HOW FARES THE WILD? THE LAND? THE BASIS OF EVERYTHING?
The wildlife situation in the Hatcher Pass area simply sucks! And nobody seems to give enough of a damn to say or do much about it. The moose suffered horribly in last Winter’s deep snows---and there weren’t that many to begin with.
I’ve seen a very few ptarmigan this season---less than ever---but nobody cares about them except the people who like to shoot them. The good news here is that there are not very many gun shots because there is nothing much left to shoot.
The only bright spot for wildlife this season was a sighting of two marten far above timberline. While I was taking a rest day at high camp in the Talkeetnas during a recent climbing trip a pair of magnificent marten came running by on the rocks above. My pack dog went nuts. I didn’t realize marten could be found so far above timberline. One of them definitely left a calling card right by my latrine.
Seeing these beautiful creatures only highlighted the shameful lack of wildlife in these mountains---it‘s like a wasteland around here. A few moose, a few pikas, a few marmots, a few ground squirrels, a few ravens and some magpies---that's it! Everything---every single species of wild bird or mammal---has visible declined in the years I have been wandering here and this year it’s worse than ever. There is a bit more wildlife down toward Willow simply because the woodlands give animals some place to hide.
BLUEBERRIES ARE FEW, SMALL AND GREEN -
Climbing around most places in the Talkeetnas I usually come across blueberries by this time---but not a useable one this year. It’s a total bust from what I can see---far worse than last year when I celebrated an actual “handful.” Maybe there are some up North but I haven’t heard.
One of the places where I camped and the surrounding area on the East side of the Pass had always yielded nice, fat, juicy blueberries. This year, nothing but a few little green ones.
Driving back from this most recent mountain-climbing trip I saw berry-pickers in the usual places---on both sides of the Pass. But they were all standing up, walking around with buckets in their hands and just looking. No one was actually on the ground picking blueberries. A neighbor says the few (green) blueberries she found in one of our “secret” berry-picking spots contained worms. Driving to a day climb yesterday it was a rare, sunny day---but the berry-pickers have apparently given up.
Whenever the wild blueberries are not doing well some of the other wild berries seem to do better. I did find some currants…but they were over the edge of a cliff by Willow Creek where I was climbing. Not many in any case.
I am seeing more than usual of the salmonberries---the ones that look like big, plump, yellow raspberries. Again, not many but they are big berries. Not my favorite treat but better than nothing!
The low bush cranberries and crow berries are kind of there but they are very small this year, very few and don’t taste all that great. And, now that I think about it, I haven’t seen or smelled a single one of the usually ubiquitous high bush cranberries. I’ve never seen a season without the tangy high bush cranberries.
For sure it’s been a cool, wet Summer. I’d be inclined to say global climate change but what the hell do I know?
The newspaper reported a number of wasps’ nests. None around here that I can see. We’ve had more than the usual numbers of mosquitoes---but nothing like five or ten years back. With the recent heavy rains---or maybe because of them---the mosquitoes have just died way down.
Another change I’ve noticed is that the little no-seeums are not raising their nasty, red welts all over my body. Usually I start to suffer from these insects early in the season and right on through the Summer because I go through brush a lot. This year I think I got bit maybe three or four times on just one occasion.
As for the yellow and red flies, not many of those either.
This lack of insects may explain why there are fewer birds. I have never seen so few of the smaller birds as this year. Something’s happening here and I don’t know what it is.
HATCHER PASS ROAD IMPROVEMENTS -
Good news is that the berry fields and wildlife viewing and hunting areas of the Hatcher Pass area are easier than ever to reach this year---the road is in good condition…for a dirt and gravel road.
An endless stream of dump trucks and belly dumpers having been hauling dirt and gravel up Hatcher Pass Road (officially, Willow-Fishhook) all Summer. The road is in the best shape ever. It’s been widened and graded. Why exactly I don’t know and I don’t care---I drive the road so much I welcome the improvements.
Some of my neighbors don’t like the improvements because they draw too much traffic. We have had some vandalism and break-ins around here. But these were mostly local kids it would appear---riding four-wheelers. We have DNA and suspects, and authorities are working on the cases. [A neighbor lady says she gave up supervising Friday night “youth group” at a Willow church because it was getting too rowdy. Most kids don’t actually attend church, she said, they just come to youth group. Her comment on our neighborhood’s teens: “I don’t trust a single one of ‘em!”]
Other locals who drive the road regularly welcome the smoother, wider conditions. Some neighbors around here are driving over Hatcher Pass to commute to construction jobs in the Palmer area---in the past they would have gone via the Parks-Wasilla Highway system.
The wonderful Archangel Road on the East side of the Pass has not received much maintenance---in places it looks like a washed-out stream bed. This great access road is just about limited to 4-wheel drive vehicles with good ground clearance and a low-low “granny gear.”
The road to Upper Willow Creek is almost as chewed up as the bullet-riddled sign that can no longer be read.
ROAD SAFETY -
When driving on Hatcher Pass Road I pull over and even come to a halt to give the big gravel trucks plenty of room---the drivers really appreciate that. Some of these truckers do go like hell. Amazing how fast these big trucks can go with a full load of gravel---faster than I dare drive my SUV.
Drivers must always be aware. The good road conditions just make some persons drive even faster. A few naïve folks think, because it’s a “dirt road,” that they can park in it. Some families even like to walk on the road---with their kids and dogs all spread out like it was a big hiking trail. Four-wheelers and six-wheelers---driven with great care or utter disregard---are also to be watched for and avoided.
Worst of all are those vehicular drivers who think that 65 mph is a good speed on a narrow gravel road---watch out for them, as always.
For all the climbing around I do in wilderness, there is no doubt in my mind that we who drive the Alaska road system are engaging in the most dangerous activity of all.
- Rudy Wittshirk
UPDATE AND RESPONSE TO COMMENT -
Snowfall, wood frogs, insects, birds, bears and blueberries -
Good question from Al Hajj Frederick Minshall about the wood frogs---I forget he has a degree in fisheries biology.
Interesting you should mention the heavy snows last Winter because, when they melted away, the lakes and bogs were left at extremely low levels around here---far lower than in a normal Spring. It seems that the snows fell early---before the ground had a chance to fully freeze---and actually insulated the ground from further freezing. When Spring came the snowmelt was readily absorbed into the unfrozen ground instead of gathering in pools as it usually does. So, for all the deep snows we had, it was one of the easiest Spring breakups I can recall.
Being a wilderness wanderer I don’t have consistent (scientific-type) observations of one particular area. But yes, we have wood frogs in the bog lakes around here in the middle elevations of the Talkeetna Mountains. I don’t think I heard them so much this Spring---perhaps because the bogs and lakes were very low and even dry.
The mosquitoes are almost gone now at the end of August. And all small bird populations are about as low as I’ve ever seen in my area during in the past 25 years.
Interesting that the foliage is “turning” piecemeal. Some plants are turning color early while everything else remains green. Makes for out of the ordinary photos. Also interesting that I am climbing through mountain areas where last Winter’s snows have just melted, thus appearing more like Spring than late Summer.
There are some moose floating around. A young couple hunting up near the Pass said they saw a herd of eight moose slinking through heavy brush. The one “legal” spike fork was too far away for a shot.
One species showing a burst of population growth is the motorized hunter. Just drive the Hatcher Pass Road to see trailer-hauling trucks stacked along the roadside like a giant used car lot. There appear to be way more hunters than moose---an unhealthy predator to prey ratio.
I just climbed through acres of blueberry bushes in the Talkeetna Mountains and found not one single berry---green, shrunken or otherwise.
Again, I don’t know the real reason why a lone backpacker was killed by a grizzly in Denali National Park. Sure, he violated the terms of his permit and hung around too close taking pictures of a grazing grizzly---but that doesn‘t usually get you into trouble at Denali.
I can’t help thinking that this bear might have been real hungry since the usual blueberries may not be occurring in the normal abundance. I know I paid real close attention to my surroundings on yesterday’s climb in the Talkeetna when passing through areas of heavy brush. The lack of blueberries in the Talkeetnas appears to be total, and the bears cannot be happy about that.
Anyway, it’s nice to hear a comment from someone who actually thinks that Nature is interconnected and that everything is affected by everything else.
FINAL THOUGHTS FOR THE MOMENT - HATCHER PASS -
LARGE ANIMALS -
Someone got a moose---I know because they ran their four-wheeler onto private property next to mine and dumped a wad of moose parts just off a well-used trail. I have warned locals of possible bears on that bone and meat pile. Although I haven’t seen any bears around here this year.
This dumping of fish and wildlife refuse in local neighborhoods has been going on for the 25 years I’ve lived here. Lazy varmints with no regard for their neighbors or their safety! I can now smell that pile of meat and bones from well over 500 feet away.
A moose or two with calves pass through my neighborhood from time to time and bed down nearby for the night. They are definitely touchy about me walking my dog past them and I always take another route when these protective mommas are around. They not only stand their ground but will confront! Cute to see the two big eyes in my headlamp and then the smaller eyes of the calves as they bob up and down in the darkness (which is growing, of course).
Moose hunters have just thinned out considerably around Hatcher Pass---my guess would be there is not too much action. I had to pull over to avoid one guy---definitely “road hunting” (driving around looking for something to shoot) and not paying attention to the traffic.
DENALI PARK HIKER KILLED BY BEAR -
Details are coming out about the unusual killing of a hiker by a grizzly at
Denali National Park. The man's body was definitely "stashed" as a "food source."
Could be that this rather large and therefore old grizzly was feeling hunger pangs in his declining years and went after some easy meat. I still haven't heard about the blueberry situation at Denali and wonder if that was part of the problem.
I think the photos taken of the bear by this unfortunate person in his last moments should be released---if only to show people what a grizzly looks like when he changes his mood from "grazing" and suddenly has something else in mind.
WILD BERRIES -
Blueberry availability remains at zero---I haven’t seen a “blue” blueberry and haven’t heard of anyone else finding any.
I did find some crowberries. Thin-tasting at best, these were small and not sweet. However, they had an unusual tang which was a bit refreshing for this most bland of all wild berries.
Ate a few low bush cranberries. Okay-tasting but also small and not many. Still haven’t found a single high bush cranberry---my favorite for a really tart jelly or a refreshing sensation in the field. They can be eaten off the bush right through the Winter (frozen) and into Spring, after they have become mellowed by repeated fermentation. This total absence of high bush cranberries is unprecedented in my experience.
WEATHER AND FALL COLORS -
I just did a really steep climb (sometimes on hands and knees) on a sunny day and never took off my parka shell. I like it cool for climbing but this means the weather has shifted up here. Last week it began as a cool but not unpleasant wind blowing across the mountains from the East (Palmer) side. The rains always bring change and we’ve had a lot of rain.
I was taking pictures from a mountain top and noticed how nice and white the distant, high ranges appeared. The tallest peaks in the Talkeetna and Chugach ranges now have a new coating of snow. When it rains down low it snows up high.
Fall colors are becoming spectacular but I’ve never seen them change so selectively. A great time of year around here.
BIRDS AND INSECTS -
The mosquitoes and other insects around here are almost all gone. There are practically no ptarmigan. I don’t see any and I can’t recall hearing a single shotgun or .22 discharge---very unusual for the opening days of hunting season. Still very few small birds of any kind. I noticed that a local lake does have a loon chick and some terns.
ROAD CONDITIONS -
Hatcher Pass Road is still a bumpy dirt and gravel road but it is much improved and easier to drive than I’ve ever seen it. Some sections are better than others. That “black” gravel section just over the Pass above Independence Mine was a past “improvement” but has a tendency to washboard.
Today I can no longer hear the dirt and gravel trucks making their runs. The State did a great job fixing up long portions of this Willow-Fishhook Road over Hatcher Pass. Last year the road over the Pass was closed on September 27 after it snowed on September 26. I just made it back across the Pass with photos taken from Fishhook Mountain of the beautiful snow storms that hovered over the higher peaks and effectively closed the Pass for the year.