Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Midnight Sun and Moose Shish Kabob - June 2010

We’ve now been teaching in Fairbanks for one month, and it’s incredible to think about all of the things we’ve done. The summer is going by so quickly. Our bird feeder outside the living room window has given us great looks at a Great Horned Owl,

 Black-capped Chickadees and Red Squirrels.  We call this one "Butt Cheeks" - obviously a male.  LOL!!!

But, within days we met the female, and currently we have one of the offspring jumping on the feeder and fussing with the tabs trying to get seeds!  LOL!  It's too cute!

We've also been very entertained by the Common Ravens.  They have so many different calls, and when a male gets going with his glunk, glunk sound - you think that someone is dropping stones in a deep pool of water.  These guys are quite intelligent too.  Dave snapped this photo of one who was dodging cars in the parking lot while trying to snag some spilled popcorn.

Lack of sleep has become the norm, because you just don’t realize how late it is when the sun is up 24 hrs a day. So, we go to bed sometime after midnight, and get up by 8am to go to class. The funny thing is that everyone here is in the same boat. They all stay up late – washing their cars at 1am, mowing the grass, etc. I think I was SKYPING with Fred and Tess at 1am on this night.

Dave has also picked up some strange habits, like watching the "Ice Trucker's Highway" show on TV.  Now he wants to drive to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay just to say we've driven the Haul Road! 

We went to the 105th playing of the Midnight Sun Baseball game Monday night (the Summer Solstice) and the stadium was so full, it was standing room only, even out behind left field. The game started at 10:30pm and has been played every year without the use of artificial lighting – just the midnight sun lights up the field.  At midnight, the games is stopped, so that the Alaska State Song can be sung.

The Alaska Goldpanners, which is a summer league team, played against the “Heroes of the Mound” team from the US Armed Services. The opening ceremonies were very emotional as the US flag was passed between members of the US Armed Forces while Ray Charles’ version of America The Beautiful played. Three members of the original Godpanner’s team were honored as well as a disabled Vietnam & Korean War vet. When the National Anthem began, tears welled up in my eyes and I couldn’t help but think of Dylan, and hope that he nevers sees battle. We’ve been told by more than one person, that Alaska has the highest concentration of Vietnam Vets than any other state. Why?

It’s true that there are more long-haired white men and more white women with heavy tattooing here than in Indiana or Ohio. Plus there is an attitude among residents here that they don’t like to be told what to do. People live remotely, on what the earth provides them, and subsistence living is in vogue. I say in vogue, because they are not forced to live this lifestyle – they choose to live it – and will defend their right to live this way.  We were invited to have a meal of moose shishkabobs and let me tell you ... it was delicious!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Qiviut, Bluebells and Swallowtails - Alaska May 30, 2010

Sunday, May 30, 2010
Slept in until about 11am – amazing! I can’t remember the last time I slept in so late. Well, I can’t remember that last time I stayed up until 2am fishing either! LOL!!

You know, being married to a birder isn’t bad really. I was single for 12 years before I met Dave, so I had plenty of time to put together a list of the qualities in a man that I desired. I didn’t really have an order to the list, but a list just the same. A good sense of humor, intelligence, and a good cook were all on the list. You see, I’m a terrible cook. Well, terrible because I get such anxiety when I have to cook that I get a panic attack and can’t do it. I can bake, but making an entire meal is agony for me! Weird, I know. Years of therapy, and we still don’t understand it. I think its performance anxiety. Plus, I usually burn the food and/or myself - which explains why I love the burnt cookies in the batch and my bacon really crisp! LOL!

So, this morning, my birder husband got up and made pork chops with sautéed onions and green peppers (left over from shish kabobs with Carol) and eggs for breakfast. Best breakfast I’ve ever had! I so married the right man. I will happily do dishes if he will keep on cooking. Unfortunately, my birder also likes meals that are heavy on the meats and gravies, which is why I gained 20 lbs the first year of our marriage. We call it “The Russell Effect”. Everyone who stays with us for an extended period of time gains weight. Poor Rafael! His family is already making fun of him for being fat and he hasn’t even seen them in person yet! They’ve just seen him on SKYPE!

After breakfast, I wanted to show Dave Smith Lake. I found it last week when I went for a bike ride on Michelle’s way-cool mountain bike! That bike is great! It weighs half what my hybrid weighs and I’d never gone trail riding, but now I’m hooked! What a freekin’ blast! As we made our way to Smith Lake, we checked out the flora and fauna. Prickly Rose is in full bloom right now and it is every where!

The flowers are generally a soft pink color, but every once in a while you will find a deep pink flower.

I found Bluebells, and asked a local about them.  She replied that they are "weeds".  Weeds?  How can anyone think of Bluebells as weeds? 

While we were walking along, Dave pointed out these funky looking leaves.  They look like they have an electronic circuit board drawn on them.  It is really the tunnels of the larvae of the Aspen Leaf-miner.  The larvae tunnell between the two outer layers of aspen leaves.  The flat larvae pupate at the end of the tunnell and cause extensive damage to the photosynthetic surface of the leaves causing considerable plant stress.  They have really become a problem in the past couple of years.

While we were driving up to Chena Hot Springs yesterday, we were amazed at how many Yellow Swallowtails we hit with our car.  Apparently, this year saw a really big emergence of Canadian Tiger Swallowtails.  I noticed them at Smith Lake when I rode my bike here last week and Dave was able to get this beautiful photo today.

Another butterfly that is flying around is the Common Alpine.  A beautiful, deep brown butterfly with these way-cool dark spots on orange splotches.

We walked over to Smith Lake checking out the Gray Jays, Common Redpolls and Ravens along the way. 

At the lake, we saw Shovellers, Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Bonaparte's Gull, and a Solitary Sandpiper.

We saw a Cloudberry flower with a crab spider hanging out in it.  It creeped me out - Dave thought it was cool.

After hanging out at Smith Lake we walked up the trail to the Large Animal Research Station. 

Locals refer to the place by the acronym LARS or as the “muskox farm” but the official title is the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station. LARS is managed by the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to provide a unique facility for research and education that focuses on ungulates from the subarctic and arctic.

I went to the yarn store in Fairbanks last week to check out their Muskox wool – aka Qiviut. Qiviut (pronounced kiv-ee-ut) is the Inuit word for the extremely fine underwool of the muskox, prized for its softness and warmth. Qiviut is considered the warmest natural fiber known to man. Each year, muskoxen grow a dense layer of qiviut over their entire body, protected from wind and precipitation by an outer coat of dark brown guard hair. Their winter coats are unparalleled in insulative value, and keep the animals warm and comfortable when the temperature drops below –50 degrees F.

LARS sells Qiviut (this is their photo) at 1/3 less than the yard store in town. I’m definitely going to save my money and get some before we leave. Since the qiviut is so warm, the natives knit it using a lace pattern. There are beautiful vests on display in the gift shop as well as neck warmers, the locals call “smoke rings”. Again, the smoke rings are knit in a lace pattern so they are not too warm.

We took the guided tour of the facility and got back home around 4pm. It was a good 5 mile walk.

Michelle had invited us over for dinner at 6pm, so we quickly showered and ran to town to get a bottle of wine. Amazingly, California wines are dirt cheap here! We got a Chateau St. Michelle Chardonnay and a Rodney Strong Cabernet. Michelle lives is a beautiful tri-level in the woods. Her home is decorated with local folk art, much of which is from the local Farmer’s Market. I recognized a vase that was made by the same potter who made the Raven vase I got for Dave.

We met Michelle’s best friend, Bonnie and her husband Bill (he’s an artist) and Michelle has a 6ft tall landscape he painted on her wall. She told us about losing her home to a fire, and Bill taking her to his studio and saying, “Pick anything, and it’s yours”. She said she wandered around the studio, just sick with grief and in shock over the fire and stood in front of the landscape portrait with its massive mountain peaks and sheer cliffs and thought, "I’ve got an uphill climb to get my life back together – this painting represents my life". It is absolutely spectacular. We had a lovely dinner of Walleye, salad and ended with homemade rhubarb strawberry pie. After dessert, she also served us Chrysanthemum tea from China. It was nice and mild.

Grayling Fishing in Alaska - May 29, 2010

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Today we are going fishing for Grayling up Chena Hot Spring road. Grayling are a high arctic species of cold clear water, related to trout and salmon and males have giant enlarged dorsal fins resembling a big flag.  They range in color from blue-ish purple to yellow-ish.  They eat anything living that falls into or lives in the water - from small mice to fish eggs. 

Doug has waders that will fit me, but not Dave. So, off we went to Sportsman’s Warehouse to check out chest waders and boots. Luckily, the felt bottom wading boots are being discontinued, so we each picked up a pair, and then we saw that chest waders were on sale too!

So, both Dave and I ended up getting a pair. We gathered our fishing poles, restrung 10lb braided Spider Wire on our reels, sorted our tackle boxes and went to Bonita and Doug’s place in North Pole, Alaska.

They have a lovely home with large open rooms and a fabulous Florida room. They have a new puppy named Ash, who melted Dave’s heart. Neither one of us realized how much he misses our puppy, Bruce, until we met Ash. Dave immediately got down on his hands and knees and started growling and playing with Ash and got her so excited that she did laps around the house and then tinkled a little bit on the floor! LOL!!! It was hilarious! She was worn out! Nita took me on a tour of the house and then out to the garage where they have the coolest greenhouse above their garage. Violet green swallows nest in their garage wall and they even had two specimens that had been desiccated that they gave us for our school collections.

We decided to take two vehicles to the fishing site, so that we could head back to Fairbanks afterwards and Doug and Nita could go back to North Pole. Sounds funny, doesn’t it…. back to North Pole. We left Nita and Doug’s at about 6pm and drove up Chena Hot Springs Road. It’s about 80F.

We pulled off into a parking lot a little way past mile marker 47 and put on our waders, grabbed our poles and ventured out into the raging river.

The water was about thigh high on me, which meant waist high on Nita. So, we had to hold onto our significant others, so the current didn’t sweep us away!

I can’t believe how strong the current is. I love the sound of the water. It is so soothing and relaxing. The water is so clear that you can see all the way to the bottom, and it will fool you about how deep it is!

We could hear Yellow Warblers, Varied Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush and Dark-eyed Juncos singing in the trees.

As we moseyed along casting our spinners and daydreaming, I felt like I was in heaven. I stopped to take photos of everyone, and try to capture the essence of the moment – a bit of time when the world was calm – and then I felt a tug on my line. Holy shit I got a fish!

I called for Dave! OMG what do I do now??!!! He came barreling over, splashing across from the other side of the river, telling me to “keep the line tight”, “but not too tight”, “keep it easy, even”, “reel in slow”…. Holy shit my heart is pounding so hard it is going to jump out of my throat and you want me to reel in slow and easy!!! I’m lucky to keep from jumping out of my skin! My entire body is shaking as this fish starts pulling me over and I just know that I’m going to do a header into the river. It feels like it is the size of Nita’s puppy, Ash! Of course, we have no nets, so Dave grabs the fish by hand and pulls out the most beautiful Grayling I have ever seen.

Well, the only Grayling I’ve ever seen, but it was still beautiful! They have this dorsal fin that narrows down to a point in a form that reminds me of the fighting beta fish you get at pet shops. I was enthralled.

And the eye. It was yellow!

It’s catch and release here now, so after taking some photos, we let the fish go.

We fished our way up river for an hour or two and then came back to the trucks to eat. Nita had made tunafish salad sandwiches that were great! She’s the only person I know that makes them with hard boiled eggs – my favorite!!! That’s how my folks made them when we were kids. After eating, we again ventured into the river, but this time we went down river.

Fishing is the best activity to do with your partner. I think it is one of the most romantic sports/hobbies around. You are in the most beautiful, serene and undisturbed areas in the world, with the person you love and you are exploring. It doesn’t get any better than this!

In the distance we heard a Ruffed Grouse drumming his territorial sound. It was incredible.

As we turned a bend in the river, we heard a loud splash near a fallen tree and saw a beaver dam. Swimming frantically back and forth in front of the dam was a beaver, and she was not happy. Every time Dave would walk by on the opposite shore, she would contort her body so that her tail would strike the water with a loud “Whap” that echoed down the valley.

It was hysterical! And, even though Dave was not fishing near her, and he was trying to NOT bother her, if he spoke, she would smack her tail to let him know her displeasure with his presence. I got it on video.

By the end of the evening, I’d caught 2 fish, Bonita got one, and Doug got one. We left the river at 1am, and got home at 2:07am. A light rain had begun to fall when we hit North Pole, and by the time we hit Fairbanks it was raining pretty hard. The rain is good, because wild fires have sprung up and are raging out of control due to the dry spell they’ve had. I went to bed exhausted, legs sore from fighting the current, and completely happy and relaxed. What a life I have.

Kiwi and Pump House in Alaska - May 28, 2010

Friday, May 28, 2010

Today is our day off. I decided to head over to Walmart to find an over the door towel rack for the bathroom. The bathroom door in our apartment is attached to a hydraulic hinge that forces it to shut tightly every time it opens. This means that the bathroom door never stays open, even when you are standing in the doorway, in front of the sink brushing your teeth. It gets annoying when the door is constantly pushing you out of the room. There is also only one towel rack. So, off to Walmart I went to get more lotion, a copper bird feeder, and two living room lamps. One of the plastic bird feeders Dave hung yesterday ended up on the ground, broken. We believe this is a renegade squirrel trying to eat the sunflower seeds.

While I was putting together the towel rack, Dave headed out to hang the bird feeder, and sure enough, a little red squirrel came around and fussed at him. He made such a racket that Dave had to come inside and get me to come and look at this feisty little squirrel!

He eventually got the new feeder up and chased off the squirrel, who obviously felt Dave was invading his territory! 

Dave made a pot of his delicious baked beans, and we headed over to ABO for Carols’ talk. ABO is tucked in the corner of a sprawling apartment complex turned resort. They have a lovely new building that borders the woods leading out to Creamer Field. Inside ABO, is a great gift shop with everything from art and jewelry to ABO logo’d items to field guides to bird feeders.

The mission of the Alaska Bird Observatory is to advance the appreciation, understanding, and conservation of birds and their habitats through research and education. They have several field projects on the Tanana Flats, Yukon Flats, Creamer’s Refuge, Kodiak Island, Alaska Peninsula/Becharof, Arctic, and Innoko National Wildlife Refuges, the BLM’s National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and the BLM’s White Mountains. While we were there, Sue was giving us updates on many of these projects. This is the happenin’ place for bird research.

Carol “Kiwi” Donovan’s talk was wonderfully entertaining and I can see why Dave is so smitten with her. She is living his dream.

If he could, he would travel the world to see every bird. Of course, I would have to go with him, because you all know how much he likes to “share” what he knows with me! He’s an explorer and teacher, and you know what? I’d go in an instant.

After Carol’s talk, we drove over to the Pump House Restaurant to have drinks with my TA Bonita and her partner Doug.

It was a beautiful evening, probably in the 70sF at 9:30pm so we sat on the deck by the river until the bugs became too annoying. Alaska is a great place to be if you like dark beer. Everywhere we’ve gone, I’ve tried the dark beer – from British Columbia through the Yukon and to Alaska. But, I must say that I really like the Alaskan Porter. Doug is a fisherman. The first 10 years or so that he lived in Alaska, he led fishing expeditions, so he and Dave hit it off from the git go. In fact, we left the restaurant at 1:18am with plans to go fishing the following afternoon. We took a picture of the parking lot when we left and it was as bright as day.

Big Daddy's BBQ in Alaska - May 27, 2010

Thurs May 27, 2010

Got up and went to the Alaska Bird Observatory banding station before class this morning with Dave. They have been getting Redpolls and juncos, and I wanted to see those cranes in the field. The banding station is located on the back side of Creamer Field, which formerly was known as the Creamer Dairy.

I met Sue, their primary bander, and Rebecca Young who is doing some DNA telomere work on Thick-billed Murres and Kittywakes. ABO also puts up double and triple high nets using a system very similar to the one Bobby Brown uses for catching bats in Ohio. We definitely need to get this set up for home! Very cool!

Today was our last day of teaching for the week. I feel so spoiled teaching for 2 hrs a day, 4 days a week. How sweet is that? We ran over to Fred Myers (which is our favorite store now) and got a couple of bird feeders and bird seed, and Dave hung them outside our living room window. We have this nice little clump of birch, aspen and white spruce behind our apartment that give you that “living in the woods” feeling. I hope we can see some birds at the feeders! I’m still fascinated with the redpolls.

Michelle surprised me and brought over her bike this evening! I am so excited to go for a bike ride! I haven’t exercised on a regular basis since December, and after 10 days in the truck and 2 weeks of just teaching, I feel like a slug!
Sammy sent me a text giving me a list of restaurants in Fairbanks that she had seen on a recent episode of the Food Network’s, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. One of the places listed is called Big Daddy’s BBQ, so we headed over there for dinner.

The place is great! Old school diner tables and chairs, pig and Chicago sport memorabilia adorns the ceiling and walls. Multicolored Christmas lights are strung across the ceiling giving the place a festive quality year round.

I fell in love with the pink flying pig hanging from the ceiling! Felt like Cincinnati. Plus, Big Daddy’s a Chicago fan! You could order an Italian Beef sandwich! We asked the waitress what she recommended and took her advice. I ordered the Arkansas Baby Back Ribs (half order) and Dave ordered the Big Daddy sampler – with Shiner Bock beer!

I love Shiner Bock! The ribs were delicious! Good choice, Sammy girl!