We have a ceramic Guadalupe figure in our garden here in Haines, Alaska. Last summer, a bedstraw hawkmoth landed on her. Like me, it is a nice combination of Alaskan and Latin American flavors.
To put the words “mellow” and “wolverine” together seems like an oxymoron. Wolverines are most often described as “vicious”, but I like to think of them as a symbol of wilderness. Looking at this photograph I took recently at Steve Kroschel’s Wildlife Center in Haines, you can see that wolverines don’t always appear vicious.
Wolverines are the largest members of the weasel family, but they don’t have that serpentine-like movement that so many of the smaller weasels, like mink and ermine, display. They are the size of a medium-sized dog, and have been compared to bear, wolves and even skunks.
The common name “wolverine” comes from the word “wolver” which means “one that behaves like a wolf” or “one that hunts wolves”. Wolves run in packs, and wolverines are more solitary, so I ruled out the “behaves like a wolf” definition. Could it be that wolverines hunt wolves? Since Steve Kroschel has raised and worked with wolverines for 36 years and is considered by many to be one of the world’s leading wolverine experts, I asked him.
“A wolverine could eviscerate a lone wolf. It goes for the underbelly. I’ve personally witnessed this technique in mock play attacks with wolverines that I’ve raised together with wolves. A wolf PACK, however, is a different story and this feisty ‘Demon of the North’ is no match. It’d be drawn and quartered in no time unless it uses its cunning and heads for the nearest hole or climbs the closest tree.”
“Are they vicious?”
“Raccoons are more vicious”, Steve said. Steve has a soft spot in his heart for wolverines. I’ve watched him tussle, wrestle and play with a wolverine and sometimes forget that he is interacting with a fierce predator.
Wolverines can be ferocious, just like any other predator. Maybe wolverines are considered viscous because very few of us have direct experience with them and so rely on information from others who do. Many of those who have experience with wolverines are professional trappers who target them for their valuable fur. The fur of the wolverine is prized for ruffs or trim for parka hoods, since it is extremely resistant to frost build-up. I can imagine a wolverine caught in a trap fighting with everything its got to free itself.
Another name for the wolverine is the skunk bear. I thought the name had to do with the coloration of the wolverine, which at a glance reminds one of a skunk. All members of the weasel family, except the sea otter, have scent glands and emit a type of musky smell. Skunks, which secrete their scent for defense, were formally classified as weasels but now are in their own family.
Since the skunk is no longer a member of the weasel family, the wolverine now wins the prize as the weasel with the most offensive scent. A few years back, I was driving in the Yukon near the village of Klukshu, when I was overtaken by a terrible smell. Imagine the worst “stinky foot smell” you have ever experienced and multiply it by one hundred. As I rounded a bend, a wolverine dashed across the road. I connected the dots and realized that I had now not only seen, but also smelled, a wolverine in the wild. That put me in an elite group, since very few of even the most-seasoned Alaskans have seen a wolverine in the wild.
My favorite wolverinal encounter was while guiding an Alsek river trip. The Alsek River cuts through some of the most remote and heavily glaciated terrain in North America. I spent ten summers guiding on this river, and always felt slight trepidation on the big rapid day about halfway into the trip. We nicknamed the biggest of the rapids “Lava North” after another giant rapid in the Grand Canyon. But unlike the waters of the Grand Canyon, the Alsek River waters are icy cold. A bad run through the rapids could result the entire group immersed in the icy water, with a real possibility of life-threatening hypothermia. Below the rapid, the river continues into a narrow canyon with more giant waves on both sides of the river. We made it safely through Lava North that day, and were in the middle of the canyon when we spotted a small eddy where we could just barely stop the rafts. We pulled in, looked the spot over and decided that it would make a good camp. A tributary river intersected with the Alsek River at this point, and there was a small, flat bench safely above the river where we could set up our tents. Next to where we tied up the rafts was a nice beach with plenty of driftwood for our campfire.
The only worry we had was the enormous talus slope that fanned out just downstream of our camp. Geologists define talus as a pile of rocks that accumulate at the base of a cliff. The rocks fall off and collect at a critical angle, known as the angle of repose. The debris pile sits at a precarious state of equilibrium, and is subject to disturbance from earthquakes or landslides.
Rocks on a talus slope are sharp, poorly sorted, and subject to movement when disturbed. We knew better than to try to hike on or below the talus slope and selected the safest location for our camp-just upstream of the rocks. Even then, a few odd boulders sat in our kitchen, a remnant of some previous earthquake or landslide. We realized there was some risk, but decided that the location was so dramatic and the view so stunning that we would chance it and make the best of it.
In this spirit, we utilized these assorted rocks as tables for our gin and tonic bar for the traditional “Alive below the rapids” celebration. We set up our tents outside the danger zone. We had never camped there before, and from what we could see, no one else had ever camped there before either. We felt like true explorers and tried to think up a name for this new camp. A lively discussion ensued, but we could not agree on a name. The party continued into the prolonged twilight; we were filled with the exuberance that comes from being in a powerful spot in the wilderness, and the group gelled as we shared stories around the campfire. I always feel more alive after I’ve taken a risk and come out unscathed to tell the story.
I not only survived the rapids, I survived our “G and T” celebration. I had breakfast duty the next day and woke up early. I poked my head outside my tent and saw that a few others were awake. I spied an unusual creature ambling towards us and I instantly realized that this was a wolverine. I called out, “Wolverine!” to the others who were within earshot, and we watched the wolverine head towards us, oblivious to our presence. The wolverine looked up and noticed us, and then hopped one way, then hopped the other way, as if it was deciding what to do. It obviously didn’t want to enter our camp, but it didn’t seem to want to return along the river where it had come from either. In an instant, it turned and ran straight up the talus slope. What would have been exceedingly dangerous and difficult for even the most physically fit in our group appeared easy for the wolverine. In less than two minutes, it was a thousand feet above us and disappeared out of sight.
We named the camp “Wolverine Camp.”
More recently, I had the honor of escorting Dr. Edgar Mitchell, one of a select group of American astronauts who had walked on the surface of the moon, to a banquet during the American Bald Eagle Festival. Steve Kroschel had invited Dr. Mitchell to Haines as part of a film project, and Dr. Mitchell was the featured speaker. To round out the program, Steve had brought Banff, one of his wolverines, for a live presentation after dinner.
Our waitress eased up to our table, leaned over and asked me if I had ordered the halibut or the prime rib. I noticed an extremely offensive smell. At first, I thought it was her breath.
I felt I had a duty to inform her that she needed to brush her teeth if she was going to serve all these guests. As a professional guide, I consider myself an ambassador for Haines. What kind of impression were we going to make if our waitresses had stinky breath? Then I remembered that day driving in the Yukon when I had seen and smelled a wolverine. I realized that Steve and Banff, the after-dinner entertainment, were waiting only a few feet away in the back room. Banff must have been stressed by the crowd and the unfamiliar surroundings, and expressed his displeasure by activating his scent glands!
The scent soon dissipated, and I was able to enjoy my grilled halibut and Caesar salad.
December Special- Looking for a Holiday Gift?
November, 2016 marked the one year anniversary of the publication of my book, Where Eagles Gather, the Story of the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Haines, Alaska. Reviews have been extremely positive and sales have been strong. The book was awarded the Bronze medal for West Coast Non-Fiction at the Independent Book Publishers Awards. To celebrate the award and the first year anniversary, I am offering free shipping in the USA via Priority Mail until December 15th. Please click on the link below to take advantage of this offer.
I was out canoeing in the Bald Eagle Preserve the other day and came upon this bald eagle along the river. It looks like it is smiling. Do bald eagles smile? I think that most biologists would claim that they don’t. Their behaviors are explained in terms of instinct and primordial desires. But I couldn’t help to think that maybe this bald eagle was smiling.
I mean, there has been a lot to smile about here in the Chilkat Valley. When I took the photo, we were at the tail end of almost three weeks of sunny weather in October. This is unheard of, since October is normally one of the rainiest months in Southeast Alaska. In addition, the chum salmon run is particularly strong this year, so there is plentiful food for the eagles. And the eagle numbers are up, too.
Could it be that this eagle was smiling because it was a nice day, there was plenty to eat, and there was lots of company around to share in the joy of the day?
I live with in the heart of the Bald Eagle Preserve with my wife, two daughters and our dog, Lettie, on the shores of Mosquito Lake. The lake began to freeze during the October stretch of clear, cold weather. Trumpeter swans arrived in droves as a stopover on their southern migration. The peak count this year from our deck was 142 swans!
This is quite a sight, and even more, the sound of the swans is something to experience. Large numbers of Canada Geese joined the swans and added to the soundscape. At night, the swans and geese are mostly quiet, with an occasional honk or trumpet blast. The most arresting sound at night is the call of the great horned owl. October was also a great month for Northern Lights viewing this year (see the photo from my previous post).
The lake froze unevenly, and the ice-free sections where the swans land and feed diminished. Soon many swans left. Those that remained were squeezed into an ever-decreasing ice-freeze zone. Some swans would come in to land, and, unable to find room in the open water, decided to land right on the ice. It is a tribute to the grace of the swan that they are able to maintain their dignity as they slide along the ice, flapping their wings to slow themselves down.
Just when the lake was about to freeze over completely, the stretch of cold weather ended with a dump of twelve inches of snow. The temperatures continued to climb into the 40s, the snow melted and the rains came back with a vengeance. We got our October weather in November! Right now, the Chilkat River is extremely high, almost to flood stage. Day after cloudy day has brought even more rain, yet eagle numbers are still strong. Mosquito Lake has thawed out completely. A few swans remain on the lake, and yesterday they were joined by a large group of mergansers.
Mergansers are fish-eating ducks, with a serrated bill that helps them catch fish as they dive. It is their diet that has kept them safe from the duck hunters. I talked with my friend, Derek, about them this morning. He told me he loves to eat fish, and he loves to hunt ducks, but he is careful not to shoot mergansers when he goes out duck hunting. He has no interest in eating a duck that tastes like fish!
The Bald Eagle Festival starts tomorrow; over 150 visitors from around the world have descended upon Haines eager to experience the gathering of bald eagles. I hope that visitors get what they are after…. whether it is to capture some memorable images of bald eagles with their cameras, or to simply stand by the river in awe and soak up the tremendous natural beauty. I hope that they also gain an appreciation and understanding of the fragility and uniqueness of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. And if they’re lucky, I hope they catch a glimpse of a smiling bald eagle…..
I photographed this magnificent brown bear in April along the Taiya River in Skagway. He strolled along the river, picking up spawned-out eulachon, a type of smelt. If you look closely at the nose of this bear, you will see that there are porcupine quills embedded in its nose
It’s a worn-out myth that porcupine throw their quills, but I never really gave it much thought. Once I saw these quills in this bear’s snout, I decided to do some research. How do porcupine protect themselves; how do quills get embedded in a dog’s snout, or, in this case, a brown bear?
I figured it was a fairly passive defense mechanism and assumed that an animal tries to seize a porcupine, the quills fall off and stick into the attacker. So I did some scholarly research- went to the new “go to” source of info….Google….and found a series on Youtube…..porcupine vs. snake, porcupine vs. lion, porcupine vs. leopard and watched the porcupine vs. grizzly bear.
The bear seems curious, and does not attack the porcupine; he just approaches and sniffs around. The porcupine turns around so that its rear-end faces the bear. The bear sniffs again. Quick as a bucking bronco the porcupine kicks up its rear leg and tail, driving the quills into the bear’s nose. The bear scurries off and the porcupine ambles on its way.
I’ve watched porcupines in the wild and have never seen one move quickly.
One of my best porcupinal memories is the time I was sleeping outside in the beachgrass in front of my Mud Bay cabin. I was sound asleep in the early June morning, and something woke me up. I looked up and right in front on me, nose to nose, was a porcupine. I’m not sure who was more startled, me or her, but she ran off and I soon fell back asleep. I woke up a few hours later and wondered if I’d dreamed it. (did I dream I saw a porcupine, or am I porcupine who dreamed I was me?)
The sounds that porcupine make reminds me of the translation of their Spanish name, “Puerco espino” or spiny pig. I used to hear them in the fall during mating season. They sound like little pigs grunting and squealing at night.
One time, a porcupine came to my cabin at Mud Bay dragging its hind legs behind it. Something had attacked it, and I’m sure it wouldn’t survive the summer. Perhaps it was a fisher, a member of the weasel family. The fisher is adept at flipping the porcupine over and attacking the unprotected belly. (I looked, but there was no “porcupine vs. fisher” in the You Tube series. Maybe it would be too gruesome? Or maybe the whole series involves a captive porcupine and a series of zoo animals, and the guy who put together the series didn’t want to lose their star attraction!)
When I first moved to Haines in the late 1980’s, I saw porcupines regularly on my drive home. Many considered them a bit of a road hazard. Porcupine numbers have declined around Haines and they are now a rare sight. Its been years since I’ve seen one. Maybe its because more people have moved in with their dogs. Its also possible that I moved to Haines in a high point in some type of local porcupinal population cycle and that I have a skewed view of what the “normal” population level is. I should ask one of the old timers what they have noticed.
I did ask my friend, local naturalist Mario Benassi why he thinks the population of porcupine has declined. He said that porcupine have complex digestive systems that are susceptible to gut parasites. An increase in parasites might have affected their population.
I don’t think anyone has a definitive answer. Like so much else in nature; I chalk it up as another “natural history mystery.” There are no big bucks out there to study porcupine since they do not qualify as “charismatic megafauna”- like whales or bears. Nor are they a major food source- like moose or salmon. But I do remember seeing an old photograph of Tlingit Indians roasting porcupine around a fire. I heard that once you sear off the quills, porcupine are filled with fat so they sizzle up like little suckling pigs. And, of course, the quills can be used as toothpicks.
A lone fox wanders along the Chilkat Summit.
This post has three sections, first I talk about our recent trip to Sitka at the start of my book tour. Second, I share a link to an article in Canada’s National Observer about the Constantine mine. I was recently interviewed and they published several of my photographs. Finally, I continue with my story of my first trip to Alaska in 1983.
Our family book signing tour has begun and we started by boarding the ferry in Haines. Travel by ferry in Southeast Alaska can be quite pleasant. My life has changed since I first boarded that ferry to Alaska in 1983. Now, we are a family of 4; Edie, my wife and our two daughters, Stella, age 12, and Sapphire, age 4. Rather than sleep on the deck in the tent, we got a stateroom and headed off into the night towards Juneau. The ferry docked in Juneau at midnight, and we were in that state where we were half-asleep, half-awake. We could hear the announcements for the departing and boarding passengers, but it all seemed a bit like a dream. We woke up to a rainy morning and docked in Sitka.
Sitka, while only a one-night ferry journey from Haines, feels like a different world. Haines has the wide Chilkat river cutting through its heart, Sitka points out towards the ocean. Waves break on rocky islands offshore, and the harbor is packed full of ocean-going fishing boats. Another big difference between the two towns is that Sitka relishes in its Russian heritage. Sitka was formerly the capital of Russian America. It’s hard to find any trace of Russian history in Haines, as the Russians were after sea otters, and Haines is too far from the deep ocean water and doesn’t support the kelp beds where sea otters live and frolic.
To us, Sitka felt like a big city, even though there are only about 8,000 inhabitants. But that’s more than three times the size of Haines. We were struck by the surprising combination of friendliness and sophistication. I started the day with an interview with Raven radio, Sitka’s public radio station. Here is the link:
The Sitka Conservation Society sponsored my presentation about the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. An enthusiastic group showed up at the brand-new Sitka Public Library for my show. Even though there are some major differences between the two towns, we share the salmon that know no borders. Salmon are the great connectors. They connect salt water to fresh water. They connect people and places vast distances apart. They connect the ocean, the forest and the rivers. They connect the humans, Native and non-native alike, and the animals that depend on them for sustenance. Some of the salmon that spawn in Haines travel right in front of Sitka. So a threat to the salmon in Haines is a threat to Sitka.
It is rewarding to give the same presentation over and over, as I hone my message about why the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is unique and the waters upstream must be protected. I never use notes and that gives my presentations a fresh, spontaneous feel. I respond to the group and the group responds to me.
I look for analogies and contrasts that the audience can relate to. For contrast with the Sitkans, I talked about our winter in Haines, how cold it gets and the ice that forms in the river. Because it’s so close to the open ocean, Sitka rarely gets snow. While our Mosquito Lake property in Haines was still covered in snow when we left just a few short days ago, daffodils were blooming all over Sitka.
For similarities I talked about the salmon and the eagles, and how both know no boundaries and join us together.
This time, I finished with a call for action. This included a chance to sign a letter to the Alaska Legislature. The letter asks the legislature to make it easy, rather than hard, for Alaskan rivers to attain Outstanding National Resource Waters Designation, also known as Tier 3 Designation. If the Chilkat River achieves Tier 3 status, it will be very unlikely that a mine will be able to pollute the waters that the Chilkat salmon and eagles depend on. Over 20 people signed the letter and we sent them on to Juneau. Here is the link for more information.
The National Observer:
One of my goals in writing Where Eagles Gather is to raise the issue of protection of the waters of the Chilkat River watershed beyon a local, “Haines jobs vs. Haines environment” issue to a national and international level. I want citizens all over the world to see how special the Eagle Preserve is and join together to protect one of the greatest natural wildlife gathering locations on the planet.
So I was very happy when I got a phone call from Charles Mandell of Canada’s National Observer for an interview about the threat of the Constantine mine. The title says it all “Canadian mine threatens heart and soul of Alaskan Community.” Here is the link:
My first trip to Alaska, 1983… Continued:
I got off the plane in Anchorage and picked up my huge, green Kelty backpack. Right away, a guy in his early thirties with a red nose picked me up. “ My name is Carl and I’m the manager with ATA here in Anchorage. Boy am I glad you’re here. I feel terrible and I’m supposed to row the raft trip this afternoon. I’d like you to do it for me.”
He took me straight to the Eagle River and we stood in front of the rapids. They were class III rapids, nothing life-threatening; except that the water was ice-cold, I’d never run the river before, and I was unfamiliar with their equipment.
“Can you do it?” he asked.
I looked at the broiling rapids. I looked at him. If I said yes, and really messed up, I could hurt someone badly. If I said no, he may wonder why they sent me here and I could lose my job. I hesitated, and then I said, “Sure I can do it. But don’t you think it would be prudent for me to do a practice run before the guests show up?”
“That makes sense, except for the fact that I feel like crap”, he said. But let’s jump in the raft and take a run. We’ve got time before the guests show up.”
I jumped in the raft and grabbed the oars and Carl pushed the boat off into the river. Even though I had quite a bit of rafting experience in college, it was all with paddleboats. With a paddle raft, the guide yells out the commands and the passengers power the boat through the water. Pulling on oars was a completely different animal. I hadn’t rowed an oar boat in a river before in my life!
The current grabbed the boat and we started down the river. Right away, I had problems with the oars; they stuck out so much farther than the paddles I was used to. They kept hitting the rocks and getting pulled out of my hands. But I was determined to show Carl what I could do, and every time I dropped an oar I picked it up and pulled for my life.
I hit practically every rock in the river, careened through the rapids, filled the boat with water, and then hit some slack water. Carl was soaked. He bailed out the boat, and I pulled the boat to shore.
We had to hurry back upstream to pick up the clients. Carl sneezed, looked up and said, “I’ll row them down this time, and you can ride in the raft.”
The trip went without a hitch and Carl guided the boat through the rapids with ease. We got in the car to go back to the guide house and Carl was quiet. I didn’t know what to say, so we rode back with a bit of unease in the air. We pulled up to the house and there was a white van parked in the driveway.
A man with dark eyes and a dark beard got out of the van. Carl said, “Joe, this is the owner of Alaska Travel Adventures, Bob Dindinger.”
I couldn’t believe it. Here it was my first day on the job and I was face-to-face with the owner of the company. With my performance on the river, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Carl and Bob went into a back room and began talking quietly. I wasn’t sure what the plan was for the next day and waited for someone to tell me what was going on. I couldn’t make out what they were saying and they talked for hours. It got later and later and still nothing happened so I looked for a place to fall asleep.
Around 8pm Bob and Carl came out of their meeting. “We have a problem with our operation in Denali. We have a “semi-permanent camp” set up with wall tents, and the Park Service just told us that this type of camp is not allowed and we must dismantle everything and switch to backpacking tents and stoves. We have to do this before our next trip and we have clients coming in the day after tomorrow.”
“So all the backpacking style tents and cook gear have to be delivered to Denali ASAP. All the gear is in the white van parked out front. We need someone to drive it to Denali and we think you are the man for the job. We’re on a tight budget. We are going to give you a daily wage of $50. We want you to leave at midnight so tomorrow will be your first day on the job. You will deliver the gear and then you will work in Denali as a backpacking guide. Do you want the job?”
I gave it some thought. After my performance on the river today, I realize that I need some more practice before I can guide clients down the river. I’m not sure if Carl is in the mood to train a new guide. He needs someone who can row right away. Besides, I’m in Alaska for the adventure. Backpacking guide in Denali?
“I’ll take the job.”
(To Be Continued)