A moose jumped a fence to join in on a pick up soccer match in Homer, Alaska. The moose appears to be a bit of a ball hog, but I was disappointed when the other players chose not to pass the ball back to the moose. I wouldn’t have been able to resist.
The Arctic Research Consortium of the United States has put together a series of videos entitled After the Ice. The videos highlight the changes and the dangers to Alaska’s remote communities, that have relied on the sea ice for their livelihood and sense of community. The first video, which runs approximately 7-1/2 minutes, shows the extent that residents of remote Alaska rely on the sea ice for their source of food.
Much of Alaska, including many in communities like Fairbanks, live a subsistence lifestyle, relying on the land to provide sustenance. It’s a good series, on a population that few Outside even know exist.
Our garden is dying, is a line that cuts to ones heart.
Some regular readers may remember that I was out in the village of Newtok in February. I truly enjoyed my time there, and have great memories of the area, but especially the people.
Newtok is currently in the middle of a move. The village is under siege from the very water that gives it life. Due to the warming of the Arctic, ground is giving way, and Newtok is getting it from every direction. On one hand, the river is laying claim to huge chunks of land, taking homes with the shoreline. On the other hand, the ground is giving way to the melting permafrost, and water is filling in the gaps. In February, approximately one third of the population had moved across the river to the new location of Mertarvik, but it is going to be a long and complicated process.
Newtok made the news again this past week, when word made it around Alaska, that the generator that powers the village broke down, leaving the residents without power for an entire month. A month. In an age when most of us think about power very briefly, when we flip a switch or pay the electric bill, it’s good to remember that not everyone lives in such a situation.
Looking at the village from the air in the summer, it’s an entirely different world than when I was there in February. The contrast is stunning, so I thought I’d share a few more “winter” pictures of my time in Newtok.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the people of Canada wanted to honor the slain president. In November 1964, the Canadian government, following the suggestion of famed mountaineer, photographer and cartographer, Bradford Washburn, elected to name an unclimbed peak in the St Elias Mountain Range, Mount Kennedy.
RFK on Mount Kennedy
The mountain lies 145 miles from Whitehorse, YT, within Kluane National Park, and less than 10 miles from the Alaska panhandle. Mount Kennedy forms a triangle with Mount Alverstone and Mount Hubbard. At the time of the dedication, the mountain was the tallest (13,944 ft) unclimbed peak in the St Elias range.
National Geographic put together a team to make the first ascent of Mount Kennedy in 1965. The team was led by Jim Whittaker, who had been the first American to climb Mount Everest, and was made up of mostly experienced mountaineers. Also making the climb: Bobby Kennedy, to honor his fallen brother.
Jim Whittaker & Robert Kennedy on the summit
On 24 March 1965, the climbers made for the summit. This was Kennedy’s first taste of mountaineering. To add to the tension, RFK was no fan of heights. The other climbers insisted that politics was far more dangerous than climbing mountains, which would prove prophetic.
Crossing the Cathedral Glacier, Kennedy fell into a crevasse. Luckily, it was a narrow one, and he only went in to the waist, and quickly scrambled out. The final run to the summit is the most risky, as the climber has to traverse a narrow ledge with a sheer one thousand foot drop.
Photos credit: Whitehorse Star
Jim Whittaker and Bobby Kennedy would become good friends on the climb, a friendship that would last until Kennedy’s death. Whittaker would name one of his sons after the U.S. Senator.
50 Years Later:
The Whittaker Brothers
Fifty years after the original ascent of Mount Kennedy, the two sons of Jim Whittaker wanted to honor their father and his friend Robert Kennedy. They decided to climb the mountain themselves.
Leif Whittaker is an experienced climber like his father, but Bobby Whittaker had more experience in Seattle’s Grunge Scene than summiting mountains. Christopher Kennedy, the son of RFK, would join the Whittakers on the expedition.
Return to Mount Kennedy is the documentary about the two ascents. The footage from the original climb is pretty impressive to see.
I saw a screening of the documentary prior to the Coronavirus outbreak. It was put on by REI, the outdoors store, which had Jim Whittaker as its early CEO.
The documentary is available on several streaming platforms. The original National Geographic story can be found in the July 1965 edition of the magazine.
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.
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.
Photo credit: Claire Dal Nogare, Flickr; Park Ranger Denali NP&P
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.
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.
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.