by Kirstin Merkley ~ January 21st, 2014
Occasionally I hear a KTNA DJ mention that someone “on the other side of the world” could be streaming KTNA over the Internet”. Recently I thought about that. What if someone was listening from some tropical location-someone that would never visit Alaska? Someone who only knew Alaska from the tourist videos, or the movies-which tend to get their “facts” atrociously incorrect. What if a listener was curious about the “mundane” side of Alaskan life?
At the beginning of each month I make a “grub run” to Wasilla to get my monthly supply of groceries and dry goods. I thought I would share that experience with our Outside listeners. Perhaps they’d get a glimpse into the life of a rural Alaskan going shopping in mid-winter.
January’s run was to be a bit of an ‘a-typical’ trip, in that I was taking my five-month old puppy “Darby” in to the Wasilla vet to be spayed. They wanted her there between six and seven a.m. To accomplish that, I had to leave the ranch by three-thirty a.m. I went to bed at eight p.m., having fed Jody the mare, charged up the battery bank, and gotten everything as ready as I could before turning in. The ranch, where I live as caretaker, is off the Grid and a solar array and generator keeps the battery bank charged. Leaving the ranch in the dark meant needing to have the battery bank fully charged, for the Toyostove would be using the batteries, during my absence, to heat the cabin. The cloud cover meant the sun would not be feeding the solar array that day.
The alarm went off at two-thirty, and Darby and her partner Lyra seemed to wonder why we were getting up so early. I had cleaned the ice off the car’s windows the afternoon before and covered the windshield with a tarp. This meant I got to sleep in a little later, now that the car was ready to go. When I stepped out onto the porch I was greeted by the sight of the flying squirrel sitting on the beam, eating the peanuts I had set in its dish for it. I bid the squirrel ‘Good Morning’ as I passed under it on my way out to the car. I loaded the items I would need for the trip, including a clean blanket on which Darby could sleep during the return trip. Jody the mare was quite surprised when I came out to the barn at three fifteen to feed her. She was getting her breakfast six hours early, but Jody always welcomes food, and soon settled in to eat.
By three thirty we were underway, heading down the drive. The headlights lit up fresh snowshoe hare tracks alongside the drive. Lyra and Darby stretched out on their dog beds and resumed their night’s sleep. No vehicles were on the six mile stretch of snowy gravel road, nor were there any to be seen after I turned onto the Spur Rd. I wasn’t surprised. I rather felt like the only person awake in all of Talkeetna, though I knew others were up and getting ready to start their day, by now.
I kept watch for moose, for they are active in the wee hours of the morning when road traffic is scarce. While I didn’t see any moose, thank goodness, my headlights suddenly lit up a gorgeous red fox standing beside the road a mile from the “Y”. It was resplendent in its thick winter coat as it stood staring at my vehicle’s approach. I took my foot off the gas, knowing better than to apply brakes on the icy road. Thankfully the fox calmly trotted to the snow berm, climbed it neatly and disappeared from my view. I smiled as I continued on to the “Y” and turned onto the Parks Highway.
A few big rigs passed me, during the forty-mile drive to Willow-all of them heading North, making the run to Fairbanks. Things were quiet in Willow, as I passed through the small center of town. The highway had been well sanded, and I kept my average speed around fifty miles per hour. I don’t like driving faster than that in winter, particularly in the dark. Too many stories of moose crossing the road with disastrous results. I’ve had my own close calls, but none ending with collisions. I’d like to keep it that way.
I checked Darby in at the vet’s at six-thirty. After I hugged her goodbye, I headed out to do some serious shopping around Wasilla until Darby would be ready to pick up in a few hours. My last stop was Pet Zoo, where I bought a padded “cone” collar for Darby so she wouldn’t be able to reach her stitches. It was after ten a.m., by then, and the sun had just risen over the tall Chugach Mountains in the South. I didn’t get to see it, however, as the cloud cover had remained, and it looked like it might snow later.
The vet called at ten-thirty; Darby was ready to go home. She was able to walk, but was still coming out of the anesthetic. As I lifted Darby into the car, Lyra was thrilled to see her partner again. Darby stretched out on her bed and was soon asleep as I headed out of the city.
Just before I reached a friend’s homestead a few miles south of Willow, I spotted a young moose lying in the snow atop a slope on the East side of the highway. It was calmly surveying the sparse traffic going by below its hillside viewpoint. I remarked about the moose to my friend and he asked if the moose was particularly dark. “Yes”, I replied; “ It was quite a dark-brown colored moose, and looked like a two-year old.”
“Oh, that’s Blackie”, my friend commented. The moose had been hanging around the area since late last summer. Back on the road a little while later, I mused that it seems a common practice for Alaskans to name animals that hang out around their homesteads. I’ve named a few myself, over the years, including foxes, moose, ravens, hawks, magpies, and squirrels. It seems to make our adventurous winters a little more memorable to share them with an animal or bird, which makes itself distinctive.
I arrived back at the ranch at two-thirty. I found moose nuggets near the generator shed. Apparently a pair of moose had come to visit while I was away. They had nibbled on some alder saplings along the drive, then headed on across the hayfields and back into the forest.
Usually I head into town just as dawn is breaking and return well after dark. It was a little odd to be returning in daylight, but I rather liked it. It’s a one hundred forty-mile round trip for me to drive to Wasilla, then there’s a few miles spent driving around the city going to stores to shop. When leaving the city, by the time the road narrows down to two lanes again, a few miles north of the town of Willow, I have begun to leave the stress of the city behind me. When I turn onto the Talkeetna Spur Road, I relax. Eight miles later I turn onto Birch Creek Road and begin the last six miles drive to the ranch, breathing a sigh of relief; I “made it” again.
Wintertime Alaskan monthly shopping run includes weather considerations, which can mean snowfall, black ice, glare ice, and sometimes a few glorious hours of sunshine when the sun makes it over the tall mountain range in the South. It also means keeping an eye out for moose, which can be just about anywhere, and always unpredictable. As a birder, I am also watching for birds. Ravens are almost always to be found in various parts of the city and alongside the highway. Sometimes ducks can be seen flying by. Some creeks stay open all winter and some ducks have elected not to migrate. I’ve learned where to look for eagles, and I can usually see one or two in their favorite hangouts. A whole other article could be written about the hazards of winter driving and the adventures I’ve had on other grub runs. For those listeners who will never get to visit Alaska, maybe this gives a little peak at a lifestyle you may have wondered about.