It’s been a busy couple of weeks, as I’ve been spending my last couple of weekends in Chena Hot Springs in pursuit of small mammals; specifically the water shrew. My work out there has been with Jonathan Fiely, who describes these small mammals as “the river otters” of the small mammal world. They are active hunters which snack on small minnows and invertebrates that they catch. Unfortunately, our success in nabbing one of these tiny, elusive creatures was zero; however, the nights we spent out doing it were well worth it. Last weekend was that big Full Moon. If you didn’t catch it that’s too bad! Although, there will be others ;). One of the fascinating facts about the moon is that it’s the same phase for everyone in the world. It connects us all. Although that may seem like common sense, with the quickly dying daylight hours here in Alaska, I’m happy to know that some of the celestial events are shared with my hometown Minnesotans and adopted Mainers. The moonlight off the tributary to the Chena River was a bright, ivory road. It was impossible not to stand there and just look at it – although I may have benefited from sunglasses it was so bright! Here you can see me standing in the river (not on the ice) looking at that big moon.
One of the big news events of the week for me was a large X1.7 and X2.0 Solar flare from the sun. These events are the triggers of the Aurora, and this was one was described by NASA as “A canyon of fire over 200,000 miles long”. Based on this information I was VERY excited to head up north for the weekend and get away from the light pollution of Fairbanks in hopes of getting some really good looks at the Aurora. After reviewing the Aurora forecast (http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast) it looked like there was going to be a decent chance of getting at least a ‘moderate’ display up north. So, I packed up my photography gear, gun, and camping stuff and headed up 85 miles north with Ross Dorendorf to the Twelvemile Summit on the Steese Highway. We could not have picked a better day to be up in interior Alaska. The day was actually very, very warm for the end of October, I think the high was probably near 35 degrees. We were in pursuit of Ptarmigan so we headed up the ridge tops, hiking for a few miles. Although the ptarmigan tracks printed in the snow were abundant is certain areas we never saw a single ptarmigan. We were lucky enough to see a large snowy owl on the slope below us. As soon as he realized he was spotted the owl took off from the ground and flew along the ridge top in front of us, about 300 yards away. He was very large! I would say the size of a large gull and flapped gracefully. Here are a series of pictures and a 360 degree video from the summit of the mountain. As you can see, it wasn’t a bad day out there!
We hiked down from the ridgetop and got back to the truck right as the sun was disappearing. The warm temperatures were also disappearing. What a sun driven system we have here! The sunset was indeed a beauty and the clouds to the south, which were likely covering Fairbanks, lent themselves perfectly to the orange and yellow bands in the sky.
Once we were done with the sunset it was time to get down to making camp. Now don’t get me wrong, camp on this trip was pretty straight forward. I was to sleep in the back of my truck and Ross was to sleep in his tent. We weren’t too interested in leaving some of the conveniences of car camping behind. So, Ross fired up his stove and soon had a warm, salty, cheesy and DELICIOUS batch of macaroni and cheese going. I had tasked myself with making a batch of monkey bread in the dutch oven. Monkey bread is also called pull bread and is a doughy, cinnamon sugar filled wonder. Its hot, sweetness is the perfect end to any day. Dutch oven cooking is a small camping hobby of mine. It involves a cast iron pot which is heated from the top and bottom with coals. You can bake an assortment of meals and desserts within it; if you can make it in a traditional oven at home, you can cook it within the dutch oven. The picture below illustrated the heat on top and bottom of the oven.
So, did we get a good product from the dutch oven? On this day the Dutch OVen was a massive success story, the monkey bread was done perfectly! I can’t claim success every time, so this was a sweet day! The video below “Twilight and Goodies” will give you a good look at my finished product 😀
As we sat and digested the food we had eaten the night got darker and darker. The twilight finally gave way into complete darkness and we were humbled and awe-struck by the stars above us and around us. The milky-way cut through the sky in a large creamy swath. I did my best to capture the milky way. The images you’ll see below have been enhanced in contrast to help bring out the color and feel of the multitude of stars and the grandeur of the milky-way. However, you’ll see in the first image an orange tint at the bottom of the image. What you are looking at is actually the light pollution from Fairbanks. Even 80 miles away, in the state of Alaska, light pollution is filling our skies. In some point in our history, there will never be a black sky ever again. This presents more than aesthetic, human problem; birds are known to navigate by light and become disorientated by the lights of cities and within the ocean. If you don’t think it’s a big deal, think about being a bird as you fly into your next airport at night.
The second image you see below has been modified to remove the light pollution.
While observing the cosmos we watched many shooting stars streak across the sky. One of them lasted for so long we contemplated going after it, as we were sure based on its trajectory that it had buried itself somewhere just outside of Barrow. Our backs and neck ached with the craning our heads to the stars above, but there was not stopping our watching.
You’ll notice the title of this entry is “In Pursuit of the Aurora”. On this night, even with the solar activity, the aurora evaded us. We stayed up until 1AM and at time the clouds started to roll in. Although I’m confident there was an Aurora this night, we were unable to see it. However, at about 12 AM one of the the most interesting phenomenon occurred. Simultaneously Ross and I looked to the horizon and came to the same conclusion: there was a fire and it looked to be big. The fire continued to grow and a minute later we realized our folly as a blood-orange, crescent moon rose quickly over the hillside. It illuminated the landscape around us in its light. The moon and the new cloud cover convinced us that sleep was more valuable than the aurora on this night.
So, this is actually a post that has been a long time in the making. I’ve been back-logged a bit on posting this one. Did you know that’s why the call a blog a blog? Blog just stands for Back-logged. Anway, bad joke. So here’s the background on this post. A majority of the pictures and tales come from Kass’ and my journey up here in August. We visited the park then as part of a trip to the Anchorage region and is the part that I’ve meant to write about for some time. The other part of the descriptions and pictures come from a field trip I took to Denali the last weekend in September to observe moose rutting behavior. And then, to top it all there’s some events observed outside of the park that were cool and noteworthy, so there’s some pictures of that too. So, here we go!
When Kass and I got to Denali we were in for a big surprise: you cannot pass mile 15 of the park road with a personal vehicle. I had no idea a national park would restrict access like that! So, the only resaonable way to get in is on the tour buses and those trips had varying different lengths along the road. We decided to take the Wonder Lake bus tour which was 10 HOURS on the bus, but did bring us into the park almost as far as you can go. I will just say now that, although a 10 hour bus ride is long, and we didn’t get to stop at destinations long enough to truly appreciate them, we both agreed that we were happy we made it all the way into the park even as just ‘tourists’. I certainly have plans to return there with a bike and trek the entire park road. Hopefully whenever ‘summer’ comes here again, not likely until July.
So, without further ado, here’s a short natural history, based on my learning, of Denali National Park. I will be grouping the different aspects of the park visit in the blog rather detailing each mile.
Of course there is one really big reason to go to Denali national park, and that’s to see Mt. McKinley – also known as Denali. Denali is KoyukonAthabaskan for “The High One”. It is the largest peak in North America and rises up over 18,000 feet from the base to its summit. The rise of Denali is what makes it so extraordinary. However, not a large percentage of the visitors in the park each year actually see the peak as it hides behind clouds often. We actually found a day when the sun broke through the clouds and we could see it! For us it was a fortunate break, as the weather had been cloudy the days preceding our trip, was cloudy most of the day we were on the trip (except for the 1 break) and was cloudy after that. I guess we were meant to see it!
Of course there are other mountains within Denali National Park as well. One of the other noteable ranges were the polychrome mountains. The Polychrome mountains are a part of The Cantwell Volcanics and include basalt and rhyolite flows (Wikipedia),There were quite colorful. Although, I must say that the panorama could do them more justice. There are many, many good pictures of the colors of these mountains online. If you are interested be sure to check those out! Think rainbows + mountains. I guess you’ll have to see them for yourself!
Of course the look and feel mountains can change rapidly! Here are pictures from September 29th in the Savage river valley area while I was there for a field trip. Snow covered mountains were layered in fog and clouds. The reds in the front of the mountains was stunning. While we stood there snow started to fly and it continued throughout the night into Sunday morning. They closed the park for the season due to the snow on Sunday, so we were fortunate to get in when we did!
Denali national park is renowned for its wildlife. Part of that renown derives directly from the restrictions placed on tourist traffic- I should quit my griping about long bus rides, as it still beats the throngs of buffalo watchers at Yellowstone National Park. Wildlife in the region thrive due to intact ecosystems and no hunting pressure within the park. Many individuals leave the park boundaries, and can be pursued and harvested at that time. The park has ‘the big four’ of mega-fauna and at any time they may stick their head above a ridge, so observation is essential. Actually it was one of the entertaining parts of the bus ride because we were instructed to yell “STOP!” if we saw anything big. Imagine yelling out bingo because it some ways it was competitive like bingo (who could see it first) and was just as enjoyable. The caveat of the ‘stop’ theory is our bus driver was an older gentleman, named John, and he couldn’t hear well, especially over the diesel bus. So people in the back really had to let him know. Once we were stopped it was an inching game and John did his best to take directions from multiple, camera wielding bus riders looking to line up that ‘perfect’ shot. The rules of the game were to call out anything interesting, but most of the riders there wanted to see moose, dall sheep, caribou or bears. We were fortunate to get all of them. The first of the big four that we came upon was the mighty bull moose. Moose in the park are big due to their protection, and these guys pictured here are no exception! At this time of year the moose were gathering in the valleys for the rutting season.
Like I mentioned these moose were here with a purpose and that purpose was to meet other males and then either scare them off, or if that doesn’t work fight with them. I was fortunate enough to be back in the park during the rutting season and observing bull moose from a distance up and down the Savage River Valley. I got to observe several key and cool behaviors of moose including:
Territorial displays – male moose will stand face to face in an old west shoot-out style and sway their heads back and forth. If one backs down at this point there is no harm done. It’s the least aggressive way to win the cows for a harem
Rut pits – male moose dig pits with their front feet and then pee in them and rub other hormones into them. Did you ever wonder why male moose have the long beard in front under their chin? When they get into the rut pit they make sure to splash plenty of ‘unpleasants’ onto the beard and then will rub those acquired smells on the cows for their approval, effectively basting them. Cows will also sniff the rut pits and it is suspected that they can tell the maturity of a bull based on the hormones that it puts out
Harems- we saw two different bulls with harems. A harem is a group of cows that will breed with the bull that has won them. The bull may lose the harem to another bull at any time up until the cows are bred. Once a bull starts into the rut it will barely sleep or eat and may loose up to 600 pounds in some of the larger bulls. For instance, my professor talked about an instance where a bull was known to start at 1500 pounds and shrink to 900. WOW! 1-800-94-JENNY anyone?
For better or for worse we saw many of these moose from far away – so much for wildlife photographer of the year awards on this trip! However, I did take this one set of a video of a distant, large, bull moose chasing after 2 cows in his harem. I think it gives pretty good perspective on how far away we were and also of some of the scenery. Of note in this video: NEVER TRY TO OUTRUN A MOOSE. I couldn’t believe how fast they were able to travel!!
The next in the list of the big four were caribou. We got some really great looks at these animals. I have actually learned some pretty interesting things about caribou. Did you know the females are one of the few (or only??) ungulates to grow antlers? Females actually use them to fend off other females from feeding grounds when calves are present. Lichen, their main source of food, can be a commodity. So it’s important to protect what you have! The caribou herds were just starting to travel for the wintering grounds when we were on our trip.
Another one of the big four in the park were the dall sheep. These sheep were actually hunted to near extinction in history past, so it’s great to see them back in large numbers! It’s important to look waaay up for these guys, as they are mountain extraordinaires and are renowned for their ability to cling to small ledges and make dareing dashes up near impossible slopes. They are always shock white and are known for their impressive horn curls. We didn’t get too close to these sheep, so use your imagination a bit on those white dots you see! At least one of them is the ram. Can you tell?
To round off the big four I would be reminisce if I didn’t talk about the bears! We got to observe bears two times while on the trip. The first time was very close, and you’ll see that below. It was a lone bear, probably a male, that was foraging on berries and anything else in the shrubs. He meandered up the draw before walking mere yards behind the bus. It’s really interesting being in the bus beause the wildlife has less tendency to ‘see’ you. They certainly see the bus, but that doesn’t really spook them. Bears are a little different though, I don’t think they give a d*** either way. You know what I mean? :p. The second bear sighting was at a distance, but a mother and two cubs were running around and playing with each other on a hillside.
In regards to bears a brown bear is the same as a grizzly bear and both of those are actually the same as a Kodiak Brown Bear. Kodiak’s are renowned for their large size (males in the range of 1500 pounds) but their size is entirely driven by the rich fish diet they get in the Kodiak Island region. If those same bears were transplanted to Denali they would shrink to Denali size- about 700 pounds in big males.
Not all of the mammals in Denali are huge. We did come across this fox who was actively hunting along the road. I think he was using the bus to scare up birds, crafty fox! I didn’t see him snag any, but he came awfully close a couple of times. His behavior was to pad along in front of the bus and as birds came out of the bushes to pursue him. He then jumped into a draw which is where he was photographed here, ears perked and still fully on the hunt.
One of the predominant birds in Alaska are the grouse and the ptarmigan. They all can be a bit hard to tell apart. Once you get the grouse vs the ptarmigan you still need to figure out which of the ptarmigan you are looking at, which can be nearly impossible. I’ve found this resource from the AK fish and game. Use it to help me compare the pictures below, and we’ll see if you think I got them right. (http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/hunting/smallgamehunting/pdfs/alaska_grouse_ptarmigan.pdf) I won’t put any captions on the photos other than numbers and you can look up the answers below.
So here’s the answers as far as I can tell. # 1 is a willow ptarmigan. It’s characterized by red breat and those big ptarmigan feet (which you can’t see). She’s all ruffled up here. I know she’s a she because she was surrounded by her chicks, who were about half grown. Willow ptarmigan are VERY hard to discern from rock ptarmigan. In this case I’m going sheerly on the habitat that she was found in, and I’m not sure if that’s valid or not. #2 is a spruce grouse, not a ptarmigan at all! . Did you guess correctly on #3? If you got # 2 then you should get # 3! Spruce grouse! I threw you a little double there 🙂
Another one of the birds in the park is the magpie. They are one of my favorite birds for their curious nature and natural intelligence. When I jumped out of the car this one and several others came pretty close looking for handouts. I wasn’t too impressed by that! But was it was nice to have him close for the pictures. They really are a colorful bird, in the right light that tail lights up green as a ‘go light’!
The last bird I wanted to highlight was the white fronted goose. This bird was actually a ‘lifer’ ( I hadn’t seen one before) so it was pretty special! These geese had managed to raise a family on this lake for the summer. I bet they didn’t hang around too much longer after we left the park. Those lakes would have been frozen soon!
Denali was one of my first exposures tundra plants. I actually don’t have to much to say about these plants because I really don’t know too much about their ecology. Maybe the pictures will tell enough! The best I can give is the name, if you are ready and know some ecology fill me in!
IT’S NO WONDER IT’S CALLED WONDER!
We finally reached wonder lake at mile 84 (I think, or was it 87?) Anway, it was incredible! The lake stretched out before us and was very calm. Kass set about picking berries and I spent my time hunting for birds and pictures to take. I’m looking forward to getting back to Wonder Lake on my own accord and spending some time there. Hopefully the days can all be be like this one was! This will conclude the Denali section. But a few extra pictures are below from different destinations and species. Thanks for reading everyone!!
So the rest of this blog is just dedicated to some nice Alaskan scenery that is found between Denali and Anchorage but that don’t really fit into a blog entry. I will include a little commentary here and there:
It’s been a few, busy weeks since I’ve written updated you guys. Life here is good. You might notice a few different things in the blog… Colors of the home page and the ability to embed video straight to my page! On top of that my own domain name: www.ianajohnson.com will get you where you guys need to go!
Today was the “forest festival” here at UAF. The forestry department arranged a set of events in tribute to the forestry practices of the past. I have called it “jackpine savagery” as that’s how events like these were described in my household growing up. This year was the 16th year running for this event, and they had 94 participants! I’ve got to say, the day was just about perfect. I was able to join up with an awesome group of people when I got there; they made it as good as it was. So, many thanks to Amanda, Nikki, Daisy, Mike, and Heike. You guys Rock!! One advantage I had coming into this festival is I have a pretty strong background in many of the woodsy crafts of the Festival and could contribute to the team well. I think some of you may know that already. Eagle Scout training and spirit came out in force today.
So, without further ado let’s break it down and look at the highlights!! 🙂
This event was pretty straight forward. Grab an axe, take aim, and let it go! However, don’t throw too hard! I saw several sail over top of the target and do some lawn mowing on the other side. The rules of this game were three practice throws and three real throws. Your score was cumulative, with the bulls-eye being worth 5 points. Fortunately we had a axe-throwing-stud on our team, Mike was a ringer with 2 bulls-eyes and 13 points total. That’s some GREAT Throwing!!
This sport was actually easier than it looks. The axes flew perfectly and the dull thud each time they sank in was satisfying. Easily my favorite sport of the day!
Ever heard that cross cutting can be difficult? It can be! There’s certain things you don’t want to do in cross cutting. They are: Push, lift, push down hard, pull sideways, torque and angle. The cross-cut is a tremendously efficient saw when you use it correctly. The winning team cut through this spruce log in 19 seconds! That is almost ‘chain saw fast’. It was pretty incredible to watch. One thing that every team did was flip the saw upside down and practice their stroke. In hindsight I equate this to practice swings with a bat, they don’t help one bit!
So, I would like to present this video as things NOT to do while cross-cutting. Although our time was not too shabby (44 seconds) there are quite a few things to note. Do you see me pushing? Do you see Mike pushing? Angling? Bending? Torquing! Unfortunately we didn’t get into much of a rhythm here, but practice makes perfect!
I grew up using a bow saw to cut Christmas trees and clear wood for deer stands. However, on the note of harvesting Christmas trees a 12 Gauge will take down an 8 foot Balsam Fir in three shots at close range – True Story. But, back to the topic at hand. I was feeling pretty confident when I stepped up to the bow saw stand. As I set myself up with a wide stance the judge was giving me a few tips. Tip # 1 : Go slow on the first few strokes to set a groove. Tip # 2: The same. It’s that important, and I wished I had listened better or at least set aside my competitiveness enough to do what he said. At the first quick pull the saw hopped the groove I was trying to create. Reset. Another quick pull hopped it from the groove again. However, once I was into the 4×4 a 1/4″ I made steady progress and was through the log in 11 seconds. A far cry from the 6 seconds of the winner!
One of the most grueling sports was the log rolling competition. I can’t guess at the weight of the large, green pine log that lay on the ground. Just know that it was heavy and resisted motion like a shit-su being pulled on a leash towards a bath-tub. The goal of the log roll was to move the log to one end using a long, pointed tool called a peavey and bump BOTH ENDS into the sticks and the end, then switch sides and roll it back to the starting line and bump BOTH END sticks on the other side. This requires a bit of coordination from the team because where you push in the log will determine where it rolls. My teamate Mike and navigated this sport pretty well and put down a 25.5 second performance which gave us a third overall on the day. My only placing! Below here are a couple of my teamates trying their luck on the log pushing.
So it’s all fine and dandy if your log hits the stakes squarely, but what if it doesn’t? This was the case in my first run with team mate Amanda. I got a very abrupt crash course in how to pick a log so that it can be spun with the peavey. You’ll see that once it hits on the first end I nimbly hop the log and start shoving down to the other end. We were setting record time and missed the starting stake on the left side by just a half inch! That means we weren’t done and had to correct the log. From there we had to push the log backwards, pick one end, peavey the other and then re-roll. To finish it off we had to bump the other end of the log.Have a watch!
Perhaps the most straight forward game of the day was the pulp toss. The goal of the game was to hurl your log and have it land between the two stakes set up. You worked as an rotating team of 4 with a goal of making 16 points. We did pretty well at this, and it was definitely my best game!
Yet another event that I was feeling pretty good about, and Mike I were up for the challenge. So, what are the rules? They are you get 3 matches, 1 log, 1 chopping block, 1 axe, and a coffee can with ~1 liter of water in it and dish soap… I might debate whether all cans were equal, but that’s neither here nor there :P. You had to build a fire and get the coffee can on it. The coffee can would flow over edges like a Volcano (due to the soap) when it boiled and time would stop. Each team was given a time. Mike and I managed to do it in 15 minutes and were first in our round. However, we didn’t place as the best time was 10:30! I’m bewildered how they managed to do it that quickly. I thought our performance was seamless. However, it was not without consequences. By the end of 15 minutes my symptoms were:
Tingling cheeks from lack of oxygen
Tingling fingers from lack of oxygen
Tingling EYELIDS from lack of oxygen
I had burned all the hair off right arm from the forearm to the wrist
A small burn on my lip where an ember had jumped out
Let it not be said that I didn’t give it my all for this one!! I think the begginning was the most fun as everyone frantically ripped into their logs with the axe doing their best to get a fire going. As soon as the judge says go they’re off! In some ways it’s like Mad Max in Thunderdome as the competitors were surrounded by spectators who definitely could have been collateral if a stray axe flew by. However, everyone was super responsible, that wasn’t going to happen.
Once everyone was underway there were many strategies to get that volc,ano to erupt the fastest. Doubling blowing by teamates, getting on the ground, stacking wood like a chimney and putting a log over it as a lid. However, in my opinion the winning strategy included getting as much of the can over the fire as possible and blowing enough without burning your wood out from under the can. Have a watch at this pretty entertaining video and with the winner to boot!
Mike and I defintely did pretty well. I was impressed with our concise piles of wood and perfect V-shaped coffee cup stand.
Probably the most anticipated event of the day was the birling competition. Unfamiliar with birlling? Britannica defines it as “[Credit: John Wetrosky]outdoor sport of the North American lumberjack. Its origin can be traced to the spring log drives of eastern Canada and the New England states, particularly the state of Maine, during the early lumbering era in the 19th century, from which it moved westward to the Great Lakes region and then to the Pacific Northwest.” The sport involves a floating log and two participants. Who can stay on the longest? Well. the Winner can!!
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I mounted the Birling log. First off, remember it’s October in Alaska. That means the water isn’t warm. IN FACT, a nice ice skim was built up around the edges of Lake Bellaine when we arrived. However, that didn’t stop me from taking on competitor Ben in a log rolling extraordinaire. Our first bout ended up being a ‘tie’ when we fell into the water at the same time. I wasn’t as well balanced on the second attempt and went down quickly. Oh well, just more time to be warm! You can see the photo of us mounted on the log and then we were off like a couple of whirling dervishes! However, Ben ended up victorious!
The birling was done on a bracketed basis. This meant that it just kept getting better and better as the winners weaned themselves away from the losers. I thought I would include these two videos here of the women’s and men’s final to show some really good birling! Note how they control the log and can actually reverse the direction of it! Much more sophisticated than my lightening quick feet trying to keep up with the momentum of the log.
So, that was pretty much it! The last thing to do was haul that dang birling log back up the hill and trailer it. Rather than just take pictures I decided to throw my back into it this time.
Once again, it was a great day and I’d like to thank everyone who put together. Thanks for reading everyone! I’m very excited about this new blog format and being able to put videos straight into the page. I’m sure there will be more of that in the future! More soon from up north in AK!