Copper River Record February 15, 2018
By Robin Mayo
If you don’t immediately get the reference in the title to this article, you should head to your nearest public library, or ask a young friend to summarize Laura Joffe Numeroff’s classic childrens book, “If You Give a Moose a Muffin.” In a nutshell, a boy offers baked goods to a visiting ungulate, touching off a hilarious, messy, and highly ridiculous chain of events. It is the first thing many of us thought of as the following story unfolded:
For over a week during the recent cold spell, a little bull moose, probably last year’s calf, bedded down under the eaves at the WISE office on the Old Edgerton Highway. We figure the bare ground covered with leaves first drew him there, then he discovered it was a little warmer. The wall forms a little alcove, like a reverse bay window, so there is a large patch of shelter that catches the late morning sun. He didn’t seem at all concerned with the people and occasional dog just a few feet away, and we enjoyed watching him through the windows.
The flip side of this idyllic scene is not so pretty. There was no cow moose to be seen, so the little guy was an orphan, without a Mom to show him what to eat, break trail through the deep snow, and protect him. He was looking skinny, and every hour spent huddled up in his little haven was time he was not spending out foraging for food. With the deep snow and bitter cold, his prospects for surviving the winter are not great.
I’m probably not the only person who called Alaska Department of Fish and Game that week with a similar dilemma. I was curious if there was anything we could do to help, and what the options were. They patiently reminded me that feeding wildlife is illegal for a lot of good reasons. Fed animals become habituated and dependent on humans for food, and lose some of their survival skills. They also may become dangerous, many nuisance animals started as fed animals who then become demanding. Finally, the foods we may offer are usually not good for the animals. In winter, the bacteria in a moose’s rumen are tuned for digesting wood and bark. A bellyful of hay will probably not do it any good, and may even kill it.
The one thing they said we could do was stomp out some trails away from the house, and towards brushy places where he might find a meal and a route to better habitat. Even if an animal becomes belligerent, it is very rare that they will be euthanized. Most commonly, Fish and Game or the troopers will haze an animal, attempting to scare it away with rubber bullets and cracker shells. The key is avoidance, in most cases if you leave a wild animal alone it will leave you alone, and if you don’t encourage abnormal behavior it will have a better chance of getting back to wild ways.
Occasionally, a habituated animal which has decided to hang around humans is harvested with a Potlatch Permit, or in a special Targeted Moose Hunt. We also briefly explored the option of sending our little friend to a zoo or wildlife center, but even a relatively small moose is a big hassle for them to catch and transport, and already has enough wild habits to be unlikely to adapt to confinement. Most of the moose in captivity came in from the wild as very young calves, so they are used to humans and learn early about fences and other trappings of civilization.
Heidi Hatcher, a Wildlife Biologist at Glennallen ADF&G, said they expect more winter die-off this winter than has been seen for several years. The bitter cold and abundant snow are hard on the critters, driving them closer to human habitations as they look for food, a reprieve from wading through deep snow, and a haven from predators. At this time of year the moose commonly head for lowlands and rivers, and may learn that wolves are less likely to bother them if they hang out close to humans.
It’s hard to watch a wild animal suffer, but in the long run we have to let nature take its course. When the weather warmed our little friend took an interest in eating again and wandered off, so there could be a happy ending to this story. Probably we will never know, but it was a treat to get to watch him for a few days. And yes, I really, really wanted to give him a muffin. In the popular children’s book the muffin leads to demands for raspberry jam, making sock puppets, spilled paint, and many other domestic disasters. In the real world, it is still better not to give a moose a muffin.
A young bull moose orphan, likely a yearling, looks very skinny as it huddles near a warm building during this winter's cold snap. Luckily, he was also docile.
Photo: Courtesy of Robin Mayo
Copper River Record February 8, 2018
WISE is excited to announce that the Outdoor and Wilderness Leadership Skills program (OWLS) will be ready for its first team of students this summer, 2018! If you are or know a teen in high school who is interested in learning to be a more competent backcountry explorer, learn leadership skills, and discover a variety of outdoor job opportunities right here in the Copper River Valley, then apply to be part of the first ever OWLS cohort of leaders!
This program will happen in three stages throughout the summer and earn a .5 credit from the Copper River School District as an Elective Credit. The first part will be the four-day Introductory Expedition hiking in the Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve to enhance their backcountry capabilities and begin learning some technical, interpersonal, and leadership skills for the backcountry. We’ll go over trip planning and time management, back country nutrition, map and compass skills, leadership styles, knot tying, risk management, and so much more!
Our second stage is full of Independent Learning. With the help and guidance of WISE, one option for students will be to job shadow professionals in the area to see what a day in the life would be like of a park interpreter, a land surveyor, a wildlife biologist, an environmental scientist, an adventure guide, etc. Students will also be encouraged to come on WISE community programs as assistants to learn more of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into putting on outdoor program and taking care of participants.
As part of the Independent Learning section, we also want our students to practice planning an expedition on their own. Even if it is just a day hike or a short trip, they will write out the full itinerary, their food/meal plan, mileage, and all the considerations they need to make ahead of time in preparation for an expedition. These are all things they will learn on the Introductory Expedition and will use on the Final Expedition.
The middle section of the program is meant to be flexible so that students can still travel with their families over the summer or have jobs. They will only do the Independent Learning options on dates that work in their schedules, and WISE will help each student plan a successful summer.
Finally, the program will end with an expedition planned and lead by the students. Working together and being in communication with each other over the summer, they will plan a 3-4 day expedition, choosing the location, distance, means of transport, food, gear, and make all the necessary preparations together. If there are questions we will help, but for the most part we want them to use each other! This expedition will be their final project where we will look to see how well they utilize the technical, interpersonal, and leadership skills they learned, how well they planned for and prepared the expedition, and how they manage obstacles they encounter.
We are excited for this program to create a team of teen leaders in the Copper River Valley who care for and love the place they grew up in and want to learn more about the future opportunities here and gain the skills to get a head start towards those careers. If you have questions about the program or want to apply, email Robin Mayo at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the WISE office at 907-822-3575. We can’t wait to take flight!
Copper River Record February 1, 2018
By Robin Mayo
On Wednesday, January 17, 27 people gathered at the Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center for a talk by Prof. Andreas Pflitsch on his work in Cave Climatology. The first slide of his presentation showed a subway tunnel, and Prof. Pflitsch explained that he first worked in North American “caves” as a consultant for the city of New York, providing information on the airflow patterns in subway tunnels to help them plan for possible terrorist attacks.
Prof. Pflitsch is a professor at Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany, Department of Geography, Climatology of Extreme Environments. He joked that he earns his money in urban caves, such as subways, and spends it in wild caves. His underground resume includes Boulder Caves on Mt. Washington, New Hampshire, barometric driven caves in South Dakota and New Mexico, and ice and glacier caves in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Mauna Loa, Hawaii. What they all have in common are unpredictable, dynamic climates which are extremely challenging to study.
Prof. Pflitsch made note of the difference between ice caves, which are rock caves which contain perennial ice, and glacier caves which are in or directly under glaciers.
The first place we visited was Frosty Cave, an ice cave near Kennecott Glacier. This relatively small system consists of three rooms, connected to each other and the outdoors by small passages. Data from temperature sensors showed the climate inside the cave fairly stable, mostly below freezing, with seasonal cycles that lag behind the actual seasons. But there were also curious exceptions to the patterns, leading to theories that there may be so-far undiscovered chimneys and passageways affecting the climate inside the caves. For example, a chimney opening to the outdoors may make the system active, drawing in warm air downwards in the springtime and summer, and flushing warm air up and out in the fall and winter. When Prof. Pflitsch lamented that he can visit the cave only once a year and is limited in the instruments he can deploy, an audience member raised his hand, asked for the coordinates, and offered to visit once a week with fresh batteries!
Also in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the Fosse Pothole is a 150 foot deep cavern which holds many mysteries. It is not affected by cold snaps as dramatically as Frosty, and the summer temperatures are very stable. “This is Science,” exclaimed Pflitsch, “you can have a PhD but you will never know everything!”
The speaker then introduced Brent MacGregor, a caver and co-leader of the Pacific Northwest group Glacier Cave Explorers. While doing research for a book on caves in Oregon, Brent heard rumors of dramatic caves under glaciers on Oregon mountains. It was challenging finding people to explore with him, because in general cavers don’t have high altitude experience, and mountaineers have learned to avoid glaciers as they are hazardous. But he did eventually find what he was looking for in Sandy Glacier on Mt. Hood, Crater Glacier on Mt. St. Helens, and Fumarole Caves in the Ice Cap on Mt. Rainier.
In Sandy Glacier, MacGregor and his team explored a network of caves they named Snow Dragon, Pure Imagination, and Frozen Minotaur. At the back of Pure Imagination, they found a glacier cave which defied explanation, as the air temperature was 7C (about 45 degrees F.) They named the cave Hot Imagination. At a Cave Science Conference when many attendees were questioning the accuracy of the figure, Brent met Professor Pflitsch, who had seen enough anomalies in caves to trust the numbers, and wanted to go help find an explanation.
With teams of explorers and scientists, the two have made many expeditions in the Pacific Northwest, and we were treated to spectacular photos and some great stories. It took a thermal camera to solve the mystery of Hot Imagination. They discovered multiple warm springs inside the cave, where volcano heated water mixed with glacial meltwater, significantly warming the interior of the cave. With this infusion of warmth, Sandy Glacier is receding, and the caves are quickly disappearing.
At the summit of Mt. Rainier, the team explored a complex of caves around the interior rim of the crater, which were also warmed by the volcano. These caves are actually warmest in winter, when snow cover blocks the entrances, and fumaroles with temperatures up to 110F warm the air.
Next, Prof. Pflitsch took us to the volcanic crater at the summit of Mt. St. Helens, where the only growing glacier in the lower 48 is located. It is a desolate landscape, with no stable ground, everything new, movement everywhere. Asked about the danger, Prof. Pflitsch noted the dangers we face every day doing things like driving cars. “The only thing that bothered me was wet socks. For the next expedition, new socks every day!”
Finally, he gave a quick explanation of his work in the highway tunnel in Keystone Canyon. He first studied the cave when both ends were nearly blocked off, and it was a fascinating (and for a change, easily accessible) study in the steadiness of year-round climate of a closed system. Then the “Damalanche” of 2014 sent water blasting through the cave, and everything changed. Now open at both ends, it is a totally different system where the temperature fluctuates with the days and seasons.
On the subject of climate change, he was careful to note that none of his data spans a long enough time to be meaningful for studying long-term trends. He hopes to continue to establish recording programs in caves to start to build a large data set.
The entire evening was a celebration of exploration and inquiry, and Prof. Pflitsch encouraged everyone to follow their curiosity: “A scientist is someone who is doing research. You don’t need a PhD to make real science!”
Prof. Andreas Pflitsch at Pu'u O'o of Kilauea, Big Island, Hawaii. Photo by Michael Killing-Heinze
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.