Mixed rain and snow is falling outside my window here in Anchorage just a day after I returned from a week in Colorado with sunny, blue skies. It’s been raining nonstop at least since I arrived 21 hours ago. The weather isn’t depressing, but it certainly lacks the power to entice me outside for a refreshing trail run or bike ride.
The past week is one of the first in a long while that I’ve been able to just kick back and relax rather than working on some project or training up for a race. Sure, I did some minimal chores around the ranch to minimize fire danger and make some repairs, but this visit I was able to take time to catch up with some neighbors and get in some scenic drives to take in the fall colors. Granted, I did run a 19.6-mile race (http://www.cbmountainrunners.org/44466 ), but overall I felt able to relax more and cheat life by getting another week or summer temps and prime fall foliage.
Sometimes sustainability needs to be directed toward your own well-being and recharging your psyche. This past week was about exploring new places, making new acquaintance that could turn into friendships and sneaking a peak at a page or two from the next chapter of my life as I prepare to relocate to Gunnison County, Colorado after the first of the year to go back to school.
Here are some highlights of that next chapter, including fall colors near The Castles, Ohio Pass and Crested Butte plus views of the eclipse from the Windy SL Ranch.
Yes, I know. I have been extremely lax in updating this blog for the past 6-9 months. I have another post planned to talk about how the grand experiment went with the garden – in short, better than I expected. Kale continues to grow even after our first snow. Potatoes are a bumper crop. Moose came by, but didn’t dine. More details later.
For now, just enjoy this view from Sep 12 where the fall colors were at their peak. I wish I could have stayed more than just two nights.
While I’m at it, here’s another pic. the blueberry bushes have turned red.
And here’s a nice panorama from near the high point on the property showing the cabin, King Mtn, Talkeetna Mtns and Anthracite Ridge.
When I’m down in Colorado, I know exactly what to do when I see smoke in my fire district. First, I call/radio in the fire
to county dispatch. Then I don my wildland gear, grab my command pack and head to the station or directly to the fire if
we already have apparatus en route. Once on scene, I have everything I need to lead an initial attack through the first
12-hour operational period. Serving as a firefighter/officer in the western US, this happens frequently enough that some
steps become automatic even though each fire is unique.
Because of my experience with fire and my normal response mode, it felt odd/uncomfortable/out-of-place to be in the
western Interior village of Hughes, Alaska recently with a sizeable smoke column 12 miles southwest of town and not be
actively involved in the fire’s suppression. This particular fire is named the Isahultila Fire and at the time was a little
more than 8,000 acres in size. Another fire, 336 Rock Fire, is burning about 6 miles southeast of town, but posed less of
a risk to the community while I was there due to prevailing winds.
Since I’m not attached to a firefighting unit up here in Alaska, there’s nothing I can do in an official capacity in
response to the fire and that feels abnormal to me as it goes against my instincts. The Isahultila and Rock fires are two
of more than 300 wildfires currently burning across Alaska. There are far more fires than there are crews to fight them,
even with teams from the lower-48 flying up to join in the effort. Crews and equipment are being focused on communities
that are eminently threatened to mainly perform structure protection. The village of Tanana to the southeast is one of
those. The smoke was so dense from multiple fires near the community that our bush plane couldn’t land. This also means
helicopters with buckets, water tankers and slurry tankers can’t actively fight the fire either until visibility improves.
Crews have to make do with equipment that has already arrived in the community plus hand tools and backpack pumps. There are no hydrants in most of these communities that could otherwise be used for structure protection.There is a central
water pumping and treatment facility or the option to draft water out of nearby rivers and lakes.
After arriving in Hughes and sizing up the fires from town, my work partner Dave and I head out of town up a ridge to
install a wind monitoring tower. Since he’s not experienced in firefighting, I brief him on the basic concerns as we head
out into the field. One acronym is LCES, which stands for Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes and Safety Zones. I
verbalize watchout situations (http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/safety/10_18/10_18.html) as we drive up the ridge on the gravel
road, the first is that there’s a period of time where we don’t have a visual on the fire. Fortunately, the winds have
been light and the fire is far enough away, that this isn’t a major risk. I tell Dave about the types of fuels/vegetation
along our escape route to assess the possible rate of spread if a fire were to hit this area.
Once up on the ridge, I choose a location for us to work where we have a good view of the Isahultila smoke column that is
building more as the afternoon heats up. The Rock Fire smoke 3 miles to the south is more diffuse and lacks the signs of a
running crown fire. Our safety zone is a gravel pit large enough to protect one vehicle and up to three people from an
approaching flame front. I know this from experience and because it is listed on page 8 of the Incident Response Pocket
Guide that wildland firefighters carry.
Every 15-20 minutes we stop working and take time to assess the fire behavior from our vantage point. While the smoke
column builds and gets darker as the fire moves through stands of black spruce, the prevailing winds push the fire on a
path that will lead it south of our position and our route 4 miles back to town. As we walk across the tundra, I make
note how dry the vegetation is. Normally, the tundra is spongy, but today it is crunchy. If fire reaches this area, it
will certainly move through this landscape. Our plan is to evacuate to the safety zone if there are any spot fires
whatsoever since we don’t have any gear to fight spot fires with us. On very large fires with high winds, burning embers
can easily be carried a mile ahead of the main flame front. In some cases, burned embers and pine cones have dropped a
dozen miles in front of a fire by the strong convective updrafts in the smoke column. This is not one of those days,
Back in town we learn there has been a community meeting where the village and tribal councils have decided to evacuate
children and elders 40 miles up river to the next town – Allakaket. Dave and I start working to help establish a staging
area by the river for those currently evacuating and those who wish to get their belongings ready in case the fire makes a
quick run and people need top leave quickly. We help load up some gear on boats heading out and erect a large covered
awning with no assembly manual. Two smoke jumpers have arrived and their job is to keep an eye on the fire’s progress down river and attack spot fires if needed and prudent. I share intel on what I’ve seen up on the ridge and they let me know
what the latest fire weather forecast has been over their satellite phone.
Dave and I settle in to spend the night at the village offices and I get some time to gather better fire information on
the Web. I send out an email to the meteorologists forecasting fire behaviour and help them adjust their wind direction
forecast based on actual observations in town since their nearest live weather station is 40 or so miles away in the
village of Huslia.
These days there are superior online tools for fire incident managers to plan their operations. For Alaska, I can quickly
pull up the latest fire weather forecasts for each fire zone in the state and see if there are any red flag warnings
posted. I know what the wind speed and direction are going to be along with the potential for lightning that might spark
new fires. Even better, I can launch a mapping tool and zoom in to the immediate area around town to see the most recent
validated fire perimeter and where overhead satellites have identified new spot fires using infrared imagery. By checking
every 6-12 hours, I start to get a good feel about how fast the fire is moving to better advise the community on their
evacuation plans. Online we get news that the community of Tanana has to shelter in place because the smoke is too thick
to even allow for safe boat travel on the river.
The next morning we continue to help get gear down to the staging area and monitor conditions of the fires. As the winds
are out of the south, smoke envelops the town and we no longer have a visual on the fire, but the online tools tell us
exactly what’s going on. There’s supposed to be a plane arriving around 2:30 to fly us back to Fairbanks, but unless the
winds shift, we will be stuck due to low visibility. If we have to stay, that’s just how it goes when you’re traveling in
remote Alaska. I’m sure Dave and I can make ourselves useful helping out the local residents, especially since the local
people with firefighting experience happen to be deployed on other fires in the state at the present time. During these
periods of low visibility, the URL http://afsmaps.blm.gov/imf_fire/imf.jsp?site=fire helps to reassure us what is
happening 10-12 miles away. Another useful tool is the lightning strike map that shows positive (cloud to ground) and
negative (ground to cloud) strikes (URL http://afsmaps.blm.gov/imf_lightning/imf.jsp?site=lightning). While positive
strikes make up only about 10 percent of all lightning, they are the predominant source of naturally-caused wildfires.
Sometimes it takes a day or more for a lightning strike to smolder in the vegetation before it gets big enough to send up
a column of smoke or create a heat plume for the infrared sensors on satellites and aircraft.
As luck has it, winds shift just enough out of the southwest about 40 minutes before the plane will try to land and our
runway clears of smoke. As the plane climbs out of town, we briefly get a view of the fire before flying into a layer of
smoke that extends from the ground up to at least 11,000 feet and stays thick all the way to Fairbanks and beyond. We land around 4pm at Fairbanks International and the smoke is so thick that it’s hard to make out the runway lights on our
approach. Keep in mind these are runway lights being illuminated a few days past summer solstice in the land of the
A few days later I’m at the Anchorage airport picking up a different Dave – my friend from Colorado whose cabin in Willow,
AK burned up in the Sockeye Fire a few weeks earlier. Dave and his wife TC spend winters up in Alaska running their sled
dogs on the hundreds of miles of trails around Willow. At 7,220 acres, the Sockeye Fire isn’t nearly as big as the fires
burning near Hughes, but it started and spread through a more populated area ultimately destroying 55 homes and numerous outbuildings. Despite this being a large mushing community, all the sled dogs were evacuated in the little time people had to leave the area.
Dave and TC’s house is a total loss – burned down to the foundation. Even the foundation is chipping from the heat of the
fire. There are dead spruce and birch snags standing and the occasional hot spots burning just down their road. At least
in this situation I know what to do and have the necessary tools. We brought shovels, a rake, a chainsaw, axes, protective
clothing and a 55-gallon tank of water which comes in handy for the occasional smoldering patch that’s crawling through
some unburned parts of the forest floor.
After first working to clear out the remains of the house and make a large recycling/salvage pile from the old metal roof
and appliance remains, I get to falling trees on the property that are either in immediate danger of falling on someone or
will be in the next few years. There’s no need to have hazard trees around when crews come in to rebuild their house of
when they start running dog sleds through the woods in the winter.
The landscape is significantly changed, but still remotely recognizable from its former incarnation. For Dave and TC, this
is as bad as it gets. Still, we find little treasures in the ruins: a pile of colorful ceramic plates broken when the
kitchen floor collapsed add some color to the other wise charred scene or the Sponge Bob coffee mug with the bottom broken off that will make a fine souvenir on the new mantel.
At the end of the day I felt as if I were able to actually do something constructive about the fire. Rebuilding is a long process, but this was a start. In some ways, life gives people a few do-overs – a chance to make changes or to consciously choose to do it exactly the same way again. For me, the day was an opportunity to refresh some of my old firefighting skills and get a little dirty. In fact, I was so black from soot all over my body that when I was back at our host home to unload some gear, TJ walked up behind me and asked how things went. As I turned around to answer him he did a double take at my new appearance.
Postscript: The Rock Fire eventually burned more than 84,000 acres including where we had set up our met tower. The
Ishultila Fire burned more than 60,000 acres. Fire crews burned out vegetation close to town to protect structures in a
controlled manner. Lightning strikes have started two new fires west of town and another north of town. To date, no people
or structures in Hughes have been harmed. On July 13, two people were charged with an illegal burn pile and leaving the fire unattended which caused the fast-spreading Sockeye Fire.
I’ve known Lachlan and Linda for 10 years now. We first met when I was covering the Iditarod Sled Dog Race for The Northern Light newspaper at UAA in 2005. Being from Colorado, I paid special interest in the few mushers from my other adopted home state. (Truth be told, I don’t really have a home state, per se. I’ve moved around a lot. I consider Alaska and Colorado to be my adopted homes states.) The Clarke’s are easy people to like. They are approachable, earnest and dedicated to their dogs. You can also tell that they are very much in love. If ever a couple were meant to be together, it is these two.
True confession: I know more musher’s names than I know NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB player names combined. It wasn’t always that way, but the more time I spend out in the real world where you have to survive in whatever Mother Nature throws at you, the less I have time for sitting in front of a television long enough to watch a game. Heck, I probably know more sled dog names than pro sports players. I guess I have more in common with and can better identify with mushers and their dogs.
I remember when Thelma and Louise were on the team in 2005 along with leaders Ace and Lefty. Thelma, later a leader, just recently retired lasting a few more years on the gang line than her sister. One day, she just decided she had done enough running. Dogs can be like that. They know when it’s time to hang it up and surf the couch.
I was looking at Lachlan’s hand-written roster this year and saw some old familiar names: Starbuck, Walter, Johny, Brody, Jetta and Ferris – the latter who made the cut by a simple twist of fate. I’ve followed these dogs for quite a while, as I’ve followed Lachlan’s progress in and out of each checkpoint during the six or seven years he’s run the race since I’ve known him. Of particular note was somewhere around 2009, hearing that he had taken a bad spill coming down the Dalzell Gorge. I can’t imagine what Linda goes through waiting back in town, refreshing the Iditarod Web page and waiting to get any update she can from the checkpoints. Wisely, Lachlan scratched from the race when he got to the next checkpoint and it was clear he couldn’t properly care for his team in his current condition. Doctors would soon confirm a broken ankle.
I like to visit with the dogs before they set out on the trail – not so much on the day of the ceremonial start in Anchorage, but at the restart in Willow. This is where the real adventure begins. The rookies just think they are going out for some long training run. You look into the eyes of the veterans and they know what’s ahead. I long to know what it’s like out on that trail – so much so that this year my plan was to ski, run, snowshoe or bike out to Rainy Pass to get an understanding of what it’s like to get out there in it – into the real wilderness, the solitude – get so far out in it that it’s just me in my own head. The unseasonable warm weather, rain and open water on the southern part of the Iditarod trail I planned to travel put the kibosh on this year’s plans.
I caught up with Lachlan and Linda at the musher’s banquet and again at the start in Anchorage. A bunch of us were going to meet up for a meal after the short, 11-mile run with the dogs to Campbell Airstrip. Linda texted after a while to say that Stuart, a 3-year-old rookie named for Stuart Little, had gotten loose and they were trying to find/catch him. He had last been seen running down the busy Elmore Road. I was getting my trail gear together to go and run the Tozier Track, Moose Track and Tour of Anchorage trails, despite the fact that there are lots of dense woods in between those trails.
After a bit, someone posted to the internet that Stuart was seen running on the mud flats 10 miles away near Ship Creek and Westchester Lagoon, so I loaded up the bike and hit the Coastal Trail to ride through the ice, slush and snow hoping to get a visual on Stuart. I stopped to ask every person I encountered who was out on the mud flats, but no one had seen Stuart. I covered the trail from near Point Woronzof all the way up to the port with no luck. When I happened to text my old roommate Dan who works for animal control, he was getting updates of Stuart sightings. He had been seen at a trailer park in Spenard. Before I could get back to my truck, Linda texted that Stuart was seen at Westchester Lagoon running down the railroad tracks but out of earshot. Within 15 minutes, Dan texts back that a dog is running at 36th and the New Seward Hwy in the median. The next text reads “********. Dog got hit.”
I call Dan and confirm that it really is Stuart. Then I call Linda to break the bad news. I’d rather they hear it from me than animal control. The afternoon has been like a runaway train for the past four hours as we try to search and give people directions who aren’t familiar with this city and coordinate with people monitoring online posts. Then it all comes to a sudden stop with the outcome we were hoping to avoid.
I ask Dan if he’ll wait on scene so we can come get Stuart. I get there 30 seconds before Lachlan and Linda. I walk up, shake Dan’s hand, then go over to the dog, squat down to give him a pet and then shed a tear not so much for Stuart, because I didn’t know him, but for Lachlan and Linda. We put Stuart in a bag and are going to carry him back to the truck together, but his 55 pounds seem light, so I just cradle him in my arms and stand up.
At this point a decision needs to be made. With the Iditarod restart moved to Fairbanks, 350 miles to the north, Lachlan needs to drive north the following day. He can’t just skip the race. He’s got to think of the dogs that have been training for the past several months and all the rookies that need to get an Iditarod under their belt (harness, whatever). Lachlan’s also doing this race as a memorial for 25 fallen Marines of the 3/5. I already know what he’s thinking when I ask what he wants to do with Stuart.
“We’re 4,000 miles from home,” Lachlan says.
“I’ll bury him out at my cabin,” I say, knowing darn well what I’m committing to when it’s late winter and the ground is frozen down 5 or more feet – that is if you don’t happen to be digging on the wrong plot of land in discontinuous permafrost. With the cabin sitting at 2,500 feet elevation, it’s a distinct possibility.
Lachlan really didn’t have any options. I place Stuart in the bed of my truck, shake Lachlan’s hand, turn back to their truck and see Linda sitting in the cab, but elect stay back and let her grieve. I thank Dan for being there and head home. It reminds me of my days with Albuquerque Mountain Rescue when we’d be on a search and our victim was found deceased. The adrenaline rush ends and you crash in minor disbelief. I distract myself by planning logistics for the following day to get Stuart in a suitable grave so Lachlan doesn’t have to worry while he’s on the Iditarod Trail. As I have time to reflect, the irony sinks in that this is the big news story of the day and not only do I know the mushers involved, but I know the animal control officer and the news photographer sent to cover the story – all for at least 7 years. Alaska really is that small.
I text my cabin neighbor John to see if he’s around to bring Stuart up to my cabin in his snowmobile. If not, I’m prepared to drag a sled strapped to my pack up 400 vertical feet in 3/4-mile. It won’t be easy, but I can get it done. I bring a shovel, but know without a doubt that the real work is going to be done with a pick ax. That night, I drive to the airport to pick up my nephew. Walking back out to the truck, I inform him that there’s a deceased sled dog in the bed of the truck. Welcome to Alaska. That night, I take half of my king salmon at dinner and place it next to Stuart. I always used to share my food with my old dog Taiya and figure Stuart could use some fine cuisine on his journey.
We get up early the next day and drive out to the cabin. We load Stuart into John’s snowmobile sled and head up the hill. I don snowshoes and scout out a good spot for Stuart that has nice views and (to the best of my recollection with two-and-a-half feet of snow on the ground) hopefully won’t be on top of a rock outcropping. I clear out a spot with the snow shovel and get to work breaking ground.
The first swing of the pick ax goes in reluctantly, but not as bad as I had feared. The adze end was rarely of any use and actually bent a bit when I tried to pry a frozen chunk of soil up. The pick was most effective, even if it was slow going – two to three inches of frozen chunks of soil removed with each matrix of about 50 whacks on the topmost layer. If you got a piece to break loose that was larger than your fist, you were elated. Sometimes it felt just slightly softer than swinging into hard rock and several chunks broke loose with enough force to break the skin on my shins even through my pants.
My friend Tyndall came along after I had gone down a foot and we took shifts to get down as far as we could until the ground was so frozen and the hole so deep you couldn’t really make any more progress. All total, it took more than three hours of digging. It could have been much worse. I said a few words to Stuart, let him know that Lachlan and Linda loved him and placed him in the ground. We covered him up and placed some moose antlers on his mound. I texted Linda to let her know Stuart was laid to rest and sent her some photos the next morning so Lachlan could have some assurance when he and the team set out on the race trail at 10am.
I wonder what Lachlan is thinking out on the trail. I know from others that the loss of a dog is the worst thing you can go through. Life is for the living though and he has a team of 16 dogs to care for as they take him more than 1000 miles to Nome. Truth is, Stuart has a better final resting place than 99 percent of the people in this world. He’ll never get to run the race he trained for. His trail ends here at the homestead. I don’t know if I believe in a soul or not, but if I hear a howl out my cabin door I’ll know that Stuart is out there in it – in the real wilderness, the solitude, in that place where I long to be.
The southwest is blessed with wide open vistas and high, dry air that allows for frequent bursts of brilliance during sunrise and sunset. I’ve never put blinds or shades on the house here at the Windy SL Ranch. I know I’m loosing some energy efficiency, but I find the views from inside keep me connected to the greatness that is just out my doorway. Frequently, I’ll wake to the start of a brilliant sunrise which forces me out of bed and running out the front door to catch the fleeting reds and oranges before they fade to nothing more than a memory.
The night skies aren’t bad either.
Wish you were here to enjoy this with me. Peace to all.
Today is one of those winter days where you feed the wood stove all day long. This happens maybe 20 percent of the time. The rest of the days have enough sun to warm the house through passive absorption of the sun’s infrared rays, coupled with the fact that it isn’t as cold outside.
When I arrived at the ranch yesterday after an eight-day journey of three days at sea plus 2400 miles of driving, I had a one-day supply of dry firewood waiting for me in the garage. Here in Colorado where wildfires are the norm for most summers, I make a point not to store a bunch of wood around the house in case a fire comes ripping through and no one is around to perform mitigation or active structure protection. A common practice is for people to store firewood under a home’s deck to keep it dry. This strategy works very well in that respect, but is detrimental to fire safety.
Rule #1 – Don’t leave firewood stored around your house.
Yesterday’s high temperatures in the upper 40s and mostly sunny skies gave way to snow that started around sunrise. This was the same storm I had been working to outrun ever since disembarking from the ferry on Friday. I had managed to get a full 12 hours ahead of it before it hit with high winds and then small, but consistent snow flakes that ended up with 9 or more inches of accumulation, despite the 1-2″ forecast.
I set out with the F150 at about 10am to collect some firewood. The covered pile I already have from last summer’s fire mitigation work is still too green to burn. When collecting firewood, I have two rules: if the ground is dry, collect down and dead wood; if the ground is wet, collect standing dead wood. I know where my various stashes of dead trees are around the ranch to keep me in firewood for the next 5-6 years, so I drove to a spot that I can get to with today’s snowfall, but might not be able to reach if this becomes a heavy snow year. I’ll leave the easy-to-reach wood for when it’s the only stuff I can get to because I’m hunkered down.
Rule #2 – If the ground is dry, collect down and dead wood.
Rule #3 – If the ground is wet, collect standing dead wood.
Rule #4 – Harvest the hard-to-reach wood supplies when the weather is good, leaving the easy stuff for when the weather is nasty.
Before heading out, I got all my gear ready by filling up the saws with bar oil lubricant and fuel mix, then giving each chain a quick sharpening with a circular file. I say “saws” because I always make a habit of taking two saws in case the first one has problems in the field such as vapor locking or dulling out from hitting a rock or some other equipment malfunction. I also made sure I got in the truck with ear plugs, eye protection and two sets of gloves in case my hands get cold and I need to switch out a pair to keep working.
Rule #5 – Take a backup chainsaw.
Rule #6 – Take a second pair of gloves in the winter and keep the extra pair warming up against the defrost vents.
One full size piñon tree is about all that fits in the bed of the pickup and provides a wide variety of wood diameter ranging from kindling to large logs. Some people like to just use ponderosa or birch/aspen from the main trunk, but this involves a lot of time splitting wood. By taking out dead piñon, I reduce the fire danger and minimize the amount of time I need to swing a mauling axe.
Rule #7 – Burn the whole tree to reduce fire danger and reduce work.
While out collecting wood, I run the chainsaw just enough to cut the tree into manageable pieces that I can then throw in the back of the truck. I try to minimize my burning of fossil fuel because I have a surplus of solar energy back at the house. Once I get there, I use an electric chop saw and an electric chainsaw to cut the wood into pieced small enough to fit in the wood stove.
Rule #8 – Minimize use of fossil fuel by employing electric saws where possible.
I backed the pickup next to the garage and tossed the wood inside after first knocking the snow off. Several inches had fallen while I was out collecting this tree and I had to work quickly to make sure my standing dead wood stayed dry. Once the pile was in the garage, I could close the door and go to work reducing everything down with the chop saw and electric chainsaw. The only time I need to use the 8-lb mauling axe is on the pieces that came from the main stump. When I cut these in the field, I try and cut them in such a way as to make them rest flat on the chopping block and avoid abt branching of the stump.
Rule #9 – Cut your larger pieces in the field so that they are easier to split when you get back to the house.
One time I went into a Home Depot and told them that my log splitter had the problem of really slowing down after about 20 minutes of use. When they asked me which model I had, I told them it was an 8-lb mauling axe. The secret to splitting a lot of firewood is to learn to swing a mauling axe with either hand. You tire less frequently and keep your musculature more symmetric. It takes a bit of practice at first, but you’ll be pretty accurate within a day or two. The final trick to heating your home with a wood stove is to keep a big pot of water on the stove to act as a humidifier so the house doesn’t dry out too much.
Rule #10 – Learn to swing a mauling axe with either hand.
Rule #11 – Put an uncovered pot of water on top of the stove to humidify the house.
Those are the methods to my warmth. Heating your home with firewood takes some work, but it’s still a feasbile option and a good way to save money, stay healthy and keep the fire danger down. Plus, if the power grid goes down, you can still be warm and keep your pipes from freezing up.
Chainsaw, backup chainsaw, bar oil, file ear plugs, chop saw and electric chainsaw. Not shown: eye protection, gloves and mauling axe.
The sun sets early here in Haines, Alaska – partly because it sits so far east in the time zone and partly because there is a mountain range to the southwest. As I run along the paved trail that runs from mile 19 on the highway north to mile 21 to see the more prevalent congregations of eagles, I suddenly notice the temperature drop. The sun has just fallen behind the mountains and it’s only two o’clock. Official sunset isn’t for another hour and a half and by 3:30pm the twilight is seriously waning, especially when it’s overcast.
Today is a different matter. It started out with rain to the south with patches of blue sky up north along the Chilkat River. The blue sky extended all the way into town as the day wore on. This made for better photograpahs of the eagles than the day before when grey skies and flat light were washing out the colors.
One of these days, I’d like to have a free day to hike Mt. Ripinsky and photograph bears and eagles, but each of the past three years has conspired to make me work more than a full day while I’m in town. I was able to coordinate a window of time to make a fast run up the highway and see photograph some eagles and visit with my friend Rachel and her State Fair winning dog, Rigby. He has a blue ribbon on the wall to back that claim up.
An hour up the highway was rushed, but the eagles are so plentiful during the late salmon run that you are certain to see at least a few dozen. Back in town, I set up shop at the public library with still looks brand new despite it being awarded Best Small Town Library of 2005. The WiFi signal is helpful, but if there wasn’t one I’d probably get a lot more pleasure time while I’m in town.
After checking on my meteorological stations in town, I made a bee line to Dejon Delights which makes just about the best smoked salmon you’ll find anywhere. Within 24 hours, I have already consumed nearly two of the four packages that I purchased: a smoked coho fillet and nearly a while package of smoked sockeye bellies. At this rate, the rest will be gone somewhere between Ketchikan and Bellingham. The jar of jalapeño-flavored coho might make it all the way to the ranch, though.
The 750-mile drive from Anchorage is the driest I’ve ever seen the highway during the eight winter drives I’ve done. The temperatures only got down to about -15 F, which is technically winter but a far cry from the -40 temps I’ve encountered in the past. Haines is ice-free so far this year while all the cold air is down in the central continental US. A friend from Kotzebue told me last week that it was 36 F and the river had opened up again. There is no ice to speak of and his theory is that the lack of an ice pack forces the high pressure systems to form further east over land in the far north and this pushes warm air up into Alaska, while forcing cold air down into the rest of the country.
Now that I’m on the ferry, my mind is definitely focused on my friends, family and home down in Colorado even as thoughts of those important to me up in Alaska linger. Taking a slow boat is makes the transition easier than jet travel. Today’s rain in Sitka is fitting given that I made a quick visit out to the Blue Lake hydroelectric project. The increase in height of the dam allows for more storage and more power (due to higher head) for the community. The ribbon cutting was just last week and workers are finishing up punchlist items, while the hydroturbines are fully operational.
Despite getting violently ill on the first day in the car, Minx has settled in well on the ferry this time. Based on his appetite for salmon skin today, you’d never know he was doing his best Linda Blair impression two days ago.
Sitka has a beautiful little park on the southeast side of town made specifically for viewing huimpack whales that pass through this area in the spring and late fall. None where around, but the hemlock forest and calm ocean were so soothing that I found myself not caring. Like Haines, I need to come to Sitka sometime just to relax without any work agenda.
Just as the MV Malaspina is leaving port, the captain announces some humpbacks off the port side. Several of us rush out on the deck to get a closer look, but it turns out just to be a fluke.
I step carefully as I walk on overflow in the low meadows beneath Anthracite Ridge. Snows are late coming to southcentral Alaska and the natural streams are seeping out of the earth, only to freeze into solid ice shortly after hitting the sub-freezing fall air. The temps have dipped down into the low teens at night, and the process repeats itself each day. This large meadow is a mixture of grasses and short willows, the later of which is the cause for caution, lest I slip and impale myself on one of the branches sticking up through the ice.
As I move slowly across this terrain, I’m reminded of a kayaking trip down in Kachemak Bay about six weeks earlier. To say that I was lucky to come away from that trip with nothing more than some scratches and devil’s club spines on my hands is to underestimate the hazards of remote travel. Luck has very little do with it. Experience, knowledge, contingencies and a willingness to retreat are what keep me from ending up in the new headlines on some of these outings. On that particular day, I drew on my experience in sea kayaking, mountain rescue and wildland firefighting to deal with numerous hazards that cropped up. I also had to suck up some basic willpower just to haul my boat back to where I started out earlier in the day.
I drove down to Homer one weekend to do some exploring around the upper reaches of Kachemak Bay. My online reconnaissance using Google Earth and other available maps identified only one possible launch side at the upper end of the bay. The beach required a steep descent several hundred feet down a trail that was more suitable for four-wheelers than a pickup. My Toyota pickup has good, solid four-wheel drive and the snows hadn’t made it that far south, so I figured it was doable even if it looked dicey.
What concerned me more was the mud flats at the upper end of the bay that extend out from this beach when the tide goes out. My big question, and I couldn’t find any online or local resource was how low the tide gets before the mud flats are exposed. I called a local water taxi out of Homer (18 miles to the southwest of this beach) for some information about the tides and to see if I should instead let him talk me out of launching from that beach and instead paying for a water taxi to the south side of the bay up at the east end. The fellow told me that they don’t really go that far up the bay but that I should have no problem. I took his advice, but with a dose of skepticism. My schedule that day had me launching at near high tide and I knew that at the lowest tide there would be at least a mile of mud flats to deal with. The question still remained: how close to high tide does it need to be for the water to be deep enough to kayak over the mud flat region?
I set out with a few options. My first was to make sure that I was returning an hour or more after low tide when the water was coming back in. My second was to attempt to walk across the mud flats, if encountered. My third was to get back in the kayak and paddle out to deeper water if the mud flats were such that one could literally get stuck and risk having the tide rise up above your head. Having the kayak would allow some wider surface area to extract myself from the mud should that occur. If I had to retreat back into the water to wait several hours for higher tide levels, there was no other beach or even cliff face to divert to on the north without encountering mud flats. Thus, I had to assess how extreme the seas were before leaving the relative safety of the south shore. I can handle 3-foot seas in a kayak. Five-foot seas would mean waiting it out on the south side of the bay. Lastly, I brought some small rope with which to drag the kayak should the weight of carrying the boat cause me to sink into the mud. My experience from remote living in Alaska and Colorado winters had taught me to always have a least one back up and each year I end up having to rely on that back up at least once.
The waters were relatively calm as I headed across the bay with winds out of the west/southwest. I would keep an eye on the winds as there was 20 miles or more of fetch to create big waves at the head of the bay. Paddling across to my destination island and then the mainland went without a hitch. There were sea otters and water fowl out on the water and as I got over to the island, I surprised a harbor seal sunning on some rocks. The occasional lion’s mane jellyfish and striped jellyfish drifted by and when I pulled out in the shallows, some clear jellyfish were visible as well.
Walking along the shore, it wasn’t clear what my best path inland was as there didn’t appear to be any trails and the alders were quite thick, filling in much of the space between the spruce and birch trees. The terrain was steep and I found myself drawing on my years with Albuquerque Mountain Rescue as I traversed the cliffs. Always keep three points of contact, meaning that you establish good hand and foot holds and only only move one hand or foot at a time to then establish a decent hold with that appendage. More than once, I accidentally grabbed some devil’s club thinking it was alder. In some places, I was able to step on it with my boot, but in other places it was too thick to avoid a confrontation.
As I got up above the devil’s club and into the spruce forest, I immediately noticed a maze of down and standing dead snags. In the fire service, we refer to these as hazard trees. You can encounter everything from large branches broken off in the upper portions that are hanging precariously waiting for the slightest vibration to drop them on anything that happens to be below. The nickname for this type of hazard is called a “widow maker” and they have done just that to wildland firefighters. Standing dead trees have also been known to topple over with just a gentle touch as their root systems are rotted away. A Colorado wildland firefighter was killed this way back around 2007. As I approached each tree, I would assess its safe side and test the tree for stability before moving on. At times, the fallen spruce were thick enough that one had to crawl over and under to get through. At each obstacle, I took the time to test the tree’s integrity and possible direction of shift or role.
I was actually relieved when I came across a bear trail as this provided some easier progress even if I did have to keep yelling “hey bear” every minute or so. My intuition allowed me to find an easier route down to another beach with a walk along the shore at low tide back to my kayak, which had been hauled well above the tide line, lest a big wave come along and pull it out to sea leaving me stranded.
Further paddling along the south shore revealed more sea otters, a natural arch and pleasant views as I paddled up the cove. By time I had waited long enough to miss the low tide period, I noticed some cabin cruisers out trawling that were starting to bob around like corks as I approached the island that was along my route back to the north shore. Apparently, the incoming tide was creating some strong currents that could flip a boat my size if one wasn’t paying attention. I paddled strongly through the eddies and was thankful that I hadn’t brought a novice paddler along on this particular day.
When I made it back to the north shore, my question about how high the tide needed to be in order to paddle above the mud flats was answered. It would need to be within just a few feet of high tide…or significantly higher than it was right now. The remainder of my outing for the day can best be described as a real drag – literally. I was able to walk on the mud flats without sinking in too badly, but carrying the 60-lb kayak weighed me down enough that my feet were getting stuck. For the next mile, I lashed a tow line across my chest, leaned forward and dragged the kayak across the mud – with the surface tension of the mud fighting the resistance of the kayak hull. By the time I had gotten to ground solid enough that I could pick up the kayak and carry it, I was thankful.
The drive back up the steep trail was uneventful, although a good low gear is needed. At the top of the hill, 600 feet above the beach, I stopped to look back at where I’d been, unsure when I’d have the desire to relive that adventure again any time soon. A week later I was back in Prince William Sound paddling on familiar waters that were closer to home and far from mud flats. The seas can get rough out here, but at least I have the benefit of familiarity.
Since then, I’ve kept my feet on dry land as winter approaches. Summer kayaking gives way to winter fires in the stove out at the cabin. I’ve made a few excursions to Nome and Unalakleet along Norton Sound and the weather has been mostly cooperative even if temperatures were in the single digits. Aurora displays have been weak, but the stars are still worth your gaze until the nighttime temperatures drop down below zero. The occasional moose can be seen grazing on the hillside, the snows having held off for as late in the season as I can remember.
Best of all lately have been the canine guests out at the cabin who keep me company on moonlit walks and snore themselves to sleep after a full day on the trail. I guess you don’t need a back up plan when you have a soft dog bed by the fire and a buddy who shares his salmon with you.
As the sun started to get low at the ranch, I thought about my previous trip down here that was all work and no play, so I ditched the chores and went for a walk. Some lenticular clouds to the north made for a nice backdrop behind Greenhorn Mountain. I visited some old piñon trees (maybe 250 years old) and some even older petrified logs that I hadn’t seen in a year or two. As the sun finally set, the coyotes bd it farewell. My eyes have been spending too much time in the city as the dark here seems especially faint. It takes my eyes longer to adjust all the way down to where I can see without walking into things like cars and trees.
This is a very short trip, but any time I can spend in my own house is well spent.
White winter snows give way to the first green shoots of spring. Summer’s verdant landscape yields to the reds and yellows of autumn. Autumn brilliance descends into a brief period of brown as the hills wait for the return of snow that will last for the next seven months. Some years, this season of brown consists of deep chills that freeze the ground solid while other years offer sunny days to get in that last warm hike or paddle on the ocean.
It was the latter that greeted us as I set out to the cabin accompanied by the Goober Twins, aka Cash (Goober #1) and Ozzie (Goober #2). Cash is a 62-lb spaniel mix and the lead instigator while Oz is a rescue dog from Adak Island who is just a year old and roughly half the weight of Cash.
2:05pm – Pick up Goober twins from their mom and dad at the Eagle River Fred Meyer parking lot.
2:10 – On the highway where Cash keeps jumping from his co-pilot seat (the only place he’ll ride in a vehicle) down onto the floor boards and back which has the effect of triggering the passenger seat belt alarm for 20 or so seconds each time he does this.
2:45 – Stop for coffee at Vagabond Blues but go out to check on the monsters to make sure they aren’t getting into any trouble. They’ve found the Newman’s Own dog treat package under the driver’s seat, but haven’t ripped it open yet.
3:35 – Turn off the Glenn Hwy onto my gravel/dirt road that leads 3/4-mile into the cabin. Cash proceeds to whimper nonstop the entire distance, leaning into me and into Oz who has jumped into the front seat. I have to use some decent body English to keep Cash from interfering with my ability to steer.
3:42 – I arrive at the cabin and open the truck door and let the monsters out to pee.
3:44 – I open the front door of the cabin and the Goober twins make a bee line to the dinner table and proceed to counter surf on an open Tupperware(TM) of coffee cake that my friends Dasha and John have left out unbeknownst to me. Yelling “No” to Cash has absolutely no effect on his behavior or lack thereof. I force him to the ground in a submissive position and let him know this is not acceptable in our household. I then scoop out the top layer of coffee cake that appears to be the only portion “impacted”. Goober Twins are subsequently kicked outside.
4:15 – Cash and Oz each inhale a plate of kibble. Oz proceeds to play with the plates while I unload bags of garden soil into the raised bed.
5:00 – Dasha and John return on their four-wheelers. Cash barks at Dasha like there’s no tomorrow despite my assurances that she is neither a bear nor a moose. I designate Dasha as the sole giver of treats, which works reasonably well to calm his territorial behavior.
5:10 – We hike over to a nearby hilltop to pick some late-season blueberries. The Goober Twins show no interest whatsoever in blueberries until you stop to pick some, at which point they insist on gobbling down every berry on the very bush you are trying to pick from. Sometimes they leave you some berries – complete with slobber.
5:20pm – I take the twins hiking elsewhere so that Dasha and John can gather berries unhindered.
5:45 – Cash barks at Dasha when she returns.
5:50 – Move firewood from the big pile to the porch while the Goober Twins help by pulling sticks out of the sled.
6:00 – The dogs are relegated to the great outdoors while the humans partake in dinner. Oz explores around the cabin while Cash stands at the door and stares the whole time.
6:30 – I go to the outhouse. Cash sits outside and whimpers the whole time.
6:35 – I text Cash’s mom: “Did you know your son is kind of a wuss?”
6:45 – Take the dogs for a walk so they can smell where the moose have been.
8:00 – Time to settle down for the evening (note that this apparently only applies to humans).
8:30 – Cash tries to climb the 60-degree steps to the loft to see what Dasha is up to.
9:00 – Oz has been gnawing on a moose metatarsal nonstop for I don’t know how long.
9:05 – Moose metatarsal gets tossed out the front door.
9:15 – Oz lays down to the left of me on the futon.
9:16 – Cash puts all 62-lbs of his weight into my right side pressing me into Oz.
9:25 – Cash is chasing something in his dreams.
I wake up every two hours to go check for aurora and snap a few pics. Upon my return to bed, I have to separate the dogs to create a space for myself.
5:00am – “We have to pee!!!”
5:05 – “Can we come back inside and play?”
5:10 – “We’re hungry!”
5:30 – Dogs get kicked back outside.
6:00 – Dogs come back inside for more sleep.
8:00 – Dogs back outside to play. Oz explores while Cash stares at the door the entire time.
10:30 – We go for a hike. Goober Twins actually do quite well on the trail staying close.
11:30 – Cash rolls in moose pee.
1:00pm – Very steep terrain. Oz will stay right next to me and lean into me. Cash digs for a few pikas.
1:15 – Smell pile of bear poop.
2:00 – Cash rolls in different pile of bear poop. Still doesn’t understand word “No”.
2:15 – Eat again. Drink. Load ’em up into the truck for the trip home.
2:16 – Cash commences incessant whimpering as we drive back down the dirt road to the highway.
2:17 – Cash stops whimpering to bark like crazy at my neighbors who are walking down the trail.
2:18 – Cash goes absolutely ape shit as my neighbors climb in the bed of the pickup for a ride down the hill. Not sure whether to whimper or keep barking so he does both and leans into me so I can’t steer.
2:23 – One last bark at the neighbors as they exit the truck.
2:25 – Back on the highway.
2:26 – Goober Twins are sacked out with Cash in the front seat splayed out across the console and Oz in the back.
4:55 – Return home to mom. “Oh yeah, we sort of remember you.”
We had a bluebird day of hiking warm enough to strip off the hoodie and be comfortable in just blue jeans and a short sleeve T-shirt. There hadn’t been snow on these peaks since the little bit of termination dust we had four weeks earlier. The next morning revealed clear skies again and 35 degrees. By noon the clouds had rolled in over Anchorage. When they lifted around 4pm, the western Chugach range was dusted with snow down to 3,000 feet above sea level and my neighbors reported active snowing out at the cabin. So long, summer of 2014. Feel free to drop by and pay us a visit if you linger for a few more days.