The Savoring Season

Autumn lends colorful insight to life on the Last Frontier.

By Ken Marsh

“Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.”

  – Samuel Butler

I

Early as it seems, first week of August, the wild raspberries are already perfectly ripe in Southcentral Alaska. Locals find them hanging in red and purple clusters from stalks that bristle with fine, hair-like spines. They sweeten the air with a fragrance reminiscent of the hot pies we’ll pull later from the oven. 

Acres of raspberry bushes flank Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage; we pick them every year around this time on the hillsides and benches between the arm’s forests of coastal spruce and its rocky, tide-swept beaches. And so do the bears. Their trails are stomped like mazes into the thickets. Of course, the suggestion of lurking bruins adds spice to the event, keeps a picker alert. We talk noisily amongst ourselves and sometimes even sing aloud to mark our presence. The berries provide easy pickings for all.

On these casual outings, we might gather a couple of gallons, plenty for pie or to heat that night with a bit of sugar and caramelize into hot, tart toppings for ice cream and shortcakes. Along the way, though, the notion dawns that something more poignant is afoot than simple desserts. Clues of the day suggest, and ripe berries confirm, that times are evolving in a big, powerful way.  

Ready or not, autumn has come. Clues appear daily: Days are framed by darkness now that the midnight sun has set for the year; old contrasts of brightness and shadow return. The weathers grow damp, the lands cool, the breezes turn sharply raw. And a new world blooms from the ground up.

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower,” wrote the French author and philosopher Albert Camus. 

In this far-north country, that second spring begins in August, even before the leaves turn color, with a procession of flavors that change with the advancing season. And if raspberries lure us to the departing summer’s edge, we are drawn fully into fall by month’s end when the blueberries ripen.

Wild blueberries are Alaska favorites. Ubiquitous statewide, they grow plump, sweet and profusely among the hemlocks of the southern coasts, in the Interior’s black-spruce taigas and muskegs, and throughout the alpine and Arctic tundras. Pickers mustn’t wait long into the season though, as hard frosts turn blueberries soft and saccharin.

I learned about blueberries as a young boy, while accompanying the men in my family on wilderness treks late each August and early September to hunt moose for winter meat. At the time, the 1960s, expensive beef was not a practical option for Alaska families of modest means. Much of the hunting entailed sitting silently for hours on treeless tundra hillocks, overlooking likely draws and meadows from which moose might eventually appear. 

Of course, little boys were not created for long periods of silent sitting. Fortunately, those tundra overlooks often were rich with blueberries. When boredom and hunger began to gnaw, I would reach among the shrubs at my side and rake with my fingers a handful of berries. Along the way, I discovered a bite of sweet chocolate is the perfect accompaniment to a palm full of tangy blueberries. 

In better years, when summer rains and sunshine blend to produce bumper crops, the blueberry shrubs – rarely more than 6 inches tall in the taigas of the Copper River Basin where we hunted – droop under impressive loads, the berries sometimes seeming to rival concord grapes in size and succulence. I remember upon returning from one moose hunt my mother storming from the laundry room holding up two pair of underwear – one large (my father’s) and one small (mine). How, she wanted to know, did the white briefs she had sent us out with happen to come back with purple polka dots?

How, indeed. Clearly, a good patch of blueberries can be powerful and transforming. Ripe berries can provide measure of the advancing season, feed a yearning sweet tooth. Calm a fidgeting boy. Just take care and watch where you sit.

II

“If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.” 

– Wumen Huikai

Alaskans hunt and gather because it is our tradition and because the land is willing; even when times seem hard, say, in darkest, cold December, Alaska has a way of providing for her own. Yet of the seasons, none better define this culture of living off the country than the golden days of late August through October. Not even summer provides for its denizens more broadly or more certainly than do the days of fall. 

            Particularly if you look beyond the belly and into the soul.

            Two Septembers ago I continued my lifelong moose hunting ways, but with a camera instead of the old Remington. Near a thicket of flaming-yellow devil’s club – thorny, waist-high shrubs with foliage resembling giant, spine-spiked maple leaves – I’d spotted a large bull with a harem of several cows. The early morning was frosty, the sun barely touching the cottonwood tops. Steam puffed from the bull’s nostrils as he jealously nuzzled his cows.

Distracted by the autumn rut, or breeding season, bull moose often discard their fear of humans. With hormone-swollen necks and menacing antlers, they strut dangerously through Alaska’s wildest corners and biggest cities alike, searching for cows – and for trouble, in the form of other bulls or anything else alive or inanimate they might perceive as a challenge. Rutting moose here are known to take on anything from mailboxes to Alaska Railroad engines.

On that cold morning two Septembers ago, I watched my photo opportunity unfold: Framed by the forest’s fall colors, the bull tilted his heavy rack as he moved from cow to cow, grunting, pink tongue lolling. The cows, with dark eyes and frosty-gray coats, glided through the brush like ghosts. All the elements were there. To capture some fine, frame-filling images, I needed only stalk a bit closer.

So stalk I did. Moving when it seemed no eyes were upon me, I advanced a few feet at a time, stopping at intervals to plant my tripod and snap a shot or two. The cows seemed to ignore me completely, but now and then the bull would abruptly halt and glare suspiciously in my direction. At one point, a twig snapped behind me and I wheeled to discover a curious cow moose had sidled in to study me at arm’s length. For a moment, my heart pounded. 

With little alternative, I stood my ground and the close-up cow, apparently deciding I presented no imminent danger, ambled away. 

The bull, meanwhile, had turned his attention to another cow and I felt secure enough to resume taking pictures. From my viewfinder, I watched as the bull eased up to the cow and began nuzzling her flanks. The old boy had ideas, but the cow was having none of it. She bolted, leaving the rebuffed lothario standing alone and, apparently, humiliated.

In hindsight, I should have shown proper respect and stopped shooting, because when the bull heard a final “click” from my shutter release he jerked his head in my direction and focused his bloodshot eyes hard on me. I felt like I’d been marked as the third party in a soured love triangle. 

Jealous and full of spite, the bull charged.

In that instant, the world faded into a yellow-and-red September-themed blur punctuated by an angry, oncoming, 1,600-pound bull moose. Nothing else existed – except for a nearby spruce that seemed to call out – not even the $3,000 worth of camera gear I left deserted on my tripod. 

I had no time to climb the tree. Head down and foaming at the mouth, the bull was on me in a heartbeat. I dived through the low-hanging branches and placed myself between the trunk and the bull. The bull chased me around one side of the trunk, then turned and pursued me around the other. Then he stopped and, snorting and grunting, began thrashing the tree – trunk, branches, and all – with those antlers nearly six feet wide and four feet tall. I dodged as foot-long tines pierced the air inches from my face.

Something inside me seemed about to explode when, abruptly, the bull stopped, those murderous tines still inches away. I froze, afraid even to breathe. Then, as if our score were now settled, the bull lifted his head and stalked off toward the cows, never looking back.

Even in its calmer moments, autumn in Alaska imparts a sense of exhilaration – a feeling of sliding out of control down a sheer, rough slope. A round with a raging bull moose will highlight that exhilaration. It will also clear your mind. 

As I gathered my gear and left on shaking legs, I breathed in the sweet-and-sour fragrance of currants and high-bush cranberries. The air felt sharply cool and the fall colors around me seemed more vibrant than ever. I was swept at that moment by a tide of joy, and by the realization that I was indeed living the best season of my life.

III

“How beautifully leaves grow old.  How full of light and color are their last days.” 

– John Burroughs

Transient, brief, but roaring in color; sweet with berries and alive with wild creatures, autumn in Alaska is medicine for the heart. Look for the season’s first signs in the alpine and far-northern reaches (hint: the earliest colors, some of the best, bloom near ground level – think wild rose, fireweed, bearberry). Follow autumn south with the migrating birds, and with the colors as they flow from the mountains and merge into the lowlands.

I once spent the third week of September – the heart of fall – in the Koyukuk River basin, a roadless Interior wilderness, exploring with friends. We discovered that the Koyukuk (locally pronounced Kie – ya – kuk) in autumn is a land of cool days and brittle-cold nights, the bottomlands a tapestry of oxbow sloughs and sandbars from which mammoth bones occasionally protrude. The uplands are largely boreal, a mix of spruce, birch and cottonwood trees that loom over an understory of high-bush cranberry, wild rose and other shrubs; on autumn days, the upper and lower canopies come together in watercolor bursts of purple, red and gold. 

We spent the week traveling by riverboat, camping on remote sand bars, hiking trackless forests, immersing ourselves fully in the season. To my delight, I awoke each morning to howling wolves. Ultimately, though, all sounds were measured against an ancient silence; most prominent were leaves rattling down with the winds, the far-off honking of southbound swans and, at the heart of everything, the electrical surge and murmur of rivers. 

On our final day, we broke camp in a snowstorm. I remember the boat riding low, heavy with gear and campers, the river roiling black against snow-whitened banks. There on the eve of October, as flakes whirled, splattering against our faces like cold, wet kisses, I knew we had seen the last, best days of fall.

No surprise there. Autumn in Alaska develops beautifully, but swiftly; it lingers like a brilliantly colored flare, for a heartbeat or two, only to vanish as suddenly, silently and subtly as it arrived. 

###

Wolf Pack

By Ken Marsh

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions!”

 – William Shakespeare“Hamlet”

The wolves didn’t hesitate. Four of them, three grays and a smokey-black converged on the moose. Two of the grays lunged for the throat, another snapped at an ear – and for a moment hung from it, tugging – while the black wolf shot in to seize a front leg below the knee. Frantic, the moose shook them off, even as two more wolves appeared on the bank from behind. 

Ears flattened, hackles raised, the moose reared, flailing with its front hooves. The visceral thud of bone striking flesh was followed by a yelp as the black wolf somersaulted across the frozen creek. From the bank a large, nearly snow-white wolf leaped onto the moose’s back, straddling it and grabbing the shoulder hump with jaws powerful enough to crush heavy femurs. The moose spun wild-eyed and the second wolf from the bank, a tawny gray, sailed in and clamped onto its prey’s windpipe above the dewlap. 

Now the first three grays rushed the moose, tearing at its flanks, sinking their canines into its haunches. By the time the black wolf was up, wheezing with freshly broken ribs, the attack was over. The sun was sinking as the pack began stripping hide and snarling over hierarchical placement at the kill. 

Already ravens had arrived. The hills to the east and the muskegs, forests, and frozen rivers and lakes in between beamed in rich pink alpenglow, even as the first faint stars appeared.  

###

Return to Winter

By Ken Marsh

“The winter! the brightness that blinds you, … The woods where the weird shadows slant;

The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery, I’ve bade ’em good-by– but I can’t.”

— Robert Service, Spell of the Yukon

Thirty years ago, living as a trapper in Alaska’s upper Susitna Valley, I traveled on snowshoes nearly every winter day. Against a tapestry of muskegs, spruce forests and ice-covered lakes and streams, I hiked uncounted miles, starting daily before dawn and continuing through the bright hours into dusk.

At my cabin late in the evenings, worn from the winds, drifts and adventures of the day, I would kick off my snowshoes, knock the snow from my boots, and follow my headlamp beam into the darkness where the woodstove waited to be lit and fed. Dinner came next — maybe moose stew and biscuits, black bear roast with canned peas, or simply beans and salt pork with a hunk of crusty sourdough bread — then I would fall asleep to firelight dancing on the log walls, images of wild tracks, whirling snowflakes, and events of the day lingering in my dreams.

Eventually I traded wilderness living for a conventional urban routine, though my snowshoe days never really left me. The smell of spruce smoke on cold December mornings or the sight of sunlight falling like gold over snow-covered hills can stir familiar longings.

On its surface, winter in Alaska seems a silent season. The lawnmower clatter, fishing-trip frenzies, and late-night barbecues of summer are long gone, replaced by a welcome stillness. The sun burns briefly and dimly come November, hardly breaking the horizon by December. On the solstice, winter’s shortest day, Anchorage receives only 5 hours, 28 minutes of sunlight; farther north, subarctic Fairbanks receives 3 hours, 42 minutes; and well beyond the Arctic Circle, the sun that set in Barrow on November 18 won’t rise again until January 23.

Tempting this time of year to watch television or curl up with a book. Maybe take a nap.

But surrender is no option for outdoors-loving Alaskans. Outside, beyond the frozen forests and snow-covered mountains, life goes splendidly on. From November through the end of March, on any given winter day, we can be found outdoors, embracing life in a land as scenic and exhilarating as any place and any season on the planet.

***

“The Wild still lingered in him and the wolf in him merely slept.”

– Jack London, White Fang

Early one December, feeling out of shape and restless, I parked my truck near an undeveloped tract on the outskirts of Anchorage, stepped into a pair of snowshoes, and shuffled head-down into the silent woods. My course was random, the plan simple: I would establish a winter trail away from the noise and exhaust of city traffic; a path to enjoy not only that day, but on subsequent visits, too, should the mood strike me. Along the way I would exercise body and spirit while working to ease that certain “wild” still lingering in me.

I started out breaking trail through snow nearly two feet deep, the top four or five inches a freshly fallen, feather-soft powder. My new snowshoes — stubby contemporary models with aluminum frames and nylon decks in place of webbing — seemed to work as well as my old Alaskan Trails. Those old shoes, chucked years before at a garage sale, were narrow and five feet long. Light, but sturdy, they had traditional steamed birch frames and were webbed with babiche (a term of French-Canadian origin for the rawhide strips once universally used to build snowshoes). The Alaskan Trails had a classic look and feel evocative of old-time Alaska, but the new ’shoes, an October birthday gift from my wife, promised to take me where I needed to go.

Alaska’s Native people, particularly those of the Interior, and residents of Arctic and subarctic climates worldwide crafted and used snowshoes for thousands of years. Even today in difficult terrains where more efficient means aren’t practical mountaineers, mushers, and trekkers of all kinds frequently turn to snowshoes. Beyond that, snowshoeing has evolved to transcend mere necessity and become, as the Outdoor Industry Association reports, the world’s fastest-growing winter sport.

Many interested in year-round outdoor recreation have discovered that in addition to making passage possible through rugged, snow-blanketed landscapes, snowshoeing also provides superb exercise. A person snowshoeing on a given winter day can burn more than 600 calories an hour — that’s 45 percent more calories than walking or running at the same speed, according to research by Snowsports Industry of America, a nonprofit trade association.

Of course, the snowshoeing renaissance extends throughout North America’s wintery regions, but few destinations pledge more varied or immediately available opportunities to step out, get in an excellent cardiovascular workout, and enjoy some of the world’s most beautiful scenery than Alaska. Snowshoes can be purchased for around $125 to $300 per pair, or rented for about $15 per day from outdoors retailers in most of the state’s larger communities.

Hundreds of miles of snowshoe-friendly public-use trails are available in and around Alaska’s cities — from Juneau to Anchorage and north to Fairbanks. Whether visiting Alaska’s biggest city in February to attend the annual Fur Rendezvous celebration (a 10-day winter festival sometimes billed as Mardi Gras of the North) or dropping into the state capitol or the Golden-Heart City on business for just a day or two, snowshoeing promises an easy, healthy, inexpensive diversion.

***

The distinctive paired paw-print pattern of marten tracks.

“To one who lives in the snow and watches it day by day, it is a book to be read.”

John Haines, The Stars, the Snow the Fire

The afternoon was cold, around -10 F on the high ground, dipping perhaps to -15 F in the hollows and creeks. I felt my beard freezing right away, a sort of dry, sticking sensation produced as frost collects under the chin and nose. For the first mile I broke trail along a ridge overlooking a creek bottom, stamping my way beneath tall birches bent like arches under heavy loads of snow.

Here and there I encountered stories written in the snow: The deep, posthole spoor of a cow moose and her yearling calf recorded a morning spent feeding on willows; the shallow prints of snowshoe hares and red squirrels crisscrossing a small glade suggested a moonlight dance the night before. And on a ridge descending into the creek I was astonished — delighted — to find in the snow the signature of a long lost friend: a pine marten. Nearly unmistakable to any trapper or naturalist who has studied them, marten tracks are distinguished by their size (similar in dimension to those of a housecat) and distinctive paired paw-print pattern. Cousins of the valuable Russian sable, marten are tree-climbing members of the weasel family, related to ermine, mink and wolverine. They are wilderness creatures most often associated with Alaska’s farthest-flung corners; to find one living within a mile of a busy Anchorage thoroughfare — and not more than three miles from my own home — was a welcome surprise.

Afloat on my snowshoes, I marched along, following the tracks down the ridge, over logs and through an alder thicket. Where, I wondered, might this cat-size beast lead me? As it happened, it took me back in time, to the trap-line where I’d spent my days “watching the snow,” as the late John Haines (a poet laureate and trapper once himself) wrote, “reading what is written there, the history of the tribes of mice and voles, of grouse and weasel, of redpoll and chickadee, hunter and prey.”

***

Gliding through Anchorage’s Kincaid Park on Nordic skis. (©Ken Marsh)

Snowshoeing is one form of winter recreation popular among some Alaskans, but skiing is near and dear to the hearts of many more. Nordic, alpine and downhill skiing is eagerly embraced here, the sports forming the impetus behind many community clubs and groups.

Groomed Nordic ski trails are prevalent in and around many communities, with more than 100 miles of Nordic ski trails groomed for classic cross-country and skate skiing available in Anchorage alone. Popular Anchorage area trails are included at Kincaid, Far North Bicentennial, and Russian Jack Springs parks. Elsewhere, skiing opportunities can be found at the Beach Lake Ski Trails in Chugiak, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Ski Trails near Palmer, the Birch Hill Trails in Fairbanks, and the EagleCrest and Mendenhall Glacier trails near Juneau. Trails in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Palmer offer lighted sections convenient for after-work nighttime skiing.

Downhill and alpine skiers (and snowboarders!) visiting the Anchorage area need look no farther than Alyeska Ski Resort, roughly a 40-minute drive south of town. Billed as Alaska’s premiere downhill and alpine ski resort, Alyeska receives around 650 inches snow annually and features 2,500 vertical feet of varied terrain. Alyeska’s alpine ski season sometimes exceeds 150 days.

Anchorage-area downhill skiers short on time or just learning the sport can get started at Hilltop Ski Area just a 15-minute drive from downtown Anchorage, while Arctic Valley ski area north of town offers four open bowls, a terrain park and 25 trails that receive about 250 inches of snowfall annually.

EagleCrest ski area on Douglas Island near Juneau is a popular Southeast Alaska destination. Featuring 34 marked alpine runs and access to some superb backcountry skiing, EagleCrest boasts 1,400 feet of vertical drop and an average snowfall of 200 to 300 inches.

As with snowshoes, skis and boots can be rented by the day in Alaska’s larger communities. Find rentals at places like REI and Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking in Anchorage, Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Beaver Sports in Fairbanks, and EagleCrest Resort or Foggy Mountain Shop in Juneau.

***

Alaska’s winter days own a rare, cold beauty, but they’re also dreadfully short. Seems I’ve barely started my new snowshoe trail before the sun, stuck in the treetops even at its zenith, sinks out of sight completely, leaving the surrounding country and me in shadow. The Chugach Mountains, standing tall in the background, seem oddly distant, backstage-lit in pink alpenglow.

I’ve reached the creek, my turnaround point, and can hear it gurgling cheerily beneath a thick sheet of ice. Hoarfrost-coated willows and alders, branches fat and fluffy with icy-white rime, border the channel. New tracks are visible: A female mink (the small-sized prints indicate the animal’s gender) has poked around the willows hunting mice, and a pair of coyotes has trotted upstream, headed in the direction of a beaver pond. Best of all, a slender trough plies the snow in the creek’s center: river otter.

Otters slide over the snow on their bellies, leaving distinctive, trough-like trails. Feeding mostly on fish, they hunt under the ice, entering streams in places where fast-flowing water remains unfrozen. To find otter tracks at the edge of a city of 300,000 is a precious gift indeed; the happy result of nature at its best, running wildly, but quietly, within an easy walk of city skyscrapers.

The temperature is dropping. Time now to turn around, hike back up the trail under a gathering crowd of stars. I can hear Anchorage traffic hissing faintly in the distance. Over the mountains, a full moon scales the backsides of the highest peaks. Caught between past and present, there’s no denying the wild still lingering in me. Today, though, I’ve seen enough; the wolf for now is satisfied.In a heartbeat I’ve turned and regained my stride. Back to the forest I go.

###

Little Grouse on the Prairie

Alaska’s upland bird hunters enjoy an unlikely Ice Age leftover

By Ken Marsh

The setting seemed more Great Plains than Alaska: Rusting farm machinery backlit by a fiery sunset, barley fields rippling in long golden swaths, the horizon a living canvas of geese and sandhill cranes whirling in noisy flocks. Yet to the south a mountain range marched and the September breeze fresh off the Arctic Circle blew brittle and permafrost-cold. Those subarctic clues left no doubt. The loam beneath my feet was a long, long way from North Dakota, Kansas or, really, anyplace else.

 Awash in a mix of sunlight and long evening shadows, Sundance trotted out front, nose to the ground. An extended day of hunting had taxed the little Brittany, though even now he remained alert for one final covey. I brought up the rear, shotgun over one shoulder, thighs worn out from miles of walking.

The day had been good one. I’d found solitude and broad spaces to hunt, luxuries never far from we who live and wing-shoot in Alaska. More to the point, though, I’d come seeking a prairie connection. And beyond the geese and cranes and sunsets over grain fields, I had found it in the wings of an unlikely grassland bird.

***

Not so long ago, just beyond the fringes of written history, Interior Alaska was a vast prairie linked to the steppes, or grasslands, of Eurasia. That connection was lost about 11,000 years ago when the ice of the last glacial age, the Pleistocene, dissolved in a global warming trend that raised sea levels 300 feet or more.

 Scientists who sift peats to collect and study pollens and silts accumulated over the eons tell us that, prior to the warming trend, Interior Alaska was – even more than today – a land of extremes, a dry country of freezing winters and torrid summers. Meanwhile, evidence gathered in eastern Siberia and Alaska confirm the prehistoric existence of the Bering Land Bridge, a connection that once linked Eurasia and North America, providing ready passage for grassland animals and plants. In common to both continents are discoveries of bones, tusks and, on rare occasions, the carcasses of Ice Age creatures deep-frozen in remarkable – even edible – condition.

Today the Interior is a massive basin drained by arterial rivers such as the Yukon, Tanana, and Nenana. The basin is cradled to the south by the Alaska Range and to the north by the Brooks, considered the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains.

Travel into the high country on either side where alpine hills roll beneath the crags, and it is possible to feel you’ve stepped back in time and that strange things might suddenly be possible. Ice Age winds still moan over these places and, in your mind, they can resurrect the woolly mammoths, Pleistocene horses, and steppe bison that once roamed here.

Even as a warming climate marked the Pleistocene’s end, the land began to evolve. Shrubs and boreal forests gradually appeared and, over time, animals of the vanishing grasslands that could not adapt died out. Today, remnant survivors persist. Moose, Dall sheep, and American bison (thought to be direct descendants of the steppe bison that, like many grassland species, moved south to populate the steppes of what is now the Lower 48) are examples of Pleistocene leftovers. 

And so I had come in search of an evolutionary holdout, a creature far humbler than a bison, though no less intriguing. I was hunting a vestige bird, a prairie grouse whose origins can be traced to Alaska’s bygone steppes. Commonly found today in the fields and dry gullies of the American West, the bird I pursued was the sharp-tailed grouse.

***

In camp, I watched Sundance sleep, his legs twitching in fitful spasms while out in the fields, not far beyond the campfire glow, gangs of coyotes yipped. If bird dogs can dream, and I believe they can, the little Brittany was almost certainly reliving the day and envisioning fields and burns and the sharptails that cackled and sailed away like fleeting prayers on polka-dotted wings.

 We found them early in the day along an old road traversing a large burn. Knee-high wild rose and berry shrubs flanked the road, providing likely cover and food for erstwhile grassland grouse. But the first concrete clue came when, in the yellow dust atop the rounded, cloven hoof prints of a bison herd, I found a set of three-toed, chicken-like tracks.

Beyond the rose and berry shrubs, the burn was wide and open, overgrown with grasses and sparsely punctuated by charred spruce trees. The country was too exposed for forest grouse – both ruffed and spruce grouse share the region. So there was no mistaking what made those tracks. And Sundance was already on it.

Nose low, the dog slipped into the shrubs, focused on a scent, moving in fast, ever-tightening circles. I checked my shotgun, a blonde-stocked SKB 20-gauge. The air seemed suddenly electric. I brought my gun to port arms, ready; that dog doesn’t lie.

Abruptly, Sundance stopped and turned 90 degrees toward the thick stuff. A lone sharptail launched from the cover on thumping wings. It was a straight-away shot and I never heard the report; just felt my heart beat once, then saw the puff of brown and white feathers.

Sundance fetched the bird and before the smell of burned powder cleared, I was examining those distinctive polka-dotted wings and that wispy, pointed tail. The yellow combs arched over liquid-brown eyes. The proof was unequivocal: We had found the prairie grouse. Right there in the heart of subarctic Alaska.

***

Sharptails live, even thrive, in places like the Yellowstone country of western Montana where I’ve hunted them on several occasions. Set in the shadows of the Absaroka Range, the autumn air frosty and spiced with sage, the cheat-grass hills form a high-prairie region that probably looks a lot like Alaska’s Ice Age steppes.

Interestingly, paleontologists sifting interior Alaska soil deposits for Ice Age fossils have documented the presence of grassland birds that are likely ancestors of, if not direct precursors, of today’s sharptail grouse and willow ptarmigan. In a fascinating chapter of Interior Alaska: A Journey Through Time, scientists R. Dale and Mary Lee Guthrie write: “Occasionally, pebbles of polished white quartz turn up in the wash screens. For a long time they remained a mystery.” It took some time before experts solved the puzzle. “The pebbles,” write the Guthries, “turned out to be gizzard stones of Pleistocene grouse and ptarmigan.”

In Alaska today, sharp-tailed grouse are found in the Yukon River Valley from the Canada border to Holy Cross. Scattered populations appear in the upper regions of the Koyukuk, Kuskokwim and Copper river valleys.

Although the broad steppes where they once flourished have largely grown into forests, the birds survive in marginal habitats. They prefer open spaces such as old burns, spruce bogs, manmade clearings and fields; places not too different than their prehistoric grasslands. Look for them near clearings bordered by cover offering cranberries, blueberries and rose hips. They feed on these berries and, early in the fall, range into the fields, burns, and meadows to stuff themselves on insects such as grasshoppers. Sharptails can also be found in semi-open areas of stunted spruce and tundra where bugs and berries are prevalent.

Like the prairie chickens, sage grouse, and sharptails of the Great Plains, Alaska sharptails gather in certain areas each spring for breeding. These places, called leks, are in open areas where males attract mates by dancing, fluttering their wings and inflating yellow-green sacks on their chests that resemble yolks fried sunny-side up.

I was hunting the Delta region east of Fairbanks, the site of a 1978 state-sponsored agricultural project in which nearly 60,000 acres of boreal timber were cleared for the production of barley. For various reasons, many of the farmers went broke and their fields lie fallow. Walking along the abandoned windrows, your dog out front, shotgun over one shoulder, you can almost feel the heartbreak in the empty, weathered barns and collapsing fences. How many back-straining days, blistered hands and tearful, sleepless nights does all of this represent? How many marriages withered, broken by the stress of trying to make a living cultivating the hard, subarctic country?

 Not all of the barley operations have gone the way of the mammoth. Some have held on while others have been revived. Along the way, bison and coyotes – all prairie denizens – have generally prospered. Though it hasn’t always been that way.

I learned in an interview with state wildlife biologist Ken Taylor several years ago that Alaska’s native wood bison, direct descendants of Ice Age populations, died out as recently as 425 years ago. Taylor’s calculations were based on roughly 50 radiocarbon samples taken from the Interior. “I suspect if we had a larger sample size we would have samples that are even more recent than that,” Taylor said.

Even more intriguing are the stories still passed on among local Athabascans. “We do have some indications from some of the villages that there is an oral history of people hunting bison,” Taylor said. “We’ve talked to some of the elders (and) they remember their distant relatives having done it and passed the stories down. And most oral histories are probably less than 400 years old.”

Wood bison have since been reintroduced to Interior Alaska, where the species seems destined for a comeback.

Separate from the wood bison, another roughly 800 plains bison living in the Interior – some 400 in the Delta region alone – were introduced from Montana in 1928. Like the sharptailed grouse, natural habitat is limited to open river plains, burns and meadows of grasses, vetch and sedges. But the Delta barley project expanded habitat for the bison, still prairie creatures at heart. And at the same time, the micro-grassland biome cleared by the hard work of hopeful settlers benefited sharptails in ways that delight upland sportsmen.

***

After that first sharptail, Sundance and I walked for perhaps three miles along the road through the burn. The overcast September day was warm, almost muggy, and the walking was easy, the surroundings pleasantly quiet. At one point, the little dog had put up a pair of birds that I’d missed cleanly with both barrels. I managed to take one of them on a follow-up flush back in the burn where fallen timber created a difficult obstacle course that forced the dog to crawl, snuffling, and me to high-step awkwardly.

By early afternoon, we had returned to my pickup to rest and plan the rest of the day. There were plenty of old fields around to hunt, places edged with berries and cover needed to sustain large numbers of birds. Then again, the nearby Tanana Hills west of Delta promised good hunting for ruffed and spruce grouse, different creatures that provided their own shooting challenges.

But the sharptails of the burn weren’t through with us yet.

I was sitting on the tailgate finishing a sandwich with Sundance curled up nearby, resting his yellow Brittany eyes, when I looked up and saw them. Not 30 feet away, over ground we had already hunted, a covey of a dozen or more sharptails appeared tentatively poking their heads out of the grass and shrubs beside the road.

In a flash I pulled my gun out of its case and because I’d slipped into my shooting vest, Sundance was up, ready in an instant. Within a half-dozen steps, the birds were up and for a moment the air was filled with drumming wings and grouse cackles. Seconds later, as birds sailed over the burn in all directions, Sundance was retrieving the two I had dropped.

 And so the day went. We found as many sharptails as we cared to chase and finally, even with birds cackling around us, we turned around, our appetites sated.

By the fire that night, Sundance stopped twitching and the coyotes in the fields quit yipping. The sky cleared, the stars silver and burning as they did 15,000 years ago when Interior Alaska was a place of great, furry elephants. From their high places, those stars have seen a lot of changes down here. But as I crawled into my sleeping bag, it was good to know that a few things, particularly little things that cackle and fly on polka-dotted wings, remain very much the same.

###

Caribounty

I was fortunate to spend an evening and a morning in Denali Park this week with Polly. We didn’t have a permit, so were only allowed to drive into the parking area two or three miles short of Savage River (normally you can park at Savage River, but the lot is currently closed).
Being industrious and ready for exercise after a long drive, we hit the road afoot Tuesday evening. Our efforts were well rewarded when I spotted antlers swinging in the brush: caribou.
Next morning, I made the same walk alone (Polly prefers sleep over watching me take pictures). I was lucky enough to find and photograph the same caribou bull. I had the animal all to myself because everyone else was flying by in cars and tour buses, not stopping to look closely. No one ever knew we were there.

My photography assistant stands on the Denali Park road overlooking Savage River (she would rather be hiking).

Blueberries are almost ripe. Still a lot of green ones. I would give picking at least another week.

I spotted antlers swinging in the brush on Tuesday evening. Turned out to be a large caribou bull. We watched him for a while before heading back down the road.

That evening I encountered this little porcupette while taking a landscape shot along the Denali Park road.

The hills of Denali. I hated to leave that evening, but promised to return first thing next morning.

Next morning, I found a half-grown leveret (baby snowshoe hare) pausing among a bouquet of wildflowers in a parking pull-off along the Denali Park road. It seemed a good omen for the day.

Sure enough! Found the bull caribou that morning bedded along the Savage River. I watched him until he got up and, in a stroke of divine luck, started feeding in my direction.

“Can I help you?” Seriously, he was simply trying to eat. Did I have to bother him with pictures?

One more goofy look, and I left him to his breakfast.

On the Prowl

Ever get the feeling while walking in the woods that something might be stalking you? Well, your Spidey senses may not be wrong …

When I encountered this lynx crouched outside an Arctic ground squirrel den, it briefly turned its attention to me, stalking closer before hunkering down.

A little closer … slowly …

The lynx eventually grew bored with me — I’m pretty sure the above is an eye roll.

And soon it was off to stalk squirrels.

What was that? Curious kitty will find out.

Up and over the bank, not to be seen again.

Spruced Up for Springtime

Springtime in Southcentral Alaska means breeding season for spruce grouse.

Male spruce grouse, identified easily by their black- and white-trimmed throats and chests topped with scarlet eye combs, get dandied up in April and May to court hens. Although they’re not formal lekers, males can often be found concentrated in relatively small areas during breeding season. One can often be seen defending a territory within easy sight of other males doing the same.

A male spruce grouse takes a break from displaying for hens to defend its territory.

Speaking of hens, here comes one now. She’s quite the strutter herself.

Hens are drawn by males that put on displays that include flying into trees and landing briefly before thundering to the ground with their bodies in a vertical position. The behavior seems to be a form of drumming.

Looks like he noticed …

Once hens appear, males strut, fan their tails, and raise their eye combs to get attention. Males become very aggressive this time of year, and defensive of their territories. They will sometimes try to chase humans and have been known to beat hikers’ faces with their wings!

Our hero is pulling out all the stops now.

This hen seems to be saying, “Catch me if you can, Tiger!”
She needn’t ask twice. He’s outta there!

RIDDLE of the WINNOWING SNIPE

Although the photo illustration is not the usual full-frame bird close-up, this blog post may be of interest to people from the northern United States, Canada, and Alaska who’ve been seeing – and hearing – a lot of common snipe lately. The picture captures a snipe diving from the cloudy sky near Anchorage, Alaska, this morning to create the “woo-woo-woo-woo-woo” sounds – or winnowing – frequently heard now around Alaska’s lakes, streams, and marshy areas.

As a kid growing up in Alaska I used to assume the birds made the sound through their mouths. But as I grew older and watched more closely, I realized the snipe actually fly up high at a steep angle before pointing downward and diving. As they dive, their wings flap rapidly, pushing air through the stiff outer tail feathers and creating the winnowing sound.

They perform this aerial dance and make that distinctive music each spring as part of their breeding rituals.