Tag Archives: Yukon

The shrinking of Alaska’s salmon

Salmon returning home to spawn

Salmon is a vital resource in the state, so it should come as no surprise that Alaska has been studying salmon since before statehood. For over 60 years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has kept detailed records of length, weight, age and escapement for four species of Pacific salmon that spawn here.

Graph credit: University of Alaska – Fairbanks

The salmon that return to Alaska from their time in the ocean, are now smaller than they have been historically. The reason: They are returning to spawn at a younger age.

The Chinook, Alaska’s state fish, has been the hardest hit. King salmon are, on average, coming in at 8% smaller than in the 1980’s. The coho, or silver salmon is 3.3% smaller, chum is at 2.4%, and the sockeye 2.1. The decrease in size has accelerated since 2010 for all four species.

At first glance, what is 8% really? Well, the ramifications are large and far reaching. The Yukon-Kuskokwim River system is the largest subsistence area in the entire country. It takes more fish to feed a family. Commercial fishermen also must catch more fish to make the same amount of money.

Environmentally, the entire ecosystem relies on the salmon returning to spawn. Just the reduction in chinook salmon size alone means a reduction of 16% in egg production, i.e. future salmon populations; and a 28% reduction in nutrients going back into the river systems. For the pocket book issues: the reduction in king salmon means a 26% reduction as a food source, and a 21% reduction in the value of the fishery.

There does not appear to be one smoking gun for the change in Alaska’s salmon population, but a series of events that effect each species differently. Warming ocean temperatures are partly to blame, but so is competition between wild and hatchery populations. Size-selective fishing seems to also be a part of the equation, especially with the mighty chinook.

Wild salmon can stay out in the ocean for up to 7 years, but now they are often returning to fresh water to spawn at 4 years.

Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Dept of Fish & Game; Alaska Public Media; Fairbanks Daily News-Miner


It’s Bat Week

Credit: National Park Service

Believe it or not, Alaska has seven species of bat. The Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) is the most common. At only 3 to 4-1/2″ long, and a wingspan of 8-9″, the Little Brown Bat, lives up to its name.

Bats are not well studied in Alaska. Even the lifespan of the Little Brown Bat in the state is unknown, although they seem to average 10 years or so in the Yukon. One elderly Yukon Little Brown Bat was known to live 34 years.

Range of the Little Brown Bat

They range from the Yukon River south throughout Alaska. The total population is not known, although it is not thought to be large, considering the territory. I have seen bats sweep overhead at the darkest time of our summer days, but I can not say that it is a common experience. We certainly have the mosquitos to keep them well fed, however.

A Little Brown Bat

Bats usually hibernate from September until May, although it is not a continual hibernation. They seem to wake up on warmer days to hunt, then return to hibernation. They will roost in caves, but these are not common in Alaska’s Interior. Natural weather-protected areas will offer a place to roost, as will attics and out buildings. So the scratching one hears from the attic isn’t always a red squirrel in Alaska, but might be a Little Brown Bat.


AlCan Stop

Film Friday:

Camera: Kodak 66; Film: Kodak 120, Ektar 100


Welcome to the Yukon

A Pandemic Roadtrip: Part Six

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Mile Marker 585

The Yukon; finally I was in the Yukon Territory.  I have nothing against B.C., but now Alaska is in the sights.

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The AlCan is not fully paved

Don’t let anyone fool you, the Alaska Highway is not completely paved.  It’s close, but it’s not complete.  The Yukon always has sections that are gravel, and the sections go on for miles.  It can be a bit dusty, especially when a semi truck is in front of you.

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Muncho Lake

I admit the gravel travel is worth it once you come across Muncho Lake.  The  jade colored waters light up even on a dreary day.  “Muncho” in the Kaska language translates to “big water”, and it is that,

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Kluane Lake

Kluane Lake is the largest lake within the Yukon, that lies entirely within its borders.  It’s a huge lake, and in normal years there is a visitor’s center that is worth a stop.  This year, due to Covid-19, it was closed.

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Another river to cross, but we’re getting closer

There were many businesses and sights closed to the public along the entire route.  Places that I have historically stopped at for food or gas, were closed.  Laird Hotsprings, a very popular natural swimming hole and gathering place, was completely shut down.  For much of the route through northern British Columbia and across the Yukon, there were signs out on the road frontage thanking truckers.  After a while, it made total sense.  There is no one else driving these roads; just the truck drivers.  One place I stopped at, near the Alaska border, there was a sign out front, and I did ask the owner about it.  He told me that the truckers were the only reason he was open and able to stay afloat.  No tourists, and only a few Alaskans like me, trying to get home.

Final stop for the night: Haines Junction, YT

 


The Return to Mount Kennedy

Connecting Generations through ice & snow:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

Trailer: Return to Mount Kennedy


Dall Sheep

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.

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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.

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One last Quest Run

Film Saturday:

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Yukon Quest Start 2020

Camera: Leica M3; Film: Fujichrome 35mm, Velvia 100 


Yukon Quest Start

Film Friday: 

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Camera: Rolleiflex 3.5MX; Film: Kodak 35mm, Tri-X 400

 

 

 


Yukon Quest 2020

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A musher and dog team take the Chena River out of Fairbanks

 

The Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race started on Saturday morning.  Fifteen teams left Fairbanks, with the goal of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory in 9 days, give or take.

It was a rather chilly morning to be hanging out on the Chena River to cheer the teams on their way, but several hundred people turned out to do just that.  It was -25F when I left the cabin, and it must have been -30 down on the river ice.  Everyone, including the dogs, were bundled up.

The 1000 mile race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse first started in 1984.  A 1983 bull-session in the Bull’s Eye Saloon in Fairbanks, led to the race’s creation.  Twenty-six teams left Fairbanks that first year. The winner, Sonny Linder, made it to Whitehorse in just over 12 days.

The Quest follows the historic gold rush routes between the Yukon and Alaska’s Interior, traveling frozen rivers and crossing four mountain ranges.  Dawson City, YT is the half-way point.  In even years, the race starts in Fairbanks, and in odd years the race starts in Whitehorse.

There are ten checkpoints and four dog drops, where dogs can be dropped off, but not replaced.  Sleds can not be replaced without a penalty.  The record run happened in 2010, when Hans Gatt finished in 9 days, 26 minutes.  The slowest time happened in 1988, when Ty Halvorson completed the race in 20 days, 8 hours, 29 minutes.

 

 

 


Pioneer Air Museum

Fairbanks, Alaska

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Pioneer Air Museum

It had been several years since I ventured into the Air Museum at Pioneer Park.  Since they were experimenting with winter hours, I decided it was time to head back over there and see what was new.

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Under The Dome: Inside the Air Museum

The Pioneer Air Museum houses a fairly extensive collection of aircraft and other artifacts mainly pertaining to Interior Alaska and Arctic aviation.

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Ben Eielson Display

The first major display is on Ben Eielson, the famed aviator and Alaskan bush pilot.  Eielson learned to fly in WWI, with the U.S Army Signal Corps.  After the war, a chance run-in with Alaska’s territorial delegate to Congress, led to Eielson heading to Alaska to teach.  By 1923, Eielson had started the Farthest North Aviation Company.  Eielson was the first to fly air mail in Alaska, and the first to fly from North America over the North Pole to Europe.

In 1929, Eielson and his mechanic died in a plane crash in Siberia.  The cargo ship Nanuk was frozen in sea ice off North Cape, and Eielson was contracted by expedition leader Olaf Swenson to fly out personnel and furs.  The plane crashed in a storm, cruising at full throttle into the terrain.  A faulty altimeter is the suspected cause of the crash.  Parts of Eielson’s recovered aircraft is on display at the museum.

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1935 Stinson SR-JR

This bright red Stinson SR-JR, the Spirit of Barter Island, came to Alaska in 1940, and was flying the Interior out of Fairbanks in 1953 for Interior Airways.

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The Stinson in artwork

This SR-JR carries four passengers, has a  cruising speed of 110mph, and a range of 450 miles.  It was an Interior workhorse, and well known in the Fairbanks area.  The image, “I Follow Rivers”, can be found on t-shirts around Fairbanks to this day.

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Stinson V77: Peter Pan

The Stinson V77 is the Navy version of the SR-10 Reliant.  “Peter Pan” flew the Kuskokwim and Yukon River mail runs.  The Stinson Reliant was a favorite of bush pilots, as the aircraft was equally at ease landing on wheels, skis or floats.  In 1949, “Peter Pan” made the flight from Bethel, Alaska to Boston, Mass.  It is back in Alaska, on loan to the museum, from the bush pilot’s family.

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1943 P-39 Wreckage

The P-39 Airacobra was a common sight in Alaska’s Interior during WWII, as it was a mainstay of lend-lease aircraft to the Soviets.  This P-39 only made it to Fairbanks in pieces, as it was involved in a mid-air collision with another aircraft 60 miles east of Fairbanks.  Both pilots survived the crash.

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1942 ST Type Ryan PT-22

The PT-22 was used for flight training all over the globe.  Over 14,000 Air Corps pilots trained in the PT-22.  This particular PT-22 came to Fairbanks in 1956 after it was retired out of the military.

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The “Huey”

Manufactured by Bell Helicopter in 1966, this UH-1H “Huey”, saw combat in South Vietnam.  During a mission in 1969, this UH-1H was hit by a rocket propelled grenade while landing.  After the war, it came to Alaska, and was transferred around the Alaska Army bases, finally landing at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks.  It was retired in 1993, and is on loan to the museum from the U.S. Army.  The “Huey” is still maintained by Army personnel.

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Thomas Ackerman photo

A visitor to the museum several years ago, recognized the Huey’s ID number as the one he flew during the Vietnam War.  Sgt Thomas Ackerman was a crew-chief and gunman on this UH-1H.  He supplied several photos of the Huey, during its time in Vietnam, to the museum, including the one above.  Thomas Ackerman died of Agent Orange related cancer in 2004.