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“If you are old, go by all means, but if you are young, wait. The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of its kind in the world, and it is not wise to dull one’s capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first”
— Henry Gannett
The Harriman Alaska Series
“If you are old and want to see the finest scenery in the world, there’s no time like the present. And if you are young, what are you waiting for? Check the ferry timetable, grab a sleeping bag, and go. Stay for a while. Believe me, it could be the event of a lifetime.”
— Mark Adams
Tip of the Iceberg
On a personal note: I took the second quote’s advice, loading my Labrador Retriever, camping gear and typewriter into a 1974 Ford Bronco, drove across half of the northern U.S, and took the ferry from Bellingham, WA through the Inside Passage to Haines, Alaska, and stayed a while…
In fact, today is the anniversary of my arrival to the State of Alaska.
It has been several events of a lifetime. With a little luck, I expect to have one or two more.
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.
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.
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.
The ice went out on the Tanana River at the village of Nenana on Monday. The tripod officially moved the distance to trip the clock at 1:56pm.
This was the second time that I have guessed the correct day the ice went out. I was so close, so tantalizingly close. As they say, close only counts in horseshoes and bear encounters.
Between the years of 1917 and 1989, the ice went out this early only three times. Since 1990, the ice has gone out this early 11 times.
Ice Classic officials say it may be a month before winners are notified and announced. They are running a skeleton crew due to Corvid-19. They have also stated that the number of tickets sold are well below normal numbers due to the difficulty after the virus forced businesses to close.
Images credit: Nenana Ice Cam
Alaska’s Big Five; Chapter Five:
Dall Sheep, Ovis Dalli dalli, can be found throughout Alaska’s mountain ranges. Dall Sheep prefer relatively dry country, their territory is the open alpine ridges, mountain meadows and steep slopes. They like to keep an extremely rugged “escape terrain” close at hand, and are not often found below tree line.
The rams are known for their massive curling horns. The ewes have shorter, more slender and less curved horns. The males live in groups and seldom interact with the females until breeding season, which is in December.
Lambs are born in late May to early June. Ewes usually reach breeding age at 3-4, and have one lamb each year after that. The lambs are most vulnerable during their first 30-45 days of life, and mortality rate is high during this time. Wolves, black & brown bears and golden eagles are the main predators.
Dall sheep horns grow steadily from early spring to late fall, but tend to slow, if not stop growing altogether, during the winter months. This leaves growth rings on the horns called annuli. These growth rings can help identify the age of Dall Sheep. In the wild, 12 years of age is considered old for a Dall Sheep, but rams have been identified as high as 16, and ewes up to 19 years of age. A Dall Sheep ram can weigh up to 300 pounds, with the ewes being about half that weight.
Between 1990 – 2010, Dall Sheep numbers had dropped by 21%, from 56,740 to 45,010. Numbers started increasing up until 2013, when a later than average snowfall put a damper on recovery efforts. Dry, heavy snow loads appear to have little effect on sheep population, but the heavy, wet snowfalls, with a frozen crust can make foraging and travel difficult. Freezing rain has also become more prevalent. All of these factors contribute to more avalanches, which have become a significant cause of death for Dall Sheep in the state.
An old shot, but in keeping with wildlife week here between The Circles, I dug it out of the archives. This was on my first drive up Alaska’s famed Haul Road, also known as the Dalton Highway.
Camera: Canon Canonet 28; Film: Kodak 35mm
Alaska’s Big Five:
The wolf, Canis lupus, has two distinct subspecies in Alaska. Wolves in Southeast Alaska tend to be somewhat darker in color, and smaller physically than their northern Alaska counterparts. Gray or black wolves are the most common, but pelts can be black to near white, with every shade of gray and tan in between.
The adult, male wolves of Interior Alaska normally weigh between 85-115 pounds. Officially, the largest male wolf from Alaska was 179 lbs., although there have been claims of wolves over 200. Females weigh 10-15 pounds less than the males, but rarely weigh more than 110 lbs.
Being social animals, wolves tend to live in packs. On average a pack contains 6-8 wolves, although they can reach numbers much higher than that. Moose and caribou make up the majority of their diet, although squirrels, rabbits, beaver, birds and fish will supplement their diet. In Southeast Alaska, wolves primary prey are Sitka Black-tailed deer, mountain goat, beaver and salmon in season.
Normally, one female in a pack has a liter of 4-6 pups in a year, on average. Mortality rate is extremely high for the pups. Few will make it to adulthood. The lifespan for an Interior Alaskan wolf is 4-10 years, with the oldest known at 12 years old.
The wolf population is estimated to be between 7000-11,000 in Alaska, with a range that covers 85% of the state. The population has never been declared threatened or endangered in Alaska. Population density can vary greatly due to food source availability.
Happy Earth Day:
The image was taken by Voyager 1 at the suggestion of Carl Sagan on 14 February 1990. At the time, Voyager 1 was 4 billion miles away from its home planet. As the spacecraft was approaching the fringe of our solar system, engineers turned it around for one final glimpse at Earth.
‘Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.’
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
Alaska’s Big Five:
Caribou are the only members of the deer family where both sexes grow antlers. The bulls’ antlers are massive, but the cows’ are shorter and slight. The hooves of caribou are large, concave and they spread out wide to support the animals on snow and tundra. The hooves also act as paddles when swimming.
There are 32 herds of caribou in Alaska, with each herd occupying a distinct calving ground. Calves are born in late May in Alaska’s Interior, and in early June in northern and southwestern Alaska. The vast majority of calves are born as singles, but twins do happen, although rarely. They weigh, on average, 13 pounds at birth, and grow quickly. By 10-15 days after birth, the weight of a calf doubles. A calf is running alongside its mother within hours of birth.
Bull caribou will reach a weight of 350-400 pounds as an adult, although they can get as large as 700 pounds. An adult cow caribou averages 175-225 pounds. An average male lives to 7-8 years, while the females can live to 10 years.
Caribou can migrate huge distances between their summer and winter range. The larger herds may migrate 400 miles between their two ranges, where a small herd may barely migrate at all.
The caribou population in Alaska is currently estimated at 750,000. Their population can be cyclic, and can fluctuate widely in a rather short period of time. The declines and increases in numbers can be extremely difficult to predict. Predation, climate, weather, disease, population density and hunting can all have an effect on the caribou population.
The command module, Odyssey, was the only module capable of reentering the earth’s atmosphere. Apollo 13’s crew moved back into Odyssey, then jettisoned Aquarius. They splashed down in the Pacific Ocean 142 hours, 54 minutes, 41 seconds from the time of liftoff.
Fred Haise remained in the astronaut rotation after Apollo 13, and was the backup mission commander for Apollo 16. Following Apollo 16, Haise transferred over to the Space Shuttle program. He retired from NASA in 1979.
Jack Swigert was selected as the command module pilot for the Apollo-Soyuz test project, the first joint U.S. – Soviet mission. Swigert left NASA in 1977, and was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in 1982. Swigert died in December of that same year.
Jim Lovell is one of three men to have flown to the moon twice, but he never walked on its surface. Lovell accumulated 715 hours in space, and watched 269 sunrises from space. Lovell, along with Haise and Swigert hold the record for the farthest distance humans have traveled from earth. He retired from the U.S. Navy and Space Program in 1973.