Friday, June 19, 2009

Lots Going On in My Life

My own life is pretty busy lately too. Once again, I’ll offer up a brief recap of all the goings on for you.

Family Hiking

Our Family Hiking season is in full swing, finally. I do enjoy hiking – especially with family and friends. Our last hike, however, wasn’t so much fun. We met down at the Pt. Woronzof parking lot and headed off on the coastal trail towards Kincaid Park. Normally, this is one of my favorite stretches on the coastal trail: it’s away from downtown, so you don’t have to walk past people’s back yards, or deal with parking lots every 10 feet. Instead, you get the ocean on one side of the trail and the forest on the other side = both spectacular in their own rights. This time of year, and this year in particular, the mosquitoes are just woken up from their winter hibernation – and they are HUNGRY. It was bad at first, and just kept on getting worse the farther into the woods we went. By the time we finally decided to turn around and head back to the car, we were almost running to get away from the nasty little beasts. I had to laugh: my sister-in-law wanted me to take a picture of one of the mile markers for her. I had to snap a shot as fast as humanly (and technologically) possible just to avoid loosing a pint of blood. I hope that shot was worth the sacrifice I made to get it!

Our next hike is going to be much better. It’s up in the mountains, so the bugs wont be as bad (they don’t really like high winds, and it’s typically windy up there) – and at this time of summer the trail should be cleared of all the snow & ice. Last year, we tried it a bit too early and had to make our way thought drifts of snow that were up to my hips! I’ll let you know how it goes later one…

Bird TLC

As I mentioned in my previous posting, I gave a tour at the zoo to a friend who volunteers at Bird TLC a few weeks ago – and she returned the favor by giving me a tour of Bird TLC! I’ve never been there before, so this was quite a treat for me. It’s rather an industrial sort of building; not very impressive from the outside. Once you get inside, though, you start to see all the work they manage to do in there. It’s really quite something! They take in injured and orphaned birds from all over the state and nurse them back to health so they can be rehabilitated and released back out into the wilds, where they belong. Unfortunately, some birds that come into their establishment can never be re-released. That’s how the zoo gets all of their birds: the ones who couldn’t live by themselves. I got to see a lot of really cool birds on my tour: a nest of tiny little chickadee hatchlings, some older not-quite-flighted-yet magpie chicks, a red-tailed hawk recovering from a car accident, a tub full of baby ducklings of various breeds, several bald eagles out back who are too injured to ever be released, and one bird who was seriously injured laying flat out on its back all bundled up in bandages (I don’t know what kind of bird that was – but it was big enough to have been an eagle).

Seward with Mother

Mother decided that she wanted to take a drive out to Seward the other day, so she invited me to go with her. Her excuse was to look at some property she found for sale, but honestly she just likes Seward. Any excuse will do! And I was quite happy to go along, too. We took off about 10:00 from my house and got to the Summit Lake Lodge just in time for a late lunch. From there, it was just a short way to Seward, so we were able to check in to our hotel by 2:00. Once we got all our stuff stored away, we headed out to the lake that’s just on the outskirts of town. There’s a boardwalk that goes around part of the lake, and a footpath that completes the loop. We’d never been on that trail before, so it was quite fun for us. We saw a lot of wildflowers, interesting houses, HUGE rocks, and the cutest little creek that ambles by a park bench. Dinner that night was at a Chinese place we’d never tried before: I have to say I wasn’t overly impressed. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t that good either.

Early to bed means early to rise: we got checked out of the hotel and made our way to Exit Glacier for a nice stroll there. Again, we tried a few trails that we’d never been on before, so it was fun too. I had to laugh: at one point we came across these three girls walking up towards the trail from the river bed. They were barefoot – which is impressive since it’s cold and rocky – and one of the girls called out to us, saying “Whatever you do, don’t go wading in the river: it’s Cold!” I laughed and said “Well, yeah - it’s a glacier river!” A guy behind us just about fell over, he was laughing so hard. He thought it was so funny they hadn’t realized a glacier river would actually be cold! Some things you just have to experience yourself to understand.

We headed on home from Exit Glacier with me driving while Mother napped. At Summit Lake Lodge, we stopped for a brief snack (Mother made chocolate cookies for the trip), switched places at the wheel, and headed on back to Anchorage.

And yes, we did look at property while in Seward: turns out the property listed in the newspaper add was being rented out to a family who had no idea the property was posted for sale! We may have inadvertently stirred up a hornets nest, there.

Eklutna Flats with Lorna

In preparation for my up-coming Africa trip, I am practicing my photography skills as much as possible in order to be Africa-worthy once I get there! My friend Lorna, herself a published photographer with several books under her belt, has been quite helpful in that endeavor (Thank You Lorna!) and took me out to the flats just outside of town a while back. The wild Iris were just beginning to open up, and the Choclate Lilies were everywhere – as was a flower called False Soloman’s Seal, a very pretty little white one with a leaf pattern that was fascinating to me. We had a great time wandering thru the fields, ending up out at the river delta where it meets the ocean. It was a bright and sunny day – not the best conditions for taking photos, but I wasn’t complaining – and best of all the bugs were not up yet, so we weren’t plagued by bloodsuckers to the point of going insane trying to avoid them. We got some really nice shots, too!

Job Hunting

My job hunt continues; nothing promising yet – but a few with potential. The worst shock of the week was getting a letter from the state telling me that my unemployment had run out. Thankfully, I qualified for extended benefits or I would really be in trouble!


Trish and I are getting along great – partially because she’s gone most of the time, but also because she is a nice person. She’s only here for a few months, so wants to get out as much as possible to see the sights. We’ve been going out on little hikes, just the two of us, as well as joining in on the Family Hikes. This weekend, we’re heading out to Seward for a cruise out in the Kenai Fjords (yay!) and next week we’re hoping to take the train from Whittier to Fairbanks.

Lots Going On at The Alaska Zoo

I’ve been slightly remiss in my blogging duties, so I’ll try to do a brief recap here of all the goings on at the zoo lately. I had thought it would slow down since school is out and there are no more field trips to deal with, but this month seems to be just as frantic as last month - just in a different way.

Tuesday Night at The Zoo

This is one of my favorite events here at the zoo: we have lectures each Tuesday night throughout the summer months highlighting a different zoo animal, giving people a chance to meet the zookeepers and ask any questions they might have. We try to have that animal on hand – if at all possible – so they can see it up close. We sometimes even have guest speakers come from outside to give the talks: our kick-off lecture this season was by Dr. David Kenny V.M.D., the Field Veterinarian for the Conservation Biology Department of the Denver Zoological Foundation. This one was of particular interest to me since he is part of the team working on the Mongolia project I got to join in on last year. Check out our website for more information on the TNATZ program!

Guided Encounters

I’ve done several Guided Encounters this month. This is a special tour that groups or individuals actually pay for, so I always try to give them their money’s worth. I get to take them behind the scenes at the Polar Bear Exhibit, which is always fun. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, the polar bears will come over to check us out: this gives people an up-close encounter with an incredibly awesome animal.

One of the funnest groups I’ve had in a long time was a troop of Girl Scouts from Kodiak. There were about 10 little girls, age 10-12, along with their 4 chaperones and their troop leader. We had such a great time together; they even sang to me at the end of the tour! I’ve never been sung to before…

Just the other day I got to do one for a class from The Imaginarium consisting of about 8 little 5-year olds and their 2 teachers. They were a fun group too – but Oh My Gosh! What a handful 5-year olds can be. William was the cutest, and of course he was the one who got into trouble the most. I was very impressed with how his teachers dealt with him.

Other Tours

A couple years ago, I took a Nature Writing Workshop with a local author and about 12 other people. We met once a week for 12 weeks and critiqued each other’s writing, learning a lot in the process. One of the ladies I met in the class happens to volunteer at Bird TLC, a group the zoo works very closely with. She contacted me a few weeks ago wanting to take me up on my offer of a guided tour at the zoo. I was very happy to take her and her husband around: she had worked with our Stellar’s Jay in his time of convalescence, so I made sure she got to meet him again.

Last week I happened to be in the right place at the right time and got the opportunity to give a Golf Cart Tour! Our zoo sits on about 25 acres of dirt & gravel paths, so we have a (very old) golf cart that we can offer to patrons who have difficulty getting around. It has to be arranged ahead of time, and I’m thinking there might be a fee involved – but it is available if anybody really needs it. The gentleman who requested it this time was a very nice man who was recovering from lower-back surgery and had never been to the zoo before. Pat Lampi, the director of the zoo, had planned on giving him the tour – but since I happened to show up at the admittance building at just the right time, I volunteered to give it instead and let Pat get back to work. I love golf cart tours! Golf carts just so much fun to drive: it’s like riding bumper cars. Thankfully, my guests (the man and his wife) had as much fun as I did, and didn’t mind the occasional mishaps with the cart.

Animal Updates

Spring in Alaska means there are lots going on with the animals. Moose are giving birth all over town, which unfortunately means lot of orphans: Moose –vs- Car = Orphan. We have 6 of them in the infirmary right now. Baby moose are just the cutest little things but require a lot of hands-on attention when orphaned. They get bottle fed about 6 times a day and typically drink up to 3 gallons of formula each day per baby. This means hours and hours of mixing formula!

Our own musk ox gave birth just three days ago! He/She is a rambunctious little one already, testing out wobbly legs by running real fast and bumping in to things. Apparently turning corners is not as easy as one might think! Mom gets a little concerned whenever her baby gets too far away from her, but one growl sends it right back underneath her, safely tucked between her legs. We don’t know what the sex is yet: it’s a little difficult to tell right off the bat and there’s no way we’re getting in there to look. Mother is WAY too protective for us to attempt that.

The two bear cubs that came to us last fall have finally been moved into their new exhibit. The Bear Cub Den took a bit of prep work to be safe for them, but finally they’re in there and are enjoying the great outdoors. The old elephant house was the perfect place for them when they first arrived: it gave us easy access to them to monitor their health & progress (they were severely underweight and malnourished) but nothing beats clean fresh air and actual dirt to play in!

We got some sad news this past week, too, unfortunately. Sally, our female river otter, died very unexpectedly. A necropsy (an autopsy performed on an animal) revealed that she died of heart failure brought on by renal failure. Sally was brought to us about 5-6 years ago as a tiny little pup who was barely alive. She required months of tube feeding: a tube stuck down into her stomach through which food was given to her. She pulled though and turned in to a lovely young lady, just a joy to watch as she expertly maneuvered her way around the pool of water with her mate Turbo. She will be greatly missed.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Hike with My Roommate, Trish

For Trish’s first day in Alaska, I took her up to the Eagle River Nature Center for a hike! That is one of my favorite places to go and I thought it would be a good introduction to our beautiful state for her: she loved it!

The center was offering one of their free programs that day, titled SPRING WILDFLOWER WALK: naturalist UTE OLSSON will lead a search for the Calypso orchid, wild violets and other early Alaskan spring wildflowers along the Albert Loop trail (3 miles roundtrip). I really like Ute Olsson and know that she is very knowledgeable about this kind of thing, so I thought it would be a really interesting one to attend.

Unfortunately, a whole lot of other people thought the same thing. There were perhaps 35-40 people bunching around Ute trying to hear what she was saying and to see what she was pointing at. Trish and I decided that just wasn’t what we came for, so we ditched the group and headed out on our own.

Back in Anchorage it was overcast and chilly, with spurts of rain off and on – so Trish and I had dressed in sweaters and raingear. In Eagle River, however, it was a bright, clear, sunny day with just the slightest breeze to refresh you as you hike along the trails. It was gorgeous out: we were so happy to be there, even if we did have to peel a layer or two off as we went along. And of course, once again, I forgot to bring my water bottle.

I’m not very familiar with the Albert Loop Trail, but it’s well marked so we had no problems finding our way. It has several boardwalks built out over the water, giving access to some spectacular views along the way. The mud had, for the most part, dried up allowing for easy walking. We even came across a couple of Blue Jays playing in the bushes alongside the trail.

Our hike also gave me an opportunity to practice up on my plant-identification skills, although I had forgotten to bring my books with me so there were some I just couldn’t remember. Trish was polite enough to be interested in everything – and had lots of questions of her own to ask. Before we knew it, we were back at the main center and found that two hours had passed!

Funny: Trish kept saying “The air smells different – I can’t quite figure out what it is.” I thought maybe it was just a whole new ecosystem, with all new plants, animals, and even soil that made things smell so different to her. She thought perhaps it was the remoteness of it all (not so much pollution in the air). Regardless, she loves the smell and kept taking in deep breaths and looking about her with a smile on her face.

Discovery Tours are Back!

This is my favorite kind of tour to give at the zoo: it’s offered every day from Noon to 2:00 and costs $20 (this includes entrance to the zoo). For that, you get a guided tour of the zoo, behind-the-scenes visits with both the polar bears and the tigers, and all the information I can think of about both animals AND plants, as well as some personal history of my life in Alaska. It’s open to anybody who signs up for it and you don’t need to make reservations: just show up, pay the fee, and off we go!

It took a bit of study to prepare for it, I have to admit. Prior to its conception, I barely knew a thing about plants. The education director for the zoo printed out a few pages of information on a handful of plants that can be found at the zoo, so I at least had that to begin with. But I love to learn new things, so took it upon myself to find out more.

The Eagle River Nature Center offers free programs to the public pretty much every Sunday throughout the year on various subjects, some of which were happily on the native plant life in the area. I attended a few of them - with my camera, clipboard, notepad, and pen in hand – and ended up getting to know the presenter well enough to ask him for one-on-one help.

Let’s call him The Plant Guy.

The Plant Guy was very knowledgeable about native plant species and took me on several hikes around the area, answering all my “What’s this one?” questions and giving me all the information he had on them. He even agreed to come with me to the zoo and led an informal training session with our tour guides. He also happened to be the president of the Alaska Native Plant Society group and invited me to several of their outings, introducing me to Verna Pratt (a local native plant HERO) and giving me all sorts of new contacts for more information.

On top of all that I did some research on my own: taking an on-line botany class, buying several native plant guides for the area, and scouring the local newspaper for articles on plants, gardening, and the fight against invasive species.

All in all, I discovered a love for plants that I didn’t know I had. They are truly fascinating creatures, and it has made my hiking all the more wonderful by opening a whole new landscape to my vision.

Getting back to the subject of the tour, I think my guests have fun with it (and me). The first one of the season is always a bit nerve-wracking however. Over the winter, with all the snow & ice, one tends to forget about plants and green stuff – so when summer finally does arrive again, I always worry that I’ve forgotten everything. I typically will go to the zoo with my books for a walkabout on my own, just to reacquaint myself with the plants and try to pick up a few new tidbits to share with my guests. So by the time I actually do a Discovery Tour, with actual paying guests, I feel more confident that I can give them their money’s worth.

My first tour this year was with a local man and his wife, as well as their guest from out of state. Unfortunately, that guest happened to be a Biologist who is moving up here to work with our local Fish & Game people – so that added a whole new level of intimidation on me, because I knew that he knew stuff I didn’t and would spot my mistakes immediately!

Thankfully, though, he was very nice and if I did make any goofs, he didn’t bring them to my attention. He actually asked a lot of really in-depth questions and got me going on some really fascinating subjects. That did make us about half an hour late finishing the tour, but since nobody had any pressing chores waiting to be done, it was ok.

I even managed to put in a plug for our Tuesday Night at the Zoo program, telling them about the speaker who is coming up from the Denver Zoo to present our first one:

“Travel Diaries of a Zoo Vet” – Dr. David Kenny V.M.D. will share animal highlights from his travels conducting research as a Field Veterinarian for the Denver Zoo Conservation Biology Department. Join us for this talk at The Alaska Zoo at 7pm on Tuesday June 2 and help us kick-off our annual "Tuesday Night at the Zoo" summer lecture series. Each Tuesday features a different speaker and topic, sponsored by ConocoPhillips and Anchorage Daily News. Admission rates apply, with no additional charge for attending programs.