It’s the first day of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, although to be perfectly honest, we are well underway up here in Interior Alaska. The colors have definitely peaked already, and over half of the leaves are now on the ground.
I had an unscheduled day off on Monday. A job cancelled on Friday, and there wasn’t enough time, or ambition, to schedule something else in its place. It’s unusual for me to get a nice day on an unscheduled day off, and Monday was an absolutely beautiful fall day up here.
So I spent the afternoon hiking the seemingly, endless system of trails that start at my deck. I saw only one other person and her dog at the start of the hike, and after that it was only the grouse, red squirrels, a couple of moose and myself.
The woods were mostly silent, with only the occasional scolding from a squirrel, or the pre-flush clucking of a grouse. Even the trail, loaded with a carpet of leaves, allowed me to pass with barely a sound: Only a faint rustling was left in my wake.
I pushed the mileage to just under 650 on this day, getting to Toad River at around 8pm. A shortcut on Highway 29 meant that I could avoid Fort St John, but there was a major construction project on 29, so I doubt it cut off much time. Still, it was a highway I had not driven previously, and it’s always good to get in some new territory.
Overall, this part of B.C. is just stunning country, and there was wildlife galore. Black bears and bison, for the most part, but I did see a couple of moose.
Inside the Toad River Lodge: They collect hats.
My usual layover in this part of British Columbia is at the Toad River Lodge, and I swung in here once again. I’ve written about this lodge on here before, but I can offer a quick refresher. On my second drive to Alaska, I was driving a slightly older Chevy pickup, pulling a UHaul trailer. I don’t believe I had anything in the trailer, it was full of stuff a buddy of mine talked me into hauling up for him. I did make use of the trailer roof though. I pulled into the Toad River Lodge on that trek to Alaska, and watched a single engine aircraft land alongside the Alaska Highway, and then promptly taxi down the highway, where it pulled in front of the Toad River Lodge. They landed for some breakfast. I knew this was my kind of country at that moment.
They are currently doing a lot of work to the lodge. The old, and probably original cabin I stayed at, is no longer standing. Several new cabins, with running water even, now stand along the lake shore. I rented one of those new, fangled cabins for the night. Not as cozy, and without a bit of atmosphere, but I had a sound night of sleep.
The fourth day of the drive back to Alaska took me to McLeod Lake on the famed Fraser River of British Columbia.
I was starting to see more wildlife now, and that always adds to the drive for me. I was woefully unprepared for wildlife photography however, with a cell phone and the 120 shooter, a Kodak 66. I made do, as best I could.
The first real sighting in BC was a moose. I did not stop for a moose, nor did I later stop for a caribou. I see them all the time, as it is.
One of many black bear
I do not normally see a lot of black bear in Alaska, so I stopped to take pictures of a couple of them. In all, black bear ruled the animal sighting roost: I spotted 17 along the road, all eating the lush grass, like the one in the picture.
This picture came about, mainly because I had spotted a lynx, which is an incredibly rare sighting along a road. I hit reverse, but by the time I came to where I had seen the wary cat, it had made its way to the tree line. Just 100 yards further on, was this black bear. I hadn’t even made it out of second gear yet, so it didn’t take a lot of effort on my part to slow for it.
Further on down the road, I came across a pair of bison. I would go on to spot several on this day. They really are magnificent beasts.
I did not see my first grizzly until the final day of my drive, after crossing into Alaska. It was a sow and her cub. The cub was absolutely adorable, as it stood on its hind legs in order to get a better look at me, or maybe my car. I did slow down in order to attempt to get a picture, but that action seemed to intrigue the mother a tad too much. She started to trot right over to my car, leaving her cub standing on the opposite shoulder. Since I was in a car that sat lower than she stood, and I had an open window for a clear view, I decided the picture wasn’t that important and released the clutch to move forward. The sow continued to trot, and I proceeded to engage second gear.
The North Slope village of Utqiagvik woke up to -20F degree temperatures on Wednesday morning. That was a record low for the day for the village. It was Utqiagvik’s first recording of a record low since 21 December 2007. During that same time span, the village had set or tied 112 record high temperatures.
Alaska has started to “reopen” businesses throughout the state, with everyone seemingly holding their breath as it happens. Travel restrictions into the state remain in place. Restaurants are now able to seat to within 25% of capacity, and members at a table are supposed to be from the same household.
The Fairbanks Borough had seen two weeks go by without a new case of Covid-19, but that ended on Sunday with a case in North Pole. Since then, North Pole has seen another diagnosed case. The State had six new cases on Tuesday, for a total of 351. 228 individuals have recovered from Covid-19, and nine Alaskans have died from the virus. Concerning, to me at least, is the first recorded cases in small, isolated, communities like Kodiak, Petersburg and Sitka after a long period of social distancing.
Fishing communities are still struggling with what to do for the summer season. Valdez has decided to allow fishermen into town without any quarantine, where several smaller communities are demanding a quarantine. The State of Alaska has agreed to allow fishermen to quarantine on their boats, although a realistic plan for that option remains elusive, considering most fly into these small communities, and air travel between towns not on the road system is off limits. Travel between communities on the road system is now being allowed.
Denali, and the Alaska Range
Tourism is all but scrapped for the 2020 season. The two main cruise ship companies have written off Alaska for the year, and have even decided to keep their lodges and hotels closed until late spring 2021.
Denali National Park has now opened the Park Road to Mile 12. As spring takes a stronger grip on the land, the Park will continue to open up more of the road as conditions allow. Denali Park is also considering having additional road lotteries in 2020. The lottery, which allows permit holders to drive well into the Park, where usually only busses are allowed, takes place in September. Additional opportunities would be extremely welcome. I’m thrilled with the idea, since the State is all but closed to Outside tourists this year.
Moose Crossing: Denali Highway at Tangle River
The Denali Highway, not to be confused with the Denali Park Road, is NOT open. Yet, people keep getting stuck on the road between Cantwell and Paxson. The Denali Highway, possibly the best drive in Alaska, is not maintained during the winter. It is also not paved, which keeps the riffraff numbers down. Or at least, the tour busses.
Moose (Alces alces), is the largest of the deer family, and the Alaska-Yukon subspecies (Alces alces gigas), is the largest of moose.
A small adult female may weigh 800 pounds, while a large adult male can reach double that at 1600 pounds. Calves are born in the spring, with single births being the majority, but twins are common. Calves weigh a mere 28-30 pounds at birth, but within 5 months they will often be pushing 300 pounds. A moose rarely lives to the age of 16 years in the wild.
There are roughly 200,000 moose distributed widely throughout Alaska. On average, 7000 moose are harvested during the hunting season, providing 3.5 million pounds of meat.
The ice hockey arena, where the University of Alaska Nanooks play their home games, was recently converted to an overflow, field hospital. The arena adds 100 beds at the moment, to the 38 beds at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital set aside for Corvid-19 patients, and the 26 beds in the intensive care unit. Like every community around the globe, everyone here hopes the arena beds are never used.
Alaska had 13 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday. The state total was now at 226 cases, still the lowest of every U.S. state, but our population is also among the lowest. 27 Alaska residents have been hospitalized, and the state has seen seven deaths, with two of those deaths taking place Outside.
Fairbanks had six of those new cases, for a total of 71 in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
The city of Dillingham, Alaska and the Curyung Tribal Council recently sent a request to the governor to close the Bristol Bay commercial fishery. That was huge news in Alaska. Bristol Bay is the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Both entities told the State of Alaska that there was no way to limit the small communities exposure to the virus, and the communities lack the health care resources to handle a pandemic. Tens of thousands of fishermen and fish processors will soon start their migration into the region, as we get closer to the fishing season. There has been no official response from the State of Alaska, although fishery workers are considered “essential” by the State.
Conoco Phillips, the oil field giant, has shut down its remote North Slope oil fields, and have placed them into long-term storage due to coronavirus concerns. A BP worker at Prudhoe Bay had recently been diagnosed with the disease, putting several workers in quarantine.
Travel to Alaska by nonresidents is obviously frowned upon. Visitors are expected to quarantine for 14 days if they do arrive in the state. The cruise ship industry will not be visiting Alaskan ports until July at the earliest. Alaska has little, to no say in that. All Canadian ports of call are closed until July 1. An intriguing maritime law prohibits international cruise ships from carrying U.S. citizens from one U.S. port to another. In other words, they can not go from Seattle, Washington to Skagway, Alaska without a stop at a foreign port – namely a Canadian port. Until Canada opens its ports, Alaskan ports will remain closed to the cruising industry.
Several blogs that I follow have asked the question: “What is the proper way to blog during this event?” A few have even stopped blogging altogether. I honestly don’t have an answer. I rarely spend much time worrying about proper, so I’m probably not the guy to ask. As for Circle to Circle, I don’t intend to ignore the current situation, but I’m not going to dwell on it either. Every post will not be Covid-19 related, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to world events or that I’m not sympathetic to the suffering and losses. It isn’t hard for me to get as much coverage as I want on the Covid-19 virus, the difficulty is in limiting it to a manageable amount. One can quickly get overwhelmed, and then it’s hard to pull back out of the funk.
For now, I will continue to do what I do here, which is mainly to blog about Alaska, and its wonderful quirks. Circle to Circle started out to chronicle a long trip, and I still think it’s at it’s best when I’m writing about traveling. Travel will have to stay close to Fairbanks for the foreseeable future, so maybe I can pull some rabbits out of the local hat.
I sincerely think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of beautiful things happening every day out there, among the chaos and uncertainty. Maybe now, more than ever, it is worthwhile to point those things out as they happen. The moose cows will give birth this spring, and I will have little, gangly moose calves wandering about in short order. The sandhill cranes will soon be flying into the region, bugling their ancient call from the skies and tundra. The puddles and ponds will be full of ducks and muskrats, and the beaver will emerge from their domed hut – hopefully with kits.
Everything changes, and, of course, this blog can change at the drop of a wood duck chick. This was/is always going to be a work in progress. Stop by for a virtual Alaskan break, if that pleases you; feel free to fly over, if you feel Circle to Circle is not your pint of choice. Ask questions, leave comments, drop me a line if you’d like. We are all in this together, even as we stay apart.
Over the weekend, I was asked if I had been affected much by actions for theCoronavirus.
Up until now, I’ve been affected only mildly. I imagine that will change shortly.
I’ve had a project going lately, which has taken me out to a few remote Alaska villages. I’ve basically been doing the two week on, two week off schedule, and the virus really hit the fan when I was out in the Naknek region. I finished my assignment, came back to Fairbanks, and will not be going out again. The project has been put on hiatus, although I suspect it has really been cancelled, at least for the foreseeable future.
I had a construction project already lined up for my return. Materials were on site, the building empty, so I worked on that all week, and will finish probably today or tomorrow. Like most people I know who work construction up here, I have no work projects currently on the horizon.
Normally, this is the time of year when I escape and go Outside, thus avoiding the Interior Alaska Breakup Season. A group of us attend the Frozen Four hockey championships that take place every April, but this year they have been canceled. When in the Lower 48, I would check in on my Dad, as well as other family & friends about now, but traveling anywhere is beyond a bad idea, so I’m staying in Alaska. From up here, airplanes & airports seem like giant petri dishes, but to be honest, my greatest unease with travel right now is the thought that if I leave Alaska, I won’t be able to come back! That’s enough to give any cabin-dweller the shivers.
The shelves at the local grocery stores & Costco are looking pretty sparse, but I’m well-stocked anyway. It’s kind of an Alaskan thing, I suppose. When you live at the end of the road, having enough food to get you through a patch of bad weather, or a closing of the Alaska Highway, or a barge losing its load coming up from Seattle, is just something we do. Especially in the winter months. I have a freezer stocked with salmon, rock fish, halibut and other Alaska morsels, so I’m good to go there. I am a bit low on blueberries, but that’s par for the course this time of year.
A friend wanted me to stop by the other day on my way home from work. I declined the invite, saying I should probably partake in some social distancing. I was informed that this was hardly new for me, and the virus was just a convenient excuse. I had to chuckle, because if left to my own devices, I can be a notorious hermit. I have no problem retreating into my little world at the end of the road, and turning off the phone and computer. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, someone threatened to call out the dog sled teams to hunt for me, when I went off grid for barely a week.
I have books to read, letters to write, and LP’s to spin – inside; trails to walk, lakes to circle on snowshoes, and moose to try to capture on film – outside.
We can’t control the virus; all we can do is try our best not to catch it. I hope, and fully expect, to see all of you on the other side of this.
I was reminded of an Inuit saying when revisiting the documentary “Noatak: Return to the Arctic”.
“I think over again
My small adventures
Those small ones that seemed so big
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach
And yet there is only one great thing
To live and see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.”
A young moose blocks my way to the job site on Wednesday; its twin was eating willows in the slough to the right.
Winter 2019-2020 seems to have dragged on forever. We are finally turning the much anticipated corner into spring. I understand, for some of you, briar & tick season leaves you feeling itchy over the upcoming season, but up here in the Far North, I’m more than ready for spring. Without any hockey, we might as well melt the ice.
Spring officially arrives early this year. We have not seen a spring this early on the calendar for 124 years. Looking at the snow still on the ground here in Fairbanks, only the warmer temps signal any sign of spring.
Here in Fairbanks, we have finally pushed over the 12 hour mark for daylight. We gained 6 minutes, 44 seconds from yesterday. That makes both the moose and I happy.
Driving out to the border, the wildlife viewing was excellent as usual. I spotted several moose, flocks of grouse, and quite a few caribou. I stopped for these three caribou to cross in front of me, and watched them make their way down the roadway slope to a frozen creek below.
One solo caribou earlier in the day, had a harder time of it. The snow was over belly deep, and I watched the animal from a long distance, as it determinably struggled to reach the road. Once it did, it saw me coming, and I could feel its deflation, and hear its sigh of disgust.
The caribou went across the road, considered hopping into the snow there, but then turned to clop down the frozen pavement. I slowed down to a crawl, but still caught up with it. The caribou looked me over as I came to a stop, then resigned to its fate, it crossed back to the side of the road it came from, and went back into the snow. This caribou was stressed enough, so I didn’t take its picture, I just drove on, with the caribou buried well past its haunches in powder.
In my rear view mirror, I could see another truck coming up, and so did the caribou. I think it planned on coming back out onto the road once I left, but now it snowplowed its way back to the treeline where it came from when I first saw it.
No doubt, there are too many people in Alaska for that caribou’s liking. Can’t say that I entirely blame it either.