Warm and dry weather has settled over south central Alaska promising the return of mosquitoes and tourists. Late last week I killed the first mosquito of the season; it was one of the big, slow and noisy ‘over-winter’ variety but its appearance heralds the first batch of this season’s blood suckers which will be small, quiet and very hungry. I’ve refilled the propane tank and will most likely setup the ‘Mosquito Magnet’ once the snow disappears. For the time being it is providing me the fuel to grill on the front porch. The kidz are reveling in getting out for daily walks with me; previously the roads were too icy and snow covered to safely walk. I love being able to do at least half my daily 12k+ steps outside in the sunshine and fresh air! Without question, we are into the winter to spring changeover.
Break up is my least favorite season up here as is true for many Alaskans mainly because water and the associated mud seems to be everywhere! In this area our mud is composed mainly of gray/brown glacial silt which is extremely fine grained; it clings to the coats of my canine companions until it dries – normally, inside the house – and falls off. I can tell their favorite resting areas by the accumulation of the floury, gray silt; while it cleans up easily there seems no end to the stuff during this season. Not all that long ago this area was buried beneath glaciers which slowly retreated towards the Alaska Range to the north and the Talkeetna Mountains to the east grinding up rock as they moved; this explains the abundance of the material. This glacial flour is also responsible for the clouds of dust lifted by vehicles driving on the unpaved roads; if it is windless this dust can hang in the air for minutes confirming its fine nature. This also explains why auto manufacturers consider this to be an ‘extreme’ area in terms of vehicle wear and tear; coupled with the snow and cold the dust makes it really hard on mechanical objects.
As the spring intensifies so does the solar radiation; this, in turn, begins to heat the interior of the house with time. Already it is unusual to awaken to an air temp in the master bedroom below 62.0° F (16.7° C); just a month back I would often arise to a brisk 58.0° F (14.4° C) or cooler. The slow rise of the internal ambient air temperature is something I encourage in early spring but by late spring I’m already using fans to draw in the cooler early morning air, despite the high humidity, such that the afternoon temps on the second floor aren’t getting too warm. Almost all my screens are back in place and I’ve even put up some light blocking shields in the master bedroom windows as it is remaining light until 22:45 and we will not see ‘Astronomical Twilight’ again until August 10th. I would like to learn to sleep with the sun streaming in the windows but to this point I’ve not yet been able to make this happen. Maybe with the passage of a few more summers..?
This will be the first year I’ll be added routines involving my 2017 R-pod travel trailer; I hauled it back here in September of 2017. The winterization process was very straightforward and fairly simple; I expect the efforts required to get it ready for use this spring through fall will be equally easy. With a bit of luck I’ll be able to load up the trailer, pack the kidz in the back seat of the Escape and do some camping in the Kenai Peninsula late April to early May. With luck this should allow me to avoid the first of the real tourist crush but there’s still a lot of snow in portions of the Kenai so I’ll have to wait and see. If I cannot get down into that area this spring I will do so come fall. After all, I didn’t go through the epic journey of hauling the unit from central Montana to Talkeetna just to let it sit!
The moose which were almost ubiquitous just a few weeks back have largely disappeared. I suspect this is a combination of a much decreased snow pack and the cows heading into the forest to birth spring calves. This winter was hard on the local moose population as I’ve seen more reports of moose carcasses since February than during any other similar time frame since relocating up here. There are the remains of a bull just about a half mile east of my place; a neighbor told me of the carcass last week. It is common to share such knowledge amongst the locals as such situations can and do draw bears as they come out of hibernation. Learning of the bull’s remains will cause me to alter my early morning walks with the kidz for the next few months; we’ll be walking primarily to the west. Once the local scavengers have had time to degrade the remains it will again be fine to walk that area with the dogs.
And so the seasonal cycle is once again on display in ‘The Great Land’. As with all things in life there are positive and negative aspects to this dance but in the long run I still enjoy the season’s shift and am looking forward to leaves again populating the branches of the birch trees and warm summer breezes. Of course, there will always be the mosquitoes and tourists but that’s all part of life in magnificent south central Alaska…
A look to the north on Riven showing mainly bare earth with the ubiquitous puddles.
Qanuk contemplates a section of East Barge Drive inundated by snow melt; he is less sure on ice than Anana (my Alaskan malamute)
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…
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…