The land of the one-eyed car

by Dave Hanks

The Alaskan Highway is paved all the way, but they are always digging up miles of it for repair. If you take a side road, you will drive on dirt and gravel. Rocks are always flying which crack windshields and break headlights. Many people combat this with huge screens that cover grills and cause rocks to ricochet over their cabs. At the end of the main highway at Tok, Alaska, most everyone stops to wash their vehicles at a gas station that provides this service free. After leaving Tok, if you jog a little to the south and then to the northwest, you’ll come to the Denali Highway. This is not what it sounds like. It is definitely not a paved highway. It’s more of a dirt –gravel trail. It’s a wilderness road! It is 135 miles long, with a scarcity of human presence that adds to the wildness.

The scenery makes the travel inconvenience worthwhile! A high mountain backdrop: the Alaska Range, the Chugach Mountains, the Wrangell Mountains, and 13.700 foot Mount Hayes add primitive beauty. There are small lakes everywhere, and the stunted, twisted Spruce; touch some inner primeval chord to leave a deep impression. The road is closed from October to May each year and few people travel it in summer because it’s poorly maintained.

It’s a wild place for wild things and we came in contact with three wild species that are only found in the North. The WILLOW PTARMIGAN (grouse that’s the Alaskan state Bird) is abundant. And RED-THROATED LOONS and OLDSQUAWS are present on the ponds. The Ptarmigan is the most familiar of the three. It’s noted for changing from its winter white to summer brown each year. The Oldsquaw is actually a northern sea duck. An interesting fact is that it has three annual plumage changes. It’s mostly white in winter, but with a dark front and white eye patch in summer. It has an extremely long, very thin, stiff set of tail feathers at all times. It can dive, when on the ocean, to 200 feet. The Red-Throated Loon has a red patch on its throat, therefore the name. I’ve always thought loon calls to be most haunting and both sexes of this species will call in unison.

This land of the one-eyed car has a mystic charm that seems to always call one back again.

Ptarmigan
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The Krumholtz Zone

by Dave Hanks

Those of you that hike in the mountains will come in contact with this zone as you gain elevation. It is just below the alpine zone, where trees begin to appear. These first appearing trees are stunted and twisted because of the winds that frequent high elevations. It is a zone characterized by many wildflowers. Plant species here must be very adaptable, because of the vast extremes in climatic conditions.

Temperatures drop 3 degrees for every thousand foot increase in altitude. It can be comfortably warm in the valley – thus one goes into the high mountains without a coat, only to find that now they are uncomfortable. Because plants have to survive these extremes in temperature, they have adapted. Some adaptations are: anti-freeze in their tissues, growing low to the ground to escape the effects of the wind that bends, twists, and flags (limbs on one side only) the larger woody species. They, also, have large roots to anchor the plant and absorb nutrients, tiny leaves that expose less of the plant to the elements, and fast seed production after the plant flowers.

Plants in this zone are perennial – not having to undergo the risks of repopulating year after year. When cold, people may huddle together to keep warm, krumholtz trees do the same – growing in clumps or ribbons. Herbaceous plants will do likewise. The first tree to grow undergoes hardship, but if it survives it shelters new trees to grow on its leeward side. Animals that utilize this region migrate up in summer and down in winter – or they hibernate. Krumholtz areas are similar to habitat found in the Tundra that is close to the northern tree-line.

Late July and August are the best times to visit and witness the glorious display of wildflowers. The high Colorado Rockies and Lake Cleveland are areas that have late summer wildflower displays that are dazzling. One alpine/krumholtz flower – the blue columbine is a special beauty, and as such is honored as the Colorado State Flower.

Colorado Columbine – A Krumholtz beauty

Colorado Columbine – A Krumholtz beauty

Rocky Mountain High

by Dave Hanks

This title is taken from a John Denver song of a few years back. It is reminiscent of the privileges we have to be able to live “out here” – especially if you value nature and the great outdoors. And we have a lot of special places that one can go to enjoy without making a major excursion across the continent. Some are fairly close to home. I will name a few.

The Hagerman Wildlife Refuge, Boise City Parks, and Market Lake at Roberts; are all good sites to observe waterfowl, non-game swimming birds, and kingfishers. The Centennial Marsh, west of Fairfield, is a favorite spot of ours. Besides the species listed above, there are many wading birds, and a large kestrel population. While there, we also make the short junket east to Silver Creek and the Hayspur fish hatchery at Picabo. All these sites have a nice assortment of water-related species. The Camas Refuge by Hamer, Idaho, not only has the water birds, but we have seen Moose, Elk, Porcupine, Muskrat, Pronghorn, and other mammals there.

Good assortments of forest species are right here in Cassia and Twin Falls Counties: (i.e.) Rock Creek, City of Rocks, Lake Cleveland, and North Heglar Canyon – one of our most productive spots for photos. The Centennial Valley of southwestern Montana is relatively close and has good Moose and Pronghorn populations, along with song birds at the Lakeview Campground. It is also the site for the restoration of the Trumpeter Swan.

We have benefited greatly from lesser known wild spots and wildlife refuges. But of course, Yellowstone and other national parks are well known and visited, The National Bison Range, just northwest of Missoula, Montana, is a place we rank very high. It’s a longer drive to get there, but the rewards are great: Bison, Pronghorn, Elk, Bighorn Sheep, White-Tailed and Mule Deer, Coyote, Black Bear, and an assortment of birds are all there.

I grew up on a farm and have always been a “country boy” at heart. At various times in my life I’ve been called, by some, “a country hick”. Not too complimentary at the time, but I’ve grown to appreciate that fact. Yes I am a country “hick”.

Bison Coming down the drive over the mountain on the National Bison Range

Coming down the drive over the mountain on the National Bison Range

Wetland Habitats are Vital

by Dave Hanks

Wetlands are important natural resources! They serve purposes other than providing living spaces for ducks, but that, along with the great diversity of other wildlife types that depend on them, is an important consideration. Their sedges and grasses not only filter out the impurities that make their way into our rivers and streams (kidneys so to speak of flowing water bodies), but wetlands, also, hold the melted spring runoff and slow down the quantity of water dumped into rivers – thus aiding in flood prevention.

SWAMPS are wetlands that have trees growing in the water. They are important oxygen furnishers. Alligators, turtles and other reptiles, amphibians, and many wading and swimming bird species are in abundance. The Alligator is the master beast here who modifies this habitat with its digging of gator-holes – which other animals benefit from.

SALT WATER MARSHES are excellent wintering areas for many bird species. They are tremendous aquatic food larders for human enterprises. This fact was brought home by the devastation caused by the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

WET-MEADOWS (Bogs) are a succession step after a natural disturbance, which facilitates the formation of fertile grasslands and forests. They are also a very important habitat for many mammals.

FRESH-WATER MARSHES are what (here in Idaho) we are most acquainted with. The topography of the land or a dam built across a stream by beavers (those master engineers) result in these wetlands. And what a noble king of the marsh the Moose is! The little PIED-BILLED GREBE (pictured) is a regular here. This little diving bird has a chicken-like bill that has a ring around it in summer. It swims like a duck, but doesn’t have webbed feet. Each toe has lobes extending out on the sides for extra surface area for paddling. Its diet consists of fish, insects, crayfish, frogs, and small amounts of vegetation. It rarely flies, but will sink out of sight when it is threatened.

Pied-Billed Grebe At home amid the marsh sedges

At home amid the marsh sedges

The Northern Plague

by Dave Hanks

 
	In the land of the voracious mosquito,
	In the land of bog and lake; 
	They attack you, they bite you, and they suck you –
	Miserable your life they can make!

	In the land of the voracious mosquito,
	Be prepared for goodness sake –
	With spray, with netting, with long sleeves –
	To reduce the blood they take.


	In the land of the voracious mosquito,
	Go arrayed in peculiar gear,
	Weird hats, weird boots, weird people –
	Garbed out from foot to ear.


	In the land of the voracious mosquito,
	This is a point I want to make clear –
	Go lacquered, go covered, and go dauntless –
	If ready, go forth without fear.

We have been in the far north on many occasions. If you think
mosquitoes are bad in Southern Idaho, take a trip north to country
that has an abundance of water, and an abundance of summer daylight.
Those are conditions that mosquitoes thrive in. Here in Cassia County,
the annoying presence of this animal cannot even come close to
rivaling its counterpart in the far north.

We know that a mosquito bite can carry disease. But in the north
they can be so numerous and belligerent, that they can kill by
sucking so much blood that an animal as large as a caribou can die.

I have seen models of mosquitoes on sale as the Alaska State Bird –
obviously a joke, but no joke in reality!

Being prepared for the Mosquitos and their habitat in Alaska

Woodland Caribou: The lesser known Cousin

by Dave Hanks

We all are familiar with the caribou that migrate over the vast northern spaces. This animal is the Barren Ground Caribou. But, are you aware that there is another type – the Woodland Caribou? This beast is found in small groups in forested habitat. It does not make the long migration, like their counterpart, staying in an approximate 50 mile area of winter foothills and alpine summer ranges.

Woodland Caribou are about 4 feet at the shoulder, 6 feet long, and weigh up to 700 pounds. In the wild, they usually live from 10 to 15 years. Longer life-spans would occur if domesticated (like reindeer, which are actually caribou). They have heavily muscled bodies, skinny legs, and strong hooves that balloon to dinner-plate size in winter. Big feet have a snowshoe effect that facilitates movement over snow. Both sexes grow antlers, but the cow’s are shorter and have fewer points.

Ground and tree lichens are their major food source which restricts them to a forested habitat. They will also eat willows, shrubs, and grass. It takes 80 to 150 years for woodlands to produce enough lichens to support a group of these deer. Mature forests are essential for their survival. As a result, the Canadian government has listed them as an endangered species. Today, there are fewer than 7000 individuals.

Caribou mate in early to mid-October and calve in early June. The females don’t mature sexually until two and a half years and will have one calf a year thereafter.

Woodland Caribou can still be seen in Banff and Jasper Parks, and on Alberta’s forested foothills.

Woodland Caribou “High-tailing it” into familiar forested cover

(“High-tailing it” into familiar forested cover

Mt McKinley and the Oriental Express

North America’s tallest mountain is also called Denali by the Alaskan Indians. That is also the name that was given to a giant National Park that is mid-way between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Mt. McKinley is one of the most hazardous mountains to climb in the world. The descent is more dangerous than the ascent. Experienced mountain climbers have answered its challenge. Many Japanese have tried it, and many have died from falls during their descent (which is very tricky) and thus the mountain has acquired the nickname “THE ORIENTAL EXPRESS”.

This brings a couple of things to my mind. One is an interview, given by a girl on PBS, with an old mountain climber that lived in Hailey, Idaho. He had conquered many major mountains around the world. The interviewer said that he should write a book of rules for mountain climbing. I’ll never forget or cease to ponder his answer: “RULES IS FOR FOOLS, if you don’t make a VALUE JUDGEMENT for each situation, you’re DEAD”. That statement also brings to mind several teaching/coaching decisions I made in my teaching career that were wrong, and that I’d like to have back to do over. In all instances I had failed to evaluate each specific case, and did the standard procedure or followed advice given by other staff members – followed the book, so to speak. I have since been ashamed of the results of those specific decisions. Also, I learned that the fewer rules I had, that fewer discipline problems arose. The kids were forced to make their own VALUE JUDGEMENTS.

But back to the present; Mt McKinley’s is 20,320 feet high and its top is usually shrouded by clouds. Mt. Everest is higher, but sits on the Tibetan Plateau – which makes McKinley a higher climb from its base. Five large glaciers flow off its slopes, which add to descent dangers! The mountain is a major attraction in Denali Park, and the park is very much worth a visit. Bears, Caribou, Dahl Sheep, Moose, and many other wildlife species are easy to see from the school buses that you must ride to get into the park. Cars are not allowed on the park roads, therefore the use of the buses. By buying a token at the park office, you can be transported to various destinations within the park – the farthest is the 85 miles to Wonder Lake at the west end. But, be sure to take bug repellant. The mosquitoes at the lake are something else!

Mt McKinley on a cloudless day

Mt McKinley on a cloudless day