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.