Some of you may have noticed my ‘public name’ has changed from ‘Newbie Alaskan’ to ‘Forever Alaskan’. Given it has now been two years since I pulled into the driveway of 15158 East Barge Drive with a 26’ U-Haul van in close pursuit I decided it was time. Long time Alaskans have told me that one is not a ‘real’ Alaskan until they’ve weathered two winters. I chose to extrapolate that to living in the state for two consecutive years which will happen as of August 5, 2015. Admittedly, the two winters I’ve experienced were extremely mild and much less worse than a cold winter in SE Michigan but that is not by choice as I’d kill to see a true Alaskan winter. Sadly, with the record El Nino currently in the Pacific I’d bet this coming winter will again be very mild and dry in Alaska. Not much to be done; Mother Nature has her own plans and we are just along for the ride.
Across these two years I’ve seen a lot and learned even more particularly regarding life in semi-rural south central Alaska. So much of the aforementioned learnings deal with not just surviving but thriving in this area; these were magnified for me because this is the first time I’ve lived semi-rural. Without question many of these learnings are pertinent to this area like bear safety, seasonal preparations, dealing with tourists and understanding the local weather and its trends but there is also a lot of information which pertains to just living away from a population center. While I do have electricity and broadband my water comes from my well and my waste water goes to a septic field; both these were new experiences. I love not having to deal with a lawn but I’m also discovering that even the boreal forest on my land needs some attention from time to time. Most goods and services require a 120 mile round trip drive to the Palmer-Wasilla area and, as such, require planning ahead to maximize the time spent in this area.
I’ve developed many interests which were mainly inconsequential when living in suburbia; I love to sit in my rocker on the front porch and just soak in the ‘immense silence’ while watching Nature unfold around me. Wildlife watching is indeed much more dramatic up here because of the presence of moose and bears along with a secretive local wolverine. There are a bevy of birds most of which I’ve had to learn as they are completely different from those I watched and fed in the eastern half of the lower 48. And, yes, I must admit to feeding ‘my’ birds year ‘round which is not supposed to happen – at least during bear season – as it can attract the local bruins. However, I’ve been very careful to clean up and I only use one small feeder. As I’ve never previously lived within earshot of a lake I’m truly enjoying listening to the loons on Question Lake giving voice in the mornings. Sky watching, particularly at night, has always been something I enjoy but up here it becomes a real obsession because of the clear, dark winter nights.
Without question I’ve become much more of an extrovert simply because when one is living rural opportunities for social interaction can be rather limited. And, too, I had to give up my volunteering with memory impaired elders simply because no such facilities exist in this area; the closest are in the Anchorage bowl. But this has led to me expanding my volunteering efforts to the likes of live radio at KTNA and supporting – and finally sitting on the board – of the Upper Susitna Food Pantry. Both opportunities have given me lots to do and allowed me to make new friends and contacts. They have also allowed me to really stretch my ‘comfort zones’ which is never a bad thing! I’ve noticed that as I age it becomes harder and harder to really step outside one’s comfort zone so anything that can serve to make this happen is most welcome.
I suppose if I had to sum up my first two years in this majestic state the concept of a ‘learning adventure’ keeps coming to mind. And if I had to select an image from my rather voluminous collection that best illustrates what I so love about Alaska it would be the following:
Christmas morning 2015 with ‘the Kidz’; we’re south of the back of my place clearing the new snow from the sat dish
This was bound to eventually happen although I must admit that up until an hour ago I still viewed it as an abstract event; one of those things people think about and reflect upon but somehow never actually expect to see it become reality. I had a run in with an angry cow moose when solo backpacking in Kachemak Bay State Park in June of 2000 but she was just protecting her spring calf which was hidden in some waist deep grass in a forest clearing. In this sense her protective reaction was entirely expected and even normal but then what just transpired maybe half a mile from my place also falls into that category.
As it looks like rain I decided to get the ‘kidz’ – as I jokingly refer to my 120 pound female Alaskan Malamute ‘Anana’ and my 86 pound male German Shepherd Dog ‘Qanuk’ – out for some exercise such that I might spare my home of the mud and gravel they track in when wet. We started off heading east down East Barge Drive towards the Riven cut off; in the past year we’ve walked this road more times than I care to remember. In typical fashion the dogs were ranging out in front of me by 15 to 75 feet and making many side trips into the boreal forest which surrounds this area. I had passed John and Ruth’s driveway and was most of the way across the swampy muskeg area to the north of East Barge Drive and starting up the hill when I saw both dogs freeze. In perfect harmony they raised their noses almost straight up into the air and then swiveled their heads to the west which is boreal forest. Qanuk was continuing to sniff the air but Anana had dropped her nose and was scanning the forest with real intensity. She has the best eyesight of any canine I’ve seen and she was definitely employing it at that moment.
Suddenly she shot into the forest like a rocket with Qanuk in pursuit. I was looking but couldn’t see anything although given it was overcast and rather gray anything under the forest canopy was in deep shadow. I started fumbling for my Canon SX-260 PowerShot ‘point and shoot’ camera which I often carry with me because it is so very portable and takes great images. I started extracting it from my jacket pocket when I heard Anana yelp and then a loud conundrum broke out within the forest. Anana came running from the forest onto the road with a wild look in her eyes and she was heading straight for me. A few seconds later I saw a large brown cow moose break the cover of the forest and take to the road in hot pursuit of Anana. Time immediately slowed to that adrenaline enhanced crawl and I can now remember distinctly what transpired over the next maybe 20 seconds which seemed like an eternity.
Qanuk on East Barge Drive
My first thought was; “Oh Shit, this isn’t good!” as I saw Anana closing on me with the moose in hot pursuit. My second thought was; “Damn, I didn’t bring the pepper spray!” and my third thought was; “Time to run…NOW!”. Thankfully there are lots of sizable spruces and birch trees right along the side of the road and I immediately tried to put one of these between me and the charging moose. I remembered from my experience in Kachemak Bay State Park that moose are incredibly fast when they want and they appear about the size of a freight train locomotive when they are bearing down on you. Anana ran to me and the moose followed but Anana only waited by me for a few seconds before she realized I wasn’t going to be much help and headed further into the forest. The moose snorted as she raced by me but thankfully kept going after Anana. At this point I saw a brown/gray blur whiz past me and into the forest after the moose; it was Qanuk. With his appearance I breathed a sigh of relief because he obviously wasn’t injured and he was going to help his buddy Anana.
I heard the sounds of a lot of breaking branches and heavy breathing in the direction the ‘kidz’ and the moose had disappeared; within maybe a minute Anana popped out on the road perhaps 50 feet west of me and Qanuk was right with her. I briefly saw the moose pop out of the tree line but I think she figured she made her point and she probably rethought the wisdom of messing with two large dogs so she just stopped, gave the dog’s one last look as if to say; “Take That..!” and then reversed direction and headed back into the forest. To my surprise Anana looked like she was going to follow but I immediately intervened. I called both of them back to me and checked them over; thankfully no cuts were in evidence and they had all four limbs, both ears and a tail to boot! I then hustled them the final third of a mile or so to our driveway and put them in the house.
Just the previous week I’d shared a story with a college buddy via e-mail involving the kidz chasing a local moose; in doing so I said I’d confirmed Anana would run back to me if frightened and remarked this would not be good if she’d irritated a grizzly. In addition I’d mused I should probably start carrying the pepper spray once again as I’d become lax in doing so across the summer. I hadn’t heeded my own advice and almost ended up paying a nasty price for my negligence. There’s no need for people just walking or biking around this area to carry pepper spray but because I have two dogs with me and I allow them largely free reign I need to be better prepared. I knew this yet I allowed my ‘comfort’ with the area to get the better of me. In true Alaskan fashion I was just reminded that this area is home to many large mammals and because I’m invading their home I’d best be prepared!!
Moose cow in my ‘back yard’ last October
Wednesday, August 6th marked the one year anniversary of my relocation to Alaska and because I have a definite tendency to reflect upon major events in my existence – don’t we all – I thought I’d capture some of these ‘reflections’ along with key learnings across the period. Understand this is based upon my sixty years of urban existence in the lower 48 which I gladly traded for a semi-rural lifestyle within the outskirts of Talkeetna. As such my perspectives have shifted quite a bit – in some cases I’d say ‘radically’ – and I’m still integrating many aspects of my new albeit much loved lifestyle. At this point perhaps some Q & A would be in order; some of these were highlighted in my previous posting:
- What do I most love about my rural Talkeetna lifestyle? Very tough call…I’d say it’s a tie between the immense silence that can be so deep as to actually have a presence and the ever-present wildlife. I regularly see moose on my property and all over the area; I’ve seen a few grizzlies at great distance which is how I like to view them but there are regular signs of their passing in this immediate area in the forms of digging, tree marking and scat. The close proximity of the mighty Alaska Range makes for breath-taking views of North America’s highest peak (Denali or ‘Mt McKinley’ to the uninitiated at 20,287 feet) along with Mt Hunter (around 14,400 feet) and Mt Foraker (a bit over 17,000 feet). And I also love the mindset of the local folks; it’s part of what initially drew me to Alaska. Alaskans tend to be down to earth, tolerant, friendly and self-sufficient. In the more rural areas everyone looks out for their neighbors; it’s a given. Just yesterday my neighbor to the south who has a place on Question Lake stopped by to ask me if I’d check up on her place across the next five days as she’ll be heading north around Denali to do some hunting. Of course I immediately agreed; I’m out at least once a day with the dogs anyway so just swinging by her property is no problem. I will also make a quick survey before turning in for the night. We hardly know each other yet I was honored she would ask me; I know I cut a somewhat large profile because of my almost daily walks with my two large dogs but still I was pleased she would think to ask me. This is classic Alaska and part of what I truly love about the people of ‘The Great Land’!
- What do I dislike the most about living in rural Talkeetna? Another tie: I abhor the mosquitoes and I am sick to death of the lack of real darkness across the past three months! The summer influx of tourists into Talkeetna ranks a very close second..! I am learning to deal with the mosquitoes and also have learned the necessity of completely sealing up my bedroom windows against light. Knowing what a negative the continual daylight has been for me across the past three months I’m hopeful I will be a bit better prepared come next spring. There’s little to be done regarding the tourists; like so many locals I limit my trips into the village as much as possible from middle May through middle September. After that point the village once again becomes the sleepy albeit comfortable place all us locals so love.
- What do I most miss from my lower 48 life? Actually almost nothing although since I asked once again it’s a tie, this time between personal interaction with so many friends I left behind and the absence of really severe weather up here in the form of thunderstorms and super-cell activity. We do see a few thunderstorms but they are mainly along the Alaska Range and the Talkeetna Mountains; the strongest of these storms is but a pale shadow to the vibrant storms I enjoyed in the Cincinnati area and in SE Michigan.
- What do I miss least about living in the lower 48? This is impossible to answer with even five items although two major things that immediately came to mind were the high population density which contributed to so much congestion and the noise pollution. Right behind would be 80+ F air temps, 70+ F dew points and light pollution. Thus far we’ve seen just three days with temps at or above 80 F and since May we’ve been averaging around two and a half days a week with temps in the 70’s; otherwise the highs are in the 60’s.
- What has most surprised me about my new lifestyle? So many things! Despite my previous Alaskan experiences and all my planning I’d have to say my ill-preparedness for living semi-rural in south central Alaska. And I’ve had invaluable help and advice from Holly (my good friend and realtor) along with so many other local folks. I knew I’d have a huge learning curve but even so I grossly underestimated my lack of experience and knowledge. Rural living in and of itself has been an eye-opening experience from learning the schedule of mail so I can maximize my trips to the PO (I have no local delivery) to understanding that folks just do not use lot/house numbers for describing their location. Although my place is technically ‘15158 East Barge Drive’ no one recognizes this descriptor; I found it much better to simply say I live in ‘Dan and Erica Valentine’s old place’. It seems most of the locals knew these people as the Valentine family has strong roots in the Talkeetna area and Dan Valentine is an Alaska State Trooper currently living on Kodiak Island with his family. I also still marvel at the lengths of the mornings and evenings; it often seems as though it will never get dark even in the winter and the morning light can stretch on as well. This, obviously, is a function of living in the higher latitudes and is the opposite of what is observed near the equator when mornings just seem to spring into existence and nights seem to just happen almost instantaneously.
- What challenges have been most predominant? Probably the single biggest challenge involves getting myself integrated into the community. I want to be a ‘giver’ in the sense of volunteering hence my efforts in supporting KTNA and the Upper Susitna Food Pantry. But I also want to develop more personal relationships with the local folks and perhaps put more of my experience and talents (i.e. 18 years in food manufacturing, 12 years in corporate IT field support, etc.) to use. There has been a whole range of things I’ve learned and I have many, many times that amount yet to comprehend and make part of my lifestyle. Being ‘bear aware’ is a good example; from early May through early November the bears are out and about so it’s vital to always keep one’s awareness of the immediate surroundings in mind. I have a small sunflower seed bird feeder just off the north end of my front porch. It’s not recommended one feed birds during ‘bear season’ as the feeders can become dinner plates but I decided I would try to continue feeding my feather friends as I have a large collection of Chickadees (both Black Capped and Boreal), Juncos, hairy woodpeckers, Red Breasted Nuthatches and similar. Thus far I’ve seen no issues but I always look out my front door before I open it just to make sure there’s not a bear at the feeder. There is no trash pickup and hence all garbage must be either burned or hauled to the local refuse collection point. I do try to save money by burning most flammable objects but if they involved food in any manner I must store them inside the house until I can get them out to the burn barrel and completely incinerated. During the winter I tend to get a bit sloppy and will leave trash out on the front porch but I have to remind myself that once it begins to warm up I have to resume my ‘bear awareness’.
But there have been a myriad of changes within myself which also translate to how I view my new lifestyle and those around me. I really do now exist on ‘Talkeetna Time’ and I’m more than okay with this concept. I get the important stuff handled in a timely manner but I no longer sweat the small stuff or allow extraneous exterior influences to impact my lifestyle in a major manner. My cell phone is fine for basic communication but I still prefer to talk to people at the Talkeetna Post Office, Cubby’s or the staff and volunteers at KTNA and the Pantry. I do lean heavily on email and Skype because I have some family and many good friends still living in the lower 48 but I find myself shying away from ‘technological’ forms of communication. I’ve found my awareness of all things ‘Nature’ has increased enormously; I do so enjoy charting the local weather, star gazing on cold winter nights and just watching Mother Nature’s abundance unfold around my little piece of serenity on East Barge Drive. I learned the amazing trees that make up the boreal forest do much to mitigate the effects of wind at ground level just as they drive the much higher humidity because of their transpiration. In keeping with the ‘natural side’ I’ve come to really enjoy and value my two canine companions (Anana – my female Alaskan Malamute and Qanuk – my male German Shepherd Dog); when walking with them they almost become extensions of my own senses as I watch them sample air currents for the tiniest traces of nearby wildlife. They love living in Alaska and it was a true pleasure to be able to introduce my Anana to the home of her breed.
‘Talkeetna Time’ has really helped me retreat from the rather harried and unnecessarily complex lifestyle I endured in the lower 48; in so doing its also given me a lot of time to reflect and be introspective. Living surrounded by so much Nature has definitely made me so much more aware of natural processes and has fostered a real need to be more ecologically wise. I so wish Alaska recycled but apparently the economics of doing so have made the practice prohibitively expensive. I am no fan of burning so much but trying to haul all of this to the refuse station would be extremely expensive and in some cases just isn’t possible. At least appliances and electronics are recycled although this requires hauling such items to the Best Buy which is in Anchorage and hence 110 miles south. It’s difficult to live immersed in so much undisturbed forest and not begin to resonate with the natural rhythms of the land. Although I‘ve always been a sky watcher since moving here I am even more observant of both the day and night skies. I’m slowly learning the most unusual weather patterns of my new home; most of my observationally acquired knowledge from the lower 48 is useless up here as meteorology in the higher latitudes is indeed very different. I’m slowly learning about the local fauna; to my surprise there are a myriad of herbs and plants that are edible and some that are downright healthy.
Born and raised in Michigan and living mainly in the Midwest I grew up a ‘flat lander’ with the only area I lived in which exhibited real ‘character’ in terms of ups and downs being SW Ohio. Since moving up here I’m slowly getting used to the idea that very little is flat and the land even in river valleys has no shortage of hills and dales. In addition this area is prone to clouds and precipitation in varying amounts and types. Like folks living in the NW of the lower 48 I’m learning to not allow rain to interfere with my outdoor activities; dressing for wet conditions is important but the mindset that a bit of rain isn’t going to prevent me from walking the dogs is even more vital. The same is even more important in winter; up here having proper winter clothing can be a matter of life and death. I’ve discovered I can handle -20 F air temps in comfort with the proper gear and I suspect I could weather -30 F and lower temps without much discomfort. It’s important I acknowledge that I moved to Alaska to see real cold and snow; for whatever reason I’m built for the cold and know of no one more able to endure cold temps in good cheer. The flip side of this is I abhor warm temps especially combined with high humidity. I will gladly wear shorts with a tee shirt and sandals in air temps right down to freezing but as soon as the air temp crosses the middle 70’s I’m uncomfortable. Combine such air temps with dew points in the upper 60’s and I’m just plain hot and unhappy. So it’s no surprise I enjoy Talkeetna’s winter; I did learn that as soon as the air temp drops below -15 F I need to cover bare skin if there’s even just a 5 mph breeze. My canine companions enjoy the cold as well although Qanuk suffered from paw issues when we’d spend 45 minutes outside in -12 F or colder air temps. He so loves being outdoors he wouldn’t let me know when his paws were hurting; only after coming inside would I see him begin to limp around and whine. Because of this I’ve learned I must regulate his exposure to the snow and ice once air temps drop below 10 F. Anana, on the other hand, loves the cold and is fine outdoors even at -22 F. I was surprised to see her grow long white fur from between her paw pads; it finally dawned on me this was a Mal adaptation to cold exposure and helped insulate the areas between her pads which is where Qanuk suffered his problems. Nature is indeed amazing..! I’m prepared for this winter with booties for Qanuk and even a two pair for Anana just in case.
Without question I’m living a dream with my retirement to rural south central Alaska and there is hardly a day that passes without some aspect of my new home amazing me. Knowing I have so much yet to learn isn’t daunting or a negative but rather a challenge I relish. Without question I’ve discovered a lifestyle that wouldn’t appeal to most folks but suits me just fine. I cannot imagine ever living in the lower 48 again and I surely will never live in any manner but rural. It may have taken me sixty years to finally find my place but I’m okay with this as many folks never do make such a journey. And my one predominate wish is simply that I have many more years to revel in the majesty and freedom of my beloved Alaska.
Recently while assisting with the cataloging of donated food stuffs I was espousing how my Alaskan relocation had taught me a myriad of lessons and was continuing to do so. I speculated that I’d be learning lessons regarding living in rural south central Alaska for the remainder of my life because the lifestyle is so different in so many ways from the urban lower 48 existence I embraced for the first 59 years of my life. At this point I was asked what was the most important lesson I’d learned to date. This immediately caused me to pause and reflect – maybe that was the reason I was asked such a question in the first place – for a minute or so as I reviewed all the key learnings to date. I wanted to give an honest and accurate answer as versed with the first thought in my head so I needed a bit of time. I finally answered it was the value of being prepared. This is a definite nod to the Boy Scouts although I never was a member but only since moving to rural Talkeetna has the value of being prepared really become clear.
There are so many levels of said preparedness; it can be as minor as hanging my small and light weight broom just outside the front door when the snow arrives so I can brush off boots, legs and dog bellies before entering the mud room. Or it can be as major – and potentially lifesaving – as insuring there are a minimum of 10 gallons of fresh gasoline in containers next to the generator on my front porch come winter. And there so many additional ‘flavors’ of being prepared when living up here. Regarding said generator; I was very lucky my buddy recommended I have a can of ether starter spray handy because one cold (-18 F) early morning when the power had been off for five hours and was still down the generator was refusing to start. Only after spraying the starter fluid into the air intake could I get it to catch and fire up. Some lessons regarding preparedness were taught by dealing with not being so; I have a storage shed maybe 15 feet from the house which contains a raft of tools and implements. The shed sits on stout and sizable logs which puts the base of the door maybe 18 inches off the ground. However, this winter I saw enough snow – and it was a very mild winter in terms of snow fall and temps – that I couldn’t get into the shed without extensive snow shoveling. This wouldn’t have been a big deal except I’d left the battery charger and the long extension cord for powering the Escape’s battery blanket within the shed. Given the grief I went through to get into the shed when there was 28 inches of snow pack you best bet I won’t make that error come this winter! I learned that one had best have a reasonable shovel of some type within one’s vehicle cause ya can never tell when you’ll get stuck in a manner that five minutes of shoveling will free you but if ya have no shovel you are outta luck; and, yes, I learned this lesson the hard way as well. I was smart enough to insure I have at least two weeks worth of food on-hand come winter; thankfully this past winter I never needed to dig into the ongoing balance but after seeing some aspects of this ‘mild’ winter I can see why two weeks is the minimum I would recommend.
It’s very common for Alaskan houses to be built atop crawl spaces to allow for moisture reduction but still give the house the ability to ‘float’ a bit in earthquakes. Because of the potential for extreme winter cold it’s also common to have small heating units included in the crawl space to warm winter air just enough to keep pipes from freezing when the air temp drops below -15 F for extended periods of time. In my place running said heater requires I manually switch it on and off at the main floor breaker box. While I was good about turning it on I was not so great at turning it off; allowing it to run across most of January when it was so unseasonably warm doubled my monthly electric bill. You bet I’m going to be wiring in a functioning temp switch this summer which will toggle the heater around an air temp of -15 F! In the depths of the winter I learned the value of having multiple candles staged around both floors along with butane lighters readily available. When the sun doesn’t rise until 09:30 and sets around 17:00 there are long periods of darkness. If one awakens to such darkness and no electricity its the wrong time to be stumbling around trying to find one’s way down stairs and to the outer wear so the generator can be started and engaged. Flashlights are an option but it always seems as though the batteries will die when most needed. A lighter and a few strategically placed candles can be toe and knee savers on such dark and cold mornings. Before this coming winter I will be rigging a few sections of LEDs that are wired right into a tape backing and can be powered by a twelve volt battery. A few of these in the stairwell and in a couple of the hallways use little energy but would provide safe lighting in the dark if the power fails.
Seasonally based preparedness is also very important. Thankfully I did not learn the hard way regarding parking one’s vehicle in such a location as to be clear of the falling built up snow and ice which is going to drop from one’s roof. When there’s two feet of snow mixed with ice breaking free in large chunks I can tell you the house shakes when one let’s go and answers gravity’s call. I would not want to see what it would do to any vehicle in its path. I learned this spring that as soon as there’s substantial sunlight – I’d say by early April – the mosquitoes will begin to appear even with a foot of snow on the ground so its important to have exterior barriers like netting for the porch ready to be mounted. In SE Michigan seeing mosquitoes when snow was on the ground was non sequitur; up here that’s the way it is… It’s important to recognize the natural rhythms of the wildlife around us and that’s especially true for the larger mammals. Bears are around from late April through early November; during that time it’s very important to remain ‘bear aware’. Trash has to be burned or immediately disposed of if it smells of food; leaving it lying around, even within a shed or similar, will attract bears. Trust me, no one up here wants to encourage any type of bruin to hang around their homes! Moose are here year ’round in large numbers; I’ve seen moose in my yard every season to this point. They were almost ubiquitous from mid-March into early April; then they largely disappeared. Only now are they starting to re-appear and many cows have spring calves in tow; this is also true of many of the bear sows with their spring cubs. I’m not sure which combination is more dangerous but rest assured as a mere human you do not want to surprise either one or even give the adults the inkling you could be a potential predator.
Something which never did occur to me until a friend mentioned it a few months back – more proof I still think like a lower 48er – is the wisdom of keeping cash in one’s dwelling. While this is rural Alaska we have the same debit card fanaticism up here and people regularly withdraw money from the only local banking service’s – Matanuska Valley Federal Credit Union – ATMs. But what would happen if a major earthquake or wild fire seriously damaged our electrical infrastructure? If our broadband connections alone were cut any kind of plastic could not be used because it could not be verified as valid; in addition the ATMs would no longer function. In the event of a fairly substantial quake we could be without such services for a week or more. If one needed to purchase gasoline or food about the only way to make such transactions is via currency. Therefore the wisdom of keeping $400 to $600 of cash available in one’s dwelling becomes not just prudent but a darn good idea. Whilst this might seem like an invite to burglars all of us have firearms of varying natures and numbers up here and most everyone is proficient in their use.
I could go on and on but this distills down not just key learnings regarding rural south central Alaskan life but also the value of being prepared. What so many lower 48er’s fail to recognize is that things are different in Alaska; this is part of the state’s draw. While we have cell service along most of the Parks Highway (AK 3 – runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks) if you get even a few miles off the main road you can be cut off from such communication. In addition once you leave one of the four or five ‘metropolitan’ areas you need to be fairly self-sufficient as state troopers often have to cover patrol areas that encompass hundreds of square miles. Local responders can be hours or even days away depending upon one’s location. And perhaps the most telling fact I can offer up as to the importance of being prepared in Alaska is to relate the number one killer of humans every year in the state is hypothermia. Reflect upon this fact as you consider wading that braided river in the back country; or better yet, reflect upon this fact long before you consider such a move…
In keeping with the ‘winter that wasn’t’ and the mild fall our break up has come earlier than usual and now spring is in full bloom. We’ve seen five consecutive days of high temps in the fifties along with abundant sunshine. The icy roads have finally surrendered to the warm sun’s kiss and now they are mainly just muddy although the higher points have also dried off to the point they are becoming dusty. I see the ‘average’ highs in April for Talkeetna are around 46 F but we’ve been easily five degrees above this value; interestingly the average low is listed as 26 F and we’ve been right on that mark. We’re approaching 16 hours of daylight on this Earth Day but the eastern sky begins to lighten around 05:10 AKDT and there’s faint light in the western sky even at 22:45 AKDT. More and more bare patches of earth are visible in the boreal forest although anywhere the winter’s snow was heaped such as the sides of the local roads there are still piles of wet, rotting snow and ice. While walking my dogs yesterday late morning I took the following image from around intersection of East Barge Drive and the Spur; it’s looking east down East Barge towards some foothills of The Alaska Range which are still solidly cloaked in white.
Every day I see more and more returning birds and I’m hearing more Red Squirrels as well. The moose remain absent after being virtually ubiquitous the last ten days of March and the first few days in April. I suspect the cows are back in the forest birthing their spring calves; with this underway the appearance of the local bears cannot be far off. As soon as the low temps stop dropping below freezing I will hang my Hummingbird feeder; actually given the amount of sugar in the water I could hang it now as the high concentration of soluble solids will depress the freezing point of the water based mixture quite a bit. Today I hope to place at least one of my Field Swallow birdhouses; I need to get them up so the returning swallows can hopefully build their nests within them. All told spring has definitely ‘sprung’ for Talkeetna and the timeless dance of the seasons continues in full force.
I knew Alaskan insects were a breed apart in terms of being hearty since June of 1997 when I observed live mosquito larvae swimming in a small pool of water collected in a depression on a piece of ice in Denali NP&P! Sure, the air temp was in the upper forties and it was sunny but that water had to be just above 32 F. In the lower 48 one rarely saw insects in action while snow remained on the ground but this is definitely not the case in Alaska. While writing some email over the weekend I happened to glance outside my office window on a late albeit sunny Saturday morning; to my surprise I could see numerous winged insects of various sizes fluttering about in the warm air. When I really started observing I quickly counted fifteen flying insects just in my field of view and I know there were many more. Even more surprising was having to brush away a mosquito yesterday early afternoon as I was working around the front porch. One wonders how these little beggars survive night lows in the middle twenties but they must manage as once it warms up during the day they are very active. Yesterday I took the following image of the sensor platform of my Davis Vantage Pro 2 wireless weather station mounted in my front yard. Notice the unbroken snow in the background; it’s still around a foot deep in that section of my front yard. If you look closely at the solar cell area you can see a large fly. It was largely immobile soaking up the sun but when I caused a shadow to pass over it the fly did indeed take flight. It never ceases to amaze me just how tenacious Nature can be; life will find a way even under harsh and demanding circumstances!
Although its only the end of March there is no longer any doubt we are seeing break up (that’s Alaskan for ‘spring’); even the pessimists who always warn ‘be careful what you wish for…’ have been forced to admit our winter that wasn’t is now history. Sure, this is Alaska and we could see feet of snow and minus double-digit temps in April but given the weather conditions across previous five months I’d bet my retirement break up is here. Of the past 27 days in March 19 of them (70%) have seen high temps above freezing and 9 of those 19 days have been above 40 F. Recently we’ve seen an unusual run of clear, sunny days which now numbers eleven consecutive days with clear skies again this morning. The snow pack is now really ice and its down to 11.0 inches in-depth; along rivers, streams and in lakes channels of open water appear every day only to lightly refreeze at night when the temps plunge into the single digits thanks to clear night skies. In the afternoon I can comfortable walk the dogs outside for an hour wearing just sweat pants, tennis shoes, a long-sleeved shirt and a fleece vest – no need for boots, heavy socks, gloves or a hat…
With this abnormally warm weather and early break up the boreal forest is once more springing to life and it seems to be in a huge hurry to get on with break up. There are a myriad of tracks in the snow; in my ‘back forty’ I found both fox and wolverine tracks but by far and away the most numerous – and obvious – are moose sign. They are everywhere and not just in terms of their tracks and droppings but also by their ‘work’ and in person. The following image was taken at the base of my driveway entrance onto East Barge Drive and shows the results of a couple of moose digging for plants beneath the snow:
Such excavations dot the immediate area and are common beneath the thin canopy of the boreal forest. It’s almost as if the moose sense the pending melting of the snow and are in a hurry to get at the fauna that’s been sheltered by the snow pack since mid-November. I knew Talkeetna was known for its abundance of moose and even last fall I saw far more moose than any other mammals while out and about but these past few weeks even I’ve been impressed at their numbers and their willingness to be visible. Indeed, they just do not seem to be concerned about humans until the distance closes to maybe 10 to 30 feet; each moose has its own personal space requirements and they do vary quite a bit based upon personality, previous experiences with humans, availability of food and similar. Across the past week I’ve become so used to their presence I no longer rush to grab my camera and get images; if they are close by and if I have nothing else to do I might try to get a picture but I mean after all…its ‘just a moose’.
There’s a part of me that feels sadness that I could become so jaded so rapidly to the presence of these huge mammals but when one sees them daily – often multiple times a day – they tend to become less ‘exotic’. Sighting a grizzly in my back yard would provoke a rush to grab all my photographic gear and get set up inside to capture images but while moose would have generated this same response last fall now this is no longer the case. However, it’s not that I don’t still find it amazing that I have numerous Alces alces wandering around my property; it’s just that they are no longer the rarely viewed phenomena they were last fall. Of course I still revere these mighty herbivores and treat them with the same respect I would any large wild animal; not to do so would be stupid and dangerous. But the moose have now become a more ‘typical’ fixture of my Alaskan lifestyle and hence not the rare encounters they were previously. When I do have the chance to view one up close, as when I’m in my car or in the house, I remain amazed by their size and their appearance – what we humans refer to as ‘ungainly’ – yet I’ve also seen them moving enough to know that ‘ungainly’ is a complete misnomer! They move with a fluid grace when they have the need and they can truly move quickly when the need arises. After watching them for many months now I have come to appreciate just how wonderfully they are ‘engineered’ to handle their own south central Alaskan lifestyles. Those long legs keep them well above the deep snow while that long proboscis is perfectly designed for punching through snow to reach the fauna beneath the snow pack or to ferret out willow branches amid the tangle of plants that form the forest floor. They must have good noses as they can pick out the location of food beneath feet of snow and their eyesight must be good as well because they certainly seems to notice we humans often before we see them.
As the break up proceeds I expect I’ll see more and more moose in this immediate area and it just feels so ‘right’ that we humans can share this majestic land with such large mammals but still exist mainly at peace. There is no doubt a mutual respect between us and this is good as many lower 48er’s would be shocked to learn that far more humans are killed by moose than any other animal in Alaska. Hypothermia remains the number one killer of we humans but the moose do a pretty good job of enforcing Darwin’s observations; if we are dumb enough to crowd a moose let alone bother a cow with a calf then we will most likely not be around to further pollute the gene pool and that’s as it should be…
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.