Scenic Sunday: Surreal Sidewalk Scenery

Frozen waterfall on Richardson Highway


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Side-tracked Saturday: Now, THAT explains quite a lot

Side-tracked Saturday is an occasional. A bon mot, or something shiny that caught this magpie’s eye.

For today: One of this summer’s guests related how he asked of a certain eatery in Alaska – no names now –

“What is your specialty?”

“Umm…hamburger, I guess.”

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Foodie Friday: At -24º, Summer’s Over!

Some wintry weather descended upon the upper Gulkana valley this week. Yesterday’s dawn low was -24ºF/-31ºC, and the mid-day high -10º .  We’re – almost – ready for the cold, and the dark, and the slow business we’ll be enduring the next months.

What better way to slide into winter than with hot mulled wine? No, there is no better. Here is the concoction that makes each day’s end in Paxson warm and mellow:

Hot mulled wine, Paxson-style

*Feel free to use dashes and splashes in lieu of the amounts listed. After all…that is what I do. The strict numbers below are just a guideline, yaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrhhh.

Serves 4
Or 3
Or 2 – mmmmm!

Place into a suitable-sized saucepan the following:

*1 bottle drinkable red wine. Do not use the good stuff; rough-and-ready will hold up just fine to the seasonings you will be adding
*1 1/2 cups/150ml apple cider or apple juice
*1 cup/100ml orange juice
*2 tsp/10 ml allspice, whole
*1 tsp/5 ml clove, whole
* 1 stick cinnamon. Kept whole, you may use once more; or grind to very coarse flakes (a blade coffee grinder is perfect for this)
* 1 tsp grated orange peel or 1/2 tsp/2.5ml orange extract

I used to have a large tea ball into which I could confine the spices; that makes it easier to remove them after steeping. The tea ball long ago fell apart; I now dump everything in and use a sieve once steeping has finished.

Steep for about fifteen minutes, slowly bringing the concoction up to a hot drinking temperature. The spices are not too overpowering if you allow them to remain in cooled brew overnight if you have any remaining, but you don’t want to keep them hot for much more than 20-25 minutes or bitterness may result.

In the last minutes of heating, add:

* 1/2 c/50 ml  sherry
*1/4 c /25 ml orange liquer. Triple sec is fine: again, save the Cointreau or Grand Marnier for a more delicate quaff!

You don’t want to add the last two ingredients early on as the heating will drive off too many of the attitude-adjustment molecules…

Find a loved one and two glasses, and – who said anything about winter?

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Birds’ Day Thursday: Northern three-toed woodpecker

Even non-birders have at least a passing knowledge of woodpeckers – except perhaps those living in Australasia or Madagascar, where this order is absent.  Even there, the presence of Woody Woodpecker likely has made its mark.

And of the 179 or so species worldwide of woodpeckers, all but a handful – perhaps a half-dozen – bear, amongst at least the males,  diagnostic red on the head: a cap or crest, a mustache mark, a gular stripe. In North America, it is only the two species of three-toed woodpeckers – aptly named in contradistinction to the four toes other members of the order possess – who sport no red.

Rather, the males wear a yellow crown. Alaska is home to both the black-backed and the northern three-toed woodpeckers. The former is more often seen than the latter in eastern North America; in Alaska it is closely associated with outbreaks of spruce budworm and with forest fires, usually becoming locally very common some three to five years after a conflagration. The northern three-toed (at present, also called simply “three-toed woodpecker”) is more general in its occurrence throughout Alaska’s taiga.

Northern three-toed woodpecker in Paxson, September 2012

Fortunately for the photographer, this bird is not overly shy.  It seems to have a preference for the lowermost sections of a spruce, which allow for gratifying shots from above and often sparing the photographer the stiff neck that often accompanies bird photography. Rarely is the woodpecker common, though, and it was with great pleasure for me that the male depicted here stayed around the large spruce adjacent to our house’s deck for some weeks late this autumn.

Yep: three toes on this guy!

A characteristic behavior of this bird is that it is one species I have learned to be able to identify by sound.  That is,  NOT by call or song, but by the diagnostic noise created by its gleaning. Rather than the drilling, often in staccato fashion, which is so prevalent amongst most other woodpeckers, the three-toed typically scrapes, or flakes, pieces of bark off spruces in its quest for beetles and their larvae. One would not be amiss in calling both species three-toed woodflakers rather than woodpeckers.

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Wildlife Wednesday: On Second Glance, Perhaps a Third Look is Warranted….

As regular readers know, this blog primarily concerns our life in the Alaska Range, but we will take the blog afield as occasions warrant. And as a previous entry alluded, a lot of our 2011-12 winter peregrination involved unhappy, unpleasant or at best tedious work in the lesser-48, but we also inserted a lot of fun into those seventeen weeks and 21,000 miles. One such time was the full day spent in Zion National Park.  For one of us, it was a first time trip and a New Favorite amongst national parks; for the other, it was a lesson that the memory of an undergraduate geology trip to “yet another red rock slot canyon…ho hum” of so long ago was finally smothered during a glorious winter day in one of this continent’s single most wondrous geologic spectacles.

Many of you, however, either have been to Zion or seen a relative’s photos of it or at the very least, have access to any number of National Geographic-quality images of this southern Utah masterpiece.  This post, then, foregoes my attempts at images like those.  I will instead treat you to two other sorts: sometimes, another view is warranted. Even a third.

#1.  As a preamble, Jenny effectively did not believe me when I slammed to a stop and yelled “Wolf!” After all, although wolves have been reintroduced to a number of locations in the lesser-48, Zion is not one of them and there have not been  – before our trip – any such sightings in or near the Park.  But I ask you please to trust me this photo is not altered or enhanced in any way:


Can you see it?

Can you see it? Click the image to enlarge

So.   That photo was of course for fun, and I did take careful note of the date and time of day, and of course location, as the exact sun angle is extremely critical for the effect. I hope you agree it was well worth a second look.

#2.  This next set of photos is, on the other hand, absolutely on the up-and-up.  Many of you know I have been a birder my whole life…and then some.  As you will see, it is with some humility that I present this bashful tale.

On returning from a small hike some ways up the Zion Canyon, I noticed two birds perched atop a promontory. It was quite a tall cliff….the birds were far off…but they did look large. “Well, that’s very nice,” I thought to myself. AND shared with my novice-birder wife. “A pair of golden eagles.”  The only large birds on a January 5 in Alaska that might have been in mating attitude would have been great horned owls, or perhaps great gray owls, but I surmised that at Zion’s latitude perhaps golden eagles also mate and breed that early. Leaving Jenny on the trail, I hurried back to the truck, mounted to my camera body the only telephoto lens I had brought – a 400mm f5.6 Sigma, and took some shots. It is not a great lens, and not really adequate for bird photography, but with the good resolution the Nikon F700’s sensor can provide, I thought it would be a worthy way to pass the time before Jenny caught back up to me.


Tiny dots on skyline in center of photo….hardly worth enlarging….


Well. I certainly know, and should have been aware, that size can be quite deceptive. Especially at long distances. More especially from below, looking up. And most especially amongst birds. But I thought of none of that as I filmed the birds perched, and, both individually and jointly, soaring. After taking a number of photos, I put away the camera and brought out my binoculars.

In flight, magnified to resemble binocular view

Vultures are NOT eagles…..

Ummm….oops. Eagles do NOT have naked heads. What a dingbat – I’d mistaken a pair of vultures for eagles. Now a turkey vulture is a large bird, but it is nowhere near the size of a golden eagle. When  I had seen them circling their pinnacle, they sure looked large to me…so I made a C-minus mistake of Birding 101, and jumped to my aquiline conclusion without adequate observation.


Back in Paxson, and a fine way to take a break from shoveling all that snow was to edit a few thousand travel photos.  When I got to the ones of Zion, eventually I also started looking at those eagles vultures. Who needs to take up disk space on pin-prick-size shots of vultures? Toss ’em. Of course, “everyone” knows that turkey vultures aren’t fully black, but have a two-toned appearance from below.
Wait a minute…
Something was not right.
Turkey vulture’s tonal pattern is black in front, light in rear.These birds show themselves to be fully black at the trailing edge of their wings, plus tail. The front of their wings shows white (and not “light”, either). They have the pattern of the turkey vulture completely backwards.

Now, the only birds in North America you’re likely to see with that white/black underbody pattern are the pileated woodpecker and the crested myna. And nobody is going to mistake those species for what is shown in these photos.

There is one other bird that shares that patterning, however.

It is a Code 6 bird. This is the term the American Birding Association gives to the most difficult-to-see birds of all: “Unobservable“.  That is a euphemism for “extinct“. But one Code 6 bird has, in effect, come back from extinction, and that is the massive, the colossal, the glorious California Condor, one of the planet’s aerial leviathans.  Unbeknownst to me, this most gigantic of all North American birds has successfully been reintroduced to Zion National Park, and it was two of these that I mistook for golden eagles turkey vultures.

The Oh. My. God. moment…

Not a golden eagle. Not a turkey vulture. And DEFINITELY not a pileated woodpecker or crested myna!

Everyone makes mistakes. Hunters here mistake grizzly bears for wolverines; hoary marmots for grizzlies; snowshoe hare for polar bears! Birders – expert birders, beginning birders – all misidentify.  Oftentimes the mistake is uncaught or unchallenged. But this error is one I am not at all embarrassed to have walked you through.

And, while the Park employees already would have known about the condors…. until they read this blog they don’t know about the wolf in their midst.

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Tuesday’s Tundra & Taiga: Rush hour on the Richardson

Rush hour on the Richardson

Plan ahead and avoid the crowds

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Monday’s Back at the Ranch: Pain & Pleasure

Summers are, of course, lovely here. Sharing our home with guests from all over the world is a special treat and a unique lifestyle. Our busiest season is about five months…May to September…and while every end of September I feel a certain amount of regret that our season is so short, there is also a tremendous amount of RELIEF!

Relief because soon I will have a life back again. Summers are great and we love our job tremendously, but summers are intense. INTENSE. Talkin’ about 5 months of working 16 hour days, non-stop. No break. In the course of a regular day, the only time I sit down is one hour while hosting our guests during breakfast. Otherwise I am running here and running there. No sitting disease for us here!

Anyway…so we’re starting to get some semblance of a normal life back these last few weeks. And here are two things that are now filling my leisurely 16 hour days.

First, MY PAIN:

Yes: I’m very good at self-torture. For those who don’t know, Dreamweaver is a program for creating websites. HTML, CSS…all that (not) fun stuff. We need a new website, and I need to learn how to create one. From scratch. I’m not technically inclined so this is painful for me. I have to learn the basics, to build the initial structure, before I can let my creative juices flow with the design. Then it will be fun, but now I have a constant pain in my brain reading this book. It’s a good book, but it’s a difficult subject matter, and it’s over 1,000 pages.


Audie and I did a Denali Highway road trip about a week ago. Got back home about 5 pm and there was a car sitting in our driveway, with no person in it. Audie ran upstairs to our Great Room and I followed him. In the room was a magnificent site: a piano tuner! Audie had secretly arranged for the tuner to be working on the piano while we were away, as a sweet surprise for me! The piano is about 100 years old and hadn’t been tuned for a number of years. It’s a difficult feat to convince a piano tuner to travel to the remote wilds of Paxson from the city…but Audie finally found a winner! I had stopped playing the piano regularly because frankly, it was too painful to hear. Now she’s back in tip-top shape (well, as tip-top as a centenarian can be) and I’m delighted!


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Scenic Sunday: Gulkana River

Most of these photos can be double-clicked either once or twice for larger images

Midwinter along the river

Cow moose feeding in river in early September

The meanders in the “lower upper” Gulkana can provide stunning displays of the Alaska Range

Mid-winter Gulkana at the Cabins

Late summer downstream fro the Cabins, looking toward the compound

Spawning sockeyes flood this stretch of the Gulkana from mid-July through early October

These sockeye have returned to their natal gravels of the Gulkana at the end of their 5-year cycle

The uppermost Gulkana runs between Class II and III, depending on water levels

The placid Upper Gulkana just before it empties into Paxson Lake

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Foodie Friday: A luscious fennel bulb

We went to Anchorage about a week ago and we did the typical marathon grocery shopping trip, stocking up on food supplies to last the next four, six, or eight weeks. Anchorage, our preferred shopping destination, is a 600 mile round trip, so it’s not a place we go every week or every other week. I love fruits and vegetables and stock up on items that I can freeze or do well in cool storage. But I also love to get some special treats, some surprises, and this trip I came home with a fennel bulb.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve had a fennel so I wanted to cook this one in a way that showcased the fennel, instead of hiding it in with other ingredients, like in a stew. I found a winner. This is from America’s Test Kitchen and is highly recommended. Will be the fennel recipe I return to consistently…if I can ever remember to consistently get a fennel on our marathon trips!

Braised Fennel with White Wine and Parmesan (serves 4)

  • 2 fennel bulbs
  • 3 TB butter
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/3 c white wine
  • 1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese

Discard fennel stems, trim bulbs, cut each in half lengthwise from top to bottom and then slice each half into four wedges. Melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Lay fennel in skillet, cut-side down, and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Add wine, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Flip wedges so cut side is facing down, and continue to cook, covered, until that side turns golden, about 10 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook fennel, turning as needed, until all sides are golden, about 10 more minutes.  Transfer fennel to serving platter and sprinkle with the Parmesan.

The recipe book says, and I agree:

“Braising fennel in white wine and butter mellows its anise flavor and leaves the fennel meltingly tender. As the fennel cooks, the wine reduces away to almost nothing, allowing the fennel to caramelize to a golden brown. The acidity of the reduced wine cuts through the richness of the butter, while a final sprinkling of Parmesan cheese adds creamy texture and nutty flavor.”



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Birds’ Day Thursday: Gyrfalcon

Might as well start off Birds’ Day Thursday with one of the most-desired denizens of the Denali Highway:

The gyrfalcon is truly emblematic of this part of the world.  Its haunts are the planet’s least-inhabited regions – high arctic and high mountains are its milieu. It is easily the world’s largest falcon and, irrespective of what is written about its smaller cousin, the fabled peregrine falcon, it is the gyr that is the fastest flying bird on the planet. The peregrine gets the more press partly because, as it resides nearer to human habitation, it is a more familiar bird, and partly because it is more apt to stoop to kill, and it is the stoop speed – a controlled freefall – that is presented as the bird’s velocity.  A common number found on the internet is 242 mph.
The gyr also will hunt by stooping, but as its normal prey are mammals and the ground-hugging ptarmigan, stoops are uncommon. Thus, some falconers have demonstrated the differences of the two falcons’ speed with a controlled experiment, using captive birds.
A gyr and a peregrine were held until a canvasback, one of the speediest of ducks – capable of 70 mph level flight – flew past. The two falcons, starting of course at zero velocity, were released.

The result: in one mile the peregrine dropped to the ground, sans duck. In two miles the gyrfalcon had the canvasback dead and mantled. Roughly, then, for the gyr to have flown two miles in less than the 1m43s it took the duck, having started at zero, it had to have achieved something over 100mph….and definitively faster than its competing peregrine.
And this post will be edited when someone shows the calculation for that last statement.

The following photos all are copyright Audubon L. Bakewell IV.  Please request permission for any use…you know the routine. Most can be enlarged, twice, by double-clicking.

Here is a adult gyr in its element: circling over the mile 7 gorge, near the western terminus of the Paxson Mt. massif

Adult gyr over the Alaska Range

This gyr was in low-speed flight; note the beautiful curves of both the leading and trailing edges of the wings:

Adult gyrfalcon

A bird often confused with the gyr is the goshawk.  Standard references suggest that the bulkiness of the gos is one feature to use to distinguish it. But gyrs can look chunky, too, as the next photo shows. If the patterning shown here were not evident – which often is the case in the field – the slender wingtips this bird demonstrates attests to it being a gyr.

Adult gyrfalcon

Depending on the viewing angle, the bird can appear chunkier still. In that this bird was flying slowly, and when first seen, it was extremely low to the ground, I am wondering if it had a full crop from just having consumed, perhaps, a ptarmigan.

Adult gyrfalcon

Harriers can look like gyrs; gyrs can look like harriers. Actually, in my experience, harriers can look like just about every other raptor we have. This, though, is a gyr:

Adult gyrfalcon

Here are two first-year gyrfalcon; the one alighting is presenting a fine display of its patagials. Those are the “front ailerons” along the inner leading wing edge.

Two first-year gyrfalcons

A first-year gyr in a classic, back-lit flight photo.

First-year gyrfalcon

The gyrfalcon is not a cooperative bird for birders traveling the Denali Highway.  There are no aeries close to the road such that by waiting at one particular site, eventually the birder can expect to see a bird returning to the nest. Rather, one has to hope that a bird’s hunting routine will coincide with one’s own traverse of the road.  This said, the most likely places to encounter gyrs are where the mountains are closest, and where its favored prey, the willow ptarmigan, are most prevalent. Such sites include miles 7 through 15 (Paxson Mt. through Hungry Hollow), miles 25 through 38 (High Valley and Maclaren Ridge), and miles 60 through 79 (Clearwater Mts.). The furthest west I have seen a gyr is around mile 97. The westernmost twenty miles of the highway do present close proximity to prospective ridges and should be productive, but I have not spent adequate time there to find gyrs.

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