A Little Luck in SE Alaska

Following a morning of ritual waving of fly rods at oblivious coho salmon, we park the car on the edge of the Glacier Hwy. and start north down a narrow trail. We dip quickly into woods that soon give way to marshy muskeg. A few scattered, puffy clouds accent a crystal blue sky over a landscape that averages 222 days of measurable rain a year, and we feel lucky. Southeast Alaska is mostly rain forest. Looking west over the swamp, clumps of rushes, scattered grass, and gnarly coastal pines grow out of heavy, wet sphagnum and peat. Beyond the muskeg, unnamed peaks—numbers 4897 and 5894—form a venerable white crown atop it all.

Muskeg.jpg

We are, indeed, lucky to have this perfect weather, but we also did our homework, studied forecasts and schedules. Along with clear weather and backcountry cabin availability, a third factor had to align: high solar flare activity. We are headed for the Cowee Meadow cabin—chosen for its situation in an open meadow, and the short walk from there to the shore of Berners Bay—perfect places for viewing the object of our quest: the Aurora Borealis.

Out of the muskeg, the trail follows the marge of a wet meadow. Where water cuts through the forest, boardwalks keep us dry as chestnut-backed chickadees and kinglets chip in the canopy, and raven’s boisterous knocks bounce here and there. Scattered horses graze the meadow.

An hour in, the cabin comes into view, tucked into a pocket at the northwest corner of the meadow. Narrow walkboards over water-logged moss that connect forest to cabin have a thin covering of ice, and we appreciate the extra stability our trekking poles lend to our calf-high rubber boots.

We doff our packs in the simple little cabin and waste no time in unpacking the gallon jugs of kerosene we have lugged a little over two miles—weight we thankfully will not have to carry back out. There are other backpacks, gear, and several more jugs of fuel about the cabin and we hope there will be no confrontation. We have a reservation but anybody can open a door without locks.

With two or three hours remaining before dark, we take advantage of the day and walk a quarter mile to the shore. The muskeg trail is on walkboards the whole way, and slippery. We advance slowly and cautiously, agreeing that we should bring our trekking poles next time.

Near the shore, a small porcupine, oblivious to our presence, waddles between clumps of grass. When approached,the odd little critter buries its head in a thick clump like a young child who thinks by covering her eyes she cannot be seen. Unlike the vulnerable child, though, this youngster has a heavily-speared backside protecting it, and we keep our distance.

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A hundred yards off, close to the water’s edge, three people lounge in the sun on a large boulder and we wonder if these are the people belonging to the gear in our cabin. Giving them space, we wander in the other direction—exploring the receding tide on the edge of the bay. Sculpin dart from our shadows in tide pools rife with anemones, chitons, limpets, and hermit crabs.

Looking up from a pool, we see the three sun bathers coming our way and move towards the trail to greet them. They are, indeed, the folks from the cabin, and we are pleased to find them very friendly and happy to evacuate.

As they walk back to get their gear, we walk around the shore where harlequin ducks mingle with mallards, scoters, and gulls. A far-off flock of shorebirds rallies to a boulder covered in blue mussels and barnacles.

We get back to the cabin as three bodies emerge, packs on their backs, into the waning light. They are nice enough to give us tips on starting the kerosene heater and warn us that our two gallons might not be enough for two nights. “We used two gallons each night,” one of them said. “You might gather some firewood for the supplemental heater.” We note their advice and set about emptying one gallon of fuel into the stove tank, filtering water, then cooking some supper.

Darkness is full by the time we clean up from eating, and I am eager to get outside and take some test shots. I set up my tripod in a flat spot in front of the cabin and scan the horizon. The big dipper sits low on the horizon over the cabin. I trace a line from its front edge up and to the right to find the north star—always a comforting and grounding sight.

By the red lens of my headlamp, I carefully check all my settings against the notes in my pocket—f/2.8, 10 seconds, ISO 800, long exposure noise reduction on, auto focus off, focus set to infinity…

To the right of the dipper a faint white light glows on the horizon through the trees. I hope that rising moon doesn’t wash out the aurora

I level the camera, zoom out to capture Ursas major and minor in the view, and depress the shutter. There is a click, ten quiet seconds, a second click, ten more seconds for noise reduction, a third click, and an image appears on the screen.

“Laurie, Come look at this!”

My companion emerges from the cabin and huddles around the back of the camera with me.

“Wow! I don’t see it.”

“There is a glow on the horizon over there, to the east.”

I point through a nearby stand of sitka spruce.

“There.”

“But it looks white…”

“I know. I thought it was moonlight.”

We stare at the little image on the back of my camera, back at the sky, and back to the camera again. The faint white light on the horizon appears in the lower right corner of the camera screen as a green glow—the aurora borealis.

North Star.jpg

I reposition the camera farther east, and snap another. This time the green is a little brighter, fading higher. Above the green, as if being poured from the big dipper, is a red splash.

Farther east, the white glow is now turning green to the naked eye and I turn my camera toward the pleiades where the camera reveals vertical bars of green light, a green glow across the the horizon, and more red above it all.

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I am giddy. I can’t shoot fast enough. I point my camera to every corner of the sky. The greens are becoming brighter and brighter, streaking up into the stars and back down again. The reds are appearing in blotches here and there. In the southwest sky, Orion lays on his sword in the dark. I photograph it all.

After an hour or so, the show has settled, but there remains a glow to the north, so we put our tripods over our shoulders and head for the shoreline. Halfway out the trail, we are stopped by a new light in the east and step out into the muskeg to shoot. With water halfway up our boots, we shoot bright green streaks rising high into the sky.

At the shore, Lion’s Head Mountain is silhouetted in a green light that reflects on the bay in an eerie display. We shoot and shoot and shoot until, from somewhere along the shore, we hear a snort.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know.”

Senses heightened, we stand still and listen. There is another snort. I feel an uneasiness in my stomach. We are in bear country, and it is dark.

“Can you tell how far away it is?”

“No.”

“I’ll take a picture.”

I train my camera in the direction of the snort and open the shutter. Twenty-five long seconds later, the image appears on my screen.

“It’s too dark.”

I increase the ISO and click again.

This time the photo is bright but grainy. I zoom in on the tiny screen until I can just make out the fuzzy shape of a horse standing in the tide flat. Relieved, we go back to shooting.

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A little while later, we hear a loud neigh followed by a fading gallop. Uneasiness returns to my stomach. We never find out what spooked the horse.

For unmeasured time, we photograph an ever-changing show. It is well past midnight when we return to the cabin where we set an alarm for an hour nap, then head back out, once again, first shooting the meadow, then heading to the bay.

It is two o’clock in the morning and ice is forming on the boards. Halfway to the bay, in the same area where we stopped to shoot earlier, I slip on a loose walkboard and find myself twisting, fighting to keep camera above the water as I splash down, soaking my right side. Fortunately, sphagnum makes for a soft landing. Unfortunately, the water is cold! Most importantly, the camera is fine. Undaunted, we continue on. Shortly after my slip, Laurie has a similar fall, but lands on the board, avoiding the soaking I got.

Between two and four that morning, we capture the most spectacular scenes of the night. Lion’s Head is awash in an emerald glow rivaling Oz. No camera is needed to appreciate the grandeur of it. It is four-thirty when we return to the cabin for some sleep.

Lion's Head Redeaux-6.jpg

I am still floating when we crawl out of our bags a few hours later. I take down my pants from where they hang over the stove. They are dry, but the stove is out and the cabin is cooling. Outside, frost covers the meadow. I rustled some wood from the porch and build a small fire. We are impressed at how quickly the cabin warms back up.

Frost on Cowee Meadow.jpg

We spend the day walking, photographing birds—belted kingfisher, song sparrow, bald eagles, ducks and gulls. The highlight of it all is stalking and photographing a flock of mixed shorebirds—black turnstones, surfbirds, and rock sandpipers. We eat lunch on a boulder by the bay.

Battle-2
Surfbird and Black Turnstone Squabble over Turf

Our second night has a few more clouds, plenty of sky, but little aurora. We spend most of our time sleeping, alternating every hour to get up and check for light that never comes.

By morning, it is overcast and we decide on a side hike up a steep trail along echoing creek to cedar lake, foraging blueberries along the way. Cedar Lake is a beautiful pond offering stunning reflections, and a perfect lunch spot. From there, we hike back down, load up our packs and head back to the car.

Along the trail, we watch pacific wrens hunting spiders, play peek-a-boo with a raven, and unsuccessfully attempt an overgrown, unused trail through the muskeg to a beaver pond, but quickly find ourselves headed into water too deep for our boots, and retrace back to the main trail.

Peek-a-boo-3

We pause, again, for a view of 4897 and 5894, but find them mostly obscured by clouds. It has drizzled the whole way out, yet I am not ready for the trail to end. I find some solace, however, in the knowledge that I have ten more days in Alaska.

On the way home, we stop at the Eagle Creek bridge, where bald eagles dot the spruce trees. I train my lens on a close one and snap three shots before it flies, then one more in flight before it quickly comes too close for shooting, and passes overhead—a throwaway shot, I think. When I import my photos later, I find that luck was on my side again.

Take off near Juneau

That night we consult calendar, weather and aurora forecasts, and scout lodging possibilities for Yukon. We are just getting started! Stay tuned…

Birding by Ear in Anchorage

I am downstairs, sitting in the rocking chair next to the hearth where the wood stove used to be. It is early morning. I am thinking about the next three weeks of travel, and writing. To my left is a small table. Beyond the table, a sliding glass door leads to a tiny patio. The world outside is dark and quiet. I stop writing when I hear, from the direction of the door, a remarkably loud birdsong. The voice is unmistakable—an American robin. Then it sings again. On the second verse I realize how unusually raspy it sounds and begin to question my quick identification. Perhaps it isn’t a robin at all. Perhaps there is a resident Alaskan songbird whose call is similar to a robin but rougher, harsher. Some people describe the scarlet tanager’s song as “a robin with a sore throat,” but I don’t think I would confuse a tanager with a robin. I hear both birds often enough back home on the farm to have a good grasp of their distinctions, plus Alaska is a long way from scarlet tanager range.

Leaving journal and pen on the table, I walk to the door. It is still dark out on this Anchorage morning, but the lights in the condominium parking lot provide more than ample glow to see a bird, were one perched on the fence. I scan the patio, the fence, and parking lot beyond. There is no bird in sight, everything is quiet, and I don’t hear the bird again.

Returned to my seat, I keep thinking about that voice. I listen to the morning silence, hoping it will sing again, and wondering. Perhaps it wasn’t a robin… I retrieve my computer from the bedroom upstairs and search for fall Alaska songbirds. There is nothing to be found online that fits the description other than robin, but with no more songs I can’t be sure. I wonder why it stopped singing so soon after it began. Was the raspiness due to a sore throat? A sore throat would make me stop singing. Or did the resident cat rear its head, cutting short the morning hymns? 

I walk back to the door to have another look. Overhead, I hear the ticking of a clock and look up to mark the time. My host Jerry knows his birds, and if I describe the song and the approximate time I heard it, he will identify it. Directly above the door, the clock is a large, round, white analog model, bearing the familiar logo of the National Audubon Society. Representing each hour is a different common North American bird. One o’clock is the great horned owl, 2:00 — northern mockingbird, 3:00 — black-capped chickadee, 4:00 — northern cardinal… It is now a quarter past seven. Fifteen minutes ago… at seven o’clock… the clock struck… the American robin.

I am still chuckling at my morning encounter with the not-quite-right roborobin when Jerry comes down the steps. Soon, he is laughing with me. We have a cup of coffee, and discuss plans for the day. Jerry reads the paper while I finish my writing. Before long, the digitally reproduced, unusually loud, raspy voice of a song sparrow brings another chuckle and reminds us it is time for breakfast.

As we walk out to the car, I am pretty certain I hear a real live robin across the parking lot. Jerry does not hear it, but confirms that some robins do overwinter in Anchorage, though most migrate south, and that fall would be an odd time to hear them singing. I can tell he doesn’t believe I heard what I think I heard, but I am convinced. Everybody needs a friend, and I suspect there must be one robin in Anchorage who recognizes the lone, raspy voice in Jerry’s condominium. There must be one robin willing to sing out of season, offering friendship to an unseen, two-dimensional bird on a cool, dark Alaska morning. Or, maybe an unseen voice inside my head is hard at work helping me avoid being the only one — bird or birder — to be duped by a singing clock.

Alaska Time

What time is it? If you are like most people I encounter, when asked that question, you reached into your pocket and pull out your phone to answer that question. The age of extending your left arm all the way out to reveal your watch from beneath your cuff, then bending 90 degrees at the elbow to reveal your timepiece seems to be going the way of the pocket watch before it, the road map, and the home phone. I suspect that by the time my generation passes, wrist watches will be largely a thing of the past, looked back on with chuckles in the same way we now remember eight track tape players, typewriters, and marriage relegated to one man and one woman.

I am still fond of my wristwatch. It is a simple analog watch cased in a solid block of stainless steel with a white face and a black nylon band. I wear it less and less these days only because I play a character on stage who wears on watch, and I don’t like having an obvious tan line to tell the audience that I am really Jim and not my character. But I still wear it some, especially when I travel. I prefer leaving my cell phone in the truck, or when I am on the road, in the hotel.

Relying on last century’s technology does have its drawbacks, though. My watch relies on a battery which has died on me at less than ideal times in the past. And when I travel, unlike a cell phone, my watch does not automatically adjust to my current time zone, leaving me trying to remember when I last reset it, and if I went ahead and set to my destination, or to the current timezone. I like setting it as I go. If I board a plane in Charlotte, bound for Denver, I like to set it back an hour when I reach central time, then again when I reach mountain time. since I turn my phone off on planes, I have no place to check the time, and end up bothering other passengers for the time (usually more than once) as I try to keep my watch up to date.

Recently, I flew to Alaska and back, taking me from Eastern, through Central, Mountain, and Pacific, to Alaska Time. And, yes, I was confused more than once in airports where I found myself sitting leisurely with a newspaper then suddenly feeling flushed as I realized I was late for my flight, running to the gate terrified I had missed my flight, then realizing I actually had two hours to kill. All the while, my cell phone was in my pocket with the correct time, but rather than pull it out, I expended my arm, bent it 90 degrees at the elbow, and archaically looked at my watch.

But in Alaska that action seemed, somehow, less archaic. I found Alaska to be a place where not everybody had high speed internet, where people had home phones and got together to play board games, and where when I joined a dinner party, there weren’t ten smart phones on the table being coddled and stroked with every beep and blip. Don’t get me wrong, there was one at the table, next to the plate of the youngest among us, but enslavement to them was not the dominant paradigm.

I don’t like being tethered to my cell phone, being in constant contact with everything and everybody. In fact, I don’t like spending time with people who are tethered so. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like those people, but that I want my time with them to be our time rather than time with them and whoever texts, instant messages, posts, emails, calls or updates.

For a year, at the urging of a friend, I experimented with a smart phone, assured that after a short time I would be unable to imagine life without it. Clearly, I have a better imagination than she gave me credit for. For twelve months I carried in my pocket what seemed to me to be a rather unnecessarily fragile pane of glass that could have served as navigator, movie screen, status checker, shopping assistant, and who knows what else, but instead acted as a phone with which I had great difficult hearing or being heard by my fellow conversationalists. I am now back to a flip phone.

The camera was convenient in my smart phone. I photographed mushrooms and texted those photos to friends for help in identification. I captured young fawns bedded down in the woods, and frogs I rescued from the pool cover. But in Alaska, I found the limits of my iphone camera to be frustrating. For one day, the clouds parted and Denali showed her face. I pulled out my phone, held it out in front of me, and zoomed as far it was willing… Granted, the grandeur of such a mountain is a thing for the soul, not truly capturable by any instrument, but the result of my best effort with my phone was not even worthy of triggering nostalgic memory.

I do like the audio recorder in the phone.  I have great recordings of green frogs, spring peepers, chorus frogs, cricket frogs, and bullfrogs, towhees, and Carolina wrens. And I enjoyed the mp3 player when on the tractor or the mower.

In the end, however, the nuisance of a phone with a will of its own that I had to be extra careful not to drop, or scratch, or even rub the wrong way far outweighed the couple of features I liked. I have an ipod that will serve me fine for tractor work and frog listening, and before my next trip to Alaska, I will definitely buy a real camera.

That is the way I like it–the right tool for the right job that doesn’t try to do everything–a phone for talking, a camera for shooting, and a watch for telling the time.

Following my Alaska trip, I drove to the Midwest for a couple jobs, and that is where having my phone can be a time-keeping lifesaver. Time zones in the Midwest never cease to confuse me, and this trip was no different. Indiana, on time zone map, appears to be wearing an Eastern Time Zone thong, and it makes no sense whatsoever that the Upper Peninsula of Michigan  is not Central Time.

Point is that if I relied on my wrist watch while driving through the route I took up to Wisconsin for one job, over the UP and down to Roscommon, MI for the next, then around the south shore of Lake Michigan to the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows for my last gig, I would have been either late or early for everything! Having a phone that automatically sets itself to local time is, at times, a godsend. Nevertheless, without thinking, I pulled my watch out of the console and strapped it to my wrist as I began that final leg.

I planned a leisurely drive down the shore, stopping here and there to see the lake, sip coffee, stroll through small towns before beginning the stressful descent into Chicago. I wasn’t due in Rolling Meadows until supper time, and if I timed it right, the drive should only take me three hours. I had time to relax and It would be nice to know the time without having to carry my phone.

I looked at my watch. Eight o’clock? That’s not right, I thought. Battery must have died. No worries. I had plenty of time.

Stopping for a late morning cup of coffee in Benton Harbor, I turned to the barista in the lakeside cafe. “Do you know where I can get a watch battery replaced?” I asked, extending my arm, bending it 90 degrees at the elbow, and looking at my watch as if she needed a grand gesticulation in order to understand my question. “You see, I need to time my approach to Chicago, and my watch died at exactly… uh… never mind, I’ll have a cup of decaf with room for cream and one of those scones, please,” I said.
I walked back out to the truck and retrieved my cell phone. It was 12:56 pm in Michigan. I looked back at my watch. It was 8:56… in Alaska.

Navigating Chicagoland traffic is never fun, and I wanted to hit 80/94 at the right time to minimize my stress level and blood pressure escalation. The Metropolitan Chicago area has, last time I checked, around 9.7 million people in just under 11,000 square miles, compared with fewer than 750,000 people in 663,300 square miles in Alaska. While we’re talking numbers, I did a little research on the the Googlewebs before going to Alaska. Along with the three-quarters of a million people, there are roughly 130,000 bears in our largest state. Chicago has only 53, and they all live in Soldier Field. To my tastes (and for my blood pressure) the circling ratios of acreage to people, people to bears, and bears to acreage in Alaska wins hands down!

Later, as I jockeyed for the cash-only tollbooth lane, I felt my blood pressure rising, my chest tightening. I checked both mirrors then remove my left hand from the wheel and turned my wrist towards me.
My watch read 10:30, but I didn’t care what time it was. It didn’t matter, I was bound to whatever the traffic willed. But seeing that reminder on my wrist of a far off place where traffic is more likely to stop for wildlife than toll booths gave me a smile and a brief calm. As I slowed to pay my toll, I did some quick, rough math. For every five square miles in Alaska, there are roughly four people and one bear who I suspect carries neither phone nor wrist watch.