South Central Alaska Seasonal Shuffle

Outside My Office Window 091014

Fall colors in the boreal forest that make up my ‘yard’

After a warm 2016 right through the end of summer, along with a mix of dry late winter and early spring months followed by some very wet summer months, this fall has started off a bit cool which has stoked my hopes for my first ‘real’ Alaskan winter across 2016 – 2017.  I was warned by my neighbors when I first moved up here that winter can, and does, come on quickly and sometimes October sees some serious snow and cold.  In checking the history of October snows in Talkeetna I find the month averages 26.67 cm (10.5”); since relocating in 2013 I’ve seen no more than a dusting of snow in any of the following Octobers.  Maybe this year the weather will revert to more normal temperatures and precipitation..?  One can only hope!

I’ve noticed the gleam in my Alaskan malamute’s (Anana) eyes and the spring in her step with the advent of the repeated hard freezes we experienced last week; she is true to her breed and loves the cooler temperatures of the fall and winter up here.  Five of the last six mornings have seen temps drop to below -2.2° C (28° F); this morning we failed to do so only because of cloud cover and drizzle.  With this said I’d forgotten how cold drizzle/rain can be up here when the air temp is getting close to the freezing mark.  Thanks to said cold rains and some wind 90% of our fall color now carpets the ground; as is typical it was ‘short and sweet’ once again this year.  My male GSD (Qanuk) doesn’t care much about the air temps as long as he can get outside and run; this does become problematic when the air temps drop much below -17.8° C (0° F) but I’ve learned to limit the time he exposes his paw pads to such conditions.  I now have to carry leads for ‘the kidz’ when we take walks because the mushers are out with their teams pulling ATVs.

With the advent of the cooler air I find myself once again preparing for what I’ve come to know as ‘the fall routine’.  This aggregate of necessary activities has been growing each year I’ve lived in semi-rural south central Alaska and has additional items new for the fall of 2016.  There’s the ritual shuffle of items between the unattached shed and the mudroom; my battery charger/starter comes from the shed to the mudroom as does any other equipment I may need to access during the winter since every year thus far the snow pack has been sufficient to block the shed door and require shoveling to access.  The Toyo Monitor furnace checked out just fine and has been running now for six straight days; I do not recall having to do this until early to middle October in the previous falls.  The now almost seven month old gasoline in the two five gallon Jerry cans will be emptied into the gas tank of my Escape and I will refill them, and add a bit of ‘Sta-bil’, within a week.  This ensures that should the power fail I’ll have clean and ready gasoline for the generator.  I’m also trying something new this year; said generator normally sits on the front porch just outside the front door.  Given it is wheeled I plan to unhook the output power line and wheel the unit into my mudroom from November through February when it is really cold.  If I lose power during that time I need only wheel it back out to the front porch, hook up the transfer line and fire it up.  The real plus will involve the latter; it will be at least 12.8° C (55° F) and so should start very easily.  More than once in previous winters I really struggled trying to start the generator when the air temp was well below -17.8° C (0° F).

Time also to lock the windows closed and put up any ‘heat barriers’ in the upstairs ‘spare’ bedroom windows to keep their room temp air from dropping into the single digits Celsius (middle forties Fahrenheit) during cold streaks.  As is common in a house which started as a cabin and grew over time there is no good circulation into any of the second floor rooms although I did open a hole in the master bedroom floor and embedded a fan which I can reverse as needed to either pull the warmer main floor air (said hole is right over the Toyo Monitor) into the bedroom or push the cold air near the floor down into the main room.  I’ve already unhooked and coiled my water hose; it is stored in the shed.  In addition I just removed the last of my window light barriers in the master bedroom; for me this is one of the cardinal signs the fall has arrived.  I’ve pulled together all my cameras and camcorders, cleaned them of the summer’s dust and fully recharged their respective batteries in hopes of being able to catch some auroral shows this winter; I’ve done the same with my headlamp batteries.  I’ve tested the crawl space heater to insure it is functioning; while it runs very little and only when outside temps drop below -26.0° C (-15° F) for a number of consecutive days it is vital to keeping my pipes from freezing.  I’ve also deployed snow shovels to both the front and back porches.

Such chores are really not all that involved but I so enjoy them because they speak to me of the coming snow and cold.  And they also remind me of the rhythms of Mother Nature which are so very predominant in ‘The Great Land’.  Somehow it just feels so ‘right’ to have such activities dictated by the passage of the seasons.  And living in Alaska it is impossible not be aware of the season’s dance…

Break Up, Spring Chores & My Front Porch

As the weather is once again gorgeous today I initially decided I’d get the dogs out for a walk.  However, break up is in full swing and I quickly found the roads to be extremely treacherous in terms of traction; I was using one of my snow shoe poles and even with this tripod stance I almost fell on butt a number of times.  After just 0.4 miles I threw in the towel and slipped and slid my way back home.  Given the gorgeous weather – 48.5 F with clear skies and abundant sunshine – I just couldn’t go back inside.  Therefore I decided to get with the whole ‘spring cleaning’ idea and I started moving lots of empty boxes onto the front porch:Image

As you can see from the image I amassed a goodly quantity although many were already residing on the porch.  The gentleman that clears my driveway of snow buried my burn barrel in the process so I haven’t been able to get to it since November 10th.  Because the bears were in hibernation I could stack boxes smelling of food on the front porch; the local foxes and even the wolverine didn’t bother any of them.  Now, however, its time to once again become ‘bear aware’ and hence I need to get the cardboard out to the burn barrel and burned very soon.  I do not want to encourage the local bruins to hang around my front porch in search of food.

I already have a challenge in this respect; if you look at the furthest distant porch support pole and look to where the cross member meets it you’ll see a small sunflower feeder I hung last fall – it even has a Chickadee perched on it.  This has become very popular with the local Chickadees, Nuthatches, Tit Mice and Downy Woodpeckers and hence I do not want to stop using it as a bird feeding station.  However, this could well attract bears and that’s not acceptable so I’m conflicted as to what to do.  Short term I’ll leave it in place but I will have to monitor any and all wildlife activity around it; if I see bear tracks or other signs I will have to move it or discontinue feeding until the bears return to hibernation.

Looking to the lower portion of the image and bit left of center you see a large wooden box with bird houses set atop it; that wooden crate shelters my generator which is wired into the house circuitry.  I built three swallow houses from plans on-line and I set them atop the generator enclosure to varnish them before I mount them in nearby trees.  According to what I’ve read I need to keep them widely spaced and attached to birch tree trunks at least 12 feet in elevation.  I’m hoping to entice field swallows into nesting in them because they are voracious mosquito eaters and the insect season will soon be upon us.  With a bit of luck these natural insect controls will work with my ‘Mosquito Magnet’ which I’ll soon be setting up and operating in an attempt to keep the numbers of blood sucking insects in check.  I’m also going to set up mosquito netting around the porch just to ensure I have a mosquito/black fly free area to sit on and enjoy the Alaskan solitude.  I’ll be installing the latter once the rest of the snow melts away.

Right in the lower center of the image is my rocking chair; since I was varnishing the bird houses I figured I’d put a coat on it as well.  I brought it inside during the winter but now will be leaving it on the porch with the milder weather.  I’ve always been a ‘rocker’ even as a child and I discovered last fall that it’s almost heaven on earth to be able to sit on my front porch here in the boreal forest surrounding the Talkeetna area and rock while I observe all the wildlife and the environment.  In this sense I really am ‘the old man in his rocking chair on the front porch’!  The dogs were grateful for the chance to remain outside after their abbreviated walk although I did have to shoo the always curious Qanuk (my male GSD) away from the rocker a few times; I did not want to have to try to clean varnish out of his coat.  In addition he’s been shedding his coat for the past ten days and I really wanted to keep the amount of dog fur ‘preserved’ in the varnish to a minimum.

So my early terminated walk did bear some fruit in getting the house cleared of boxes and getting coats of varnish on the swallow homes and my rocking chair; that’s kinda how it works up here – if you cannot do something because Mother Nature has other ideas ya just go with the flow and find something else to do.

First Light Thoughts…

Early morning sun is just now touching the tops of the bare Birch and Aspen trees surrounding my new Alaskan home although it is 09:10 AKDT on October 10, 2013.  The temperature remains a chilly but not unusual 25.8 F after a mainly clear night.  There’s been some wildlife activity this morning as the dogs have kicked up a ruckus twice but the first time – at 07:20  – was far too dark to see outside and the second time – at 08:43 – I saw nothing but that hardly means nothing was out there.  I’m slowly becoming accustomed to this much different lifestyle and the more I settle in the more I find I’m embracing it; the good and the not so good.  I’ve spent many hours just slowly unpacking and organizing since I arrived on August 6th with a college buddy and a 26′ U-Haul van containing my household.  Its taken me two months to get everything unpacked and organized on the main floor; my bedroom and office on the second floor are similar but the two spare bedrooms are unmitigated chaos.  I’m okay with this idea as I suspect I’ll have lots of time to work on them during the long, cold and dark winter months which are now just weeks away.

In fact, most of my efforts ancillary to moving in and settling down have been directed towards preparing for winter.  I’ve upped my gasoline storage on-site to 25 gallons and I’ve purchased similar supplies for the generator like oil, Sta-bil and ether based starting spray.  Given the power has already failed eleven times since I moved in I’ve had plenty of chances to verify the generator’s operation; I can power the well pump, the fridge, the furnace and a couple additional electrical circuits in the house without really taxing the unit.  This is good as I suspect its going to get a real workout come the more harsh winter weather.  I really need a second heat source not tied to electricity; a wood stove is the obvious answer especially given the very low cost of ubiquitous birch firewood yet this house doesn’t have such a device and after carefully researching wood stoves I believe I know why.  There’s no place to conveniently put such a device; at best I would have to surrender most of my dining area if I were to install such a unit.  I’ve elected to try this first winter with just the existing furnace; if I have too many issues or the cost of heating this place is astronomical I will have to re-visit this idea.  In a true emergency I do have a white gas cook stove as well as a small white gas heater good for warming a single room.

In addition I’ve updated my wardrobe to include more layering options – if there’s one thing Alaska taught me during my numerous visit from ’96 through ’05 it was the value of layering – as well as a new set of insulated boots, rubber ‘break up boots’ and snow shoes.  I’ve never used the latter and so should have some stories to share the first time I try to head out while wearing them.  I also have a balaclava and have on order heavily insulated mittens which seem to be worn by all the locals; personally I prefer gloves but I do know mittens are more efficient at retaining heat.  I expect I will be spending time outdoors even when its -30 F as both my Alaskan Malamute (Anana) and German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk) love cold and snow.  I put off purchasing either an ATV or snow machine until I’ve experienced all four seasons.  The neighbors I’ve asked have all recommended a snow machine but then given there’s snow on the ground seven months a year this isn’t a surprise.  An ATV tricked out with a winch and a plow would allow me to clear my own driveway and hence save money.  Still, I remain open to either one and time will tell.  One thing which will occur next fall is the construction of a shelter for my Escape and also for upcoming toys.  I hate the thought of leaving it unprotected during this winter but there was no garage with this home and of the eight places I visited last April only one had a garage.  I may never understand this but without question I’ll be assisting in putting up some type of protective structure come next October.

With the increasing daylight has come increasing clouds, Stratocumulus,  which most likely signal approaching precipitation.  We’ve seen an abundance of rain since late August as well as slightly above normal average temps; with a bit of luck this will change as I still have a lot of burning to handle regarding all the packing materials before the snow flies.  Alaska does not recycle apparently because of the cost; I was told anything that can be recycled must be accumulated, condensed and then shipped over water to Seattle for handling.  Seems like a potential business opportunity to me.  At any rate as I head into the fall I feel I am materially well prepared for the upcoming winter.  Just how well I am prepped mentally and emotionally only time will tell.  I still feel I’ll have more difficulty with the long, almost ‘darkness dearth’ mid-summer conditions but again I have yet to experience either so I cannot be sure.  I am looking forward to the learning’s that will come from experiencing all four seasons in my new home; while nothing is certain I’d wager they will be many and varied!