Saturday, September 25, 2010

Alaska Bird Observatory (Baning Station)

I drove up to the old barnhouse at 5:32 a.m. Only 2 minutes late. Not bad. But I can’t ever seem to make it by 5:30. I never thought I’d be driving to work so early that I’d be the only car on the road. It helps that the sun has already crept over the horizon.

I meet my co-workers who are waiting on the stairs of the barnhouse/visitors center. We start walking toward the forest. The six of us walk together along the perfectly straight edge of the golden barley fields toward the trees where the mist-nets and banding tent are hidden from sight. The autumn colors of yellow and orange leap from the aspen and birch trees produce a strong contrast against the always green spruce.

There’s frost on the ground again today. We are all dressed for the cold. Layers - the only way to dress in Fairbanks. I have on long-johns, four shirts, wool socks, hat, gloves and coat. The temperature quickly rises once the sun gets high in the sky. I’ll likely strip off everything but my t-shirt by closing. Although it’s well below freezing now, it will be in the mid seventies by afternoon.

Thousands of sand hill cranes make a deafening roar flying overhead as we approach treeline. There’s an endless stream of these prehistoric creatures flying in perfect formation toward the barley. The noise – which always reminds me of dinosaur chatter – causes me to look up and appreciate the beautiful vibrant morning sky. Dawn has painted the normally plain white cloud ceiling a magnificent splash of orange, red and purple.

These abandoned fields are a staging ground for migrating birds. The cranes come in at nearly the same time every morning to rest and rebuild energy reserves (i.e. get fat) before continuing down to their wintering grounds in Texas/Mexico. Yesterday Fish and Game counted 1,800 cranes in our field. The crane arrival is so predictable, and so well received by the town, that there is an annual crane festival in their honor. There are lots of other birds that also stop in Fairbanks along their migration route - which is why I’m here. I work for the Alaska Bird Observatory. This is the 19th year that the non-profit has maintained the most northern banding station on the continent to collect data on migratory songbirds.

Once we reached the banding tent we all fanned-out into the woods to open the mist nets. There are 30 nets scattered throughout the forest. A mist net is a trap we use to catch the birds. It looks like a volleyball net that stretches all the way to the ground. The banding station provides an opportunity to learn a great deal about the current state of the migrating songbird populations as well as the condition of the birds southern wintering site, and breeding site (here in Alaska).

We often process 200-300 birds a day during spring migration. We only keep each bird long enough to take measurements and put a numbered band around its ankle. Although each individual bird is only in the area a few days - to rest and fatten up for the long trip south - there is a continuous flood of different flocks and species stopping in the Fairbanks area throughout the season.

After the nets are all open, we make regular checks to extract birds. I walked out of the banding tent to make my first net run and noticed the orange-red glow of dawn had been replaced by the bright yellow shine of morning. I weaved through the trees along the single-track dirt path with a pocket full of bird bags and a golf club in my hand (to pull down the net). As I walked away from net 29 I carried 2 bags on a string around my neck. Each bag had a bird I had just extracted. Before I even turned the corner to see net 30, the last net, I could hear all the commotion. As I got my first glimpse of the net, I was shocked by how visible it was. Usually the mist nets are nearly invisible. Now, with 49 birds crammed side-by-side from top-to-bottom, the net was as obvious as a brick wall.

I immediately went to work on the birds in the bottom panel, the ones most vulnerable near the ground. The final bird in the net was a Hermit Thrush 2 feet above my head in the top panel. With my face up to the sky I reached above my head to steady the bird with my left hand. As my right hand attempted to untangle her wing I felt something very warm and wet land square in the middle of my forehead. She pooped on me!!!

Creamer's Field Bird Sanctuary

Morning arrival of Sandhill Cranes

Cranes, Geese, and Ducks at the seasonal ponds

Judy opening mist net

Judy extracting a dark-eyed Junco

Wilson's Warbler

Sharp-shinned Hawks often get caught chasing their birds
Alder's Flycatcher

Hairy Woodpeckers (male & female)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (aka butter-butts)


Alaska Pipeline

Denali Highway


Trumpeter Swan

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Leaving Eagle River

Change is the only thing that stays the same!!!

My entire life is once again packed into the back of my Jeep. On the road again. It’s extremely liberating to be going down the road with everything you need right beside you. Even though the car is packed so full that I can’t see out the back window, I feel light. I love driving. Especially when I’m alone. Some of my most peaceful moments have been behind a steering wheel watching landscapes unfolding through my real life picture window.

Driving for hours with nothing but your thoughts gives you plenty of time to think. Although I’m very excited to be moving to Fairbanks, I spent most of the drive thinking about things I was losing, not gaining.

I feel very lucky to have had so much love in my life over the past few weeks. I’ve spent lots of time getting to know new friends better, and reconnecting with old ones. After spending so much time in Alaska as an outsider, I finally got to spend time with family. My Mom, Todd and Brooke came to visit me. I showed them around Eagle River, we went to Denali, and I hiked Crow Pass with Todd. Bonnie and Austin (Colorado friends) have also been up in Alaska. We went on an overnighter in Wrangell – St. Elias, hiked down in Seward, and saw Punch Brothers play in Girdwood. I spent the remaining time in Eagle River with all of the amazing people I’ve met here…and grown to love. Immediately following my departure from the Anchorage area, I went back to the Midwest for my friends (Aaron and Ingrid’s) wedding. I spent every minute of the 7 days I was back with friends & family I hadn’t seen in months/years. I feel so saturated with people and love that I don’t think there’s room for any more…and in the true nature of this universe…the wheel keeps spinning…the pendulum shifts from one extreme to the other…and now that I'm driving down the raod alone, I can feel the stark contrast of solitude. More alone than I’ve felt in a long time. Driving forward, going where NO ONE KNOWS ME.

As I made my final check of the cabin, I knew I’d probably never see it again. The cabin in the woods beyond the end of the road. The cabin that knows no streets, or lights, or neighbors. The cabin that was visited by moose and bears. The wood-burning stove that warmed me, and lit up the room. The windows that I looked through every day to see the mountains. The porch I sat on every night and played my banjo.

This cabin in Chugach State Park is my favorite place that I’ve ever lived, but it is not the thing I’ll miss most. The thing I will miss most about this magical place is the people. The people I worked with, the people I hiked with, the people I cooked diners with, the people I grew to know and love. So much love. My heart broke leaving these people.

I feel solace in the fact that these people are not gone, just further away. I remind myself that love transcends everything. I know that even though these people are not physically in my life, there love still is. These people have become part of me and I will take them everywhere I go.

Raft of Sea Otters (from Whittier Glaier Tour)

Todd taking pictures of a calving glacier
Off-trail hike in Denali National Park with the family
Brooke carfefully negotiating a sandy drainage wall.
Mom and Brooke talking stategy.
Our hike down from Polychrome Moutnain.
Todd and I begining Crow Pass hike (26 miles/13 hours)
Climbing up Crow Pass
Veiw from the pass
Crossing an ice field while decending into the valley.

Walking past Columbine's along Raven Creek in the valley.
How we spent most of the first leg of the hike.
Overnight trip to the Bananza Mines in Wrangell - St. Elias N.P. with Daveen, Bonnie and Austin. Hiding from the rain under the ruins of an abandoned building/deck.
The gloomy weather really set the mood during our night near the abandoned mines on the moutian ridge.
Bonnie and Austin at the Kennicott Mines.
Kennicott Mines.

Drive to Fairbanks.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hiking n Pikin’

You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again…so why bother in the first place? Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above.
One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer but one has seen. There is an art to conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.
--Rene Daumal, Mount Analogue

Crow Pass Trail:

The Historic Iditarod Trail is the name of the trail system that gold prospectors used to travel from the southern Alaskan ports up into the Interior. The Alaska gold rush of the early 1900’s was the first large migration of Americans to the northland. Back then there were no roads, railroads or airports. The primary mode of transportation in the winter was dogsleds. People would typically arrive in Seward by boat, and then make their way up north to the gold fields on the Iditarod. The same routes were used to deliver mail once people began establishing towns. The Crow Pass Trail is a 26 mile stretch of this historic route that runs from Girdwood to Eagle River. I’ve been planning to do the pass since I first heard about it.

I initially planned to take a few days to hike the pass, camping along the way. However, I quickly decided to make this a single day trip after I started talking to people. Part of the reason I wanted to attempt a single day “suicide march” was so I didn’t have to carry as much weight (no camping gear, less food, etc.), but I suppose the main reason was because it sounded like a challenge. I’ve been mentally and physically preparing for weeks. I made a few overnight trips backwards up the trail (from Eagle River south) to build up my endurance and to see what the second half of the trip would be like. In addition to the usual reward of hiking in a beautiful/remote valley, I had lots of great experiences on these trips: I met and camped with a really cool young French tramper who taught me a new “American Tradition” (putting ketchup on rice), got chased down the path by a Grouse hen protecting her chicks, and saw a family of beavers hauling logs through their pond. After I completed a 17 mile hike at Eklutna Lake, I finally felt like I was ready to attempt the pass.

Me and my co-worker Adrienne hiked Crow Pass on Monday, July 5th. It seemed like a good time for the hike since we were already near the trailhead after spending the weekend at the Girdwood Forest Fair. Well…after a long weekend of music, dancing, partying and little sleep, we started the long walk home. We were on the trail by 11am and by 12:30 had climbed a few thousand feet to reach the highest point of the trail – Crow Pass. There was still snow in the pass, the wind was deafening and strong enough to knock you down, but the view of the valley, glaciers and river was so magnificent that I could have stayed up there forever. Eventually we did continue, slipping and sliding down the steep snowfields until we reached tree-line when the path leveled off and we began a nice leisure stroll through the most beautiful valley I’ve ever seen. We walked between mountains, over rivers, past waterfalls, gorges, and beaver ponds. The only real challenge was crossing Eagle River. The ford site was 100 feet across, thigh high, and through fast moving glacier water. The river originated from Eagle Glacier, a few hundred yards upstream. The water was so cold that your legs went numb before your second step, and were in agonizing pain before you got halfway across. We made it all the way across and continued down the trail until we reached our cabins at the nature center 26 miles and 12 hours after we began.

Bluegrass Bluegrass Bluegrass:

Can never have too much bluegrass. I truly believe that you find what you look for…and it just so happens that I’ve been looking for bluegrass. I got to see Yonder Mountain String band play an outdoor show for less than 1,500 people (smallest show I’ve ever seen them play), I found some more local jams, and I went to a few more festivals. I’m really impressed by the Alaskan festival circuit. There are so many talented musicians, so many loving festivarians, and no line between the two of them. I’ve been lucky enough to play music with a bunch of new people over the past few weeks. It’s so cool to find people who love with the same thing, but have found it in such different ways and who approach it with such different techniques. It’s a mutually growing experience where there are always new songs to learn, new twists to old songs, and opportunities to improve harmonizing. Music can be such a spiritual almost meditative experience that allows people to connect on a completely different plane of existence.

Although I’m drawn to these festivals because of the music, the thing I enjoy most is the sense of family. These are family festivals where everyone comes out for a fun weekend. I’ve never before seen such a diverse group of people in the same place enjoying the same thing. There are seniors dancing side-by-side with groups of 13-year-olds, and little kids hulla hooping in their Sunday-best next to dirty hippies that can’t remember the last time they bathed. I have come to feel a personal sense of family at these festivals. There are so many genuinely good/fun people. Most of the festivals are so small that you recognize everyone. The same people show up every weekend, and eventually you form a “weekend family”. A lot of the people I met have become good friends. I guess when it rains it pours, and when the sun shines its blinding.

My life has taken a dramatic turn. Instead of the quiet, reflective, solitude bubble I’ve been living for the last few months, I am now constantly stimulated by people and activities. Both are good!!!

The top of Crow Pass. The wind was so strong it actually knocked me over a few times.

Raven Galcier

Descending fom the pass into the valley.

Fathr/son pair crossing Eagle River.

Twin Falls (16 miles out)

Spruce Grouse hen (with 10 chicks)

Spruce Grouse hen chasing me down the path

Me and Jeremy at Heritage Falls (20 miles out)

The Perch (22 miles out)

Granite Creek Pickers Retreat

Beautiful girls admiring a beautiful baby (17 days old)

Campground Pickin

Hulla Hoopin

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Eagle River, Alaska

My Blog:

I’m jumping on the band-wagon… I’ve decided to start a blog. I think this might be a good way to allow friends and family to stay close while we’re so far away.


Eagle River, Alaska:

I’m currently living in Eagle River (northern suburb of Anchorage). I’m working as a naturalist for the 3rd largest state park in the country; Chugach State Park. I work at the Visitor Center, Lead Daily Nature Hikes and help out with the trail crew on their weekly projects. I live with my best-friend (and dog - copper) in a little dry cabin in the park. When the Visitor Center closes at night it feels like I have the whole park to myself; except for the resident moose and bears that I often encounter on the trails. I really enjoy the peacefulness of living a simple life in the woods. I feel more connected with nature than I ever have before, and rarely miss the luxuries of the modern world (e.g. television, air conditioning/heat, etc.). It feels good to have a place to call home again. I’ve been on the road since I left Colorado almost a year ago. It’s exhausting to keep leaving people and places behind, but it’s a package deal: the only way to go somewhere new is by leaving the places you’ve been. My stay in Chugach might be short, but I’m enjoying every second of the time I have in this beautiful part of the world. I’ve been here long enough to have made friends with a few locals and find some cool places. This past week has been full of firsts…

First night hike:

Ben stopped by the visitor center when I was working last week. He said he found someone to watch his 2 kids that night and wanted to hike Round-top Mountain. We drove up to the trailhead when I got off work at 6pm. After a few hours of hiking and a few thousand feet in elevation gain, we reached the summit. It felt like even more of an accomplishment because there was no trail along the second half of the hike. We made our own route up the mountain side and along the ridge to the summit. Even though it was mid-June, we got snowed on!!! The view from the top was amazing. From that height you could see across the water to the Alaska Range with Denali towering above.
I went glissading for the first time on the way down. Sliding down a snow-covered slope on your butt is not only fun, but a fast/efficient way to descend a mountain. We got back to the car just after 1am. Even after the sun sets (~ 11:30 pm), the sky never gets dark. There’s always enough light to read a book. It’s really cool to be able go hiking in the middle of the night without a head-lamp.

First Alaska Bluegrass Festival:

The Hope Hoedown. The town of Hope (pop. 137) has a bluegrass festival every year, although most people don't know about it. In fact, if you ask anyone, they lie and tell you it's on a different weekend in order to keep it small. I felt very privileged to get invited by one of the bands playing the fest. The music on stage was amazing, but the real fun started when the bands finished and everyone stared pickin' around the campfires. Half of the people who were camping were in the bands. It was really cool to play muic with such talented musians. One of my favorite things about bluegrass is the tradition, and the best way to learn is by being around people who "know".

First taste of whale:

A local couple that volunteers at the nature center invited me and my boss (Asta) to their house for dinner. The pair of retired surgeons have a house in the valley that they live in when they'e not travelling (which is rare). Dave and Cathy are incredibly smart and generous, nature loving people who live a modest life (with the exception of their TWO original Picasso paintings on the wall and million dollar wine cellar in the garage). Toward the end of a long night of good wine and great conversation, Dave offered me a peice of muktuk - a traditonal inuit meal of frozen whale skin/blubber. It's extremely rare. In fact the only way to get any is by receiving a permit from the government...which is only given to natives, and then going and pulling a 150 ton whale out of the ocean. Dave and Cathy just hapenedto be in Nome when the village harvested one, and following traditional, shared the bounty with everyone.

First moose calf encounter:

I see lots of wildlife in the park. By late afternoon most of the people have left and the animals all come out. I've seen several black and brown bears. I see moose every single day. I see them so often that I'm starting to recognize each of the different individuals. Even though I have frequent encouners, however, I've never taken any for granted. I feel extremely fortunate each and every time I have the opportunity to see these magnificent animals in the wild. Last week I had my most amazing encouter to date when I saw a moose cow come walking down the hill toward my cabin with her newly born calf trotting close behind. The calf was only 2-3 weeks old. It was keeping up with its mother, but still had its "sea legs" and wobbled all the way down the hill. I saw them grazing for a while before the cow saw me, corralled her calf and ran back into the woods. It was an incredible contrast to see such a small wobbly baby next to such a large (1,000 pound), sturdy, beast. I was very impressed, however, when I thought of a newborn human and realized that this calf (at 2-weeks-old) was already able to walk, eat and follow directions.

My cabin in Chugach State Park

Beaver pond at the park. The lodge is visible at the top of the pond.

Black bear just outside my cabin.

Exit Glacier (Kenia Fjords National Park - Seward, Ak)

Veiw of Palmer, Knick Glacier, and Knick Arm from Pioneer Peak.