Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In Confirmation of My Earlier Theory

I was walking between the Enivronmental Ed Cabin (where I work) and the main office, paying special attention to the changing sounds. I heard a bird call that I'd not heard before. If there was a way to write bird calls so that you could hear them, I would do it. But I'm not going to try. All I can say is that it was different, probably belonging to a songbird that has recently migrated back into the area or else is trying out his mating vocals.

Then I heard another bird sound which is (but only recently) familiar to me: the Bald Eagle. The first time I heard it I was amazed that such a beautiful sound could come from such an ugly bird. No, I do not have any aesthetic loyalty towards our national bird (speaking of which, is there a national any other type of animal?).

The cry is exotic, expressive, untamable.

I heard it again today in close vicinity and looked for its source. On several occasions I had seen an eagle sitting in gnarled yet vertically-giften aspen(?) near the parking lot, so I was not surprised to glimpse, through the branches, the brown, white and yellow bird. But wait-- there were two birds. And they were-- oh ho! They were, um, shall we say, Celebrating Spring.

We all need to celebrate spring now and then. And what better place to do it than at the top of a tree?

In any case, it reinforces what I said before. Despite four inches of new snow last night, spring is upon us.

(ps- !!! I got to see Bald Eagles mating??? I even brought my camera to work today, but of course I wasn't carrying it back and forth between buildings, and I can't just leave work to sit in the parking lot and hope they do it again, can I? Can I??)

Friday, March 27, 2009

So Glad You All Saw That

All of these photos are shamelessly stolen from http://www.avo.alaska.edu/activity/Redoubt.php where you can find other imformation about Redoubt, other Alaskan volcanos, photo credits and time stamp. All of these are from this week.

The eruption monday morning.

What they don't want us to breath in. Yesterday we got a teeny tiny bit of ash fall in Soldotna. I had to be told to look for it. Its color was light enough that you couldn't see it on the snow, and its content was so meager that you might think it was just dust or pollen.

Risk of flash floods and mud slids when volcanic heat melts the snow and ice on the mountain.

This one is actually from 3/15. Look at that steam wisp. Clearly a dragon lives in that volcano.
Yes, she is still erupting. At the website listed above you can track seismic activity levels and actual eruptions. Several occured overnight again last night. Seriously though, if I wasn't told there was a volcano erupting a few miles away, I would never know.

In other news, I got to go cross-country skiing for the first time today. It was much less scary/difficult than I'd imagined it would be. In fact, it was quite easy. I wish I'd figured that out six weeks ago.

It is spring in Alaska, which does not mean daffodils and crocuses.

Instead, spring means that the snow comes down in big fluffy chunks instead of tiny frozen crystals. Yesterday I left work, looked up, and said out loud: "It's raining snowballs." The snow looked like those tiny styrofoam balls you sometimes get instead of packaging peanuts.

Spring means that during the afternoon, the temperatures rise to the upper 30's (think 2-4 degrees C) and everything gets slushy and slooshy and yuck. Then the temperatures drop overnight and everything becomes a slick layer of ice. In some places the ice is black and smooth where there was actual standing water. In other places it makes frozen chunks where the slush resolidified. On my walk to work this morning I suddenly found myself sitting on the ground over a particularily deceiving patch of ice. I looked up to see three of the maintenance guys standing in their yard across the street watching me.

"So glad you all saw that!"

Spring means that we have to be on the lookout for bears. Any day now they will start emerging from their winter dens and eating people left and right. Soon I won't be able to go outside anymore because the grounds will be swarming with starving, snarling bears.
We'll see what gets me first: the volcano or the bears. Or the ice. Or the small town boys.
I lead life on the wild side.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Two Pieces of Good News

1. Girdwood Forest Fair, which was cancelled last year thanks to too many rowdy partiers, is scheduled to be BACK ON this year. Nothing can keep me away. Not to mention it's on my birthday ^_^

2. FUNGUS FAIR. 'Nuff said, right? Check this out. Oh, I so can't wait till September.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thar She Blows!

Or rather, belches a few times unattractively.

Yes, ReDoubt has turned active.

Yesterday morning the power went out so I took myself down to maintenance to check the situation out.

"Any news on the power outage?"

"Nope, nope. Apparently it's out all over except Anchorage."

"Yeah, of course they keep Anchorage safe. Can't afford to let her go down."

"Last time it was out for three days. Good thing we installed that generator at the pump house last week."

"Yeah, just in time. This power stays out for long the thing will have paid for itself in no time."

"Well, I can't do any work without power. I might as well go home and put steaks on the grill."

"Heck, I'm coming to your place. Better call your wife and tell her to put on a steak for me. A big one."

...and so on. Maintenance guys shooting the shit.

After half an hour of this, Ryan came in. "So is this power outage because of the volcano eruption?"

"What!!?? The volcano erupted?" I couldn't believe that I'd stood there for half an hour and heard not a peep after so many weeks of edge-of-my-seat anticipation.

"Yup. Blew last night. Several belches of ash starting at ten-thirty until four this morning."

"I was sitting in my living room looking out the window at it and I didn't even see a thing. They say there was a big rumble and shaking and all that, but I don't even believe it."

"It's the piretic, bombastic-- what is that?"


"Yup, it's the pyroclastic blast you have to really look out for. 10,000 degree wind that comes at you. Burning gasses and all that. Melts everything in its path - trees, buildings, people. One minute you're standing there, the next you've been liquidated like an atom bomb hit."

I went back outside and looked around. There was nothing to see. It was overcast, but the forecast had called for that. No ash, no clouds. If I inhaled deeply, I could just make out a charred, ozone scent in the air.

Altogether anticlimactic.

I talked to Shane on the phone, who's up in Anchorage and has been on-call to zip down here in the event of a picturesque or adventure-worthy eruption. He says that all the ash is landing in Talkeetna, several hundred miles north. The wind changed at just the right moment - usually prevailing winds would have blown the ash fallout right onto the peninsula. Talkeetna must be pissed. They don't even get to see ReDoubt from up there, but they get the ash dump anyway. Neener neener.

Shane also says that we can expect continued activity over the next indeterminate period of time. He remains on call in case something happens that can be seen. My boss says that what really turned pretty during the last eruption in 1990 was after two big ash belches, there were steam clouds that hung out about the mountain and caught the morning alpenglow and ended up in everybody's photo albums.

If I get pictures, I'll post them, I promise. That's assuming the pyroclastic blast doesn't get me first. Stand by.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Alaska Meth Education Project is offering free drug

no kidding. that's the headline at http://homeralaska.org/
it would be Homer. buncha' crazy hippies.

of course, if Paul Harvey weren't dead (*sniff), he would tell us The Rest of the Story:

The Alaska Meth Education Project is offering free drug
prevention and awareness presentations to businesses and organizations.

Just unfortunate titling, that's all. It's like those church bulletin bloopers:

"Weight Watchers meeting Tuesday night. Attendees please use the wide double doors at the side of the building."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Something's Changing

A few days ago, vole tracks appeared.

Since arriving, I'd seen maximum two trails left by subnivean creatures. In the last few days, they are suddenly everywere: around the office, around my cabin, doodling around the commons in loopy trails from under one building to another or in fairly straight lines across the road.

Subnivean creatures, by the way, are the tiny rodents: mice, shrews, and voles. Subnivean (for those of you who weren't in any of my field trip classes this year) means "under snow." Under the deep snow is an insulated layer where these animals build tunnels through the dead grasses to stay warm, find food, and hide from predators.

Shrews have long pointy snouts and can be aggressive insectevores. I'm hoping to find evidence of the water shrew this summer in our wetlands and lakes. Water shrews are badass.

Mice and voles are basically indistinguishable. I've heard contradictory evidence as to whether mice are actually native to Alaska or have been introduced, but there are a vareity of vole species native to, and even unique to, different regions of the state. They look cute and cuddly and they can be serious pests to home owners.

Usually these animals stay in the subnivean all winter except maybe to reach grass heads above the surface or if they are forced out of their tunnels by packed trails. In our field trips we talk a lot about how trails negatively impact subnivean residents with an aim to promote lower impact recreation (for example, using established trails for snowmachining or using a frozen lake area).

Trails can also impact plant life, partly because packed snow takes longer to melt -a big concern in an area with such a short growing season- and also because packed snow reduces light cues that reach the soil.

Plants rely on light cues, rather than temperature, to initiate their growing cycles. Thus, even with a cold spring or warm fall, deciduous trees will still grow new leaves or display fall foliage and eventually go dormant. There are still temperature considerations, of course; nothing can happen while all the water in the ground is still frozen.

Trails aside, what has sparked the sudden infusion of tracks? What has happened to make all these voles suddenly appear out from their safe, warm, food-filled subnivean tunnels?

The temperature hasn't changed. The range has been the same since I arrived: nights down as low as -20, days up to 30 or 35. The snow hasn't gone away. There is no new food source that I can think of.

Today I actually saw some voles. I glanced out at the bird feeders we keep on our windows. The chickadees, red poles, and nut hatches use a few nearby spruce trees as their access point to come to the feeder, grab a sunflower seed, and return in order to eat it. Under the trees where not as much snow has built up there is a patch of dead grasses. The voles were darting in and out of view through the grasses, eating bits of dropped sunflower seeds, I suppose.

The presence of dropped sunflower seed hasn't increased. It's possible the voles have been doing it all winter, but I've spent a lot of time looking out that window and today was the first time I've seen it. That, combined with the sudden profusion of tracks, makes me thing something has happened to encourage these creatures to emerge from their subnivean world.

I look to the light. Today is the first day of spring. This week we had our twelve-hour day. Like the plants, I imagine these creatures take their cues more from light than temperature as they prepare for the growing season that will come.

Predators still abound, so whatever could encourage them to seek out food sources that expose them to eagle eyes (literally) must be pretty darn important. More important than keeping themselves alive, which they've already been doing just fine all winter long. My guess: babies.

Mating season is upon us, folks.

There's a reason Bambi's friend Owl talks about twitterpating. In other places it corresponds to the melting snow and emergence of new plant growth. In Alaska, waiting that long to get it on wouldn't leave enough time to adequately reproduce in number before temperatures dropped again. So the mice, shrews, and voles sense the stronger, longer rays of sun filtering through the snow to their tunnels and say to themselves, "hooray! spring is coming! time to make babies!"

At this point, I don't know if those babies already exist (if so, Round 1 of several for the year, I'm sure) or if the voley-poos are merely preparing themselves physically to be able to reproduce, but either, way, I like seeing their tracks everywhere. They're pretty cute.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Green Beer It Is

Kind of a weerd picture, but hey. Green beer is green beer.
(By the way, I've decided to start spelling it weerd instead of weird. Easier to remember - wierd? or weird? what about i before e? - and uses the same delicious vowel combo as green. and beer. and other words that have ee.)

Dexter and I went for a long walk yesterday in the brilleeantly sunny afternoon. The snow was perfect, the trees were perfect, the mountains were probably perfect except I couldn't see them thanks to fog.

Oh ReDoubt: when are you planning to erupt? You crazy teese, you.

Dexter was thrilled to get some Exercise after spending all day sitting in the car waiting for me to finish work. If this sounds cruel, let it be understood that this dog has an anxiety disorder and can't be left home alone because he goes mental. (The door has the gouges to prove it.) On the other hand, he happilee (if somewhat bored-looking) sits in the car for hours on end because he does not feel abandoned inside a vehicle. So by far the less cruel method.

Down on the wetlands, the snow moves like sand into drifts and dunes. Even with the bright afternoon sun it never warms up enough to stick together. Each snowflake remains at the mercy of the wind to pile up in shelves and pyramids around the stubbee black spruce saplings.

Black, green, brown and dusky blue lichen wrap around tree trunks and hang from branches. They call it witch's hair and old man's beerd. If you see it or feel it, you know why. It's alive, but its draping fibers crumble between rubbed fingers.

Yesterday was our 12-hour day: Sunrise at about 8:12 am, Sunset at 8:12 pm. With Civil Twilight, which extends the day an easy hour in eech direction, no one can think of me living my days in the dark. We gain five minutes every day - that makes over 2 hours a month - rushing towards summer when the sun never seems to set. So long as the sun is shining, I am just as happee with the cold.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


The wine festival in honor of Bacchus. It just so happens to be the same day as St. Patty's, on which we are supposed to drink a different alcoholic beverage.

What a challenge: green beer or wine? Which to drink, oh which to drink??

The temperatures dropped this week to about -30F overnight lows, +3F today's projected high. The interior, where the dog sleds are competing in the famed Iditorad, has windchills below -50F. Poor puppies. Poor mushers.

I am hanging out with Dexter while housesitting for a coworker. He is a dog fit for Alaska. His neck fur is so think I really have to dig in order to scratch his neck. His paws are so furry they remind me of ptarmigan feet:

He's a nervous dog, but I'm starting to win him over.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Moose Caboose

I almost walked into the back of a moose yesterday. Ha! Ha!

I was walking home from work and I noticed moose tracks going this way and that way all around in the new snow. I hadn't seen moose tracks on that trail since my first walk to work. I thought to myself, I wonder if these are the same two moose that I saw down in town yesterday when I was walking to the library? They were in James' backyard hiding in the trees, standing very still and munching trees.

I looked here and there amongst the trees, wondering if perhaps they were still around and I could see them standing amongst the trunks. Moose are hard to see because they stand very still and they are the same color as everything else that is brown, but they are not shaped very much like tree trunks, so if you look for shape instead of color, you might just spot them.

Michelle drove me to a party out K-Beach on Wednesday and we passed moose grazing in the frozen wetlands. "I hate driving in winter at night," she said, "because of the moose. They come out of nowhere and you can't see them. Often people hit the babies because the mama crosses the road, and then just when you think nothing is following her, the baby runs across. And then after that, the twin will run across and the twin will get hit, because people really aren't expecting that.

"The way a car hits a moose, the bumper goes right into the legs, and it flips the moose over and onto the hood. It goes through the windshield and you basically get kicked to death. The moose doesn't usually die; it limps off with broken legs and then they have to go after it and shoot it.

"There's a list of people who get the meat. The next person on the list gets called when a moose is hit, and they have to come out, shoot it, clean it and everything, and they have to donate half the meat or something, but they get to keep the rest. There are rules about how far away from the road they can dispose of the remains and all that too. I just hope I never hit one."

At this time of year, the moose are pretty tame. They are morose and hungry. Once the mamas drop calves in spring, they get fierce, and a rutting bull in the fall is downright dangerous, but these days they just do a lot of munching and hunkering in the trees out of the wind. They walk into town where the roads are plowed - even with their long legs it gets pretty tiring to manage the deep snow. James says that in his childhood when they regularly got significantly more snow than we have this year, there were way more moose in town than there are now. Maybe they find a warm dryer vent to frequent, and certan moose get reputations as bothersome loiterers.

This morning at the Eagle Lodge where Tracy took me for breakfast, an old lady was tattling on a know-it-all neighbor who told them not to feed the moose.

"This nice lady moose wandered into our backyard and she was so sad, so we fed her and she started hanging around. But you know she had lots of relatives that she invited along and pretty soon I wondered if we were in the restaurant business or what. The neighbor came by and said not to feed the moose, and I said, 'I don't. I feed the birds.' Heh. But then we got neighbors next door. Kids, you know. We had to stop then."

Tracy asked, "How long did it take after you stopped feeding her before she stopped hanging around?"

"Well, she stayed around for a while, and then one year she didn't show up anymore. I don't know what happened to her."

"She probably ended up in someone's freezer."

"Eh, it's Alaska."

So, back to the story: I was peering into the trees on either side of the path and I thought I saw the bumpy silhouette of a moose sitting down in the snow about thirty feet off the trail. I wasn't sure, because I couldn't see her head, so I wanted to take a better look. I found a set of moose tracks pointed that direction diverging from the trail, so I decided to follow them. The snow was a lot deeper than it looked. I suddenly realized the severe advantage moose legs give them in the winter drifts. I tried to follow directly in the footprints left for me, but this required an awkward hop up and out of the snow and I missed a lot of them. After a few yards the footsteps turned in a different direction than where I'd seen the moose, but from there I could look and see the distinct shape of its head and my curiosity was satisfied. The trail I followed must take a sharp turn and lead to her, but who accuses of a moose of not walking in a direct line? Where's it going anyway but where it wants? Except for the fact that it is starving and must live in the cold, I kind of like the idea of aimless wandering. A moose would make a good minstrel. If it could sing.

I turned around and hop-shuffled back through the snow to the path and continued towards home. As I turned to take one last look at the moose in the trees (I was rather proud of myself for spotting it from so far away), I suddenly saw the bulk of another moose lying down in the snow much, much closer to me. The footsteps I'd found did not lead to that other moose at all; in fact, if I'd followed them about ten feet further, I would have found myself struck smack into the backside of a big ole' moose. And I had just finished congratulating myself on my powers of observation....

The moose moved not at all. Neither moose had twitched so much as an ear in all the time that I'd watched them. I guess they figured someone as bumbly and noisy as me couldn't possibly pose a threat to them. Lucky for them I'm not a hungry wolf pack. Lucky for me they aren't a hungry wolf pack.

Yup, I live in Alaska. Yup, there are lots of moose.

Mushroom of the Day

Not a real mushroom, but it's my mardi gras mask and I think it turned out pretty cool ^_^