Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Presents of Our Presence

United States Fish and Wildlife's mission is "working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people."  As volunteers, we have the honorable opportunity to provide the public incentive to travel along the continuum of wildlife management from having little or no knowledge about ecology and conservation to taking action to help preserve habitat and wildlife for the future.

In this short time, we have touched the lives of hundreds of folks who have passed through the visitor's center either on their way in or out of Alaska.  The Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge Visitor's Center is located 9 miles northwest of the Canadian border on one of only two roads in or out of Alaska.  Not all of these interactions have been strictly for our the USFW mission as sometimes we provide tourist information, as well. Often we learn more from the visitors than they learn from us.  Many are here  from Germany and Canada, but we've also met people from the United states,  Norway, Finland, Argentina, Brazil, the Ivory Coast, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.  They travel in a variety of forms, including cars, trucks, motorcycles, RV's, bicycles and on foot.

Sometimes our guests view a 12 minute movie about Tetlin Wildlife Refuge, Native American culture and the state of Alaska. We make them coffee or tea and sell them maps, beading kits, chocolate bars or books. Many complain about the Yukon roads and praise the fact that Alaska roads are paved, have shoulders, and are in good condition.  They welcome knowledge about gaining an hour of time back and the lack of Alaskan sales tax.

About a third of our visitors stop in as they are leaving Alaska.  They stop because they came in via the other route, through Dawson City via the Top of The World highway; or they flew into Anchorage, rented an RV, and stop in as they head down to Canada to tour.   We considered driving back to Canada via the Top of the World highway but have heard so many stories of narrow winding roads without guard rails, loose construction gravel causing flat tires and flipped RVs, that we decided to make the trip a day trip in the Jeep with the dogs.

The highlight of our positions is talking to guests from all over the world who tell us how they ended up in Alaska, what animals they've seen during their travels, and the stories that brought them to Alaska.  We share stories, suggestions, and dreams although we'll probably never see one another again.  Some stay for a few minutes and some stay for over an hour.  The experience so far has restored both of our faith's in mankind and has made us realize that there really are a lot of great people in this world and that we all have our own little stories and our own little dreams and commonalities.

The other day Joy was on the back deck when a couple came walking out holding hands.  They told her they were saying goodbye to Alaska after nine years and heading for a new job in North Carolina.  They stood quietly looking over the valley, knowing that it was most likely their last view of Alaska and wanting to engrave it deep into their memories.  Joy almost cried with them as the turned toward their car and drove off.

Our biggest blessing is we are allowed to be flies on the wall during some peoples' happiest moments.  The other night after hours we were walking the dogs and heading toward the deck.  A U-haul truck followed by an SUV pulled into the the parking area.  A woman and a small child got out of the SUV and a man jumped out of the U-haul excitedly, yelling to his wife, "We made it, we're in Alaska!" Then he grabbed the little girl, swung her in the air and asked her how it felt to be in Alaska.  "It feels good!" she responded.

We approached and said hello and welcomed them to Tetlin.  The puppies both welcomed the little girl with licks and sniffs as she petted them. We asked where they were from and where they were headed.  They reported they had driven from Delaware and would be stationed in Anchorage, another days' drive away. At one point, the little girl announced that she was going to go catch the wasp and say hello to it and that she'd be right back.  He mother quickly stopped her as we all laughed.  As Kathy and I headed to the deck, we caught a glimpse of the couple hug and kiss - obviously sharing a wonderful moment of great joy.  We were privileged to share in that moment as our hearts sang with theirs. All this - and it was only our first week!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Welcome to Tetlin, part 2

After meeting the couple we were replacing, as well as the two park rangers who are Athabascan Native Americans, we were back on the road to drive 83 more miles west to the refuge headquarters in Tok. The road is paved, although there are areas of damage due to frost heaves. It’s a beautiful drive. We arrived at HQ and parked in the RV spot at the end of a row of cabins used by seasonal employees and volunteers. 

Although the site has access to power and sewer, the placement of both made it rather difficult to decide where to park. We knew we had to buy a power cord extension for the site at the visitor’s center so we parked close to the power outlet and didn’t immediately worry about being close to the dump access. The HQ maintains a really nice bunkhouse, which includes a living area with wi-fi and satellite TV, a kitchen, 2 refrigerators, and a washer and dryer. It also has a large enclosed porch area and provides 3-4 mountain bikes for staff and volunteers to use as needed.

The next morning, we shopped for and found the extension cord at, of all places, the Three Bears grocery store. We moved the RV to the other side of the sewer pipe so we could dump and used our new extension cord to reach the power outlet. During the move, we pulled up alongside the building and filled our fresh water tank. Later in the day, a second large RV arrived. We assumed it belonged to the other volunteer couple who would be hosting the refuge campground at Deadman Lake.

Patty and Ward are from Florida and are veteran public land volunteers. They have two dogs both mixed breed and both 13 years old. Next to arrive was Les, the summer maintenance assistant. He is from Arlington, VA and had volunteered at the refuge back in 1986. He travels alone so he stays in one of the cabins. He was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam but doesn’t fly anymore. It was July 2nd and after hours so several scientists and other employees that live in the cabins milled about and we introduced ourselves. We found the showers and the laundry facilities so we were set.

We went out to dinner at Fast Eddies Restaurant for pizza and were delighted to find that both the food and service were great. We ran into Gail and Bill, the couple we were replacing, and their partners Cliff and Nancy, who would be replaced by Ward and Patty. They invited us to join them at the Alaska music show across the parking lot. Sure enough, Alaskan Sweetgrass was an acoustic trio including two of the refuge’s seasonal employees, brother and sister Huck and Jordan. Huck plays banjo, Jordan plays the fiddle and they are joined by a local songwriter/musician on guitar. The group entertained us with tales about the building of Alaska and the AlCan highway, as well as jokes, poetry and blue grass and folk music. It was very entertaining and a wonderful welcome to Alaska. We highly recommend the show, which occurs every night of the summer for 90 days straight in Tok.

The next morning we walked the dogs down a wonderful path recently completed behind the headquarters. Low bush cranberries were abundant but only a few appeared to be ripe. We now know that they won't be ripe until the fall.  Frances, of course, found the squirrels and Keila just wanted to sniff around because snowshoe hares were playing hide and go seek with her.  We met Kay Lynn, the volunteer coordinator that Kathy had been pen paling with for several months.

We headed to town and shopped for groceries, the extension cord, a sewer hose extension, and mosquito repellent.  We found everything we needed at the local grocery store, Three Bears Outpost, but decided not to buy the sewer hose just yet.  We decided to be tourists at one shop in town because we had heard of a 5 lb gold nugget at the Jack Wade Gold and Gift Shop.  We were friendly and inquisitive enough to get an invitation to visit her house to learn more about diamond willow.  We each held the 24 kt lump of expensive mineral..  We finished the day with a short bike ride in what is a very bike friendly town, Tok.

On July 4th, we skipped the parade and other festivities in town in order to drive back out to the center to spend more time with the Bill and Gail.  We stopped at the refuge pull outs and read the interpretive signs to help prepare ourselves, discussing our questions for the current volunteers.  Bill and Gail were enthusiastic, energetic, and welcoming although not entirely ready to leave. They had a wonderful summer, learned a lot and had a lot to share with us.  Bill took us on an interpretive hike down a trail behind the visitor center to a pair of old trappers cabins.  They were even more interesting and intriguing than Joy had imagined after reading about them in the literature Kay Lynn had provided.  Joy suggested we ask if we could help inventory the cabins' contents since they had never been emptied.

After more research, we discovered that the next big project the refuge was working on was cleaning out the cabins and rebuilding the roofs, making them safer so visitors can go inside them.  Joy offered to use her metal detector on the dirt floors to see if there are any other treasures hiding beneath their feet and the refuge director told her to go for it. Kathy learned about the sprinkler system for the grass roof, the generator, how to fix broken sinks and some of the store activities.

On Sunday we washed the Jeep and the RVs by hand and brush. It took most of the day to remove the "Yukon gold" and the 4000+ miles of bugs we'd collected. We used dryer sheets to remove the bugs and, with a little extra elbow grease, worked like a charm. We cleaned the inside too before realizing it was going to rain. We re-read some of our materials, jotted down a few questions and waited for the night to pass so we could anxiously begin our new lives as paid volunteers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Welcome to Tetlin!"

Leaving Haines seemed somehow sad.  It was the longest time we had spent in one place since leaving Houston (3 nights) and we had had such a wonderful time and feel like we made such a great connection with Drake that passing the airport on the way out of town made us gloomy – just like the weather.

By the time we arrived at the Canadian border (again) it was sprinkling. A female inspection officer came out of the building after running our license plates and asked the usual questions. This time when Kathy reported we had pepper spray with us, the she asked to see it. She decided it was concealable and that we could not bring it in to Canada.  We had the options of turning around and leaving back in the US, or voluntarily surrendering it to her for destruction.  Kathy filled out the proper forms and we were back on the road. Right after the Canadian crossing, the road began a “slight” incline - a “slight” incline that lasted for at least 15 miles. Soon we were near the Wrangell and St. Elias mountain ranges.  Snow was within hiking distance which meant the temperatures were much colder now.  We thought that the roads weren't as bad as people had warned us they would be and we figured we had missed the worst ones because we had avoided Whitehorse by cutting west to Skagway. When we got to the juncture of Highway 1 again, at Haines Junction, we realized we just hadn’t gotten to the bad parts yet!

We saw very few trucks or RVs and even fewer cars that day.  The road was lonely and desolate as we came upon Kluane Lake .  It looked like fog was hanging over part of the lake but as we neared we realized it was dust blowing in very strong winds along the top of the water from the sandy, shallow end of the lake.
Like most lakes we’d encountered so far, Kluane Lake is huge!

You arrive near the south edge and turn left following the edge around and across an area where the lake bed is exposed.  This is where the winds blow the glacial flour across the top of the water and it looks like a sand storm in the Sahara – over a lake.  As you round another corner, the interpretative center sits near a roadside turn-out which is where we stopped to walk the dogs.  Joy wanted to take them down to the waters’ edge but the shores were gray rock looking ready for a landslide.  We drove fifteen more miles and found a provincial park right on the shore of the lake and decided to camp there for the night.

Like most of the Canadian parks and recreation sites that we’d camped at, this was beautiful, clean and well maintained.  The Canadian parks provide free fire wood and that’s always a plus.  This park had 60 sites but we counted only 39 accessible because the park was closed to tent campers due to increased bear activity. We had been told that there had been an increase in brown bear (grizzly) activity in this area and had kept our eyes peeled for one the entire drive without success.

We chose site #1 one tucked back in the woods with a view of the lake. After we parked, a young German woman asked us for change so that she could pay the $12 instead of $15 for her site.  Canadian parks are paid by leaving money in an envelope and drop box.  We initially thought we didn't have any Canadian change to pay the $2 (Kathy had a $10 Canadian bill on her) but we then remembered that we had several loonies ($1 Canadian coins) in the front of the RV.  Kathy took the 5 loonies over to the German couple’s site and gave them 2 loonies asking nothing in exchange – figuring she still had 3 loonies left to pay for our site.  Somehow, she ended up a loonie short and had to use 4 U.S. quarters to pay $1 of our $12 fee.  We still have no idea what happened to the other loonies and think we’ll find them at some point in the oddest place.

After setting up, we walked down to the lake.  The wind was blowing pretty good and the lake actually looked more like an ocean, with waves and white foam, than a lake.  It was also pretty darn cold! The view was extraordinary!  Standing on the rocky beach, you could turn in around in a circle and see mountains that surrounded you for 360 degrees.  It was the most beautiful place Kathy has ever stood and it brought her to tears.

For Joy, it was a rock hound's delight! She’s discovering that she’s a closeted geologist and while Kathy keeps her eye to the sky for mountains, Joy keeps hers to the ground for rocks (and gold.)  We built our version of a Native American rock sculpture, as did several visitors before us, and then walked along the beach looking for agates. Joy reminisced about a childhood trip to Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota and agate hunting with her mom. We returned to our site, ate dinner and built a fire.

Kathy had a wonderful roaring fire in no time so we decided to make S’mores.  I was leery with bear activity and marshmallows and chocolate but we cooked quickly and enjoyed the fruits of our labor.  We were exhausted from the drive so we went to bed early. Frances was ready to play at her usual 5 AM and we decided to get an early start on the road so we were off by 8 AM.

The road led to Destruction Bay, a town that was named during the building of the Alaska Highway for all of the equipment it destroyed during construction.  Let it be known that it continues to live up to its name as it has some of the worst roads we’ve ever driven on.  Apparently, the US definition of the word “paved” and the Yukon definition of the word “paved” differ quite significantly.  Not only were the roads not paved for several miles, they were gravel with a washboard base which shook the RV to its very core, even at 20 mph. Kathy kept looking up at the new flat screen TV that was installed this past summer and hoped that wouldn’t fall on Joy’s head!

When we finally arrived at the actual “road construction,” we had to wait in line for a pilot truck to lead us beside the shoulders they were working on.  Yes – the shoulders, not the frickin’ roads! We are still trying to figure out how to get back down to the lower 48 without driving that section of the Yukon again.  Kathy keeps picturing a helicopter with the RV and Jeep dangling underneath as it flies back to Kluane Lake! When we neared the end of construction we were almost at the Canadian border.  Kathy swore that once we crossed border we would be driving on blacktop again and threatened to stop the RV, get out, and kiss it.

Entering Alaska USA was a quick meeting with a friendly smiling border patrol agent who simply asked about any fruits and vegetables.  We had purposely not stocked any but did tell a small white lie as we said “no” and then remembered we had two plums in the fridge.

About 9 miles after the checkpoint we rolled upon the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center, the place we would call home for the next 2 months.  Although we were driving another 83 miles to the refuge headquarters, we decided to stop in and take a look around.  We also knew that our future boss, Kay Lynn, might be at the center.  

The building is almost as spectacular as the view from its deck.  It’s a huge cabin built in the trapper cabin style only much larger and with a much nicer and larger food cache (not used for food.)  We walked in the front door and heard a cheerful voice say, “Welcome to Tetlin.”

Friday, July 4, 2014

Flying Drake

It won't happen often that we post a blog specifically about one event but this one deserved a special entry. The other day when Kathy wandered into Drake's hangar, she left just knowing she had to fly with him. Kathy recently became a licensed private pilot after a year and half of studying and preparation.  She was encouraged by one of her instructors to seek out her seaplane endorsement during our time in Alaska.  She called a pilot her instructor told her about but he didn't have any connections.  She was disappointed.

Kathy's affinity for flying influenced our path to Alaska.  We drove by/to airports in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, British Columbia, and Wyoming and now Haines, AK.  In Haines, Kathy wandered into an open hangar that, unbeknownst to her at the time, belonged to pilot Drake Olson, of the Nat Geo TV series Alaska Wing Men.  Kathy had watched the show, along with others about flying in Alaska, as she was studying for her pilot's exam.  Drake was actually her favorite pilot on the show and she had done some research on him at that time and discovered that he was a former race car driver.  She had know idea where he was based at the time and never even thought about looking him once our plans for Alaska were finalized. It was pure ironic fate that brought her into his hangar that day and absolutely luck that he was actually there and not flying.

She immediately recognized him as they talked although she couldn't recall his name.  Drake told her that he was not an instructor but after talking for a bit he agreed to take her up and show her what he knew about flying in the mountains at a reduced rate.  The weather was rainy and far from being what she considered "good flying weather," at least by Texas standards, so they agreed to keep in touch to see if the weather and Drake's schedule would work out.

When Kathy returned to the Jeep, she said, "You are not going to believe who that is??!!" and proceeded to tell Joy about the TV show, etc.  We left the airport with Kathy grinning ear to ear and checking and re-checking her weather apps.

Later that afternoon, as we were sitting at  Mountain Market in Haines enjoying coffee, Drake called and said that they would shoot for the next morning or afternoon, as he thought the weather would clear a little and his schedule was relatively open.  We agreed to stay an extra day so Kathy could fly.

The next morning, Drake called and said we'd try to fly at 2:30 and asked about the other person traveling with me.  Once he learned of Joy, he invited her to join them as he explained it would be once in a lifetime opportunity to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  We thought the invitation was sweet and Joy agreed to join in.

We arrived early, of course.  Drake's 14-yr old daughter informed us he was picking up someone in Juneau but should land shortly.  As we watched a coyote jog up and down the runway, Drake landed his Cessna 220 with his passengers.  They appreciated the trip so much they provided him a "delicacy" of pork rinds from Mexico.  Drake had one in his mouth as the passengers departed.  As soon as they were out of sight, he spit the remnants onto the Tarmac.  "Yuk! That's disgusting, pig skins or pig ears!"  We laughed at him and would later watch a raven clean up the mess - which was even more disgusting.

"So how's the weather looking?  Here's a chart, figure out where we're going," instructed Drake as he handed Kathy a sectional while he wolfed down salad from a wooden bowl.  Kathy noticed the chart was out of date and that there was a lot of brown on the map, which indicated elevation.  It was nothing like her Houston sectional which was covered in green.

Drake and Kathy talked planes while Joy spoke with Drake's daughter who was helping out in the hangar and studying for her learner's permit. In a few minutes, Drake was pushing his plane with skis on it onto the tarmac.  We climbed in and the engine warmed as we taxied.  Drake called in a flight plan for Glacier Bay and we were off climbing and soaring towards the nearby mountain peaks and Rainbow Glacier.  Drake and Kathy discussed temperature changes per 1000 ft of elevation and Joy snapped picture after picture.  Drake began pointing out Rocky Mountain sheep which were just small white spots on an otherwise huge green or brown mountain.


We neared the Davidson Glacier, one of the largest in Alaska.  Joy asked how quickly it was disappearing and Drake reported that although it's been disappearing since the Paleolithic era but most recent measurements show it's losing 3-4 ft a year due to accelerated climate warming. Joy found this number saddening.  The glacier is a blue-green streak which appears as though it's sliding down the mountain in slow motion.  We flew along its edge and felt as though we could simply reach out and touch its craggy edges. Near the top, crisp white snow covered the ice.  Drake turned the plane and followed the lines of the basin as he began to lower the ski gear by hand. He had indicated that he'd hoped to land on the glacier if the weather held out.  The soft white cloud we watched as we came up the mountain began to turn an ominous gray.  Drake banked away to another passage and began to reel the skis back in.  No glacier landing today thanks to poor visibility over the landing zone.  So close!

The flight back meant more sheep and even bald eagles whose heads were even smaller white dots along the side of the mountains.  We saw dozens of them sitting in their aeries as the Chilkat River lead us back to the airport and on to the ground.

After flying, Drake was gracious enough to take a break and we sat in the hangar visiting for nearly an hour. We chatted about flying, the economy, Alaska, business, women, perfect turns, and living choices.  We thoroughly enjoyed the conversation as much as we enjoyed the flight.  Drake is the real deal - an authentic adventure aviator with a passion for flying and freedom.  We hope to stay in touch with him and Kathy is hoping to get back down that way to fly with him in his newly purchased Super Cub.