That's My Story...And I'm Sticking with it...
Ten encounters in the Wild of the Last Frontier
A month after the birth of my son Skylar, we drove the Al-Can to Alaska from Petaluma, California in two cars. My wife was still recovering from a C-section and we had originally planned to fly her to Anchorage, but the Unabomber threatened to bomb a passenger plane flying out of SFO. This was August 1995 six years before the terrorist attacks, but this threat seemed worth taking seriously, so we drove her instead. If anyone has ever traveled the three thousand mile adventure, you’ll know that this would rival the experience of the pioneers traveling on the Oregon Trail a century ago.
Once in Alaska, I got hired by Carrs-Gottstein as a bagel baker in the bakery in the Muldoon store. At the time I was a smoker who preferred pipe smoking and since the store was smoke free, I had to go to the designated area outside which in September wasn’t such a big deal, but when it snowed in October and did not go above 32 degrees, smoking became more of a chore of avoiding frostbite. Considering I did not want my son to see his father was a smoker, I quit.
In June 1996, I enrolled in University of Alaska Anchorage as a teaching student of language arts. So I would come to work at ten in the evening and go home at six the next morning, get cleaned up and go to an eight o’clock class at the school about 20 minutes away from my home in Chugiak. Also at this time, construction on the addition of our house onto my in-laws home began. My son was transfixed with the construction taking place and grandpa would hold him for hours as they watched the bulldozers and other heavy equipment dig the foundation of our home. Anyone familiar with the Last Frontier knows that permafrost is a real thing. Permafrost is a permanent layer of ice about four feet in the ground so digging becomes a consideration when working construction. With all the talk of climate change, some of the problems encountered in this area is that the permafrost is melting and some of the houses’ foundations are giving way. This will most likely be another chapter we will save for later.
As I stated earlier, there are more critters than people in Alaska and even though Anchorage is the largest metropolitan area in the entire state, I have seen black bears and moose going about their business while the traffic wizzes on by oblivious to what these creatures are doing. In this short piece, I will cite ten instances (and there were more, but memory is fallible at times) of encounters with nature while living ten years in the Last Frontier. First, Alaska is the largest state in the United States in total area. If you could take Alaska and lay it over the rest of the country, it would cover the midwest from Texas to North Dakota. Up until the 2010 census, Alaska was the least populated state, but then Wyoming took over as the least populated and we slipped into 49th place. Next, Alaska has one road. This must be repeated, Alaska has one road. This may not impress you until you realize that most places are only accessible by bush plane or dog sled and either mode does not ensure that you will make it either. If the place you are planning to go to isn’t on the Parks or Glenn Highway (Seward connects to the Glenn in Wasilla where Sarah Palin was mayor when we lived there), you will have to seek appropriate transportation. So the ninety percent of the state that is not accessible by this highway is known as the “The Bush,” roadless and isolated, this is the frontier they are talking about as in Last Frontier. Now that we have established why human existence in this part of the world is tenuous at best and why wildlife regards us as intruders.
As a student at UAA, I had access to a gym as part of my student fees, but there was a two mile trail around the campus that was accessible. There is one thing to consider and that is, the wildlife outnumbers the human population and what that means is there are an abundance of moose. Now for those who have never encountered one on a jog through the woods, moose are not very smart, nearsighted and have vile tempers. In my briefing by my brother-in-law, I was warned about how when their ears twitch, it’s time to get behind a tree, because the moose is getting ready to charge. Why a tree? Because moose are too stupid and sight impaired to let a tree get in their way. Now let me talk about the size of these beasts. Moose are the largest member of the deer family. You remember the cute little Disney character, Bambi? Well, moose are the ugly cousins and they are bigger in person than they seem at the zoo where I had seen one many years ago. If a moose charges the impact is like being hit by a city bus. More people are killed in moose encounters than any other creature in Alaska. Unfortunately, some of these encounters are on the only highway in the entire state. Moose do not and have never yielded to traffic when they wander out onto the highway looking for better grazing on the other side of this strange gray ground that does not have any vegetation. So now you have the basic idea of why moose are considered something you really need to avoid. To give you some idea of the size, on one encounter, I nearly ran beneath a bull moose and I am over six feet tall. Since I felt moose encounters was something it took me a while to get used to, when I do encounter one, my mind does something like this:
Is it a dog? Nope. Is it a pig? Nope. How about a cow? Nope. Horse? Nope. It’s a moose!!!
Other encounters included one morning on my way to work, I went out to my car in the dark because it was winter and suddenly a moose came sauntering out of the trees next to my car. I sat there because she was eying the car and I was afraid if I moved, she would take an exception and charge. Since my car was a small compact, I figured I would not survive the encounter. Once the dogs started barking from inside, the moose who do not like dogs decided to mosey on. In another winter encounter, I was walking with Skylar who was probably about seven years old and he said to me, “I saw something, but I don’t want to tell you what it was.” After a ten back and forth exchange, I finally figured it out, “Was it a moose?” He shook his head yes, adding, “And a baby moose, too.” Sure glad he didn’t tell me as I had the leashes of both Ed and Jordan.
After celebrating Tegan’s fifth birthday, I looked out back and saw a moose munching on my bushes. The snow was over three feet deep, but moose have legs that are easily over five feet from hoof to belly.
My mother came to visit in 1998 in May, but then the temperature never got above 40 degrees and mom froze while visiting. But as we picked her up at the airport in Anchorage we were passing the hospital where a moose was feasting on one of their bushes right in front of the building. She was amazed that such a large creature would be in the heart of the city. Welcome to Alaska, mom.
Over my ten years in Alaska, this process became shorter and shorter, thank God since my life depended on it at times.
Bears can also be problematic and driving into Eagle River which is the town before you come to our home in Chugiak, you see a Bear Cache which looks like a miniature log cabin on stilts about fifteen feet or higher off the ground. These are built to keep the Kodiak bears out of your food supply. Like the moose, Kodiak bears are the biggest of the bear family and can stand up to fifteen feet high when standing on their hind legs. Their paws are easily bigger than your head. When encountering these cousins of the grizzlies, play dead, because you will not outrun them, outclimb them in a tree or even out swim them. Play dead. In my ten years in Alaska, I, thank God, never had to deal with them, but I have heard of those who did.
As my son grew older he became interested in camping out with the Boy Scouts, so I became a leader. On our first campout, the troop leader gave me a bell. What is this for? I asked innocently. This is for when you are on the trail and encounter a bear as bears do not like a lot of noise so you will have to make as much noise as you can. I always thought about it in these terms, if I came across a bear, I would begin to run. One of the boys would be sure to remind me that I cannot outrun the bear and I would reply, “I know, but all I have to do is outrun you.”
As I became more of bicycle rider, because the Tony Knolls Trail which circled the Cook Inlet around Anchorage was one of the best bike paths I have ever seen and riding it was about an hour of some of the most scenic coast land I have ever seen, but one day I was riding and ahead of me I saw three figures step out of the tall grass about three hundred yards ahead of me on the trail. I happened to be riding down one of the steeper hills at a pretty brick pace. Once again my mind began the count down cycle:
Is it a dog? Nope, not a dog. Is it a pig? Nope, it’s a BEAR! A momma and two cubs!!!
I know that I left a black mark on the trail where my tires came to an abrupt stop before turning my bike around and peddling up the steep hill in record time. From the top of the hill, I watched the trio disappear in the tall grass once again unaware or totally unbothered by our near encounter. I did not know it at the time, but this was my close encounter of the third kind.
I did have a close encounter of the second kind when once again on my bicycle rode up to Beach Lake which was about a mile from my backdoor. The trail itself is very rugged and hilly until you come to the lake. All together it was about a ten mile trip. Having managed to get over the first set of hills, I decided to take a break for a few minutes. It was late autumn so the first snow was just a couple of weeks away and the air had the smell of a crisp autumn day that included the berries rotting on the vines providing a very distinct aroma. That’s when I heard a grunt of an animal much larger than myself and when I looked down in horror I saw I had parked in what was once a chest cavity of a moose with its rib cage on either side of my tires. There is one thing you must know when out and about. First the bears are feasting to get fat enough for hibernation and second they are even more grouchy and therefore aggressive during this season and here I was parked on their feast with my bicycle. The noises continued, but I did not hear them much longer as once again I moved at surprising speed to get away from their moose feast.
The final encounter belongs to my wife who was driving home from work in the early evening on Klondike where we lived when she saw a brown bear walk into an open dumpster. Big deal, right? Except this dumpster was one of those you see in the parking lot of a complex so that the entrance (if one should care to enter the dumpster in the first place is about eight to ten feet off the ground). This bear would inhabit the wooded area between our house and the neighbor’s house, because we could hear him grunting. One morning after I had left for work, my wife saw the bear come out of the wooded area and she could see him eye to eye out of our second story window. Now while this seems extraordinary, I should tell you that our ground floor was inlaid about three feet into the ground so that she was really about one and a half stories up, but the size of this beast was enough to warn you to stay as far away as you could. The result was that my son was not allowed to play in the play area we had fenced off in our backyard until we were sure the beast had moved on. Since summers in Alaska are about six weeks long, the season for him was basically ruined that year.
Play dead? Yeah, right. When encountering one of these bears, there is no playing involved, is there? Now I have heard some stories about Polar Bears to the effect of up on the North Slope near the Beaufort Sea, where you will be sure to see one, these bears like to put their paws over their noses to appear like snowdrifts, because during the winter months when the sunsets in November and does not rise above the horizon until the first week in February, it is easy to mistake one of these giant beasts for a snow bank which will make you dinner for these bears. They are almost as large as their cousins.
If you read Call of the Wild you will know that in Alaska domestic dogs is a very fluid term. The first week of March every year, nearly seventy teams of dogs assemble on the main street in Anchorage to kick off another Iditarod Race from Anchorage to Nome over a thousand miles away across the frozen Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers in some of the most inhospital weather conditions known to man as winds can reach over fifty miles per hour and temperatures can dip to under fifty degrees below zero. You would have to be very much insane to try this lark. Like the 1925 serum run where Nome was in the middle of a diphtheria epidemic (hmm doesn’t that sound familiar) and the only way to get the medicine into this boom town was to have it shipped in by dogsled over some of the harshest terrain ever encountered. To honor that courageous life saving event, in 1973, they organized the Iditarod and it has been one of the biggest sporting events in the state. Usually there are around seventy teams that start the race that begins in Eagle River after the ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage twenty miles to the south. I could hear the dog teams howling and barking from our home in Chugiak. The winner crossing the finish line will usually take seven days and there are usually fifty or often less who finish the entire course as a lot of teams drop out along the rugged trail. Racing teams can often come from all over the world, especially northern places where weather conditions can be similar.
A team consists of a musher and 8 to 12 dogs pulling the sled and these sleds are very much like the ones that were used in 1925. While most people think of huskies and malamutes as the real sled dogs, the reality is that any dog with tenacity and determination can become a sled dog. Living in Chugiak near Eagle River meant living near many of the sled dog racers who would drive special pickup trucks with a wooden type shell and a dozen holes in the sides of the shell where the dogs could stick their heads through as they rode. It was quite a site to see these furry faces, tongues out as they rode down the road.
My father-in-law used to raise and race dogs in the local races and I knew this because I saw his trophies and in the back where the woods were, there were remains of some of the dogs where he used to have their houses located so I learned not to venture too far off the path.
Before I conclude my saga on dogs, I will say that sled mushers tend to love their dogs more than they love humans. In a race, one of the mushers lost a dog during the Iditarod and animal rights activists were quick to report on it including a judgement that this race was cruel to the animals. I will testify that this is not true as most of the team is enthusiastic to be on the trail. While many other human/non human activity is not for the benefit of the non-human, I would strongly disagree about this one.
On a final note, I worked with a Division of Vocational Rehabilitation counselor who was visual impaired himself, but in his office was a picture of him on a dogsled ready to charge off onto the trail. I’m not sure, but I think you must be a dog lover to live in Alaska or at least there is a strong attachment between humans and their dogs. While living here, we had a tribe that included Jordan, Ed, Corky, Pepper, Princess, and Lucky. Later we took on two guinea pigs named Carlos and Carmella. Carlos passed before we left Alaska, but Carmella traveled down next to me on my trip down the Alcan Highway More on her to come.
Living in a town near Eagle River, you’d expect to see eagles. When I was younger they put the American Bald Eagle on the endangered species list and it became illegal to hunt eagles unless you were Native American, but growing up on the east coast the only eagles I ever saw were either in zoos looking very glum or in picture books. When the Air Force moved me out to the west coast, I still did not encounter any eagles, but in Alaska eagles became a very common sight, but some of the awe I had once held for them seemed to fade as with any creature that becomes a common sight. Still I have an overall respect for this impressive raptor as it soars through the skies overhead. The only problem is we had to be careful at times.
We had a back deck and my mother-in-law had a Yorkshire Terrier named Corky. Now Corky was a spunky little guy and was very friendly, but when he went on the back deck to “do his business” the eagles would start to appear so he was unable to stay out there unattended in case one of them came swooping down in search of dinner.
When encountering these majestic creatures, there will be times when they will not live up to their billing and thus was the case with the eagles as the first time I saw one was on the main street of Eagle River where two seagulls dove on this eagle and beat the living daylights out of the poor bird right there on the road holding up traffic. It was very disheartening to say the least watching the symbol of this great country getting the stuffing knocked out of him by a pair of ornery seagulls.
One of Amy’s friends was married to one of her classmates from high school who was a 6’7” fireman from Eagle River. One day he showed us the tree where there were about fifteen to twenty eagles perched on a tree next to the firehouse kitchen. Here were these pot bellied eagles waiting patiently for the cook to toss out the leftovers. Until then I had never seen or even imagined an overweight pot bellied eagle existed.
To restore my faith in these majestic creatures, there was a beaver pond about a half mile from our home. I would take my dog Jordan and Amy’s dog Ed there to splash around in the water. Well Jordan my black Labrador Retriever would while Ed, a female Schnauzer would sit and watch from the shore. Early one morning while the mist still hung in the air, I walked them to the pond created by this industrious beaver you will read about later on and there perched on the beaver dam were a pair of eagles no more than fifty feet from where I stood, staring at me at eye level. Words cannot describe the beauty of these two birds sitting so constantly in the warming morning sun. There have been moments in my life that I felt were pure magic and this would be one of them, but upon seeing my dogs, the pair decided to take flight and in doing so covered the ground where we stood in the shadow of their wings. I don’t care if I had seen an eagle get beat up in Eagle River or a tree full of pot bellied eagles, this moment would erase all of that in a flutter of their wings as they disappeared in the blue morning sky.
There are many native legends concerning the ravens on how they are messengers of the gods or how they will carry the souls of the departed to heaven, the fact is if you have ever encountered a raven, they have to be the smartest birds in the sky. Their habitat is mostly the northwest where they like to be the tricksters with a screech that sounds like an angry voice. Many claim these birds are capable of talking and while I have never heard them talk, I must say I know why people believe they are capable. Maybe if I listen close enough I can detect a New Jersey accent or perhaps a New England accent. Whatever, these birds are smart. I say that because I have encountered a few who have looked me over to determine if I am worthy of their time. While a lot of people do feed them, unlike the pot bellied eagles, their motivation is not entirely built on being fed as most creatures tend to be, instead they are sizing you up. They are nearly three feet tall when they are standing on their feet, their feathers are as black as black can be matching their eyes which are probing you closely. They will turn their heads to gain a new perspective and while I have never heard them say “nevermore,” they do seem to have a mystic presence that can be unnerving. If you look around you may see some of the raven’s allies perched around the place you are standing since there is a collectiveness in their community that is known as a “murder.” This is no accident or misnaming, ravens are perceptive and intelligent. To prove their more sinister instincts, I remember when we built an area for Ed and Jordan to “do their business” they would have to descend the stairs that led into the caged area where ravens would perch on the chain link fence. They would squawk before flying off and grabbing some acorns or other projectile to drop on the dogs. Jordan would bark her head off and jump at them, but the fence was too high and instead of being frightened by her ferocious barking, the ravens would all sit there and cackle at these goofy dogs who were making such a ruckus.
When I speak of the beaver it will be in the singular sense since I only encounter one, but that one made a huge impression on me, because he was responsible for creating a memorable landmark that wasn’t there prior to his occupation of what we knew as the Beaver Pond. We would walk down Klondike where we lived and down another road to a small place where there was this pond. Piled in one corner was a dam of logs placed there by the beaver who occupied the den about fifty feet out in the water. The den rose out of the water nearly ten feet high made from pieces of branches and discarded wood. It was an impressive structure indeed.
The main occupant also had a temper as he demonstrated when I brought Ed and Jordan by on my walks. While Ed did not pose a threat to the beaver, Jordan did, because she loved to get into the water whenever she could. Once in the water, the beaver let Jordan know of his displeasure with her invasion of the pond he had created for his own private enjoyment. He would swim by Jordan and thwap his tail on the water as close as he could get to her, but Jordan was friendly and took the beaver’s temper tantrum as a gesture of friendship which in turn made the beaver even more enraged to which he would slap his tail even harder. Finally I got Jordan out of the water and back on her leash so the beaver could calm down.
One morning I saw animal control putting the beaver into a cage. Apparently he had expanded his water park which flooded the yards of some of the houses in the area. Me, I would have hired him as one of the most industrious landscapers I have ever seen. Before they disassembled his intricate water system, I went for a hike in the swampy land behind the pond. There were three tiers of logs creating a water feature of different levels constructed so that the water flowed evenly in a series of small ponds. Each tree had been used precisely to create the desired aesthetic affect. You have my admiration, Mr. Beaver. I hope they take you to a place where you can design a water park to your liking.
Question: What does the rivers of Alaska have that the rivers on the west coast used to have, but no longer do?
Salmon in Alaska come in basically three types: Sockeye, Coho (rainbow), and Chinook (king). While there are others, these three are the ones that make fishermen stand shoulder to shoulder with fishing poles extended into the muddy waters, hip waders on and making sure they move their feet so as not to be sucked into the mud, unable to move unless assisted. Season may vary due to seasonal considerations, but usually the season starts in late spring (June since breakup is usually in May) and goes until late September or even October. I have seen the rivers in late September and most of the salmon is bear food since salmon live to lay their eggs before dying as the water gets colder. Sluggish and slow, bears feast on them ensure they have enough fat to make it through hibernation of a long winter.
What was truly a shame is that I do not care for salmon and despite many cookouts where salmon was skillfully grilled, I did not care for the savory flavor and would grab a burger or hot dog instead. My brother-in-law was a skillful fisherman, but due to allergies would wind up in the emergency room if he ever ingested some, but he loved the activity and would find more secluded spots than the one everybody else flocked to.
I recall only one encounter with a linx that happened just before winter and it was not as close as some of the others, because he was strutting down the dirt road in front of the house and did not stop to cause or stir up any trouble as he scooted on by. Linx are rare, but they are here in the Chugach Mountains which were across the highway from our house. But seeing this cat, we made sure to keep a close eye on our dogs just in case.
I will end my tale with the only non living thing we encountered while living in Alaska, the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. While many smart people know how they work as an electrostatic display in the atmosphere, all I know is that looking up at the dancing eerie green lights that spread out from horizon to horizon was an unforgettable experience by any measure or standards. If you have only seen them in pictures, you are missing half of the natural beauty they display when you see them in person.
They would start over the ridge of the Chugach Mountains and then stretch across the sky, a glowing green light that appeared as a moving river of light. They would only appear on some of the coldest nights of the winter and I was told if I clap my hands the lights would move. Sometimes they would appear so close it seemed like I could reach out and touch them with my hands. No matter what there was something most definitely magic about seeing them in the sky and no, I do not need a scientific reason why they appeared, I just need to sit there and behold their beauty.
So my encounters with the wild things of the Last Frontier is complete even though I had other encounters that weren’t so wild, but I do know a few things about the Last frontier:
There are so many unique things about Alaska that a much longer list would have to be written, but I hope I have given you some of the flavor of living in the Last Frontier, because it truly is a place of unspoiled beauty and nature.
The Rest of the Story: