Maybe ten days back I decided to take a brief morning walk along East Barge Drive which is the dirt road, now finally snow packed, that runs by my place. Given the time – around 08:30 – it was naturally pitch black and the recent overcast prevented seeing any light from the waning moon. The air was crisp but not terribly dry and there was no wind. Given the air temp was 4.8° F, and this was warm after seeing -12.5° F yesterday morning, I was quite comfortable in my layered outer wear.
We have a 14.25″ snow pack and thanks to little wind across the past two weeks all the trees are cradling many inches of light, fluffy snow on their limbs and boughs. I love this situation as the already extremely quiet environment is even more silent as the snow in the trees really does create barriers to sound propagation. In addition, I’ve always loved the ‘creeeeak’ created by compressing extremely cold snow. In this morning’s case the snow had just been subjected to over 24 hours of below zero air temps and hence was very cold. With each step my boots created what sounded like an extremely loud ‘creeeeak’ but said sound was almost immediately quieted by the conditions.
The ole homestead in light snow
Normally I wouldn’t take a walk with the kidz in dark conditions because of the potential to wander upon moose without seeing them from a distance. I decided to wear my headset lamp which was a first for me. Within a couple of years of living up here I noticed almost all the locals had a head lamp of some kind; given this I purchased one back in early 2015. I’d used it when working outdoors during dark times but never actually used it to take a walk. I was thoroughly enjoying seeing my small light beam bounce along as the snow creaked beneath my boots and my breath just hung in cold air. Many times I would just stop, turn off the head lamp and enjoy the calm silence. During one of said stops the overcast produced a small gap which allowed the moon to briefly shine through. The effect was breathtaking as the surroundings literally flashed with bright white light yet everything remained dead quiet. I guess given the incredible flare of moonlight I expected some sound..? Seeing this literally took my breath away and I struggled to get my pocket camera free from my vest pocket which was inside my Eddie Bauer rain jacket. Just as I did manage to pull it free the clouds once again occluded the moon and I was standing in darkness with the kidz milling around me no doubt wondering why ‘Dad’ had suddenly stopped.
For the remainder of the walk I reflected upon that event; the amazing timing and series of events that had to coincide for that one moment to occur. I had to be out walking in the dark and decide to turn off my headlamp at just the right time to allow my eyes to adjust to the darkness before that small gap in the overcast moved so perfectly aligned to allow me to catch the full power and beauty of the just now waning moon on the snow covered landscape. Such a myriad of ‘ifs’ that all fell together to create such an incredible sight! In turning this over and over in my mind I realized far too often I just perceive such wonders without giving any thought as to their genesis. In a way I am becoming somewhat jaded reading the majestic scenery of Alaska and that pains me. There is so much wonder and beauty – not just in ‘The Great Land’ but everywhere on our earth and in the heavens around us – everywhere if we are willing to just take a bit of time, absorb the wonder and then reflect upon it if only for a few seconds.
A ‘cool’ afternoon looking west down East Barge Drive; the temp is -8.2° F (-22.3° C)
As you approach the Christmas holiday – or whatever holiday you may be celebrating – please take just a bit of time when something truly extraordinary occurs to consider its genesis and really appreciate its beauty. And make a special effort to do this with family and friends! None of us knows how much time we have remaining to us on this plane so we honestly do not have the time to become jaded or dulled to the wonder around us. And, again, that goes double when interacting with our family and friends. Here’s wishing everyone out there the very Merriest of Christmases and the Happiest New Year yet! And the same to those celebrating different seasonal holidays. We all need to try to live more ‘in the moment’ because in the end that’s all we really can claim…
The Alaska Range awash in Alpenglow taken from the overlook just south of the village of Talkeetna
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.
One of the facets of living in this rural area that I most enjoy is the ‘immense silence’; I can go days and never hear any man-made sounds other than those I make. I’ve become very much used to this wonderful quiet so imagine my surprise when it was broken last week by huge and extremely loud ‘thumps’ many of which actually shook the entire house! At first I was clueless but then a quick look outside at the base of the house revealed the source; with the extraordinary warmth all this month the two feet plus of snow on the roof, now decreased to less than 18″ through melting and far too much rain and freezing rain, was finally beginning to break apart and drop to the ground. Given the composition of these pieces – easily 50% ice – and the random sizing – between just a foot square out to many feet square – it’s not a surprise the larger pieces could produce such dramatic results. Late last week I had to straighten a number of wall hanging pictures which had been knocked askew by vibrations from the huge thumps created by the falling snow/ice chunks. Poor Qanuk was driven to distraction by the really large pieces falling; he either cowered in his crate or ran to me for reassurance!
Even though the roofs up here have a very steep pitch and are made of metal to expedite the removal of the snow loading this had not happened until now. Add to this fact the collected snow was saturated first by freezing rain and later by just plain rain the resultant mixture was extremely heavy. As the following image show the pieces can be quite large although this image is of a piece getting ready to drop from the front porch roof and as such generated no real noise or vibration because the distance it fell was so short. However, imagine chunks this size or larger falling from the second story roof and you get some idea of the nature of these situations. This is yet another key learning involving living up here and one that is most valued. A buddy and I will be putting up an enclosure this fall to allow me to get my Ford Escape out of the elements. Aligning it with any portion of the house which produces such snow and ice chunks would be disastrous; thankfully now i know what to look for and we will site said enclosure to be clear of the falling winter borne debris. Just another interesting piece of rural Alaskan living…
I’ve blogged a couple of times regarding the incredible silence here in rural south central Alaska and it really remains quite amazing to me. I find that with such silence comes an urge to look within myself but also to look outward and reflect upon all that makes up this amazing rural Alaskan landscape. Indeed, it is so quiet so much of the time up here that I am immediately drawn to any unusual noise no matter how soft. As I’ve immersed myself in this wonderful silence I am discovering new sounds which I either never previously heard because they were being drowned out by the ongoing cacophony around me or because they blended in so well with other noise that they were virtually indistinguishable. Many of these noises are not all that unusual but some remain a mystery to me. With time I may learn their source of they may remain mysterious. In some cases I was not even sure I’d heard a given sound but at least twice I had the confirmation of my Alaskan Malamute (Anana) who perked up and immediately began scanning the direction from which I thought the noise originated. My GSD (Qanuk) was also with us but he’s continually in motion and always playing with his tennis ball; as such he was absorbed in play and didn’t appear to hear what Anana and I did. I found it pretty neat that both Anana and I heard some very soft and very unusual sound; it was my verification that I wasn’t just ‘hearing something that wasn’t really there’. In this case the noise was a low volume but relatively high pitch sob kind of sound that trailed away to inaudibility. My best guess was it came from some kind of wildlife but I didn’t see anything and even Anana, while intent upon the source of the noise for maybe 30 seconds, finally just went back to her slow wanderings of the eastern portion of the property.
There is a sound which I hear only when it’s completely still and it does seem to occur both during the day and at night. Its best likened to the low-frequency rumble a jet aircraft will produce when its first spooling up its engines and is heard from a great distance. Initially, there’s as much of a ‘feel’ to the sound as volume and because I’d lived around airports in the past and spent far more time than I’d have preferred sitting in their lounges or walking their concourses I always expect this sound to continue to grow in intensity and eventually become recognizable as a jet aircraft taking off. However, while it may last for ten to fifteen seconds it never grows nor changes pitch; in fact it just disappears. Because it’s as much a feeling as a vibration of the air its difficult to get a fix on in terms of direction. I have sometimes heard it while walking the dogs and I can never see anything in the sky nor any indication that a plane has lifted off. There are numerous small airports in this general area and a myriad of float planes as well but these are easily distinguished as prop or turbo prop engines which sound entirely different. There are also a raft of military bases within 150 miles so it could be something they are doing but the interesting thing is when I’ve been able to get some sense of directionality it hasn’t been the same. I may never know what this sound is; I will query the neighbors at some point but only once I get to know them a bit better as I’d hate to get a rep of being that ‘new guy from the lower 48 who hears things’!
While exploring this area on my own I enjoy getting into the boreal forest a ways and just standing still while I let my senses register what ever they may. Frequently its tough to see much as the forest is often pretty dense and the local wildlife are true masters at blending into the background. From an olfactory perspective there’s an overlying smell of moist earth mixed with the scents of some of the lichens and moss but that’s about it. With this said by far my sense of smell is the weakest of the five normal senses so it’s entirely possible there’s a lot more to register if I had the acuity. When it’s truly silent and I pause I can hear the sound of the breeze in the trees, especially the pines, and will often hear the random leaf falling through the natural growth. It’s also not unusual to hear water droplets falling from the trees and bushes especially if it’s just a gentle breeze. I’ve discovered that I can build a very good idea of what I’m hearing with sound alone; if I hear something moving in the forest its relatively easy to quickly determine if its big or not. With time I can usually get a pretty good guess as to the relative size of the creature that’s creating the sound. Normally birds and squirrels makes sounds that are low volume and higher in frequency like the scraping of claws on tree bark. Moose make a much more definite sound although given their sheer size they still move with amazing silence. I’ve never stayed put very long to really listen to the moose because I do not want to get into a confrontation with these monsters. The only time I’ve heard a bear was in Denali NP&P and that was when it was in a blueberry patch maybe 100 yards away from me and I had stopped to take a break. I must’ve been largely down wind from the grizzly because it didn’t react to me until I started slowly backing away from it. At that point it stood up on its hind legs and made ‘woof’ sound. I did as I’d been trained by the rangers; I froze, slowly waved my arms over my head and talked very softly to the bear hoping it would recognize me as a human. Apparently it did so as it dropped to all fours and started walking the other direction. I slowly backed away as well; once it disappeared into the underbrush I made better speed in continuing to back away and finally got the Hell out of that area!
As I’m still settling into my new home and it’s just so very quiet up here I’m having to learn a whole new set of sounds. This has really reinforced just how much sound pollution there is in the lower 48! It’s so very quiet in this area that I hear a lot of pops and creaks as the house responds to temperature differentials and humidity shifts. Once in a while the dogs will throw me a curve. Anana in particular will move about the house at night as she seeks the coolest location in which to sleep. At 128 pounds she is a big girl and sometimes I will hear the stairs creak without hearing anything else. This will cause me a bit of concern until I finally hear her breathing. You might wonder why I’d be concerned with Anana on the main floor given her size; for anyone whose interacted with a Malamute you know they are terrible watch dogs as they love people. In this Anana is the epitome of her breed as she would gladly help a thief carry out all my stuff if he or she would just scratch her belly a bit. This is partly why I brought Qanuk on board; as a German Shepherd Dog he is much more protective of his house and friends but with that said Anana’s influence has made him very sedate for a GSD. And, too, even though he’s just a bit over two years of age he’s a heavy sleeper; often I will awake to some noise yet he’s still snoring contentedly on my bed.
I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the depth of the silence in this area; I knew Alaska in general seemed so much more quiet from my previous visits but I never really appreciated just how much more quiet until I moved up here. There is a quality to this silence almost as though it has a ‘presence’ of its own. I find it has a tendency to lull me into an almost hypnotic state and this is the reason I can spend so much time just sitting on my front porch immersed in the serene silence. To begin to discover other sounds local to this area has been fun and peaks my curiosity. All in all I wouldn’t trade if for the world and I truly enjoy listening to the sounds from the silence…
Outside my window the light rain continues unabated from a featureless nimbostratus cloud cover; its been a very wet October thus far as I’ve recorded 4.08″ of rainfall since 11:00 AKDT this morning for the month. The average October rainfall for this area is 2.90″ so at fifteen days into the month we are already 141% of ‘normal’; in addition I’ve reported measurable precipitation on 12 of the 15 days. Hand in hand with the precipitation is the well above average air temps; I’ve recorded just five mornings in October with below freezing temps yet the ‘normal’ temp range for mid-October should see early morning temps in the middle twenties with day time highs struggling to reach 40 F. My friend Holly tells me the lakes and rivers have usually frozen by now to the point the locals are beginning to ice skate on them. Indeed, its been a very unusual weather pattern all year with the extreme heat in June – Talkeetna set its all time high temp of 98 F in mid-June – followed by the excessive rain across September and now into October. Mother Nature is fickle in her ways and she will do as she wants regardless of our wishes and dreams…
One thing that hasn’t changed is the immense silence that wraps this land in a soft, peaceful blanket; I remember it well from past trips into this area. It is so quiet up here that on any given day the source of most noise is one’s self. Since moving in I’ve heard but one police siren, no motorcycles, one semi (he was driving east on East Barge and I think he might have been lost…) and maybe one bush plane a day – often in the distance – along with perhaps three cars per day on East Barge. I always suspected that noise pollution was a real issue in the lower 48 but moving up here has dramatically reinforced just how intrusive noise is down there. I do sometimes hear natural sounds but these aren’t intrusive as they seem part of the environment. Sometimes while sitting on my front porch I’ll hear the howl of some Huskies from John and Ruth’s place maybe a half mile further east on East Barge Drive; they have thirteen Huskies and will be mushing them come the cold weather. In fact I’ll see them sledding up and down East Barge come the snow. There are a number of water fowl in the area that have very specific calls which I’m still learning; I also sometimes hear the chattering of the local Red Squirrels as they hasten to hide various foods away for the upcoming winter. But one of the sounds I love the most is the wind sighing through the birches and white pines; its such a relaxing sound.
Of late I find I’d much rather sit on my front porch and immerse myself in Nature than watch TV or even listen to music; its so much more peaceful and ‘centering’. I’m slowly losing my need for all the electronic ‘white noise’ I used to surround myself with and as I’ve done this I’m beginning to realize my entire psyche is also becoming more serene and at peace. In the past when writing I would often have music playing in the background; now I’d much rather listen to the rain tap, tapping on the roof. The immense silence of the boreal forest is almost an entity unto itself; it infuses the woodlands with a deep peace that is tangible if one is receptive. The appearance of the large mammals or the calls of birds merely serve to highlight the quiet of the natural surroundings. The more I partake of this environment the more I want; its an amazing balm for a frazzled soul. But its even more than this for me; of late I’ve noticed I’m really shifting my priorities and the results have been nothing if not refreshing. No longer do I worry about the small stuff; those every day issues which we cannot control and have little ability to affect any certain outcome. In doing this I’ve felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders; I’m just much more calm and centered now. Stress is something I rarely see now and when it does occur its often in the form of issues like ‘can I get the dogs out for an hour’s walk before the rain returns’ or ‘can I get that limb down before the winter winds arrive’… Issues that are much closer to home and more immediate; also issues that I do have some ability to influence. Without question what makes a difference in my life is changing and I’m finding I like the direction it is taking.
I’ve always had a deep spiritual side so its no surprise I frame so much of what I’m experiencing in terms of spirituality; up here the Alaskan wilderness gives me no other option. To watch a moose foraging amongst the birch and pines of the boreal forest in the dim morning light is so very peaceful yet exciting. Its amazing to see how effortlessly they move through the scrub and underbrush and doubly so when you realize just how big they really are yet also how quiet. There’s a rhythm to life up here that I’ve never before felt except when I’ve been up here; a fierce independence tempered by the understanding that Nature reigns supreme and we are all One within her realm. When I look into a clear night sky up here the number of stars are breathtaking yet I cannot help but understand that everything around me and including me is ‘star stuff’; all that is around me was born in the mighty furnaces of stars of varying sizes. There’s a feeling of connectivity that’s extremely powerful and seems to underlie everything. This feeling awakens within my soul the need to really connect with Nature, to try to nurture and develop this connectivity because it feels so ‘right’. I still get chills when I reflect upon the fact that we are all beings of light and we are children of the cosmos, born of star stuff. Indeed, the rural Alaskan silence does speak to me and it does so on many levels; only now am I learning how to truly listen…