The Great One

-By Michael Pickering

One tour of Denali National Park is a bus ride on a dirt and stone road.  The buses are old but so well designed that they are easy to maintain in good working order and well suited to the motorway.  The motorway is in itself a thing of beauty and wonder.  A notch on the flank of a mountain that persists, with some hand maintenance, intact in spite of the onslaught of enormous amounts of erosive rain, snow, and wind.  It is a day replete with photo opportunities, epic vistas, glaciers disguised as mountains, wildlife and flowers, and the lore of Alaska.

Denali Alaska State Flower – the Forget Me Not

When anyone on the bus sees a critter they yell out and the tour guide/bus driver stops and adjusts the position so that all who want a photo can get a good shot.  The grizzlies are much smaller than the famous Kodiaks, as they eat little meat.  They are also blonde, not dark brown, so they are easy to spot at a distance.

Grizzly Crossing Grizzly Bear and her cubs

Denali is the indigenes’ name for Mount McKinley.  It was and is formed by a rising granite pluton that is still growing.  His wife, Mount Foraker, was similarly formed.  All the posters of Mt. McKinley on display had the named taped over and the handwritten DENALI in its place.

Denali National Park and Preserve Denali

When the old world migrants traveled across the land bridge to Alaska, they encountered two main tribes and their languages.  The descendants of these peoples in the lower 48 states are Apaches and Navahos, as evidenced by custom and vocabulary.  Native Alaskans call themselves “sourdoughs,” although all those that I met did not know the origin of the term.  Being a Californian, I of course informed them.  Non-natives can achieve “sourdoughness” by staying for three to four years.  It is sort of a tenure track.  To a person, they are Alaskan.  We, the other 49, are America.  The sourdoughs like to tease Texans (who doesn’t?) by telling them that if Alaska was cut in half, Texas would be the third largest state.  They are also welcoming and generous.  One sensed my interest in plants and spontaneously gave me a recipe for a hypoallergenic flower infusion called “homesteaders honey.”  Of course I will.  

The grandeur of Alaska is enough to draw worldwide tourism, as the languages spoken on our train ride and bus tour can attest.  For us, however, it was our first opportunity to visit our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, who had moved to Anchorage a year earlier.  The train ride across the state and bus tour in the park were our mutual amusement. 

Me (left) and the family Mt. Eielson

The title of this column is “Random Tangents.”  It was assigned to me by the editor, Wendy.  The “T” part I get; I regularly spout them during discussions.  To me, the “T’s” are perfectly germane.  The “R’s” are different though.  The “R” part I suspect is a kindness.  I think it’s the editor cutting me some slack.  So it isn’t a job, like a 500 word essay an assigned topic; an opportunity to be creative and/or amusing.

RANDOM: The eight hour train ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks is lined with antique telephone poles.  Most of the glass insulators, predominantly blue, are still in place.  For that matter, so is much of the wiring. 

TANGENT: It intercepted me ¾ of the way into the bus tour.  The topic was about the cyclic relationship between the snowshoe hares and the bobcats.  They are locked in an approximately seven year cycle of too many and too few.  Those studying the relationship are looking for a correlation factor.  One theory is that it is related to sunshine.  Sun spot/flare activity has a seven year cycle.  I suspect something more prosaic.  The hares preferred food is Willow outer bark.  Willow is the most common bush in the lowlands.  The decline in the hare population is caused by an increasing amount of salicylic acid ingestion.  It weakens the hare, causing attrition and sickens the bobcats alike.

Since the salicylic acid is synthesized only in the inner bark, the Cambrian layer, perhaps the hares engineer their own decline.  After denuding the environment of outer bark, only inner bark is available for forage.  Maybe, exposed to the sun, the Cambrian produces excessive salicylic acid, accelerating the die-off.



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