Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Break-up and the Music of Spring

Well, I haven't been very dedicated to posting new content to this blog, plus I also realized that I've spent more time telling about trips out of the Arctic then actual Arctic Living.  I suppose that is because life at home is so normal and routine that I'm more inclined to write about something that is new and exciting for me like a trip to a new place.  However, I'm reminded by friends who like to hear from me, that what may seem routine and "every day" to me is often interesting and extraordinary to others.

It has been a  cold spring with little snow melting until just a few days ago, when it starting reaching above freezing ambient temperatures.  Snow is melting fast now, although we still have snowdrifts over 10 feet deep around the house that have a long way to go before they are gone. The snow has become mushy, so it is hard walking around without every step sinking down several inches, and occasionally a plunge clear to the hip.  A short walk out to the edge of the river to dump my kitchen slop bucket means putting on knee boots and hoping I don't get snow over my boots.  There is still plenty of snow to drive our snowmachines, but it's easy to get stuck if not careful.  Jim dug our 17' aluminum boat out of the snow and pulled it over next to the river bank so it would be easy to launch when needed.

Break-up varies every year and depends a lot on weather conditions over a long period of time and area, from melting in the mountains to temperatures and snow cover along the face of the delta. This year we have had a cold April and May and thawing has been slow. But when it finally did warm up, things have suddenly broken loose.  Break-up actually started today, May 25th, or at least what we consider the beginnings of break-up.    Water started rising up through the snow that was still lying on the river ice about noon today.  We had heard that water was already flowing down the Colville a few miles upriver from us.   The water is really just flowing on top the river ice that is frozen down to the bottom of the river bed in the shallower parts of the river.  In the deep sections of the river (we call deep "channels") the rushing water from upriver just flows under the ice, even lifting the ice somewhat at times, depending on the pressure. It is usually a week to 10 days after water floods over the ice before all the ice actually breaks up and gets washed out to sea.  Much of the ice simply melts during this time, but the deep "channel ice", which may have been as much as 8 feet thick, must still break up and be washed out to sea, where it finishes melting.

Water bubbling up through hole in the river ice and flooding over the top of the ice on the Colville River Delta.

It is during ice break-up when we have the danger of the island flooding.  We have never had it flood bad enough to get water inside our house, but we have had it inside some of our "out" buildings, plus had to chase down floating drums of fuel, and other supplies and get them back before they washed out to sea.  It has been quite a few years now since we've had a bad flood, but we always have to be prepared, in case an ice jam backs up water unexpectedly.  That's where having the boat and canoes ready comes in.  We'll see how it goes.

One fun spring activity for us is watching for "accidental" birds that show up here for a few days...ones that don't normally belong here.  They seem to be drawn in to our place by all the dark buildings against the stark snow and then they discover our bird feeders and we become an "oasis" in their lost world.  This year we have had 3 white-crowned sparrows, a tree sparrow, a Rusty Blackbird, a Wilson's Snipe, a few different warblers, and a cliff swallow.   Some of these birds are regulars in lower parts of Alaska, but have over-shot their normal destination, or they are way off the beaten path and are totally lost.  We love giving these vagrants a chance to refresh and head back to where they belong. Of course, we also have the many, many typical summer birds around our house, such as Lapland Longspurs, Snowbuntings, Redpolls, Sabine's Gulls, Savannah Sparrows, various sandpipers, etc.  A short distance away from the window feeders are so many more birds which include hundreds of nesting geese (Whitefronts, Brant, Snowgeese, Canada geese), all three species of loons, many ducks (Pintails, Oldsquaws, etc.), Plovers, Jaegers, Owls, Gulls, many birds that the air is filled with a symphony of bird songs.  This is what makes the hardships of winter worth enduring.

Birds out kitchen window

  Lapland Longspurs in bush out kitchen window

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