Archive for January, 2007

I am amazed at  how well camouflaged my backyard birds are.  These images are just a little too wide for my page.  So, if you will click on them then WordPress will show you the whole picture. 

Try to see if you can count how many birds there actually are in these pictures.   I promise you there are a bunch you can not  see.  Notice that it has snowed since this morning.


This is what was going on while we were sitting at our dining room table eating our soup.  Check out the birds in this shot.  Please note the squirrel in the middle of the photo.   His tail had just flicked the little white crowned sparrow who is jumping into the air behind him.   There is a cardinal lady right in front of that.


This is a view of the other feeding station, taken from my kitchen window.   The camera is confused by the screen.  Check out the redwinged black birds and the cardinal ladies in the forsythia bush in the background.   That bush is behind the privacy fence and stands on a mound next to my pond.   At the foot of that forsythia lies a small waterfall and little shallow stream that runs back into the pond a few feet away.  The birds are queueing up back there for a drink and bathe.

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Cleaning up

We have been getting the yard straightened up, now that most of the ice has melted off the branches.   It has been a long, slow process, and we still are not done.

We would probably be farther along if we were a lot younger and hardier.   For example, today we both have lots of time to get out in the yard and work.   But the thermometer just saps my energy as soon as I look at it.   Right this minute it says that it is 18 degrees F out there (-8 C), which is warmer than it was when I got up this morning, when it was 10 F (-12 C). 

“How important is it,” I ask myself, “To get all that stuff neatly arranged instead of in big ugly piles?”

Apparently, the answer is, “Not very.”


This is an elm that lives on the north east corner of our two acre place.   We have not even started cleaning up outside the immediate area around the house, yet.   So this image gives you a pretty clear idea of exactly how a tree will look before we start cutting, sorting and stacking the limbs.  Notice the big, dishevelled pile of branches scattered around it.


This is how it looks when we have got the cutting and stacking done.  What you are seeing here is the pile of branches shed by two elms that live inside the fence.


This is what is behind that wood shed, the remainder of what came off the elm that stands just to the right of it in the previous picture.


This is the tree that stands by the northwest corner of our house.   We have begun the clean up here, and we are about half done.  Most of the branches to the west of the tree have been moved, that area is out of the picture.   So what you are looking  at is the remaning 60% of the job.

The piles of brush are a boon to the little birds.   When I look out my window, I see they are alive with house finches, purple finches, gold finches, juncos, white crowned sparrows, song sparrows, carolina wrens, cardinals, and chickadees.  The leaf buds of the elms are apparently wonderful food.  The stacked piles provide shelter from the hawk and make a good wind break, too.

Ultimately, we will burn the larger stuff in bonfires in the next couple of years.   The smaller twigs and branches we are planning to run through our compost grinder and make mulch out of. 

But not today.  The birds can have them all for now. 

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There came a time in our young lives when we finally decided to take a vacation, actually leave Alaska and visit the Lower 48.   By the time we decided we needed to take a trip, in addition to a house, we had acquired 2 cats, 2 dogs, and a houseplant.  We were going Outside for Christmas.

Leaving a place that has no automatic heating source in the dead of winter is a little complicated.  You have to find someone who understands the care and feeding of a woodstove and is willing to make the commitment to do that job, otherwise your place will freeze up.  We figured that one really good fire a day, stoked fully and damped down to keep for several hours would create enough heat to keep the water tank from freezing.   But just in case, we made sure that it was nearly empty before we left.

We farmed the cats out to a friend for the fortnight, and she was also good enough to take over the care and feeding of my spider plant.  I knew it was going to become too cold in our house for its continued good health.  She was not willing to take on our large, energetic, and enthusiastic malemutes as well.

We kind of scratched our heads over the stove and dogs issue, and finally approached SL,our neighbor across the road.  She was completely willing to take on the task of building a fire every day, and feeding our dogs while we were gone.   If we didn’t mind, she said, it would be a lot easier for her if she could just move them down onto the line with her sled dog team.   She had a couple of extra dog houses anyway.  So that is what we did.

We went off on our adventure, and had a wonderful time.  We went to Delaware, and visited Longwood Gardens — a most beautiful estate in Pennsylvania.  Since we were there at the Christmas season, the big draw was supposed to be the outrageous display of poinsettias and orchids in the conservatory.   That was quite wonderful, but for me, the single most amazing thing there was the 100+ year old wisteria vine, which covered almost one entire end of one of the brick buildings, and had a trunk that was 16″ in diameter.  There is something compelling about truly old plants.

Well, actually, there was one other really cool thing at Longwood Gardens — there was a pile of leaves.  We were walking back towards the Conservatory having visited the wisteria, when we came across a leaf pile that had been stashed off in an unobtrusive corner.   It was like everything else at Longwood Gardens, bigger and better and more extensive than it seemed possible.   Here was a leaf pile that represented the accumulation of oak and maple and ash leaves from several hundred acres of trees.  It was long, and wide, and very tall.  Suddenly, I felt a need to jump into the pile — and before my embarrassed in-laws or mortified husband could stop me, that is exactly what I did.  It was fun, exhilirating, unauthorized.  Apparently, it was shocking behavior for a twenty-four year old as well.  I didn’t care.   I did it, and was glad, despite the murmurings and moues of disapprobation.

I proved myself a complete rube in other ways as well.   My urbane sister-in-law took me shopping in New York City.  I was under-impressed by the offerings at Saks.  My fashion sense has been forever warped by my sojourn in interior Alaska.  If it won’t look good with a set of long johns underneath, then it probably isn’t a very useful outfit.  I still look at things and wonder if they will keep the bugs off. 

Anyway, my huge sin on the shopping expedition was to abandon my purse on a chair in the shoe department while we walked around picking which pair of completely impractical and COLD shoes to try on.  She about had a conniption fit about that one.   Shoot, in Fairbanks I left my entire wallet with over a hundred dollars in it at Safeway one day, and it was returned completely intact the next.  No big deal.  What was the big deal about a purse on a chair?

Okay, so I was naive and un-urbanized.   I grew up in the Colorado mountains and had just spent the next 6 years in the Alaska frontier.  I prefer a culture where you can trust your neighbor, actually.  I didn’t take well to paranoia then, and still don’t.  Well, I have gotten better at purse monitoring.

Anyway, we finally returned home, late at night, and arrived to find our house all toasty warm.  SL knew when we were scheduled to arrive, and had made a special effort that day to make sure the home fires were burning brightly when we arrived from the airport. 

The next day we walked down the hill to collect our dogs.  Of course, they were delighted to see us, and bounced around in charming ecstasy at the end of the chains they were staked out on.   We hooked them to our leashes, and stood around for a chat with SL.

“I hope you don’t mind, I taught them not to bark at everything while you were gone,” SL mentioned.  “All you will have to do is tell them to “Be quiet!” if you want them to stop barking.  When you have 14 dogs, it just isn’t good to have dogs that bark uncontrollably.  No matter how well trained your dogs are, if one are two are barking, they all have to join in.”

“We noticed that your dogs seemed awfully quiet, considering how many there are of them

“I have used this method successfully for years.”

She seemed a little embarrassed, for some reason.   I was in awe of the fact that she was able to perform this feat at all, so I immediately wanted to know how she did it.  At first she didn’t really want to divulge the method, but I pressed her for the information.  I figured I might have another dog someday that I wanted to train to not bark.

“Well, it sounds a little cruel, but it doesn’t really hurt the dog,” was her initial disclaimer.

“Come on, S, we promise not to sue,” my husband finally said.

She finally decided to come clean.  “It only takes  a couple of days to really get the dog on the right path.  It is most effective if you are consistent at first, so I usually do this training exercise on the weekend or when I am planning to stay home a couple of days.  What you need is a metal garbage can and a piece of tin by your door.” 

This sounded intriguing, so I listened up.  “The garbage can has to be big enough to hold a dog, and should have a lid.  When the dog starts barking, you go out and bundle the dog into the garbage can and bang the lid down on it.  A dog in the dark, in a confined space, he is already a little cowed and you have his attention.”

I squirmed a little at the idea of keeping a dog in a garbage can.  It just seemed wrong to me.  What if it suffocated?

“Now what you do, is you bang on the garbage can with a piece of wood four or five times.  This makes a heck of a racket, scares the dog, and he will be a quiet dog when you let him out.  While you are banging on the can, you yell “Be quiet!” or whatever command you want him to associate with not barking.”  Here she went into a little aside.

“You will not have to worry about a burglar sneaking up on you without a warning.  A dog that is loyal to you will HAVE to bark when the pack territory is being invaded.   But what you want is a dog that will shut up after he has waked you up, and one that will not just bark because he heard a squirrel climb a tree over there, or hears the dog in the next county barking.”

“Now, as soon as you have finished banging on the garbage can, you let the dog out of it.  He will be quiet, and in awe, at least for a little while.  You praise him, and then you go back in the house.   As soon as he starts barking again, you repeat the process.   It usually doesn’t take that long for the dog to get the idea that barking does not result in a good thing.  After a while, you don’t have to throw him in the can any more.   That is what the piece of tin is for.   After you have used the can a few times, you can go out and bang on the piece of tin and yell “Be quiet” and get the same results.   I have a tin roof that is low by my door, so I just bang on my roof.   After a few days, you don’t even have to do anything except issue the “Be quiet” command.  Eventually you have a dog that won’t bark unless it is a real emergency.”

And she was right.  The method works.  I have used it successfully over and over again.  It is particularly effective when you have a puppy that you want to train.   You nip the habit in the bud, the first time the puppy is sounding off inappropriately, and you end up with a dog that will never annoy the neighbors.   With Ruby, I never had to throw her in the can at all.  I banged on the roof of her doghouse.  She is a very smart dog, we corrected her once, and she has never shown a tendency to bark incessantly ever since.  We do get the warning “Woof!” if someone comes into the house or yard, so the sentry function is still there.  She just doesn’t feel the need to provide commentary on all the neighborhood doings. 

It sounds cruel, but it doesn’t really hurt the dog.

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This is a picture of Goldstream Valley taken from on top of the bluff in front of our house.  The bluff was formed by a gigantic road cut where the State of Alaska used to store road materiels like pea gravel and sand.  It was also where a most amusing entertainment unfolded one summer afternoon.   That would be the day the lowboy carrying a huge generator up to the North Slope oilfields hit the frost heaves in the pavement of Goldstream Road and broke in half.   This cataclysmic event was followed by the arrival of a mobile crane.  But that is a completely different story.

This story is about a very magical day in early July when I decided that I had been watching the sandhill cranes fly around for long enough.  I was pretty sure they were nesting out in the valley nearby, because my neighbor had told me she had seen them doing their mating dances a couple of weeks before.   She would not tell me where she had seen this phenomenon, and I was determined to find the area myself.

If you look at the picture closely, down in the lower left corner you can see a cabin roof.  That cabin belonged to our closest neighbor, SL.  She lived directly across the road from us.  She was wildlife biologist employed by the Unversity of Alaska, and also a dog musher.   You can just see a rail to the left of her place.   This was where she secured her dogs while she was harnesssing them up.

She had about 14 to 17 dogs staked out in front of her place.   They were mostly malemutes, but there were a few miscellaneous Huskies and Samoyeds down there too.  She used to watch our pair of malemutes for us when we went on vacation, and she was the one who taught us the best way to teach a dog not to bark.   That is also another story.

Right across the middle of the picture is a line of evergreens.  Those are the black spruces that lined Goldstream Creek.   We used to cross country ski along that creek. 

So, I’ve got my good boots on.  It’s a nice sunny day.  Please join me as I walk off down our driveway.   When I get to Goldstream Road, I cross the road, turn right and walk along past SL’s place.   Her dogs raise their heads and observe me as I walk by, bored.  I walk on down the hill and then the road flattens out as it runs onto the “flood plain” of the creek.  The spruces, which have been robust and full, become scrawny and twisted where the permafrost and muskeg begin.  The grass changes too. 

I walk along another half mile to where a moose trail crosses the road and arrows off through the muskeg towards willows and alders that occupy an esker out there.  This moose trail is generally where we take off away from the road when skiing in the winter.  There is a large muskeg pond behind the esker, and I figure that maybe I’ll be able to get a bead on the sandhill crane nest from around there.

I walk off the road, and within moments I realize I have committed a real greenhorn’s error.  I forgot to put on my mosquito repellent before I left the house, and I don’t have any with me.   I look back up the hill towards the house, calculate the extra mile and a half going back for the bug juice would cost me, and decide to rely on what is left on my hat.  I never put the stuff directly on my skin, but sort of soak my shirt and hat with it.  That works pretty well.

I also tell myself the fairy tale that I will be able to walk along fast enough to leave the mosquitoes confused, the way I have been able to when running on the University’s ski trails during the summer.  It quickly becomes evident that this is truly a fairy tale.  I can not make the same kind of speed on the moose trail, and soon I am really pestered with the little biters. 

I stop to ponder whether this is really such a good idea, consider going back to the house for the bug spray.  I decide not to.  If I go back, chances are very high I will not come back out again.  Tomorrow is Monday and I won’t have an opportunity to return until  next weekend.   I decide to walk along, and tough it out.  The bugs are biting bad, it is almost maddening.  Just when I brush away one from my face there are three on my neck and two on my wrists.  Soon, I find myself fiercely concentrated on not being there.   “I’m not here, I’m not here.  You can’t find me.  My air is not warm and wet and saturated with CO2.  I’m not here,” becomes my mantra as I march steadfastly forward into the swampy area.   “Hmm,” I notice.  “The blueberrries have set a really good crop.  I need to get back here in a month to pick some for jam.”

 Finally I reach the esker and climb up out of the wetlands a few feet.  The esker is small, only about 30 feet wide, and twists along for only half a mile  Birches and alders and willows really flourish there.   I stop for a minute, to catch my breath.  I take a sip of water, and focus on my mantra some more.   Suddenly, I realize the mosquitoes are not biting me any more.   There are fifty to sixty whining around my head in an aerial ballet, but none are landing.  

I do not stop to question my good fortune, but continue my hike along the esker towards the pond, trying to be quiet as I brush through the alder clusters and willow thickets.  I want to disturb the brush as little as possible, hoping not to awaken the dozens of mosquitoes I see napping on its branches.  There is a low place in the sand where there is a little puddle of water left from the spring melt.  I wend my way around that, and stop just inside the brush line that overlooks the large pond I have been aiming for in front of me. 

It is probably about 3 acres of open water.   It is shaped like a big amoeba, completely surrounded by grasses and tall reeds.  The esker I am perched on continues around one side of it, and then runs into a sandy hill where the ridge our house sits on peters out.  Across the ponds there are some rather tall trees.  Off to the right, the marsh extends another quarter of a mile until it meets the bank of Goldstream Creek.

I look through my field glasses, scanning the marsh, hoping to see a nest mound.  There are lots of mounds, no nests.  I look up, and stand there for a while, watching the sky, hoping to see the crane flying around.  I try to scan the horizon, and the willows I’m standing behind obscure my view.  I decide to step out on the bank of the pond.  Carefully, so I don’t walk over the edge, I step out into the brighter sunlight.   The sun glints off the water, turning it to molten gold.   I look up into the sky again, and there, just above the tree tops I see a crane swooping in for a landing, ju-u-ust behind the tree tops across the pond.   Hmpf.   Maybe I should skirt the pond and see if there is a dry way over to that hill, which is behind SL’s place. 

I stop and look around on the gleaming surface of the pond.   The air is still, the mosquitoes whine.   Away off in the distance I hear the train whistle as the Alaska Railroad heads off towards Denali National Park and on to Anchorage.  It fades away, and as it does I suddenly become aware of ducks talking right in front of me.  I yank my attention back from the distance and look down at the pond, which suddenly has blossomed with ripples. 

In the center of all the ripples are duck and goose families of all sorts swimming around.  Everyone is extremely busy eating at the edge of the pond where the sedge grasses grow in bunches.  I see a bunch of eider ducklings bobbing in the wakes of a pair of Canada geese and their flotilla of five goslings.   There’s a lot of whistling going on in that bunch, as they paddle furiously, trying to keep up with their long-legged parents.

There are mallards, several pairs, a pair of loons, some canvasbacks, I think, and some other really pretty blue ducks.  I curse a small oath because I left my bird book at home along with the insect repellent.  I stand there in amazement.  The birds do not seem to know I am there.   They are swimming, and talking, and issuing directives to their wayward progeny. 

The cutest by far are the eider ducklings.   They are tiny balls of golden fluff, bobbing merrily and uncoordinatedly about on the surface.   They are trying their best to dive under the surface of the pond to copy their parent’s foraging activities.   Their little legs thrash the surface as they kick furiously, trying to drive all that bouyant down under the surface.   Finally they manage to submerge completely.  Just beneath the surface of the water I can see their little feet furiously kicking and kicking and kicking.   They manage to grab a tidbit and as soon as they have it, they stop kicking.  They pop out of the surface of the water like corks released from champagne bottles, landing in a chirping group near the reeds. 

I can’t help myself.   I laugh out loud.   Instantly, the quacking and honking alarm is given, and the water becomes miraculously free of waterfowl.  I watch the place where the little mallard ducklings swam to cover in the grasses at the edge of the pond.   As soon as they held still they became completely invisible against their background.  I marvel at how they disappear before my very eyes, without even the help of a magician.  It is amazing.

I stand very still and quiet for a time, willing them to emerge from the reeds.   But they are wise to me, and eventually I turn and head for home.  I decide to follow the esker back and avoid the swamp.   As I walk along, vigilant for little holes hidden in the sand and grasses, I run across another moose trail.  This speeds things up considerably for a while, until suddenly I run spang into a little birch tree that just appears right in front of me.  I stop, startled, and right in my face a robin explodes from her nest that is secreted in the fork of that sapling.  I almost fall down, I am so startled, but catch myself on the limber trunk of the tree.  This pulls the tree down just enough I can peer into her nest, nosily.  There are four beautiful blue eggs in it, so I gently release the tree and walk around it.   The moose path peters, out, there are bristly shrubs to bash through before I finally intersect with the power line right of way.  

Evening is advancing as I walk along the well worn path that SL’s sled and summer cart had worn there.   It winds in and around the willows under there.   I come around a corner and there in the path stands a fox, almost completely shed of its winter coat.  I stop, it does a double take and lopes off into the brushy area edging the right of way.  I breathe in again, and pop over the edge of the ditch onto the highway right by our mailbox.   I pick up the paper, and walk back up to the house. 

What a day.  What a beautiful day. 

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I spent yesterday searching through my box of archival photographs.  In the course of my searches I got obsessive compusive about trying to label each and every one of the myriad rolls of film with at least  a year.

Over and over again I kept asking myself “WHY?” didn’t I label those things when I took them?  Additionally, I began to bless my anal retentive digital camera which gets huffy if I try to take a picture without a date and time label on it.  Thank heavens for small favors

The exercise reminded me once again of the twisted path my life has followed, and it made me think about walking in muskeg.

Muskeg is a very interesting phenomenon.   The article I have linked to doesn’t really give you a very good idea of what muskeg is really like to walk through.  The thing called muskeg presents itself in many ways. 

It can be a sort of flat, dampish area with a few hummocks in it and lots of blueberries growing there.  You can be enticed out into the seemingly innocuous swamp and suddenly find that the moss you are walking on has a thin place and your foot goes through.  Suddenly you are wet to the knee with brown mucky water.  If you are fortunate, you are not up to your waist and stuck trying to “swim” back to a place where the sphagnum moss will support you. 

There is muskeg that has formed over permafrost.  Quite often the footing underneath will be quite solid, but all the water is very cold.  This sort of muskeg tends to have places where the decaying detritus has built up to make islands of solid footing that are separated from each other by narrow twisting channels that hold water.   This kind of muskeg is not that bad to walk on, you walk on an island and step across the channels to the next island.  As long as you are sufficiently vigilant and do not accidentally step into a channel that is hidden by overhanging grasses or other vegetation, you are pretty much all right.

The second type of muskeg comes in varying sorts.  There are sectors where the islands are as big as your dining room table or living room, with channels that are only 6-8 inches wide dividing the islands.   Frequently in this sort of division,  the channels are not that deep, maybe only a foot or so with a couple of inches of water in the bottom.  Accidentally stepping into one of these is not that bad, really, since you already have good hiking boots on.  You do have good hiking boots on, don’t you?

However, this variety of muskeg forms with all sorts of sizes of “island” and “channel”.   It ranges from the table sized islands with narrow channels all the way to single tufts of grass emerging from a shallow pond. 

As far as I am concerned, the worst walking I have ever had to do was across a muskeg swamp where the tussocks of grass were about the size of beach balls and soccer balls.  The “solid” peat under them was about knee high, with a frosting of slippery grass.  In between these tussocks, were channels about a foot to 18 inches wide.  The water in the channels was anywhere from 2 to 10 inches deep, depending on how deep the channel was. 

If you were lucky, you could step from tussock to tussock without getting thrown into the channels between.  But the tussocks were tall and narrow, and tended to bend from side to side as you put your weight on them, plus the grass was not good footing.   And some of the tussocks were long, narrow and twisted.  There was no good way to walk around, they were too tall to step over easily.  It was  a long slog through cold muddy water, stepping up and over tussocks in your way.  Every once in a while you’d come to a section where you could walk up out of the water for a while, but inevitably you would end up thrown down into the watery channels after a few steps.  It was frustrating, unpredictable, and exhausting.

I met this section of muskeg when I was accompanying my husband at the time on a surveying expedition out in the bush north of Fairbanks.   His company had been hired by the State of Alaska to survey an area they were going to open up to homesteaders.  What we were doing was establishing section corners, which form a grid of points one mile apart.   There were four of them on our agenda that day. 

We were a party of three: my husband, his co-worker, and myself.   We had radios, lunch, water, long metal posts for the section markers, sundry small items, a theodolite, two tripods, a small chain saw, machetes, and a piece of equipment that was optimistically described as a portable gas powered jack hammer.  Portable is a word applied to this thing very loosely.  It was heavy and unwieldy, but we needed it in order to dig a hole deep enough in the permafrost to permanently seat the section markers that we were establishing. 

We had finished our work for the day and were headed to the place where the helicopter was going to pick us up.  There was no option for us, we had to cross the muskeg swamp to get from where we were to where we needed to be.  We had attempted to try to find a way around, but there were miles and miles of muskeg, so we just gutted up and slogged through.  Even though the guys finally took pity on me and the only thing I had to carry was the chain saw, my knees have never really been the same since that day. 

But still, getting through life has so many of the aspects of walking through muskeg.  Sometimes it is a piece of cake, smooth sailing if a little wet.  Sometimes it is nothing but obstacles, with low obstacles in between the high obstacles.   Sometimes the problem seems endless, but eventually you will come to the solid ground again.  You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Crying is just a waste of precious energy that you need to keep on going.

Right now the muskeg of my life seems to be the kind that appears smooth and tricks you with a big pitfall into cold muck, followed by a lot of thrashing around.   I’m looking for the solid ground to show up just any time. 

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