Finally…A ‘Real’ Alaskan Winter!

I suppose I’m creating this piece as much to remind me of the winter to this point – one which I’ve thoroughly embraced as my first ‘real’ Alaskan winter – as to share with you some thoughts and images.  Without question this winter has been extreme and, no surprise, I’ve learned quite a bit more about typical Alaskan weather conditions in the winter months (November through mid-March).  As I write this piece I’m seeing overcast skies with an air temp of 34.7° F (1.5° C) after never dropping below 32.8° F (0.4° C) overnight.  Yesterday saw light morning snow become briefly heavy in the early afternoon before mixing with and finally changing over to freezing rain and then just rain.  For a while conditions were very severe in terms of visibility and traction on the Spur.

I’ve talked with long time locals who claim freezing rain used to be very uncommon and when it did occur it happened as fall slipped into winter and again when winter finally released its grip and acceded to spring.  Yet during my four winters up here I’ve seen the dreaded stuff every winter.  But I’m really not complaining as this has been a much more typical south central Alaska winter and in being so we’ve seen extremes.  Just three days back I saw -14° F (-25.6° C) in ‘downtown’ Talkeetna and the next morning my large circular bimetallic outdoor thermometer showed -19.5° F (-28.6° C) which was verified by my Davis Vantage Pro 2 wireless weather station.  But these temps pale next to the string of four days from January 17th through January 20th when we saw lows on January 18th of -32.1° F (-35.6° C) and on January 19th of -41.3° F (-40.7° C); the high on the 18th was -20.1° F (-28.9° C) and on the 19th we saw just -15.5° F (-26.4° C).  Our snow pack was a healthy 32.5″ (82.6 cm) before yesterday’s mess; even though we received 1.5″ (3.8 cm) of heavy, wet snow the warm temps and rain really did a number of the snow depth compressing it to 26.5″ (67.3 cm) which I reported to CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow network) this morning.  Looking out my office window I can see water dripping from the snow and ice atop the roof; given there’s no direct sunlight this is due only to the warm temps.

Here, then, is a collage of recent images reflecting my first ‘real’ Alaskan winter; hope you enjoy:

cool-downtown

A view of my Escape’s dash showing a fairly cool Saturday morning in ‘downtown’ Talkeetna

snowy-village

The Spur heading out of Talkeetna cloaked in heavy snow

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Cool sunrise at my place on Sunday, February 12th

anana-qanuk-in-heavy-snow

Anana and Qanuk enjoying a brief burst of heavy snow outside our place

anana-disappearing-into-snow

A very snowy afternoon on East Barge Drive with Anana (center of image) just disappearing into the snow

anana-by-thermometer

Anana by the thermometer which is reading much milder temps!

Just A Typical Tuesday Morning…

Woof, woof, woof…woof!

Woof, woof, woof…woof!

Woof, woof, woof!

Woof, woof…howl..!

My eyes snapped open and although I was still mostly asleep I groggily rolled onto my back and once again heard:

Woof, woof, woof…woof!

Woof, woof, woof…woof!

Woof, woof, woof!

Woof, woof…howl..!

I now recognized the warning alert from my male German Shepherd Dog – Qanuk – who immediately ran down the stairs followed closely by my female Alaskan malamute, Anana.  I was now fully awake and could heard the dogs moving around the main floor based on the sound of their toe nails on the hard bamboo floor, the carpeting and then the vinyl flooring in the mud room.

Qanuk’s alert continued although it began to drop in terms of volume and frequency.  As Qanuk spent most of his life with Anana as his canine role model he has incorporated a pretty fair impression of the Malamute’s howl into his audio repertoire.  But when alerting he always delivers that deep, impressive sounding GSD bark.  Funny how we learn the sound, cadence and intensity of our canine companion’s vocalizations so well we can tell what the canine is thinking regarding the nature and severity of the ‘threat’; I had a very good idea from Qanuk’s vocalizations that something had disturbed his sleep and he remained vigilant regarding said disturbance.

My right hand slipped across the .40 caliber Beretta semi-automatic in its holster on the bed stand; I hesitated but given Qanuk’s barking was now decreasing in both volume and repetition I left the handgun where it was sitting.  I rolled to my left side and saw ‘01:44’ on my digital alarm clock.  What the heck was going on..?  I’ve been awakened before by my canine companions; sometimes I cannot locate the source but often it is wildlife like moose.  I arose from my bed into the chilly 54° F bedroom air and flipped on a dim light; at my arising both Qanuk and Anana came back upstairs and into my room.  I looked out a couple of windows but even with the snow being brightly illuminated by an almost full moon riding high in the clear sky I couldn’t see anything.  Given I was up I decided to hit the bathroom; while in that room I chanced to look out the one window.  I saw a large black blob – rather like an oval with flattened ends – where no such shape should be.  It was between a couple of spruce trees on the narrow patch of land between the north side of my house and East Barge Drive.

I finished my business and decided to get a better look at said ‘blob’ so I went back into the bedroom and found a flashlight.  I then walked back into the bathroom, pointed the flashlight outside and hit the power switch.  Sure enough, as I did so I saw the ‘twinkle’ of moose eyes and I also now recognized the snout of said mammal.  At the time it seemed large so I thought it was a bull; however, when I examined the spot later that morning I decided it was a cow.  I quickly deactivated the light as I did not want to disturb the moose.  Its presence meant the kidz were not getting outside for a potty break so I went back to bed.

Once it was light enough come morning I pulled on my break up boots and wandered out to see where the moose had being lying.  Sure enough, there was a depression in the snow as well as a load of moose droppings.  I briefly wondered if this was the equivalent of a human wetting their bed and also wondered if the need to go had forced the moose on to a new bed.  The images at the end of this piece better explain the geometry of this event as well as detail the moose’s bed.  I remain fascinated by how my canine companions, closed up in house, can sense a single moose outside.  In the late spring through early fall when the house is often open I can believe scent is what they detect; however, this was a -5.4° F early morning in a house sealed up against the cold so I have to believe it was sound they detected.

I know Qanuk is hyper alert and true to his breed in needing to identify and warn of any unusual noises or scents.  But it still boggles my mind that he could hear a moose walking through 14” of snow pack and then lying down from inside a sealed up dwelling!  Granted, it was a cold, clear and silent night but still..!?!  Regardless, he was doing exactly as he should and I praised him to high heaven for being so alert and willing to warn me of something unusual.  Anana has done the same thing other times but for some reason she was largely just following Qanuk’s lead this time.  Maybe she was sleeping too soundly..?

Living solo in semi-rural south central Alaska has so many pluses but one negative is if something should happen – say, a burglar tried to gain entry to my house – I’m on my own to handle the situation.  That’s why the loaded Beretta sits holstered by my bed.  My canine companions are my first line of defense; they awaken me when something is ‘different’.  I would never want then to become ‘involved’ with any two or four legged intruder; just alert me and then come back to me.  I will deal with whatever is ongoing.  I’ve often wondered if I shouldn’t have my Benelli rifled bore 12 gauge pump shotgun next to the bed as well; it currently rests in my gun rack on the main floor.  If a bear were to break into the house my Beretta would serve only to irritate it; that’s why I purchased the Benelli.  It provides protection for me and my canine companions from bears and moose.  However, I practice solid ‘bear awareness’ and have only seen grizzlies on my property once although their scat and markings are not uncommon in this area from May through October so they are around.  Under such circumstances I think the Benelli is fine where it resides.

Just another early winter morning in semi-rural south central Alaska!

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Moose bed with droppings

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Moose bed and bathroom window (small, square window in upper center of frame)

 

A Holiday Reflection

Maybe ten days back I decided to take a brief morning walk along East Barge Drive which is the dirt road, now finally snow packed, that runs by my place.  Given the time – around 08:30 – it was naturally pitch black and the recent overcast prevented seeing any light from the waning moon.  The air was crisp but not terribly dry and there was no wind.  Given the air temp was 4.8° F, and this was warm after seeing -12.5° F yesterday morning, I was quite comfortable in my layered outer wear.

We have a 14.25″ snow pack and thanks to little wind across the past two weeks all the trees are cradling many inches of light, fluffy snow on their limbs and boughs.  I love this situation as the already extremely quiet environment is even more silent as the snow in the trees really does create barriers to sound propagation.  In addition, I’ve always loved the ‘creeeeak’ created by compressing extremely cold snow.  In this morning’s case the snow had just been subjected to over 24 hours of below zero air temps and hence was very cold.  With each step my boots created what sounded like an extremely loud ‘creeeeak’ but said sound was almost immediately quieted by the conditions.

off-center-home-in-sparkling-snowfall

The ole homestead in light snow

Normally I wouldn’t take a walk with the kidz in dark conditions because of the potential to wander upon moose without seeing them from a distance.  I decided to wear my headset lamp which was a first for me.  Within a couple of years of living up here I noticed almost all the locals had a head lamp of some kind; given this I purchased one back in early 2015.  I’d used it when working outdoors during dark times but never actually used it to take a walk.  I was thoroughly enjoying seeing my small light beam bounce along as the snow creaked beneath my boots and my breath just hung in cold air.  Many times I would just stop, turn off the head lamp and enjoy the calm silence.  During one of said stops the overcast produced a small gap which allowed the moon to briefly shine through.  The effect was breathtaking as the surroundings literally flashed with bright white light yet everything remained dead quiet.  I guess given the incredible flare of moonlight I expected some sound..?  Seeing this literally took my breath away and I struggled to get my pocket camera free from my vest pocket which was inside my Eddie Bauer rain jacket.  Just as I did manage to pull it free the clouds once again occluded the moon and I was standing in darkness with the kidz milling around me no doubt wondering why ‘Dad’ had suddenly stopped.

For the remainder of the walk I reflected upon that event; the amazing timing and series of events that had to coincide for that one moment to occur.  I had to be out walking in the dark and decide to turn off my headlamp at just the right time to allow my eyes to adjust to the darkness before that small gap in the overcast moved so perfectly aligned to allow me to catch the full power and beauty of the just now waning moon on the snow covered landscape.  Such a myriad of ‘ifs’ that all fell together to create such an incredible sight!  In turning this over and over in my mind I realized far too often I just perceive such wonders without giving any thought as to their genesis.  In a way I am becoming somewhat jaded reading the majestic scenery of Alaska and that pains me.  There is so much wonder and beauty – not just in ‘The Great Land’ but everywhere on our earth and in the heavens around us – everywhere if we are willing to just take a bit of time, absorb the wonder and then reflect upon it if only for a few seconds.

east-barge-drive-at-8-2-f

A ‘cool’ afternoon looking west down East Barge Drive; the temp is -8.2° F (-22.3° C)

As you approach the Christmas holiday – or whatever holiday you may be celebrating – please take just a bit of time when something truly extraordinary occurs to consider its genesis and really appreciate its beauty.  And make a special effort to do this with family and friends!  None of us knows how much time we have remaining to us on this plane so we honestly do not have the time to become jaded or dulled to the wonder around us.  And, again, that goes double when interacting with our family and friends.  Here’s wishing everyone out there the very Merriest of Christmases and the Happiest New Year yet!  And the same to those celebrating different seasonal holidays.  We all need to try to live more ‘in the moment’ because in the end that’s all we really can claim…

ak-range-with-clouds-in-alpenglow

The Alaska Range awash in Alpenglow taken from the overlook just south of the village of Talkeetna

Autumnal Anticipations

It’s a cool, damp and dark day yet again in south central Alaska along with being the Autumnal Equinox; I’m taking a break from working a plethora of spreadsheets to look out the window.  Uncharacteristically, there’s a fair amount of wind even down close to the ground and combined with the cool drizzle – it is 43.8° F/6.6° C – the yellow and gold birch leaves are rapidly falling to the ground denuding their homes of the last four plus months.  Said leaves are forming a yellow carpet which while pretty can be rather slippery when coated with rain.  The second floor view from my office window looks south into a portion of the boreal forest which makes up part of my yard and is often home to moose as there are a number of dwarf willows intermingled with the other ground based fauna.  Sadly, most of the color change is now just a memory as the weather is feeling more and more like fall.  We have seen a morning temperature below freezing just once to this point which probably explains why these conditions seem to be about a week to a week and a half later than I remember.

a-view-from-my-office

The view from my office window on the Autumnal Equinox, 2016

Even with the windows closed I can hear the dulcet tones of my wind chimes; it occurs to me I haven’t heard much from them this year but then the thick boreal forest which I live within and stretches for tens of miles in every direction does an excellent job of stopping the wind.  It is not uncommon for me to see the tops of birches and spruce – around 35 to 40 feet (10.7 to 12.2 meters) – swaying many feet off center while there is almost no air moving at ground level and even smoke from the burn barrel rises only slightly off vertical.  The sky continues its multiple day run of ragged overcast birthing drizzle along with the occasional rain shower.  Indeed, we’ve seen 0.96” (2.44 cm) of rain across the last 48 hours.  September is this area’s second wettest month of the year averaging 4.2” (10.67 cm) but this September we’ve already seen 4.78” (12.14 cm) of rain which is 113.8% of normal.  We still have eight days left in September and we’re forecast to see rain across most of them so it is very likely we could well see 150% of ‘typical’ monthly rainfall.

I, along with most of the locals, am wishing for a ‘real’ Alaskan winter across 2016 – 2017.  The previous three winters have set records for the warmest and driest on record.  I long to see 5 feet (1.52 meters) of snow pack and taste the raw cold of a -35° F (-37.2° C) morning; while these might seem extreme in a ‘typical’ winter in south central Alaska they are almost ‘normal’.  Heck, I’d even deal with a daylong electrical outage if it were caused by a snowstorm dropping 20” (50.8 cm) of fluffy Talkeetna snow.  But, as we all know, Mother Nature will do as she will and we’re just along for the ride.

With the advent of autumn I’ve begun my ‘winterization’ routines; this being the fourth such repetition I’m beginning to get the routine down.  If the snow holds off for another seven to eight weeks I hope to get a number of blown down trees cut up, sized and stacked for seasoning.  My buddy, Sarge, will be visiting for a couple of weeks in mid-October and we have a number of large projects scheduled like building a wood shed and creating my long time longed for ‘aurorium’ from which I can view the aurora borealis in comfort.  There a myriad of other smaller projects as well but by the time we’re done I hope to be at a point whereby I’m done with ‘home improvement’ efforts for a while and can instead concentrate on ‘home maintenance’ work.

There’s a comfortable rhythm in this lifestyle; one tied so closely to Nature.  My Chickadees, Red-Breasted Nuthatches and similar are now at the feeders continually and I’d guess 85% of the black oilers they select are going into cracks in tree bark and similar as stored food for the upcoming winter.  They are also much more vocal when the feeders are empty; while the Nuthatches will dive bomb me chattering away I swear if I held out my hand a few of the Chickadees would alight and scold me vociferously.  I was seeing lots of moose a few weeks back but now that hunting season is open they are nowhere to be found.  I suspect the bears will soon begin to head up to higher elevations seeking dens in which to sleep away yet another winter.  And the days are really becoming shorter now; within a week or so I will remove the last of my light barriers in the master bedroom in anticipation of clear evenings enhanced by the aurora.  This flow just seems so natural and peaceful.

Alaska is an amazing place and one which is so closely tied to Nature; I love living up here as do my canine companions Anana and Qanuk.  I so enjoy watching Anana come back into the house after her morning ‘constitutional’ to take care of business when the temp first drops below freezing; she has a spring in her step and a glint in her eyes.  Qanuk just goes with the flow; as long as he gets outside to run once a day he’s happy.  I am blessed to have both of them with me up here and they are a huge part of my life in semi-rural Alaska.  And they continually remind me of the importance of living in the ‘now’; no need to worry about the past or the future – just enjoy ‘now’.

Sadly, I have to get back to my spreadsheeting but I also have a warm and peaceful feeling as I hear my Toyo Monitor furnace grumbling as it comes to life.  It has run just twice last week; prior to that it was late April when it last fired up.  I know I’ll be hearing a lot more of it in the coming weeks and I’ll be supplementing it with some now seasoned firewood in the wood burning stove Sarge and I installed last October.  The wind continues to blow the yellow and gold birch leaves around under a dark, ragged cloud cover.  Mmmm, this I just another wonderful Alaskan day..!

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A view of the unmaintained portion of East Barge Drive perhaps 0.6 miles east of my place; I took this image a couple days back when walking ‘the kidz’

“What’s That Up In The Sky..?” Part 2

I awoke this morning to clear skies and a refreshingly cool 49.5° F air temp along with calm winds; how could I not pull on some clothes, step into my sandals, grab a couple of leads (just in case) and head out the door with ‘the kidz’ ranging ahead of me?  We took a 40 minute walk reveling in the gorgeous morning; as usual for this area it was completely silent except for some local birds including a couple of Chickadees I feed who followed us for a ways complaining because the window feeder was almost empty.  I, of course, remedied that upon our return.  After 26 consecutive days of report-able precipitation seeing both the sun and drying conditions has been wonderful.  As we walked I had my Canon PowerShot SX-260 camera with me and I recorded a bit of our fun:

The Kidz in Muskeg

The Kidz exploring some muskeg.

Gorgeous Purple Flower

Don’t know what they are but that doesn’t diminish their beauty!

Signs of Approaching Fall

When this plant’s leaves turn to this fiery red Fall is not far away…

Yet Another 'Shroom With A Leaf Floating Atop It

Yet another ‘shroom with upturned edges which has a small pool of water atop it in which a leaf is floating.

Early AM Wanderers

Early morning wanderers; Anana and Qanuk are embracing the chance to walk the back roads and take time to scent who knows what. The ‘smoke’ you see around Qanuk is actually his hot breath condensing in the cool morning air.

What’s That Up In The Sky..?!?

Just an hour back I noticed something strange; the windows were actually appearing ‘bright’ and when I peeked outside I could see shadows!  A look upward gave me the reason; the sun was actually visible!!  I was quite pleased to see it once again and for me that’s unusual as I favor cloudy, cool weather.  But this has been a very wet August to this point in semi-rural south central Alaska.  This is Monday, August 15th and it has rained every day this month accumulating 4.18” as of 07:00 this morning.  While August is our wettest month the average monthly rainfall is 4.5” which means we’re already at 92.9% of said monthly average yet we are just 48.4% of the way into the month.

 Here are some signs of a wet August and the coming fall:

Leaves Floating on 'Shrooms

Some already yellow birch leaves floating atop a couple of dying mushrooms

 

Typical 'Shroom with Non-typical Shadow

Typical ‘shroom for this area with a non-typical shadow!

Female Spruce Grouse on EBD

Female Spruce Grouse on Easy Barge Drive; when they begin to appear you know summer is winding down

Early Signs of Fall

Not sure what the plants are but when the leaves begin to turn brilliant red fall is not too far distant

Very Wet Boreal Forest

Very wet boreal forest; the shimmering effect on the plants is due to being coated with rain drops

Welcome to Semi-Rural Alaska

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…