When we leave Manley in less than a week to begin the journey home the thing I will miss the most is our walk in the woods. Every day between 3 and 4 in the afternoon we walk up the hill behind our house.
The woods are open and easy to walk in but the trail, an old one, leads directly uphill through birch and aspen, with clumps here and there of young spruce which someday, long after we are gone, will be the climax forest.
When we begin the walk it seems so strenuous that I count markers that tell us how far we have come. There’s a decaying pile of brush that somebody cut years ago; then a tree too big for Jerry to move that has fallen across the path so we step over it. Just after the fallen tree is a steep place that can be slippery if it’s wet or snowy. After the steep place the trail begins to level off and I know the hard part is over. It takes about 25 minutes to get to the old mining road which is mostly used by training sled dog teams these days.
Three of our neighbors own and race sled dogs. Every morning there is a terrific commotion of barking and yelping as the dogs are hitched up. I think both the dogs and the trainers love it. Joee, owner of the Iditerod Kennel across the street, told us that after 40 years he can’t sleep at night anticipating the next days training and what he will do with the dogs. They are trained daily on the road in front of our house and up the old mining road where there is a turn around trail in the woods just where our track ends. When we get to the top we look at the impressions in the snow to see how many teams have come through that day. They are not pulling sleds because the snow is not yet packed enough. Now they pull 4-wheelers. On the hills engines are used as an assist, since the 4-wheelers would be too heave a load for the dogs.
At the mining road we turn around and retrace our steps. As a rule I prefer a circuit walk; I don’t like turning around and going back the same way. In summer we continue up the mining road and circle around by the road in front of our house. But in winter the effort of plodding through the snow makes us tired and I love the ease of the walk back.
I let my eyes range over the view and my mind ramble freely. The sun, which stays low in the sky all day is almost at the horizon by the time we get back for our reward, a glass or two of wine.
Over the past 4 years I have walked this hill in all seasons and in all weather. In the spring there are new things pushing up through the leaf littered floor of the woods.
In the fall there are scarlet leaved berry bushes, the aspen leaves turn a bright yellow and tiny star like birch seeds litter the ground.
In winter, when it snows, we don’t see growing things but we find the tracks of animals; animals that we seldom catch sight of. The tracks make us realize that we share this icy world with many other creatures.
The first tracks we saw this year were of a small canine, we think a fox.
Foxes hunt alone, but in woods like ours a single male will establish a territory that includes one to four females. After a fresh snow there are only a few fox tracks, but a few days later the woods are criss-crossed with the tracks of foxes together with those of voles, hares and squirrels, all of which the foxes prey upon. A couple of days ago we found new tracks that we think are moose tracks — three traveling together, probably a cow and 2 yearlings.
I have a wonderful book about the biology of this region, Interior and Northern Alaska: A Natural History, by Ronald L. Smith. I reread the chapter on how animals survive in extreme cold. There are many mechanisms, both physiological and behavioral. Some animals have heat conserving blood circulation patterns, some animals have anti-freeze body chemicals, some have high energy brown body fat, some slow their metabolism at night (nightly torpor), some hibernate.
But some stay awake and active all winter. Take the voles that we found so many tracks of. They form winter communes of about 7 members, males, females and young. They make tunnels and burrows under the snow where they build nests, huddling together to share body warmth, and where they store and share food. The temperature in their nests has been measured at 4 to 7 degrees C, when the outside temperature in down to -23 C. They eat roots and seeds, especially the little star like birch seeds that rain down intermittently as the snow falls, thus forming a food store for the tunneling voles. The voles, in turn, are food for the foxes, and so it goes.
Jerry and I manage the cold by going home to our cozy house where there’s a warm fire and that lovely bottle of Malbec awaits.
And then the sun goes down.