Spring Collage

In what was the swiftest transition from winter to spring I’ve yet witnessed across my four winters in ‘The Great Land’ we now find ourselves solidly into spring and starting into break-up.  Just a couple weeks back this area was experiencing daytime highs in the low to middle twenties and night time lows in the negative single digits along with a 32” (81.3 cm) snow pack; now we’re seeing daytime highs in the low to middle fifties and a heavy, dense snow pack of 10.7” (27.2 cm).  I’ve already killed many mosquitoes but to this point they’ve been those that ‘over-wintered’ apparently by hiding in decaying organic matter before the snow accumulated which generates enough heat for them to survive.  They are large, slow and noisy mosquitoes and hence easy to locate and kill.  As soon as we see much in the way of standing water within and around the periphery of the boreal forest these insects will lay eggs which will soon hatch into larvae that will become hoards of the much small, much quieter and far more ravenous mosquitoes I so abhor.  So it goes; this is south central Alaska…

As the snow dwindles and the temps rise so, too, does the daylight.  As of this writing (04/13/17) we’re already seeing 14 hours 41 minutes of direct light on our way to 19 hours and 55 minutes come the Summer Solstice on June 20th at 20:24.  Even without all these cues I’d know spring was upon us simply by observing the rather ‘flaky’ nature of my female Alaskan malamute (Anana); her behavioral changes are no doubt driven by hormonal shifts and while I’ve seen similar changes in other canines she really becomes wacky.  She is much more aggressive towards other animals – but she remains so loving of anything on two legs – and she is starting to ‘cock her leg’ when she pees.  She is also becoming even more headstrong than usual – I know of no other breed which is natively so headstrong – and she refuses to listen to me much at all.  Because of this I can only walk her at times when there are no other people with dogs out and about or I have to keep her on her lead.  I hate doing the latter as she spends much of our walking time sniffing out wildlife spoor and similar as well as running after Qanuk, my male GSD.  Assuming this spring is like all those previous this phase will last for maybe three to four weeks before she reverts to her generally mellow and regal self.

With the advent of spring I’ve taken to walking both dogs in the early morning hours when the air temp is still a bit below freezing and the ground frozen.  This area was once buried under glaciers and as the ice retreated it ground up inestimable rocks leaving behind a fine gray silt often called ‘glacial flour’.  This ‘almost dust’ clings to anything wet and the dogs are very skilled at getting their coats damp by breaking ice and wading in puddles.  The muddy result is almost impossible to remove with a wet towel; it has to dry and then slowly fall off their coats.  When walking them in the afternoon when the ground is soggy they are covered in dirt and I generally force them to spend 90+ minutes in the mud room after we finish.  This allows maybe 50% of said mud to fall off but that still leaves more than enough to make my floors ‘crunchy’!  Not that I needed the assistance but I can easily locate all of Anana’s favorite sleeping areas just by looking for the layers of gray silt she leaves behind.  This is life with two large canine companions in semi-rural south central Alaska.  It can be a pain but I wouldn’t do without my two family members just because of a bit of mud!

I’ll leave you with a collage of recent images and a few from previous springs as well; I hope you enjoy the beauty of Alaska’s spring!

EBD,Break Up & the Kidz

The dogs enjoy the beginnings of break up during a walk along East Barge Drive

Mud Room floor

There’s about three times as much ‘glacial flour’ on the mud room floor as seen in this image

Roof snow and ice on driveway

This is why Alaskans are careful about where they park their vehicles during the spring thaw!

Cloud Capped Denali Awaits Climbers

‘The High One’ – Denali – is capped with clouds and blowing snow as he awaits the crush of climbers due to begin in a few weeks

Matanuska Glacier

The toe of the mighty Matanuska Glacier as seen from the Glenn Highway in early April

Front Porch Colorful Sunrise

A beautiful Alaskan sunrise greets the rapidly disappearing snow pack

Vernal Equinox Vexations

Although it is actually St. Patrick’s Day as I write this piece my thoughts have already drifted forward this week to Friday, March 20th which is the Vernal Equinox or at least it will be at 14:44 AKDT here in Talkeetna. For me this is a much more significant date as I have no known Irish blood and I long ago gave up the need to drink green beer all day long especially as I usually had to go to work the next day. This Vernal Equinox will be the second one I’ll experience since I relocated to ‘The Great Land’ in August of 2013. This is meaningful to me because many of you have asked when will I no longer be a ‘Newbie Alaskan’; I arbitrarily decided that after I’ve experienced two complete years in my new home it will be time to update my moniker. As such I have just the upcoming spring and summer before that time occurs. Okay, one could make a case for me not having actually experienced a real Alaskan winter, let alone two, but that is not my fault; I was here and ready but Mother Nature had other ideas.

With the approach of this equinox I find myself once again trying to prepare for what it means; the beginning of some of my least favorite seasons. Indeed, I find the spring up here to be my least favorite season followed closely by summer. There are a myriad of reasons for my feelings but the single largest centers on daylight or, more accurately, the inevitability of almost 20 hours of direct sunlight by the Summer Solstice. Already we are seeing 11 hours and 56 minutes of direct light and that will reach 12 hours and 14 minutes in just three more days before maxing out at 19 hours and 55 minutes on the Solstice which falls on June 20th. To many people it will seem strange that I find so much light to be a negative; for them I can only present this scenario – there is no night sky, no stars and no aurora from mid-May through mid-August! Initially I do not mind the ever-increasing light but by late June it is wearing thin and by mid-July I’ve had enough. I know I’m a sky watcher and that’s especially true of the night sky but somehow it escaped me that I’d be doing without for almost a quarter of every year!

Some folks find it strange I can be so negatively affected by long periods of light yet have no issues with just five hours of direct sunlight in December. Indeed, most folks I’ve spoken with think that much darkness would drive them insane but I don’t even notice it until I begin to see the days lengthening in early January. Of course other factors come into play; the darkness happens during winter and I live for cold and snow. The lengthening days promise the coming of mosquitoes and tourists; both are aspects of Alaskan living I’m still coming to grips with and not all that successfully at least to this point.  I have learned how to deal with the mosquitoes – it’s called ‘Deep Woods Off’ in copious quantities along with long-sleeved shirts and long pants – such that I am beginning to develop a somewhat sanguine outlook regarding these little bloodsuckers. Last year I learned that the best way to minimize the impact of the tourists is to completely avoid the village from May through early September just as the locals do. We basically surrender the village to the masses during that time period knowing that without those tourist dollars Talkeetna would not be half the place it has become. What I have yet to discover is a way to ignore all the noise they create. One of the joys of living here is the ‘immense silence’ that surrounds us in the off-season; sadly this disappears as the numbers of tourists increases. And along with the warmth comes the ever-present dust; this entire area sits on land that was riddled with glaciers which have since retreated.  In so doing they grind up stone and earth and create a very fine dust called ‘glacial flour’ and it is everywhere. This is a dual edged sword as the abundance of this material allows water to quickly drain away which helps make break up less muddy and wet. But said ‘flour’ is blown around by even a light wind and if there’s a way to keep it out of one’s home I have yet to learn the secret.

So all told it shouldn’t be a surprise that I so favor the winter and find some aspects of the warmer months a bit less than ideal. But life in Alaska is really all about making compromises; far more so than anywhere else I’ve ever called ‘home’. Because I so love the semi-rural lifestyle, the majestic landscape, the incredible wildlife, the wonderful albeit quirky people and that amazing winter night sky I am okay with having to deal with mosquitoes, noisy tourists and dust come the spring and summer. There were a myriad of possible retirement locations I considered before settling on Talkeetna and almost all of them in the Lower 48 would have been much cheaper in terms of the COL but I had been well and truly bitten by the ‘Alaska Bug’ in the fall of 1996 so once I realized I could retire up here there were no other options for me. And as I continue to settle into this lifestyle and learn more and more about me new home I am always reminded that just like life, Alaska living is all about making choices and living with the consequences. As such I think I can deal with some mosquitoes, noisy tourists and dust..! 

How would you like to see this kind of light at 04:07 in the 'morning'..?  This was the Summer Solstice +2 hours in 2014.

How would you like to see this kind of light at 04:07 in the ‘morning’..? This was the Summer Solstice +2 hours in 2014.

Soft Rain…

Ahhhhh yes, its something I’ve grown intimately acquainted with across these last two months and something which I will have to learn to embrace – rain. I’ve reported 11.62″ of rain to CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain Hail & Snow Network) since I activated this station with the start of my broadband service on August 22nd including the previous 24 hours of rain and it continues to rain steadily in the dim, Friday morning light. To be honest such rain fall is far in excess of what’s ‘normal’ for Talkeetna but regardless this immediate area sees far more rain spread across more of the seasons than I’m used to seeing. In this sense if I am to prosper up here I will need to learn to live ‘with’ the rain. I’m already less inclined to write off outdoor activities ‘just because its raining’; in this sense I guess I’m going to have to learn to live as those in the Pacific North West who do not allow rain to interrupt their daily routines. I’m learning this is far more of a mindset than anything else, at least assuming one has the required apparel and gear. I learned during my trip years (Sept ’96 through Sept ’05) to expect clouds two out of any three days and rain one out of those same three days. Because of this I’m well outfitted for the conditions and so I am capable of largely continuing my routines even as it rains.

The dogs are a bit of an issue because while they will gladly endure the rain to run and play on the dirt roads and in boreal forest they often return wet, grimy and stinky. Here again the Alaskan way of life has an elegant answer – the mud room. My front door leads into such a room which is small, tiled and has a second door opening into a hallway which leads to my kitchen. I can keep the dogs in the mud room until they have a chance to dry themselves; if they are particularly muddy I can assist with the cleaning process via some towels. Its handy this room also holds my stacked washer and dryer; damp and dirty towels go directly into the washer! To be honest Anana and Qanuk really don’t get all that dirty mainly because the soil up here is so very rocky. This entire area was covered in glaciers not all that long ago – at least in geological terms – and as glaciers expand and retreat they grind up stones and boulders and drop the debris. Dust can be quite an issue up here when its dry because of something called ‘glacial flour’ which is the finely ground remnants of said rocks and boulders. Its possible to see this glacial flour in the run-off from glacier fed streams and rivers; it makes drinking from such water sources most unpleasant unless one allows the silt to settle first. If its concentrated enough it will keep fish from inhabiting the waters because it effects their ability to use their gills efficiently. This area would have very poor soil for growing crops because of all the stones which range from the size of a pencil eraser to the size of cantaloupes and larger. However, the preponderance of this rocky soil means it can rain inches for days and yet have relatively dry ground within just a day of sun and no rain. In SE Michigan an inch of rain would have meant muddy, wet dogs for days afterward; up here there’s no such penalty.

My sense is that in becoming ‘Alaskan’ one has little choice but to become much more aware of, and if successful in tune with, Nature. I quickly learned on my many trips that the weather dictates so much of what transpires in ‘The Great Land’; if in doubt witness the gates just south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway (AK 1) which can close off the only road going into the Kenai Peninsula when the avalanche danger is too great along the Turnagain Pass area. Also understand that a majority of Alaska is accessed only via air or sometimes water; surprisingly the best time to travel to many of the bush villages is in the dead of winter when the streams and rivers are frozen and form natural highways. Such areas are almost impassable in the late spring, summer and early fall. As the state has become more technological man has attempted to challenge Nature in many areas with only limited success. The most obvious is the Alyeska Pipeline which opened a route from the North Slope to Valdez on Prince William Sound; this remains as one of the engineering marvels of our time. But the cost of maintaining this pipeline is rapidly growing prohibitive; indeed, when constructed in the middle 70’s it was given a 25 year life span based upon the extreme effects it faces in terms of weather and geological forces. It remains economically viable today only because of the relative scarcity of easily accessible oil. For the most part Alaskans have learned to work with Nature and have developed an understanding that some battles are just better left unfought; bush pilots know this far too well. They often will push the envelope but only in certain areas and even then many will not survive. The native Alaskans understand the need to work with Nature all too well and have developed a legendary stoicism when it comes to their climate and weather. Its some of this same stoicism I’m learning with respect to the environment; work with Nature and abide her many moods but do not challenge her directly unless you are willing to pay her price!

And so I find myself once again listening to the soft rain striking the metal roof on my dwelling; I’ve grown to truly enjoy that sound. At first when I’d awaken in the morning and hear it I would not be happy because it signaled another day trapped in the house. But now I love to lie in bed upon first awakening and really listen to the sound; there’s much I can learn from Performing this simple act. Slow, steady rain most likely means I’ll see rain for a prolonged period that while not heavy will be continual; rain that fluctuates in intensity over just minutes most likely means a heavier rain but for a shorter period and also likely breaks in the precipitation. The former also indicates little to no wind while the latter indicates a stronger and more definite breeze. Yet always it sounds so peaceful and relaxing… Once I can see the sky the clouds speak much regarding the rain as well; the undefined featureless gray sheets of nimbostratus (Ns) mean light to moderate but steady rain probably for a long period of time while the more textured and varied Ns indicate more occasional precipitation with definite variable intensities and will most likely see some changes in the near term. So much to learn and so much to be taught by just watching the sky and listening to the rain!

But its these learnings I seek both out of necessity and based upon a fascination with weather and its part in the natural experience. Herein lies an answer to a question many people have posed to me since I first expressed my desire to live rural in Alaska; “Why would you want to pull up roots and start all over again in someplace so different and far removed from what you’ve lived with all your life?”. I can honestly state that when I ran the numbers in January of 2012 and realized I could make an Alaskan retirement a reality I was initially ecstatic; however, with time the enormity of this proposed life style shift began to really sink in. I had a wonderful situation in terms of lifestyle in SE Michigan; volunteering at Sunrise of Northville had shown me I really enjoyed volunteering and especially loved working with the elderly in general and the memory impaired in particular. I regularly put in 40 to 50 hours a month volunteering and the staff and residents of the facility became my ‘second family’ after Mom passed. I truly looked forward to my volunteering especially as I could bring first Anana and then Anana and Qanuk; how cool was it to be able to bring your dogs with you to ‘work’..?!?!?  I forged many deep and tight relationships while volunteering and I knew that most of those wouldn’t survive the pending relocation. Without question this made my choice one of the most difficult I’ve ever faced; in the end I had no choice but to practice something I’d learned while caring for Mom in her final year of life – act completely from the heart. I spent many sleepless nights ruminating over the decision, carefully weighing all the pros and cons, imagining most likely scenarios and then the worst cases; I drew up lists and made diagrams of the pluses and the minuses yet I couldn’t come to a decision. Finally I picked a quiet Sunday morning when I was awake far too early to just practice a bit of yoga to help relax my muscles and then engage in a bit of TM to relax my mind. Once I resurfaced I looked as deeply into myself as I could manage and asked a simple question without any trappings and devoid of any ancillary thinking or feeling; “What do YOU want, Bill?”. Surprisingly the answer came immediately and upon a foundation built of stone and years of dreams and desires; I wanted to live my dream of retiring to Alaska!

This finalized my decision but it also required I now really consider just what such a move would mean in all areas of my life.  Thankfully because of my many trips and a fascination for reading about ‘The Last Frontier’ I’d accumulated a good, basic knowledge of Alaska and what it would take to live rural in the state.  Once I decided I was going to pursue this dream there was never any question; living in Anchorage or Fairbanks was not an option.  I was going to live rural; with this said I also knew in Alaska there are many degrees of ‘rural’ and I also knew I wanted something roughly in the middle of that scale.  There are many who live up here year round without electricity, many more have no phones and a lot of these folks shun their fellow man.  This was far too extreme for me; I knew I was too social a being to cut myself off from people and I lacked the skills, the desire and the mindset to live without some creature comforts like electricity, a phone and broadband.  By the same token I did not want to live in a town or even a typical residential subdivision; I wanted land around me that was mine and neighbors that were no closer than a tenth of a mile and mainly invisible.  I also knew roughly where I wanted to live based upon my many previous trips; in the end it came down to Homer on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula or Talkeetna.  For a few days I wrestled with the decision but finally I realized I loved the Interior of mainland Alaska and Homer was just too far removed; hence, Talkeetna was my choice.  Working with these initial parameters I just happened to luck out in finding Holly from McKinley View Realty; she played a huge role in making this happen for me.

Once I had made the decision and started researching homes I also knew I was in for a huge learning curve; even then I didn’t realize just how large this would be.  But understanding this helped me realize I would need to be completely open to everything I heard from Holly and the locals regarding living in this area; to this end I spoke with the owners of ‘The Susitna River Lodge’ at length while staying there in early April on my house hunting trip regarding living in Talkeetna.  Thankfully they and their friends they introduced me to were all too happy to share their experiences and knowledge.  At this point I couldn’t have been happier; I was in Alaska talking to Alaskans about living in the state while locating my new home!!  I truly became a sponge and soaked up everything I heard because at the time I felt it more important to have such knowledge available.  At a later time I could sort out what was worthwhile.  I feel I’ve been as successful as I have to this point – and I have a long way to go and hence my ultimate success is not assured – because I was willing to put aside any preconceptions and just listen.  I’ve incorporated so many of their suggestions and observations into my new lifestyle and often these have been things I would not have thought of on my own or more likely would’ve learned the value of ‘the hard way’.

Okay, for some I’m suspect this might have been somewhat informative but still didn’t really answer the root question I posed earlier.  I’d come to a point in my life at which I recognized I’d become ‘comfortably numb’; I had a routine, comfortable existence in which I was stable but not really happy.  I did feel very good about my volunteering; it is an awesome experience to know that I made a positive difference in an Alzheimer’s victim’s existence – even if for just a moment quickly to be forgotten – and gave them just a modicum of happiness!  If I could find such an opportunity up here I’d drive an hour each way to continue being able to do so; sadly the only assisted living facilities are in the larger cities and most of them do not have sections for the memory impaired.  But I had no other real purpose in my life and I was definitely beginning to ‘let go’ of a lot.  There was a small part of me, a bit of my core, that hungered for a real change, something undeniable and huge in its scope.  I felt I wanted to be challenged by something outside the ‘usual’ stuff like managing my retirement, getting through the day and raising some four legged companions.  Relocating to rural Alaska fit these desires to a ‘T’; a huge lifestyle shift with a myriad of new learnings required just to safely exist and the opportunity to live just a few hours from my ‘soul home’ – Denali National Park & Preserve.  Given all this how could I not jump at the chance to live this dream..???

So it is I find myself looking once again out my office window at the now bare birch and aspen dotting my 2.43 acres of boreal forest at Mile 7.1 of the Spur; the rain continues its quiet, peaceful tap, tap, tapping on the roof.  The featureless overcast prophesies a rainy day and the 36.4 F air temp councils gloves and sweat pants when I take the dogs out for a walk.  I suppose I’d prefer a sunny day but I can not only deal with the rain I now enjoy it; its become an old friend whispering of the incredible cycle of life that’s so predominate up here.  Without it there would be no boreal forest and without that this wouldn’t be south central Alaska.  And that would truly be a shame…