedic surgeon followed by the crushing news I would need full surgery followed by the actual surgery.
At this point I began the healing process; initially I was in ‘La La Land’ thanks to the Percocets but soon I realized I did not need them regularly but rather once in a while and the opiate fog slowly lifted. From time to time a solid dose of ethyl alcohol was substituted but for the most part I was focused on learning to get by with just my right arm. This required weeks of learning interspersed with moments of frustration and some rage at my inability to just ‘function’. When the cast was finally removed I began another phase; recovery with a lot of occupational therapy which is where I am currently. Jen is thrilled with my progress to date and feels I should regain 90% of my former range of motion and flexibility if not more. I may only have another few weeks of required ‘office’ therapy before I enter into the much longer phase of continued ‘home’ work on stretching and strengthening my left arm.
During the last few weeks I’ve noticed a lot of introspection on my part; some driven no doubt by being bored with respect to getting out and doing things but some of this is based much deeper.Having led an injury free life to this point I was ill-prepared for the immediate shock of such a serious fall; in this case the shock was good as it allowed me to get back home before I had an inkling of the severity of the damage to my left arm. After learning of the nature of the insult and understanding I would require serious surgery I developed a sense of fear regarding my balance even though what caused me to trip would’ve tripped anyone. I suffered nightmares about falling for many weeks and I couldn’t even consider jumping while on any infirm surface like ice or wet snow. Since that time I’ve found myself unwilling to climb ladders or do anything that might put me in a position to fall. Soon this came to frustrate me as while I do not want to repeat such an accident I sure as Hell do not want to live in fear of doing so! And so it is I find myself profoundly changed by this one perhaps 3 second occurrence. I am continuing to force myself to ‘get up, dust myself off and get back on the horse’ and I’m seeing some success.
But this accident really delivered a perspective shift with respect to the perhaps too cavalier outlook I had on living alone. Of course I’ve considered the ramifications in the past but once again I knew them only from an intellectual level; this event brought in the emotional and now spiritual perspectives. And this has caused some deep introspection on my part. I cannot see any change to my existence and I really do not want any; I truly enjoy living solo with my canine companions and I love living in semi-rural south central Alaska! But because I’m a thoughtful being I cannot escape the need to reflect upon not just my situation but what I have missed out on in taking this path. It is almost as though the emotional and spiritual shock from the accident were initially buried as my body sought to come to terms with the injury and then heal it. But I could only bury these powerful motivations for so long and now they have exploded into my consciousness with the force of a moose bursting from a tree line. As such I have no choice but to indulge them regardless of where they take me.
I’ve come to appreciate that life is tenuous; that it can be robust and full at one point yet changed forever in the blink of an eye. I really reinforced my slowly evolving outlook of the past decade that I am aging and with that age comes an awareness of one’s mortality both in remaining years but also in one’s physical condition. I have faced this realization and decided that I must heed to its basic premise but I must also push against its constraints but do so in a sensible and controlled fashion. In hindsight I should long ago have really learned that one instance can change one’s life; sometimes for the good but also sometimes for the bad. The real importance here is not the actual instance or event but rather how we choose to respond to said instance or event. Even at the older age of sixty one and two thirds years it is possible to take a very negative event (my accident) and experience the pain, the frustration, the desperation yet never lose sight of the positives. Sure, I will never regain the $48,000 that three second error in judgment cost me and my left arm will never fully recover; in addition I know I’ll have some psychic scarring which may or may not heal but the latter is up to me.
And what positives can I glean from such a tumultuous event..? I learned I can tolerate extreme pain for more than a day yet still function. All of the health care professionals I met during this event marveled that I managed to go 28 hours without pain meds given the severity of the accident. I learned that I was ill-equipped to manage daily life on my own if I was crippled by some physical shortcoming. This led to me re-thinking some of my situation; I realized that if I had broken a leg or ankle I would be in deep kimchee because all the bedrooms are on the second floor and because my house is a renovated and ‘add on’ cabin the stairs are both narrow and very steep. A simple solution was the purchase of a portable inflatable bed for storage on the main floor. Should I ever manage to break a leg or ankle I’ll still have a place to sleep on the main floor and be able to forgo the steps for some time. But I believe the most important positives have come from my introspection’s regarding myself and my place in life. I’ve lost that ‘oh so common’ feeling that life is something that just happens and is ‘owed’ to we humans. Now I recognize the precious nature of life in general and my physical health in particular; I both suspect and hope I will never again take these for granted. In a way I now view my existence with clearer sight as I am no longer ‘clouded’ by the care free belief that I am invincible and the perception that hugely upsetting events cannot happen to me.
I’d say my life is indeed now richer for this experience and I also view it as more precious and better understand its tenuous nature. Although I’d have not believed it prior to this situation the introduction of a monumentally negative event in my life has actually allowed me to better perceive life and appreciate it in all its fragility and wonder.