Springtime in the Muskeg

“Muskeg” is what Alaskans call a bog, and we have a lot of it – covering more than 10% of southeast Alaska.  Clay or bedrock prevents an area from draining, and decomposing vegetation builds up and forms peat – a gigantic acidic sponge that holds water, covered by a top layer of sphagnum moss.  The moss can hold 15 to 30 times its weight in water – impressive stuff!  If you build a house in Petersburg you have to put it on pilings to keep it from sinking into the muskeg, which can be as much as 20′ deep!Because of the acidic mossy soil, trees (such as these shore pines) are stunted and twisted.  It seems like an inhospitable place, but there are many wildflowers that love the environment such as buckbean, labrador tea, and my favorite – the bog kalmia.Spring also brings the roundleaf sundew to the muskeg – a carnivorous plant.  It’s pretty tiny and can be hard to spot, but if you look closely in the photograph you’ll see the little droplets on the ends of its “mouths”.We’ve gotten out to hike a few times this spring, and I particularly like trails that switch between muskeg and forest.Notice the yellow flowers on the side of the trail boards?  They’re another spring arrival – skunk cabbage.  Their leaves will grow quite tall and large over the summer, unfolding from a tight center.The plant starts out with a large yellow blossom – something deer like to snack on….…and it seems to prefer wetter low-lying areas, creating a bright splash of color against the deep green of the forest.Skunk cabbage is sort-of edible, but it will cause raging diarrhea.  Normally this is not a good thing unless you’re a bear that has just awakened from hibernation – then it’s pretty useful to help “wake up” the digestive system!

Spring also means that the forest’s ferns are unfolding, and the coiled up leaves are called fern fiddles which can be harvested and sauteed or pickled.  I just like to photograph them.No walk in the woods would be complete without a nod to my favorite lichen – fairy barf.  I love the way it looks, and the name is just perfect as I imagine tiny little forest nymphs suffering from too much partying.

Shakedown Cruise

The days are getting nice and long – we have over 16 hours of daylight now (still increasing by about 5 minutes per day), and folks in town are feeling pretty perky!  The many gardeners are happily digging in the dirt, and piles of soil and fertilizer and peat are vanishing from the hardware store.  Spring also means band concerts and the annual spring dance recital.  These performances are guaranteed to put a smile on your face as all the hard work and hours of practice come to fruition.  The bands have improved so much since the holiday concerts, and the students are happy to show off their new skills.  The dancers – aged 3 to 18 – delighted and dazzled us for over 2 hours!

We love our community and friends here but we’re cruisers at heart, and cruisers need to cruise.It has been a long winter tied to the dock, and there’s no better sound than the engines firing up to take us out for some adventures.  No matter how many systems we check ahead of time, nothing beats a good shakedown cruise to make sure everything is in good working order.  It’s much easier to make repairs at our home dock than it is to do it in some remote spot.

We were blessed with three glorious days of perfect weather for a little trip to the aptly named Ideal Cove, about 16 nm from town.  We waved at the Steller sea lions that love to drape themselves all over the buoys – groaning and napping and playing King of the Mountain.We didn’t see any whales on our way there, but we did see some nice bergy bits from the nearby Le Conte Glacier.In addition to stunning views of the Coastal Mountains from the cove……another attraction is the crabbing!Jim put his pots out and got 22 keepers over two days.  Of course, all that “free” food requires quite a lot of work to clean, cook, and pick.  The result was about 15 cups of picked crab, and the secret is to freeze it in milk.  When you want to use it, just let the milk drain away but don’t rinse the crab meat. 

While Jim was crabbing I was kayaking, and managed to get closer to some of the creatures we had been watching from the boat.  I found one of the river otters eating something under a big rock……and I’m happy to report that the black bears we saw were all healthy looking, even a little rolly-polly.Eagles, mergansers, buffleheads, bonaparte gulls, teeter-tails, and sandpipers kept us company, along with an occasional visit from a harbor seal.  It was a perfect way to test the boat’s systems (and stock the freezer), and to re-learn the different pace of life away from town.The boat ran well – we only had to replace a salt water washdown pump (which we suspected was wonky), and I had to dive under the boat and clean off the depth sounders.  Now it’s time to fill up the fuel tanks and cast off the lines for the summer!

Oh Deer, and Birds!

Winter has given way to spring.  We still have a little snow and ice on shady trails, and once in a while the overnight temps dip below freezing.  Still, I’ve thinned out the selection of woolly hats and gloves, keeping just what we need for cold windy rides in the dinghy or visiting glaciers through the summer.  Easter was a beautiful day, making it nice for children to hunt for eggs outside.  Of course, the ravens are also wise to Easter egg hunting, and they enjoy stealing as many as they can before the little ones get to them.

Many of the spring flowers that have emerged are showing signs of nibbling by the deer.  In fact, the deer are still hanging around town a bit.  I guess the snow hasn’t melted enough at higher elevations, but it’s time for them to move on.My friend Karen has a particular soft spot for all living things.  She puts out seed for little birds like the siskins, and even the neighbor’s chickens come over for a snack.We’ve been immersed in boat projects this spring, including replacing all the sanitation hose in the boat (46′ of it!), plus valves and a few other things.  The sanitation hose project was pretty disruptive, but dear friends Karen and Don invited us to stay at their house while we worked on the messy project so we could relax in the evenings.  We ended up having a blast with our friends, especially watching the deer come out of the woods every morning.  Sometimes 6 or 7 come out of the woods (including fawns), and occasionally they look in the windows. We’ve still got a lot of other projects going on – there’s plenty of chaos, but the call of the cruising season is strong and we’re really looking forward to casting off the lines and getting out – that keeps us motivated.

Other signs of spring are around, and on one pretty day I took a drive out the road to get a last look at the trumpeter swans before they migrate north for the summer.  As luck would have it, they were halfway between the Swan Observatory and the fish hatchery, but I did get to see a pair of them at a distance.  The slough was still partially frozen, so the rest of them might be closer to the salt water where it’s easier to feed.The snow has mostly melted off the muskeg, though a few tiny ponds still have some ice on them.  The long-tailed ducks have all left and the loons are starting to change to their pretty summer plumage.Speaking of migrating birds, the town of Cordova, AK has a migratory bird festival every May, and their local yarn shop is sponsoring a project to collect hand-crafted birds from all over the world to display during the festival.  Birds can be serious or whimsical, and it will be fun to see all the contributions once the festival begins in about two weeks.  I sent them two birds – one is a funny knitted “Peters-Bird” with a Norwegian sweater and Viking helmet, and the other is a needle-felted Atlantic Puffin that I made when we were in Nova Scotia.At the moment the town is anxiously awaiting the sandhill crane migration – they should be flying overhead any day now, and the radio station has promised to announce any sightings.  In the meantime the annual flamingo fundraiser has begun, with flocks appearing in people’s yards.It’s a $10 donation to have someone “flocked” for a day, and the “flock-ee” is encouraged to make another $10 donation to get the flock removed.  You can buy anti-flock insurance for a $15 donation, and all the proceeds go to our local animal shelter.

The Big Melt

We were really beginning to wonder if winter would ever leave us!  Admittedly, I enjoyed more chances to go snow shoeing this season… …there’s such great terrain behind the airport, and as you climb higher the views just get better and better.  I even happened to catch the afternoon jet taking off in front of Petersburg Mountain.On the other hand, the constant snow dumps and occasional warm-ish days resulted in 4-5″ of solid ice on the roads, and sidewalks were completely impassible.  The town is pretty good about spreading small gravel and grit on the ice for traction, and we were careful to wear our ice cleats most of the time.  Everyone looked like little old ladies, walking with tiny mincing steps, and we accidentally walked right by friends since we all had our heads down, watching where we put our feet.

But still… the snow is pretty, and the lengthening daylight has perked up people’s moods.  It’s nice to see the sun set closer to dinnertime, and I like the changing angle of the setting sun.I’ve been watching the birds in the harbor carefully since March is the time when some of our winter residents start to migrate farther north, and we begin to see some transients and summer residents start to arrive.  The long tailed ducks won’t be here much longer, and the males have been getting a little frisky.

I’ve been watching ravens tearing up sisal mats on the fishing boats, flying off with big clumps of material for their nests.  And this particular pair of surf scoters look like they’re in love – can you see the heart shape on the back of one’s head?Fortunately the temps have started to warm up – goodbye winter (we hope!), and now the snow and ice are melting pretty quickly.  I suspect we’ll see some of the big snow piles hanging around for a few weeks, but we can walk on bare pavement once again… bringing a mess home with all the little gravel bits that get stuck in our boot treads.  Spring means that it’s time to get working on the boat projects in earnest, and I got things rolling with some inside varnish work.Next up is a big job to pull new control cables for both engines, and then replacing all the sanitation hoses and valves.  Fun times!  But the days are getting a lot longer, we’re shedding layers of clothing and we’re hoping to see some things start to sprout soon.  The deer have been wandering all over town looking for things to eat – all the snow has been hard on them.