Raising a Yurt in Fairbanks

This last weekend I had the privilege to add a new skill to my construction resume when I and group of dynamic and great individuals put up a round, vinyl sided house called a yurt. If you are now thinking to yourself “a vinyl sided building in a landscape where temperatures can reach 50 below??… that’s crazy!” your thoughts are actually right on track, it’s a little bonkers. However, with the proper heat and insulation yurts can be a warm and comfortable way to get through life in the Interior.

The construction day was marked by beautiful skies, great company, strong coffee, pizza, and some local brew. I’ll head into some details of yurts (if you’re into that kind of thing, and I’m just learning for the first time), but first, here’s the timelapse of the day. I think the timelapse is pretty fun!

The yurt is originally a Mongolian structure associated with nomadic horse herders of Mongolia .and appeared for the first time in records near 500 BC although yurts have likely been around since 1000BC – that’s quite awhile! (although, to put it in perspective, Bristlecone pines may be 5000 years old, meaning they germinated ~3000BC). The structure is easy to take down and move which benefited the lifestyle of the Mongolian horse herder.

As you construct a yurt you, the builder, quickly gain appreciation for the efficiency of the dwelling. It is amazing that 6-8 untrained people could put up the bulk of the structure in just 8 hours! This yurt (http://www.nomadshelter.com/) was constructed on a raised platform with the about 10 inches of foam in the floor providing rigidity and insulation (~R50). The windows and doors were framed, and lathe which supports the walls was stretched between each of the frames. Stretched on top of the lathe a 3/8 cable hooked onto 2×4 rafters which joined into the central ring at the peak of the building. The tension of the boards on the cable holds the whole thing up; we found that 2 guys could sit on the peak with no stress the the building. It’s amazing that with NO nails you can support the weight of 300 pounds of man!

Once the rafters are on, the roof insulation and cover are put up and extra insulation is stuffed into the roof cavity. The walls are hung and insulated and finally the outer cover is put on. Adding in a few windows, a door, a roof cap with a stove pipe, and a stove will ensure your yurt is ready for the Fairbanks winter!

The images below were taken by Chris Behnke, the yurt owner. They show up close some of the key pieces of the yurt.

In the center of the platform a scaffolding was built and the center ring was suspended.
In the center of the platform a scaffolding was built and the center ring was suspended.

 

Here you can see the lathe which support the walls of the yurt. If the yurt was ever taken down simply collapse the lathe for portability!
Here you can see the lathe which support the walls of the yurt. If the yurt was ever taken down simply collapse the lathe for portability!
The yurt had windows and doors framed first. The tops of the framing lined up with the lathe walls and a cable was strung in a circle around the top. That cable supported the roof rafter boards and vinyl.
The yurt had windows and doors framed first. The tops of the framing lined up with the lathe walls and a cable was strung in a circle around the top. That cable supported the roof rafter boards and vinyl.
The center ring is supported by a rafter boards joined to the circular cable running around the outside. It's amazing to support a roof without a sing nail!
The center ring is supported by a rafter boards joined to the circular cable running around the outside. It’s amazing to support a roof without a single nail, and it could support the weight of two guys!

So, the next time you’re at local ski resort and they put you up in one of these round, wonderful buildings you are now equipped with all sorts of conversation starters 😉

The Chena River Aurora

Ice-up will be happening any day now in Fairbanks. The small ponds and marshes have been locked with ice thick enough to walk on since the end of September, but the rivers have resisted a solid state owing to a not-too-cold October to date. However, in the Interior it seems that 40 below could only be the next day away!

I took the opportunity to find a new aurora watching spot. My goal was to shoot over an open river. I headed to the Chena Lakes Recreation area and found my view at the Granite Tors campground. The North Fork of the Chena was running, snow-covered and beautiful! As I walked up it’s banks I was a bit on edge however. On a moonless night at 12:00 AM in Alaska, moose look the same as the inky blackness. Although they shouldn’t pose any real danger this time of year – they just want to get away – I was not looking to be scared tonight! However, in dramatic fashion a cannoning KAPLOOSH echoed up the river, and the source came from the river only ten feet away from me. A beaver, out for a midnight swim announced its presence and effectively scare me into nearly dropping a load! Lol, nights in Alaska.

The rev of the aurora engine was a bit slow right away, but a broad overhead band suggested that sometime during the night the show could be spectacular! At 12:45 AM the broad, undefined band erupted into curtains of pink and green (another example of Why The Aurora Flares Up). A hint of blue shimmer lit up far edges of the aurora in space. Overhead they danced and danced. The timelapse here captures the night. I have continued to  develop new video editing techniques, and I think some of the motion introduced in this particular timelapse is pretty effective, but I would love to know what you think!

Just as a little fore-shadowing I spent yesterday putting up a friend’s Yurt. It was great, and I shot a fun timelapse of that. More on that soon! 🙂

Here’s a gallery of some images from the night. Be sure to click on them to expand. Thanks for checking in!

The Sandhill Cranes of Fairbanks, Alaska

When the sandhill cranes arrive in the fall in Fairbanks, Alaska it is a marker of the passing of a season. It means fall is beginning, and the birds that have nested on the tundra for the summer are shipping out to warmer latitudes. If you have ever head the raucous call of the sandhill, you’ll know their presence is trumpeted for miles, and that it is unmistakable for any other sound!

Sandhill cranes are a beautiful, elegant, and striking bird. Look at that red crest and orange eye!
Sandhill cranes are a beautiful, elegant, and striking bird. Look at that red crest and orange eye!

Of the 15 crane species in the world, sandhill cranes are the only ones which are not endangered or threatened in some way (Creamers Field Billboard). Across their global range, cranes were threatened by habitat loss and market hunting. In the early 20th century market hunters nearly exterminated whooping cranes. Their numbers dropped as low as 23 individuals in the 1940s, but thanks to the International Crane Foundation and the work of many other agencies, numbers hover around 600 currently.

Low sunlight put this crane in a mosaic of shadows.
Low sunlight put this crane in a mosaic of shadows.

Sandhill cranes are actually omnivores and spend their days eating grains, seeds, insects and small rodents. In fact, in larger concentrations of cranes I believe they can temporarily clear a field of pesky, small rodents. Of course that’s just me being an optimist. Sandhills can have long migrations and breed on the tundra of Canada and Alaska, but can also be found in breeding populations in the western United States (All About Birds.org)

A sandhill crane caught in the golden glow of low sunlight at Creamer's Field, Fairbanks, Alaska
A sandhill crane caught in the golden glow of low sunlight at Creamer’s Field, Fairbanks, Alaska
When flying the legs of the crane stick straight out behind them, pretty impressive if you think about it!
When flying the legs of the crane stick straight out behind them, pretty impressive if you think about it!
It seems that the pastures are always greener for the sandhill somewhere. It was very normal for them to transfer feeding locations or swap groups.
It seems that the pastures are always greener for the sandhill somewhere. It was very normal for them to transfer feeding locations or swap groups.

Each fall hundreds of cranes pass through Creamers Field National Waterfowl Refuge . The fields and water sources there bring in many ducks, geese (snow, white-fronted, canada, cackling) and of course the Sandhill Cranes. In fact, it’s such an event that each year the Sandhill Crane Festival brings in hundreds of visitors. The cranes are fascinating to watch and the power of any large migration event such of this can be overwhelming!

A sandhill settles in among the group.
A sandhill settles in among the group.

When observing the cranes there’s a lot of things to notice, and a lot of questions to answer. The cranes with chicks still maintain their family groups, and chicks may stay with the parents for up to 10 months! Also, the cranes seem to be very territorial and are always squabbling with each other. They may point their beaks straight into the area and verbally duel each other, or hop towards each other beating their wings either to intimidate or strike. I don’t know why, in an area with such plentifiul food, they are so territorial! I guess they’re a cantankerous species. If you are lucky enough to see a courting crane pair they may ‘dance’ with each other trying to win a mate.

The young-of-the-year are a noticeable shade of orange which separates them from the parents.
The young-of-the-year are a noticeable shade of orange which separates them from the parents.
Even though the migration is 'on' the young of the year still hang in family groups and learn (I presume) from their parents.
Even though the migration is ‘on’ the young of the year still hang in family groups and learn (I presume) from their parents.

This fall I spent a lot of evenings enjoying the cranes. There is always new behavior to watch, and the roads which bisect and border the fields at Creamer’s Field offer first class seats to watch and listen. Here’s a montage of some crane behavior including the magnitude of their call, the family groups, grooming, feeding, and defending territories. The cranes departed in Mid-September along with most of their avian comrades, but I certainly will look forward to their return!

 

Snowbows and A Quick Transition To Winter

This post is a celebration of the beauty and invigoration fresh snow, and early winter days when a cold nose is not a drudgery. Instead, a rosy tip is acknowledged as punctuation to an exciting time as the season changes. During the early days of winter, fall has not quite relinquished its beauty. Animals and humans alike are fat-and-happy.

Setting the poetry and light thesis statement aside, to all who read this, beware! Winter is here in Alaska, and for my friends in the lower 48, it seems it will descend upon you in short order! On Thursday a friend and I left for the North Slope for some caribou hunting (Note : I can’t leave that story open ended. I was archery hunting, and was a mere 3 seconds from success on two occasions but did not have the chance to deliver the coup de gras on some keen caribou.) The trip over the Brooks Range was marred by sloppy roads and rain. My truck was caked in thick mud which was slippery to walk on, not to mention drive on. Fast forward 60 hours, and the trip south revealed 8 inches of snow 80 miles north of Fairbanks which had fallen in our absence. What a change, and so quickly! It is likely that winter is here to stay, temperatures are staying around freezing during the day and dipping to the lower teens at night.

The snow did bring some incredible beauty as only a first snow can. Rivers were still flowing, and the bending branches of snow-laden spruce leaned into river channels along the Dalton. On Wickersham Dome ghost-trees already heavy with their first layer of hoar frost for the year kept silent sentry.

This black-and-white photo captures the flowing stream and the contrast of fresh snow to the water.
This black-and-white photo captures the flowing stream and the contrast of fresh snow to the water.
The river just south of Chandlar Shelf was open and flowing, but probably not for long. Ice shelves covered a lot the river.
The river just south of Chandlar Shelf was open and flowing, but probably not for long. Ice shelves covered a lot the river.
A slowly flowing streams meanders past snow-covered banks. So beautiful!
A slowly flowing streams meanders past snow-covered banks. So beautiful!
Some lingering dwarf birch leaves are ringed in hoar frost on Wickersham Dome.
Some lingering dwarf birch leaves are ringed in hoar frost on Wickersham Dome.
Wickerhsam Dome Spruces
Snow-covered spruces on Wickersham Dome

I did observe a very novel phenomenon – I would love to hear if anyone has witnessed this before! Behold, the snowbow. On our drive home we were met by gray skies and the hills were wreathed in falling snow. However, at the end of the Dalton Highway the sun broke and the landscape was lit as far as the eye could see. A snow cloud hanging low to the north of us caught the rays and formed a snowbow. I have seen many sundogs, but had never seen a rainbow caused by snow crystals.

Here's a phenomenon I had never seen - the snowbow! Although the colors were not as vibrant as a rainbow it was still beautiful. Has anyone else had the chance to see this before??
Here’s a new phenomenon – the snowbow! Although the colors were not as vibrant as a rainbow it was still beautiful. Has anyone else had the chance to see this before??
A full snowbow! The sun broke through at just the right time to create this stunning landscape. Pretty cool!
A full snowbow! The sun broke through at just the right time to create this stunning landscape. Pretty cool!

I will leave you with this northern hawk owl which was a great bird to see along the way. These birds are known for their boreal habits. They spend the days on spruces watching for rodents and can be hard to spot. This was my first time seeing this bird, although they do occur in Minnesota in the winters during owl irruptions (i.e. owls heading further south than their ‘normal’ range due to environmental or food conditions). The clip below is a short one of a hawk owl behavior, cleaning.

This northern hawk owl was a real treat as we headed south. They are boreal forest feeders which migrate south in the winters. They are known for hunting during the day by perching on the tops of spruces looking for rodents. This black-and-white photo captures the snowy landscape of a hunting hawk owl.
This northern hawk owl was a real treat as we headed south. They are boreal forest feeders which migrate south in the winters. They are known for hunting during the day by perching on the tops of spruces looking for rodents. This black-and-white photo captures the snowy landscape of a hunting hawk owl.