Wednesday, May 28, 2008

We've Got Moose!

I glanced out the window a few hours ago and was delighted to discover our local mama moose had TWINS and Mama was grazing contentedly in what is supposed to be the horse pasture as the babies tottered around. They were so tiny and uncertain on their legs that I suspect they were born within the past few hours. They would venture away a few feet, then come back. One appears to be the leader, and the other one only ventures away after the first one. They nursed, then wandered off. Then they laid down on the lawn and Mama proceeded to lick them. Their little heads were stretched up to her like they were really enjoying it.

I would hate to see one of "our" babies get hit by a car or killed by a bear. Surprisingly, though, dogs are one of baby moose's biggest threats; they often kill the young. We are one of the few people around here who don't have dogs, which is probably part of the reason why Mama brought her babies here. One of the ways they suggest increasing the moose population is to keep dogs tied up during this season when the moose are having babies.

While we will love having them around, they had better not decide to frequent my garden. The fence is a vital part of my garden, and though the moose could easily hop it, I am hoping they have enough food outside the fence that it's not worth their effort.

Enjoy my first attempt at putting a video in my blog! I hope it works for you. All my training last week in Kenai is paying off!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Vegetable Gardening

Like people all over the country, I spent Memorial Day Weekend gardening. It took me exactly 2 full days, from Sunday afternoon till Tuesday afternoon to take the garden from raw, untouched state to completely planted. Let me walk you through my process....

Step 1: Step 1 actually started a year ago when I picked a new garden site, plowed it, hauled out the clods of dirt and hauled in load after load of every type of old manure, ashes, alder leaves and other organic material I could find, and worked it into the soil by hand. I put on about 6 inches of good stuff last summer, built the fence (Note that 1 1/2 sides of it are corrugated plastic. That is to break the wind from the mountain & glacier sides of the garden.), and let it set.

Step 2: Over the winter as my neighbor gave me ashes I spread them on the garden to make the snow melt faster and get the soil warmed up sooner. As it was, I could not get into my garden until just over a week ago (without sinking 6 inches into muck).

Step 3: Six weeks ago I started my cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini and herbs inside, then transplanted them into bigger pots as they grew. My daughter is great with plants, and a wonderful help.
I also drew up a plan of what plants were going to go where, and about this time I also got the compost bin started again (4 pallets standing up and wired together work great for me).

Step 4: The first thing I did on Sunday was dig out the remaining clods of grass that were left from last year. I don't have a rototiller, and didn't wan
t to rent one, so dug all the weeds out by hand. I had at least 15 large buckets full plus a few tubs of grass clumps and weeds, so this was an essential step! I missed putting in manure in a few places last summer, and amazingly, when I watered those sections, the water just sat and didn't drain at all. Where I had added stuff the drainage was excellent. The soil has virtually no organic matter in it naturally, and it is thick and clay-like.

Step 5: I planted spinach and lettuces in the raised beds, watered them and stapled plastic to the top to hold in the moisture and warmth until they germinate. Planting the peas, kohlrabi, potatoes, onions and carrots was easy. I did soak the seeds first so they would germinate more quickly. Then in the garden I made my string line, hoed a shallow trench, scattered the seed, covered up and watered them with my manure tea (fresh horse manure soaked in water for a few weeks and drained--if stinky is good these plant will rock!).

Step 6: Next the kids and I heaped up the dirt about 12 inches high in 4 rows. I probably should have done this for the whole garden, but would not have had enough room for all the plants I wanted to plant. In colder climates, this heaping is supposed to allow the sun to warm the soil so the plants grow better. When I tried this in Michigan the plants in the heaped areas died, so while I was a little hesitant, everyone up here seems to heap their dirt, so it must work.

Step 7: Cucumbers, tomatoes and squash are generally greenhouse plants in Alaska (some exceptions exist). Since we're renting, I didn't want to invest large amounts of money in a greenhouse (My husband finished my greenhouse in Michigan months before we moved to Alaska; I never even got to use it!), so we rigged up a little lean-to greenhouse/cold frame with the corrugated fence on one side, plastic stretched over a wood frame and plywood for the ends. I planted my zucchini and parsley in this, then stretched a soaker hose through it for easy watering.

Viola! Garden done! Well, it is planted. Now I have to watch very carefully to make sure it grows! At the moment my cauliflower is looking a little stressed. I didn't want to plant till June 1, but I am going to be camping from June 1-10, so thought I'd get the plants going a few days before I left. That way, if my transplants die off I have enough time to run to town and buy more and plant them!! All in all, it's a grand experiment. The most expensive part of this whole garden has been the seedling and starter soil I purchased from a local garden shop. Nearly all the fencing, plastic, wood, railroad ties, pallets, ashes, manure (cow, horse & chicken), etc. have come from our generous neighbors, who will share in our bounty when we begin to harvest!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Returning to Homer

My stomach does flip flops and my mouth falls open in wonder when I drive over the ridge heading into Homer after being out of town for a few days. Kachemak Bay, the Kenai Mountains and the Homer Spit spread out in an amazing vista. I'm never expecting it, and I'm actually a little embarrassed about it, but I think it is part of the reason Homer is such a popular destination. It is incredibly beautiful. While the Alaska Range across Cook Inlet, with its soaring, snow-capped volcanoes, takes my breath away too, the mountains across Kachemak Bay are stunning for their immediacy. They are so near. I'm afraid these pictures don't do justice to the beauty. You'll just have to come see for yourself.

Other reflections:
The snow: it's mostly gone (At our house anyways. As you can see from the pictures, there is a snow line. On the Homer side of the bay there is just maybe a few hundred feet above the current snow line)
The traffic: My husband says it's weird driving down the road and seeing so many people and cars he doesn't recognize. I agree. The increase in the population is amazing, and the traffic, which hasn't been an issue since last October, now has to be factored into driving times. Yuck. (But all you dear blog readers are still welcome to come visit. Just introduce yourself so you're not strangers!)
The colors: Wow! Green! I can't get used to it! I know it happens everywhere, but it seems so late. Actually, it has been green in Homer for awhile, but it is only just beginning up here at 1300 feet.
The light: I'm still not used to it. I think I need to get dark shades for my windows. I was up at 4:30 this morning.....
The funkiness: This is one of my favorite things about Alaska. Anything goes. Image just isn't as much of an issue as, say, practicality. Driving into town yesterday, it was funny seeing a guy biking down the road with a fully loaded backpacking backpack on. And the beards. I really want to do a blog entry on beards; the variety is amazing. And we're not talking these little goatee things; we're talking great, flowing beards on young men, old men, and lots in between. Homer attracts an interesting crowd!
Home: I know Homer's home because store clerks know me. I enjoy the familiarity of going into a store and being treated as "me" rather than as a "customer". There is something to be said for small towns.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Week in Kenai

The college I work for is paying me to attend a training in Kenai for a week. They automatically make reservations at a hotel in Soldotna, but I didn't want to spend a week in a hotel, so asked if I could stay at the Diamond M Ranch instead. They have a B&B, cabins, restored Victorian rooms and an RV park. I was put in the Upper Foremen's Cabin (see picture below), a cabin that was built in 1998 from spruce beetle killed logs harvested from my aunt & uncle's ranch in Ninilchik. There is an upstairs and downstairs apartment. I am upstairs, and have a beautiful view of the bog that leads to the Kenai River (about a 1/2 mile from here) and the Alaska Range. Ronna Martin, one of the owners of Diamond M (and my cousin) has told me that many people that come to visit the ranch say it is very peaceful. Now that I have spent some time there, I agree. Although the busy K-Beach Road is a few hundred yards away, when I am in this cabin it is like there is nothing else and no place else. I have had a very peaceful week, and if I ever have to stay in Soldotna/Kenai area again, this is where I'm going to stay!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Subaru Row

I had to chuckle the other day when I stopped at Fritz Creek to pick up my mail and I pulled into a row of Subaru's! When you consider the sparse population of Alaska, the percentage of Subarus around Homer is amazing. The funny thing is I'm getting sensitive to them, so now I can often pick out whose Subaru is whose even though they're the same color! As you can tell from this picture, there is a huge variety in age and condition. Since they don't put salt on the roads around Homer, rust, a Subaru's main plague, is factored out. Thus you can see some 20-30 year-old cars around (from the 70's & 80's).

More Daylight!

It is no longer getting dark at night, and we're still in the stages of getting used to the long hours of daylight. This morning I woke up and was thinking, "It must be late" because it was so bright out. It was only 4 a.m. I went upstairs and Denver was sleeping on the couch, fully dressed. He must have woken up and thought it was time to get up too! Last night I put Aurora to bed and an hour later, at 10 p.m. the neighbor kids were up and outside yet. We find it harder to go to bed at our normal times because the signal of darkness isn't there. We look at the clock and suddenly realize it is nearly midnight though it is still light out (Or, like the neighbors, our kids are still outside playing at 10:00!). We still have a month to go till the longest day of the year, which will just about be the 1 year anniversary of my blog. What a year!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Trash Pickup Day for Razdolna

Picking up trash on the 5 1/2 miles from East End Road to the village of Razdolna is an annual event for the students at Razdolna School. The kids were disappointed because normally the weather is beautiful and sunshiny, but today there were snow flurries and 20+ mph winds. The girls looked frozen in their dresses with no hats or gloves, and the guys weren't dressed much warmer. I had on my heavy 4-wheeling garb and was toasty, though would have appreciated some hot chocolate all the same! The whole school K-12 got the road picked up in 2 1/2 hours. We had two vehicles and two 4-wheelers and hopscotched down the road, dropping off kids past the previous group. We left the bags on the side of the road and the villagers pick them up when they go by and take them to the transfer station.

An anthropologist studying the trash might come to one major conclusion: the Russians only drink beer. Nearly all of the dozens of bags of trash was beer bottles and beer cans. When I mentioned this to a teacher she suggested that maybe that's the only thing they can't take home so it gets thrown out the window; everything else they take home and put in the trash. Upon talking to the students about it, they said that most of the beer is from visitors who come for weddings or from other villages. How do they know? Nearly all the beer was Budweiser, and they said no one in the village drinks Budweiser. Gee, is that a sign of a small town or what??

I was expecting some soda cans, but I didn't find one. Treasures I did find: a one dollar bill and a cell phone. We would have found even more trash if all the snow were gone, but there were spots at the higher elevations that still had 2-3 foot snowbanks along the side of the road. Did I mention that it has been a late spring??!!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Cloud Cover

Several times in the past few weeks I have left my house with a sunny, blue sky overhead, drove into fog as I headed down into Homer, and spent a morning in town with the sky overcast. Growing up a flatlander, it never ceases to amaze me how I can actually live above the clouds, and how weird it is to drive through them. It happens often enough that I feel a little sorry for the people in Homer who don't realize what they're missing--a little extra sunshine, and the thrill of seeing the mountains across Kachemak Bay soaring above the clouds (Homer-ites get the view you see above: the mountains below the clouds). As you can see from this picture, the clouds do seem to hover over Kachemak Bay, and it is often clear over Cook Inlet. I don't know what the dynamics are that create this distinctive cloud cover.
By the way, if you look closely in the picture above you'll see the Coast Guard Cutter across the bay. The big picture in the banner of my blog is this same view except using my zoom. Amazing how zooming in can take a kind of boring picture and make it beautiful.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Fishing on the Spit

We have seen people fishing on the Homer Spit ever since we moved here, and it never seemed like a special thing to do to stand on a rocky shore and fish. Once again, Cub Scouts got us out trying something new, so we joined all the hard-core fisherpeople lining the shore and tried our luck.
Kids under 16 don't need to pay for a license, but they do need to fill out a Record Report of what they caught. If I were to fish, as an adult Alaska resident I would pay $24 for an annual license that would include all fish and clamming (though I'm sure there may be exceptions I don't know about) for the entire year. At the end of the Homer Spit (by Land's End Restaurant) there are no restric
tions on what you catch. Anything that gets on your line is yours, whether it be octopus, Irish Lord, salmon, flounder, whatever. People were catching a lot of starfish, which they didn't appreciate, though the little kids on the beach had a blast throwing them back in.
Denver fished for 2 hours and didn't catch anything except seaweed, while the 5 Natives fishing right next to him were pulling in flounder every minute or so it seemed. We finally gave Denver a few tips about setting the line and watching the tip for nibbles, and within a minute he had snagged a flounder and p
ulled it in.
(Notice all the muck boots!)
Bald and golden eagles were everywhere. I counted at least 10 bald eagles in sight at one time both on the ground and in the air, and 2-3 golden eagles. The Natives fishing next to us were gutting their flounders and leaving the guts in a pile 10 feet from where we were sitting. The eagles held off for a little while, but finally they flew in and landed right next to us. The kids walked right up to them (Yes, dumb idea. Wild animals eating can get protective, and you should see those eagles' beaks and talons!).
The bald eagles chased off the golden eagles, even though to me the goldens looked bigger. It was interesting watching the balds fight over the scraps. The pecking order was obvious to them; size didn't always make the difference
in who got the food. It was a little uncomfortable sitting on the beach for about a half an hour as the eagles swooped low over our heads, fought and landed next to us, but at the same time fascinating being able to study these creatures up close. I had to snort because there were professional photographers out there snapping away, and I could just imagine the awesome pictures they got. It seemed like cheating.

And this is the Homer Spit. I've been meaning to blog about it since we moved here, but never got around to it. This picture is actually from March when I was up on East Hill Road. Today we were fishing way at the end of the spit where there's a little hook at the end.
The Homer Spit dropped 7 feet in the big earthquake of 1964 that was centered from Prince William Sound. Millions of dollars were spent to build it up again, resulting in what you see here. It is 5 miles long from where it leaves the mainland to its tip. About halfway out begin the businesses: there are restaurants, gift shops, bars, campgrounds, the Homer Ice Rink, ferry, and of course the fishing industry staples (marina, docks, cannery, etc.). My favorite part of the spit is the paved path that I go rollerblading, biking and walking on, though after today fishing will be added to my list of spit recreation.

The spit is an exciting place to visit, and most visitors make it a major destination when they come to Homer. We don't go out there at all in the winter (except to get to the ice rink) since nearly everything is boarded up and closed, but as the weather warms I've been on the spit rollerblading a couple times a week. Today the parking lots were full and the stores busy as people descended on Homer for the Shorebird Festival this weekend. We haven't shopped on the spit since we've moved here, though we did 4 years ago when we visited Homer. The shopping seems like such a tourist thing to do.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Low, Low Tide

I got up yesterday, my first day of summer vacation since the college classes I teach are over. I had a full schedule of things to do at home, but was drawn to head into town in the morning. As I drove past McNeil Canyon School and the Homer Spit came into view, I gasped at how low the tide was. The mud flats always give us a clue as to where the tide is at, and the mud extended far past where I'd ever seen it before, so when I got to town I headed to Bishop's Beach. The parking lot was packed with cars and school buses, and the tide was indeed waaaaaay out. I checked the tide book after I found my parking spot and discovered I was in luck. It was 10:36, and low tide, a -5.4, was at 10:33. Glancing through the book I discovered it was one of the lowest tides of the year, and the lowest I'd ever seen. Looking out over sand to the waters edge a long ways away, I saw a dark line of...something. Grabbing my camera, I took off, saying mean things to myself for not bringing my muck boots. Later I would tell the kids I would take them out of school to see a low tide like that (today was a -4.6, and I didn't think it would be low enough to see what I saw). It was one of the neatest things I've seen in Alaska.

Basically, the tide was far enough out that the kelp beds, where the kelp grows, were exposed, and that is where all the action was. As I looked out over the kelp I saw little fountains of water shooting up all over the place. When one would shoot I would rush over and try to figure out where the water was coming from. I finally figured out it was coming from the clams breathing hole. The 3 dots in the sand in the picture below are the clams breathers, and in the next picture all the little dots on the picture are clams--that's a lot of clams! There were also clams in the kelp, underneath rocks with the breather poking up between stones.
The next few pictures are jellies/anemones/etc. I have to admit I don't know the names of most of what I saw, but the starfish I did recognize.

This clam had its leg (or whatever it's called) out and this shell was flopping all over the place when I saw it. By time I got my camera focused and zoomed it was settled back down. I'd never seen a clam flopping around like that before. It was quite a show!

This picture is of a different type of clam's breather. It is right at the surface, but is wider (up to an inch). I don't know my clams well enough to know which kind this is, but I think it is a razor. When it withdraws its breather it leaves a depression in the sand and that's what we look for when we're clamming.

I was so thrilled to be able to explore the beach at such a low tide. I kept thinking I'd seen it all when I would come across yet another treasure. Finally a very full bladder drove me back to the parking lot. We're going to be out of area for the next 2 low, low tides, but will be around for a fairly low tide in August, so I'm marking my calendar now. Of course, maybe I'll just dig the clams next time.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Sunny Day on the Beach

It seems even in the middle of summer it is never warm enough to take off my shoes and walk barefoot in the sand (For me, anyways. I have seen people walking barefoot on this beach when there's snow on it). So last week as I was correcting papers in my office on campus the sunshine beckoned me and I took my grading out to Bishop's Beach, kicked off my shoes, took off my jacket (do you know how long it has been since I've been able to do that?!) and rolled up my pants legs. There is plenty of driftwood to use as backrests and sand to shape into a chair just so. It has been so long since I felt warmth like that outdoors that I just soaked it up for 2 hours, and left with a gorgeous tan!
Before you think it was perfect....a couple of high school kids came crashing down the bank behind me and started setting off firecrackers. They kept setting them off closer and closer to me. Finally, when I turned around, one kid realized he knew me. They were so embarrassed they left, so I was back to my idyllic tranquility.
Even better, I'd planned a beachwalk for that day with the 7th & 8th grade religion class I teach, so after 2 hours of hanging out, I went and got them, we walked down to the beach and painted rocks to take home.
Like I said a few blog entries ago, I sure appreciate sunshine and warmth more now than ever before!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sinkholes & Spring Thaw at Elevation

Before we moved to Alaska, people spoke of the "spring breakup" of the roads. I couldn't quite picture it. While out 4-wheeling today on the road past ours I discovered just how "broken up" a road going through spring breakup could be.

It seems to start with sinkholes, little areas that when you step on them are squishy like stepping on a trampoline. When you get cars going over them, however, they squish right out and now you have a big hole. In one place on Falls Creek Road, the frost had heaved and the dirt over a foot deep and a foot high, all across the road, torn up for about 6 feet. Some cars were parked before it, so obviously the owners just walk the rest of the way home. Long sections of that road were "heaved" this way and that, requiring some careful driving even on the 4-wheeler.

Our road has a smaller case of the heaves, and our driveway none at all. What we have on our driveway is soft stuff: an area that looks like solid gravel ends up "giving" and we sink a foot. That's when we appreciate 4 wheel drive!

All the staff at Razdolna School said you have to have a 4wd vehicle to work there. I'm telling my hubby when he gets back from spring break on Saturday (Their spring break coincides with the Russian Easter; never mind there's only 12 days of school left when they come back from break) that he'd better 4-wheel to work the rest of the schoolyear to save wear and tear on our vehicle!

Is the snow gone yet? Not by a long shot. There is still 2 or more feet out in the open; more in the woods, drifts and snowbanks. This week all the snow melted off our road for the first time since November. I was estatic. Last week for the first time all winter we began to fall through the snow when we walked on it, so getting out to the sledding hill has become an ordeal. We often just crawl so we don't have to postleg it, but even when we go down the hill, we have to postleg our way back up. That's harder for the kids with their short legs than it is for me, but it's not fun either way, so we're just not sledding as much. Skiing is still fun, though at times we sink unexpectly then as well. Locals say the snow is hanging on unusually long. For my first winter up here, I don't mind, though I can see how everyone just wants it GONE!

By the way, I was going to write this blog entry last week, but then we got 4 inches of snow, then another 1/2 inch, so it didn't seem right to blog about sinkholes I couldn't see. It has finally melted away so I'm okay writing about it now!