Firsts for May 1st

I’ve been meaning to get this brief piece finished and posted since the first couple of days in May but ‘Mr. Murphy’ and outside commitments conspired to make that a pipe dream.  Given I now have a bit of free time after completing my last 1,355 steps – I try to put down at least 1,150 steps at the top of each hour from 05:00 to 11:00 with a current target of 10,000 plus daily steps – I decided to get this piece done and posted.  My blogging has kinda fallen off across the past four to six months; not sure why other than to observe my creativity just hasn’t been flowing.  Of course, dedicating almost a quarter of each hour during the mornings to stepping does eat into my available time and the fact that I am a morning person and hence do my best work before noon only exacerbates this situation.

Anyway, as we rolled into May I was struck by some ‘firsts’ which I’d observed during this time.  Some are reoccurring while some are just new activities/observations.  One of the former variety involved observing my first American Robin of 2017 on April 24th in the early morning while walking with my Alaskan malamute (Anana) and my German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk).  Actually I heard him – I’m pretty sure it was a male as it was well up in a birch and singing loudly so probably marking territory – first and then was able to visually locate him.  There may well have been other robins around earlier but this was the first I’d heard and then seen in 2017.  For those of us who observe birds in this area the arrival of robins from the lower 48 signals spring is definitely here.

Another reoccurring observation was awakening in the wee hours of the morning of April 27th to the ‘tap-tapping’ sound of rain on my metal roof.  I love that sound but in a normal year one doesn’t hear it from mid-October to mid-November until April because most precipitation that falls during that time period is snow and the roof has a coating of ice and snow.  I look forward to many more upcoming rainy nights as I love to lie in bed and listen to that sound.  It also fascinates me to listen to the ebb and flow of the rain rate; in this area we don’t usually get a steady rain but rather experience rain bands of varying density.  This can produce what is almost a melody if the bands are spaced in a continual pattern which is repetitive.

As to some firsts that are truly ‘firsts’ on April 30th I completed 35 consecutive days of 5,000+ steps per day.  More than half of said 35 days involved putting down more than 8,000 steps and have helped me push my daily steps to their current 10,612 steps/day average.  I’m fighting hypertension and obesity so I had to find some form of exercise which I could, and most importantly ‘would’, do at least six days a week.  As of this writing I’m working on 44 consecutive days of at least 5,000 steps a day.  Much of the daily morning muscle/joint pain and stiffness is now just a distant memory and I just realized I haven’t had a bout of depression since I began this regime.  I saw no weight loss until I reached 9,500 steps per day; now the weight is very slowly beginning to disappear.  My goal is to push myself to 12,500 steps per day; given 10,000 steps is the equivalent of around 4.9 miles for me such a goal would see me putting down at least six miles a day.  I intend to continue walking at least 1,150 steps at the top of each hour between 05:00 and 11:00 in an effort to keep my system ‘energized’.  I’m aware stepping as I do it is not a true aerobic activity but it does ramp up my system and it forces me away from the monitor and into motion once an hour.  With luck as I drop more weight I’ll be able to start bicycling which will help my overall condition.  Of course, my canine companions love my lifestyle change and are now completely expectant of at least one long walk every day.  For anyone interested I use a Garmin Vivofit 2 wrist fitness monitor; the ‘Garmin Connect’ web-page is wonderful for tracking steps, calories burned, hours sleeping and similar!

A final ‘one time first’ for me occurred on April 14th when I sat in with my good friend Randy during his Friday evening classic rock music show at KTNA.  Anyone following this blog knows I spent almost three years doing both newscasts and music shows at KTNA but I decided I’d come to philosophically based parting of the ways with the station at the end of December, 2016.  While I’d done shows with other folks sitting in this was the first time the roles were reversed.  It felt great to be back behind a mic and during Randy’s two hour show we received three calls complimenting us and our performance.  All told it was a lot of fun although given it was a two hour show running until 23:00 it was a bit past my bedtime!

I put together this blog as a kind of celebration of life; not just my own but that of Nature and other folks as well.  I’ve been so blessed to experience a two decade dream of living in semi-rural Alaska but coming up on my fourth full year of such an existence I’ve noticed I’m becoming a bit blasé regarding this situation and that both angers and saddens me.  I know it is human nature to become ‘used’ to situations but I do not ever want to become ‘used’ to the majesty and splendor of my Alaskan home.  If writing this helps me re-energize the awe and wonder I feel almost daily when I walk outside and immerse myself in Alaska’s magic then it has served its purpose.  If it does so for others, regardless of where/how they live, then so much the better!

Tek Robin

An American Robin atop a black pine at Teklanika campground in Denali NP&P

Spring Collage

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

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

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

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

EBD,Break Up & the Kidz

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

Mud Room floor

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

Roof snow and ice on driveway

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

Cloud Capped Denali Awaits Climbers

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

Matanuska Glacier

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

Front Porch Colorful Sunrise

A beautiful Alaskan sunrise greets the rapidly disappearing snow pack

Suggestions of Spring

The sun is not yet above the horizon at 07:51 AKDT on the Vernal Equinox – which arrived in this area at 02:29 this morning – but it is light enough to see the surrounding space which remains cloaked in a 22.0 inch (55.9 cm) snow pack although the incessant winds across March have cleared virtually all the snow from the trees.  Our maximum snow pack was 35.5 inches (90.2 cm) back in middle February but within a week or so of that time all precipitation ceased.  This dry spell, coupled with almost Chinook style winds and the longer, sunny days definitely did a number on the slowly compacting snow pack.  Yesterday we flirted with 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies but at least the winds of March seemed to have weakened to just gentle (8-12 mph or 13-19 kph) breezes.  This morning the air is calm for the first time in over two weeks.

As I stare out my second floor office window I can just recognize some suggestions that spring is not far away even here at sixty two degrees north latitude.  The exhaust from my Toyo stove, which drifts almost directly across my office window when the air is calm, is much less dense and is occurring less frequently than a few weeks earlier.  While we are seeing a -2.2° F (-19° C) air temp I’m also expecting to see an afternoon high around 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies.  The boughs of the spruce trees are beginning to ‘perk up’ a bit after bearing heavy amounts of snow from late December through middle February.  And our direct daylight is now up to 12 hours 17 minutes and increasing daily by 6 minutes 1 second!  These longer days are beginning to slowly melt the snow pack even if the air temps remain well below freezing.  Indeed, when working towards my goal of 10,000 steps/day – I’m currently around 7,800 steps/day – I have started taking a collapsible walking staff with me as the icy hard packed snow coverage on the back roads is becoming slippery especially when just a thin layer of water appears atop it.  This lack of traction is emphasized as I watch my male German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk) perform multiple slips and slides along with a few face plants as he revels in our daily walks.  Anana, my female Alaskan Malamute, is more restrained and hence remains upright most of the time.  There is something to be said for the wisdom of age!

I finally was able to experience a ‘real’ south central Alaskan winter after three previous ‘winters that weren’t’.  I did feel the bite of -40° F (-40° C) air temps, wind chills another ten to fifteen degrees below those temps and an almost three foot snow pack that remained for at least two and a half weeks.  I was treated to intense and vibrant auroral displays across much of the late fall when clear skies coincided with the Aurora Borealis.  Having completed my fourth consecutive winter in Alaska I think I can finally claim to be a veteran of ‘The Great Land’ and its kaleidoscope of weather conditions.  But maybe most surprising to me is I’m actually ready for the seasonal change.  During the three previous Vernal Equinoxes I was lamenting the end of winter and not enthusiastic about the oncoming spring with its insects and tourists.  But now I find myself awaiting the warmer weather even if it brings mosquitoes and the inevitable tourist traffic and congestion.  Perhaps I’m finally becoming sanguine with the aforementioned as well as the knowledge that within five to six weeks there will be no dark night skies again until early September?

Before long I’ll be indulging in what has become a ritual involving preparing for spring and summer.  I’ll be swapping tools and equipment between the mud room/front porch and the shed.  The generator will be drained of fuel which will go into the Escape’s gas tank.  The battery conditioner/recharger will be stowed in the shed and I will be getting the ‘Mosquito Magnet’ ready for operation.  I’ll be smearing some ‘bat attractant’ on the entrance to the bat house which my buddy Sarge hung last October; hopefully I’ll attract some Little Brown bats and convince them to set up house and help control the mosquito hordes.  In this same vein I’ll be relocating my tree swallow houses for the third time in the hopes I can attract some nesting pairs to add to my attempts at natural mosquito control.  So many of these actions are now ‘old friends’ and form a kind of seasonal dance or celebration.  For the first time since I relocated I’ll be doing them with joy and the knowledge that regardless of what the upcoming six months may hold for me winter will again return and I will have the opportunity to experience yet another spring, summer and fall in ‘The Great Land’.

Muskeg Under Clouds

The last of the ice on muskeg a bit east of my place on East Barge Drive is disappearing in the image from spring of 2015

My Canine Companions

It is another rather warm morning here in south central Alaska with mostly cloudy skies and the promise of still more of the same in terms of warm temps and no precipitation across the next week. Given spring officially begins tomorrow mid-afternoon the odds of seeing any honest winter weather continues to dwindle. Sure, we could see a snow event or another few days of much below normal temps but as the sun continues to ride higher and higher in the sky every day all trends are towards the upcoming spring. 

Of late I’ve noticed my female Alaskan Malamute, Anana, has been ‘asking’ to remain outside in the back yard after being let out to take care of business. Her method of communicating this to me is to remain standing or lying down on the back porch after I open the door and allow her pal Qanuk, my male German Shepherd Dog, inside. She is such a good girl and will stay put as long as a moose or similar doesn’t enter her field of view so I often oblige her. Qanuk, being true to his breed, prefers to be close to me and will rarely remain outside longer than he needs to handle his business. Seeing a definite uptick in Anana’s requests while her routine remains largely the same – she, like most other canines, prefers routine in her existence – started me wondering if she was recognizing the winter was waning and with it would come the end of cold and snow. One wonders if there are ‘new’ odors that she now identifies with the coming of spring or is it the string of warmer days? This was her second ‘winter’ – such that it was – but she is plenty observant and smart enough to recognize such signs and remember them after just a year’s exposure. 

Raising both a Mal and a GSD I’ve had ample opportunity to compare and contrast the two breeds which are pretty close to being polar opposites in so many areas. Anana lives to be a member of our pack and the most effective means of disciplining her when she’s broken the rules – and since reaching adulthood at 2 years of age this hardly happens – is to quarantine her away from me and Qanuk when she’s inside. This really makes an impression on her and with her incredible memory the point is always remembered. Qanuk responds to the more conventional verbal dressing down; he lives to please me as well as run and play with mankind’s great creation – at least as far as he’s concerned – the tennis ball. He, too, is a wonderful companion and rarely causes me issues except when he gets excited about going outside. He literally turns into something akin to the Tasmanian Devil we all viewed in the Bugs Bunny cartoons; his excitement is that powerful. While generally a very careful boy inside when truly wound up his big tail will find many things to knock over. However, after almost six years of raising canines most everything that can be broken has either met that fate or has been placed such that they are impervious to doggy tails and hype. Indeed, he gets so excited if we’re going for a car ride I have to command him to ‘tinkle’ before we board; otherwise in his excitement he’ll forget and then he becomes very anxious once in the car. Never before have I seen a canine that has to be commanded to empty his bladder before car rides but then Qanuk is a unique canine in many respects. 

As Talkeetna is known as a ‘dog village’ – witness no leash laws even in the village itself – my canine pals are in a great place and the fact that we’re surrounded by boreal forest and live semi-rural is generally a plus for them. I say ‘generally’ because Anana does miss being around so many different people; in Dearborn (MI) while I was caring for my folk’s place I fenced in the back yard and gave her the run of that area. She very quickly developed a string of neighbors whom during walks would stop by the fence and greet her often with treats. She was a true ‘rock star’ at the Northville (MI) Sunrise Assisted Living Facility and she owned the title ‘visiting therapy dog’ because she was so friendly and willing to interact with any of the residents. In general Anana loves anything on two legs and I’ve often said she would let any human into the house and probably help carry out any of my stuff if asked. It’s this love of humans that makes Mals ineffective watch dogs and Anana lives up to this breed trait in spades! Since relocating here she no longer has a neighborhood of folks to visit her and as there are no assisted living facilities at which I can volunteer she doesn’t have that means to greet new folks. In this sense she may not be all that pleased with our new home. Of course this is a dual edged sword as up here she can roam free and rarely has to deal with a lead. She has virtually endless acres of boreal forest to explore and handfuls of moose to chase. I do try to get her into the village fairly often and allow her to wait for me outside the PO where she eagerly greets the locals. 

Poor Anana cannot understand why every human doesn’t respond to her as she does to them with affection and love. She doesn’t understand that at 115 pounds she is a very big girl and although she is truly a teddy bear even I, with my love for and understanding of canines, would initially be wary of her if I didn’t know her. I’ve seen folks literally tremble with fear when she runs up and looks for attention; she just cannot believe any human wouldn’t love her like she does them. Qanuk, on the other hand, is very cautious around new people and remains to this day very nervous around adult males. The latter is completely my fault in terms of his socialization. I brought Qanuk into our pack while volunteering at Sunrise and once he was old enough to get control of his needs I started bringing him into the facility with Anana. Such facilities are staffed by almost entirely women. I never realized that because of this and Qanuk’s nature he became ‘okay’ with women but drew a very real line between the genders and hence never really came to know adult males outside myself and my brother. To this day he is very cautious around adult males and children; the latter I could understand as he saw very few while maturing. I do not want him to be so concerned about adult males and hence am beginning to introduce him to as many adult males as possible in the hopes I can socialize him a bit more towards males. He is fine with women but then in Sunrise that was almost all he saw. 

I expected Anana to really revel in her new Alaskan home especially during the winter but much to my surprise Qanuk has been the one to really take to pounding through the deep snow. Anana is smarter in that she allows Qanuk to cut a trail and then she will often follow. Given her height and build she fares better in the snow when the depth is over 18” but Qanuk is still the one I see pounding through the virgin snow. Some of Anana’s reticence to broach deep snow might be based on my poor ‘little’ angel suffering two major surgeries within 6 months of each other.  At the age of just two she blew out her right knee and required a TPLO (Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy) which is a serious surgery in which the tibia is broken and leveled and then reattached via a plate and screws. The injury is the equivalent to tearing an ACL in a human being. She required a full six weeks to recover from the worst effects of the operation and she really never completely recovered until we moved up here. Then, six months later she blew out her left knee and had the same procedure; this time I knew what to look for and caught it early so there was less damage but it was still six weeks of Hell for her. Luckily my vet recommended a fantastic surgeon and he really worked wonders. In all the two procedures cost me just over $8,000 but given it was my companion I would’ve paid many times that amount as the only other option would’ve been to put her down. I’d say she recovered maybe 95% of her original abilities which is incredible given the severity of the procedures. For anyone in SE Michigan needing a wonderful animal surgeon I cannot recommend Dr. Kyle Kerstetter (www.michvet.com) enough; he and his team were incredible! As I’ve often kidded thanks to him I own ‘The Eight Thousand Dollar Dog’! 

As we approach the seasonal shift I am once again looking forward to being able to get out with my canine companions. I’ve come to realize that my walks in this magnificent land are enhanced by my canine companions; they function as extensions to my ears and my nose. I love to see either or both of them stop suddenly and raise their muzzles skyward as their noses work overtime to identify a scent. They almost always see wildlife before I do and I suspect this is largely based upon their hearing coupled with their incredibly sensitive noses. More than once they’ve shown me scat, kill sites and similar I’d have never noticed without their help. They truly enhance my outdoor Alaskan experiences and it is just great to have a couple of pals along on outings. 

They are both indoor dogs so we spend lots of time inside; both have adapted wonderfully to living in a human’s ‘lair’ and they’ve had to learn a lot of rules. Anana has never raided the garbage can and Qanuk has only done so twice; he’s learned to steer clear of this by watching Anana. Never have I known canines who wouldn’t raid a garbage can when it smells of meat, fish or chicken. They have their favorite spots; for Anana it’s the coolest place while Qanuk just wants to be someplace he’s comfortable but can see me. Anana sleeps by my bed but Qanuk sleeps in it maybe half the night.  He’s actually very ‘civilized’ in that he doesn’t steal the blankets or take more than half the bed. I’ve never fed them from the table so they know not to bother me when I’m eating but I do give them infrequent table scraps as a treat. 

All told I couldn’t ask for two better canine companions and my new life in Alaska has been immensely enriched by their presence. They are truly my family now that my sister and brother live thousands of miles to the south. Up here everyone has at least one dog so they helped me integrate into the community by meeting other people and their dogs.  And I rely on their incredible senses while outdoors as they can sense natural events and wildlife much sooner than me.  We’re all aging and our needs are shifting but to this day all they ask of me is shelter, food, a bit of attention and some play; I get back endless unconditional love, the very definition of ‘agape love’, and the companionship generated by another organism who truly does love to just be around me! Talk about a ‘win-win’ situation…

Anana and Qanuk playing in fresh snow early in January, 2015

Anana and Qanuk playing in fresh snow early in January, 2015

Anana at around twelve weeks of age.  Even then I could see the mischievous glint in her eyes!

Anana at around twelve weeks of age. Even then I could see the mischievous glint in her eyes!

Qanuk at around eight weeks of age

Qanuk at around eight weeks of age

Anana and Qanuk playing; Anana was always very gentle with him until he reached puberty

Anana and Qanuk playing; Anana was always very gentle with him until he reached puberty

Qanuk and Anana on East Barge Drive in early September

Qanuk and Anana on East Barge Drive in early September

'The Kidz' are playing tough!

‘The Kidz’ are playing tough!

Qanuk and Anana braving 16" of fresh snow; they really love Alaskan winters!

Qanuk and Anana braving 16″ of fresh snow; they really love Alaskan winters!

My poor 'little' angel finding some comfort in my bed after returning home from her second TPLO surgery

My poor ‘little’ angel finding some comfort in my bed after returning home from her second TPLO surgery

An incredible adaptation to Arctic cold, the Mals grow thick fur that sprouts from between their pads when it begins to cool down.  This remains all winter and then disappears with warming temps.  I'm sure this gives the pads protection against ice and very cold temps.

An incredible adaptation to Arctic cold, the Mals grow thick fur that sprouts from between their pads when it begins to cool down. This remains all winter and then disappears with warming temps. I’m sure this gives the pads protection against ice and very cold temps. Nature is just so awesome..!

What Winter..?!?

It’s official; I’ve given up on the 2014-2015 ‘winter’ in south central Alaska!  Although it is just March 2nd and in a normal winter up here we’d be seeing snow and cold for at minimum another six weeks I’m betting we’ll see few snow events and those we see will be minimal (i.e. less than 6” total) in nature.  I’m sure we’ll see cold temps just as we have across the past four days but then we are already seeing regular high temps that break freezing if the sun is out even if we started with a single digit morning low temp.  Of course this reflects the lengthening days and with them the more direct sunlight but in a typical March we’d still be seeing snow and cold and that would easily extend into April.

This morning I measured the SWE (snow water equivalent) along with the snow depth for my Monday morning CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network) report; the snow depth is a piddling 12.5” and it really isn’t snow but more like saturated snow or ice.  The SWE is 3.09” which equates to one inch of water equaling 4.045” of snow.  Anyone at all familiar with snow knows that in general an inch of liquid water will produce between 7 and 10 inches of snow; therefore this ‘snow’ is indeed saturated!  Looking back over February we broke the freezing mark 17 out of 28 days; keep in mind February is the third coldest month after December and January!  That basically means 61% of the days in the third coldest month in south central Alaska saw above freezing high temps.  Many comments come to mind but perhaps the most PC is:  “That’s just wrong!”

Most frustrating to me is the simple realization that this winter will go down in the records as one of the two warmest on the books; and the competition is last year’s ‘winter’!  So for the first two winters I’ve lived in Alaska there have been two record-breaking warm and dry ‘winters’.  Lest you need reminding I moved up here to experience feet of snow and bone chilling cold; the former hasn’t happened while we’ve seen maybe five days each ‘winter’ when the temps dropped below -20 F.  I swore if I see three such ‘winters’ in a row I was going to leave here and move north of Fairbanks; sadly this would only partly improve on the conditions as even the northern Interior has seen record warmth across the past two ‘winters’.

Meanwhile the place I left – SE Michigan – saw record snow last winter and has seen well above normal snow along with very cold temps across both winters.  Prior to leaving I was just fed up with SE Michigan’s winters which were largely brown with 36 F temps and rain.  In fact the winter of 2012-2013 saw a record absence of both snow and cold.  I recall thinking I didn’t care what the weather did in Michigan after I departed because I was guaranteed of seeing all the cold and snow I could handle in my new home.  So much for that belief…!!

So here I sit typing this whining blog entry while looking outside, seeing bright sunshine and an air temp of 26.4 F at 12:13 AKST.  If the sunshine remains we’ll easily cross 32 F by 17:15 which is the current warmest part of the day.  It is amazing that just six weeks back it was totally dark by 17:15; the light cycle is really exaggerated in the higher latitudes.  And I am looking forward to being able to get some much-needed outside work handled once a bit more of the icy snow-pack disappears.  I gave up a lot in terms of favored weather to relocate up here; I love severe thunderstorms and tornadic weather but neither of these occur at any time up here.  I also gave up the hardwood colors of fall when moving here; while the yellows and golds of the birch and larches are pretty I do miss the reds, oranges and violets or the maples, oaks and elms.  And I really do not care for the summer and its continual light!  I never realized how much of a night sky watcher I am until I completed my first full Alaskan summer in 2014; by the start of July I was very tired of constant light with no night sky.  The real issue is such conditions will not return until middle August.  At least the summers up here are much cooler than those in SE Michigan although because I live in the middle of the boreal forest the humidity is almost as bad.

By penning this I’ve demonstrated I’m no Alaskan yet as real Alaskans just shrug off unusual weather and get on with business.  I just have a hard time when I realize now I will not be seeing the possibility for a true Alaskan winter until November of 2015!  However, beyond the weather there’s a myriad to love about my home and I really need to focus on all that and just let go of the lack of real winter weather to this point.  A few of the locals have warned me to be careful what I wish for; while I hear them I would love to see four feet of snow-pack and weeks of air temps rising to just single digits while dropping into the negative teens or even lower!  Hopefully one day I will get the opportunity before I’m too old to really appreciate such conditions.  But given what I’ve seen to date such conditions are at best very unlikely this ‘winter’.  And so I’ve plunged my imaginary fork into the ‘winter’ of 2014-2015 as it is ‘done’!

What I should be seeing when I walk to the intersection of East Barge Drive and Riven.  Sadly the unmaintained portion of EBD has bits of the gravel road surface visible through the disappearing snow and ice.

What I should be seeing when I walk to the intersection of East Barge Drive and Riven. Sadly the unmaintained portion of EBD has bits of the gravel road surface visible through the disappearing snow and ice even though it’s just now March.

Nine Months

As I stare out my office window at the rapidly disappearing snow piles and listen to the songs of numerous birds I cannot help but be reminded that spring is well underway here in Talkeetna.  Of course the fact that’s its once again sunny (it has been so for almost three continuous weeks, now..!) and 58.9 F at 10:54 AKDT reinforces this realization as did yesterday’s far too warm high of 69.5 F.  With the advent of spring I realize I’ve now experienced the tail end of an Alaskan summer, fall, winter and a piece of spring as of this writing.  Indeed, it was August 6, 2013 when I pulled my Escape into my new home’s driveway followed soon thereafter by my buddy Sarge driving the 26′ U-Haul van.  So much has happened since that time and I am coming up on having spent a full year in my new albeit amazing Alaskan home.  I’ve started the process of truly putting down roots for the first time since college; that in itself says something as I will be 61 years of age come October.  It also speaks to the rather harried life I made for myself by a number of basic choices; many of these did not seem to carry their ultimate import when i was considering them and a few just seemed more like ‘normal’ decisions.  However, they all played a large part in molding and refining the current ‘me’ for better or for worse.

Without question the single biggest decision I made with respect to having sweeping effects upon my life was to pursue a traditional form of employment within the business structure of America.  This was a direct extension of having ‘played by the rules’ I was raised within which said one graduates high school, goes on to college, gets a degree and then goes to work most probably within the area of one’s major.  In this sense, after a rocky start thanks to the dysfunctional economy of the final Carter years, I followed this plan without really questioning its validity or even imagining there was something different.  In my mind I always saw myself as working until I was 62, then retiring and living ‘the good life’.  Although the world’s economy in general and the US economy in particular had other ideas regarding the length of my employment I did work until I was 53.  At that point the job market began to contract, the bottom fell out of the IT job market thanks to outsourcing and after seeking work for almost 2 years I was finally forced to take an early retirement.  Because I’d listened to many much wiser than me and because in the course of pursuing ever more lofty employment goals I never found the time to foster either a long-lasting relationship let alone a family I was able to effect this early retirement and live off a SEPP (Substantially Equalized Periodic Payment) until 59 1/2 years of age when I shut this down and worked on some fund reallocation with my dear friend and awesome financial adviser (Kev).  Thanks to his wisdom and expertise along with earlier lifestyle choices I was able to retire and live comfortably.  In this sense I did receive the expected reward for almost 30 years of continuous employment: I was able to retire comfortably albeit earlier than expected and I did have options regarding where I could retire.  From 2007 through the end of 2011 I had all but given up on my dream to retire to Alaska but thanks again to Kev’s wizardry I was finally able to make it happen.  And I turned my 16 year dream into my reality when I pulled out of the driveway of the rental dump I’d inhabited in Northville (MI) and started the 4,224 mile drive to Talkeetna.

And so it might seem that I did live the American dream born in the 50’s and early 60’s; I graduated college, worked most of my life, saved money, retired and was able to fulfill a late in life dream as to the location and lifestyle.  To most this would seem kinda the end of the story but I’ve always had a deeply reflective side – sometimes to my detriment – and hence of late I’ve been looking back over the amazing and sometimes tortuous path that brought me to my current situation.  It’s of interest to me that I only realized once I started volunteering with elderly dementia victims  in 2010 I experienced real job satisfaction; it was almost intoxicating to recognize that even if I could just make a few seconds of some senior’s dementia ridden existence a bit brighter – even though I often knew it would be forgotten within a few seconds – I’d made a positive difference in another human being’s life!  The feeling of fulfillment and joy was unlike anything I experienced while initially working in food manufacturing (QC, QA and R&D) and later in IT Field Support.  In reflection this is sad as it tells me of the lack of real reward in the human sense inherent to all the positions I held for almost three decades.  I also noticed that within three months of ‘retiring’ in 2006 my sleep habits went from being lucky to get six and a half hours of shut-eye to regularly getting eight to nine hours a night.  With this came much better health and a much more optimistic outlook on my life and my future.  In hindsight this is a reflection of the stress and angst I felt while working; regardless of whether it was ‘real’ or I induced it myself it did have a very tangible and negative effect.  Yet I was totally unaware of this negative throughout my employment career.  This offers up a glimpse of some of the ‘bargains’ I made with myself regarding what I would endure to live that ‘American Dream’.

As I progressed through my working life I aspired to continue to take positions with more responsibility – mainly for the increased pay – and this often required relocation.  Initially it didn’t seem so bad but as I aged a feeling of a definite loss began to manifest itself.  I finally came to recognize in my late forties that I had made yet another ‘unconscious’ deal with myself; I’d forgo having any real roots as well as no family so I could continue to pursue more money.  It pains me to re-read that last line as it’s the personification of a shallow, materialistic outlook on life.  I never consciously recall making this decision; I suspect on a deeper level I did so but then shoved it into the realm of denial and ‘the past’ and continued forward.  In so doing I never really considered the potential effects of such a choice nor their far-reaching ramifications.  During my employment with four companies and the state of Ohio which spanned almost three decades I moved eleven times which figures down to a move every 2 years and 8.7 months.  In calculating this number it’s no surprise I was unable to establish any roots as I was never in one place long enough to do so!  This was exacerbated by the fact that the last ten years of my almost 19 year ‘service’ with The Clorox Company I was traveling anywhere from 30% to 80% of the time.  When I now look back on that time in my life I see it as a kind of societal blessed ‘madness’ which while paying well exhausted me emotionally and spiritually.  However I was so hooked on ‘the dream’ that I remember being concerned how I could survive without making $80k to $100 every year!  Of course this was utter nonsense; I live on a tiny fraction of that now and do so very comfortably so I suspect it was just another coping mechanism.

An almost as major choice was included in the aforementioned; without any roots and rarely spending more than two and a half years in a physical location I had no real social life and hence the odds were stacked against me in terms of finding a truly compatible partner and establishing a relationship and a family.  To be honest my luck with the opposite sex was pretty lousy and I now understand this was almost entirely based upon a series of very poor choices on my part.  Relationships came and went, rarely longer than a year and always ending badly.  By my middle fifties I could feel the emotional exhaustion wrought by almost forty years of failed relationships.  I finally accepted the concept that I wasn’t ‘meant’ to have such a relationship; this helped me reach an understanding of my existence as a single person although I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit I suspect this was another coping mechanism of my own creation.  In my middle forties I must admit to starting to look at those around me who were married often with families and being just a bit envious.  As I age I’ve come to recognize more and more what I lost by not working to establish and nurture such a situation.

While it may seem that I’m lamenting my earlier choices in reality this is not the case; as I stated earlier I’m given to moments of reflection and that’s what has driven this exercise.  But I also was raised to understand and accept that life is all about making choices and with any choice comes consequences.  Unlike so many in the recent generation I fully accept responsibilities for my choices regardless of their consequences.  In addition I recognize that my current idyllic existence would most likely have been impossible without having elected to live a solo existence and chase higher paying jobs across my life.  I grant the premise that anything is possible and ultimately I’ll never know for sure but I suspect the concept of me retiring to Alaska would not have even been a consideration if I had a family.  I only discovered Alaska on a three-week backpacking trip with two college buddies in September of 1996; prior to that I had no experience with the state and not a lot of interest in visiting.  If married with a family its unlikely I could’ve made such a trip let alone visited at least annually the following nine years.  Then there’s the entire concept of retiring to Alaska; by far most folks considering retirement to warmer places like the SE or the Sun Belt.  Retirement to Alaska obviously flies in direct contradiction to this concept.  In addition if I had a family my monetary situation would be much less likely to support such a dream; in fact it would probably preclude even considering such a move.  So while I may have given up a lot I also inadvertently allowed myself to not only discover my dream of becoming an Alaskan but make it a reality.

And so I’ve come full circle in my reflections; no real surprise here as such free form ruminations often have a way of returning to their genesis.  I’ve come to realize that I missed a lot during my employment years but in so doing I also paved the way for me to learn of a dream and then make it happen.  I truly love my rural Alaskan lifestyle and I can no longer imagine living in the lower 48; the concept of living urban is completely non sequitur.  I know I’ve made the best choice for myself as I’m very comfortable in my current lifestyle yet I’m also truly stretching myself in terms of efforts and activities.  While there is no option for volunteering with seniors with dementia in this area I am volunteering time at the local radio station (KTNA) as a newscaster and the host of a music show and I’m also donating time to the Upper Susitna Food Pantry – it’s a volunteer organization that distributes food to local needy families and people – in the form of driving to Palmer and Anchorage to pick up donated food stuffs and providing PC support.  And my lessons on rural Alaskan living continue unabated; I have so much yet to learn.  Yes, life is all about making choices and then dealing with the consequences; at this point in my existence I can honestly say I have no major regrets regarding my decisions and feel I’m in the best place I can be given my situation.  And I suppose that says ultimately the Universe has seen fit to take care of me; I needed only to recognize I needed to let go, go with the flow and always keep my mind open to any and all possibilities..!

Hearty Insects & Beautiful Spring Weather

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.

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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!

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