MOOSE AND 3/4 MOON

 

February 28, 2017

 

 

After getting one snow storm after another, finally, in late February, we got a major break in the weather.  I have taken advantage of the abundance of snow and gorgeous weather to get out on my nordic skis for the first time in 3 years.  On Tuesday, February 28, I skied the Nike Loop and the Pyramid trail several times.  The Nike Loop travels in close proximity to Eagle River High School.  It includes a leg that crosses a broad open area adjacent to the football field and a section of forest that includes a 9 hole Frisbee golf course.  The entire loop is groomed for both traditional and skate skiing, and is lit at night.  The Pyramid Loop is a spur through the forest that accesses a loop in a meadow.  It is not groomed or illuminated.

 

I was on the lookout for Rosie, or any other moose that might be out and about.

 

 

 

Figure 1 Looking east on the Pyramid Loop

 

 

As I made my way through the forested sections of the Nike Loop, I was seeing moose trails intersecting the ski trail here and there, but no moose.   I also discovered several areas where all the snow had been flattened around the base of a black spruce tree in close proximity to the trail.  They sure looked like possible moose “beds”.

 

 

Figure 2 Eagle River High School with Chugach Mountains in background

 

 

There was one other skier on the trail prior to my arrival.  He was a very accomplished skate skier.  I enjoyed watching him whiz by me (which he did multiple times).  On a flat groomed surface a good skate skier can cover ground at 3 or 4 times the rate that an old diagonal stride guy like me can.  After my first transit of the Pyramid Loop he was gone, his vehicle not visible in the parking lot.  Several other vehicles were parked there, and there were people walking dogs, as well as a family of four skiing, and a lone fellow who was striding a wee bit faster than me.

 

 

 

Figure 3 Looking southeast at Hiland Mountain and Mount Gordon Lyon

 

 

I had wanted to stay out there long enough to ski under the lights, but this was my first time on skis since my January, 2016 hip replacement surgery, so I called it a night after my second circuit.  Even though I didn’t find Rosie or any other moose, I was excited that I was able to ski about as well as I had on my “original equipment”.  I had caught some low angle sunlight photo opps as the sun was setting.  Even in late February, the sun was already staying up until after 6:00 p.m. and it was just hanging on the horizon for the last half hour to an hour of daylight.  All in all, it had been a great outing.

 

 

 

March 5, 2017

 

 

On this Sunday evening, I got a later start on my skiing because I had been watching conference tournament basketball.  My beloved University of Alaska Anchorage women’s basketball team had beaten Western Washington to take the Great Northern Athletic Conference crown.  With no conference losses and only one non-conference loss (to a Division I team), they are the Number 2 ranked Division II team in the nation, and will host the Western Region portion of the NCAA tournament this coming weekend!

 

With that later start, I knew I would have an opportunity to ski under the lights, even though they were just coming on as I started skiing the Upper Vista trail.  This is another network of groomed and illuminated ski trails to the north of the high school.  Besides the Upper Vista trail, there is also the Lower Vista trail and the Mile-Hi trail.  Just like the trails on the other side of the high school, I had walked these trails on a very nice day in mid to late October.

 

 

 

Figure 4 Looking north from Upper Vista trail out over the campground

 

 

 

After a quick jaunt on the winding portion of the Upper Vista trail, I found myself at a junction where a steep open slope descends to the vicinity of a campground that is closed in winter, and the Lower Vista trail starts its gradual descent off to the left.  The next photo, which has had a fair amount of post-processing to bring out certain highlights, will show what was visible when I zoomed in.

 

 

 

Figure 5 Denali 150-200 miles away on the right

 

 

I could see those mountains quite clearly, but for some unknown reason, my smartphone camera, which normally takes really great photos, had trouble picking up those distant peaks.  I had trouble with many other photos taken that evening, and the one factor common to all was that they were taken in fairly cold temperatures, around 10 or 11F.  For those curious, that is Mt. Foraker on the left.  At 17,400 feet above sea level, Foraker is the second highest peak in the Alaska Range, and the third highest in the United States.  Mt. Hunter is the “puny peak” in the middle, only 14,573 feet high.  Having stood on the summit of numerous Colorado 14ers, I can say that this mountain, while considerably lower than Denali and Hunter, is one tough cookie.  The first documented ascent of Mt. Hunter did not occur until 1954!

 

After taking those photos, I skied down part of the Lower Vista trail, which turns into the Mile-Hi trail.  There is a hill on that trail steep enough that I elected to leave the groomed track and take the skate surface, so I would have the ability to slow my descent if necessary.  My surgeon had told me “no more bump skiing/no more black trails” at downhill areas, so I am a bit cautious about getting up too much speed until I get more post-surgery experience under my belt.

 

 

 

Figure 6 View uphill from bottom of Lower Vista and Mile-Hi trails

 

 

Believe it or not, there are two lights that are already shining in this photo but for some reason, they didn’t show up very bright in this photo.  They are both in the distance.  The closer of the two is on the left third of the photo above where you can see a trail disappear into the distance.  The other light is just left of the center of the photo, halfway between the snow and the top of the forest.  These lights seem to take a while to warm up, and that might explain why they don’t show up very well until after they have been on a while.

 

 

 

Figure 7 Heading south up the Lower Vista trail

 

 

This photo was taken about 5 minutes later.  Note the half moon in the sky.  On February 28, there was a slight crescent moon, but it was so high in the sky I could not get it into any of the photos.  I took the trail to the left, which takes you along the ridge that is visible at the left side of the first two photos posted above for this evening.  When I walked that part of the trail in October, I found two large piles of bear scat, both so full of berry bits that it almost looked like someone dumped jars of preserves on the trail!

 

 

 

Figure 8 Looking south to high school from north end of Upper Vista trail

 

 

This photo was taken on my return from down the ridge.  I had taken the first two photos from a spot about 30 or 40 feet behind where I was standing when I took this photo.  I had skied over there to see if people had been skiing or tubing down that hill.  I knew from my walk in October that it is a very steep hillside.  Sure enough, there was plenty of evidence of several descents that were likely done by tubing or walking, and at least one, possibly more ski descents.  It would definitely be a black trail at a downhill area!

 

Part of the Upper Vista trail undulates through the forest on the left in the photo above.  Beyond that forest, off to the left, is part of the subdivision we live in that was carved out of the forest.  Off to the right, through the trees a ways is the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, a prison for women.  In October, while I was walking the S-curve trail through the trees on the left, I felt like I was being watched, and stopped at a spot where the trail came close to the big wide open area.  I was thinking black bear, possibly grizzly, and started looking around the immediate area, including the trees above me.  After not finding any critters, I started searching at a greater distance.  That’s when I saw a cow moose in an open corridor that heads toward the prison.  She was looking at me from a fair distance away, probably 75-100 yards, maybe farther.

 

On this jaunt, I was looking for Rosie, but didn’t see her.  For all I know, she could have been out there, watching me through the trees somewhere along my route, wondering “what is that fool doing out here”.  I don’t think this network of trails gets anywhere near the use that those on the other side of the high school see.  I had the entire area to myself that evening, and the trail did not look very well used.  Just like on the other network, I did see evidence of some critter, probably a moose, having made its own trails through the snow, along with a few “beds” beneath spruce trees.

 

 

 

March 8, 2017

 

 

The amazing clear sky weather continues.  It’s been at least a week and a half, probably more like two weeks, and the seven day forecast is calling for more of the same, but with the temperatures starting to warm up a bit over the next several days.  That will put the daytime highs dangerously close to 32F.  Knowing that, I decided to get out on my skis again this afternoon, in spite of the fact that there was a fair breeze blowing.  The forecast was calling for 10-15 mph winds.  With a temperature around 22 or 23F, that kind of breeze can be chilling.

 

It didn’t take long to experience one of the down sides of the wind, beyond the wind chill.  Those set tracks were accumulating forest debris, particularly spruce cones.  Moving out of what shelter the trees offered was bittersweet.  The track was clear of debris, but it was filling up with windblown snow.  Also, the wind could have its way with you.  It didn’t bother me too much until I reached the Pyramid Loop, and started to make a 90 degree turn.  As I was executing the turn, I spotted a rather large object about 30 or 40 feet away.  It was a cow moose, looking very pregnant!  If I continued on the Pyramid trail, it would take me within 10 or 12 feet of the moose, so I elected to stay put.  I quickly doffed my gloves, so I could get some photos.  That’s when the wind started impacting me in a serious way.

 

I couldn’t tell for certain if it was Rosie, but there is a good chance it was her.  Having heard from a friend of mine who just completed a surgical residency rotation in Anchorage, about a patient who had been stomped by a moose, I was reticent to get any closer.

 

 

 

Figure 9 Cow moose sampling some tree branches

 

 

My first photo was taken while she was more visible, right near the trail clearance.  Unfortunately, she was moving her head and neck to feed on some branches, and the image is real blurry.  I took 3 or 4 photos while she was feeding and slowly moving toward the wide open spaces off to the right.  Having my ungloved hands out in that wind took its toll.  Eventually, I put the phone away, and put the gloves back on.  Since the moose was gradually moving closer to the open space where the trail is groomed, I decided to put more distance between us.  Once I skied east a ways, the moose came out of the trees, and started heading north across the open space between the football field and the trees where the Frisbee golf course resides.  I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to get some moose profile shots, albeit at a fair distance.

 

 

 

Figure 10 “You lookin’ at me?”

 

 

 

Figure 11 Moose in mid-stride; ski trail at left

 

 

I found myself wishing I had brought one of my cameras along, particularly my Coolpix, which has a real powerful zoom, but with two outings recently, both without a moose sighting, I left it at home.  The smartphone does a decent job on landscapes.  Once the moose had moved well north, I backtracked to the Pyramid trail and headed down to the large meadow below.  Where I had gotten some photos without benefit of a moon 9 days ago, today, I had a ¾ moon in a position where I could include it in some photos of the meadow, the trail, and the Chugach Mountains in the background.  My hands were still way cold from the extended exposure to the wind, but I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.

 

 

 

Figure 12 View east from where Pyramid trail intersects the loop

 

 

I took a few photos at this spot, then quickly put the camera away, vowing not to do any more photography.  My fingers were on the verge of frostbite.

 

Unfortunately, when I got further down the meadow, I came to a more photogenic spot.  I just couldn’t resist the urge, so off came the gloves again.

 

 

Figure 13 Was thinking about the Iditarod as I shot this

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 14 Zoomed out

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 15 Something approximating 50 mm

 

 

 

I got to thinking about the mushers running the Iditarod, which was in its third day today.  They are out in much colder conditions, and quite possibly windy as well.  I see them on news feeds on TV with their gloves off as they take care of their dogs at the checkpoints, and wonder how they do it.  I’m not sure I have what it takes to be an endurance musher.  I don’t think I would make a very good moose either!

 

I hope to be out on my skis several more times before the weather gets so warm that the trails start getting trashed.  I might have another opportunity to photograph the mom to be.  I know that Rosie has come through the neighborhood several times since that flurry of activity back in January.  She leaves telltale tracks as she revisits all the places where she found food.  I saw her one evening over a month ago, when a vehicle ahead of me suddenly braked.  It was at night, and once I started looking around to see what the driver had reacted to, I spotted Rosie heading for the road, crossing from the forest by the prison, and heading toward where I saw her today.  My hope is to see Rosie with a calf or two come May or June.  If I do, I will do my best to get quality photos with my good camera, and post them on this blog.

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