For most of the people and critters who live out in it, the Alaskan Bush can be a land of feast and famine. We’ve seen and learned a lot living out here over the last twenty years. Winters can start early. Sometimes the “serious” type snow (the stuff that is here to stay for the winter) has blanketed the ground by mid September. The first year we lived out here we saw our lake freeze over in the third week of September. It’s usually waits till mid to late October, but nature can throw you curves from time to time that’ll keeps you on your toes and keeps things from getting boring.
Throughout the winter the snow piles up. Sometimes the snow is no more than a few feet, however, there’s usually more. One year it snowed and snowed, and by the end of winter we had received well over twenty feet of the “beautiful stuff.” The cold hangs in there, with only a few of the usual “thaws” (when the thermometer creeps slightly above freezing for a day or two) through the winter months, but mostly it’s just cold and snowy. During tough winters the only thing keeping the moose alive is deep snow that sometimes compacts to the point where they can stay on top and get around just enough to reach the alder and willows for food to survive. Providing the wolves don’t get to them first, and some years they do. If not bothered I have seen moose lay in one spot hour upon hour, moving little over days, and surviving on a few twig tops sticking up out of the deep snow that looks like it wouldn’t keep a rabbit alive. But they survive, most of them anyway.
As for us, our first couple of winters were pretty lean as well. Though we have never suffered and always had plenty to eat, the selection has at times been pretty limited. Pass the moose meat and hotcakes please.
The winters can be long. A classic example is this last breakup. We had almost thirty inches of FRESH snow in about five days during the first part of May, followed by clear skies and twelve degree temps. Late May warmed very nicely and the last of our ice disappeared off the lake on June 18th. So, add up the months and Alaska is mostly winter, at least here where we live. BUT, wherever you are, when the snow all melts, the ice is gone and summer begins, the toughness of winter is quickly tucked away in the back of your mind (not forgotten, but put away for a bit). Summer is here, no time to waste. It’s time for work, and on to the feast…
A feast for all is pretty much what summer is. It’s an intense time when the sun shines all day, most of the night, and temperatures can get to the point you’ll dive off in the lake that was frozen only a couple weeks before. Less if you’re twelve years old or younger… Water seems to get colder as we age.
The moose, sheep and caribou start calving in late spring. The wolves and bears are very quickly on the hunt, and the food feast begins. The bears have a cool idea…curl up and take a half year snooze, get up when the table’s set after everyone else has struggled to survive all winter. Worth some thought. To bears the moose calves are like ringing the dinner bell. While a bear’s first spring meals are most of the time new grass, once moose calves are on the menu they get a LOT of them. The moose become their primary source of protein most years. The wolves get their share of moose and caribou calves as well. The food is there, and not too tough to get really. We have watched it happen for many years.
Quite a few of our guests speak to us of nature’s “Harmony” and “Balance.” They have visions, which surely do happen, of the cow moose with a calf nursing quietly by her side, and the sun setting slowly behind Denali. While I understand their meaning, I see the cow the other nineteen hours of the day on what I call the cow trot. I find it amazing how the calves can keep up with her as the bear or wolf, somewhere behind on their back trail, closes the gap, looking for his or her next meal. Sitting on our local spotting knob, “Bear Point,” we can see for miles. In the end of May it’s not unusual for us to see one cow with two calves to the west, one cow with two calves to the south, and far to the east another cow with two calves. Go back up in early June and we see one cow with ONE calf to the west, one cow with two calves to the south, and one cow with ONE calf to the east. By late June it’s tough to find any cow that has two calves, some have none. If the accounting is a little much, bottom line is it’s pretty normal for somewhere around sixty percent of the moose calves to go to the wolves and bears. Such is life in the far north.
The “greens feed” starts after the snowmelt. And with increasing sunlight an abundance of feed for the dall sheep grows in the high-country. During winter caribou in our area are limited to the high ridges where the winter winds keep the snow off the ridge tops, and where the only food can be found for the better part of eight months. With the snowmelt, the caribou come down to lower elevations, where after a winter of lichen, the abundance and variety of greens must be heaven for them. I have seen them pick up watermelon berries, aka ‘twisted stalk,’ and chomp them down, berries and all, like escargot. There’s plenty of feed for the moose too. While any wood fiber will do in winter, willow is abundant and a prime food source for them in the summer and they put it to good use. Although the cows spend A LOT of their time trying to outrun the bears and wolves, when they have time to eat, the moose have plenty of food. It’s summer in Alaska.
Then comes fish in the rivers. Fish runs vary from year to year but when the calves have gotten their “legs under them,” and are a bit tougher to catch, a lot of the bears head for the rivers (though some stay in the mountains). Throughout the summer there is one species of salmon or another running in the rivers someplace. It’s a smorgasbord for bears, eagles, numerous other critters and… last, but not least, people. We have no salmon right here at our place, but fifteen minutes by airplane (or a long day and a half on foot) and an hour hike and we are in the fish. Like all the other “consumers,” we’re stocking up for winter.
Berries start next, coming ripe in mid-July all around us. While the bears and us… (Ok, Pam mostly. I’ve only seen ONE man who was a really good “picker”) are primary consumers, the birds are not bashful about getting their share as well. Years ago I was surprised to see Sandhill Cranes landing in the tundra… “What are Cranes doing up here?” I thought. Well, loading up on berries it turns out, like all the rest of us. They get fat, really fat, for the long flight south. By late summer they are gathering in flocks, circling and squawking, thirty birds… eighty birds… a hundred plus birds, riding the thermals, gathering until some magic number is reached and they turn and head south, bellies full of berries to carry them on their way. We have also found a Sandhill Crane fat on blueberries is pretty fine eating for our table as well. As with all the other “critters” out here, the land gives to us, and it can take from us as well.
Sunset at Caribou Lodge Alaska
So I guess the point to all this is, Alaska, as mentioned at the beginning, is a land of feast and famine. For eight months or so it is a tough country, even at its best, it’s not easy living here. Then for about four months or so it’s fat city, everything for everybody, critters and humans alike. I’ve had a lot of folks ask me what time of year I like best. All years are different but late fall is hard to beat…cool crisp frosty mornings, warm days usually. Winter has its own allure, but summers, well they’re just too nice, too short, and we are too dependent on the feast not to like them.
Mike & Pam Nickols have lived at Caribou Lodge Alaska for over 20 years. The lodge is located about 15 air miles outside of Talkeetna. Visit their website at http://www.cariboulodgealaska.com to see more articles, photos and information about life at Caribou Lodge Alaska.