Tag Archives: wildlife

Bee Fixer Upper


The addiction that is Alaska

For Pete:


Caribou gauntlet on the Alaska Highway

I will be starting my 24th year in Alaska on the first day of May. I drove up in a copper-colored ’74 Ford Bronco, with my yellow lab in the back of the truck, along with my camping gear, a box of books and my typewriter. I didn’t really have a plan, just a desire to check out the Last Frontier. Much to my father’s dismay, I fell in love with the state immediately. It isn’t a stretch to say, that I realized that I had found my way home, on that original first day of May.

There are Two Truths about Alaska that I learned very quickly upon my arrival, and they are diametrically opposed. That does not make either one, any less true.
Truth One is the definition of a sourdough: Someone who has soured on Alaska, but doesn’t have enough dough to get out. Truth Two, is that Alaska ruins you from being able to live anywhere else. I fall into the latter category. I’m not just an Alaskan, but an Interior Alaskan to boot. I had a buddy from Anchorage who came up to visit one summer, and stayed at my cabin near Fairbanks for a whole week. He lamented to mutual friends after the visit, that “Mike has ‘gone Fairbanks’ on us. He has gone over to the ‘Dark Side’.” I took it as a compliment, even though he did not mean it as one. It was true, I had gone all in on my life at the end of the road.

Alaska isn’t for everyone; it does take a certain personality to thrive here. I’ve known people who could not leave the state fast enough after their first winter. But I’ve also met many retired military members who served in Alaska, eventually transferring out, but returning to build a life here after their service was done. There is something about Alaska that burrows into your bones, and soaks into your soul. For those of us who choose to live here, Alaska becomes a part of us, and we take a little bit of the state with us everywhere we go.


The Alaska Range as seen from the University of Alaska campus in autumn

“When you first arrive in Alaska, you notice that even the towns on the road system maintain a rugged uniqueness. Alaska is still a destination that beckons the adventurer, the individualist, and the free spirit… Home to 15 species of whales, and healthy populations of caribou, grizzlies, and moose, plus one of the last remaining strongholds of wild salmon, Alaska is still a place to behold.”
— Dave Atcheson, “Hidden Alaska: Bristol Bay and Beyond”

There is an ability here to immerse yourself in the natural world which is unique. Not because it can not be done elsewhere, but because there is still wilderness in Alaska. True wilderness. I do not know how long we will be able to hold onto that wilderness, but for now, we still have it, and it lies outside our back door.

On one or two occasions, I have been called a “free spirit”. I’m not 100% sure what that means, but I do follow my own trail some of the time. Heading into Year 24, I’m as thrilled to be here today, as I ever have. We all have our roller coaster rides, and I’ve lived through my fair share. I’m excited to be returning to The Ridge full time, and that should happen this summer. There are several trips planned over the next several months that will allow me to explore additional areas of this amazing corner of our planet, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am about that.

I state all of this with caution. I tend not to plan out too far, because that is when the universe decides to throw you a wicked curve ball. I send out hope to the fates, that they will allow me to think out as far as September, if only for a change of pace.
I’ve been up in Alaska for a while now, and I know that each day is a blessing. After some revisions, I hope to immerse myself in this natural wonder for a while longer yet. At some point, I realize that I may have to move on from here. All one can do is make the most out of life wherever you are. That holds true for everyone/everywhere.

I will be heading Outside shortly. It is time to travel, and I’m excited to be heading Out. Some new places to explore, and some old friends and family to visit. As much as I am looking forward to it, I know I will be just as excited to return to Alaska when the time comes. As much as I do love to travel, I am always anxious to get back home in the end. I’ve seen Alaska recently described as a drug, and I think that is as accurate a description as any.

Alaska is a drug, and I’m addicted to her, just like many other very special people.


Friendly Neighborhood Moose


Snow Day!

One of the perks to being self-employed in Alaska, is that we can blame suppliers for being late, when we just want to head out into the woods… or streams… or lakes…

We’ve had a little bit of everything this week, as far as weather goes. Warm temps, freezing rain, followed by a nice dumping of very wet snow. A solid eight inches at my cabin. I could have wrapped up the job, but there was no rush, as I’m already ahead of schedule, and the only thing remaining was replacing a special order light fixture. Besides, it was obvious that the snowshoes were being neglected.

I laced up the mukluks, and strapped on the Faber snowshoes, and headed out into the back four hundred for an afternoon in the fresh snow.

The only sound I heard came from the crunching of my steps. When I stopped moving, silence hung in the air. Not a brooding silence, but a peaceful, all is right in the world kind of silence, as long as one leaves the TV off.

There is very little to report on my romp. No people, no dog teams, and only one moose. A young one has been clinging to the cabin area, and I have yet to see the mother. It’s a small moose, probably one of last year’s calves. Which is highly unusual to not see signs of the cow, but even the small hoof prints on the trail are missing any adult moose tracks alongside. With this latest snowfall, the calf’s legs are not long enough to keep its belly out of the snow, when it goes off trail. I could tell, by the way it was staring, that the moose was jealous of my snowshoes.


Tracks

Twenty-five degrees one day. Thirty degrees yesterday. Thirty-five
degrees today. It is hot. I am dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, and still I
am warm, as I travel in and out of the cabin working on projects. I let the
fire go out sometime in the night. Craziness.

The heat has me restless. It isn’t a good day for chores. I throw some
things into the pack, sling it over my shoulder, and race for the trail.

I have been walking thirty minutes when I hear a snowmachine off in
the distance. It is coming in my direction. A moose has crossed the trail in
the past few days, so I leave the trail and follow the moose tracks into the
trees. A few moments later the machine passes where I had been
standing. I am too deep in the forest to see it, but the stench of the
exhaust sneaks up on me; it floats across the land like a fog. I travel
deeper.

I follow the tracks in the soft snow until they lead me to a major moose
trail. A moose highway. There is no scent of exhaust. The route is heavily
traveled. Hooves have pounded their way through the moss down into the
soil, leaving a long, thin trough in the earth. The moss on either side of me
is above my calves. My boots start to follow hooves. This moose trail is
almost perfectly straight; it cuts diagonally across the valley wall to the
floor below. I have a route like this below my cabin, but this one is new to
me.

A raven flies up from behind me; I turn, but can hear the wingbeats
long before I can see the bird. I can feel the wingbeats as the bird flies
closer. The pulse flows through me with every downward thrust of the
wings. When the raven flies overhead, the sound is like I can hear the air as it
passes by each individual feather. Above me, the raven croaks its
acknowledgment. They are polite, if mischievous birds.

I continue to follow the hooves.

Down at the valley floor, the moose highway spreads out into a delta of
tracks. Thousands of prints now head helter-skelter towards the willows. I
spot a set of huge moose tracks, and follow them into the thickets.

In the willows I hear the sound of running water. The creek is flowing.
I move towards the sound, and soon find myself in slush. Overflow. I am
surrounded by overflow. I retrace my steps over what proves to be a
peninsula of dry land. Much of the valley is flooded, so I loop around and
venture downstream to investigate.

With the overflow behind me, I travel back into the willows. I am
drawn to a set of tracks that parallel my own route. Something about
them seems out of place. Upon reaching the tracks, I hover over them in
surprise and awe. They are bear tracks. They are grizzly tracks. I kneel
down to get a close-up view, and run my fingertips over the rough form in
the snow.

An awake grizzly.

I count back, and figure that this bear has been out and about
sometime in the past five days, which was the last time we had a snowfall.
“Why are you awake?” I ask the tracks. There is a particularly good print
that catches my eye. The pad imprints are crystal clear, and my heart
pounds at the gap in the snow between them and the marks of the claws.
The gap is rather large.

I venture off and stop following any tracks; I am content now to simply
leave my own in the unmarked snow.


-7 Walks

I spent the day chasing material ghosts, as I attempted to work up a bid for a job I want. No matter how I approached the job, the materials simply were not in town. Two weeks was the mantra I heard from every supplier. It’ll be two weeks.

I gave up around 3pm, laced up my mukluks, and went outside to bring in firewood. The thermometer read -7F.

After the wood bin was full, I went on my afternoon walk. Already, I can see the gain in daylight since the solstice.

A moose had been by since the day before, it’s tracks under the willows plain to see. A musher came up from behind almost in silence. Two of her three dogs gave my gloved hand a light nip as they ran by. The musher apologized as she sped by me. I took the nibbles to mean the dogs were enjoying being out today as much as I was, but she was already out of range by the time my chilled lips spit out the words: “No worries”.

Dusk was settling in as I returned to the cabin, and the thermometer now read -13F. My eyelashes had iced up a bit, but other than that, life was good. Perfection lies somewhere between zero and minus twenty when you live in a winter wonderland such as this.


Another day, another polar bear

A runway inspector at the airport in Utqiagvik, the community formerly known as Barrow, had a couple of possible stowaways the other day. No word on where they were attempting to fly to.