November 2007 The Cruelest Month

Ask an Alaskan which month they dislike most, and you'll likely hear January, February, April, or November ... for a variety of reasons that come back to two factors: darkness and snow. The latter can be either lack of snow or snow that lingers too long.

November is the month I find to be too long. Snow is unpredictable while the nights are guaranteed to be getting long as we plummet toward the winter solstice (also known as the longest night of the year). Throughout most of the winter, the presence of snow brightens up the night by reflecting light from stars, moon, and street lights. Without the snow, the night seems to suck up any light that's out there. In a good November, snows arrive early and remain on the ground. Early snows also bring activities that we haven't done in 6 months, like skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding.

This has not been a good November. Temperatures have been above normal, with an average above freezing. The second week looked promising, with some light snowfalls that frosted the trees. Paul fired up the snowblower and we finally put away the last flower pots and lawn furniture. I even strapped on my cross-country skis one day to make tracks in fresh powder. Then the winds whipped up from the Gulf of Alaska, bringing warm temperatures and rain. So we string colorful LED lights on the house to brighten up the nights until the snows return or December arrives.

5 November 2007 western Cook Inlet

Paul and I took our first helicopter ride to see a property on the other side of Cook Inlet that The Nature Conservancy is considering buying. My job was to inspect the site for hazardous materials and incompatible uses, and Paul volunteered to sketch the site for my environmental assessment. He folded himself into the seat behind me, and I took the much roomier passenger seat, to the left of the pilot. On my left, in front of me, and above me, was glass. When the helicopter lifted off, I felt like I was levitating.

We flew northwest, skimming the northern shore of Cook Inlet before heading south to the property. Several creeks and rivers empty into the inlet, forming a vast wetlands of grasses and shrubs. Duck-hunting shacks dot the high ground along muddy creek channels. The only waterfowl we saw were a family of tundra swans, still gaining strength to begin their southern migration. We also saw a family of otters running over a frozen pond, and a snowy owl spooked from its ground burrow when the helicopter flew over low.

And we saw more moose than I've seen in any six month period since moving to Alaska. Moose are not a herding ungulate. They gather some in the fall during the rut. I once saw five bulls pestering one cow and her calf. Those seven moose on one park field are the most I've seen gathered together, though we had walked past maybe a half dozen more moose that same evening. From the helicopter, we saw 20 moose -- 19 cows and calves with one lone bull -- in a cluster. We saw many other groups, for a total of 40 - 50 moose. All within a 15 minute period.

At the property, the pilot circled the boundary twice and then set down near the group of cabins and outbuildings that was once a family's fish camp. The only sign of wildlife was a bear-skin rug hanging in the larger cabin and a wasp's nest tucked into toilet paper holder in the outhouse. Thankfully someone had left a can of Raid handy.