Copper River Record October 4, 2018
By Robin Mayo
Along the western end of the Denali Highway, from Paxson to Tangle Lakes, there are dozens of places to pull off the road. Some are real pullouts, others just wide shoulders, or places where the ditch is shallow enough to make good parking. And in early September, it seems nearly every one holds a vehicle or two. This time of year, chances are good the occupants are either hunters or berry pickers. It’s usually pretty easy to tell which is which, although occasionally you can be surprised when a well-armed team in camo shows up to claim a Subaru.
My Mom and I spent several days roaming the area recently, filling our buckets with Blueberries. A gentleman in the campground asked us how long we’d been picking berries together. Or he may have been asking how long we have been coming to Tangle Lakes for a blueberry pilgrimage, but nonetheless I blurted out “53 years” to his surprise. But it is true, I have no doubt that the first Autumn of my life I was bundled in a backpack and taken berry picking. Soon I had my own berry bucket, a tin can painted dusky blue, with a cord to go around my neck. It wasn’t very big, and I remember occasionally accumulating an inch or two of berries, ready to eat, spill, or possibly even contribute to the family supply in my Mom’s big bucket.
We had a few false starts before we found a spot to settle down and really pick. Sometimes the brush is much taller than it looks, or the ground turns to swamp, or there just aren’t good berries. But we did eventually find what we call a “Gobby Spot,” a place where you can just sit down and pick, hardly needing to move.
From our spot, we can hear the traffic rumbling by on the Denali Highway. At the end of the Labor Day weekend, much of the traffic is outbound, big rigs hauling swamp buggies and four-wheelers. One of the things I love about berry picking is that once you find a good spot and your fingers get going, your mind is mostly free to wander.
I notice that most of the hunting rigs are not displaying antlers, so are probably not taking home any meat for the freezer. Smugly, I reflect that it is hard to get skunked berry picking. Even in a bad year, if you persevere, you will bring home the goods. From that thought I start imagining what it would be like if berry picking were regulated like hunting, with seasons, bag limits, and mind bogglingly complicated regulations. We’d be punching our harvest tickets for each gallon we collected, and planning to stop in at the Department of Fish, Game, and Fruit to have our harvest sealed and tested for size and sugar content. How many of us would it take to over-pick this area? Would they shut down the season if escapement goals were not met? Would the berries we ate while picking count towards our limit?
I shake my head to dispel the fantasy, and return to picking. While I daydreamed my bucket has been filling steadily, and it is time to make a trip to the car for a fresh container. This is the secret of successful wild harvesting: the progress can be so slow and incremental, if you pay too much attention to it you will get discouraged. Instead, let your mind wander and stubbornly refuse to evaluate your progress, and then be thrilled when the handfuls add up to quarts and gallons.
My Mom has some tricks up her sleeve. She has brought small plastic containers, applesauce jars with nice screw-on lids. She is a clean picker, and when she comes across especially good berries she picks them neatly straight into the container, puts on the lid and they are ready for the freezer. Apparently this skill is not hereditary, I am far too messy a berry picker to get away with such a stunt. Instead, I will spend several hours once I get home, rolling the berries down a cookie sheet covered with a tea towel. The leaves, twigs, and bits of tundra will be left behind, and I will fill ziplocks with nice clean berries ready to freeze. I’m not a jam eater, so I freeze them whole, ready to go into smoothies, muffins, and pancakes.
My mind is wandering again, this time to blueberry pancakes. I wish I’d brought a frying pan so we could make some in the morning. We’d mix the batter and pour out the pancakes without the berries, then gently sprinkle them on the raw side of the pancake as it starts to cook on the griddle. This works with frozen berries too, and is so much better than trying to mix them into the batter.
After three days of such musings, all our containers are full, and nightly frosts have turned the berries soft. The seat and knees of my pants are purple and stiff, and my tongue and teeth may be permanently stained. The berries will join the salmon and vegetables in the freezer, each bag carrying the memory of bright autumn tundra, and the taste of sunshine.
Copper River Record, September 20, 2018
By Robin Mayo
In my neighborhood, this summer will go down as “The Summer of the Bear,” or perhaps “The Summer of the Bears.” We were kept on our toes all season by random but obviously related episodes of vandalism in the several-mile wide area around mile 90 Richardson Highway. The description of the perpetrator varied somewhat in size, color, and species, but the pattern was similar. A bear that was bold but wary, that could be scared away but returned soon. It showed up on decks and porches, snagged random tidbits and knocked over garbage cans. Pretty routine stuff.
Other areas of the Copper Basin experienced similar situations. In Gakona, a surge in problem bears is attributed by some residents to better fencing at the landfill. Out the Edgerton, bears raided chicken coops and gave people the scare of their lives during late-night outhouse visits.
We knew we had a problem on our hands when it started getting into sheds, popping off doors or even tearing out walls. And it was rewarded for this new trick with dog food and other goodies. Next came freezers, the ultimate treat for a lazy omnivore on a hot day. A bear tore into an army trailer trying to get a squirrel, and was chased off three times before it stayed away. Several people took shots and there were some tense confrontations, but nothing serious. One of the most disquieting things was a sense that it we were being watched. A neighbor left for the Post Office, returning an hour later in the middle of the afternoon to toppled garbage cans.
At this point you are probably shaking your head, and listing all the easily avoided mistakes that created this problem. Several years ago WISE had a Americorps volunteer who had worked at Glacier National Park in Montana. Glacier has a lot of grizzlies and humans in a relatively constricted area, and a history of negative bear-human interactions. Jamie was horrified at most Alaskans’ generally casual attitude towards bear safety: we store garbage outdoors, eschew bear-proof containers when camping, and practice sloppy camp hygiene. I reassured her that our bears generally prefer to avoid civilization, and there are plenty of places to get away from humans and do the wild thing. Except when they don’t.
In retrospect, if everyone in the neighborhood had followed the basic guidelines for bear-country, we would never have had a problem. But Alaskans are almost universally lax on these things. No one event or household created this nuisance bear, but we all contributed. And as you can imagine, it did not end well. We say it so often it is almost a cliché—In the end, it is the bear who pays the ultimate price.
Over Labor Day weekend, he ripped the door off of a shed and made off with two 50-pound bags of dog food. A week later at the same house, two sheep hindquarters hung high under a porch roof disappeared. As anyone who has ever done the hard work of hunting, harvesting, and hauling out a Dall sheep in anticipation of the delicious meat can imagine, this was the final insult. For Mr. Bear, it was his last supper.
The next night, when the bear came back looking for more goodies, he was shot in the spine. It was a mature boar grizzly, rolling in fat from his easy summer. Now the neighborhood is breathing a sigh of relief, but we shall soon find out if this was the single perpetrator, or if other bears are still roaming the area looking for trouble.
Whose fault is all this? No one in particular, but all of us had a part to play. At the first sign of trouble we should have moved our garbage cans, dog food, and freezers to more secure locations. Some of us did, but the trouble is that it takes everyone cleaning up their act to truly clean up the neighborhood. As is often the case with danger, I didn’t learn until afterwards how close it was. Exploring the bear’s trails, we discovered a large cache of dog food cans stolen from trash cans, and resting places where he could watch from the thick brush. This was less than 30 yards from a trail I walk nearly every day.
This tragic and gory tale does have a warm fuzzy ending. Since I was the one who alerted the neighbor to the bear in his yard, I ended up with the beautiful hide. It is in the freezer, awaiting a trip to the tannery and a final home on the back of my sofa. But I would have much rather left him roaming the wild.
By Robin Mayo
Ask any Rural Alaskan what they are up to, or how they are doing, and the odds are very good this time of year that their answer will include the word “busy.” Especially as the endless sunlight starts to fade into autumn, we wear our busy-ness as a badge of honor, proof that we are keeping up with the pack in the nonstop race that is summer.
And really, how could we not be busy? For many of us, this is full-throttle season at work. Resource managers and –ologists are cramming in as much fieldwork as possible, and anyone with a seasonal or tourism-related job is making every minute count. Hikers, paddlers, climbers, bikers, and backpackers are doing their thing. We are also wedging in building projects and visits from friends and relatives.
And on top of all this, we are filling our freezers, pantries, and woodsheds with food and fuel for the winter. I don’t know of a household in the Copper River Valley that doesn’t harvest fish, meat, berries, vegetables, or firewood for the winter ahead. Many of us do all five, which is a tall order.
On WISE’s Copper Country Discovery Tour, we visit with Princess Tours guests from around the world, and share our lifestyle with them. One of the things that amazes 100% of these people is how much Alaskans are able to subsist from the land. In most developed parts of the world it is uncommon, and we’ve had many people exclaim, as they nibble on a berry or fresh willow leaf, that this is the first time they have eaten something straight out of the wild.
How does it feel? Exhilarating, empowering, and even a little dangerous. I had one guest ask me to please stop encouraging her husband to eat things, she was terrified he would inadvertently ingest an insect, apparently a fate worse than death! For others it triggers fond childhood memories of picking berries or canning preserves with an older relative.
For me, subsistence is a fierce pleasure, a love song to the land. I run my fingers along the jars of amber smoked salmon and golden sauerkraut in the pantry, feeling like that ambitious ant in Aesop’s fable. Recently I posted a picture of freshly caught Sockeye on Facebook, which not surprisingly touched off a small debate amongst friends, some of whom were feeling deprived of their yearly fish with the early-season closures.
One facebooker stated the opinion that subsistence fish should only be shared with family, and that these special seasons should only be available to those who only live in “real” subsistence villages, which she defined as off the road system. As you can imagine, there was a small tsunami of Copper Basin and other Alaskan residents defending our tradition of sharing with all, and our legacy as a place where subsistence is a truly traditional way of life. It was a wonderful affirmation of how these activities not only fill our bellies, but fill our hearts as well.
Busy? Overwhelmed, even? Don’t worry, soon enough the long dark will be here, and there will be time to read that book, clean that house, or knit that sock. For now, I’m thoroughly enjoying the headlong rush of summer into fall, and the feeling of urgency to pick those berries, cut that wood, fill that freezer.
Robin Mayo, August 31, 2018
WISE staff and volunteers spent last Saturday up at the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) facility in Gakona, helping out with their open house. About 300 guests from near and far attended, and it was a fun chance to learn about some of the cutting-edge science that University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) is facilitating there.
Several locals asked me why WISE was there, and how we are connected with HAARP. The answer goes a long way back, right to the origins of WISE. In 2001, a group of local educators who had been talking about the need for environmental education in the area decided to get together for a meeting and make a plan of action. One of these people was Dr. Daniel Solie, a physics professor at UAF who had worked on Mt. Wrangell as part of a UAF Geophysical Institute research team.
At the time HAARP was operated by the US Air Force. Dr. Solie worked as an outreach educator for the facility, going to local schools with hands-on physics experiments. When the meetings led to the formation of a nonprofit to help coordinate and expedite science and environmental education, Dr. Solie volunteered to serve on the Board of Directors. Although he lives in Fairbanks, he served on the WISE board until 2014, helping guide the organization from an idea at a kitchen table to a busy organization with full-time staff. He still serves on the advisory board and is a generous donor.
Meanwhile, HAARP was going through some changes as well. The Air Force left the facility, turning over the keys to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. UAF was faced with the task of transitioning the facility to a University-run project, and one of the first priorities was making it more available for the public to visit and understand. If you have an instrument called the “Advanced Modular Incoherent Scatter Radar” there is a pretty good chance most of us don’t understand it, and would like to take a closer look.
Under the Air Force, HAARP had become the subject of a wide range of conspiracy theories. Armed with open minds, an eagerness to share the truth, and a sense of humor, UAF has held an open house every year, giving a chance to see the generators, control room, antennae array, and other facilities first hand. They have even designed a fun logo giving the facility the nickname “area 49,” which they print on t-shirts and shotglasses.
Adding a nice dash of serendipity, the Public Information Officer at the Geophysical Institute just happens to be an old friend of mine from Fairbanks, Sue Mitchell. In the 1970s we were riding our ponies in the Boreal Arboretum just behind the Geophysical Institute. So when they were looking for help in connecting with local resources for the first UAF HAARP Open House in 2016, Sue called WISE. We help with publicity and scheduling, suggest local resources to help with event logistics, and generally be there to help our partner with this big event.
Do I understand all the science that is going on at the facility just northeast of Gakona? No, not even close. My brain is not nearly big enough or stretchy enough to wrap itself around those cool feats of atmospheric physics and advanced electrical engineering. But I relish visiting the array and attending lectures by HAARP scientists, because their passion and commitment to a science which cannot even be seen is an inspiration.
When asked about the conspiracy theories, I like to repeat the answer given by Dr. Christopher Fallen at a talk on HAARP several years ago. He said that he couldn’t prove that they were NOT doing something, science just doesn’t work that way. What we can do is show and tell everything they are doing, and help people understand the real science that happens at this unique facility. For more information on HAARP, I recommend the Geophysical Institute’s website:
Welcome to the WISE Blog! For many years, WISE has enjoyed generous column space in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record. The original intent was to share news of WISE programs, but given plenty of space and the very open-minded editorial style of the publication, we have not stayed on topic very well. The late Bruce James, WISE Executive Director from 2009 to 2012, started off sharing his love of wildlife and his wilderness adventures, such as morel hunting and blueberry picking. WISE founder and then board president Janelle Eklund took the column in 2013, sharing her knowledge of plants, journals of diverse travels, and many other topics.
I started chiming in with columns somewhere in there, starting with an armchair hiking series with descriptions of local trails. From there I've branched in a whole lot of directions, enjoying the chance to stretch my writing muscles a little, and the discipline that is encouraged by a weekly deadline. That is not to say I've met every weekly deadline! Matt is a tolerant and generous editor, who always seems to find space when we need it, and fill the blanks with something else when we are too busy or distracted to write.
Janelle wants to make her columns into a book someday, so this is the start. Readers complete our circle, and I'm always delighted by the positive feedback that comes from the community. Please let us know what you'd like to hear about, and we will try to oblige!
Robin Mayo, Executive Director September 13, 2018
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.