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…
Although it is February 24th in south central Alaska one could be forgiven for being confused when seeing the high temperature break freezing the last eleven consecutive days and huge spans of ice shimmering with liquid water atop their expanses. Indeed, as I contemplate my second Alaskan winter – and I use the term ‘winter’ loosely – I’m once again forced to realize this has been an even milder and drier ‘winter’ than the record-setting warmth that helped the 2013 – 2014 Alaskan winter enter the books as the warmest on record. As of this writing Anchorage, 112 miles to the south, is 30” short of ‘normal’ snow fall and with temps forecast to be in the middle to upper 30’s right into the first week in March there’s not much hope for any near term relief. My own observations show Talkeetna is just 12% of ‘normal’ snow-pack and our ten-day forecast shows no real snow and a lot of temps at or slightly above freezing.
Meanwhile the eastern half of the lower 48 is once again racking up the snow fall totals and seeing some cold weather although nothing like the previous winter’s cold. It doesn’t escape my notice that the past two winters would have been much more to my liking in terms of snow and cold had I remained in SE Michigan as versed with moving to south central Alaska. I understand that one or even two ‘winters that weren’t’ does not validate global warming although after having experienced the past 19 months up here I do not doubt that the climate in this portion of the sub-Arctic is warming. And it is not just this immediate area that’s seeing extreme warmth; witness moving the start of the historic Iditarod race to Fairbanks in search of reasonable snow and cold. Last week Fairbanks was warmer than places in Georgia! A few weeks back I saw reports of freezing rain in Deadhorse; my God, that’s on the North Slope up against the Beaufort Sea!!
Most folks in the Lower 48 don’t really understand our situation; we really are hurting when we cannot get snow and this is exacerbated by above freezing temps. We have a comparatively deep frost line and when we do not get snow in November and most of December but do see seasonable temps this can push that line even deeper. Then, when we see this absurd warmth coupled with a lack of snow fall, the terrain experiences a lot of melting of what snow and ice exist. However, because the ground is still frozen solid and is so quite a ways down the accumulated snow and ice doesn’t just melt off and disappear. Rather, it remains in place and slowly converts to just ice. When we get drizzle and showers or even the dreaded freezing rain the precipitation that falls doesn’t freeze atop this ice; instead it forms a thin layer of liquid water. I, for one, know of little else that is more slippery than a thin layer of water atop smooth ice. Salt is not used on roads in Alaska with the exception of around the Anchorage bowl; gravel is the main treatment but it just turns to mud and eventually runs off the ice in these circumstances. The paved roads can be repeatedly scraped by the plows and they are usually in good shape. But the back roads are sheets of ice, as are most parking lots, which become impossible to walk upon because they are so slick. Just five or six inches of snow atop these conditions would remedy the slippery nature but we just cannot seem to even buy such a minimal snow fall.
So when we Alaskans complain of a lack of snow and cold it is not just out of aesthetic concerns; it can be a matter of our very health. I heard last May that the Sunshine Clinic in Talkeetna had treated a record number of broken ankles, legs and feet due to these kinds of conditions. Assuming this was true we could well see another record this ‘winter’. Without question I will be purchasing a pair of the sandals that have studs driven into the soles before next winter; at least they will give some purchase on the skating rinks we call back roads and parking lots. But mostly I, and a whole state full of people, would just like to see our ‘normal’ winters return!!
A view of Riven Street looking south towards East Barge Drive; notice the myriad patches of water atop the ice. Even my Mal Anana had trouble remaining upright!
Although in the grand scheme this winter has been a huge disappointment with it being largely absent during January – the warmest January on record for this area – and present in terms of temps but sans snow in February at least March has brought a change in these conditions. Our snow event across March 4th and 5th deposited 15.4″ of new snow here at Mile 7.1 just east of the Spur and we’ve seen below zero morning temps across the past three days with afternoon highs rising into the middle twenties thanks to the clear skies and rapidly increasing sunlight. Yesterday I walked the dogs in the middle afternoon prior to my evening newscast and found the conditions to be perfect! The sky was that deep cobalt blue which I still associate with Canadian High Pressure in the lower 48 but has no such linkage up here; indeed, the pressure was falling rapidly across Friday afternoon and is all the way down to 29.20″ Hg (988.83 Mb) as I write this at 09:52 AKST on a clear Saturday morning. There was a slight northerly breeze which was unusual but produced a beautiful sound passing through the snow covered pine trees and the air temp was around 25 F. When in the sun I could really feel its warm and immediately recognized the implication that within just a few more weeks it will be strong enough to begin melting snow on clear afternoons even though the air temps remain below freezing.
The dogs were loving every minute of the walk with Qanuk racing well out in front of me only to turn and charge right back at me running full tilt only to turn away at the last second. I saw a multitude of moose tracks and even some scat on the freshly cleared roads but the moose themselves remained out of sight. Even Anana had a puppy-like spring in her step and she regularly tried to keep up with Qanuk but while she’s still the alpha dog when it comes to running Qanuk can literally run circles around her. All in all it was a glorious day for a walk in rural Talkeetna and this time of year is rapidly becoming a real favorite of mine. Sadly its unlikely I’ll get to experience -30 F this winter or see that 36 inches plus of snow pack but there’s always next year!
Qanuk and Anana on Riven Street with the Alaska Range in the distance
Anana looking north up Riven Street