4 April, 2001
Lee, Gay, and I were in Nome last night. We were up and out the door early. Gay and I picked up a vehicle and we went to the airport to check about the possibility of the helicopter flying to Diomede today. While I was there, I received a phone call from the principal on Diomede. He had authorized the launching of the school district plane to come to Nome to take me to Diomede to teach for the kindergarten teacher while she was away for a job fair. This would have been acceptable if it had been a day or two. Unfortunately the principal was planning on having me stay at least a week or longer. Needless to say, I didn't agree to this plan. I don't know how that was ever resolved. The flight was on hold today due to bad weather conditions in Diomede so we checked in three times to see if flight plans had changed. The winds didn't die down so we stayed in Nome.
Once this was determined, Gay and I made some plans for the day. (Lee had left for his next destination.) We began our day by driving by a team of huskies resting outside on, by, and near their doghouses. We talked with the musher. The dogs were beautiful and I took lots of pictures for my classroom.
In 1973, Joe Redington organized the first sled dog race to honor brave dogs. It was named the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Every year since then, in March, drivers set out from Anchorage to Nome. Often more than 50 teams compete with 7-18 dogs. The race is the longest dog sled race, over 1,000 miles, which lasts 11 or 12 days. The Iditarod has just ended.
I met a lady musher today who shared her favorite insights. She use to have 80 dogs but is now down to 18. She said there are many months, days, and hours of hard work training. This training begins when the dogs are just puppies. She said she loves seeing how the team trains and pulls together to be able to compete.
The dogs eat a lot of food and take at least an hour two times a day to be fed. Practice must occur regularly. The lady I visited with said that she runs with her dogs 4 times a week for about 20 miles to keep them in shape.
The owners and dogs need special equipment. The musher needs a warm sleeping bag, an ax, snowshoes, and food for the dogs and the driver. Some will place booties on the dogs' feet to protect them from the snow and ice. I met an older gentleman recently who said he never used booties but dipped his dog's feel in seal oil to prevent cracking.
Sleds were originally developed to help people carry heavy loads for long distanced in the cold land. The husky has two coats of fur to keep them warm and dry. The inner coat has short, soft, thick fur and the outer coat is a shaggy fur. Their fluffy tails curl up so they don't drag the snow.
Dog sleds use to be a major form of transportation in Alaska. Over the years that has changed. Depending on where you go in this region, you will find people traveling by snowmobile, four wheeler, or maybe even car. We have seen lots of sleds during our trip.
We visited with one of Gay's colleagues here in Nome. We had lunch and chatted about research that was conducted on the ship. She has many interesting biological specimens. She mentioned that she had trouble presenting wildlife information appropriate for kindergarten children. I brainstormed some ideas and ways to integrate her specimens into the curriculum. I shared several web sites and plan to think about this more thoroughly. I would also like to share with my friend Gay who also does educational outreach.
A little later in the afternoon headed out of town to look for wildlife. We drove about 20 minutes settling back on an open road. Gay and I climbed out of the truck looking for animals and evidence of plant and animal life. Binoculars proved parcticularly helpful. We had a chance to look at the tundra plants peeking through the snow. We saw willows, which provide a needed food source for the moose. We also studied the tracks that we found in the snow and tried to determine what had been in our spot previously. As we walked across the snow, it crunched due to it being compacted by the winds of the recent storm, which also created many sastrugi formations, which are ridges in the snow.
If we hadn't stopped to look carefully and quietly, we would have missed the best sight of the day. As we panned the horizon, at the top, on the ridge of the mountains, we spotted musk oxen. The musk oxen were peaceful and quietly standing together in a group. There were a few heads visible and the fur and horns from many were observable. They appeared windblown. I was so excited to watch them and see if they would move closer. They were to far off in the distance for photographing.
Musk ox are stocky, long-haired mammals that have dark brown, coarse guard hairs that nearly reach the ground and shed snow and rain. They have a fine innercoat of soft, light brown hair that is so dense that neither cold or frost can penetrate. Their neck, legs, and tail are short and there is a slight hump in their shoulders. Both sexes have horns that curve down and outward and nearly meet in the middle. Bulls are about 5 feet tall and weigh 600-800 pounds. Cows stand 4 feet tall and weigh 400-500 pounds.
Roughly 2,000-3,000 musk ox live in Alaska. Having changed little since the ice age, these gregarious animals form herds of up to 75 animals in the winter. When approached by an enemy, the members of the herd bunch together forming a semicircle or circle to protect their calves inside. The wolf is an enemy. With lowered horns, the musk ox will lowered their head and bump the wolf with their horns.
Musk ox eat grasses, sedges, forbs, and woody plants. In the springtime, a musk ox will shed its underfur providing fur for sweaters and other garments.
We discovered two moose resting among the fringes of a small sparse thicket. They sat in a stately manner watching for animals that might be near. While we continued to watch, the moose continued to rest.
The moose is the largest deer and the Alaska moose is the largest in the world. The male (bull) can be over six feet tall with antlers over 6 feet from tip to tip and weigh from 1,200 to 1,600 pounds. The female cow can weigh between 800 and 1,300 pounds and will give birth to the calves in May or early June.
Moose protect themselves from wolves, bears, and other predators by fighting with their antlers and hooves.
Moose have a heavy dewlap under their chin. Their color ranges from golden brown to almost black. Newborn moose will have red-brown fading to a lighter rust color with a few weeks.
The wonder and beauty of the event was evident. We sat quietly taking in the stillness of the moment. The wind moved gently and an occasional bird could be heard overhead. It was one of the most peaceful times I have spent in a long time. I truly had the privilege of enjoying the magic of Alaska.
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