Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Clearing Trail

Am I addicted?

A PA colleague of mine who has dabbled in dog mushing says that it is a totally addictive behavior and there should be a twelve-step program for it. It is certainly true that once you get bitten with “dog fever” it is very hard to quit. If I am a blogaholic, am I also a mushaholic? Just maybe.

Southwest Alaska has been whipped with wind the last two days, and it is coming from the north. That means cold. It was ten below zero this morning under a clear blue sky, with wind steady at 25 MPH and gusting higher. That gave us a wind chill of about minus forty. Serious frostbite weather.

Henry has been running dogs every day for the past week, and had no plan for today to be an exception.

“You’re not wimping out on me, are you?” he said on the phone this morning. Who, me? Nah!

We were dressed in maximum gear, with eight dogs on the gangline when we left the yard at 2 pm. The few inches of snow we’ve had in the last few days has helped the trail a little, but it is still mostly hard-packed snow and ice. Teeth-rattling bumpiness at times and loud plastic runner noise on the trail. We couldn’t even hear the dogs’ panting as they ran, though white puffs of breath were sometimes visible before the wind snatched them away. As usual with a hard trail, it was also a fast one, gliding quickly around corners and sliding easily across ponds. There were moments that had the exhilarating feel of a rocket blast as we careened down sections of half-pipe shaped trail that frequently had the sled teetering on one runner.

We got to Hangar Lake in jiffy, and without rolling the sled, and stopped to look at the near ground-blizzard of wind and snow blowing across its nearly mile-wide surface. Glare ice alternated with good-sized drifts, and to follow our blown-out trail we had to cut directly across the wind. This is a very difficult skill for a sled dog team to acquire, and out here is an essential skill for a good lead dog. The leader must follow voice command alone to head the team to a point in the distance that looks no different from any other point on the far side of the lake. The dogs’ natural instinct is to follow the shoreline, staying close to the trees and as protected from the wind as possible. A well-trained leader will go against instinct and follow the musher’s command. In a race situation, it can mean the difference between winning and losing.

With a full-on side wind hitting the team, both dogs and sled are blown off course, and frequent corrections are required. If the ground blizzard becomes a white-out, it is very easy to lose any sense of direction. Though it is only two miles from town, it is quite possible to be lost on Hangar Lake, and have to hunker down and wait out the blow.

It was bitter cold in that wind as we crossed the lake, and the leaders, Pistol and Speedo, did well following commands. Once on the other side, the willows and cottonwoods protected us from the worst of the torrent.

The trail we were following winds through several small sloughs and stands of willow before coming to the edge of Steamboat Slough, which connects to the Kuskokwim River. The Slough is a winter parking place for huge barges which are tied up there at the end of summer and allowed to freeze in. It is kind of eerie to walk right up to them, with their huge mooring lines connecting them to the shore like umbilical cords.

We parked the dog team at the edge of the willows and unpacked the sled. Henry had brought his small chainsaw so that we could work on clearing the “pingos” from the new cut-off trail we put in last year. The snow had been a foot higher then, and now the new trail was a nail bed of short stobby willow stumps.

With an hour’s diligent labor we managed to clear about half of the trail. There was little wind among the trees, and though it was ten below, we were both overly warm when we decided to quit. Still glad to have a thermos of coffee, however, and a quiet spot out of the wind to drink it and work on our tans.

The trip home was smooth, as homeward legs usually are. All the dogs were pulling hard, focused on their work, eager for the warm meat soup they knew awaited them back in the dog yard. It was about a three hour trip altogether, and I was only cold during the Hangar Lake crossings. Wind is the killer when it comes to cold.

Three hours outdoors on a windy day at minus ten degrees, just for fun. And it was a blast! Yeah, I’m hooked. Dog mushing is just the most incredible sport.

Photos by The Tundra PA. Henry straightens a harness problem at the edge of Hangar Lake. Huge barges are silent inhabitants of Steamboat Slough in the winter. Henry attacks the pingos.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Time for Grand Rounds

Tuesday morning means that another edition of Grand Rounds is blowing through the blogosphere. The home for this week's carnival is Musings of a Dinosaur, where our host, the #1 Dino, has done a superb job of fashioning a readable collection of the medblogosphere's best blog posts.

This week's theme is about change in medical practice--what does, what doesn't, what should, what shouldn't. Overall, I have grown somewhat tired of "themed" Grand Rounds, but this edition is so well handled that the theme does not feel like a concrete mold into which the post must be poured. I haven't submitted a post for Grand Rounds for a while now, and the Dinosaur's lively edition this week makes me wish I had. Great job, #1 Dinosaur!


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Finishing the Quest

The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race is the twin jewel to the Iditarod in the crown of long-distance mushing. They are, however, two very different types of races. Both are in the thousand-mile category, and are the only two sled dog races of such length held in North America; the Iditarod is slightly longer, by a hundred miles or so. The Quest is a far lonelier race; it only has ten checkpoints (including start and finish), compared to Iditarod’s 27, with up to two hundred miles between checkpoints. The Quest’s trail is full of tall mountains and deep snow, where the Iditarod has more wide-open, flat terrain with high winds and glare ice. Both races are extreme tests of human and canine stamina, endurance, and will.

Both races celebrate the contribution of sled dog teams to the history of Alaska and northern Canada. Iditarod honors the efforts of mushers in 1925 to get life-saving diphtheria serum out to the disease-stricken village of Nome. The Quest honors all the dogs and drivers of the past two hundred years who opened up the Far North to settlement and commerce without benefit of roads, snowmachines, or airplanes. The Quest taps into the gold rush history around Dawson City, as the Iditarod does around the now-deserted village of Iditarod.

Of the two races, the Quest has remained the smaller in terms of the size of the field. Most years, it draws about thirty teams to enter, with five to ten teams scratching before completion. The Quest has a limit of 50 teams. The Iditarod has no stated limit, and had an initial sign-up of over 100 teams this year. Some have already withdrawn, and the final starting number for 2007 will be 92 teams. As many as two dozen or more may scratch before finishing.

The Quest, which began in 1984, is run between Fairbanks, Alaska, USA, and Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. In even-numbered years, it starts in Fairbanks and goes east. In odd-numbered years, it starts in Whitehorse and goes west. Mushers who have run the race two years in a row—and gone both ways—say it is two different races, depending on direction. The mountains seem completely different and the long two-hundred-mile leg between Dawson City (the halfway point) and Pelly Crossing is in the Whitehorse half, which some mushers say is easier on the dogs when it comes later in the race rather than earlier.


This great photo is of Aliy Zirkle and her team running the Yukon Quest in 2000, the year she became the first woman to win the race. With the 2007 race just completed, she remains the only woman to have ever done so. In 1999, when she finished in fourth place, she was presented the Challenge of the North Award, which is given to the musher who most represents the “Spirit of the Yukon Quest”. I came across this photo by accident when I was looking through some old calendars in search of a copy of the Iditarod logo, which I wanted to use in the last post. Never found the logo, but was delighted to find this photo by Laurent Dick in the 2001 Mushing Alaska Calendar. The caption under the photo reads:

“2000 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champion Aliy Zirkle, 30, of Two
Rivers, Alaska, northeast of Fairbanks, mushes up King Solomon’s Dome, at 3,800
feet the highest point in the race. [Looks a lot more like coming down than going up to me!] The first woman champion in the
Quest’s 17-year history, she had the third fastest time in the history of the
race. Zirkle led the race from the halfway point at Dawson City to the
finish line near Whitehorse. Zirkle grew up in New Hampshire and Puerto
Rico and came to Alaska in 1992 as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist
working in Bettles. She entered her first Quest in 1998 finishing
seventeenth. In 1999 she finished fourth. Her first place finish in
2000 took ten days, 22 hours and one minute and won her $30,000.”

The 2007 Yukon Quest was won four days ago by Lance Mackey. He not only set a new course record with a finishing time of 10 days, 4 hours, 3 minutes (breaking his own record from 2006); he also equaled Hans Gatt’s amazing record of three Quest wins in a row. It was Gatt in 2002, ‘03, and ‘04; and Mackey in ‘05, ‘06, and ‘07. Such a feat is a solid testament to the training and driving skills of the musher. The only consecutive winner in the Iditarod’s history is Susan Butcher, who won in 1986, ’87, and ’88 (and was second by only a few minutes in ’89, won in ’90, was second in ’91. Yeah. Wow.).

Lance was in Bethel for his first K300 last month, and finished in eighth place. His is an inspiring story. He is a survivor of throat cancer, which required radical revision of his neck; he now has very few salivary glands left, and carries a bottle of water with him at all times. When he started mushing again after his treatment, he named his dog yard The Come Back Kennel. He and his dogs have certainly lived up to that name! Lance is also one of very few mushers who run both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. Mostly with two different teams, though a few stellar canine athletes may do both races. He’ll have eleven days to rest between finishing the Quest and starting the ‘Rod. No problem.

For more “insider insights” on this year’s Iditarod than I will have, let me suggest you check out the new blog over at Aliy's SP Kennels. Aliy’s sister Kaz will be posting updates from the trail regularly. Both Aliy and her husband Allen Moore are running the race; Aliy will drive the varsity team—competitively—and Allen will take a slower pace with the JVs. It all starts in one week.

Photo of Lance by The Tundra PA.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Preparing for Iditarod

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the biggest single event in dog mushing. The 1100 mile race from Anchorage to Nome begins each year on the first Saturday in March, and for two solid weeks will keep dog mushing fans worldwide supplied with thrills, chills, spills, and excitement. This year marks the 35th running of The Last Great Race.

I could write pages on how the race is set up, the trail, the checkpoints, the history, the mushers, the weather…or you could simply check out the two websites that will give you all of that, plus photos, videos and more.

The official Iditarod website is It has some helpful information and interesting facts, but saves the really good stuff for those willing to fork over $20 to be an “Iditarod Insider.” I find myself somewhat resentful of this, and so far have not anted up the bucks. Instead I follow the race more faithfully on, which is more overall informative, though it does plaster you with Cabela’s ads. I love Cabela’s, so I’m willing to overlook that part. The site also emphasizes Jeff King over all other mushers, as he is their paid spokesperson who lends his name to some of their winter gear. I like Jeff, so I’m willing to overlook that too. I just wish Cabela’s would develop a line of severe winter gear for women and pay Aliy Zirkle to put her name on it!

The field for this year’s Iditarod includes 83 mushers and dog teams. Twelve of the mushers are women. Twenty-seven of the mushers are rookies. Fifty-eight mushers are from Alaska, with 17 from other states and 8 from other countries, including one from Argentina. Six mushers are former Iditarod champions. Of all of those, Dutch and I will be following most closely the races of the two mushers we are honored to call our friends. Aliy Zirkle and Mike Williams.

Mike Williams is a man in motion. It seems like he never slows down. He is a 53-year-old Yupik Eskimo from the upriver village of Akiak who has mushed dogs for most of his life. He and his brothers won many local races over the last thirty years with their line of red-furred huskies known as the Red Dogs of Akiak. Both Mike and his 21-year-old son Mike Jr. ran the K300 this year; Mike Jr. was the winner of last year’s Bogus 150.

Mike is known far and wide as “the sobriety musher.” As with many Alaska Natives, there is a huge amount of alcoholism in his family. He lost all six of his brothers to alcohol-related death. He subsequently made it the thrust of his life’s work to bring the issue of alcoholism among Alaska Natives to the forefront. He speaks on sobriety at every opportunity, encouraging those with alcohol problems to recognize them, get help, and make different choices. Each year when he runs the Iditarod, Mike carries in his sled the names of all those individuals willing to commit themselves to a year of sobriety. He has inspired many people to make the life-saving decision to quit drinking alcohol.

This year will be Mike’s thirteenth running of the Iditarod. His best finish ever is 18th place, and he is hoping for Top Twenty this year.

Last weekend, Dutch and I spent most of Sunday over at Henry’s house, helping pack Mike’s Iditarod food drops along with Henry, Sean, Mike’s wife Maggie, and several family members. It is a huge job. There are 25 checkpoints between Anchorage and Nome, and each musher is allowed to ship three large bags of gear and dog food to each checkpoint. The bags are color-coded and stamped with the checkpoint name in large block letters; the musher’s name is writ large below that.

Mushers can put whatever they want in the bags, and this is one place that experience pays. You don’t need the same supplies at McGrath that you will need at Shaktoolik. Some checkpoints get new plastic sled runners, some don’t. More frozen fish snacks at the checkpoints before the longest legs of the race. Extra gloves and neck gaiters where the weather is expected to be coldest. Many mushers send out a whole new sled for the last part of the race—smaller, lighter, faster than the one they have to cross the Alaska Range on.

Mike’s bags contain frozen lamb, caribou, beef, whitefish and whale blubber, in addition to rice and kibble. The musher’s sled will always have an aluminum cooker fueled with white gas or ethanol to make hot soup for the dogs. Mike also has frozen and vacuum-packed gourmet food for himself (prepared by an Anchorage chef and sealed in heavy plastic boiling bags) that he can throw in with the dog’s food for heating up with no extra effort.

Once the bags were all packed, Mike estimated he had about 2300 pounds of gear. He and Henry took it to the cargo shipper for transport to Anchorage on Monday. An article I saw in Friday’s Anchorage Daily News said the race had received 86 tons of gear from the 83 mushers for shipment to the checkpoints, so all the others must have had about the same. In addition to the food drops, there will be separate drops for fuel (for all those dog food cookers) and for straw. Each musher gets two bales of straw at each checkpoint for the dogs—and the musher, if necessary—to sleep on.

The logistics of coordinating all this are daunting, to say the least. Most of it is accomplished by volunteers. The transportation of supplies out to the checkpoints and dropped dogs back from the checkpoints is the job of the Iditarod Air Force, a cadre of private pilots flying their own small planes who donate thousands of hours each year to make the race happen.

If you are interested in an up-close-and-personal view of the Iditarod, find a copy of Gary Paulsen’s book Winterdance (Amazon has it if your local library doesn’t). It is not just a well-told tale; it is also one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read. Literally tear-rolling, thigh-slapping, side-holding hilarity. And breathless suspense at the life-threatening situations he and his dogs get into. I highly recommend it.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a huge event in Alaska, where dog mushing is the state sport. The start of the race is eleven days away. I’ll have lots more to say about it.
First photo by Jeff Schultz: Susan Butcher running the 1993 Iditarod. Other photos (except book cover) by The Tundra PA: Mike Williams in packing mode; dog food drops being prepared; Maggie Williams cutting whale blubber with a very large uluk.


Smooth Trip Home

The scenery was so jaw-droppingly gorgeous when Henry and I flew out of Anchorage on Saturday that I just had to do the tourist thing and take photos out of the plane’s window. After several days of frequent snow showers (thrilling the locals, who always hope for snow before the Iditarod starts), Saturday was a clear and sunny day with a brilliantly blue sky. The new snow—about three inches of pure powder in the two days we were there—made the surrounding mountains sparkle with freshness. Denali (a.k.a. Mt. McKinley) stood out sharply against the cloudless sky; it is the taller big mountain on the right in the photo.

This quick trip to Anchorage was so fraught with frustrations that all other recent trips pale in comparison to it. The great scenery and smooth hour-long flight home to Bethel were preceded by a seemingly endless number of little things going wrong. Most were trivial, like the car rental company not having our reservation, and felt like small stumbles in the trip’s stride.

One was potentially huge. Henry lost his wallet. We are fairly sure it was at the restaurant where we stopped for a late dinner before checking into the hotel on Thursday night. We discovered it missing on Friday morning and backtracked to the restaurant, but did not recover it. The loss of the credit cards, money, and treasured old photos was sad and inconvenient. The loss of his driver’s license meant not getting on an airplane to go home. He had no other ID with him. So in addition of the stress of being there for a medical appointment and a somewhat painful procedure, there was the additional stress of not knowing how we’d get Henry home.

His appointment was at 1:00 on Friday. Another stumble. The medical assistant showed us into a small exam room, and when I asked about the pending biopsy, she responded “oh no, the appointment is not for a biopsy; this is a meet-and-greet appointment.”

“No,” I said. “We’re here for the biopsy, not for a handshake. We’ve flown 400 miles and spent a thousand dollars on plane tickets, hotel and car rental. We’re not leaving without the biopsy.”

Well, that flustered her a bit, but she rose to the challenge. The physician was informed, the schedule was adjusted, and the biopsy was done. We were out of the office by 3:00. Instead of going back to the hotel to relax and be glad it was over, we were off in search of the Department of Motor Vehicles to try to get the lost driver’s license resolved.

The main problem was that Henry’s old DL was issued in 2003, just before the State of Alaska went to digital technology. The old system had no computer storage of the photo on the license. Henry had only his checkbook and copies of some medical records we had brought along to prove who he was; it was not enough. The DMV people were not even impressed that he could recite his DL number. No. They had to have a photo. The only hope, we were told, was if the Department of Safety (the Alaska State Troopers) would fax over a copy of Henry’s current DL from their files. On Friday afternoon, an hour before closing. Otherwise, we’d have to wait around in Anchorage until Tuesday (Monday being a holiday).

Well, miracle of miracles, the State Troopers came through for us with 30 minutes to spare. The fax arrived and Henry received a renewed DL with a new photo on it—one with a big grin! We were both so incredibly relieved.

The moral of this adventure is: don’t travel with only one form of identification. Too much is riding on it. The advice of the Alaska DMV was to apply for a state ID card in addition to a driver’s license. Keep the ID card in your pocket for getting through airline security and pack the DL safely in your carry-on luggage.

With the driver’s license renewed we could finally relax. We went to our favorite steakhouse for a divine dinner and then saw an excellent foreign film, Pan’s Labyrinth. There ended up being no time for shopping, but there were no crucial items on the list anyway. Nothing that can’t wait for the next trip out of Bethel.

Photo by The Tundra PA


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Return of the Matriarch

Too much Life to both live it and write about it, and more going on than I am at liberty to share. That is my only excuse for the recent dearth of postings, and it frustrates me because writing is what I want most to be doing.

My four days per week at the hospital are usually long and intense. We are deep into the winter respiratory season and bronchiolitis, pneumonia, asthma and COPD exacerbations abound. After several recent departures from the medical staff in the last six months, we are significantly down-staffed at the moment, and struggling along to keep up with patient demand for appointments.

Non-workdays continue to be mostly about dog mushing. Henry and I are usually training dogs on two of my three days off. There is new blood in the dog yard, in addition to the ten puppies we are training. Seven new dogs came to the yard after the K300. Four of them were mine to start with.

Early in 2000, I bought a beautiful puppy from Susan Butcher. Her name is Princess, and she was nine months old when I got her. I sent her back to Susan twice for breeding, and she produced two strong and healthy litters. I thought of Princess and her 13 offspring as the “Butcher Dynasty.”

Princess was the result of Susan’s careful breeding program, and her bloodlines go back to Susan’s famous lead dog, Granite. She comes from the best of the best.

When my own health issues forced me to stop mushing, I left the dynasty in the hands of my mushing partner, who subsequently moved away from Bethel. Which is how they came to be in the dog yard of Ben Bruce. He has trained them for the last year. He ran a slow and steady K300 this year, coming in next to last. I was at the finish line when he came in, and delighted to see Princess on the team. After 300 miles she came in looking strong, though very thin.

Henry has been interested in maintaining the bloodlines that Princess carries, and talked to Ben about taking her and three of her offspring to start a new breeding program with. Ben was agreeable, and I am delighted to have Princess back. I have always felt a connection with her.

When she first came to me as a nine-month-old puppy, she was scared and lonely after leaving Susan’s big dog yard and familiar surroundings and getting shipped to Bethel in the bowels of a cargo plane. That first night in the yard with six other dogs she didn’t know was spent whining constantly unless I went out to pet and reassure her. I ended up spending the night curled up on her dog house with my hand in the doorway rubbing her head to keep her quiet. This was in February, mind you. She has always been special to me, and there will always be a spot for her on my sofa when her working days are over.

I am delighted to say that she has been an outstanding performer since she arrived at Henry’s. She has run in lead almost every time she has gone out, and she paces the team well, mostly follows gee/haw commands (to turn right or left), and pulls hard all the time. I’m really proud of her. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she is also gorgeous.

A lot of thought and planning (and sometimes endless discussion!) goes into dog training, especially when—as now—there are complicating issues such as puppies and incorporating new dogs into an established yard. Besides the new kids which Henry and I are working with, Angela continues to train her Bogus 150 race team, and plans to run a few more races this season.

And then there is the Big Daddy of all sled dog races coming up. The 2007 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins on the first Saturday in March. We will be following the race closely, watching and rooting for our two favorite mushers, Aliy Zirkle and Mike Williams. Lots more to come on that.

Tonight Henry and I fly over to Anchorage for two days, for another medical appointment for him. So sporadic posting will continue for a bit longer. I’ll promise some catching up when I get back.
Photo by The Tundra PA. Princess (left) and Pancho (right).


Monday, February 12, 2007

Blogger Woes

Does anyone know where my sidebars have gone? A few months ago, they simply ran away from home without provocation. Disappeared without leaving a note. One day they were there, the next day they were gone. And I had not been mucking about in the template. I kept hoping they'd come back, as the blog just doesn't look right without them, and I do like the functions they perform. I discovered that clicking on the timestamp for any given post will bring up that post and its comments as a single page, and the sidebars are intact there, except for the archives. There are no archives at all. I have gone back through the template and everything is there as it should be. So what's wrong?

When I look at the blog in Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, the sidebars are intact, including the archives. But the main page comes up showing the most recent post as over a month ago. If I type in the exact URL of the most recent post, that page will come up; but the main page is never current.

When I made the switch to Blogger Beta about two weeks ago, I hoped this problem would be corrected, but it was not. Any suggestions?


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Wearing Fur

To celebrate the end of an incredibly long and busy week—which contributed strongly to the lack of posting here—Dutch took me out for lunch on Friday. It was the only day this week that I actually got a lunch break, and it was so nice to get away from the hospital and have most of an hour with him.

As we were finishing our meal, a young man who used to work at the hospital came in with his grandmother to have lunch. She was dressed in one of the most beautiful fur parkas I have ever seen. I had to go over and say hello to him and meet her. Her weathered face was a mass of wrinkles that crinkled easily into a sparkly-eyed smile. She was happy to pose for a photo.

The parka she is wearing is one of many that she made over the years. She is a skinsewer of great skill and artistry. This parka is made of beaver, wolf, marten, and wolverine, with the borders at wrist and hem made of cowhide trimmed with mink.

In the old days, the animals would have been hunted by her sons and brought home for her to skin, stretch and tan the hides. She would have softened the leather by chewing it, which is why many old skinsewers have teeth so worn down they barely show above the gum line. These days, most of the few remaining skinsewers have their furs and hides tanned professionally.

A parka such as this one would take several months to make, and would sell for two to three thousand dollars in Bethel. It might represent most of a year’s income to the skinsewer. This parka is lined with a quilted cotton flannel. Sometimes, for additional warmth, such a garment would be lined with rabbit fur.

The wearing of fur is an essential part of survival in the Yupik Eskimo culture. There is simply nothing as warm as fur, even in this age of miracle fabrics and high-tech gear. It retains heat when wet and is impervious to wind. And it is so incredibly warm. A well-made fur garment is beautiful to look at and luxuriously soft to touch. One feels elegant wearing it.

Those latter qualities are what have made wearing fur a status and fashion statement in the warmer parts of the world where it is totally unnecessary to survival. In my younger and more radical years, I was not only opposed to such activity, I was out demonstrating against it. Though I’ve mellowed somewhat with age, I still believe that if fleece and Gore-tex will keep you warm, then wear it. But when it is so cold that only fur will prevent hypothermia and frostbite, then I wear fur. It has been key to Eskimo survival (both Inuit and Yupik) in the harsh climate of the Arctic and sub-Arctic for thousands of years. The Real People (which is what the Yupik call themselves) could never have survived here without the animals which provide food, clothing, and even shelter.
Photo by The Tundra PA


Saturday, February 03, 2007

Winter Heat Wave

Regular readers of Tundra Medicine Dreams must realize by now what a dominating effect weather has in our lives here in southwest Alaska during the wintertime. The temperature can range from 40 below, which is difficult, to 40 above, which is miserable. We can have deep, heavy snow, or gale-force winds, or nothing but sheer ice. But for all the challenges of the cold end of the range, most people prefer that to the warm end. When the temperature is 40 above, it is generally accompanied by lots of warm south wind and rain. The skies are leaden and the land is wet, drippy, sloppy, and muddy. Thick ice continues to underlie the standing water, making it dangerous to walk without ice cleats.

For the past week we have had a veritable heat wave going on. On Tuesday the 30th, I heard unofficially that we set a new local record for high temperatures in January—it was +47F! (around here, that’s when we get out the t-shirts and flip-flops). By contrast, January 23rd is the anniversary of Alaska’s coldest temperature on record: -80F in 1971 at Prospect Creek Camp (courtesy of my freebie calendar from Alaska Magazine).

The warm weather has brought lots of muddy melting, but for once this warm spell has been accompanied by blue skies and reasonably dry weather. It has had its nice moments, for all that it seems so wrong. Spring just does not happen in February in Alaska, but that is what it feels like at the moment.

On Wednesday afternoon, Henry and I sat on his front porch swing drinking tea and watching the birds. He keeps several bird feeders filled, and the willows around his house are alive with redpoles, grosbeaks, and chickadees. They flit back and forth from trees to feeder, paying little attention to the humans sitting three feet away.

We had been enjoying several minutes of quiet when suddenly a brown blur streaked through the airspace with stunning speed and ferocity. A cloud of birds boiled up from the trees with frantic wingbeats and cries of distress. In the stillness that followed their departure, a small to medium brown bird (later identified as a merlin) sat on a stump in the grass in front of the house with a squawking grosbeak clamped firmly in one claw. With cold-eyed efficiency, the merlin pecked the grosbeak to death and ate everything but the feathers.

It was gruesome, and yet fascinating to watch. After his meal, the predator flew off and has not been seen again. The songbirds have not recovered from the shock of this attack; the trees have had very few birds for the last few days. It seems strangely quiet without them.
Photos by The Tundra PA.