Melting Down and Breaking Up

Spring finally showed up for real mid April and when she arrived it was with determined intensity. All the snow collapsed into big messy slushy piles during the warm sunny afternoons.

Crocus, on the Chitina River Bluff, are our first spring flower every April.

A robin, perched on the perennial garden fence, sang a morning song as I walked from the greenhouse to the house with a shovelful of burning coals. We have not been having a fire in the house lately as the morning chill usually passes quickly. But the ducklings are pig piled today under their brooder warmer and I thought they would appreciate the extra warmth. Since there was already a fire going in the greenhouse, the glowing coals make a quick and easy fire inside. A short while after the fire was going they were busy running around.

Ah, ducklings…they are one of my very favorite things about spring. Our eight bundles of fluff hatched in an incubator on top of our propane refrigerator on the 29th of April. Though we were moving the greenhouse across the yard that day, we stopped often when our daughter let us know another one was about to come out of the shell. It is always amazing to me to watch how they uncurl from within the shell and then stretch out, exhausted, and already trying to walk. The next day the cycle of voracious eating and playing with water begins (and never ends!) Eat, drink, sleep, repeat.

First one to hatch!

The big ducks spent the winter in the greenhouse until spring melt flooded it out (hence the moving it across the yard…), then in the old empty pig pen which was clean and dry under the roof, and then in the pallet duck house that we had to wait to put back together once the snow had melted back enough. I let them out the other day and when I went to shut them in for the night they were no longer in the yard. We found them swimming happily in Sandpiper bog, the little slough adjacent to our lake and not inclined at all to head home. One swamp water filled mud boot later, they were waddling home through the woods. Putting up a duck fence is now on the to do list. The ducks are a new but necessary part of the farm providing eggs and amusing company but most importantly, slug eating tendencies. The introduced non-native and invasive garden slug has no coevolved local bacterial or fungal foe or native predators. In addition because they are hermaphrodites, every single slug is able to lay eggs. Beside manual removal, rotating the ducks through our lawn and gardens is my only hope of controlling the slug population.

What a mess!
The ducks thought the pond was pretty cool even when it filled up the greenhouse and soaked all their bedding.

Break up started in earnest April 12 for us. Just two days before on the 12th, the morning temperature at 7 AM was negative 21° F. April is not my most favorite month. March is the best of winter with snow, ice fishing, sunshine and frozen rivers to explore. May is soil, leaves, nesting birds and wood frogs singing in the evening. April, however, is mud over frozen ground, soggy snow, dog turds and runoff. It is the frustrating time of transitioning from winter to summer. The permafrost melting under my perennial garden has created a low point in the yard that collects all that run off into a brown, murky April pond that lasts until the ground thaws enough for the drainpipe to work. With all the snow this year and then the rapid switch to 50 degree spring days, the spring garden pond filled rapidly.

Last November we moved the greenhouse (a homemade 10 by 20 foot gothic frame) to a temporary location next to the perennial garden fence by the lake with three sleds full of dunnage and a snow machine. I needed to be able to use it this year but have it out of the way so I could do dirt work and start building a bigger and better insulated greenhouse that could be used earlier in the spring for a propagation house. We are a family of four in a pretty small home that gets overrun with plant trays every spring. With the kids both homeschooling, it can feel even more cramped. Once the April days get warm, the plants move outside during the day and inside at night but by the end of the month we are shlepping a lot of trays. I have to prioritize what I can start because I am limited by space. The farm desperately needs a prop house. As we brought trays in and out this year to where we had set the greenhouse up in November, now with break up run off and uneven ground, I realized this would not work for the season. I could not heat the greenhouse with the large gaps from uneven ground and with the impending arrival of ducklings (and meat chicks due to arrive in a few weeks) that need inside space, we had to get the plants out of the house to make room for raising this years birds. This time we used a 4 wheeler, an old low homestead trailer and our backhoe with forks to move it across the yard to a flat graveled area on the pad behind the house. Much better! The plants all moved out permanently that night and with the greenhouse fire perking along every night, they are growing rapidly. Our house always feels inordinately larger than before without the tables of plant trays. The only downside is that I have to get up at 3 AM to stoke the fire.

Moving the greenhouse to a better location after the pond receded.
All snug in its new temporary home.
Babies!

I had to build another screen table to be able to hold all the trays and luckily had enough hardware cloth left in the roll from the two I built last fall for a 9 foot table. With the way lumber prices have skyrocketed, Tim is calling this my $500 table.

With the greenhouse sorted out, my priority projects this week are catching up on seeding and then finishing spring pruning before anything starts to leaf out. After that I really need to mix potting soil for my tomatoes and peppers and then get my low tunnels planted and set up for some early greens. It is wonderful to be working outside again.

The snow is almost completely gone and the lake ice is becoming rotten.

The bugs have emerged from their winter slumber. I had a bumble bee trapped in the greenhouse that I relocated to the garden. I fed a caterpillar on my currant bush to my favorite chicken. The mosquitos have arrived in force to pester our evenings outside. And many many more flies, moths, and other creatures are flying around in the warmer hours of the day. The soundtrack to my days outside is no the longer deep muffled silence of winter but bird song as they make their nests, frog croaks as they search for mates, buzzing insects, and running water.

I do love spring poetry units and the writing assignments! My daughter often writes about things I love dearly. Lucky me!

“The Bee”

She lands on a Plant

Coating her legs in Pollen

Soaking up the Sun.

Sylvia Nelson

From my garden to yours, I wish you happy growing!

Spring?!?

We are starting to sound like a broken record around here.

Will spring ever arrive?

While the sun is above the horizon for 14 hours and 19 minutes today and it is glaringly bright (even shining in the north windows in the mornings now), the temperature at 7:30 AM Alaska time was -21 degrees Fahrenheit. Did I mention it is almost mid April? I mean, sure, we all know that the summer season in Alaska is short and intense but usually winter does not stay through mid April. There is only a small amount of melt in evidence…a few patches on the plowed road that show through the snowpack, a widening of brown at the base of the spruce trees, the slow slide of snow and ice on shed roofs. But overall, it is still cold, we still have a lot of snow, and while I have tried very hard to be positive and accept that I have no control over the weather, with the howling windstorm two nights ago that shook our house and now the bitter cold of sub zero temperatures, I am over it. Time for spring already! I have plant starts that are not super happy with cabin window life and I have delayed starting any more the last several weeks as I am unsure at what point I will be able to fire up the greenhouse this year. Space inside is at a premium and I am running out of indoor room.

A tiny bit of the McCarthy Road is starting to melt out. But very, very slowly.

I have spent more time dreaming and planning with this winter weather. I want to finish our root cellar and build a passive solar seed starting house. I want to streamline and organize some of the ways my farm business operates so that it is more efficient, especially spring seed starting. I would like, after spending 19 years in Alaska doing the best I can with whatever materials I have, to make something from scratch, or with new materials, or with a real plan. Something that will be pretty, useful, and long lasting. It is a pipe dream. I don’t have any paying work lined up this summer and the farm barely pays for itself. But that does not stop the dreaming! In April I walk a couple of miles nearly every day on the McCarthy Road for our annual 30 miles in 30 days fundraiser for our local fire department. It is good motivation and a good time of year to watch our world transition to the summer season. Another perk is running into friends traveling the road, especially this year when we have been cloistered in our cabin, a world of only 4. Social distancing is easy when a truck pulls up and you can chat for a while from the side of the road. I love these spontaneous visits. You never know who you might run into! Last week I ran into a good friend of ours and we covered a lot catching up since the last time we had seen him: businesses stuff, weather, backcountry trips, homeschool, summer plans. While talking about the woes of trying to build out here with no money, no labor force, and few supplies, he told me this quote.

We have done so much for so long with so little that we can now do practically anything with nothing.

Anonymous

While attributed to arising in the U.S. military, I have never heard a quote that better described rural Alaskan living. This is true and I admire the ingenuity of the folks around me. Still, I dream of building something from a plan, from scratch, with all new materials. I can not help it. Luckily dreams are free!

The upside of an extended winter is that we have been able to enjoy the fun parts of the frozen season a bit longer this year. Last weekend we cut some firewood for the greenhouse and fished for a rainbow trout dinner at a nearby lake.

The weekend before that Tim and Sylvia went on a father/daughter fishing trip to Paxson Lake and caught 2 burbot and a lake trout. I have wanted to eat burbot for over 15 years and finally got the chance! It is the only cod with a fresh water habitat and having grown up on the Maine coast with the lore of Grand Banks cod fishing my whole childhood, I loved getting to try our Alaska version. They are extremely slow growing so you are not allowed to keep too many. We cooked a poor mans lobster recipe by dropping it into boiling salted and sweetened water. Then we ate the pieces dipped into butter. Yum!

We still have plenty of snow to scoot the snowmobiles around and every few days the past few weeks, it has snowed a little bit more. Some years the snowmobiles have been put away for the season by now or are perched behind the house on the last clump of snow in the yard. We had an egg hunt for the homestead cousins last Sunday and several eggs got lost in the snow! It was hard to be clever with hiding brightly colored eggs in a primarily white landscape but we all had a lot of fun.

It has warmed up some, or should I say, we have had a few warm days. It is not the deep freeze of mid winter and the sun, when the wind is not blowing, is deliciously warm. It was warm enough to melt out the chicken coop which rapidly gets disgusting in the spring. All winter long the coop stays frozen and I sprinkle fresh straw over the accumulation of droppings. The layers of straw and poo get pretty deep by spring and it gets really wet in there when it starts to thaw out a winters worth of frost. It is pretty important for the health of the chickens and the cleanliness of the eggs to muck it out as soon as possible. I spent March 30th tackling that project.

Three or four snowmobile sled loads later…

The chickens always crack me up during this process. Every forkful of old bedding uncovers something new and exciting (for them). They scratch and peck while I maneuver the mostly still frozen bedding chunks through the doorway and into the sled. But they really get excited when the new straw is forked inside.

Just over a week ago we got a dozen Ancona duck eggs from Corbin Creek Farm in Valdez and put 11 of them in our new incubator (one was cracked).

An exciting mail day when the incubator and chick warmer arrived this late winter!

So far so good. When Sylvia and I candled them on the 7th, all 11 showed normal signs of development.

While it is clear, cold, and brilliantly sunny today, our forecast is predicting a change in weather. A change, perhaps, in seasons. A chinook wind bringing rain and warmer temperatures should transition this frigid landscape into the wet, squishy, muddy mess that is usually April. Break up is not usually my favorite time of year but in all my 18 years of Alaska living, I have never looked forward to it quite this much! Bring on the mud. Bring on open water. Bring on the smell of earth waking after a long slumber. I have never been more ready than now for Spring!

Cold temps but longer days. I took this picture after 7 PM on March 27. Sun after 7!
Two weeks later and the snowpack looks much the same.

From my (still frozen) garden to yours, I wish you happy growing!