Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Lynx Family and the Deepfreeze

You know you'll see the darnedest things when you don't have a camera. Today while out and about I spotted a female lynx crossing the trail with a young kitten in tow. I stopped to watch as sightings of these reclusive creatures are unusual- particularly in daylight. In my years in Alaska, I've only seen a relative handful compared to other creatures I've observed. As I watched these thoughtful predators, the mother lynx turned and looked behind her and three more kittens (likely in the 6 month range) emerged from the brush and followed her across the trail into the dense brush on the other side. A total of 1 large female and 4 half grown kittens.

I pondered a moment about the sighting because lynx are normally reclusive in the extreme and tend to avoid humans and I was very close to my home. The skies had cleared back the last couple of nights and the temperatures had plummeted to the -30F's. I had -36F on the thermometer yesterday morning and I can only guess that the deep cold has got the creatures moving during warmer daylight hours hunting hares and grouse during the "heat" of the day. Whatever the reason the lynx family was certainly an unexpected treat.
Note: the photo is a file photo from Wikipedia. Well, because I did not have a camera. Dooh!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Winter's Noon

The dawn today showed up cold and clear. The thermometer on the back deck read a robust -15F but the sky was a brilliant blue and the sun broke the horizon (admittedly at 10am...) and gave the frozen world a cheery pastel pink and orange glow. The air had a crystal clear and rarefied quality I've only experienced during Interior winters when you can feel your breath steaming in your throat even prior to exhale. The sun, now in its winters arc that only climbs halfway to apex, would soon be on its descent to the horizon. The day however beautiful would be brief.

I thought for a moment and quickly concocted some rather obtuse chore that had to be done in the back country centering around a buddy's fledgling trap line and within a few moments I was astride the machine and breaking trail on the 10" of fresh snow we had received over the last two days. I left the pup lounging in his kennel; although normally keen to go, he had vomited up the neighbor's cell phone the day prior and had felt poorly ever since. I left the beast sleeping quietly and zipped out of the drive- his penance for rooting out a misplaced cell phone and ensuring it never returned to service.

I could feel the cold air invading my face mask, pushing its way through the fibers of the fabric and attacking my moisture laden mouth and chin. I burrowed my head further down in the tunnel of my parka and eased back on the throttle to reduce the breeze. The trees held the wonderful postcard look of the winter trail- every branch and leaf crystallized and covered in rime or snow. The world looked absolutely still but it wasn't.

I let off the throttle and let the machine slow to a stop and I dismounted to check some fresh tracks in the snow that had been paralleling the trail and crossed it several times. I looked at the loping gait- almost like a North American jackal, it could only be a coyote. I looked up and not 50 yards ahead on the trail the coyote leaped from the brush into the trail and gave me a long look back over his shoulder without breaking stride as he steadily pulled away. He calmly broke right and almost noiselessly vanished in the brush and the forest beyond.

I maneuvered the sled around a few more twists and turns and hung a hard left to take me on the upper bluff trail. A simple bluff about 200 feet high jutted up from the lowland morass and dominated the local landscape. I planned to sit up there for a short while and scan with binoculars for any more creatures roaming the countryside. As I'm wont to do, my attention shifted from the lower expanse below to the forested area behind me. I could smell a peculiar odor that I had only recently became acquainted with- Labrador tea.

I quickly located a small patch of the coniferous plant and threw a couple of old dried rose hips I also found in the pot for good measure. I had the brew boiled up in a few moments on my portable stove. A shot of sugar to make the potent tea palatable and I was counting my blessings. To be here on the bluff, in the frozen sunshine with a cup of steaming tea while I watched the lone coyote lope his way unconcernedly along the packed snow machine trail was a wonderful moment and for a short moment at least all was right with the world.

Well at least my small, beautiful and unforgiving corner of it anyway.

More to come.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Perplexed About the Cycle of Life and Death

Author's note- I wrote this piece last week and held off publishing for a variety of reasons, incompleteness being the main one. I'm not happy with the piece as it swerves markedly from where I normally like to write but I'll throw it out here knowing full well its not complete and likely never will be. The piece is a bit rough as it was written rather hurriedly and ignored profoundly for a week or so. Something I wrote to basically organize my own thoughts around some very real human tragedies that occurred in the recent past.

I was checking the news today and was somewhat distraught at several of the headlines I saw. I'll ask the reader to bear with me as I'm going to detour from my favorite topic of the outdoors into some murkier things in current events I can't help but write about. I'm not seeking to pass judgement on any of these things or start yet another blogosphere debate. I'll leave comments on but I'm not really looking for any and I'll delete inflammatory ones just because they'll serve no purpose in the greater scheme. I'm merely asking questions, primarily for myself and the running commentary in my head about the conundrums of the human condition. Thoughtful and introspective comments are, of course, welcome.

In fact, reading some of the headlines it was pretty easy to self analyze why I like the outdoors, nature and animals so much- they are pretty simple to figure out as compared to humans and they don't leave you guessing about motivations, or beliefs, or politics. A bear or wolf kills to eat. A cow moose will kill to defend her young. Hypothermia will kill you just because it does.

Of course the first example is the Maj. Hasan of recent events in Texas. I have no idea why this man decided that shooting up a military base was a good idea and I'll admit I can't conceive of the idea of jihad as it's foreign to both my Western culture and my spiritual beliefs. Wrapping my head around the notion that slaughtering the unarmed (even a future combatant) is somehow going to further your spiritual cause simply doesn't compute with me. While I'm sure the case is going to be a prolonged circus as the military brass step all over themselves to keep from calling this man a jihadi or Islamic terrorist when the average third grader has already figured it out- I'm not sure of how we'll deal with the ramifications of that fact. I can't help but think how I wished the DA police officer who shot him would have aimed a bit higher (she is completely excused as her performance under fire was exceptional to say the least- this is no criticism of her) and ended his life right then and there. Bled out on the floor with a smoking gun in his hand, no arguments, no appeal, and no politics as well as achieving his obvious end goal. Now we as a community have to decide how to deal with this guy (still alive likely to his surprise as well as ours) without inflaming the populace against his religious brethren in the service(whom he is likely an aberration to) and society at large; and still somehow serve justice within the bounds of the law. If he's declared a jihadi then his trial will likely become even more complicated than simple murder (is there even such a thing?) as it begs the question- "Is he a traitor? An enemy combatant? A terrorist?" Just what the hell do we do with this guy now? And how do we do it while retaining our own humanity in the process?

The other headline was the execution of John Allen Muhammad for the 2002 sniper attacks in the DC area. The author Jack White wrote a very good piece in The Root about why this case is so conflicting to death penalty opponents (here) and he is raising to front the enigma common among all of us- how to exact vengeance and not destroy yourself in the process. How can you want someone dead so much and not really want society to have to kill them? There is no easy answer to that question. While I've long been a critic of the death penalty and how its carried out in the U.S. - John Allen Muhammad defines the very person for whom most people want to execute. I also can't help but think how much more convenient for him to have been gunned down in the street by the populace he sought to terrorize. America would have been delighted to have seen him shot by police or even private citizenry- no ambivalence, no sideshow gyrations, no doubt of guilt- splattered in the trunk of the car he'd modified as a sniper's hide with his weapon beside him- closure. It seems somewhat gratuitous to see him put to death in such a manner as lethal injection a full seven years after the attacks. Is that going to give us closure? Even seven years later his motivations are still unclear, more so and perhaps even to himself at this point. A million questions left unanswered and a continuing moral quandary over the right of the state to kill someone collectively. No one would have been dismayed had one of his intended victims (or a brave person defending those he sought to kill) shot him stone dead in the act, but years later on a gurney with a cocktail of lethal drugs? That seems an unlikely and particularly sterile end for a man who had so much senseless blood shed by his hands, not that I'm advocating a more violent end, particularly after the fact by the better part of a decade.

The last headline was a confusing interview a'la confession by Scott Roeder from prison awaiting trial for the murder of Dr. George Tiller. In the interview Mr. Roeder defends his actions by stating he was defending the unborn "by any means necessary" which apparently included gunning the Kansas abortion provider down during a church service. The fact the nation's largest provider of late term abortions attended a church service is somewhat surprising (no judgement here-just surprising given most churches' stance on abortion in general) and that a man whose mantra was "Choose Life" chose instead to fire a pistol into the chest of another man is also surprising. Apparently the Kansas prosecutor's office is the only participant in this case not wanting to kill somebody- whether the unborn, or the abortionist, or the extremes of people who support both sides- because they are not seeking the death penalty. Also surprising. Several folks have expressed a quick death at the hands of a police officer would spare us all the public spectacle of a politically and morally motivated murderer's trial that the defendant himself seems intent on using as a bully pulpit. It would also spare us the discomfort of the big questions it raises as well.

So today I feel I've been treated to a parade of human depravity and moral compasses that seem to be wildly spinning out of control. A society caught in a moral whiteout and stumbling with its arms outstretched looking for anything solid to hold onto. The larger questions of our humanity make us squirm and make some of us choose the ideological "low road" and a savagery that would shock.Some take an ideological high road and excuse any behavior however aberrant in the name of political correctness or a desire not to offend. Some of us would like to avoid the questions altogether.

Whether John Allen Muhammed deserved to die or will the military court execute Maj. Hasan or even if Scott Roeder should die for his misdeeds will be the grist mill of the news for weeks to come. A part of me would like to see these men- assassins all for political ends, not folks involved in crimes of passion or some other more pedestrian crime- meet their maker sooner rather than later but a part of me recoils from the thought of an execution. Something done in the heat of the moment in defense likely morally acceptable, but not a calculated decision to take one more life when it will not spare another. Part me also feels there is value to locking people like these into cages so deep that Monday's daylight arrives on Friday- so that we can look at them and know that evil can and does exist in the flesh. Much like the headline makers of three decades past- the Mansons and like of the world if you will- now reduced to pathetic maniacs and a lesson for us all to tread lightly in this world.

One of the few things I remained convinced of is that monsters really do walk among us and I really do need to get back to the outdoors where the cycle of life and death makes at least some kind of sense and it has its place in the great scheme of things, not the senseless depravity we've seen in spades this week.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

First Snowmachine Adventure of the Winter

After a very long and relaxing hike with the pup today I decided to try out the snowmachine and check it out for the winter. I was concerned there wouldn't be enough snow to run the machine as we are snowfall deficient so far this year. With only a few inches on the ground I wondered how the machine would perform.

I shouldn't have worried as the Tundra is pretty renowned for its ability to run in thin snow conditions or even hard pack river ice. Other than maybe beating up the carbides a bit when I crossed a gravel bar I don't think the machine is any worse for wear. I must admit riding the snowmachine is something I rather enjoy beyond its abilities as basic winter transportation. The snowmachine is pretty much a fact of life in the North and with 8 months of winter I can see why. Folks up here were only too happy to replace the sled dog with the "iron dog" once the machines became more reliable than the barn built experiments the first ones were. One only has to experience sled dogs once in their life to see why Alaskans would be eager to part ways with a rowdy crew of ravenous and yelping Huskies. Alaska still has a deeply embedded mushing culture but the popularity of sled dogs is on the wane and is now viewed as quaint and traditional while all the folks with serious travel requirements in the Bush use a "sled". Perhaps the biggest advantage is a snowmachine can sit all summer and not eat a bite.

My only prior experience with snowmachines prior to moving into the Interior was the thrill seeking behavior of the "high markers" that frequented the Turnagin Pass area south of Anchorage and the endless avalanche search and rescues that our fire department ran all winter long looking for riders buried alive at the base of the mountain. I was initially really put off by the daredevil riders on machines with only slightly less horsepower than an Atlas rocket and an attitude to rival that of an outlaw biker gang. It seemed rather typical of other groups of young men I had known riding toys- whether motorcycles, jeeps, ATVs or jet skis. Someone always has to have the loudest, the fastest, the most horsepower, the quickest take-off and no one was ever happy with stock parts. Often bravado got in the way of common sense and someone was injured or killed outright. I left that kind of thing behind in my late teens in pursuit of a quieter life. I dismissed the whole snowmachining thing as a juvenile endeavor and went out of my way to avoid areas the machines frequented after nearly being ran over while snowshoeing in Girdwood one fine spring day.

When I moved to the Interior however, with its seemingly endless boreal forests and fast frozen river corridors, I was introduced to another kind of snowmachine altogether- the trapper sled. Built narrow enough to travel down the decades old forest trapline trails initially ran with dogs and light enough for a lone person to roll over or maneuver about in tight quarters, this is often a Tundra or an old Bravo. It is the complete antithesis of all the high performance sleds on the covers of "SnoWest" and "Snow Rider" magazines. Lightweight, low powered and "blue hair slow" these machines are made for but a single purpose- to carry a rider and their cargo through the snowbound forest or frozen river as efficiently as possible with the least amount of fuss while the rider went about their business of trapping, hunting, or otherwise conducting work in the wilderness. A look under the cowling reveals a power plant that is no more complicated than a standard lawn mower engine and a drive train with a single centrifugal clutch- durability and reliability are paramount over squeezing out another mile per hour on the top end. Once you're away from the cities and in the real Bush, it is imperative that any machinery be serviceable with only a handful of tools and the most basic of spare parts. Ideally it will only require minimal amounts of both- time spent servicing machinery is time not spent engaging in more important aspects of wilderness life. Life in the Bush is hard on people and machines and while tinkering with a high performance sled is an urbanite's hobby, it is extremely irksome to the wilderness dweller. Its in these areas you'll find these old sleds doing service day in and day out, in rugged conditions that would destroy their thoroughbred counterparts before the solstice.

While I generally find wilderness "infernal combustion" something to be avoided completely and gave up ATVing a couple of years ago in complete disgust (article), snowmachining seems a bit easier on the world than the ATV is. In my travels today through the low lying swamp I saw plenty of deep ruts and holes left by "wheelers" who were out "muddin'" just prior to freeze up. No two ways to look at it- the land there had deep and possibly irreparable scars. Comparatively; the snowmachine slides over the snow pack without much trace come spring. After a brief windstorm or good snowfall my presence there today will become invisible to all.

That's not to say the use of the machines is without compromise however. Most of the machines are 2-stroke and while the newer ones are much better than the old ones, they all emit a stinking pollution for an exhaust. Several manufacturers started producing cleaner 4 cycle machines at the insistence of BLM and state governments all over the West. While I've not been there, apparently snowmachining in Yellowstone is a crowded affair and officials felt the need to mitigate potential environmental damage left by honking scads of blue smoke belching machines. I applaud their efforts as the entire industry is forced to produce machines that run cleaner and leave less pollution than ever before. Sadly the bulk of this technology has proven unreliable in the extreme Arctic conditions of Alaska and lots of old trappers look askance at 4 cycle machines as heavy and balky running versions of Russian roulette. The industry will get there in time however slowly.

The other major detriment to the snowmachine is noise. No other way to say it but even the quietest of these sleds produces a loud piercing whine under power. It is a disturbance to wildlife and other wilderness users without a doubt. In areas where large numbers of the high performance machines gather, the sound of 2 cycle engines running 14,000 RPM is quite staggering. Even a basic one cylinder trapper sled will produce a noisy high speed buzz that seems all out of proportion to the rather sedate ground speed. I've always felt mine sounded kind of like a SuperCub airplane on take off while puttering down the trail at a whopping ten miles per hour (very much like a SuperCub in that respect).

So after a morning spent cruising the woods in my size twelve Sorels (no snowshoes required yet!) with a light pack and a trail axe and an afternoon spent travelling down old traplines on a modern snowmachine; which do I prefer? Not really one over the other in that they are both a necessary component of wilderness life here in the frozen boreal world, but I've got to admit I like the tranquility of snow softly squeaking underfoot as the spruce trees absorb the ambient sounds of the forest much more than the raucous hum of a snowmachine.

Author's note- for a wonderful examination of snowmachines in the Bush and a discussion on the compromises the machines require I'll refer the reader to the Conover's excellent book The Snow Walker's Companion which dedicates an entire chapter to the issue.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Winter, For Real This Time" and "The Second Barrel is NOT for the Dog"

It was inevitable. The thermometer over the weekend plunged to a balmy -8F with daytime highs in the whopping single digits. The full moon illuminates the night landscape now covered in snow while the first auroral displays start to light up the sky.

We knew our fortunate run of warm fall temperatures would end soon although its kind of sad; I'm excited about the new dimension winter brings to the landscape.

I took the new pup out for a long walk through the woods to see how he'd fare in the cold and I was really surprised. Our new dog loves walking in snow, smelling the nocturnal passage of unseen creatures, following their tracks and is apparently not phased by cold weather one bit (at least not yet). He also started doing the strangest thing.

He would gallop along and lean his head over and gather up a big bunch of dry powdery snow in his mouth and then stop. He'd then blow the snow into a huge cloud and take off running full speed through it with his tail stuck straight into the air and a very pleased look on his face. Unfortunately I didn't have a camera along but I'll try to film this behavior. Amusing doesn't begin to describe it.

He is also determined to kill a raven. On our walk about he heard a raven's croaking cry and took off full bore after where it sat in a low tree. Only the raven's opportune flight kept him from being munched. I don't know where that came from; because to my frustration grouse and hares are perfectly safe from his depredations and he apparently has little interest in flushing them for me to shoot even sitting in plain view. He prefers to sniff around while pretending he doesn't see them, obviously trying to encourage me to ground sluice him one to eat "fresh".

He is apparently lucky at this point to have not flushed a grouse for me because I'm pretty sure on the retrieve it will disappear into his gullet whole. Other items have disappeared into his gaping maw, ie. my son's toys, sundry household items and on one occasion we thought we lost a cell phone (it was only misplaced). I'm sure I looked rather comical with my head stuck to the dog's side listening for the tell-tale ringing while I dialed the number on the other phone. Every lost item is now evaluated based on the approximation of "Will it fit down Sonny's throat?" (a surprising number of things pass this test by the way). I fear one day will find me standing at the vet looking at a profile X-ray of my dog with something ferociously expensive and irreplaceable seen in the middle. A vanishing delicate little ruffed grouse may be more than my sensibilities can possibly stand. The dog will hope that I've used both barrels on the bird.

The hunting dog must be approached with saintly patience I'm discovering.