As I prepare for my next great adventure to pick up my R-pod from a rural farm in Three Forks, Montana I thought perhaps I should finish clearing out some of more memorable images from my Alaskan life and visits. Included in this collage is an image taken on The Alaska Highway in British Columbia during my relocation trip from SE Michigan to Talkeetna. I mention it only because technically it isn’t Alaskan weather or Alaskan skies but it was tied to moving up here. I hope to be able to share some amazing images from the majestic provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and The Yukon Territories as well as from Montana and, of course, Alaska. Here’s to the wonder and majesty of Nature regardless of its location!
The recent Labor Day weekend was gorgeous here in south central Alaska with three days of azure blue high pressure skies, abundant sunshine and highs in the lower to middle teens with morning lows from -2 C to 0 C. This was a refreshing change from the rather mundane weather across most of August and hopefully is a promise as to a ‘normal’ fall and especially winter this year. Granted, it was just a bit early to see freezing temps here in Talkeetna as it is more ‘normal’ to see frosts occurring around now with the actual freezes waiting until the second half of September but such conditions are far from unheard of in this area. My canine companions loved the cool morning walks; indeed, my female Alaskan Malamute (Anana) had a spring in her step and was running like I haven’t seen since last winter. Concurrent with this cooler weather darkness has once again returned to the night skies and I found I truly missed its presence across the previous three months! It was wonderful to once again see stars within the darkness. The seasonal dance is once more underway after seeming to have stalled during the summer and I couldn’t be more pleased.
I’m now almost a month into my second year of rural living in south central Alaska and I find I am loving the lifestyle even more; it just feels ‘right’ to be starting to work on a bevy of chores tied to the approach of fall. With the demise of the mosquitoes midway through August the propane tank on my ‘Mosquito Magnet’ obligingly emptied itself so I disconnected it and stored it in my shed. I’m just finishing cleaning and winterizing the main unit and soon it, too, will find its winter resting place in the shed. I pulled down my hummingbird feeder; it never attracted any of the ‘flying jewels’ but in July the Swallow Tailed Butterflies made good use of its nectar. I will probably not bother hanging it again next year but who knows; hope does spring eternal!
Last winter I learned an important lesson regarding the snow pack and my shed; even though it is more than a foot off the ground by December there was so much snow it was impossible to open the door. As I use it for storage this was a real problem; I could not get to items I needed and hence had to awkwardly wade the snow and shovel just enough away to get the door open. In hindsight we saw just 33% of the ‘typical’ snowfall last winter so this year I’m planning ahead and digging out items I know I’ll need like snow shovels, snow rake, battery charger/starter and similar. These will be staged on the front porch or in the mud room for easy access. I’ll return items like my bicycle, pump and ground pads to the shed. This will ensure I have the items I really need at the ready before the snow flies.
I also drained the gasoline in the generator and changed the oil. I took the three full five gallon Jerry cans of gasoline I’ve had on hand since last fall (Yes, I added Sta-bil to each just after filling!) and emptied them into the Escape’s fuel tank. I’ll haul all four can to the gas station, fill them up, return them to the house, add Sta-bil to each and empty one into the generator’s tank. This way I’ve cycled the gasoline and will have fifteen gallons on hand for the upcoming fall and winter. Last season I had all four cans filled along with the generator but given I used just one can across the period I think having three full cans as back up is probably sufficient.
I finally removed the sun shields from the master bedroom windows and replaced the screens; it was wonderful to once again have fresh air flowing in that room! I’ll leave the screens in now but will also be prepared to apply the 3M film once it is truly cold again. With the cool weekend I discovered my Toyo furnace is functioning just fine when I accidentally left a few windows open Friday night. I awoke early Saturday morning to a ‘strange’ noise; until I really became conscious I didn’t realize it was the Toyo firing up! Not being a fan of heating the great outdoors I immediately jumped up, threw on some clothes and proceeded to locate the three windows I’d left open and close them. Given the -0.5 C outdoor air temp I wasn’t surprised to see the main floor air temp was 9 C. Definitely a bone headed maneuver on my part but at least this did prove the Toyo is ready for the upcoming cold.
Thinking about last winter and some procedures which didn’t really work well I’ve some new plans of action. The dogs normally use the back door to access the back porch and then the back yard; I didn’t keep their path well shoveled initially and then I had a huge issue with icy steps. This year I’m getting my butt outside any time we have more than a few inches of new show and clearing it while the dogs are outside; my goal is to keep their access route clear of any ice and snow. Speaking of ‘the kidz’ I have booties for my male German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk) as he had real issues with the extreme cold last year; his paws eventually cracked and bled as did the areas between his pads. I now know I have to control his outside exercise based upon the air temp but the booties should also help. Anana suffered no issues which isn’t a surprise given this is the home of her breed but I will be checking even her tough paws on a regular basis.
As I measure daily precipitation for CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain Hail & Snow network) I will also need to keep the path to my snow board – it’s located on the SW corner of the back porch railing – open and as free from snow as possible. And, if we get any truly monumental dumps I will need to have access to the back yard such that I can shovel an area for the kidz to take care of their business. I’ll also insure I have a large broom staged by the back door as last year the snow was often light and fluffy and hence could be ‘broomed’ away. I’ve also rearranged my winter ‘ditty bag’ to fit into a milk crate which will go back into the Escape soon; it contains everything I’d need to get by for a few days if stranded by winter weather while out on the road.
These are just a few of the ongoing tasks one undertakes when preparing for the seasonal shift in this area. I truly enjoy them as they are reminders of last year’s fun in what winter we had and also a harbinger of the approaching fall and winter. All around me there are signs of this change; the birch are beginning to change into their yellow and gold colors and the taiga/tundra is already shifting to that majestic patchwork carpet of gorgeous reds, oranges, yellows and greens. There’s a feeling of increased activity within the boreal forest as the inhabitants prepare to either move to warmer areas or hunker down for the winter. In the lower 48 fall was always my favorite season; based on my 13 months of living in the Talkeetna area I’d say winter is now my favorite month with fall right behind it. But more than anything else I feel my essence reverberating in harmony with the seasonal changes and this seems to release more energy and appreciation of Nature’s wondrous dance…and what a partner she is!!
In keeping with the ‘winter that wasn’t’ and the mild fall our break up has come earlier than usual and now spring is in full bloom. We’ve seen five consecutive days of high temps in the fifties along with abundant sunshine. The icy roads have finally surrendered to the warm sun’s kiss and now they are mainly just muddy although the higher points have also dried off to the point they are becoming dusty. I see the ‘average’ highs in April for Talkeetna are around 46 F but we’ve been easily five degrees above this value; interestingly the average low is listed as 26 F and we’ve been right on that mark. We’re approaching 16 hours of daylight on this Earth Day but the eastern sky begins to lighten around 05:10 AKDT and there’s faint light in the western sky even at 22:45 AKDT. More and more bare patches of earth are visible in the boreal forest although anywhere the winter’s snow was heaped such as the sides of the local roads there are still piles of wet, rotting snow and ice. While walking my dogs yesterday late morning I took the following image from around intersection of East Barge Drive and the Spur; it’s looking east down East Barge towards some foothills of The Alaska Range which are still solidly cloaked in white.
Every day I see more and more returning birds and I’m hearing more Red Squirrels as well. The moose remain absent after being virtually ubiquitous the last ten days of March and the first few days in April. I suspect the cows are back in the forest birthing their spring calves; with this underway the appearance of the local bears cannot be far off. As soon as the low temps stop dropping below freezing I will hang my Hummingbird feeder; actually given the amount of sugar in the water I could hang it now as the high concentration of soluble solids will depress the freezing point of the water based mixture quite a bit. Today I hope to place at least one of my Field Swallow birdhouses; I need to get them up so the returning swallows can hopefully build their nests within them. All told spring has definitely ‘sprung’ for Talkeetna and the timeless dance of the seasons continues in full force.
I knew Alaskan insects were a breed apart in terms of being hearty since June of 1997 when I observed live mosquito larvae swimming in a small pool of water collected in a depression on a piece of ice in Denali NP&P! Sure, the air temp was in the upper forties and it was sunny but that water had to be just above 32 F. In the lower 48 one rarely saw insects in action while snow remained on the ground but this is definitely not the case in Alaska. While writing some email over the weekend I happened to glance outside my office window on a late albeit sunny Saturday morning; to my surprise I could see numerous winged insects of various sizes fluttering about in the warm air. When I really started observing I quickly counted fifteen flying insects just in my field of view and I know there were many more. Even more surprising was having to brush away a mosquito yesterday early afternoon as I was working around the front porch. One wonders how these little beggars survive night lows in the middle twenties but they must manage as once it warms up during the day they are very active. Yesterday I took the following image of the sensor platform of my Davis Vantage Pro 2 wireless weather station mounted in my front yard. Notice the unbroken snow in the background; it’s still around a foot deep in that section of my front yard. If you look closely at the solar cell area you can see a large fly. It was largely immobile soaking up the sun but when I caused a shadow to pass over it the fly did indeed take flight. It never ceases to amaze me just how tenacious Nature can be; life will find a way even under harsh and demanding circumstances!
One of the events I cherish in my new home is viewing true ‘alpenglow’ up here in ‘The Last Frontier’ and to this point I’ve seen some marvelous examples of the effect. To those unsure true ‘alpenglow’ is caused when the sun is just below the horizon – this can occur just before sunrise or just after sunset – such that the more energetic (i.e. higher frequency) portion of the visible light segment of the electromagnetic spectrum isn’t bent enough by the earth’s atmosphere and radiates into space while the less energetic (i.e lower frequency) portion – in this case the reds – are bent just enough to strike taller objects like mountains. The phenomena is always very short duration and requires a clear atmosphere. There are other instances of a pink to red light striking mountains which technically do not meet the above definition but are also referred to to as ‘alpenglow’. While I prefer the images of true alpenglow I have included a number of examples of both effects in the following pictures. This effect is just one more demonstration of the incredible natural beauty that truly makes ‘The Great Land’ unique and so memorable!
Mt Foraker, a 17,000 foot high mountain, shows true alpenglow on its western face
Denali and Mt Hunter awash in early morning alpenglow
Early morning alpenglow on The Alaska Range
Just the peak of Denali showing evening alpenglow
Just beyond the fall color tundra lies a portion of the Muldrow Glacier in Denali NP&P; it is the dark colored undulations that fade back towards The Alaska Range. This glacier originates from Denali and is the landing field for the bush planes transporting mountain climbers for an attempt to summit Denali. At one time this portion of the glacier was snowy and white but over time the winds in the Park have blown considerable soil onto the glacier and then local fauna has taken root and is actually growing on the soil covering the ice and snow.
Even though I have not spent an October in Alaska until this one I did a lot of research on the weather of my possible retirement locations – it ultimately came down to Homer in the southern Kenai Peninsula on Kachemak Bay or Talkeetna – and experienced fall and some spring weather in each location as well. Indeed, one of the determining factors in my final choice of Talkeetna was its propensity for cold, snowy winters. Therefore imagine my surprise given the weather I’ve actually experienced since arriving in the early afternoon of August 6th! The remainder of August was warmer than normal with above normal precipitation, September was at least four degrees above normal in terms of temps and saw well over twice the normal rainfall and now October has been at least five degrees above normal temps and we’ve already seen 199% of October’s normal average rainfall of 2.90″. During the completed 19 days of October to this point I’ve reported measurable precipitation on 16 of those days (that’s 84.2%..!!) and today being the 20th day will definitely see some rain before midnight.
In conversations with the locals I’ve been told October normally sports steadily cooling temperatures but many days with dry sunshine and some of the best weather of the year. According to NWS climatological records the average first snowfall in Talkeetna is around October 3rd yet we have yet to see any snow and will probably not see any for at least another couple of days. When it finally does snow it will most likely be mixed with rain and occur only during the early morning hours before turning over to just rain. I was also told that by this time last October the lakes and rivers had frozen over and people were beginning to ice skate on them! Only twice have I seen any ice on the local ponds and lakes and that was just the barest trace. I have noted numerous reports of snow in the lower 48; my sister saw accumulating snow in Monument, Colorado – a northern suburb of Colorado Springs – three days ago. But NWS is saying all of Alaska will see well above normal temps for at least the next six to ten days.
I’m not convinced of the validity of ‘global warming’ or perhaps I should clarify; I do without question believe the earth’s climate is getting warmer but I remain unconvinced it’s all humanity’s fault. Sure, I can believe we’ve played a part but I also believe there’s much more going on in terms of geological processes and climate cycles than we understand or have even recognized. With all this said what I’ve experienced since August certainly would seem to support the climate is warming although to make such an assumption based upon a couple of warm months is a scientific absurdity. However, when I first visited Alaska in the early fall of ’96 I know Denali NP&P closed around the start of the second full week in September generally because it was already dropping well below freezing and staying right around that temp during the days. Yet as the years have passed I’ve seen the Park remain open later and later; I believe it didn’t close this year until the end of September. I also remember growing up in SE Michigan when we did see snow on the ground one out of every three or four Thanksgivings; while I haven’t checked the actual data I’m sure its been decades since there was snow on the ground by late November in that area.
Regardless, the weather I’ve experienced in Talkeetna to this point has been very unusual in terms of warmth and rainfall; data from years of observations back this up. It is interesting to still see insects outside when the temp rises above 40 F and especially if we see just a bit of direct sunlight during those temps. My neighbor told me that in a ‘typical’ year all the insects are history by the first part of October. I cannot help but wonder if this run of warm and wet weather will continue into November which at this time is just eleven days out. I do know I could sure use a break in the darn rain as I have a lot of material I need to get burned before it begins to snow and accumulate – assuming this ever happens – but right now everything is saturated. I have a huge pile of cardboard boxes stacked by the burn barrel which are soggy and beginning to fall apart; I’ve tried building a wood fire inside the barrel and then feeding said cardboard slowly into it but this requires hours of such effort to burn just a few boxes. Trying to hurry the process just puts out the fire in the barrel.
I’ve also grown tired of running my dehumidifier almost constantly since I first purchased it a few days after arriving. However, failure to do so will allow the relative humidity to slowly climb above 70% which is just too darn high! Prior to moving up here I wouldn’t have thought a dehumidifier would become an absolute necessity but its possible that if the local weather does return to some kind of ‘normal’ then perhaps I won’t need to run it constantly. I do know one thing for sure; Mother Nature will do as she will regardless of my wishes – or anyone else’s for that matter – so I’d best just learn to roll with the punches and try to work around the less than favorable situations…
I knew when I moved up here I would be seeing far more large mammals than I did anywhere else I’d lived mainly because few places in the lower 48 can boast such a variety of big wildlife. I also knew from my spate of visits from ’96 through ’05 the density of caribou, moose and bears was much higher in the Interior than any place in the lower 48. While many folks seem to feel I’m borderline crazy for wanting to live someplace where seeing grizzlies or moose in their natural setting is more the rule than the exception I find this to be a most exciting environment; just knowing that such large and powerful mammals are in the vicinity kinda charges the atmosphere and makes one feel more ‘at home’ with Nature. Prior to making trips up here I’d seen a few black bears at great distance in Great Smokey Mountain National Park and spent hours trying to break Anana from her desire to chase the ubiquitous white tailed deer in SE Michigan but that was about it for larger mammals in the wild. Before I made my first Alaskan visit I spent weeks reading everything I could find on the state and figuring prominently in most of those readings were discussions of the wildlife. By the time our plane landed at the Juneau airport in early September, 1996 I thought I was pretty well prepared to handle observing bear, moose, caribou and Dall Sheep ‘up close and personal’. It only took seeing my first moose along the West Glacier Trail in Tongass National Park to show me how wrong I was in this belief! However, said encounter was at a safe distance and the two moose cows were much more interested in the dwarf willow they were munching than three lower 48er’s so I came away wide eyed and already well and truly bitten by the ‘Alaska bug’.
During that same trip we spent four days in Denali NP&P and while the weather was not great we did see lots of wildlife around the Teklanika campsite where we camped in tents. I had an experience I still remember vividly to this day when I arose one morning – I was almost always the first one up – and was getting breakfast underway. I dug the white gas camping stove out of the back of our rental Ford Explorer, primed it and managed to get it started; I then went digging for the quart pot, filled it with water and set it on the stove to boil. Finally I went searching for the instant coffee and instant oatmeal. This was before I learned the value of staging the morning’s necessities the previous evening! I found the instant coffee first and noticed the pot was almost boiling so I dipped my mug into it, added a couple spoonfuls of coffee, stirred it and then turned back to hunting for the oatmeal. I finally found it, freed it from the pack and turned around…and froze. A large Timber wolf was no more than ten feet away from me and was stretching its neck in the direction of the coffee. He had the most beautiful yellow eyes and I also noticed he was fitted with a radio collar; later I learned from a ranger that he was one of the alpha males from the pair of wolf packs that called the Teklanika area ‘home’. We stared at each other for what seemed like minutes but was undoubtedly no more than a few seconds; I remember feeling no fear but rather a sense of awe that such a magnificent creature was so willing to share my immediate space. I slowly turned to get my camera but when I turned back he was no where to be seen. I soon learned I had been far too close to this wolf although it was he that had initiated the close proximity; seeing wolves even in Denali is a rare treat and I felt humbled that I’d been so close to such a gorgeous top predator.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Denali NP&P; every trip I’ve made to Alaska during the aforementioned span I spent at least three days in the park except on spring trip to the Kenai. I always camp at Teklanika and usually will tour the Visitor’s Center if its not too crowded just to look at the displays of grizzly ravaged camping gear. I find seeing the huge teeth marks in pots or massive claw tears in the remnants of a steel drum serve as good reminders of the raw power of these apex predators. On virtually every trip to the Park I’ve seen grizzlies but generally from the safety of the Park buses. However, that’s not always the case; while solo camping in 1998 I heard grizzlies snuffling and snorting outside my tent in Teklanika as they hunted for roots and berries; that’s a humbling experience lying wrapped up in a sleeping bag looking at two thin layers of nylon forming the only barrier between you and the bears! On that same trip I hiked to the ridge line across the Teklanika River and while walking the ridge saw a grizzly boar maybe 100 feet down the side of the ridge in a blueberry patch. He saw me the same time I saw him; thankfully I’d paid attention to the rangers when they explained how to handle such a surprise and far too close encounter. I slowly raised my arms up over my head and talked very softly to the bear while slowly moving my arms back and forth; in this case the bear did exactly as I’d been told and stood up on its hind legs (when it did so I darn near peed my pants!), snorted a few times, dropped to all fours and walked away from me. Needless to say I slowly backed away from him and once I crossed the ridge and was out of sight I really beat feet down the hill and back across the river!! During another trip in 2001 I was sharing my tent with a college buddy; one morning I awoke to hear him softly calling my name. I was still very much asleep when he said; “There’s something big outside!”. I listened and could hear something definitely large moving around; I stayed in the tent until I no longer heard any sound and then scrambled out of my sleeping bag, into my boots and out of the tent. All the sites in Teklanika feature a small pull out area for vehicle parking, a fire pit and a picnic table; it had been a cold night and the picnic table was covered with a thick layer of frost. On the corner of the picnic table closest to the tent I found the imprint of a bear paw; the pads had melted the frost (see image below). Without question we had a grizzly within ten feet of us who was probably investigating the white gas stove which we’d left atop the picnic table albeit sans any food or food containers; both these kinds of items were stored inside the rental vehicle.
Given my wildlife experiences which have all been positive save two – one involving a black bear when I was solo camping in Kachemak Bay State Park in the late spring of 2000 and another involving a moose cow with her spring calf during the same trip – I’ve come to really enjoy observing wildlife although I prefer to do so from a safe distance and I will never make the mistake so many people do of thinking any wild animal is something I can approach and try to interact with in its natural setting! I’ll never forget walking along the Park Road on a warm, sunny September day and seeing an adult grizzly foraging well off the road on a hillside. There was a man with a young child part way up the hill; the man was encouraging his child to move closer to the bear as he set up his camera!! I was all set to call out to him when a Park bus rounded the corner and the driver saw what was happening, stopped the bus, pulled the man and child back to the road and proceeded to read the man the ole riot act. Its this kind of stupidity that finally led to Denali’s first human death from a bear attack in 2012. Some idiot was solo hiking around the Toklat River and apparently spied a grizzly. Although no one witnessed what occurred his camera was found with his remains and showed a series of images of the grizzly getting larger and larger; if memory serves the last one looked to be taken at maybe fifty feet! Keep in mind anything under a quarter of a mile is considered a close encounter with a bear and is way too close. Sadly this eventually ended in the death of the grizzly which was probably only protecting its own personal space…
I have seen a number of grizzlies since settling in up here although most have been a distance; with this said I know they’re around because I’ve seen their scat, tracks and a few weeks back I caught sight of the south end of a north bound grizzly in the boreal forest that exists on my 2.4 acres and indeed surrounds this entire area. I would never have known it was there if I hadn’t heard the dogs going bonkers on the first floor. Just yesterday morning the dogs once again alerted me to wildlife in close proximity; in this case it was a moose cow with her yearling calf foraging on my land:
Moose cow foraging in the back yard – October 13, 2013
I apologize for the poor lighting; it was only around 08:15 AKDT and it was overcast and raining so there was just too little light. These moose remained in the yard for maybe fifteen minutes before sauntering away to the east. I was pleased to see it was a cow and calf as we’re into the rut now and I want nothing to do with any bull moose during that time! Moose are responsible for more human deaths in Alaska than bears and during the rutting season the bulls are just full of blood lust and will go out of their way to kill any creature they feel is a threat or even just an annoyance. Having had to run for my life from a moose cow protecting her spring calf in Kachemak Bay State Park I know these magnificent animals are not just big, dumb and slow ‘Bullwinkles’. Believe me when I tell you they can move lightning fast even in dense forest and thick underbrush and they are surprisingly agile to boot. I was not pleased to see Anana’s reaction; she would have loved to try to chase them and that could easily be a death sentence for her. I saw what their hooves can do as I was forced to jettison my backpack during the aforementioned altercation and the cow ran over it tearing a large hole all the way through it and destroying my favorite compass in the process.
Most folks would probably prefer to just not have to deal with such issues but for me sharing the land with these creatures is part of the magic I feel living in Alaska. Indeed, I really am not even so much ‘sharing’ the land as I am intruding into the wildlife’s terrain; after all, this is truly their home! Because of this I really do try to be respectful and always remember that I am a visitor to the wildlife’s home. I want to make every effort to peacefully co-exist with all the animals that may wander in this area and that means learning as much as I can about their lifestyles, habits and range. I very much enjoy being able to watch them without disturbing them and especially to capture their beauty and power in video and still imagery. The more I learn about the moose, caribou, bears, foxes, eagles and other wildlife the closer to Nature I feel and that’s a wonderful feeling. It really is an honor to be able to share this land with so many large mammals and I wouldn’t trade my experiences – past, present and future – for anything!