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…

A Soggy Summer Solstice…

On Saturday, June 21st at 02:51 AKDT we arrived at the Summer Solstice; in the following image I fought off the mosquitoes to get a picture of my place just a couple hours after that time which I figured was close enough!  The view is looking west from my driveway and includes my Alaskan Malamute (Anana) who makes a living always being in the way; I found it interesting to note the bright sections of the lower western sky seen through the boreal forest (just above the Escape) that surrounds this area.  It almost appears as though the sun had just set but in reality it was already 40 minutes past sunrise!!  For those interested Talkeetna experienced a sunrise on Friday, June 20th at 04:05 AKDT and saw the sun set at 00:00 AKDT on June 21st for a total of 19 hours 55 minutes of direct sunlight.  This will continue for the next four days before the daylight slowly starts to diminish as we advance towards the Autumnal Equinox.  With the passing of this annual event I’ve now seen all the equinoxes and solstices in my new home; a kind of milestone for my Alaskan existence.


Talkeetna just loves the Summer Solstice and there were many small celebrations of the event; a number of locals indulged in playing softball without any lights – they weren’t needed – well past midnight.  Most of the local facilities had some kind of celebration with live music being a favorite.  I’m sure more than a few drank to excess but then given how light it was it would’ve been easy to walk home or even hitch-hike on the Spur as folks were still driving around at that time.  Up here hitchhiking is a safe means of travel and I regularly pick up locals on the Spur as well as the occasional tourist or visitor.  I didn’t hear of any issues which was good but not unexpected.  During my Friday evening newscast I did read a warning regarding a grizzly which had just killed a moose calf at the northern tip of Christiansen Lake between the water and Christiansen Lake Road.  This lake is just to the east of the Talkeetna Airport which is located in ‘downtown’ Talkeetna.  The grizzly was expected to remain in the area for a while so locals were being warned to give the area a wide berth; I also used the announcement to remind folks that its once again time to be ‘bear aware’.  Across the next five months I’m sure KTNA will broadcast some similar warnings as well as information on specific verified sightings of local grizzlies.  At the ‘KTNA Volunteer Appreciation Picnic’ on Thursday, June 12th I spoke to a volunteer who was riding her recumbent into town for her music show when a young grizzly boar popped out of the weeds right at the railroad crossing on the south edge of town; she said it thankfully just looked at her and strolled off south on the tracks.  Large wildlife is a way of life in this area and so no one gets too excited about such situations unless there’s aggressive activity tied to the sightings.

Anyway, because I was up early I did get the dogs out for a 35 minute walk; thankfully I applied my ‘Deep Woods Off’ before heading out as even with this repellant there was a cloud of mosquitoes buzzing around me and they followed me the entire time.  While I do find the hoards of tourists a bit irritating they cannot hold a candle to the hoards of blood thirsty mosquitoes; even the dogs get fed up with being buzzed by them and will snap at them when they fly close enough.  In general they are immune to the flying ‘vampires’ thanks to their thick coats although the insides of their ears and their bellies do get bitten infrequently.  I was pleased we did get in the early walk as the overcast thickened and by 08:00 it began to rain; just drizzle at first but it soon strengthened into a steady albeit light shower which lasted all day.  We need the moisture so I was happy when I could report a 24 hour rain total of 0.49″ to CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow reporting network) in my 07:00 daily report this morning.  With the rain and a temp hovering in the upper 40’s this was a bit cool for a Summer Solstice but not too bad.  Interestingly it was a far cry from Friday afternoon’s weather which was blazing sunshine with a peak air temps of 73.1 F which is easily five degrees above normal.

I’m slowly learning to exist up here in the warmer months but without question I prefer the winter to what I’ve seen thus far during this fledgling summer.  I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the continual light; it never even gets ‘dark’ from early May through early August; the best we see in terms of ‘darkness’ is what’s termed ‘civil twilight’.  Since late-May its been possible to read a book outdoors at 02:00 without any additional light.  When I’ve had some trouble sleeping I’ve taken the dogs for walks around this time without issue although since the bears have become more common I’m no longer doing this because they are more active during times we humans tend to be absent and 02:00 is definitely such a time.  Thus far my single small sunflower seed feeder has remained untouched by anything larger than a Red Squirrel along with the Chickadees, Nuthatches, Juncos and woodpeckers its set up to feed.  Even so I always look out the front door window before I exit onto the porch as its possible it could attract a bear.  Alaska Fish & Game recommends not putting out bird feeders and water sources during bear season so I am flying in the face of that wisdom but I also want to encourage the birds to hang around so I’m just going to give it a go for now.  If I get any sense it’s attracting bears let alone see any evidence of bruin activity it will be immediately taken down.  I have to be very circumspect regarding my burning; anything with a possible food odor has to be stored inside the house until I can immediately get it to the burn barrel and thoroughly incinerated.  I’ve been told every year someone loses sight of this necessity and ends up with a frightening bear encounter.  I think we all get a bit lax from November through early May when the bears are hibernating.  I did get my front porch netted in but I’m not satisfied with the fragile nature of the netting especially with two large dogs so come fall I’m going to purchase rolls of actual screening which is much more robust and redo the job.  I was hoping to get by with the cheaper and lighter weight stuff but that just isn’t cutting it.  Getting the dogs inside without bringing in mosquitoes is something I still haven’t mastered.  I do force them to remain briefly in the mud room; often any ‘tag-alongs’ will fly off their fur and I can then swat them or use the concentrated pyrethrin spray to knock them out.  Leaving just one lousy mosquito alive in the house will make for a bad time at night; I’ve learned its much wiser to take them out ASAP.

Without question I learn something new almost every day regarding living in rural south central Alaska; providing I live for another few decades I might actually get to the point where I’m fairly well experienced in such a lifestyle.  I do know for sure this majestic land will never stop surprising or amazing me; Alaska truly is ‘The Great Land’ just as the Athabascan people named her…’Alyeska’!

Bullwinkle’s Revenge or ‘Watch Out Where Them Moosies Go”..?!?

Before I get started with this piece I want to assure anyone reading this that I do not believe moose are ‘Bullwinkle’!  Indeed, they are pretty much the opposite of the cartoon character in that they are smart, fast and extremely adept at traversing the thick boreal forest or open tundra.  I learned this hard way back in June of 2000 while solo backpacking in Kachemak Bay State Park across Kachemak Bay from the town of Homer.  I’d finished up a three day hiking/camping trip into the park and was heading back to the ranger station on Halibut Cove Lagoon via the China Poot Lake Trail to pick up my ride back to Homer with Bay Excursion’s water taxi service (highly recommended – Captain Karl Stoltzfus is the best!!).  I was part way back and entered an open area around a couple of acres in size that was relatively flat with tall grass.  Diagonal from me was a lone moose cow munching some willow bark.  As this was an easy to hike area compared to the wet and muddy trail I availed myself of the grass and figured I was far enough away from the moose to not be an issue.  Even so I watched her and I was puzzled by the fact the she stopped eating and was closely eying me; as I continued her ears went back against her head.  I was wondering what the heck her problem was and started angling away from her but still moving forward.  Then I realized what was happening when her spring calf stood up from the grass no more than ten feet in front of me.  Time kinda stood still as I looked at the calf, immediately thought “OH SHIT!!!” and looked back at Mom to see this brown blur the size of a freight train bearing down on me.  I jettisoned my backpack and ran to the tree line just beating her; we played ‘keep away’ with me hiding behind tree trunks for maybe a minute until she decided I wasn’t a threat, collected her calf and sauntered off.  It was this experience which caused me to re-think the wisdom of solo backpacking in remote areas (the park is accessible only via air or water) and completely altered my opinion of moose.

With this said I learned the hard way a few days back that with snow conditions like we’re experiencing now – compressed snow about a foot in depth with a strong, icy covering atop which just a bit of new snow has fallen – one absolutely must watch where one steps!  Even at my heavy bulk the icy snow cover is strong enough to allow me to walk atop it; however, moose do break through and leave a circular area that slants inward towards the actual hole where their hooves break through the icy surface.  Normally this is easy to see but after just an inch of snow atop this the indentations become very difficult to see and this makes for hazardous walking.  Not realizing this to be the case I wasn’t being careful as I was walking Anana and Qanuk a few days back and I paid for it.  As I was in the swampy area just to the west of ‘Exercise Hill’ I inadvertently stepped into a moose track which caused my foot to slide into the actual hole and twisted my ankle.  It was just enough to hurt and give me a slight limp.  I started trying to watch where I was placing my feet after that but managed to step into another such track with the same foot and once again twist the same ankle.  This time it really hurt to the point I sat down in the snow for a few minutes and cursed a blue streak while condemning my inability to recognize such dangers.  Once the initial pain resided I managed to gimp up the hill and back to my place but even today the ankle remains sore and I’m staying off it as much as possible.

I’d never have imagined one could founder in a moose’s tracks but once again Alaska has shown me I have much to learn!  Normally walking in moose tracks is no big deal; I’ve done it before to keep from having to break a fresh trail through 20 plus inches of snow but that was in more ‘typical’ snow conditions.  The icy nature of Talkeetna’s snow cover which is due entirely to the warm winter has changed how one must handle walking in the snow; until last Monday I didn’t realize this was the case.  I love learning more about ‘getting along’ in rural south central Alaska but I’d prefer my lessons be a bit less painful if possible.  Still and all I know I won’t forget this hard won piece of knowledge; one must evaluate the snow conditions when expecting to walk in it and be aware that based on these conditions what one chooses to do must be weighed against those conditions and the influence of other factors like wildlife, temperature, sunlight and similar.

Wildlife At 62 Degrees North Latitude

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.

Grizzly paw print in frost on Teklanika picnic table

Grizzly paw print in frost on Teklanika picnic table

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 In Back Yard 2

Moose cow foraging in the back yard – October 13, 2013

Probable yearling moose calf in the back yard

Probable yearling moose calf in the back yard

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!