Saturday, December 31, 2016

Florida Roadside Attractions

Florida's Sasquatch
Florida is well known for its roadside attractions. Gatorland, various warm springs, Weeki Wachee Springs (complete with "mermaids"), the Skunk Ape Research Center, the worlds largest orange, and too many more to mention. Last week however, SD and I experienced a whole new level of Florida roadside attractions when we joined the Timucuan Preserve staff in a roadside cleanup. Along with the usual detritus you'd expect; beer cans, fast food containers, there were a few unexpected items that made the work part archeological expedition and part botanical fieldwork.

While Florida does have liter laws and fines, they're not prohibitive or even
47 bottles of Sutter
Home on the road
47 bottles of wine
you pick one up
and throw it away
46 bottles of Sutter
Home on the road
punitive. "Any person who dumps litter in an amount not exceeding 15 pounds in weight or 27 cubic feet in volume and not for commercial purposes is guilty of a noncriminal infraction, punishable by a civil penalty of $50." It's a litter law that's not good for the environment but, archeological speaking, great for learning about the local human inhabitants. Take for instance the 4, half out of the wrapper condoms. Try as we could we could not image a scenario where a couple is driving down the road at 45 miles an hour, decides to put said item to use, then completely rules out the possibility and throws them out the window.

Also intriguing were the 47 empty mini Sutter Home wine bottles, and their cardboard containers on both sides of a 200 ft stretch of the road. Sure there were a few Coors Lite, and Budweiser cans but why all the Sutter Home? Why are they thrown only in that location? Certainly the littering party is trying to hide their drinking but Sutter Home?..there are just more questions than answers.

More impressive however, were the botanical findings. Squirrel skulls, armadillo armor, and a gopher tortoise shell. Like many places there are lots of squirrels in Florida. They're still generally wild, foraging for acorns from the oaks and eating other wild plants. They're only interested in people as something to occasionally scold and they seem amazingly car smart. They're not the kind of squirrel that waits on the side of the road then darts out, daring the driver to stop or swerve. That's why the three squirrel skulls, along with various vertebra and limb bones were surprising. The skulls were fully intact. Gleaming white, they were almost cute enough to take home and display. Maybe a new type of Christmas ornament?

Actual living, but not moving, armadillo
The armadillo armor and skeleton was even more interesting.  Not Christmas decoration quality, but uniquely southern and an amazing roadside find. Armadillos are here, you just don't see them that often. SD saw one in a field at the Kingsley Plantation. It was so still he thought it was an interpretive statue. The funny, and actually deadly habit they have is that although usually still, when startled an armadillo will jump 4 to 5 feet vertically, and right into the underside of a car or truck that could roll over them.

The last of the clean up day roadside attractions, the Gopher tortoise shell was pretty special. Gopher tortoises are a protected, keystone species. They dig holes and tunnels (hence the 'gopher') that are used by over 360 other creatures. Gopher tortoises are endangered. so finding a large shell on the roadside was a nice surprise. The wild creatures, especially in the Preserve, are still surviving.

Compared to giant apes, oranges and Florida's other roadside attaractions, gopher tortoise, armidillo and squirrel skulls along with some intreguing litter might not seem exciting. Admittedly they aren't, but the certainly do provide a brief glimpse in Florida life.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Thankful for the Wild Places

Giving Thanks
Thanksgiving this year was shared with our fellow RV volunteers at Fort Caroline. We spread beach towels over the picnic tables, arranged a centerpiece of swamp pine cones and magnolia leaves, assembled our assorted silverware, plates, turkey, gravy, stuffings, turnips, and sweet potatoes, and gave thanks for family, friends and Willie Browne.

Willie Browne is my Jacksonville hero. Some of the best times we've had here so far are due to Willie, a pseudo-hermit and forward thinking wildlife lover who came to Jacksonville when he was six, and lived, died and is buried here. Early this
Willie Browne and family stone on the Refuge Property
Thanksgiving morning, like other mornings over the last two months we've hiked the four mile trails that meander over the maritime hammocks, 30 foot deep oyster middens, and along the banks of Spring Creek out to Round Marsh. There are very few wild places left in the sprawling megalopolis, and port city that is Jacksonville, Florida. That fact that this walk is possible is all due to Willie Browne. While he lived he lived off this land, refusing countless offers from land and water developers. When he died he willed it all to the public stipulating that it not be developed and that it remain as a place where people can get out and enjoy the wilder side of Florida.

Sunset at Barn Island, CT
Thinking back over all our travels, and even before we realize how many other wonderful donors and land conservation organizations we have been thankful for. Back in Connecticut, the Avalon Land Trust preserved so much including my favorite Barn Island, in Massachusetts it was the Trustees of the Reservations. Established in 1890 it now manages over 27,000 acres. Throughout the United States we often ran into properties either managed by the Nature Conservancy but also National Park or USFW land purchases that had been facilitated by them. I'm sure this is only a very small fraction of the folks and organization that have saved wild places, but for them, and for all others I am forever thankful.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Cultural shift

Ariel View - We're living at the little blue dot.
Note the small green area surrounded by development
The distance between Alaska and Florida is measured in more than miles. We physically arrived at our new volunteer gig at the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve in Jacksonville, Fl on October 28th. It's been just under two months and psychologically I'm still grappling with the enormous cultural distance between here, Alaska and for that matter, the previous year out West.

As per usual, I've been reading books about our latest location. Starting with history texts but seeking comic relief in Carl Hiassen's Razor Girl, Skinny Dip, Sick Puppy and more. (All highly recommended for their perspective on Florida and for humorous ecological anarchist insights.) Dave Barry's Best State Ever, is also a good read. It's the subtitle, "A Florida Man Defends His Homeland," that brings us back to the cultural issues.

Some say Florida is a paradox. The Sunshine State, they say, is being ruined by the very things that
The Paradox - Salt marsh's and container ports
make it so special. That it's wonderful climate, long sandy beaches, palm trees, orange groves, abundant waterfowl and fish are what everyone admires and praises about the state. At the same time, Florida is the epitome of the both the car and consumer culture. Both of those, along with a unregulated manufacturing push threaten the states very uniqueness.

After living for over a year in places that preserve and respect their wild areas, Florida has been a real shock. Currently our trailer is tucked into the Preserve. Live oaks, swamp pines, and sable palms tower over the trailer, owls, ospreys and eagles fly overhead, turtles, little lizards, and various snakes are underfoot. Less than half a mile south suburban sprawl begins. Less than 2 miles south the strips begin. Actually it's more like a giant grid that expands over 20 square miles. Repeating Starbucks, Publixs, MacDonalds, CVS's etc, every 5 or so miles. Every weekday morning, precisely at 8:00 am a line of sand hauling trucks rumble down the road past the Preserve to a sand pit. A sand pit that is filled from St. John's River dredging. The trucks fill up and soon rumble past, off to fill in some other wetland somewhere for a new road, a new housing development, or a new shopping center.

Home - where a family of bald eagles are our neighbors
They say there is nothing like travel to a foreign country to help you learn about yourself and what you value. After two months in Florida, not to mention the drive thru the midwest, I've learned that it's best to treat this experience as a trip to a foreign land.

We had become accustomed to places where people value preserving and enjoying nature, local produce, sustainable livelihoods, recycling, low impact living, even not littering. I'd even come to take it for granted that everyone does. I love wild places, small friendly towns, gardens, local traditions and pride. So far none of those seem to be valued here. Having spent a month and half coming to this realization however, I vow to keep an open mind and spend the next month and a half getting to know more about this foreign land - and searching out the pockets of resistance.

Monday, September 19, 2016

South-east to Jacksonville

Not everyone is in a hurry to go South
There are few places in the US that are further from Tok, Alaska than Jacksonville, Florida. But that's where our winter volunteer gig is, so that's where we are going. Certainly we could have started in Barrow, Alaska and headed for Key West, but the 4200 miles between Tok and Jacksonville seemed far enough. They certainly are about as geographically, and cultural different as you can get. That we knew. What we didn't know, and are just started to explore, is all the country in between. Aside from our brief stops in South Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho during our cross country drive from Massachusetts to Oregon we hadn't seen much of the 'interior.'

Unexpected Dangers!
All through the Yukon, and all of British Columbia until we crossed the Rocky Mountains, the country was much like Alaska. Tiaga, spruce, bogs, lakes and then in the Rockies, big pines. There were lots of the same animals too, buffalo, caribou, mountain sheep, moose, and bears. Lots of black bears, not a single grizzly.

Descending the East flank of the Rockies everything changed. The plains of Alberta are covered with gas wells, wheat fields and cows. Northern Montana was much the same, perhaps with a few less wells, and wheat but still rolling hills, far flung towns and cows.

It took us 6 days to drive the 2100 miles that marked the half-way point. We now had 6 weeks to drive the remaining 2100 miles, and we plan to take it slow and do some exploring.

Just hanging out in Wyoming

Southern Montana, along the Yellowstone River that the land began to change. Big mountain ranges rose off to the west and south. As we climbed up out of the valley, the land was still agricultural but the crop changed to something short with big, leaves. All we could think of was some type of mutant spinach, until we drove through Lovell, Wyoming and the sugar beet processing plant. Ah, Dave said "Sugar beets!"

We were in Lovell, not your usual tourist destination because Dave, who somehow has an uncanny knack for looking at a map picking good camping spots had noticed a big green blob labeled "Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Site". Lovell being the location of the site headquarters we were there to see about camping and hiking options.

Currently I'm typing all this up while seated outside the Creekside at Horseshoe Bend Campground. Below and to the South the waters of the southern end of Bighorn Canyon sparkle under a vast, baby blue sky. A mile to the west a solid red and white rock wall rises 2, maybe three thousand feet. Bees are buzzing around the late blooming purple asters and sunflowers. We are back in the high desert.
The Lockhart Ranch. If I were interested in ranching....

The majority of the canyon lies to the North. Yesterday we scouted out some hiking trails to take later today. Some wander along the canyon rim. (Bighorn Canyon is the third largest canyon in the US), and others wind up side canyons to old cow and dude ranches. It's been a great place to explore for a few days. The worst part of stumbling into places like this is knowing that eventually you have to leave.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Seasons of Alaska : Yet Another Thing to Love

Fall - Aspens in the valley, bearberry on the hills

There are many seasons in Alaska. Along with the usual spring, summer, fall, and winter there is also moose season, sheep season, salmon season, king salmon season, blueberry season, cranberry season, basket making season and probably a few others we haven't experienced yet.

As for the 'regular' seasons. Between our arrival on June 19th and our leaving, tomorrow, September 6th we've experienced the tail end of spring, all of summer and most of the fall. Condensing all of those into a little less than three months gives a good idea of how different they are from seasons in the lower 48. They have all the same qualities, spring has rain and lots of flowers, summer is sunny and hot, fall begins the cool weather and the bright fall colors on the plants and trees, but the timing and the intensity are extreme.

The other Alaskan seasons are related, and interconnected with the regular seasons but have more to do with subsistence living. Most Alaskans do not buy meat, fish or berries. When the appropriate time of year arrives, they hunt and harvest.

When we arrived in June, most local conversations always included talk about salmon. "Did you get your salmon yet?" was the most common question. The King Salmon were running and it turns out, for Alaskans King Salmon is King. They're not that interested in the other, later salmon like pinks and even Silvers. Having a freezer full, or 6 or 7 dried or smoked was enough for a year and they were happy.

The next season was blueberry. The berries were super abundant this year and two weeks early. There were blueberries all over the campground but the locals told me not to bother with those "go up to the Taylor Highway there are lots of blueberries up there." Sylvia went one afternoon and picked six gallons. Campers who drove the highway told us the road was lined with cars, the hills full of blueberry pickers. Not content with six gallons, Sylvia went picking two more times, she needed enough to get her through the winter and to share with friends and relatives.

Moose territory
The sides of the roads were again lined with cars and people on August 24th. The first day of the most anticipated of all Alaskan seasons, the day no one makes any other plans for had arrived. It was Moose season! Not wanting to carry hundreds of pounds of moose meat through the woods, everyone just sets up next to their trucks and hopes this winter's meat walks out to the road. (This year three moose were bagged along side the 10 miles stretch of road south of Tok.) Those who don't get their moose the first day are still hunting until they do. Marilyn, a elderly woman who lives near the campground drove in one day, her lever-action 30-30 casually resting on the passenger seat. She wanted to be ready when 'her' moose showed up. Everyone in Alaska wants their moose, it's what's for dinner most nights. (Moose meat is good eating. Sort of a darker steak.)

Without a big freezer all Dave I have only gathered the 9 pounds of salmon and 3 pounds of cranberries but we really like the subsistence idea and lifestyle. For Alaska and Alaskans there is no other way to live, and it permeates the culture here, makes it a very unique and special place. Integrates the turn of the 'regular' seasons with the seasons for living.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Evolution of a fish killer

What it's all about
This summer in Alaska I started fishing. Always a fan of eating fish, Alaska seemed a good place to start getting my own. Our friends Bob and Pam (thanks guys!) had already supplied a reel, Dave bought the rod and we picked up our licenses in Tok.

My first fish was a rainbow trout from Hidden Lake. Just a mile hike off the Alcan, Hidden Lake is small, but big enough for a pair of Trumpeter Swans, and deep enough for fish to live year round. It was really hard to kill that first fish. She was beautiful and so alive. Dave insisted I gut the second one. That was even harder. None, however were hard to eat. Rainbow trout are delicious! The next day we had trout cakes. All that good food just waiting for us under the water. I was hooked on fishing.

Our next, and several subsequent fishing expeditions were on Deadman Lake. Known to the local Athabascans as Big Pike Lake, we were hoping for a little bigger catch. Back East folks don't eat pike, but out here they grow bigger, and they too are delicious, very buttery. Every week or so we'd go out fishing to catch dinner. I started thinking of the lake and the pike as a lot like the grocery store. Except, of course the gutting and the killing. It was still hard to kill them especially as Dave was using the paddle blade.

The Pike
We improved on the killer technique one afternoon after admiring a billy club like thing of some other fishermen. It was kinda slow at the campground so I cut down, peeled a willow and started carving a club. Dave got all fancy, carved in a diamond grip handle and "Kelly's Fish Killer" was born. He then quickly carved up a simpler, more utilitarian version for himself.

Willow Fish Wackers
Now, prepared with all the necessary equipment we graduated to the big league. For our last big Alaskan adventure we decided to go to Valdez and fish for Coho, known as Silvers locally, Salmon. The silver run is slow this year but after three hours of casting at Allison Point I caught a 13.25 pound Silver Salmon. It took a few nervous minutes before I reeled it in and over to Dave. He grabbed the line, pulled the fish up onto the rocks and efficiently wacked it with his fish killer. I still have a hard time with the killing, and Dave again had to do the gutting and filleting. But I'm more than happy with the 9 pounds of salmon fillets are filling up the freezer.
The Big Silver & me

I can honestly say that fishing isn't all that fun. I love being outside and on the water, but I'm easily distracted from the casting and reeling repetitions by a duck, or a bird, or a mountain view. On the other hand, the killing and the eating, the gathering of the food part of it really speaks to me. It's doing the subsistence thing. Hooking a fish, wacking him upside the head, and then gutting and filleting him (or harvesting the roe if it's a she) isn't fun, but it really brings you down to earth, closer to the core. It's one of the things that a summer season in Alaska has given me a deep appreciation for.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Mail Plane to Chisana (pronounced Shushanna)

Cars and trucks will only let you see a little bit of the Alaskan interior. ATVs will get you a bit further into the backcountry. A snow machine, at least in winter, will get you even further. If however, you want to really 'get out there' you need a plane.

After being here only a few days I knew that one of the best ways to really see Alaska would be by plane. Luckily, flightseeing is a big business with lots of companies offering multi-hour tours in small planes...but for big prices. Luckily also, I have an awesome and resourceful husband! On one of our town days in Tok he suddenly turned right into the airport and stopped in front of the office of 40 Mile Air. "What would you think about a plane ride for your birthday?' he asked.

Vanessa in the office explained the various tour options. I listened with one ear and watched the little tiny planes taxi down the narrow runway. Little tiny planes are definitely cuter than big ones, but boy were they getting tossed around in the light breeze. Turning my attention back to the flight options I heard Vanessa mention that there are also 3 seats avalaible on the Tuesday two-hour mail flight to Chisana. "If the weather is good" she added, "Brownie usually flies back over the glacier and through the canyon."
Flying over the Tanana River Basin

And so it was on the morning of Tuesday, August 23 that Brownie, Dave and I lifted off in one of those tiny planes with 80 pounds of mail for Chishana. Chishana, once and very briefly a gold mining boom town of 10,000, has a current year-round population of 6 to 8. Not sure why the U. S. Postal System keeps delivering mail there, especially at what must be significant expense. That's just one of those things you wonder about in Alaska. Irregardless, it is the best flightseeing deal in the state.

Air Strip in Chisana
Dave and I sat back, watched the Tanana, Nebesna, and Chisana rivers running silver grey with glacial silt beneath the little blue plane. After about 15 minutes we crossed the flood plain/tiaga and began flying over the foothills of the Wrangell Range, one of the highest mountain ranges in North America. Minutes later we were flying through canyons, alongside mountains. Brownie dipped the plane to the right and pointed out three distinct white shapes standing nonchalantly on a clift-side. Dall Sheep, so clear we could make out their giant horns. Righting the plane, Brownie then pointed ahead to the foot of the Chishana glacier, and left, to what apparently was the airstrip. It may have looked like a field to us, but Brownie landed that little plane without a bump. Standing beside the runway were three people. Half the town had turned out to meet the plane.

During the 15 minute layover, while the plane was loaded and unloaded, Dave and I wandered over to the public cabin and outhouse. We'd heard about the use of blue foam insulation for toilet seats, but this was the first we saw. Apparently this is the thing to keep your tushie from freezing to the seat during the winter! Then it was time to leave.

The weather was good (enough) and Brownie did fly over the glacier and through the canyon and wow, was that spectacular. More Dall sheep, more mountsides aflame with Aspen, more snow covered peaks, more Alaska!

It was also bumpier. The sky was clouding over and the canyon winds were starting to lightly toss the little plane and my stomach. Gliding over the reddening bear-berry covered hills we landed back in Tok just before the storm. This week's mail run to Chisana was done.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Gold Fever! A Holiday to Dawson City via Chicken and the Top of the World Highway

Having gotten into the swing of the whole campground host thing, it was time for a new adventure.  We'd heard a lot about Chicken and the road to Dawson City and thought it would make for a great overnight adventure.  Leaving the trailer behind, and with hotel reservations made for the big city of Dawson, we headed out early Tuesday morning.

Roads are always a major topic of conversation in Alaska.  Not so much where they are going, it's the condition they are in that can be the subject of hour long conversations and spirited debate. We knew that the road repair crew was currently working on the Taylor Highway, the 64 mile road from Tok to Chicken. Like many roads in Alaska the part being repaired, the gravel section, was much better than the potholed, permafrost wracked remainder.

Then there is the 72 mile road from Chicken to Dawson City called the Top of the World highway.  Primarily rough dirt, and narrow, with steep drop offs over 1000 ft clifts, the road winds along the ridgetops, above treeline. Dave did the driving. I pointed out the numberous gold dredging operations we passed along the Forty Mile and Mosquito Rivers, the magnificent alpine views and counted down the miles, first to the Canadian border and then to Dawson.

But note, I wrote that the road was 'primarily' dirt.  There is one section, the last 12 miles in Alaska, that is beautiful, smooth, wide asphalt. Nothing but horrible dirt up to it, nothing but bad dirt afterwords.  But there it is, the best road in all of Alaska.

In Canada, the road ends at the Yukon River just across from Dawson.  The ferry runs continiously, is pretty quick, and gave us a chance to say we've rode the Yukon.

Dawson City itself, is pretty cool. A gold town that sprang up in the late 1900's and is still the center of Yukon mining and tourism today.  The old 19th century architecture and character is well maintained, and really classy.  The streets are dirt but there are wooden boardwalk sidewalks butted up to false front stores, victorian theater houses and saloons.  We had a great dinner is an old fish house.  The rain hammering on the tin roof only added to the boom town ambiance.  But there really isn't much there even if you include a visit to the Jack London and Robert Service cabins. I did, and have, often wondered how "the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell."

The next day it was back over the Top of the World, but with a stop at the community of Chicken. Named Chicken because the locals could not spell ptarmigan, the town isn't much more than two restaurants, four stores three RV parks, an old mining dredge, a few current mining operations, and a 'learn to pan gold' tourist sluice box.

It being a beautiful day and as gold panning involving playing in water, as well as being a quintessential Alaskan experience, it was time to give it a try.  Best decision ever!!!  Gold panning is taking a shovel full of dirt and washing it and swirling it until nothing is left but gold!  Shinning, gleaming gold.  We panned 5 shovel-fulls and got 'color' in every one.

Now we're back at the campground.  Looking north I keep thinking about the gold in them thar hills...and thinking about going back for some more.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Day in the Life of an Alaskan Campground Host

Weed Wacking at Lakeview!
Like mornings everywhere, the morning of a camphost starts with a good cup of coffee. Unlike everywhere however, we're in a primitive Alaskan campground miles from town. After that first cup of coffee, the day evolves into multiple tasks that fall into two categories; maintenance and hosting. The maintenance jobs are predictable and straight forward. The hosting...that's where we're never entirely sure what the day will bring.

There are actually two campgrounds in our 'domain'. The one we live at, Deadman Lake, is 1.2 miles from the highway. It has 14 primitive sites, well-spaced along a 3/4 mile loop. The campground also has three sets of outhouses, a 1/4 mile interpretive trail with observation deck, a small boat ramp, a dock, and a screened pavilion.

Dock at Deadman
Lakeview Campground is 10 miles North west. With one outhouse, and 10 sites set closer together and closer to the road, Lakeview is often as busy as Deadman.

After coffee and breakfast we start the maintenance portion of the day by cleaning the outhouses. Word on the Alcan is that our outhouses are the cleanest ones for hundreds of miles. We've driven those miles, visited some of those other outhouses and we agree. First we walk the loop to clean the outhouses. We also check the dock and boat ramp for pike racks, or lost underwear, the sites for any garbage (which we rarely find) and the trash cans. If the cans are full then we fire up the camp truck and throw the bags into the back. Then it's off to Lakeview campground, where we do it all over again. From there it's another 6 miles down the road to Northway to throw the garbage into the Fish and Wildlife dumpster. If the truck needs fuel, there's a small store here. Then we drive back to Deadman, pulling off to check the occasional roadside interpretive pull offs.

Weed Wacking at the Border
At this point we'll also do some of the other maintenance work. Weed wacking, painting, dock cleaning, door repairs, road maintenance, etc. About once every two weeks we dig out our passports and head for the Alaska/Canada border. One of our jobs is to maintain the "Welcome to Alaska" pull off. Usually it needs a bit of trimming and some trash pick up. The job takes longer than it should as we spend about half the time there taking photos of folks standing in front of the Welcome sign. To get back to the campground we pass through U.S. customs. That takes a little more time, and if it's not busy, even more as we stop to chat with the customs officers. It's a lonely job out on the border!

Back at the campground, campers have generally moved on by noon. One or two might stay a few days, three guys actually stayed a week pike fishing, but most just spend the night on their way in or out of Alaska. This is generally our off time. We relax, take of hike, go fishing, etc. and keep on eye on the road into camp. Around 3:00 or so, the campers start rolling in again and the 'hosting' begins. We try and touch base with everyone letting them know about the local dogs who loop through the camp, the 7pm Ranger Talk and remind them not to burn down the forest. It's also good to remind them that they can only use dead and downed trees. No felling is allowed, and no, we don't sell firewood. The taiga may look wet, but with the black spruce and Labrador tea plants this place is a tinder box. Other hosting tasks have included helping a guy fix a flat, providing fishing and hiking advice, orientation (amazingly a number of folks aren't really sure where they are), and general chit chat.
The Official Truck

If it's Saturday or Sunday, our hosting duties also include giving the Ranger Talk. I talk about Moose The Alaskan moose is a fascinating animal and an integral piece of the Alaskan experience. If you want to know more, stop by the pavilion at 7:00!

Between 8 and 10, a second wave of campers arrive. Hosting at this point generally just involves letting them know of the remaining openings and directions to other camping spots. We're tired, they're tired and we're all ready to call it a day.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

If I Wear Sunglasses at Night, Do I Also Need Sunscreen?

Caught my first Pike @ 10:00 - with Sunglasses
Last night the sun set at 10:30, not rising again until 5:30 or so. And it felt weird. Only a month and half ago, at the zenith, it set at 12:30, twilight never ended and the sun rose at 3:30. I've gotten used to the perpetual daylight. You could even say I've grown to love it.

At first it was hard to settle down and get to sleep. The body just wasn't getting those nighttime vibes that come after dusk. It just wanted to keep going. Laying down, I kept feeling like I was missing something. That's when I started wearing my sunglasses after 10:00 pm (and singing 80's songs). Just so I could get to sleep by 11 or so. Dave also covered up the skylight in the bedroom and added extra curtains. With that, we could simulate nighttime enough to get back into a regular sleep routine. Still...I loved getting up at night and looking out...and seeing.

I also loved going on late night hikes and paddles. A day could easily start with a hike, followed by a good five or six hour rest, and end with a long paddle, all in broad daylight. Out on the water at 10:00pm, in full sun, I'd wonder if I should have put on sunscreen.
Late Night Jam Session (Notice daylight)

It also took a while to get used to not seeing the sun where I thought it should be. Yes, it was in the sky, but timewise, not anywhere near where expected. Basically if you tried to tell the time of day by the sun it always seemed to be between 11 am and 1 pm. Occasionally it'd be far enough to the west that it felt like 4 or so.... when it was really 9:00. A single day just went on forever.

By the time we leave Alaska at the beginning of September. The sun will be on what seems a 'normal' track for an Easterner, setting around 8pm and rising around 6:30. I won't need to wear sunglasses to trick my internal clock into sleep mode. I never did end up putting on sunscreen for a 10pm hike or paddle, but it was one of the many thought-provoking experiences of Alaska.

Going to town!

Driving the Gov't Truck to Tok
When you live 70 miles and approximately an hour and half out in the middle of the boreal forest, with no phone, no internet, no TV or radio, the weekly trip to town is a big event. Especially when that town is Tok, Alaska.

Tok is just the right size for a brief visit to civilization. It's just big enough to have one grocery store, one outfitter (owned by the same guys as the grocery store), one restaurant (American), one food truck (Thai), a small library, a hardware store without any signage, a sled dog association, two tourist shops, two liquor stores (neither of which carries more than 7 or so varieties of beer and wine) and the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge office (aka water, laundry machines, wifi and nice people!).

The trip itself is also part of the 'excitement.' Summer in Alaska is also road construction season. At
Following the Pace Car
the same time that the crews are fixing one part of the road another section is disintegrating. Slaloming around ever expanding potholes and flying over frost heaves adds a roller-coaster ride feeling. Then there are the construction delays. Those usually entail a good 15 minute or more stop while all the cars, motorcycles, bicyclists, trucks, and RV's queue up. Folks get out, stretch their legs. talk with one another, and get the latest construction update from the traffic person. Then the pilot car shows up and we all jump into our vehicles for the winding trip down the road, dodging gravel trucks and spreaders.

Of course the scenery is really the highlight. Next week's trip will be our 6th and it's still thrilling to see the Alaska range rising in the West, the Wrangell's in the South and the panoramic views of the Tanana River Valley. This year's rainfall has been much higher than average and the rivers are all running wild. About 10 miles out of Tok we cross the Tanana River and it's always amazing to see how high and fast it is running.
The Bridge to and From Civilization

Crossing the bridge is also where we come into cell phone and data range. As the phone starts buzzing with all the missed call and new email messages we know it's time to transition from back-country to town mode. It's good to catch up with all our friends and family and load up with supplies, but after 5 hours of that, it also feels good to cross back over the Tanana River and back into the wild!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Grand Circle Tour - Alaska Style

June 21, S.D. and I arrived in Tok with two and one half  weeks to spare before we started our volunteer gig at Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. After spending two days checking out Deadman Lake, the campground where we're now hosting, Dave took a two day chainsaw certifcation coures and I went rafting down the Tanana River. That left two weeks, and all of Alaska to explore.

Alaska is big, really big.  It was only after pondering a loop drive of over 861 miles along most of the major state roads and then realizing that those roads only provided access to the relavitely small southeast corner, that we got an idea of just how big.  No matter how much time you have, a car isn't going to get you everywhere.  On the other hand, where it will get you is still pretty awesome.  People ask how would you describe Alaska and I'd say, it's the kind of place where you can point out a nesting pair of bald eagles to a local and they'll show you four more.  A place where massive mountains,  glaciers, meadows, rivers, moose, eagles, bears, salmon, and frost heaves are common, everyday occurances.  A place where wilderness and weather still run the show and people are just a very small part of the whole.

The Circle Tour itself progressed as follows:

 Drove south to the Wrangall St Elias National Park and Preserve. --Huge mountains, glaciers, snow fields, moose

 Continued south to Valdez. --Took a tour boat, the Lu Lu Belle, out into Prince William Sound. Spent 9 hours looking at Humpback whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, eagles, and a hugh glacier - that calved less that 1/4 mile from the boat.  We also saw a black bear climbing out of a dumpster and began to get the idea of just how casual Alaskians are about bears, and bears are about Alaskans.  The bear was in a dumpster at the shooting range!

 Then west to Palmer/Anchorage -- Spent a night feeding mosquitos outside the small town of Glennallen before heading Anchorage.  Aside from an abundance of stores selling furs and ulu's (curved, native american knives) the big city was unsettling similar to other U.S.cities.  We stocked up on groceries, beer and wine and headed back out as soon as we could.

 North to Denali National Park - The road between Anchorage and Denali is probably the best road in Alaska. Still mostly two lanes, it's relatively frost heave and pot hole free!  We spent three rainy days in Denali and never did get to see the mountain.  Still it was very beautiful and we got up close and personal with a moose.  Also took a Ranger-led discovery hike off into the tundra. 7 hours of wading through bogs and streams out into the wilderness.

 Further North to Nenana - Spent the 4th of July in a very small town and joined in the local celebration.  They closed down mainstreet, a whole blocklong, and everyone watched as the kids, then adults participated in three-legged, potato and tricycle races,  along with a 'shoe scramble' and other competitions.  "One dollar for the winner, fifty cents for second place, everyone gets a quarter."  And everyone else enjoys the day immensely.

 Still further North to Fairbanks - Fairbanks is pretty cool.  There is LARS, the large animal research center where they raise and study caribou and musk ox. The two month, and two year old musk ox are adorable, and weighing only 200 and 500 pounds respectively, the largest cute mammals in North America. (That's on the official Kelly Cuteness Hyperbole Scale)

 East again, through North Pole, Delta Junction and back to Tok - Stopped at Santa's Workshop and 1960's-style tourist trap. Took a photo, left. At Delta Junction we toured the Alaskan grain belt. The area raises barley and most of Alaska's feed.  It also is home to two Buffalo herds and a Yak ranch.  Naturally the dinner there serves Buffalo burgers...and they were awesome. 

 Back through Tok and onto to Deadman Lake - Tonight we'll be cooking up the Yak steak we purchased in Delta Juction. 

The Circle Tour complete,  it's good to be 'home' for a few months.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Kelly's First Fish

Me and my fish
Perhaps I've been reading too many books about life in the Alaskan tundra. 

Dave took me fishing Sunday and the first ever fish I caught and gutted turned out to be a female with eggs.  The eggs looked just like sushi roe, so I ate it. Straight from the fish.  And it was good!

 Primitive response aside....Yay! I caught a fish,  three in fact.  One we let go because it was too small,  but the other two,  along with Dave's three are on the dinner menu tonight. 

Dave's been showing me the ropes, or should I say lines (ha, ha) for the past week. First was casting where he risked and did get hooked a few times.  Then there was the 'bail incident' where for some reason the line got wrapped up inside the spindle thing. And then there was just a day of not catching anything. But today made up for all that.

Dave at the Hidden Lake Trailhead
For fishing folk, the fish are rainbow trout and we used a "meps 5 spinner."  For non-fishing people this whole thing is like learning about a previously unknown piece of the world. There a special rods, and reels, and lots and lots of different thingees you put on the end of the line to attract different fishes. Then you have to know what lakes they tend to hang out in, or were stocked in. For instance it was Hidden Lake where we went fishing and where the state of Alaska stocks rainbow trout. 

Winning form
Even if we didn't catch any fish it would have been a lovely morning as Hidden Lake is a 1 mile hike into the taiga forest.  We hiked through huge patches of ripe blueberries and mats of ripening red cranberries. The wildlife refuge leaves a small john boat on the shore and it's perfect for getting out...and catching fish... just like an Alaskan, just like real fishermen.

Camp Hosts in Residence - Deadman Lake

Clouds on the Lake
We're here and all settled in as Volunteer Camp Hosts at Deadman Lake.  After we get into our routine I'll write up a few posts about the last three weeks and the Great Circle Tour of Alaska.

But for now, a few thoughts on Deadman Lake. First of all, the name.  As far as anyone around here can recall they do not know why it is called Deadman Lake.  During our time in Alaska however, we've noticed that places are either named after things, or represent some super-literal, super-obvious description of the place.  Beaver Creek has a giant beaver lodge,  Eagle City has lots of eagles, Copper Creek has copper.  I wouldn't be surprised if someday there was a deadman here, and that happened to be the day they named the lake.

 Name aside,  Deadman Lake is lovely,  typical tiaga-area lake.  There's a beaver lodge (two in fact), one nesting pair of trumpeter swans (they mate for life and establish territory of one lake per couple), eagles, lots of ducks,  and fish.  The shoreline is marsh/bog, perfect moose habitat.  Haven't seen one yet, but there is enough scat to assure us they are around.

Our neighbor - Mr. Beaver
 As far as the campground goes, it's pretty sweet too. Our site is level and high enough from the lake that there aren't hordes of mosquitoes, but close enough that we can easily walk down to the dock/boat ramp....oh, and we have a canoe!  The sites here have no hookups, no water, and no fee.  They do have lovely views, privacy and a chance to be in the Alaska wilderness.  So far this combination has already attracted a very distinct type of camper. After only 4 nights on site we've met a bicyclist from the Netherlands,  two couples, traveling together in old VW vans from Argentina,  an Australian family from Hollywood that filmed themselves swimming in an actually Alaskan lake (it's really kinda warm right now),  an old-school Alberta rancher.  The rest of campers have all been friendly, self-sufficient and very happy to be here in Alaska.

As are we!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Through the Yukon: Kluane Lake and Kluane National Park

Lunch with a View - Kluane Mountains
June 15-16, Whitehorse to Kluane Lake

Everywhere you go in the Yukon people will tell you that you need to go somewhere else. At Teslin, the host insisted we should drive the Top of the World Highway. In Whitehorse, a fellow camper told us Dawson City was a must see. Back on Boya Lake, a fellow traveler insisted that Atlin Lake was "The Place." At the Kluane National Park Visitor Center we talked to a couple just returning from Haines, a place they just loved. All those places do sound great. We hope to see them all someday, but in the meanwhile...You just have to go to Kluane Lake and Kluane National Park!

Driving the road north out of Whitehorse is much like driving on a rollercoaster through Tiaga. Built
Outhouse with a view - Kluane Visitor Center
over permafrost that causes the road bed to freeze and thaw, and dip and rise the road winds along for over 100 miles through Tiaga, sparse forests that live above permafrost. Named by early Russian explorers, it means "little sticks" because that is what the forest looks like. Thin 20 or 30 ft high spruce trees doted above marshy ground. The further west you go, the more glimpses you get to see of far off mountains until at last, you reach Haines Junction and you're in the Kluane Mountains.

Roll another 60 miles down the road and the eastern end of Klaune Lake comes into view. Klaune Lake is the largest lake in the Yukon covering 154 square miles. It's a long, narrow, bright blue lake, one of the biggest and the most beautiful in the Yukon. It's at the edge of the Kluane National Park, and there is a territorial campground midway along the south side. In that campground is a campsite right on the lake. We camped there, Mesmerized by the lake we finally looked up and noticed the huge, towering snow covered mountains of the Kluane Range to the south.

Campsite with a View - Kluane Lake
It was sunny, beautiful and warm. Needless to say we spent two days at the Lake. Hiking along the shore on the first day. On the second day we hiked up into the mountains, Sheep Mountain to be specific. The Rangers at the Station thought the Dall sheep that live there had already moved onto higher ground, but there had been bear sightings. We did not see any bears, even a bear paw track. We did see a sign commemorating the memory of a woman killed in a "bear encounter", lots of sheep tracks, amazing mountain scenery, and far off the blue tongue of the Kaskawulsh Glacier.

If you every go to the Yukon, you've just got to go to Kluane!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Through the Yukon: Part One

Through the Yukon
June 13 - 14, Watson Lake to Whitehorse: 438 miles

Stopping for fuel at The gas bar 100 miles west of Watson Lake we hear that two days ago the generators in the town of Teslin failed. Without generators the gas bar (Canadian gas stations are gas bars) can't pump gas. The Teslin gas bar is the only other place to get fuel on a 150 mile stretch of the Alaskan Highway between Watson Lake and Johnson Crossing.

Teslin Totems
Folks will tell you that the Yukon is remote. They'll say that the population of the capital city is only 28,000 and at that size it holds 60% of the population for the entire territory, a land mass bigger than a whole bunch of big states combined (not having access to the internet, I can't look that up right now) But trying to calculate if you can make it to the next fuel pump, or should stay in town until Jack fixes the generation puts the remoteness of the Yukon in a new perspective.

Teslin,  the town sans generator mentioned earlier, is no exception. The visitor information center in Watson Lake hands out a flyer listing all the gas stations, restaurants, hotels and campgrounds between it and the capital of Whitehorse, 282 miles away. The flyer is double-spaced, 14 point font and one page. We've only had cell phones reception in one town, and there has been no data service in any of Canada. The only wifi to be had is via the painfully slow dial-up or satellite hotspots offered at various camps and information centers. There are a lot of trees, and lakes and mountains. The remoteness, at first, is discomforting, but after a little while it starts to feel good.

Teslin is in the middle of all these woods, and mountains, set on the shore of Teslin Lake, an 88 mile long, 2 mile wide lake that runs approximately east - west. It's the home of the interior Tlingit, a First Nation tribe that runs a very nice Cultural Center. You get the idea these folks were doing just fine being 'remote.' It is, in fact, not remote to them. It is the center of an amazing universe.

And that's where we spent the night.

June 14, Whitehorse

The next morning we hit the road early, heading to Whitehorse. The plan was to set up camp early. Get into town, stock up and spend two days looking around.

Whitehorse is the capitol of the Yukon. For a territorial capitol, it's very small. Laid out on a 8 street by 24 street grid on the floodplain of the Yukon River, at the head of the navigable waters. Apparently S.D. and I are becoming acclimated to being out of town. Even as small as Whitehorse is, it didn't feel right. There were too many people and cars. The rain and clouds didn't help as we couldn't see any of the surrounding mountains.

After touring the S.S.Klondike, a 1937 stern wheeled steamboat, (which was really interesting) we walked around town, had lunch, bought groceries, filled up with diesel, and decided we'd move on tomorrow. We needed to get back into the country.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Cassier Highway : Part Two

June 10, Mezadin Lake to Iskut 150 miles

The mosquitoes situation has progressed from wicked bad to holy shit.

Lynx - checking us out
Last night we camped right on the shores of Mezadin Lake, a beautiful site not less than five feet from a crystal clear lake. Apparently it is also the mosquito capital of British Columbia. We did not enjoy our evening beverage outside.  Additionally, we did not enjoy our evening beverages inside.  While at first we were sadistically amused by their massing outside our windows, they were the ones that got the last laugh. Somehow the little buggers were able to get in. While I perfected my mid-air mosquito grab, S.D. plugged every possible hole he could find.  We killed so many their cold spindly bodies littered the bathtub, but still they came....and they wanted blood.

It was a beautiful site but we were glad to leave the next morning, shooing the last remaining bugs out of the truck cab as we hit the highway.

From what we've heard, that will not be the last of them, they will probably get bigger, and we really need a way to keep them out of the trailer!

June 11-12, Iskut to Watson Lake

We were just starting to get a bit jaded.  How  many times can you gasp at snow capped mountain vista's and clear, blue mountain lakes? And that's when we pulled into Jade City. Seriously, there is a store only the Cassier Highway called "Jade City."   The Cassier mountains, through which we were passing produces 80% of the worlds jade.  The "City" is a direct seller of jade things. Statues, pendants, earings, and beatiful big blocks of jade. 
Beside the beautiful blue water of Boya Lake
Even more beautiful however, was the lake we camped beside later that day.  The bottom of Boya Lake is compsed of white granite sand which reflects the sun, giving the water a definetly tropical blue and green cast.  The weather was warm, and sunny and it was impossible, despite the cold water,  not to go swimming.  I did, and it was lovely!

The next day we drove the few miles to Watson Lake, leaving B.C. and the Cassier Highway.  We're officially on the Alaska Higway now!