Natural Observations-springtime 4-8-2012

Photos by Robin Song

Natural Observations writer, host and producer Robin Song enjoys skiing and snowshoeing in the sunshine of early spring. Audio is 8:15.     Text follows.


[audio:|titles=NatObs2012325Springtime in Alaska]



After a long, deep-snow winter, we’re being rewarded with a lovely spring. Day after day of sunshine and mild temperatures. Long hours of daylight and the songs of courting birds in the forest. The sunrise, which shone in through the cabin’s south window each morning during the winter, now shines in through the east window. The light has gradually shifted from gold to white, as the sun has climbed higher in the sky. Even though a six-minute-a-day gain in daylight doesn’t seem like a lot, it adds up quickly and soon I didn’t need my headlamp when I went out to give Jody the mare her morning feed. By early March she was beginning to shed her winter coat, which had served her well during the cold snaps. I no longer had to whack the ice balls out of her hooves several times a day, which was a relief to us both.


The call to go out on skis and snowshoes became stronger and I grabbed the opportunity each chance I got. With my dog Lyra bounding ahead, I went out on lakes, creeks and rivers, eager to go places I cannot access after Breakup. I had not skied on Fish Lake before, and decided this was the spring to go exploring. Usually I veered off the lake and onto trails going up into the forests along the north shoreline. On one outing I came onto a groomed ski trail, and followed it as it climbed ridges and came out above a small lake. No one was using the trail that day, and I enjoyed the silence. Soon enough the whine of insects will overtake the deep silence of winter.


One of my favorite places to explore on skis is Montana Creek. I picked days of sun and clear blue skies. I was hoping to find American Dippers there, and I was not disappointed. The first time I went on snowshoes, not knowing if there would be open water. To my surprise, I discovered that the main fork of the creek had shifted to the east. When I got to the west fork, there were only a couple of inches of water in the open places. A pair of dippers were working the water, but staying well apart. The few times one of the birds lifted off the water and flew by the other one, the second bird immediately gave chase, both whipping by me at high speed, calling in their buzzy voices. When they settled onto the water again, far apart, peace resumed.


On my second outing there I chose skis, as the snow was perfect for skiing and I wanted to go farther. Lyra negotiated my old snowshoe trail beside my new ski trail. She spotted the moose before I did, stopping in the trail ahead of me. A large cow was out on the creek and when she saw us, she plunged up the bank and made her way through the deep snow, heading away from us. I stood watching her, marveling at how easily she moved through snow up to her belly. I chose to head in the opposite direction, not wanting to stress the moose. I soon left the few yards of open water behind. Three bends later I again came upon open water. The pair of dippers was there, diving in the shallow water, coming up with caddis fly larvae and other delicacies. As I stood photographing one of the birds, it came out of the water and up onto the shoreline ice. It dipped a few times; its gray, plump body springing up and down on pale pink legs. Suddenly it stopped dipping and launched into a lovely, lyrical song. This is the magic of dippers, to me. A non-descript, somewhat drab bird, it holds a secret- its amazingly beautiful song. Both males and females sing, and it can happen at any time, all year long. Hearing the clear, liquid notes come pouring out of this little bird is like being transported into a fairyland. No other bird sings like this, often in the middle of winter. Standing there, listening to this fantastic music, I instantly forgot the cold creeping into my boots from the snow, and the long trek ahead of me. On this day the sun actually put out warmth and the snow around me sparkled with rainbow crystals. The singing of the dipper fit in perfectly with the beauty of the scene, and I stood, transfixed, until the little bird fell silent, dipping and watching me, as though expecting a critique. There weren’t enough accolades to do that wonderful song justice.


Another place I had never skied was out on the Big Susitna River. In mid-March Lyra and I headed down Montana Creek on the west side of the highway. I was delighted to watch a bald eagle fly across in front of me when I approached the place where the creek joins the river. The eagle landed in a tall, bare-limbed old cottonwood, and watched as I skied on past and turned up-river. My hope was to photograph the Alaska Range from the center of the river. I followed a moose track where it headed across the river, figuring it was safe to go out onto snow that would support the weight of a moose. To my dismay, clouds obscured the mountains. I headed back to the east shoreline, staying on the river where the going was easier on the flat snow. I came upon tracks of fox, and then mystery tracks. They came out from the shore and wandered in large circles and small figure eights, before heading back to the shore and on into the forest. I went through the files in my brain, knowing all the things they were not. Two small paw prints were in each depression as the animal bounded. They were too large for ermine, too small for marten. All I could think of was mink. A mink would hang out near a river, even though there wasn’t any open water. It would be hunting voles in the wintertime, while waiting for the waterways to open up once again. Finding tracks, deciphering clues, and figuring out which animal had left them is one of my favorite winter past times.


By mid-February I was leaving my skis and snowshoes in the car, just in case I got the opportunity to go exploring while running my weekly errands. In March I happened to be in Talkeetna the day after the annual Oosik Classic Ski Race, and I decided to head across the railroad bridge and see what skiing was like up the Big Su on that side of river. Two eagles sat atop cottonwoods near the railroad bridge and watched Lyra and I passing by far below them. The skiing was perfect. The snow was firm and it was cold enough that snowballs didn’t form on Lyra’s fur. She had a great time, running ahead of me on snowmachine tracks. Clouds were obscuring the summit of Denali as I started up the river, but as I skied I saw that the clouds were lifting. I wound up with a twenty-minute window where the summit was clear. I skied to where I saw a little stretch of open water, which made a nice foreground for the photos. When the clouds started to descend again, it was time to head back. Lyra ran along the track, wheeling and racing back to me. She probably went twice as far as I did, running back and forth. She was the definition of “spring fever”. The “icing on the cake” was being able to watch the eagles again, as they were still sitting in their respective trees when we got back to the railroad bridge. Even after 32 years in Alaska, I never tire of watching eagles, or photographing Denali.


It looks like it will be a long Breakup, with tons of snow to melt away. For me, I will cherish each day I get to go exploring until the snow is reduced to patches remaining in the depths of the forests. Lyra and I will miss the snow, until the green grass and wildflowers of summer win over our hearts. But for now, each day I get to go trekking on skis or snowshoes is a gift, indeed. And I appreciate each night I get to gaze up at the stars and hope to see the aurora. Moonlight on the sparkling snow is a scene I will carry in my memory when the nights are no longer dark. This season of transition is a time to treasure, here in the splendid North Country.



Springtime in Alaska, by Robin Song


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