Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

man wearing eclipse glasses


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Eclipse, high desert

The eclipse was an exercise creative anxiety. Not the eclipse itself, but planning to go there, and not knowing what to expect. Gas shortages. An estimated million extra people visiting the state. Projections of the “biggest traffic event in Oregon history”. Not to mention, the weather.

Months before the eclipse, I looked at maps. The eclipse would be in the morning. West of the Cascades, August is usually good weather, but there can be morning fog. So I looked to the east side.

All across the interior West, the path of totality crossed remote roads, built for a handful of vehicles per minute. In normal circumstances, you would have no trouble going there, pulling off on the shoulder, and watching the show in the sky. But with a zillion other people who have the same idea, it could be a disaster. One breakdown, and everybody’s plans are for nothing. Even finding shoulder space could be a jumble. Every summer a flash mob congeals to watch Fourth-of-July fireworks over remote Lake Crowley, Hwy 395 north of Bishop, California. This was going to be a lot bigger than Fourth-of-July.

Most of the central Oregon high desert is rugged and mountainous, with only a spiderweb of roads There was one place, though, that stood out. North of one little town, the path of totality rolled across a V-shaped triangle of flat agricultural land, gridded with farm roads. Surely in there would be lots of space, and road shoulders. The little town, at the bottom point of the “V”, was named “Madras”.

So, it would be a matter of being there on that Monday morning. Maybe you could just get up early, and drive across the mountains. But again, a zillion other people with the same idea. Better to be there ahead of time.

Motel rooms in Madras sold out two years in advance. But Madras did a logical thing. They set up a campground a couple miles north, at the intersection of Highway 26, which forms the west side of the agricultural triangle, and a road going east into the triangle named “Dogwood Lane”. They called it “Solartown”. A bunch of us went in on five of these campsites. So that’s where I would be for the eclipse. On Google Maps, Solartown showed as an alfalfa field.

I tried to plan ahead. I reserved my rental car months in advance. When I picked it up, I stocked it with twelve gallons of water and ten gallons of gas. I colluded with Chris to carry food we could eat without cooking. I pictured the whole thing as a dry run for a natural disaster. No way to get anywhere. No way to get anything. No way to find out what’s going on.

Chris works nights, so with one thing and another we could not leave till at least Saturday. I kept checking the traffic. There were reports of jams in central Oregon. But, miraculously, the route to there seemed clear. I pictured everything becoming bumper-to-bumper on a moment’s notice. Again, whatever I might think of doing, everybody else might also. I considered driving over during the night, but the hundred miles over the mountain passes are nice scenery, not to be missed. We took a chance and slept the night, home in Portland. We got going about 7am on Sunday.

Heading out out of town, there was no significant traffic. Less even than a ski weekend! About halfway, on Mt. Hood, we relaxed and took a break at Timberline Lodge. Then on down the east side.

At Warm Springs, the air was full of smoke. Would it obscure the sun? But we continued on mile after mile. The smoke cleared out. The road stayed open. Only as we came to the agricultural triangle did the traffic get thick.

Right away, it was evident that, at least if money were no object, you could find a place to stay. Campgrounds and festivals were springing up all over. We plowed ahead down Highway 26, towards the intersection of Dogwood Lane.

The acres of tents and RVs came in view. But when we got there, the turn in to Dogwood Lane was blocked off, closed. Seriously closed. Barricades. National Guard. We rolled on south to the outskirts of Madras.

In hindsight it was obvious. Of course it would not make sense to have everybody turn in directly off the highway. Half the people turning would be making left turns. Instead, you’d come in from the east, through the grid of farm roads.

I won’t go into all the details, but it was a zoo. Cars were lined up stopped on the asphalt. Inching ahead a little every ten minutes. We got to know individual juniper trees and tumbleweeds. A guy driving from the other way slowed down to say you could get in quicker on this other route. Driving miles around, to try the other road. Getting lost. Getting directions from people in orange vests at the intersections. Finding out their directions were wrong. Maybe even they didn’t have current information.

Eventually, we were in a line of stopped traffic again, but at least the Solartown entrance was in the distance. We sat with the engine turned off most of the time. The sun was getting hot. People walked like refugees along the road shoulder. There were lots of bicycles. Bicycles would have been a good idea.

We inched along. We made the last turn. With stops and starts, we were getting close. I got out and walked ahead. The directions emailed from our co-campers a few days before didn’t seem to fit. Things change fast in Solartown. Sometimes I was able to reach people by phone. But the connection was bad, and kept dropping. I walked ahead.

A drone hovered over the creeping line of cars. A guy was talking into a microphone. “Are you the news?” I asked. They were doing a story on this, the traffic, the scene. That’s what it’s all about, I realized, the scene. No matter if we never get to the campsite, the eclipse will happen, and we’ll see it. But equally memorable is the scene.

Now we were in the thick of Solartown, not knowing quite where to go. Trucks rumbled past, sprinkling water to keep the dust down. Trucks rumbled past to pump out the porta-potties. There was the shower trailer, as per the directions, but now where do we go? I got through to someone by phone. Oh, we should have turned right. We convinced the cars behind us to back up till we could wedge through the intersection. Down this lane. Now go in here.

Finally, we were to the campsites. There was a parking space for us. Slip the car in. Turn off the engine. A lot of the guys there, I had known from California years ago. We had really only been stuck in traffic about three hours. Nineteen hours till the eclipse. I lay down under the shade canopy and caught up on sleep.

There were various things to do the rest of the day. One RV had a wall with displays and information about eclipses. People had telescopes with solar filters. Across the fence was the the alfalfa field from the aerial photo.

tent city across the alfalfa field

Tent city

Being as I am a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, I was impressed by some of the behind-the-scenes planning, namely the land prep. Someone had thought ahead. They used the agricultural technology as for planting wheat, and had drill-seeded the site with a turfgrass called “tall fescue”. How do I know what it was? I’m a grass botanist. In the supermarket you see strawberries. You know they’re strawberries, not raspberries, because you’ve worked with strawberries. It was a good choice. Tall fescue is rather coarse, but very tough.

There were mysterious bare-dirt swatches a couple feet wide curving through. On investigation, these suggested wheel tracks of center-pivot irrigation. This was desert land. The grass seed would not have grown without added water. The dirt tracks continued on into the carrot-seed field fenced off adjacent to the campground. There was the center-pivot pipe, parked out of the way.

To make it easy for people to see the campsite boundaries, they were tidily gridded off by foot-wide brown stripes in the grass. Similar with the driving lanes. What had browned the grass? At first I thought maybe heat-kill, but how would you do that? I talked to a turfgrass guy I met, and he pointed out some of the overspray stipple. They had used standard weed-spray technology, glyphosate, to “paint” the brown.

The “lawn” was a bit bumpy for bicycling, but fine for walking barefoot. Surely, most campers never gave it a thought. It was just there. But they would certainly have noticed if it were still an alfalfa field, or grain stubble. Every step would have been torture.

I was impressed by the farming artistry. If you want to grow wheat, you do this. If you want to grow carrots, you do that. If you want to grow a campground, you do like so. Tall fescue can be tricky to get a good stand of, but Solartown was fine. Probably two weeks after the eclipse, they were going to plow it all up and plant something else.

grid pattern of sun crescents cast by the holes in a colander

Sun crescents through a colander

Night came and we bedded down. Morning came, and the eclipse began. There was the first bite out of the corner of the sun. Guys played with the crescent-shaped sun images coming through tiny holes. The daylight didn’t seem a lot less bright, but the temperature started to feel cold. Chris asked for a sweater. By then we were about a quarter mile away in a farm field. “Sorry, you’re going to have to tough it out.”

people all facing the same angle, viewing the sun with the first bite out of the sun's disc

First bite out of the sun

people taking pictures of a man with the pattern of sun crescents across his face

Funny portraiture

people ranged across an agricultural field, waiting for totality

Sun worshippers

The darkness came on, and then there was totality. The land was dark, like night. But all around the horizon was a distant glow, like sunrise or sunset. If the usual figure of the sun is a shining face, totality is the face of the dark sleeping moon, ringed round with wild white Einstein hair of the solar corona.

man wearing eclipse glasses

Wear those glasses

As soon as light returned, “Bye, I’ve got to get Chris back for work tonight.” The campground was gridlock, but we made all the right choices. We cut through the farm roads to the east edge of the triangle, Highway 97. On the way, we could see Highway 26 a mile or so over to the west, a line of vehicles glittering in the returned sun, scarcely moving. An ambulance wailed as it worked up along side them. Oh, God forbid!

On the farm roads, scattered cars were parked along the shoulders. Sure enough, it looked like people had done exactly what I’d first thought of, drive in early that morning. Now, those day trippers were sitting in lawn chairs reading books, waiting for the tens of thousands of visitors ahead of them to get out of the way.

On our route, we were maybe two hours inching along the highway, then things opened out and it was fine. We drove over the scenic high plateaus east of the Deschutes River, got to Interstate 84 at The Dalles, and were home in Portland by 4 o’clock.

In the pre-eclipse anticipation, I recognized a long-forgotten feeling. It felt like High School days, when the world is full of lots of thing where you don’t know what to expect. Someone scoffed at High School being “the best years of our lives”. Yes, a lot’s awful, but it fills your sails. I’m going to put myself in more situations where I don’t know what to expect

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three-bladed wind turbines standing in the desert hills


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United we stand

Chris and I were on vacation. We were driving up the Gorge, and pulled off for lunch at the Braggs exit. It was all truck stops and travel centers, lots of tourist on their way. This wide open desert land along the Columbia River was all scoured rock and yellow grass. It had little to offer in attractions, other than convenience.

We went into a restaurant, “Gloria’s”, and sat at the counter. It was typical, good, basic road food. I got one of the breakfast-all-day offerings. Chris tried pork chops and eggs.

I had recently read a book about the founding of Astoria, the first European settlement in the Northwest, at the mouth of the Columbia. Two parties had traveled there, one by sea and the other overland. The overland route was right by here.

The ocean voyage was by sailing ship, which the author brought out in details we do not usually think of. It would have been like a bunch of people cooped up in a space not much bigger than a commercial airliner, with equally no option to go anywhere else. Literally, for months. Bad food. Low water. Personality flares. We can scarcely imagine it.

The overland party had the benefit of the Lewis and Clark expedition’s records, from a few years before. However, hostilities with some native tribes had flared, so the Astor party branched off to look for a different route. They found what we now know as the Snake River. This flowed along westward in a promising way for some hundreds of mile, but the travelers had no way to know about Hells Canyon. After deaths, and destruction of their boats, the survivors limped down the Columbia, right by where these truck stops are now, to their destination.

The settlement struggled along for a year and some. Then a force of British ships arrived and took it over. The Americans had to make their way overland, back across the entire continent, as best they could. Again, right past where we were eating lunch.

The author speculated that many early pioneers suffered what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, explaining for example the suicide of Meriwether Lewis a few years after the expedition.

So here we were, just about two hundred years later. We can drive in air conditioned comfort through the desert. The land is prosperous with wheat and fruit and wind turbines.

three-bladed wind turbines standing in the desert hills

wind turbines

How did we get from there to here? Yes, there were horrible injustices to the native peoples, and downright stupid policies that needlessly inflamed their wrath. There is still plenty of misery in the world. But a lot is working.

Chris had taken some pictures on his phone and wanted to text them to his sister. I didn’t much do texts, so I couldn’t help. But this big fat guy sitting on the other side of Chris started showing how. The guy looked to me like a gamer nerd, someone I wouldn’t expect to care about anybody but himself. But here he was, taking the time to help out this little black guy, with the sputtery cellphone connection. He suggested, with the low bandwidth, to only text one photo at a time.

Our waitress had a careworn face, but a kindly smile. A Mexican guy sat down at the counter and started puzzling over the menu. When he began to order, our waitress raised a finger, just a moment. She went in back and returned with one of the other staff, a Hispanic woman. Through this interpreter, our waitress, went back and forth over the menu. I have just enough Spanish I could make out, “… you can get bacon, OR sausage, OR ham…” She made sure our Mexican customer got just what he wanted.

This is who we really are, I thought. We help each other out. The news is full of brutalities and shootings. Sure. But they are, really, very few. That’s why they make the news. Instead, this is who we really are. We work together. The upcoming divisive election would have us believe we’re at civil war. But this is who we really are. One people, just making it all work, together.


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Southeast of Eden

A spring of cool, splashing water in the desert is magical. You spot its trace from far away, a cluster of green trees in a tuck of the ridge.

It’s a natural human thing to want to explore it. An excuse; go up there to eat lunch.

You trudge through the sagebrush and scrub. Gradually, the grass grows higher. Soon, lush bushes are taller than your head.

And when you finally get there, the spring itself, the source of the water, is truly magical.

But when you try to take a picture to show your friends back home, it looks like nothing but a mudhole.

me, beside the spring in desert hills

Flowing spring, in the desert hills, southeast of Eden, Wyoming.


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Twilight Hike

It’s funny how I have got used to how outrageous it is here.

The snow is melting fast. It’s a couple of feet deep and real mushy when it’s warmed by the sun. It’s troublesome to walk on. We posthole, even in snowshoes. This weekend, I want to take a hike up in the hills. I think, when will the snow be the most firm? During the coldest part of the day. When is the coldest part of the day? At night. But there is no night.

A few minutes after midnight Saturday, the sun finally dips below the horizon. No, that would be Sunday by now, not Saturday. About 1 AM I set out. Bright sunset light fills the air. The entire north horizon glows, all salmon and orange, halfway up the sky. I hike out across the lake, which is still frozen solid. It’s covered a foot or more deep in icy, crunchy white snow.

I set out from the sauna landing. I head towards the cove on the furthest distant lobe of the shore. Crunch, crunch, crunch, one step in front of another. Finally, about half an hour later, I get there. The edge of the lake is subtle. The old snowdrifts slope gradually up to land. The shelving rock and willow thickets dream in the frozen twilight.

I explore around the hills in that ethereal light. I have a project. I have heard the furthest-north patch of balsam poplar is over here somewhere. I am looking for it. There are thousands of square miles of poplar in Alaska, but none here north of the Brooks Range, except these few. Tundra means no trees. It feels like high alpine meadows above timberline, except the mountains are far away.

The land rolls off to infinity in all directions. At a glance, it looks like prairie. Dark blocky shapes in the distance suggest ranch outbuildings or road cuts. But it is all to fool the eye.  Human vision looks for things like that, but there is no trace of man’s affairs in that direction for literally hundreds of miles, to the Chuckchi Sea.

I explore on. The sky overhead is never any darker than blue. The sun under the north horizon is so close that high clouds glow. The temperature is in the 20s, but so dry it doesn’t feel cold. Hours after sunset, it has never gotten dark.

About 2 AM I find the poplars. They are a miniature forest, none taller than me. They spread across a steep south-facing knoll, above a hollow of snow that, come summertime, will be a small lake. It is evidently the warmest spot in the whole area, a little pocket of further south. Years ago, maybe centuries, a lucky seed rode a storm over the Brooks Range.

Mission accomplished, I am not yet ready to turn home. I decide to see if I can find a way up a nearby small peak, Jade Mountain. Jade is a popular day hike, though the route, in summer, is proscribed. Most of the way crosses tussock-tundra, which is spongy and humpy; hard going for us humans with our flat feet. Toolik folks have found the easy route. It strings together patches of rock and gravel. But that way goes along top of a cliff, and up and down three gullies. Plus it’s on the other side from where I am now.

I am on a gradual north slope. It’s an easy grade up from a broad col. Maybe next summer I’ll come back and look at with no snow.  Probably, it will turn out to be the worst tussock-tundra ever. But here now, at the end of the winter, it’s just crunch, crunch, crunch, one step ahead of the other. Some of the easiest walking of the whole trip.

I make it to the top just as the sun is peeking over the horizon, 3:20 AM.

 

Moon over the Brooks Range

The moon over the Brooks Range, to the south

On the way down I think, this is opposite. Usually, the sunny side makes for the softest snow. But here I am, treading straight into the sunrise. But this early sun is far, far north. It won’t be high enough to warm things today till it has swung halfway around the sky.

I can see Toolik in the distance, a huddle of lab trailers in the white tundra. The tallest tent, the cold storage facility, glints in the dawn sun.  It looks like a plastic cathedral above an impressionist village. I head home in as much a bee-line as possible.

In places, snow has buried thickets. The black, furry twigs of Richardson’s willow evidently absorb heat, even under the surface, and rot out the drifts. More than once, in places like that, I collapse through a few feet. Not dangerous, just surprising. Soon, I detour when I see willow twigs bristled the drifts.

Other areas, even on the flats, the daytime warmth has undermined the snow, under a harder crust. The surface whumps down when I step there, sometimes in slabs as broad as a house. In avalanche country, collapsing snow slabs would be a serious warning sign, but here on the flats there is nowhere an avalanche could run.

Hiking back across the lake, I learn to step the snowshoes down heel-first. That makes the slabs fracture forwards. Toe-first will crack the snow straight down in front, which catches the snowshoe prow on the next step out.

About 5 AM I come near shore. It is full morning daylight, in bright clear sun. Over the white tundra, small birds are singing cheerily.  Some of them are robins, the same robins you might hear chirping over an Iowa farm field.

The snowy surface of the lake slopes up to the gravel pad Toolik is situated on. Uh-oh, a couple of people have pitched their tents right there. The crunch, crunch, crunch of my snowshoes cracks the morning silence. Oh, well, I think, just keep a steady pace, and get the torture over as soon as possible. Maybe they’ll forgive me, and then they will be able to get back to sleep. I climb up past the tents, making far too much noise.

I step through the banks of snow plowed up from the pad, and am suddenly back in the everyday world of Toolik, right by lab trailer 2. I slip off my snowshoes and stash them back I our project truck. I walk across the frozen gravel to the dining hall and erase my name from the trip sign-out board. Then I go to my weather port, climb into my sleeping bag, and sleep till about 9 AM.

I hiked all night, and it was never dark. Within a couple more weeks, the sun will not go down at all.


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Turnagain Arm, Alaska

Six times, from the air, I have studied the lay of the waters around Anchorage.  Once on landing and once on take off, each of the three times I’ve been through Anchorage International Airport.  Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm are the two waterways that bracket the city.  From the above, they looked like forbidding masses of swirling grey water.

Finally, I am exploring Anchorage and environs from the ground.  The Chugach Mountains provide a spectacularly beautiful setting, and I have a sparkling day of warm September weather.  I am gratified to report that, from sea level, Turnagain Arm is a swirling mass of forbidding grey water.

At a glance, it doesn’t look all that different from one of the friendly channels of Puget Sound.  Comparable width, comparable length.  Of course there would be things to know, in Puget Sound, about currents and tides.  The thing to know about currents and tides in Turnagain Arm is — fuggedaboudit.

What on earth is going on out there?  I see rollers cresting and breaking, way out in the middle of the channel.  The tidal current seems to be always rushing in, or rushing out.  Or perhaps both at the same time.

In Puget Sound, the water would be alive with work boats and pleasure boats.  Here there are none.  No docks or harbors either.  The tidal bore, which can roar in at a height of up to six feet, is a tourist attraction.

In Puget Sound, there might be clam diggers out at low tide, or at least people strolling, enjoying the beach.  Not here.  There are signs all over saying do not go out onto the mud flats.  Quicksand.  Thirty foot tides.  Die.

Perhaps recklessly, I brave the shore.  I do stay on the solid sediments, in easy reach of the breakwater boulders.  I perceive this beach is nothing to mess with.  I go back and sit on the boulders. By and by, the rising tide comes chuckling in over the rippled mud, at the pace of a brisk walk.

From Western Washington, I am used to the waters being something you do things with.  You have a relationship with it.  You go on it, and sometimes in it, and over it, and you put things in it and get other things out of it.

I guess, here, all you do is look at it.


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Chulitna River

The understory of birch and berries says this place has hard winters, like New England.  But the big cottonwoods, the cow parsnip stalks higher then my head, and the rosettes of ferns like ostrich plumes hint at kinship to the Pacific Northwest.  That and the wet.  It is not raining, but every frond and grass stalk wicks water onto my pants legs as I pass.

I munch my morning muesli as I take the short trail to the Chulitna River.  I got to this campground after dark.  Alaska distances still deceive me.  The drive here was longer than it looked.  And the spacing of the campsites from the highway, shorter.

Rigs would be rocketing by all night, I could see.  And just as each wheel rush was fading in the distance, it would hit a stretch of “singing bridge”, like the yokels who whoop as they strafe you on your bike.  Annoying.  Ear plugs helped some, but it was a short night.

A sign along the trail says no fishing for King Salmon.  Another sign, under its little shingled roof on a post, is entirely faded to white.  There is Devils Club, something every woods walker in the Pacific Northwest learns to respect, a thug of a plant with dinner-plate-size spiny leaves.  The funk of highbush cranberries hangs in the still autumn air, sweet note to the perfume of rich woodsy decay.

Along the river trail, there are campsites further in.  I could not see that in the dark.  I pass a biker, softly snoring in a mummy bag on a picnic table.  His black and silver steed is right there with him.  I didn’t even hear him come in.  I guess the earplugs did better than I thought.

I come to a tiny creek, scarcely six feet wide.  And there they are.  I first notice the splashing slap, like someone halfheartedly doing laundry.  A series of lazy, flopping agitations in the water, and a pause.  More from further downstream, and up.

I first got my feet wet in aquatic biology from humble beginnings.  As a kid, most of the natural waters I found in Alabama were muddy and intermittent, such as the wheel ruts in gravel pit ponds.  It was a big deal to discover any vertebrates.  Tadpoles were about it.

Based on that, fish have always been special.  It became instinctive to expect their size to match the water.  Creeks some tens of feet wide would support bluegills, maybe the size of your hand.  Bigger waters would have larger fish.  By rights, this small creek should host shoals of minnows, nothing more.

So what are these two-foot long behemoths doing here?  They can scarcely cover their depth.  If fact, their dorsal fins stick quite out of the water.

They are, of course, salmon, come here to spawn.  For the kid in me, it’s like somebody off TV, maybe Flipper the dolphin, suddenly nosing aside the tadpoles and laughing from under the pond scum.

Pictures do not do it justice.  Vague grey shapes, in grey water, among grey stones.  But in presence, they are compelling.  Humans naturally notice animals, especially big animals close.  Animals big enough to do with, like eat.

I stand and watch the spawning salmon a long time.  The poor fish are worn out and tattered.  Many are already beached on the bank or floating in the shallows, dead.  The stink is not putrid like sewage, but a definite presence, like dirty socks.

I finally make it down to the river bank.  There, across the channel, is Denali, another thing it was too dark to see last night.

Pictures do not do it justice.  In front is a range of pinnacles, peer of the Tetons.  Alone, they would be the view.  But they are just the foothills.  Behind, is the actual mountain, almost an afterthought.  It is so immense its head sticks up out of sight, into clouds.

Denali with his head lost in the clouds

Denali, his head lost in the clouds

More dead salmon are scattered along the gravel bars.  Live ones occasionally flip in the silty stream.  When I wade across small channels, I wonder, am I stepping on salmon eggs?

Finally I turn back into the somber blessing of this chilly dawn.  My feet are cold, but I know it could be colder.  This calm, damp, red and gold autumn day is the moment of stillness of the indrawn breath, before winter slams down.


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Chena Valley, Alaska

This trip is about blueberries.  That’s merely a formality.  Plans are just to get you out the door.  Then, things happen.  But it’s good to have a plan.  So the plan is, I’m searching for blueberries.

For all the publicity about the famous Alaska blueberries, they prove remarkably elusive.  Few people at Toolik could tell me any particular places, one exception being “Tangle Lakes”.

Locals did not agree on when the berries would be ripe.  Some said August, so if I could make time for berrying ahead of my trip back to Toolik on 8/24, that would be best.  Others maintained the berries needed a bit of frost, thus after my work ended 9/8.  Well, necessity set the schedule, so it is September.

There were blueberries on the tundra, spangled among red leaves on ankle-high plants.  The berries looked tempting, but in taste — well maybe they’d been left out in the weather too long.  One of the helicopter pilots mentioned, yes, they’re done here.  They’re still around in Central.  And they’re just coming on in Southeast.  She nodded encouragement.

So here I am in central Alaska, looking for blueberries.

I can see why the Milepost book is so valued.  A lot of Alaska looks, well, a lot alike.  Maybe an ant crawling across a bowl of fruit would see a lot of sameness.  When on the apple, everything’s red.  When on the banana, everything’s yellow.  So, to me, here in Central, when not in one of the vast swamps, or an alpine area, it all looks like endless spirelike dark green spruces, interspersed with birch.

The birches are golden.  I am here at exactly the right time for peak color, and they are spectacular.  I am also lucky on the weather.  Everyone says it could be much colder by now, but there is a heat wave holding the thermometer to the 50’s and 60’s Fahrenheit.  The golden leaves whisper down into a scene of perfect autumnal bliss.

But back to the blueberries.  Where are they, amongst all these birches and spruce?

I am up the Chena River.  When I looked on Google Maps, it was hard to make out details for the smoke.  Evidently the aerial photos happened to be taken exactly when a forest fire was going on.  There was the burn, frozen on screen, in all its horrid splendor of red flame front and streaking gray haze. The smoke plume spanched right across the area I wanted to examine.

So now I am here.  The old burn is quite evident on the hillsides.  Five, six years?  I can’t read how fast trees grow in Alaska.  But the terrain reminds me of northern Rockies.  North Idaho or western Montana.  Similar in the birch.  Similar in the spruce.  I guess too cold for lodgepole.

And, in the Rockies, you find blueberries in several-year-old burns.

I see on the map the “Granite Tors Trails”.  It looks like it will get me up from this oxbowed valley floor, onto the hills, into part of that burn.  I can see the Tors, strange rock spikes on the far bald of the dome.  I have no intention of going the whole route, fifteen miles round trip.  It is late in the day.

I have learned by now that the low Alaska sun makes it always feel like late in the day.  By my watch, there are some four more hours before sunset, and then considerable twilight.  I give it a try.

I find blueberries, though not in the burn.  I come upon then in an area right by the Chena.  The spot looks remarkably like the North Slope tundra did.  Swampy, humpy, with wet moss and puddles, bespeaking close-to-the-surface permafrost.  Here are the same tundra species; tussock cottongrass, dwarf birch, Labrador tea, and the little glossy-leaved sub-shrub Alaskans call “cranberry”.

These plants, however, are some ten times as robust as in the high arctic.  This means the biggest reach almost to my knee.  Are the blueberries the tundra species too, V. uligunosim?  The bushes are gigantic, over a foot tall.

I have with me a berry rake.  It was in one of the bales of things I gave away when I sold my Fort Collins house.  Then I realized I was coming back to Alaska in autumn.  Blueberries.  I asked for the berry rake back, out of the yard sale pile.  The new owner graciously complied.

The blueberries are past their peak, both in quantity and quality.  When I got berries with Ronniger in Idaho years ago, we could rake off half a cupful at a swipe.  Here, I may get only one or two.  The rake takes equal biomass in red blueberry leaves, not to mention mixed in dead horsetails, twigs, and big, dry, papery cloudberry leaves.

Those Idaho “huckleberries”, as we called them, were so delicious.  We would eat them till our teeth hurt.  Then we would keep on eating them.

These are not so good.  But, I figure, late blueberries are better than no blueberries.  I shake them out of the rake by the small handful.  I pour them back and forth between my cupped palms, blowing out the leaves.  I dump them into my mouth.  They are just sour.  But at least they are blueberries.

I am getting it that if I want to find blueberries, at least this kind, I should look for areas where the spruces look the most miserable.  The way spruces grow over permafrost, scarcely taller than me, starveling to a slow death where they end up looking like giant burnt-out matches.  That’s where to find these blueberries.

However, at least here, now; these blueberries are only sour.  Finally I give up on them.

I get back out to the trailhead just at sunset.  At the campground, I gush water from the hand pump to wash the leaves out of my berry rake.  If this trip is not going to be about blueberries, what then?