Bears, wolves, wolverines and lynx. All rank high on the lists of animals that people wish to see when coming to Alaska. However in a state located so far north, population densities remain small. The coupling of minimal vegetative diversity and a harsh climate make for an environment that is unfriendly to large populations. Despite this reality, many arrive to Alaska with the notion that animals abound throughout the state. Packs of bears, millions of caribou and wolves behind every hill fill the imagination. Alas, for those who travel throughout Northern Alaska are often lucky to leave with the sight of a moose at best. That is not to say there aren’t animals travelling throughout the area. But the animals that are in mass, are different than what most perceive. It is the small mammals and birds that can thrive and exist in small numbers throughout Alaska. Animals like the raven, gray jay, snowshoe hare and red squirrel.
In the distant time, the land was dark. Light was horded by the rich and people were forced to exist and hunt in the darkness. Raven ultimately tricked the people into giving him the light and then he released it for all to see. This story is part of the mythology of the Koyukon people and similar stories can be found throughout Alaska. The raven’s presence is pernicious throughout native lore, helping people in one instance, whether it’s bringing them light or delivering them from a flood, or tricking them the next. The sound of its wings flapping above is distinct in the forest or on the tundra. The raven is seen in urban environments, in remote mountain valleys and from south to north and east to west across the state. Like us humans, it is able to adapt to changing environments.
Two months ago, I was kneeling outside on the snow, dressing out a caribou that I had received from the trooper. There were a few areas that were particularly bloody and I trimmed around the meat, tossing the discarded portions off to the side. It wasn’t long before I heard activity stirring in the trees overhead. Within a moment, the bird landed by my side, hopping along on the ground in search of a scrap of food.
While there are hundreds of different bird species that travel to Alaska, only a handful stay throughout the year. Besides the raven, one of the most notorious is the Gray Jay. This bird is also known as the camp robber for its propensity to take whatever food scraps lie unprotected. Throughout the summer season, the Gray Jays are moving throughout the forest, picking berries and green vegetation to store among one of their thousand plus caches. Some of the jays are more accustomed to being fed at certain locations along the roadway. The arrival of the car will soon result in the birds flying to a perch in branches above. Holding a piece of food between index finger and thumb, with the other fingers outstretched, will bring the bird down to its new perch at the edge of your hand.
At night when all is still, you can hear a stirring among the spruce trees and willows at the edge of the yard. To the uninitiated, it may provoke the thoughts of a bear or larger animal lurking in the shadows of the night. But this sound isn’t emitting from a predator, but the small snowshoe hare as it reaches up and strips the bark off the willows for food. Sightings of the hare can be innumerable to non-existent as the species population oscillates back and forth over the years. In years of plenty, hares cover the valley floors and stretch up the mountain sides, foraging wherever there is a source of food. But soon enough, the bunnies outstrip the carrying capacity of their environment and end up crashing in a dramatic fashion.
There are a few animals that are familiar sights around the cabin. I came to expect to find a snowshoe hare feeding on twigs at a brush pile next to my cabin. Young gray jays made noises in the spruce trees above as they flew from branch to branch. Yet, the most reliable neighbor has been the red squirrel, located a few steps down the pathway from the cabin. In the summer time, like all other red squirrels, he is busy running to and fro collecting spruce cones for the winter season. Come winter, there is less activity as the sun nears the horizon. Upon its return, one can soon find the red squirrel perched on an old spruce pole munching away at one of his stored goods from his cache. Some days he is friendlier then others. On occasion, moving within close proximity of the squirrel or its midden will draw a chattering that fails to cease until a safe distance is restored.
These animals aren’t as stimulating as those larger mammals and birds that frequent the area. But their presence is still welcomed. For those who live in the area, these are the animals that one encounters most and you are able to notice characteristics and habits of each individual. It is a beauty that is understood and seen on a much more subtle level.