By Robin Mayo
If you’ve ever crossed the Copper River bridge near Chitina, chances are you’ve noticed several half-buried vehicles, motorhomes, and other junk upstream from the bridge, where the Kotsina River joins the Copper River. And chances are if you’ve noticed, you’ve wondered why “someone” hasn’t done “something” about it!
Various local groups have been aware of the problem and looking for a solution for years, but it is a thorny one, with multiple landowners, a meandering river, and a huge cost. Legally, responsibility for removing abandoned vehicles falls to the owner, and after 14 days without a permit they are considered to be trespassing. In 2017 the State of Alaska contacted all of the vehicle owners requesting their removal, but received no response.
Why is this project important? As well as being an eyesore, the vehicles contain toxic fluids and materials which are washed into the river as they break apart. They create a hazard to safe boating and enjoyment of the area. And sadly, junk serves as an invitation for more junk, while a clean environment encourages users to be better stewards of the resource.
Another question we’ve been asked about this project is “Why doesn’t the state and/or vehicle owners (or someone else) take care of this? Why ask for donations to clean up someone else’s mess?” Yes, someone else should be cleaning it up, but they aren’t! At this point the cost of removal far exceeds the value of the vehicles. The challenges of cleanup and risk to the river increase with time, and we’d just like to be part of the solution.
Copper River Watershed Project has had this on its “wish list” for years, but funding has been a huge barrier. There was a breakthrough this summer, when Dave Cruz of Cruz Construction volunteered to provide machinery and a skilled crew to extract the vehicles. A local property owner, fish wheel operator, and lover of Copper River salmon, Cruz has a construction crew working in the area and saw it as an opportunity to do a public service and help protect the fishery.
With the Cruz Construction offer removing one of the biggest obstacles and many other projects hampered by Covid19 restrictions, this fall is great timing. The State of Alaska recently issued a permit for the project, and we are in the midst of conversations with other potential partners. WISE is providing local support and organizing a volunteer effort to help with removing debris that can be collected by hand. Last fall a cleanup of popular camping and dipnetting spots in the area yielded two pickup truck loads of garbage.
The meandering Kotsina River, which emerges from a canyon and flows across a wide flood plain before joining with the Copper, is one of the trickiest challenges of the project. For years it was confined to the west side of the flood plain by dikes, making a large area of riverbank upstream from the Copper River bridge easily accessible. But with the dikes no longer maintained, the Kotsina has rerouted, and the vehicles ended up on the other side, or in some cases right in the channel.
(At this point I’m going to diverge a little and explain that the Kotsina River was just doing what rivers do best: carrying sediments, depositing them, seeking low places to flow to, and meandering about on the flood plain. Having been restrained for a while, it was not a surprise that it shifted to the opposite side. For a detailed description of this process and man’s mostly ineffectual quest to manage it, I highly recommend John McPhee’s book “Control of Nature,” with a fascinating section about the Mississippi River and Atchafalaya Basin.)
If all goes to plan, the actual removal will take place in late September or early October, when low water levels will make everything easier. The vehicles will be extracted, any remaining fluids removed, and broken into pieces for disposal. We will also remove other debris such as derelict fishwheels. The team is looking into the possibility of recycling some of the metal.
And here is where the “someone” who should do “something” about this mess becomes YOU! The next big obstacle is finding funding to haul away and dispose of the estimated 50 cubic yards of debris. As well as asking for support from agencies and businesses, we are running a crowdfunding campaign so that everyone who loves the area can pitch in. Links to donate can be found on the WISE website (www.wise-edu.org) and Copper River Watershed Project website (www.copperriver.org) You can also donate via text message: text CLEANKOTSINA to 44-321.
Photo Credit: Copper River Watershed Project. This photo taken several years ago shows abandoned vehicles and fishwheel debris in the Kotsina River, just upstream of the Copper River bridge at Chitina.
By Moses Korth
Kids Don’t Float is a statewide project where lifeguard loaner stations are installed and serviced by local organizations. WISE fulfilled the wish of a local family by installing one at Pippin Lake. Hura for the joy of it.
Unconventional. That is the only way to describe the rollercoaster of a year we're having. But even as Covide-19 tries to cripple the productivity of our community; WISE has adapted its methods. WISE has begun looking at our programs, changing them so that they're still relevant, but that they honor social distancing. Robin Mayo, (the executive director) has declared, “The world is a dynamic place, and I hope I’m able to continue to do my job, and continue to have a positive impact on the decisions being made.” We have been trying to protect our community from virus spread by leading by example, and to that end we have made many sacrifices. But just because we have stopped face to face programs that doesn't mean our mission has failed. On the contrary this wrench in the works just means we have to get a little...creative.
“Our mission is to provide science, and environmental education for all ages. Support for scientific research, and share the natural wonders of the copper river valley.” Robin told me during our interview. She said, “I’m motivated by a desire to share the outdoor privileges I had growing up with these kids.” And, “The knowledge that I can make a positive impact on them.”
To this end we took up this project. We hope that this will give more kids the chance to play at Pippin Lake with the safety equipment they need. These life jackets could save someone's life, and are already being used. Effectively eliminating one obstacle in the way of your family, and enjoying the outdoors at Pippen Lake.
This project was inspired and founded by the family of the late Sam Lightwood. It was his dream to build a swimming pool, but a pool would be too much up-keep, so his family compromised by using the money he left to found this, and other organizations. But keeping it stocked with life jackets is no mean feat. If you would like to become part of the effort to keep kids safe, and have extra flotation devices in good condition; then give us a call, at 907-822-3575. One more way you could help is to notify us when gear breaks. The last thing we want is to provide faulty equipment.
I’m the intern here at WISE, and when I first heard about this project I was super excited. I had never heard of Kids Don’t Float, and had no idea what went into setting up a kiosk. Building this sign has been a very educational experience. First I had to get permission from DOT, then I had to build a blueprint to find out what materials I needed, and after I had the materials I had to build it. I had lots of help along the way. My dad helped me build it and let me use his tools, and Robin, her daughter Elvie, and part of the Upstream Student Council helped install it. We ate pizza and had a blast.
I’d also like to thank everyone who was a part of making this a success. Especially BLM and the Lightwood family for funding, and Doug Vollman who obtained the life jackets. The Upstream student council, and my dad. Robin, Elvie, and Paul Boos who provided the trailer. And most importantly everyone who is using and enjoying the fruits of our labor.
Construction is complete.
By Robin Mayo
WISE and the Bureau of Land Management-Glennallen Field Office are continuing our tradition of offering summer activities to help local youth learn, grow, and get outside. For summer 2020, our activities will look different to help do our part to mitigate the spread of Covid19. We will also be hosting “Virtual Hikes” via video conference, starting with an exploration of the Alyeska Pipeline on Thursday, June 18th. Contact the WISE office for information on how to attend.
Hikes and activities will be available by request for families and small groups of up to ten people comfortable with being together. This could be several families, youth from a neighborhood who are already hanging out together, or anyone else in your “bubble.” You pick the topic, and we will work with you to figure out a good time and place to meet you and have an outdoor adventure together.
WISE and BLM staff will provide leadership, educational activities, and safety support, but unfortunately will not be able to offer transportation, food, or overnight camps. We will be following protocols set by the State of Alaska to prevent the spread of Covid19, and asking participants to also respect these guidelines. We hope that as the summer progresses we will be able to expand activities, but are also ready to cancel or adapt if Covid cases start showing up locally, or if state mandates change.
Available Activities—Please call the WISE office at 822-3575 or email email@example.com to request activities for your family or group. We will work with you to schedule a day, time, and location that works for you. Most hikes will be about 2 to 3 hours, but we can be flexible depending on the group and activity.
Boreal Forest Hike- Tree ID, forest ecosystems, and how to read the story of a tree’s life in the rings.
Aquatic Ecology- Meet at a pond or stream to learn about macroinvertebrates, the water cycle, and fish ecology.
Mud Volcanoes- The somewhat rugged one mile hike to this local geological oddity is well worth it! Plan on wearing mud boots and old clothes.
Leave No Trace Hike- We will learn about the wonders of the Copper River Watershed, and how to be good stewards of the land with Leave No Trace games and activities.
Ten Essentials Hike - What should you pack for your adventure? We will explore ways to be safe and prepared for any outdoor trip, then enjoy a hike.
Outdoor Art-- We will combine a hike with an art project to grow creativity and observation skills.
Tracks and Scats– Learn how scientists and naturalists use tracks and scat to read the story of the natural world.
Skins and Skulls- Using WISE’s collection of skins and skulls, we will learn about local mammals, then explore the nearby forest looking for signs of their presence.
Other Ideas? We are open to suggestions. If there is a topic you’d like to learn more about, or a local trail you have always wanted to explore, ask!
COVID19 Risk Management Our first priority is the safety of our staff and program participants. Here are the procedures we will be following, and what we will be requesting of our participants.
We will ask that participants be free of any new or unexplained symptoms associated with Covid19, including fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, etc. Participants should not have travelled from outside the state within 14 days, or had close contact with anyone who could be carrying Covid 19.
WISE and BLM staff will wear face coverings whenever we are in close proximity with others, and as much as possible stay 6 feet away. Participants will be encouraged to also follow these practices.
We will be limiting sharing of items, and using wipes and hand sanitizer to clean throughout the program. Adults accompanying the children may be asked to help with activities to minimize close contact between WISE/BLM staff and participants. If the Covid19 risk for our area changes, we will cancel or adapt programs as necessary.
We are looking forward to some adventures, and hope to hear from you!
For more information or to request an activity:
Contact WISE at 822-3575, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Robin Mayo
The Covid-19 situation has forced some big changes of WISE events in the near future, but we want to keep providing opportunities to learn, grow, and get outside. It has been discouraging to have so many cancellations and changes to much-anticipated programs like Family Ice Fishing Day, but we are also excited to be working creatively with partners and looking for ways to say “YES!”
Earth Discovery Day usually brings crowds of 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center in early May for a hands-on day of outdoor learning. Faced with cancellation, we decided to keep the spirit of the event alive by joining the students in their classroom video conferences the week of May 11-15. Sessions will include a visit with a short-eared owl at the AK WildBird Rehabilitation Center, a walk in the woods with a forester, Park Rangers, and fish biologists dissecting salmon.
All Students in grades 4, 5 and 6 with Copper River School District and Upstream Learning will have a chance to participate. Look for information from your classroom teacher!
We will also be hosting a science lecture on wolverines with Alaska Department of Fish and Game Biologist Mike Harrington on May 8 at 7pm. The multi-media presentation will describe the research on wolverine movements that will provide valuable data for estimating their populations, and to help game managers ensure healthy populations and sustainable harvests. The presentation will explain all aspects of wolverine biology and ecology, including reproduction, activity, habitat preferences, home range sizes, and interactions among their species.
The Science Lecture will be held via video conference. If you’d like to attend, please email email@example.com or call the WISE office at 822-3575.
Summer programs such as WISE/BLM hikes and Science Camps are still uncertain, but we are working on finding alternatives such as creating guides for family hikes, and hosting virtual events. Updates will be posted on the WISE website (www.wise-edu.org) and Facebook page, or call the office.
By Robin Mayo
Every year, WISE recognizes a youth who exemplifies leadership, stewardship, and community service. This year, we are honoring Cassidy Austin-Merlino of McCarthy. She has participated twice in Copper River Stewardship Program, and used that experience as a springboard to get involved in statewide youth advocacy.
Cassidy first came to the Wrangells in 2012, when her family started McCarthy River Tours and Outfitters. Of summers in McCarthy, she said “The most important childhood memories were here, with the community and going on adventures. Because of that I fell in love with the environment, wanting to find different ways to explore it, and preserve it for future generations.”
WISE first met Cassidy when she joined our inaugural Geology Camp in 2016. It was the first time we gathered youth from the Copper Basin and McCarthy to explore and learn together. For Cassidy, it was a chance to meet a larger circle of youth and introduce them to her beloved home.
The next year, she came on Copper River Stewardship Program, spending 10 days with a cohort of youth from diverse communities. Cassidy quickly emerged as a leader with her knack for making friends, infectious enthusiasm, and eagerness to learn.
“That trip was super life changing for me…..it inspired all of the activism I do now. I started falling more in love with the watershed I live in.”
In 2018 Cassidy participated in Alaska Forum on the Environment with her Copper River Stewardship Program cohort, and Alaska Youth for Environmental Action’s Civics and Conservation Summit. “It was youth from all over the state bringing in different perspectives, from the Arctic and Indigenous Communities, that was super eye opening for me.” From her winter home in Anchorage, she started getting involved with statewide campaigns such as salmon habitat conservation. She led the committee that organized the student Climate Strike last September, and was featured in a story on KTUU News.
In 2019 Cassidy once again came on Copper River Stewardship Program as youth leader, with additional tasks including organizing media files, leading group discussions, and mentoring other students. At home in McCarthy she worked long shifts as a dishwasher, organized a community action group, and still found time for boating, biking, making art, and exploring the wilderness.
When I spoke to Cassidy in late March, her family was in McCarthy, taking advantage of the isolation there to ride out the coronavirus. Although lamenting the loss of senior year rituals, she looking forward to attending Western Washington University in the fall, planning to major in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Studies.
Asked how the present pandemic is going to change her life, Cassidy chose to take a big-picture view. “I think it could definitely help people realize that we need to live more sustainably, and take good care of our resources… When you walk into a grocery store and it’s empty, for a lot of people it may be the first time realizing that we don’t always have all of the resources we need, so we need to be really careful of what we use and what we waste.”
When asked for advice to pass on to other youth, Cassidy encouraged them to get out activities like Copper River Stewardship Program, to learn about their home. She also encouraged them to “use your voice, speak up, it is extremely powerful.”
Thank You Cassidy for stepping up as a leader, we are proud of you.
Copper River Record March 12, 2020
By Robin Mayo
This time of year, it’s easy to get stuck in the doldrums and imagine that breakup and summer just cannot come soon enough. Instead, why not celebrate the season for the miracle that it is—all the good aspects of winter supplemented by a whole lot more warmth and light. It’s the perfect time to get outdoors, soak in that incredible sunshine bouncing off the snow, and enjoy nature as it wakes up.
WISE would like to invite you to join us for a favorite spring ritual, Family Ice Fishing Day! For 11 years now we have been teaming up with BLM for this event. It is always the first Saturday in April, the same day as the annual Chitina Ice Fishing Derby organized by Uncle Tom’s Tavern in Chitina.
Family Ice Fishing Day 2020 will be Saturday, April 4th, from 10am to 3pm at Silver Lake, Mile 10ish on the McCarthy Road. Everyone is welcome, and we especially invite beginners who would like to try out the sport but may not have all the gear, or could use some tips from experts. We will have holes already drilled in the ice, equipment to loan including rods, scoops, buckets, and bait. Hot drinks and lunch will also be available. There is no charge, but donations are gratefully accepted to help support this event and our other education programs.
Plan to park on the McCarthy Road and walk about a quarter mile down to the lake. There will be signs to follow. Ice fishing involves patiently sitting still and it can be chilly on the ice, so plenty of warm layers are recommended. Other items you may want are ice cleats for your boots, folding chairs or pads to sit on, a reusable mug or water bottle to help us reduce trash, bags to take home your fish, and a sled to shuttle your gear and tired kids. Those 18 and older (and non-residents of Alaska 16 and older) need to have a fishing license. If you to bring your dog, please plan to keep it on a leash.
Silver Lake is known for wonderful rainbow trout fishing. This year we are focusing on how to best enjoy the eating as well as the catching. We will have demonstrations on cleaning and filleting, recipe suggestions, and a chance to try some freshly cooked trout. The BLM crew will bring an under-ice camera to give a peek into the aquatic world.
As always, we will be awarding prizes to kids! As well as recognizing the anglers who catch the biggest fish, awards go to youth who have great attitudes, help out, and inspire us with their enthusiasm.
Your fish can then be entered in the Chitina Ice Fishing Derby, which welcomes fish caught that day from all area lakes. Fish need to be presented for weighing at Uncle Tom’s Tavern in Chitina by 5pm. The top prize is a power auger! They will be providing “grilled protein” for the community dinner that follows, and ask everyone to bring potluck side dishes or desserts.
For more information on WISE/BLM Family Ice Fishing Day, check the website (www.wise-edu.org) and Facebook page, or call the office at 822-3575. If you have questions about the Chitina Ice Fishing Derby, you can call Uncle Tom’s Tavern at 823-4040, or awesome organizer Beth at 823-4040.
Photo Courtesy of WISE: Kenton, Russ, and Joella Scribner caught this big rainbow last year.
Copper River Record February 27, 2020
By Robin Mayo
A geologist, a biologist, and an archaeologist walk into a room….it sounds like the start of a joke, but it really happened last week at the inaugural Copper River Basin Symposium at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve Visitor Center. And the results were inspiring!
The theme of the symposium was Tradition, Science, and Stewardship. In this article I’ll mostly review the science aspect, and plan to address tradition and stewardship in the coming weeks.
At many science symposiums, participants get together for big events like keynote speeches, but then have a choice of several different tracks. You have to make hard choices about which presentations to attend, and often end up learning mostly about your own discipline. This makes sense in some ways, but shortchanges the idea of thinking about our system as a whole.
For the recent symposium, the time for each presenter was short, but everyone had the chance to see all of the speakers. The topics were very diverse, but were grouped into sessions, blocks of 2 or three presentations with a common theme. Themes included Climate Research and Modeling, Glaciers, Hydrology, Archaeology, Working with Indigenous Communities, Wildlife, Collaborative Conservation and Human Dimensions, and Fisheries.
About 90 people total attended the symposium, some travelling from as far away as Texas and staying the entire time, as well as locals who stopped in for part of a day. Attendees ranged from experts in their fields, to Ahtna elders, to youth getting their first glimpse of some of the topics.
From the start, it was evident that local science is already embracing a cross-discipline approach. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve Archaeologist Lee Reininghaus presented on exciting finds of ancient campsites along the shores of ancient Lake Atna. To start looking for the sites, she consulted geologist Mike Loso, whose experienced eye helped pick out the remnants of shoreline now high in the hills. In a reciprocal benefit, carbon dating from campfire remnants can now help geologists.
As Fisheries Biologist Matt Piche gave a talk on Native Village of Eyak’s chinook salmon tagging project in Baird Canyon, he mentioned that one of the benefits of the expensive study is that other studies can be added without incurring significant extra costs. In questions after the talks, and many informal conversations, ideas were sparked for more cooperation. What can biologists learn from the bone remnants found at archaeological sites? How can linguistic studies of place names help geologists learn about the formation of our landscape? How can a climatology study be used by fish biologists concerned about the effects of warming ocean waters? The possibilities are endless.
One of the most fascinating topics for me was Geolinguistic Evidence of Dene Presence at High-Water Levels of Glacial Lake Ahtna by James Kari of University of Alaska Fairbanks. Full confession: I did not begin to really understand 90% of his information! Trying to condense years of research and insight into a 15 minute presentation is nearly impossible. However, the rich heritage of Ahtna names in our landscape, vividly descriptive words packed with meaning, was abundantly clear. This led to conversations about restoring traditional place names and being mindful of the ancient traditions that infuse our whole valley.
Trenton Culp of Ahtna, Inc. and Dusin Carl of Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission gave a talk titled Bear Density of the Tazlina River Drainage, on sampling the DNA of our local bear populations. In designing the study, they tested and rejected the idea of live trapping, settling on a method of collecting hair samples with barbed wire. As well as being far less invasive and much cheaper, this charmingly low-tech solution is also far less stressful on both bears and researchers. They have already collected DNA samples from far more bears than they initially expected, and will continue the study.
I wish I had space and time to summarize every one of the amazing presentations at the Symposium. Words are also failing me in expressing the feeling of being in the same room with so much love for and knowledge about this place we call home.
Thanks to the partners who made this event possible: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Copper River Watershed Project, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission, Wrangell Mountains Center, Ahtna Heritage Foundation, and WISE. Thanks also to the sponsors who provided funds or in-kind support: Alyeska Pipeline Company Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Alaska Geographic, US Bureau of Land Management, and Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission.
Paul Boos Photo. Students from Copper River Stewardship Program presented “Adventures in the Watershed Classroom. L to R, Braden Beckett, Cordova, Arthur Bishop, Kenny Lake, Grace Reyes, Cordova, Josie Beauchamp, Slana, and Jesse Hale, Kenny Lake.
Copper River Record- January 30, 2020
By Robin Mayo
Curious about the roles of tradition and science in the Copper River Basin? What can we do to become better stewards of this place? Or maybe your questions are more specific, like what is the meteorology of the debris-covered tongue of the Kennicott Glacier? How is language used to learn about the presence of the Dene people on the shores of Ancient Lake Atna? Or what is the preferred roost location for Little Brown Bats in the Copper Basin?
All these questions and many more will be answered at the Copper River Basin Symposium: Tradition, Science, and Stewardship to be held at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center February 18-19, 2020. This will be more than just a science symposium, we will also explore traditional ecological knowledge and nurturing a stewardship ethic.
The conference is open to the public- you are invited to attend any of the sessions. A complementary lunch will be provided by Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission, and breakfast and dinner will be available, but must be pre-purchased through the conference registration site by January 31. Anyone who wishes to attend is encouraged to register (no cost) at www.copperriver.org/copper-river-basin-symposium/
On Tuesday, February 18th, programming will begin at 8:30 am with the symposium opening, a visit from an Ahtna Elder, and a keynote address by Kathryn Martin, Senior Vice President at Ahtna Inc on the theme of tradition, science, and stewardship.
Each presentation at the conference will be about 20 minutes long, with a few minutes for questions. On Tuesday, topics will include climate research and modeling, glaciers, hydrology, aquatic ecology, and ancient Lake Atna. At 4:45 there will be a poster session at the Ahtna Cultural Center with about 20 different presenters available to share their projects.
On Tuesday Evening there will be a special presentation by William E. Simeone at Tazlina Hall at 7pm. He will speak on “A Convergence of Knowledge? Scientific and Ahtna Knowledge of Salmon Diversity in the Copper River.”
On Wednesday, February 19th, the symposium will begin at 8:30am with the second Keynote address, by F. Stuart (Terry) Chapin, Professor Emeritus of Ecology at University of Alaska Fairbanks. He will speak on “Linking Indigenous and Western Science to Adapt to Climate Change.” Topics for Wednesday sessions will include a panel discussion on working with indigenous communities for scientific studies, wildlife research and management, collaborative conservation and the human dimensions of natural resource management, and fisheries. The day will finish with a symposium wrap-up at 4:30.
On Thursday February 20th, a morning meeting will be held to synthesize salmon habitat topics from the symposium, and consider past and current research projects with the goal of identifying research gaps. This session will be held from 8:30 to 11:30 am at Tazlina Village Hall, and is open to the public.
This symposium, the first of its kind for the Copper River Basin, is being organized by a group of partners including WISE, Copper River Watershed Project, Wrangell Mountains Center, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission. Funding or in-kind support is being provided by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission.
For more information visit the Symposium web page at www.copperriver.org/copper-river-basin-symposium/ or call the WISE office, 822-3575
The Symposium logo was designed by Copper River Stewardship Program Alumni Lindsey Gordon and Elvie Underwood.
Copper River Record- January 23, 2020
By Robin Mayo
My approval ratings are at a record low. I’m still holding my own with positive numbers in the areas of kibble pouring, water bowl rinsing, and ear scratches, with both felines and canines agreeing that my performance meets expectations. But in the all essential tasks of door opening and walkies, my constituents express extreme disapproval.
Of course, the felines rarely express satisfaction in anything but themselves, so I’m not too worried about their disdain. However this year I have a canine companion, my Granddog Tazlina, and her disapproval cuts to the bone.
Both species line up at the door expectantly, waiting for me to work my magic and reveal the great outdoors. When instead of fresh air a wall of ice fog rolls in, they all duck their heads, pin back their ears, and give me a look of deep disappointment. They hold me personally responsible for this travesty.
The cats slink away to visit the conveniently provided tub of wood chips, but Taz has no such option. Instead she gives me a long look that clearly says 1)“You are NOT my Favorite Person.” 2) “When Favorite Person opens the door, the air never hurts” and 3) “I fear I shall perish immediately, therefore I will only venture outside if you go too.”
Taz grew up in California and her previous Alaskan winter was spent in Girdwood, so her bewilderment is justified. Also, her ancestors were not wolves but dingoes, and her body is better adapted to extreme heat than bitter cold. I’ve tried to explain to her about the dire situation in Australia and how much better off she is here, but she isn’t buying it. I’ve even shown her pictures of scorched kangaroos and koalas, taking care that she doesn’t catch a glimpse of any photos of Favorite Person on a beach in Central America.
Making clothing for Taz has become a household obsession, another activity that she disapproves of thoroughly. Before leaving, my daughter re-tailored a nice Patagonia fleece pullover into very chic “PETagonia” complete with fitted sleeves and snaps down the back. Doing this required many fittings, and every time Taz stood with her legs locked, her head down, and a long-suffering look on her face.
For cold waits in the car, I adapted a loose fleece hoodie which gives her a cool thug look. A friend picked up a tacky Christmas sweater on clearance, the only piece of Taz’s wardrobe which was actually made for dogs. She grudgingly admits it is comfy but suspects the snowman makes her butt look big. Please don’t tell her, but it does.
My latest effort is a puffy jacket, repurposed from a well-worn North Face coat that has already survived a bad trip through the dryer and many wilderness adventures. I’m remodeling the hood as well, so it can protect her big dingo ears when we go fast on the snowmachine. For all this work Taz is profoundly ungrateful.
If you’d like to adapt castaway human clothing for your canine companion, here are a few tips. The easiest item to start with is a synthetic fleece jacket or vest. Almost anything is fair game, but stretchy is a plus, and cutting and resewing down-filled garments is not recommended unless you are an expert. Dogs come in so many shapes and sizes your best approach is to experiment and improvise. And chances are good the dog will loath it, so don’t sweat the details.
One approach is to choose a garment with the right chest circumference, sew up the armholes and cut new ones where needed. Another strategy is to find something large enough to use the existing armholes, sewing a giant tuck in the front or back to fit the animal’s chest. You can just go with something stretchy that you can pull on, or use existing fasteners on either the chest or back. For very small dogs, baby lambs or goats, or even cats if you are very brave, a piece of sweatshirt sleeve with strategically cut armholes works great.
As I write this the temperature has soared up to a balmy 8 below, and Taz is eternally grateful that she will not be wearing any clothing today, unless we need a photo shoot for this article. Two months ago she would have found this temperature miserable, so it appears our transplanted doggie is on her way to becoming a true Alaskan. I’m planning a long walk in the heat of the afternoon today, which should make my approval ratings soar.
Captions- Top: Taz did not choose the thug life, the thug life chose her.
Bottom: The dreaded Christmas Sweater.
By Robin Mayo
It has been a while since we had a good cold snap, and although I do not enjoy dealing with frozen fingers, frozen trucks, frozen pipes, and all the other tribulations, there is a certain fierce joy in this kind of weather. The alpenglow is gorgeous, the creak of the snow under your feet enticing, and there is a deep satisfaction in seeing the plume of woodsmoke rise from your chimney. And hey, the best part of going out in the cold to do chores is coming back in, defrosting your glasses, and settling in with tea and a good book. And a 160-degree sauna at 40 below, earning membership in the 200-degree club? Priceless.
This cold snap is treating me pretty well. The scores so far: Of the five Toyostoves I am responsible for, four are working. Of the three water/sewer systems, one is frozen, one is thawed, and one is good but may be out of water soon if the water truck can’t roll. Of the four vehicles I am responsible for, one is fine, one is startable (although I suspect each start takes years off its life,) and two are mercifully parked for the winter. Of the two woodpiles I am responsible for, both are fully stocked with well-seasoned spruce, cut to the right length. Of my two offspring, both are in tropical locations.
But I’m reminded that it isn’t easy for everyone. We took some extra propane tanks to a neighbor in a wheelchair who is going through a 20-pound tank almost every day keeping his water room warm. He figures he may have to go to Valdez for refills. Driving to work today, I noticed freshly cut branches where someone had been cutting firewood from the road right of way. Every one of us is just a split pipe, a broken fan belt, a gelled fuel line, or a chimney fire away from disaster.
Yet we lean into this weather instead of fleeing. I grew up in Fairbanks during the 70’s and 80’s, when very long cold snaps were more common, so it is tempting to dismiss this current one and tell some stories about the good old days. Were we just tougher back then, or are our memories short? Midwinter cold snaps bring back the smell of starter fluid squirted into a carburetor, the distinctive sound a vehicle makes when it barely turns over but it is not going to start. Not after being plugged in for 12 hours, not if you blast it with the propane weed burner, and especially not if the flame gets too close to the wiring.
I turned a mountain of moose into sausage and watched some football this weekend, ate too much bacon and cupcakes. My Mom has been wishing for some extra warm mittens, so I cut up an old sweater, layered it with polar fleece and quallofil, and stitched near the fire. In other words, a perfect winter weekend.
On Friday, town was full of dog mushers, hardy souls who know how to dress for winter. It is impossible to recognize anyone in their winter garb, so I waved to every round figure waddling about town in the smog from all the idling vehicles. And I waved to the teenagers in their hoodies, warmed by the energy and fire of youth. Some things don’t change.
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.