Into the Wild

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Breakup may be a good descriptor for rivers shedding their winter coat. Not so for arctic lakes, such as Puntilla Lake. It’s a prolonged, circuitous process of freeze thaw. During the day the snow melts away, collecting on top of the floating ice, forming small puddles and giving the lake surface a gray, green, blue appearance depending on the depth of the overflow. During the night the water freezes, some mornings it is just a thin crust.

  - trapped and frozen -

– trapped and frozen –

bubbles

In addition, wind and sun create unpredictable shapes of ice crystals. Gas bubbles that were trapped in the ice during freeze up become visible. A little more heat and the bubbles burst to the surface. Not for long. More open water…

How much longer until the first float plane of the season can touch down on the lake?

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One Man's Paradise

Presently

It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.

George Harrison

Just another gorgeous day in paradise. No need to dwell on the past or fear the future. I am just taking in what the days are offering.

I am expecting a loud boom any time. An explosion. That’s how fast nature is changing. Probably it’s not that dramatic. Just appears to me that way after those winter days. First of all, there is so much light. Even before I open my eyes in the morning at 6:45 the sun is already up. No more amazing sunrise images for me, at least for a while. Too early for me… When I do my last round around midnight I don’t need a flashlight. It’s still twilight! During the day the sun stands high on the firmament, gotta wear shades, it is so bright. Glaring light barrels down from the snowy mountain sides. Too much light even for my tender greens. I have put seeds of bell pepper, squash, and avocado into small pots and they are going like gangbusters. Kept the seedlings in the house so far. Yesterday I put them in the greenhouse during the day. It must have been close to 80 inside. They love that.

The willow catkins have progressed a bit, after being stagnant for more than 2 months. The first wildflowers are out, although I still don’t know what it is. It looks like a little plant eating monster,  a dark purple mouth with fuzzy white teeth. The lawn pushes a hint of green much to the delight of our horses.

In the morning I heard the first flock of geese heading North. I could not see them at first. They were somewhere in the big sky. There. 50 or so, a small group. V-formation, high above the ground taking advantage of the prevailing wind. Not as the crow flies. The general direction is North, but for their own reasons they deviate from the prescribed course, maybe looking for suitable drafts? They may not soar as effortless as an eagle, but they sure go the distance. Where do they go? To Beringea, the paradise of the North?

One seabird with long orange legs and a skinny beak has made a rest stop at Puntilla Lake. Three seagulls and a handful of ducks also took refuge in the little open water the lake has to offer. A think crust of ice covers the water in the morning, testimony to the frigid water temperature. It is interesting to watch the breakup process, very different form freeze up. Trapped gas bubbles reappear, small ice bergs float around the lake shore. The lake surface goes from white to gray, to green and blue. There are insects in the water moving swiftly. They have one specialized leg that serves as a paddle.

May

May

April

April

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One Man's Paradise

“We are in good shape.”

After several weeks of tree cutting, splitting and hauling we are finally done. At times it was a frantic activity to cut trees in April when the temperatures climbed into the 40s. It became a race against nature. The trail to the wood lot became soft after a few hours of sunlight. Our heavy sleds had created bumps and ruts that made for uncomfortable hauling.

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Buckey had started cutting trees sometime in November. He can tell you the exact date, and the accurate number of trees he cut down until today. I believe the number is 144. Amazing for a 70-something year old man to go out into the woods and cut trails and trees by himself. Fire wood is the only way to heat his “cabin” at Rainy Pass Lodge. He actually lives in a museum, a stunning display of antique guns, fossils, and artifacts that you would not expect in the middle of nowhere.

Anyway, his cabin is now surrounded by a wall of firewood. On the front porch the wood reaches all the way to the roof, covering his window, blocking the gorgeous view.

firewood

“I’d rather not be cold in winter. Who needs a view? If I want to see the mountains I just step outside”.

The splitter is surrounded by several rows of cut trees awaiting some burly men and women, anxious to add to the pile of split wood. The yard is currently a muddy mix of dirt, snow, ice, and slush. No reasonable means to transport the split wood. It is a good time to stay inside and enjoy the outdoors from a window that is not blocked by firewood.

“We are in good shape.”

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Preparation

Bear attack

Not to worry. We did not get attacked by a bear.

What is left of Sheep Lake camp

What is left of Sheep Lake camp

But the bears did a number on the hunting camps. They shredded one tent, broke into oil barrels, leaving the wine glasses intact! To avoid the same disaster this year we replace the tent in June with a sturdy log cabin.

The Kerosine Lantern

The Kerosine Lantern

Then again, a curious and hungry bear may even find a way to break into a log cabin. One bear managed to do exactly that in one of the remote camps by digging underneath the cabin and chewing through the plywood floor. The bear then dragged an iron wood stove and other heavy items outside for investigation.

Then, there are other critters that find creative ways to muscle, gnaw, and wiggle their way into a cabin in search of some scraps, even there are only scents or traces left.

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One Man's Paradise

Spring – Winter – Summer

After 15 consecutive days of clear skies winter has staged a return.

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Bluebird Days in Ptarmigan Valley

We expect a few mild days of cloud cover with snow fall.

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Winter Weather above Puntilla Lake

The tundra started peaking through in places. Horses and ptarmigans were already nibbling on last years vegetation. I guess they may have to stay patient for a while until spring and summer come back in a few days or weeks…

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Into the Wild

March caprices

Since this is my first winter in Alaska, and this winter is apparently not your typical winter I don’t know what to make of the weather lately.

Grounded air plane

Grounded air plane

Picture-perfect bluebird days have given way to a crazy snow days. Two Iditarod Air Force planes made an unplanned landing today on Puntilla Lake after flying into a whiteout on their way to Anchorage. The pilots and one passenger stay in our guide shack. Smart pilots always carry a sleeping bag and some emergency gear. This will come in handy tonight.

Antonio de la Rosa

Antonio de la Rosa

We also think of Antonio de la Rosa, a Spanish adventurer, who stopped by at Rainy Pass Lodge, en route to Nome. He started to walk from Willow the same day the Iditarod started with a 90 kg sled in tow. He spent a sunny afternoon at the lodge, updating his friends, having a warm meal and a beer before heading out towards Rainy Pass, which was a howling gap in the mountains yesterday.

Today we woke up to steadily falling snow and low visibility. In the afternoon I hiked onto the lake and shot a panorama consisting of a faint line of trees, representing the lake shore. Nearby hills and mountains disappeared in the snow.

Windy Tundra

Windy Tundra

The Iditarod mushers are approaching their final destination, Nome. Jeff King is in the lead, just one hour ahead of Aliy Zirkle. One hour – after 1000 miles!

Hoping everybody is safe out there.

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One Man's Paradise

Run, eat, sleep – The Iditarod Way of Life

The race has moved on. All teams still in the race have left Puntilla Lake. About 20 dogs that have been taken out of the race and Jim Lanier’s team, who scratched at our check point, are resting at the edge of the lake. The volunteers have begun to break down the check point, raking the hay, separating dog food, collecting garbage. It started to snow over night.

Yesterday was a picture perfect day for spectators, little wind, blue sky, maybe a bit too warm for the dogs. It was fascinating to see the teams arrive on the ice and slide over the lake, almost silently. The mushers would encourage their dogs, who would find their way to the check point with little guidance. From the distance it all looked effortless, once the dogs came closer you could see the snow fly, the mouth wide open with their tongues hanging out. Once they stopped they ate some snow, rolled on the ice, apparently to cool down.

Most mushers decided to spend a few hours at Puntilla Lake. The mushers would take off the dog booties, spread some hay for them to  curl on, and then start preparing a multi-course meal for the dogs: frozen salmon, fish soup, dog pellets, you name, every musher probably had his own secret menu. Each dog consumes about 12,000 calories a day…

Once the dogs are taken care of the musher will rest and eat. It’s a routine that seems to ignore the adverse conditions. Some teams arrived pre-dawn in the cold, some teams would arrive in the middle of the night. Visitors would arrive all day from Anchorage and Talkeetna by plane, some on snow machines. One lone bikers rode in the middle of the pack. During the day the routine seemed manageable. During the night, without spectators, the task seemed daunting.

Ellen Halverson was the last musher leaving Puntilla Lake a day behind the leader. Ellen did run the race before four times, finishing twice, last. She was in good spirits heading for Rainy Pass without any onlookers. The mushers seem to have a tight community, competitive but also supportive of each other.

It is amazing to see how breeding and training can produce dogs that can endure and enjoy a race as the Iditarod. The main activities of the dogs during the race are pulling, eating, and sleeping, which all occurs without much barking or fighting. The dogs sense exactly when it comes to running again after a rest. They start barking and howling, pulling and jumping against the sled that is anchored in the ice. From the distance you can hear when the team gets ready…

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