Tuesday’s Tundra & Taiga: Do you feel lucky? Well, do you?

Abandon all hope of getting rescued, ye who enter here…..

Two sets of these signs, this one and on the other side of the road, go up here in Paxson each October.  A matching set appears at the other end of the Denali Highway, in Cantwell. The last winter fatalities on our road occurred over a dozen years ago as the culmination of a series of Very Bad Decisions. Three crosses at mile 43 remind travelers that There But For the Retention of a Few Still-Synapsing Brain Cells Go I.

There are a number of circumstances that make the possibility of big problems on our road even more precarious this winter. First is the altered hunting regulations, which are encouraging significantly more caribou-seekers here than has been the case for decades. Second is that those mile-42 stalwarts, Alan and Susie Echols of Maclaren River Lodge, have folded their tents and gone to balmier climes….like Fairbanks….until at least the beginning of February.  Alan has been responsible for many, many rescues over the past decade – AK State Troopers have been more than happy to pass on to him the burden of rescues.

Not this winter.

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Monday’s Back At The Ranch: Website Wobblies

Not that anyone already reading this blog often needs to look at our website – usually, it’s website readers who learn of the blog, thus the flow proceeds in that direction – but today’s post is mostly to state that our venerable site, looking for the most part as it has for about ten years, is in the shop for a complete frame-off rebuild.


As posted last week.


NEW, however, is that the extant site is, momentarily, gone from view. It will be back! With any luck, that will be before you’re even reading this post. Thus, long before the new site is active, the old site will act as seat-warmer.

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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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