Friday, August 28, 2020

Frontier Justice

In the early 1970s, the Palmer game warden, Fred Smith, occupied the corner office two doors down from where I was stationed as an Alaska Department of Fish and Game game biologist.  Well past retirement age with fleeting eyesight and a receding gray hairline, Fred still made as many cases as the best of them.  

The reason: people identified with this friendly grandfatherly gentleman.  Fred didn't have to sneak through dense willow thickets to pounce on poachers.  Everyday citizens, fed up with seeing someone else steal their moose or salmon dinner, simply reported violations to Fred.  He excelled at being a kind old man telling stories about the good old days.  The public reciprocated with modern day versions.  

My opportunity to assist Fred came the night I registered for a mid-winter watercolor painting class.  Returning home that frigid night on the winding remote (at that time) Matanuska Valley roads, a parked car seemed out-of-place.  Strange, I thought, so slowed to read its license plate number.  The notion that something didn't seem right gnawed at me until back home, I turned around and drove back.

The car had disappeared.  Instead I found blood in the road.  Armed with a flashlight, my boots squeaking in the cold, I followed a trail of crimson flecked snow to a steaming moose gut pile.   Back home I dialed Fred.  

Fred said he would check on the license number.  A few minutes later my phone rang.  It was Fred.  Rumor had it the owner of the car whom I shall call "Robert" was a moose poacher who sold the meat to the poor.  Fred still hadn't been able to make a case against this supposed modern-day Robin Hood.  He said Robert would be at the Pioneer Cafe the next morning.  I should meet him there.

At 7:30 AM, sure enough, I found Fred standing in the Pioneer Cafe parking lot next to the drab weathered sedan I had seen the previous evening.  The key to the trunk remained fixed in place, obviously ready for quick action.  Fred twisted the key.  The trunk popped open to reveal a blood-stained interior and moose hair, not the typical trunk used to transport suitcases to the airport.  Fred directed me to collect a blood sample on a microscope slide and close the lid saying he'd be right back.  I complied then dashed inside not wanting to miss the action.

Inside the Pioneer Cafe Fred found a tall angular man clad in Army surplus "bunny boots" wearing a grease-stained parka right where he knew he'd find him, sitting at a counter stool in front of a plateful of bacon and eggs.  

Fred approached Robert and with a friendly smile, simply said, "When you're done, come on over to my office," and left.  That was all.  That's sure not how they do it on TV, I thought to myself.

Fred and I went back to our respective Fish and Game offices and waited.  It didn't take long before I saw Robert slouch past my door.  I listened intently.

"You never know when your friends are going to rat on you," I heard Fred say.

"Who told you?," a panicked Robert replied.  "Who was it?"

Of course Fred was only making up a story, but that sounded like a confession to me. 

After more unsuccessful pleading from Robert about how Fred knew,  I heard Fred state, "we need to go get the meat, it would be unlawful to leave it where it was."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  "Unlawful."  Since when did that bother Robert?  However, he fell for Fred's bluff and with that the two of them got up and Robert led Fred to the evidence -- the evidence Fred needed to make his case, a case for which Robert spent six months in jail. 

Today I muse at the chances.  My love of art led me down that road.  I had been disappointed that all we did was register for the watercolor painting class, receive our materials list and an announcement the class would begin the following week.  Feeling let down, I drove home hours earlier than expected that evening.  Later, when class would normally have ended, Robert would have vanished and, at best, I might have seen blood on the snow-covered pavement. 

Otherwise, a flock of ravens, maybe a pair of eagles at the top of a cottonwood tree would have alerted us that another moose had been poached.  Why didn't we ever catch these guys?  Chances -- chances and a bit of bluff from a kind old man broke the familiar pattern leading, for once, to frontier justice.

        Dance of the Aspens  9 x 12 inches  Alkyd on Canvas  Private Collection

Other than a whimsical watercolor card, this is the only painting I have which includes a moose,  Thus, wanting a moose painting for this post, it'll have to do.  I started Dance of the Aspens as a plein air piece in the Yukon.  There I was drawn to the aspens battered by wind and snow to take on every manner of twisted shapes.  I didn't complete the painting that day, so brought it home to finish in my studio.  As for the moose, she's an add on from a photo Karen took in a similar area Fred would have patrolled although, given his poor eyesight, probably never would have seen.  In fact, neither did I.  But, Karen did.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Lead Astray

Summer made it.  At last.  Every weather service on the internet forecasted three days of golden sun-filled or at least sort of sun-filled skies to beam down on southeast Alaska before rain returned.  Obviously a long overdue explore somewhere around our island had to be on the agenda.  

We selected a seldom-traveled loop with the plan only lacking a written description.  But, this is Petersburg on 17-miles long by almost 10 miles-wide (at the point where it looks like it consumed too many of Karen's chocolate chip cookies) Mitkof Island.  Here, getting lost would require dense fog and a blindfolded driver.

So, Karen packed a lunch, laid out 1/8 bag of lime-scented tortilla chips (the few broken survivors from — was it just the day before) and, naturally…..went outside to see if she could entice Ms Squirrel to take peanuts from her lap.  What else does one do when they’re on the verge of setting off on an epic adventure?

Ah well, sun remained in the forecast for two more days and peanut butter and margarine sandwiches would taste delicious whether consumed with a squirrel in your lap or when we’re “lost” in a remote forested part of our island.
                  Step one:  Lure her close to Karen with peanuts 
                             "Oh Hi.  I'm just looking for peanuts."
"Karen, you are really tempting me."  Notice the jealous, but more wary Steller's jay, Gregory Peck, who just couldn't bring himself to take the risk.

Poor Gregory Peck was losing a feather and couldn't bring himself to risk darting onto Karen's lap for a peanut.
                              Meanwhile back in Karen's lap.

                             "Would you take my picture?"
           "Better yet, how about showing me how to use this camera?"
Alas, Karen finally ran out of peanuts and Ms Squirrel realized she was being watched.  Feeling camera shy with no more incentive to remain in Karen's lap, she scampered into the forest.  

Post script:  Alas, we never made our epic drive.  Exciting activities like manicuring our lawn -- I'm mowing around the buttercups in deference to the rights of insects so it (lawn) looks not-just-a-little sketchy, battling the invasion of migrating rogue salmonberry bushes, and attending a birthday party for a friend who lives (and is) 1200 miles away (I wonder who ate his piece of cake?) -- stuff like that kept us grounded in town until....the sun departed in a thunderstorm that made the Washington Mall 4th of July fireworks show pale in comparison.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Getting Squirrelly

It began with a beat up, not-quite antique bread box — yet another one of Karen’s multitude of Salvation Army Thrift Store “eureka discoveries.”  She lugged it home.

“Don, could you convert this into a squirrel feeder?”  

      Karen finds red squirrels, in fact any rodents for that matter, irresistible.

Karen has been feeding birds, and consequently red squirrels, on our deck for years with constant revisions to the theme.  This, she hoped, would be her finest addition even though it lacked one thing -- any semblance of esthetics. 

And so Karen's dream languished for several years until one day a strange phenomenon struck.  My motivation to make it real.  I’m not sure what sparked my action but I’m guessing it was her 147th “suggestion.”  

The wide ledge outside our kitchen nook where we had meals, made the perfect setting — OK, it’s just a board, but the bread box fit on it.  Soon, with it's only semi-attractive feature, the door, removed, so she could push it against the window, I divided the bread box into two floors, drilled holes at each end, spruced it up with a paint job and viola, we had our own version of a National Geographic TV show directly in front of our kitchen table.  

With zero sense of appreciation for all the free handouts, Ms squirrel scolds Karen for daring to intrude on her deck.

The almost daily routine — dump a couple of handfuls of peanuts in the feeder and watch the action.  Often it involved territorial disputes between warring red squirrels or invasions by Steller’s jays and crows who would warily stretch their necks as far as they could into the box to snatch a peanut.

                    Madam squirrel contemplates reorganizing her feeder.

  "Guess it's OK.  Don't mean to complain but it's not a great construction job."

Thus began the spring of 2020.  A sweet lass of a red squirrel, one of the babies from last year (there’s alway a new family every spring) frequented the bread box feeder.  Karen, as she does every spring, filled various containers on our deck with dog hair for nesting squirrels or birds.  Sure enough this squirrel started packing it off — probably enough to make a pair of socks for every Petersburg resident willing to don a pair of socks knitted by a squirrel.  

Karen even baked cookies in exchange for dog hair from willing dog owners.  Note to dog owners who supplied hair but did not receive cookies: Remind Karen she owes you because I always steal some when she’s not looking.  We also noticed prominent nipples on her belly (the squirrel, not Karen), a sure sign she had a family secreted somewhere nearby.

                                "Sure glad they brushed Molly today."

"Cause when Karen runs out of dog hair she has to dig into her yarn collection to find a substitute."

Eventually we spotted two babies (squirrels, not humans) chasing one another around a nearby tree.  As the days wore on mama squirrel seemed to want to get away from her new brood more and more.

        The babies -- about the only time red squirrels tolerate one another.

Then, one day — she did.  Instead of the bread box feeder being empty, it had accumulated more peanuts than Karen put in it.  A lot more.  And grass.  And sunflower seeds from other bird feeders.  And dog hair.  Our feeder had morphed into a squirrel cache.

                        Oh oh, things have changed in the feeder.

                                   At least she's being neat.

Initially Ms squirrel meticulously filled her larder, carefully placing each item, sometimes even rearranging the nuts and often sweeping the floor of the feeder with her feet.  She even separated highly treasured walnuts from the peanuts in a different corner of the feeder — now storage unit.  Eventually she filled the first level completely.  Time to tackle the second floor.

                                    Guess I'll start in this corner.

As the second floor filled tidiness gave way, at least in our eyes, to clutter.  With no room on the floor to sweep, she stopped.  Peanuts overflowed the second floor through a space between the feeder and our kitchen window.  And they now combined with clumps of dog hair, grass, and wet sunflower seeds that looked like — no, I’d better not say.  Suffice to say you won’t see it on the cover of a gourmet cooking magazine.

Karen finds it considerably less than appetizing as we sit down for dinner and desperately wants to clean up mama squirrel’s cache.  Then I remind her that squirrels have a different set of values than she does (not so much her husband) and if we want to see nature in action this winter (do peanuts, dog hair and sunflower seeds count as nature?) — well, we should be patient.

I'm not sure why Karen doesn't want to look at this piece of abstract art while she eats.  Maybe it's because we can't clean the outside window in front of it so she gets a better view?  Yeah, that's it.

It is now impossible for mama squirrel to add more peanuts without the overflowing additions providing morsels for crows and jays.  So Karen constructed a barrier of chunks of bark to block the entrance while providing a hole for mama squirrel to sneak through.  It works — if you don’t factor in the new “alarm clock” Karen created.  You see, every morning at first light (remember we’re at a northern latitude where that’s about 10 minutes after we went to bed) one jay has decided it is going to peck, and peck, and peck (did I mention peck?) down that barrier.  And this entire contraption is right below our bedroom window.  And I’m a light sleeper.  And that peck sounds more like the jay has evolved into a pileated woodpecker drilling a hole into a hollow log.

         Gregory Peck, the Steller's jay who wakes me up at dawns early light.

However, since this is the year where we’re going “nutty” being grounded by the coronavirus, we should be thankful for a squirrel that is providing us with this distraction.  Not so much the jay.  

I sure hope Karen bakes some more of those thank you for the dog hair cookies.

Guess we'd better leave you with an endearing image of a red squirrel instead of a jay or soggy peanuts.  So here's the next generation learning to climb a tree.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Karen's Best Photos of 2019

Listening to the news as 2019 dipped towards the horizon we were inundated with the “best ofs.”  The best songs, the best cat videos, the best political blunders — if someone could think of a category, it had a best list.  If I really want to dive into the subject, I could emerge with a list of best excuses for not keeping up with our blog during the past year.  The problem is, it would get rather repetitious.  That’s the area that reigns at the top of the list where I excel at recycling.

But now it’s our turn to join the parade.  Karen has taken a bunch of thousands of photos Since January 1st, 2019 and only deleted a bunch of hundreds.  Of these, we have many hundreds of favorites.  The challenge for our last blog of the year is Karen’s best photos of 2019 in 10 images.  Now, in reviewing the preliminary selection of 137 photos all deserving top prize, perhaps we should add two words to the description:  Some of.  And we’ve upped the ante to 12 plus added one of my own — of my favorite photographer.

Happy New Year.  Can’t wait to see her photo contributions for 2020.

Karen snapped this image of a pink (humpback) salmon trying to navigate a rapids during extremely low water this past August.  Obviously it was checking for any rocks that might be in the way up ahead.

2019 marked the first year Karen encountered common yellowthroats and then it seemed they seemed to be (as their name suggests) common.

Speaking of common, a seemingly ubiquitous bird, the song sparrow has become one of Karen's favorites with more than 12 images all deserving top honors in her best of list.

Karen also had enough intertidal images to more than fill most photographers best of list, but she picked this one because if you look closely there is a barnacle to the left of the blue mussels that has it's feet out.  I mean, look really closely.  I tended to notice the pattern of the mussels.

Another category with which she could have stuffed the ballot bot is trumpeter swans like these two beauties coming in for a landing in Washington's Skagit River Valley.  Oh, for another week there because...

The swans were in the minority those early November days, where maybe 40 to 50 thousand snow geese kind of captured ones attention, especially when they all took off and flew directly overhead.  Oh my, I just lowered my camera that day and stared in awe.

I primed Karen with verbal images of how much she would enjoy a drive over Lolo Pass as she crossed the border from Montana into Idaho.  So, it rained.  One thing about Karen, she can find a good photo subject under the most unappealing circumstances.

Let's see, have I shown any song sparrow images yet?  

Or snow geese freshly arrived from the Arctic, perhaps Siberia or Alaska.

The reason Karen was where this humpback whale was diving is because she was off to look for rocks on a favorite beach.  That's Alaska for you.

Two probably common merganser chicks -- such simplistic beauty -- unless you're a juvenile salmonid.

What's wrong with this image?  The white-breasted nuthatch photographed in Iowa is right-side up.  They always seem to be upside down, "hopping" down a tree trunk, but, not this time. 

That completes Karen's top 10 list for 2019.  We want to leave you wanting more, not less.

Happy New Year.

Oh, by the way, here are two bonus shots, one of the photographer and one of the editor.

The photographer and a fan club in Viola, Idaho.

The editor being investigated.