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K. C. Miller

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Fall in Alaska
By K. C. Miller
Thursday, February 06, 2003

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My wife and son explore fall in Alaska.

Fall in Alaska

Sweat pours down my face as I struggle with my pack. Heart pounding and chest rising then falling with each gasped breath, I finally reach the tree line. Opposite my vantage point I see Goat Mountain basking in the cool fall sun. I easily locate a large number of sheep I had hoped were there. I encourage my wife, my son and his friend to hurry because I have spotted our goal.

My wife and the two boys race the last few yards to get a glimpse of the beautiful, almost pure white, mountain dwellers. We stand together whispering quietly to one another, taking turns with the binoculars, awe-struck by their magnificent show. Three separate groups forage for tufts of grass and lichen. One group comprised of three, young looking rams, separate quickly, shuffling from one group to another. They bound over craggy red-tinged tundra and loose shale as if it weren't there. The agility of these amazing animals is astounding.

After living in Alaska for more than 35 years, I've grown accustom to extraordinary happenings, especially during fall. An encounter with thousands of brown and white caribou milling through flat, open tundra on their way to abundant grazing areas for winter, was one of the best experiences. To be close enough to watch the older and wiser animals hold high their majestic antlers, as if in defiance of the oncoming cold and snow, while most of the large mass feeds greedily on the easily accessible lichen, is amazing. Because of this, I understand that they sense it to be their last chance to fatten up before the snow flies.

My son brings me back to the present by indicating that there is another group of sheep further up in the rocks. I look in the direction he is pointing and watch in wonder the daring antics of the white mountaineers as they bound from one craggy outcropping to another. We joke out loud, wondering if they are playing a version of the game known as, "King of the Hill."

They probably invented it.

Shielding my eyes from the Indian summer sun, I just make out a new herd immediately below the mountaineering bunch. That brings the total to fifty sheep, mostly made up of ewes and young born the spring before. Among that group we spot at least ten mature rams, easily picked out as they are larger than the rest and sun themselves separately from the main herd.

To me Dall Sheep are mysterious and fascinating creatures. But their almost totally white coat, and agile ability to gorge on fall's last harvest, fattening up for winter, reminds me of another like colored animal. The Beluga: I just recently encountered a pod of the white whales.

I watched about thirty Beluga chase one of the last schools of silver salmon into the shallows of Turnagain Arm: a last grand feast before winter sets in. Their constant surfacing and rolling while feeding, and the confluent snorts and many geysers of damp air shooting from their blowholes, provided quite a show. But soon after having had their fill they rode the tide out, traveling with purpose, surfacing often as they passed by Beluga Point, their entrance to the Arm.

Watching them swim out to deeper water I wondered if they understood what the yellow and brown leaves signified, floating aimlessly on the breeze that freed them from tree and branch to alight on the cold, slate gray wet surface the sleek and white beluga cut through with ease. Do they know that fall had arrived like the caribou do, or the grizzly? If so, would it matter?

With the sheep, I find it almost impossible to tell if they are aware of the change in seasons either. Watching them feed with my binoculars, the younger adults romping, butting heads between mouthfuls—the loud clank of horn against horn reaching us mere seconds after the sight of collision—I feel that they have to know something is changing. The shorter days, cooler mountain air, and brilliant reds, yellows, and browns have to signal to them that snow is on its way. I wonder can they see the change in color? Do they notice the cooler morning air? Or do they rely on instinct alone? Do the Beluga?

I realize that only a few animals appear to understand the change in season. Take the grizzly or black bear. They intentionally fatten up on salmon, roots, tubers, and ripe berries, and will be lost to hibernation when the snows come. Lost in winter's slumber to dream, I'm sure, of the return of spring, and, most especially, their next meal.

Like the bear, some human beings tend to stay close to home in Alaska. To many people the first signs of fall depicts the onset of inclement weather, layers of ice and snow, cold hands and feet, and high heating bills. Some people unconsciously mimic the bear, cling to their homes, ranging only far enough and long enough to gather and place wood on the fire, or fill their empty bellies, only to fall back into winter's slumbering routine to await the spring thaw.

For me, the signs of fall are a spectacular happening. The sight of a full rainbow formed by falling rain from a single dark gray cloud on an otherwise clear, late autumn afternoon, or the almost perceptible sound of the ever-moving greens, reds, and purples of the Northern Lights at mid-night in October, are two of many reasons I choose to live in this state.

The pungent odor associated with ripening rose-hips, rotting leaves, grasses, and an assortment of over-ripe berries tell me that nature is returning needed nutrients into the soil. That richness in turn provides shoots for new grasses, berries and lichen, providing sustenance for Alaska's animals in spring and summer. So to me, fall is really a new beginning.

The sheep's proximity is enticing, and I wish for a better look, and maybe a nice picture. But, it is not to be during this outing because the sun settles toward the horizon, our signal to turn back. My only consolation, as we ready ourselves for the hike back down, is that we have added another great Alaska experience to a long and ever growing list.

My wife and the two boys head back down the mountainside through the musky smell of ripe, bright red, high-bush cranberries toward the comforts of home, but I am reluctant to follow. Some feeling or force, centered in my chest, pulls me to the sheep. And, only with great effort do I manage to resist.

Alaska and its abundance of animals, land, and sea, can mold a person into something never thought possible, to be more than themselves, to understand this great land: the feeling renewed each fall. That person learns to appreciate the necessities of fall in Alaska, as have its inhabitants, human or animal.

With that feeling still in my chest, I take one last look at the surrounding mountains reflected in the glassy surface of Eklutna Lake, think of my memory of the beluga and glance at the sheep once more, and take note that a few of the higher peaks are dusted with snow, outlined by a deep blue sky.

Sighing quietly, savoring the sharp promise of winter carried on the breeze, I pledge to myself that I will return to this spot in the near future. I must, because Alaska is inside me, has formed me, and is flowing through my veins. It's made me who I am, in spite of myself. Yes, I will definitely be back next fall, and the next after that.

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Reviewed by The Smoking Poet 2/6/2003
What beautiful memories you have brought back to me as I read this essay, K.C. It has been too many years since I last sat perched on a boulder above the tree line, in the Alaskan tundra. It was a stunning and wild beauty that will haunt me forever, forever call me back. For all of my travels over the years, I have yet to see any sight more breathtaking. The Dall sheep, the whales, the Grizzlies, the wilderness... I am branded for life with all of these incomparable experiences.

Thank you, on this far removed Midwestern Wednesday in an office, for the reminder...

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