April 2016

I’ve decided to title these monthly posts with the name of the previous month. It makes more sense this way.

The unusually warm winter has translated into an unusually early spring. 100 thawing degree-days were accumulated just after mid-April, just shy of the known record, which was in 1940. The Nenana Ice Classic ended on April 23, also close to the record (April 20). And it could have been earlier, even, but there was some cold air moving around in the AK Interior during the month. It even snowed a few cm. Break-up has been slow and unspectacular, though there was a warning and some flooding from an ice jam in Eagle. I don’t think the ice is already out further downstream on the Yukon River. To be watched.

Green-up was officially (as per NWS) April 26 in Fairbanks, and probably something like the 27th or 28th out here in Two Rivers. I traveled back from Boston on the 27th, and saw leaves at night, and the next day they were clearly out. Here are two pictures of the green-hued landscape along Farmer’s Loop, and of birch trees on the UAF campus, on Thursday, April 28.


Of course it is tempting to go full-out on the garden now, but it will freeze again. We’re still getting night frosts after all, but the sun now warms the soil quite strongly. Melinda has been keeping records about when fish (Arctic grayling) appear in various sloughs and locations along Chena Hot Springs Road, and she’s seen them around April 28-29 in the past. This year they aren’t there yet,  as of April 30.

While I was traveling back, I saw quite pronounced algae bloom along the shallow water of the edges of Lake Michigan, from the plane:


The strawberries, after getting through the winter, had some slight issues with the ice sheets that formed during the thawing-and-freezing cycles in April. I removed the straw from the beds (asparagus, too, as well as the perennials) in the hope to  get rid of it quickly. I think they mainly survived. Yesterday (April 30) I planted beets, spinach, and garlic (from Plant Kingdom). I’ll add the other garlic, from Great Northern Garlic, which I failed to plant last year before the winter. The cloves look rather poorly, though. I must have stored them too warm – it’s hard to store something through the winter that should be stored cool but not freezing. Maybe with a longer, cooler spring we might get some spinach to develop before it bolts. I think I’ll rather quickly add peas, and some greens (tatsoi, slow-developing mache / corn salad / lamb’s lettuce). These are partly last year’s seeds, but my experience with viability have been rather good.

The garden patch behind the house is free of snow now, but still pretty compacted. It’s already overgrowing with weeds, though, in small beginnings. Also we’re seeing the first fireweed shoots. I’ll wait a little before trying to work the soil there. I also have last year’s two community garden plots again.

In the perennial bed, the four Bergenias look fine and are already putting on new leaves, and I can see two other plants with some green to their leaves. I’ll let them wake up and report again.

Last, some notes on fiber activities. I got my first raw fleece. There were two sources: A shepherd via the Raw Wool FB group (Lawson farm, Shenendoah, VA) and locally from Megan at Frigid Farms. I paid very little (the FB wool was 2 pounds at $5/pound, and I paid Megan $15 altogether for the three bags full below, as most of her stuff has a lot of chaff in it this time around). I now have quite a variety of raw wool, from a free 100g sample from Megan’s natural black Merino ram to the Lawson Scottish Blackface, which is wonderfully clean, coarse wool … and I see a good bit of kemp in it. The white is a Rambouillet cross, and nice and soft. The black (which isn’t the Merino!) is on the coarse side with a beautiful long staple, and I’m afraid it may have some dandruff or scurf (but it combs out, and, well, free wool…). The grey seems to have a rise and occasional weak spots. but using a dog brush on individual locks has a lovely result. TBC. It’ll take all summer to work my way through it.


[1] I’m finding few really good and clear explanations of thawing degree-days online, but the concept isn’t hard. A degree-day is basically a day times a degree (usually Celsius, but for this people seem to be using Fahrenheit here!), and you count only degrees above or below some threshold you’re interested in. For thawing degree days, you start at a date (Jan 1), and then for each day where the daily average temperature is above freezing, you add the number of degrees it exceeds the freezing points. So you can get to 100 thawing degree-days either by 100 days that are 1° above freezing, or 10 days that are 10° above freezing, or any combination that adds up to 100.

March 2016

I’ve never been a great record-keeper, but even the little bits I’ve written down from the  five years I’ve spent here in Interior Alaska have been surprisingly useful. Maybe this format will work. We’ll see.

It’s been an extraordinary warm winter, “most unusual” according to the team at the AK Weather and Climate Blog “Deep Cold”. Here’s their temperature plot:


And March wasn’t any colder. AK Climate Info (on FB) just published a chart that showed that 89 out of the first 100 days of 2016 were “above normal” in Fairbanks. It’s even higher in Southcentral AK.

We haven’t had a single day below -40 ° (C or F). The reason is mostly that this is a strong El Niño year, so we received forecasts of a mild winter back in the late summer 2015. The polar vortex is weak, so the Eastern US have received extra snow, and are on the cooler side. I’ve been taking a class on climate and climate change with particular emphasis on the Arctic since then, which has really made me more confident understanding and having my own level of confidence in forecasts. Anyhow, here’s a gobal map from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (who run the weather service here, plus quite a bit of great research):


We’re not just seeing the patterns typical for El Niño (warm tropical eastern Pacific), but also a lot of warmth in western Eurasia, for reasons I haven’t been paying attention to as I’m trying to chronicle what’s going on here. Snow meltout (or ice breakup) is in full swing right now and will be early. Richard James at “Deep Cold” has a good article on meltout days, and how they haven’t actually become earlier even though it’s become warmer (sometimes it’s about air temperatures, sometimes about sun light…). Anyhow, anything before April 15 or so is very early.

I saw the first ducks (or maybe geese) in Fairbanks in the last week of March, flying over Creamer’s Field. Then definitely geese over Farmer’s Loop in the first week of April, and now geese are everywhere on Creamer’s field.

Today I investigated the raised beds in the garden, The big question is: has the asparagus that we planted last year survived the winter? I would have liked to cover it with more soil, but in the end only got a big layer of straw on top. That bed looks pretty good. The strawberry bed does have apparently surviving strawberries, which hasn’t happened the last few years! These are Pioneer (I believe, from the Plant Kingdom nursery), which I planted relatively late, and which only emitted many many runners.

April 10, 2016. Snow going fast. Asparagus bed to the left, strawberries to the right.

The best-looking plants were under the window, in an improvised cold frame. But some of the Ft. Laramie also seem to be alive still, at the far end of the bed. The third raised bed looks pretty good, and the soil is thawed to about 5-7 cm (2-3″). There’s still snow on the potato patch and anyhow, it’ll take time to dry out. No sense in planting in there before the canonical time in late May.

The garlic I ordered last year from Great Northern Garlic didn’t get into the ground in time. Last year, so many things happened too fast — and suddenly the ground was frozen already. Some people have successfully planted garlic in the spring (even when bought  in the previous autumn), but this one looks pretty sad. I’ll plop it in as soon as possible, but without much hope. Some of last year’s potatoes also didn’t get eaten and might still be viable to plant as seed potatoes. We’ll see.

Other than that, we need to get planning. Melinda wants green beans and more peas than last time. (We got some, but it wasn’t a great year for peas for some reason.) I am thinking of what I can plant between the strawberries, which are in the bed I had garlic in last time, and currently cover irregular patches.


The melting-and-refreezing cycles have left the straw very soggy, with some ice sheet forming, which can’t be good for the plants, so I took it off and how it’ll thaw out. But it snowed as late as last week, and we’ll certainly get more freezing before spring, so I’ll put it back on.

This week is also the UAF community garden meeting, and I’d like to get the two plots from last year back.

I blinked … and missed spring

First of all, good-bye Tumblr. I tried to post this on my old blog there, and the posting interface had shrunk to a Twitter-sized widget-thing. Clearly they have other plans for their product than the kind of life-journaling I have in mind for this place, however infrequently. So I’m reactivating this one.

So I pretty much missed spring this year. It happened about 2 weeks ago, unusually early. BAM, and all was green. Last week, we had temperatures in the high 20 °C (above 80 °F). But despite the summer-feel, we’re still just seeing the first blooms, which is always a special time.

Calypso bulbosa, the fairy slipper orchid, right outside our house: These are some of the earliest widflowers, and easy to miss. They’re also very tiny (7 cm/3 in or thereabouts).
All four Bergenia specimens I planted last year have made it through the winter, and this one is flowering. (I don’t know which species this is.)

The last post here is nearly a year old. At that point I didn’t know yet that last summer would be the wettest since records have been kept in interior Alaska (that is, in approx. 100 years). It was wet. Constant torrential rain. Where in previous years we couldn’t keep up with watering, this time the brassicas all directly bolted, squashes drowned, and whatever needed pollination pretty much failed. (Except blueberries. I was able to go out with my friend Jodi Bailey to one of her patches and get  15+ l of blueberries, something like 4 gallon-sized containers full). No lowbush cranberries to speak of where we live!

But the garden wasn’t a complete failure. Peas were good, and so were leafy greens. Potatoes (“All Blue” from Ebbesons’ Farm – now sadly retired from active farming) were my best harvest ever, and very tasty (about 22 pounds, give or take). And carrots. We got carrots, from the community plot at UAF.


At the end of the season, I built a raised bed and planted garlic. It overwintered there. I’m extremely curious to see if it’ll come up this year. 3-20140914_092955

So, a winter that was mild with a severe, long Januar cold snap later, and we’re taking stock and preparing for the new season. I’ve been very busy with my research work (passed the “comprehensive exam” in April, and have an accepted PhD project proposal, yay! but also a timeline, argh!), so plans have to be fitted in efficiently. I didn’t start any seeds indoors this time, and only put an old seed tray and last year’s seed packets out in front of the house, now that it has warmed up. What will come up will come up, but otherwise I bought starts, or bartered them from friends. Of course, potatoes and peas are the must-plant vegetables. Here’s the plot behind the house as of the long holiday weekend, when everyone here is planting:

Left: potatoes (purple fingerling/Borman’s farm; German Butterball from my friend Stacy; a small batch each of Magic Molly and California White). Middle: all peas, with some radishes, beets and turnips in the middle of the row; Right: assorted brassicas and chard. We also have lettuce, green leafy stuff, strawberries, and the garlic (hopefully) in raised beds.
The honeyberry bushes I planted two summers ago are growing, and two out of the three are flowering! One is a pollinator for the other two, but I forgot which is which. I doubt we’ll get many berries yet, but nonetheless this is nice.

Out of the other bushes and perennials I planted last year, strangely enough, it’s both Highbush Cranberry bushes that have died over the winter. Apparently thawing followed by a cold snap is much much worse for plants than continuous severe frost. It’s a different species (Viburnum trilobum) than the ones that natively grow here, but still surprising. The Amur Maple looks straggly, but is making leaves.

More perennials for the cold and dark bed in front of the house. From the botanical garden’s plant sale. Oh, and some Thai basil for the kitchen.

So far so good. In June, we’ll receive a shipment of asparagus crowns. Until then, we’ll need to get a raised bed built.

[1] Importing the Tumblr posts into WordPress.com took maybe 3 min. Kudos WordPress team.

Phone camera wildflower impressions: Snow Arnica (Schneearnika, Arnica griscomii subsp. frigida), Arctic/Pink Wintergreen (Wintergrün, Pyrola asarifolia), Labrador Tea (Grönländischer Porst, Rhododendron groenlandicum), Bog-star or Northern Grass-of-Parnassus (Sumpf-Herzblatt, Parnassia palustris), Prickly Rose (NAdel-Rose, Rosa acicularis), Dwarf Dogwood or Bunchberry (Kanadischer Hartriegel, Cornus canadensis). Plant names, English, Deutsch or Latin are best guesses.

Garden tonight: raised bed 1 – leafy greens, radishes, beets, carrots; raised bed 2 – brassicas, lettuce, chard, summer squash; 10 containers of mixed brassicas; little cold bed – sugar snap peas, lamb’s lettuce, spinach; back patch – snap peas, turnips, potatoes. The radishes are nearly ready to pick, and the leaves taste lovely. The greens bed has lamb’s lettuce (Feldsalat), mixed leaf lettuce, arugula/rocket (Rucola/Rauke), spinach, butter bib lettuce, and tatsoi (wow, very good). The container with the red leaves and the very end of one of the raised rows has some experimental orach (Rote Gartenmelde). The brassicas are bok choi, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts. All plants grown from seeds. 

Our bushes, planted 2012 to 2014: one crabapple (Malus fusca, wilder Apfel), 3x haskap or honeyberry (1 pollinator, 2 for fruit) (Lonicera caerulea, Blaue Heckenkirsche), one native gooseberry (Ribes oxyacanthoides, Manitoba-Stachelbeere), 2x Saskatoon Serviceberry or Juneberry (Amelanchier alnifolia, Erlenblättrige Felsenbirne), 2x Highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum, Amerikanischer Schneeball).

Baking bread

One of Melinda’s cousins sent us an automatic breadmaker as a gift – a Cuisinart model that can make up to 2 pound sized loaves. Having never baked bread from scratch before, I was intrigued. Clearly, many do, and even more clearly, there are a lot of moving parts and variables that need controlling.

This post is to note down my first two attempts. Both have turned out to be quite delicious.

Take 1: I only had King Arthur brand unbleached all-purpose flour, which the internet says is close to T55 in the French system and is what the French use to make baguette out of. Fine. Recipe used: Pain maison spécial Machine à pain from the French recipe share site 750g.com:

  • 500 g all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 270 ml water
  • a bit more than a 7g envelope of regular dry yeast

 Used the “French or Italian bread” setting (program 2), dark crust, 1.5 lbs. The result looked like this (well, other than not being blurry):


Verdict: Nice first try – definitely a white bread. Crust maybe a little dry and boring, but ok. Texture good. Not very fluffy nor very soft. OK toasted.

Take 2: The Alaska Flour Company makes and distributes locally grown barley flour, and I think it’s good to support Alaska’s little agriculture sector. I also wanted got some loose wholewheat flour from the co-op (which is mostly a health food store). This time I made a mix of recipes I saw around the interwebs and came up with this:

  • 150 g all-purpose flour
  • 150 g wholemeal wheat flour
  • 100 g barley flour
  • maybe 30 g Scottish porridge oats
  • 250 ml water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1.5 teaspoons salt
  • one and the rest of the already opened envelopes of dry yeast (maybe 10 g?)

I used the “whole grain” setting (program 3), dark crust, and made cuts into the top. Result:



It came out of the oven only a few hours ago, so I don’t know how it’s going to age, but it’s quite lovely fresh. Nutty, soft, not too crumbly. Quite happy with this one!

Cycling in Denali National Park

So I’m just back from an adventure I’ve wanted to embark on all summer: cycling the Denali Park Road in Denali National Park and Preserve. The Park Road is 92 miles long from the park entrance to the former mining claim of Kantishna, one of the rare privately owned spots in the park and a complete resort with roadhouse and tourist shuttles. The last public campground is at the mysterious Wonder Lake at mile 85. Another popular deep-in-the-park destination is the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66, set in a spectacular mountain setting. 

There way I had heard people bike the park road in the summer is this: take your bike on a shuttle bus to Wonder Lake, arrive in the late afternoon, cycle all through the night and maybe part of the next day. The ultimate solstice experience. These people have done it like this, and so had my supervisor (several times). However, you can really only do this between mid-June and mid-July – we have nights now with real darkness (and the cool-off during the night is also greater now). So I packed up a tent, sleeping bag, camping gear etc. and set off. This is what my bike looked out at the start, Saturday afternoon:

Note the bear-proof food container right behind my saddle. The backcountry desk at the park’s Wilderness Access Center provide you with one if you get a permit to camp in the backcountry. The desk is staffed by park rangers, and they are nothing short of awesome. They have a great attitude and helped me to sort out my itinerary, given I had arrived late on Saturday afternoon and wasn’t quite sure which direction I wanted to ride the road (outward is easier – the climbs are less steep and you end with a long downhill on pavement). 

The plan was this: Day 1 – ride to Sanctuary River campground (mile 22) and camp there. Day 2 – ride to Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66), visit, and camp a mile or three downhill from it in backcountry unit 34. If the ride is too long, catch a camper bus with bike rack for part of the ride. Day 3: Roll all downhill to Wonder Lake (mile 85) and catch a bus back. This isn’t quite how it worked out, but no matter. 

The road is paved for the first 15 miles, which is how far any visitor can drive in. Then until mile 31 (Teklanika rest stop) it is wide enough for two buses to pass each other. Beyond that, the larger vehicles have to let each other pass. 


The image above is from just before mile 7, when the first rain broke out. I waited it out under a spruce tree. There were wonderful blueberries in these woods and beyond… 

The road nearly everywhere very good. My touring bike was perfectly adequate, though this is maybe one of the rare cases where a hybrid with mountain bike elements/29er would be highly appropriate. I was debating putting in wider tires, and that might have been better. Anyhow, no flats.

One of the “worst” sections was this (looking back down the climb I just went up):


The dirt is still very well packed down, and it’s easy to avoid occasional washboard. Looking towards the other side:


The elevation profile is worth looking at. Nothing too bad for someone used to hilly interior Alaska, but there’s a difference riding on a highway with no/little baggage and riding on a dirt road loaded up like I was. Mostly, I was a lot slower than I expected, and yes, those climbs can become steep. I wasn’t going to be able to do them all in a day.

To get to my first stop, I rode the paved section of the road (mostly uphill) to Savage River, then a nasty rise and somewhat steep descent (in the twilight) to Sanctuary River. My campground at Sanctuary River…


… and the river itself:


The campground has only 7 places, tent-only. It is clean (like all of them) and fairly secluded. The only other party was a bunch of young men with packrafts. 

After Sanctuary, it’s a pleasant ride to Teklanika campground (water spigots available to fill your bottle), Teklanika rest stop (mile 31) and the Teklanika River:image

Then follows a section of beautiful boreal forest to Igloo Creek. And then the serious climbing begins.


I made it up to Sable Pass and a little beyond, and then an enticing green camper bus with a bike rack came by. So I flagged it down and rode to Eielson Visitor Center in comfort. 

View from Sable Pass:


The first bear appeared not long after Sable Pass, disconcertingly close to the road (none of the bear photos are going to be high quality, sorry!): 


The willows in the foreground border the road. None of the bears I saw took the slightest interest in what was going on on the road, though. (And yes, I had bear spray readily accessible and had gotten the bear safety talk from the rangers.) 

Here is an even smaller bear, this one way beyond Polychrome. Can you see him?


Same bear, zoomed out – landscape with bear dot:


And here we have a few caribou – can you see them? (This is close to Stony Overlook, already getting close to Eielson):


(They are close to the right edge of the picture.) All this is on a backdrop of alpine tundra. 

Eielson Visitor Center is in a place of extreme natural beauty. View to the south, towards the gorges below and the creeks full of glacial runoff:


Mount Eielson (just to the right of the picture above):


The sun coming out for a moment between the clouds and illuminating the tundra:


A view back towards the road we came on:


And a view up north… towards the ridge 1000 feet above, which I hiked up to camp just beyond on the plateau, out of sight in the backcountry. Access is particularly easy here as the Alpine Trail zig-zags up this mountain side to cross the ridge in the U-shaped depression at the left edge of the picture:


Also, my ride back was in one of these buses.

The weather held just until I had reached “my” ridge. Then it started raining and rained all night. It was also quite windy on the north side of the ridge. The next morning (this morning), after hiking back down the mountains side looked like this:


As for my bike…


I decided that rolling on the wet dirt road in the fog and drizzle down to Wonder Lake, only to catch a bus as soon as I arrived, wasn’t going to be all that much more fun. So I left back from Eielson on the early bus, and came home in time to dry my tent and write this post.

It was a great trip, just too short! I learnt so much about traveling, touring and camping, and will sure do it again. I also increased the number of bears I’ve seen (all grizzlies) by several hundred %. 

To finish up, some tips:

  • Travel as light as possible. Don’t take as much water as I did. A filter system (just for backup) and three bike bottles worth of storage is perfect. Teklanika campground and Eielson have 24h accessible water refill stations. I carried more than twice that. I also carried too much gas for the cooker. 
  • You’re going to be slow. Painfully slow. Touring with a full pack is VERY different from travelling lightly for an overnight solstice ride. I wasn’t surprised about the effort expended, but hardly ever rode faster than 10 mph. Seriously, it’s very slow – and the downhills on gravel with a loaded bike aren’t something I’m going to take fast either. I have no trouble doing a 40 mile evening ride in the hills around Fairbanks and think that 40 miles as a day goal on the park road is pushing it.
  • Don’t save on a mat to sleep on. It got pretty cold at night. Also, carry a variety of snack foods.
  • Maps: Get this one – it’s a good topo map and has the backcountry units marked off. Especially if you want to stay longer in the backcountry. Cyclists, print out the elevation profile, and of course pick up all the maps they have for free at the park entrance.
  • What performed well: My Kona Sutra touring bike, the Ortlieb panniers, the REI 1-person Quarter Dome tent, my new Marmot rain pants, Melinda’s JetBoil cooker. I’ll get a waterproof stuff sack for the sleeping bag and a better (and longer!) rain jacket next time.
  • The rangers at the backcountry desk will help you sort out what a good camping spot for a cyclist would be (that is, with bushes to stow your bike out of sight, not too much bushwhacking to get the required ½ mile away from the road etc.) 
  • We saw tons of bears between Sable Pass and Polychrome and even some after Toklat. Caribou up around Stony Overlook. Some moose around the park entrance.
  • The best campgrounds for tent-only, in my opinion, are Sanctuary River and Igloo Creek. Beautiful country around Igloo Creek. 
  • For doing this again, I would take at least three full days of cycling. These guys are doing it right, for fit guys, I think: Park entrance to Igloo Creek is doable in a day. Igloo Creek to Stony Overlook is … tough. I probably would camp somewhere on the rise after Toklat. Camping near Polychrome would be harder (open country or steep slopes), and it’s also very bear-rich country. Then on the last day you don’t HAVE to go all the way to Wonder Lake – the campground is bound to be packed with people who took the bus in (reserve ahead if you want to stay there) plus there are a lot of backpacking kids in the backcountry. You will have to do at least one backcountry camping night – so why not do two? Or of course be super-tough and ride all the way from Igloo Creek (the last campground before Wonder Lake) to Wonder Lake Campground, with reservation: then you can safe on the bear-safe food container, which is heavy and bulky.
  • Other than cycling, day-hikes are very well catered for, either on your own (from Igloo Creek for example) or with the ranger-led program. I wasn’t aware that they organise hikes, including shuttle bus to the starting point, every day. That would be a fun and safe way to experience the amazing park and wildlife.

Nearly August: garden update

So things have been growing, some more than others, and it’s time to take some more notes for next year. 

From an economic point of view, the Swiss chard (DE: Mangold, FR: blette – we grow the kind with the pretty yellow and red stems) just keeps giving and the zucchini plant has produced one beautiful squash with more to come. The bok choy, despite its tendency to break out in bloom, turned out to be very tasty (we’ve supplemented the small plants we got from the CSA with leaves from ours because we like a big heap of bok choy stir-fried over rice). The potato plants closest to the light are shooting up shoulder-high, wich I’m not sure is a good thing….

… but on the other hand, the snow peas are another small success, with very tasty pods just getting ready now, a week or two behind our neighbours:

I planted seeds from two varieties. “Snow bird” came up very prolific and dense but stayed small; these are producing right now. “Sugar Daddy” took longer to come up, and much less densely, but grew taller and is in flower now. I expect will also produce a meal or two of pea pods.

The single sorrel plant is a nice complement. On the flip side the carrots should have been watered more early on and thinned out. Hopefully they’ll grow a bit.

On to the brassicas. The Brussels sprouts (DE: Rosenkohl) are taking their time, and so are the kohlrabi, but something’s happening, so that’s good. The nicest progress comes from the broccoli. I had to emergency-harvest one of the six plants, which had fallen over, but the other five are just getting ready. When Melinda’s back from traveling, we’ll have a week of broccoli meals, I think:

The overflow garden is a bit hit-and-miss. What worked: Oregano, majoram, thyme, mace, and possibly the shallots. Sage is ok. Parsley and basil pretty much meh, as are the tomatoes. The leeks are also still awfully small, though I’m sure will come out edible. I’ll look into better soil next year and select the herbs more attentively. I mean, we should be able to grow parsley! Also, I miss dill. There’s a pot with some arugula I sowed late, which should be ready soon.

The peas are fun. I had a lot of left-over seeds, which sprouted in a tray during the wet early summer days and got strewn around unlikely places:

It staggers the harvest.

The CSA has been giving me ideas. Special attraction: beets (the red ones were spectacular, and the leafy parts taste great, too), turnips and spinach.