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

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

UHURU

Uhuru in Swahili means freedom. In the 1960’s, the Kenyans were seeking their freedom from their British rulers. Not having experienced freedom, they did not know what it was like. They thought that immediately upon receiving it, they would have everything that their British overlords had – wealth, large houses and estates, servants, and big cars. They did not understand that it took hard work and an education to get these, and then only a few did. They also thought that freedom meant that you could do anything that you wanted to. In order for freedom to survive, certain rules and regulations and work ethics must be maintained. There is a French saying that states; “Freedom is a luxury of the self-disciplined.”

Once, my wife and I were in the Seward Harbor in Alaska. We were going on a boat trip to see the glaciers and wildlife in the bay. There on a pylon was the sickest looking Bald Eagle we had ever seen. The captain said that he was called “Hang-Over-Charlie”. He had lost his freedom all on his own. He had not used the “rules and regulations” necessary to maintain his wildness. He had become habituated to people and lived on the garbage in the harbor. Our boat went right by him, and he never flew.

To remain a regular, free living eagle, Charlie needed to respond in the way his DNA directed him – which is to hunt his own food, nest in high places, wing high above the earth, and meet all natural challenges – a fearless entity. These are the traits that caused us to embrace the Bald Eagle as our national symbol. Charlie diminished this symbolic role by his lazy, living on handouts, life style.

I’m very grateful for the freedoms I enjoy. I’m especially grateful to live here in the west where we have a lot more space and seem to enjoy more freedoms.

A non-habituated eagle getting his food as nature intended

Taiga: “Land of the Little sticks”

Taiga is Boreal forest, or in Russian perspective – “the land of the little sticks”. It is so called because the tree growth is stunted and skinny. Permafrost prohibits deep root development and trees usually only grow to around 15 to 20 feet tall. This Biome is the largest in the world – covering the northern areas of Canada, Russia, and Europe. The major trees in the Taiga are Black and White Spruce.

This Biome is characterized by many forest fires, but the trees recover quickly and re-growth is fast. Summers are warm, rainy (12 to 30 inches), and temperatures stay around 70 degrees because of the continual daylight. Winters, however, are another story. They are dark, snowy, and very cold. At this time temperatures range between 30 to 65 degrees below zero.

Taiga animals either migrate south or hibernate. Only a few withstand the harsh winter conditions. Caribou come south, from the Tundra, to winter amid the trees and to get some protection from the wind. Lynx, Snowshoe Hare, Wolverine, and fox are some other species that withstand the weather. Grizzlies and Black Bears are snuggly ensconced in their hibernation sanctuaries.

Summer invites many species of birds to nest, reproduce, and use the continual summer daylight to give them more time to hunt the food for the never satisfied appetites of their young.

We have experienced the vastness of this part of the world on four different occasions when we were in the Yukon Territory. Once we traveled 900 miles north on a dirt road and into the Arctic Circle. The broad expanse of the landscape makes one realize just how insignificant one is!

Black Spruce amid the wet – permafrost causes poor drainage

Pika: A small, haystack building. rabbit

A Pika (also known as a Cony) could be mistaken for a large mouse or a baby rabbit. Actually it is a rabbit – a small short-eared one – a rock rabbit. These are fascinating little “guys”. They live on talus slopes, rocky banks, or steep boulder strewn hillsides at elevations between 8,000 to 13,500 feet. This very vocal rodent makes small squeaky noises, or noises that sound like a bleat of a goat, as they scurry over their rocky habitat.

The Pika is a small (6 3/8”) mammal that has dug its den deep inside the rocks. It mates in early spring and has 2 to 6 offspring per litter and usually has two litters a year. It doesn’t hibernate. Therefore, the gathering of a supply of winter food is necessary. The greenery in close proximity to the den is either eaten on the spot or gathered and spread on the rocks to dry. Like a farmer, the dried vegetation is gathered into the den and piled in little haystacks. These haystacks may have as much as a bushel of grasses, mosses, herbs, etc. stored in them.

Much time is spent sunning on a favorite rock which also serves as a lookout for their main predator – the Short-tailed Weasel (Ermine). The weasel’s slender body allows it to follow into the Pika’s tunnels. It has been observed that Pikas will take turns leading a weasel on a chase. When one starts to tire, another will cross between chaser and fleer. This is done until the predator decides to hunt for easier prey.

These little rock rabbits are extremely cute and lovable. We have seen them in the Colorado Rockies, Yellowstone Park, Central Idaho, Craters of the Moon, and Alaska to name a few sites. On a June trip to Denali Park, my wife and I had driven into the park as far as vehicles are permitted. We started hiking and I proposed to “go this way, we might see a Pika”. Within 15 yards on the trail – sure enough, they were all around us – how exciting!

Wherever there are high elevation talus slopes with vegetation close by, you have a good chance to find them. Just look very carefully and listen – perhaps you’ll get lucky.

A Pika Amid the lichen covered rocks

Amid the lichen covered rocks

Caribou: The Northland’s Deer

I saw him coming a half mile away, and so I ran to where I thought our paths would converge. Sure enough, he came right up in front of me and posed for this picture.

A trip to Alaska or northern Canada is incomplete without a Caribou experience. This deer of the north grows a most impressive set of antlers. In fact, it’s the only deer species where both sexes grow them. Research seems to suggest that Caribou bulls that grow the biggest racks are more vigorous and sire daughters that have an increased milking ability. The rack also has a projection on the front that can be used as a snow shovel.

The word caribou sounds like the name Zaliboo. This is the name that the Inuits gave the beast. It means “one who paws the ground”. This they do through the snow in order to reach the moss and lichens upon which they feed. The hooves make a clicking sound as they travel due to a flexible ankle joint.

The massive herds of the far north are America’s version of the great herds of the Serengeti Plains of Africa. They are constantly in migration but may follow a different route year by year. Mosquitoes and other types of flies are extremely numerous in the watery expanses of the far north and plague the Caribou during the summer months. Caribou can be seen resting on patches of snow, which seems to give them some relief from this menace. I have seen animals that are very mangy and run down from mosquito bites. Animals can actually die from exsanguination (loss of blood from bites).

This species has a symbiotic relationship with the Gray Wolf. The wolf culls the herds and keeps the Caribou in a healthy condition. It seems odd that predation can actually keep prey populations at a maximum, but it does.

Both the Barren Ground Caribou and the Forest Caribou are vital elements of our northern wild lands.

This rack, in the velvet, will grow to a massive size

This rack, in the velvet, will grow to a massive size

LUPINE – A Purple Contrast Amid the Colors

In Texas this is their state flower, but it is named differently. They call the flowers Bluebonnets. It is a plant that is most common on western ranges in dry, well drained soils. It is a poor competitor and so does well where other plants have been grazed or destroyed. The plant, also, has a low toxic nature that protects it from being grazed.

My Granddaughter, who loves wildflowers, is very attracted to this flower. In fact it’s the first wildflower she learned the name of. She fell in love with it on a trip to Alaska, and still has a dried specimen two years later. The beautiful spike of many pea-like buds is most appealing and a field of it adds a purplish hue to the landscape in late spring and summer. It is a perennial that is a member of the Pea Family. The compound leaves consist of oval leaflets that radiate from a central point. Once acquainted with the plant, it’s easy to identify it by the leaves, even when it’s not in bloom. Hairy seed pods will erupt when mature and throw seeds up to a yard or two from the parent plant.

I have seen this flower in most of my travels on the western part of this continent – even in Alaska, where the plant is a much deeper purple color and the blossoms are much larger. In fact, the colors are so rich that the species takes on (seemingly) added life.

There are several sub-species, some even have a yellowish hue – which can be found in the Copper Basin – close to Sun Valley. Domesticated varieties will add extra brilliance to your yard’s flower beds.

(A brilliant spike of Alaska Lupine)

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.

    (Mosquito habitat in Alaska - None like it in the lower 48)


			

Bears – Everybody’s Favorite

It matters not what type of life-form you enjoy watching, if you come upon a bear, you will suddenly become a “bear watcher.” If you visit Alaska, and have plenty of time, it’s great to drive there. The biggest reason is that there is a lot of wildlife along the ALCAN Highway. This is especially true of Black Bears. We have driven on three different occasions. When spotting a bear, I would get out with my tripod and camera. By carefully watching the bear’s body language, I could maintain a reasonable distance. Most animals send signals, but you have to learn to recognize them. Nevertheless, being out in the vicinity of a bear is very exhilarating. Once in Yellowstone, two other gentlemen and I were photographing a Black Bear. I could hear their wives begging them to not get too close, when over it all came my wife’s voice saying: “Get closer and get a decent picture.”

Black Bears adapted in treed habitats and so trees are critical to their existence. They are excellent climbers, and will utilize the trees for safety measures. Because of this, they are not as aggressive as Grizzlies. Grizzlies adapted in more wide open areas – so size and aggressiveness became necessary traits. Blacks have roman noses where a Grizzly’s face is dished. Blacks also have smooth shoulders where a Grizzly has a hump between them. Both species basically eat the same items and are mostly vegetarian. Blacks are smaller. The adults may weigh anywhere from 200 to 600 pounds. They also wean their cubs a year earlier than Grizzlies do.

Black Bears are not always black, especially here in the west. They can be various shades of brown, cinnamon, or even white. They don’t always den underground in the winter. They may utilize a large, hollow log or even get under low hanging conifer branches. These branches get covered over and insulated with snow, forming a makeshift den.

It has been said in jest: “Another way to tell the difference between the two bears is to climb a tree – If the bear comes after you it is a black. But if it rips the tree down and shakes you out of it, IT’S A GRIZZLY!”

This Black Bear (Ursus americanus) is in a logical dining spot – grass.