Sunday, April 16, 2017

34 Degrees - Spring is Here!

Anyone looking at these photos might understandably doubt my assertion that spring has arrived.  We still have 1-2 feet of snow throughout the yard.  Temperatures linger below freezing past breakfast.  In fact, the iced tea I store on the back porch overnight flows around a frozen chunk at 11 am.

But even my chickens know that spring has arrived; they have started to lay eggs daily.
The snow recedes

The sun, which barely rose above tree top level in February now soars overhead, granting us 15+ hours of sun per day, so we retired the floor lamps to an outbuilding until September. Outside, the snow surface is degrading.  Along south and west facing hills it is sloughing down in sinuous lines.  In flat meadows it is pitted and pockmarked as it settles.  A sole pool of water is widening in one shallow spot along the lakeshore - perhaps the first spot where pike will spawn.

Proving some dimly recalled childhood science experiment, dark surfaces dramatically demonstrate the seasonal shift.  Feather-light leaves and twigs sink several inches into the snow as the sun hits them.  Once the tops of raised garden planks, stumps, firewood, and chunky rocks around the fire pit emerge from the subsiding snow, the sun heats them so they can quickly shed their winter coats.  Bare earth expands beneath spruce trees,  looking like growing brown islands in a sea of white.  When the islands start to connect, I enjoy a daily game of  “hide and seek.”

Wearing boots in chill mornings of hard snow or snowshoes in the slushier conditions of warmer afternoons, I scrutinize newly exposed earth for “aha” glimpses of initial spring greenery.  Each day, I delight in some new "discovery."  It amazes me to see perfectly formed plants growing under the snow, too vulnerable to touch, but hardy and resilient in our cold climate.  The first plant I spied this year was a tiny raspberry cane with two leaves, beneath a spruce tree. It was surrounded by a winter's pile of scat from the spruce grouse that huddled above for so many months. Nearby, the ruby red spring tips of highbush cranberry caught my eye. Pulling back the mulch on a garden, I found “old reliable” - the tangled matts of  grass-like chives - as well as a delicate frond of salad burnet (which is an old fashioned salad green that smells and tastes like cucumber). On April 9,  I discovered a bright green dandelion rosette still shielded from the cold and wind by a crystaline shelf of rotting ice, one incipient aster, and an anise scented yarrow leaf.  More will follow, faster and faster.

Speaking of resilience, what survival mechanisms enable insects to survive, especially after this winter of belated, low snow cover and periods of deep cold (minus 22F to minus 33F)?
Very cold a few months ago
The other day, a cold-clumsy bumble bee bumped into my husband, and a yellow jacket checked me out, months before s/he could spoil a picnic. Black flies mate noisily near me on sun warmed porches.  Delightfully, one of our four beehives survived the cold and its residents are emerging mid-day.  I spotted one sipping water from a puddle in front of the food shed.  Bryan sees them dancing in communication in front of their hive.  What do all these insects find to eat now?  We will be interested to see how this second year hive compares to the “nucs” (nuclear units of a queen and a starter colony) that we have ordered from California and will pick up once the lake thaws and we can fly to town to retrieve them.

Birch sap collection
On April 11, the ten day birch sap run started.  We make “pinky finger bets” on this decisive date each year, but so far, neither has ever gotten it just right. This year is 9 days later than in 2016, but a month earlier than 2015.  So far, only the four trees closest to the lake (west) are dripping into the collection tank. Soon the other 30 tapped trees uphill will follow.  For the next fortnight, we will enjoy the smoky caramel scent that wafts over “the syrup deck”, as we feed vast quantities of wood into the outdoor woodstove (called an evaporator) about 10 hours per day to reduce one line's sap to syrup (100:1 ratio). The other line's sap will be used straight, in the kitchen for cooking, and for fermenting five gallons each into wine and beer.  I hold my breath, feel my heart beat, and watch the time lapse speed of an Alaskan spring, as dormant plants are very literally springing back to vigorous life.

When the sap slows, we'll pull the taps, check the holes for any signs of infection and smile as the birch trees green up, transforming the previously brown and white landscape with a first burst of color.  The second week, small birch leaves furnish our first outdoor salad greens. Bon apetit!

For us, spring ends when the frozen lake thaws.  One night, we will watch ice floes careening around in a wind and the next morning, usually in mid-May, I will wake up to the sound of water lapping outside my bedroom window.  That day, we kayak around the lake looking for moose calves (and cows) hidden in the shadows. Another summer.  Another season.

I love the clear transitions here.  Each one offers or ends a special “use it or lose it” opportunity and the attending message to enjoy each day.  No more snow ice cream.  Birch syrup anyone?  Or a birch leaf salad? 


  1. Jenny from Australia here. Do you have a lot of bugs that bite at this time of year? I mean like mosquitos or march flies.

  2. Dear Jenny: Our first bugs of the year are gnats, which last for 3-7 days. They don't bite at all, but they coat white surfaces and seem to swarm right outside any door. The next are mosquitoes. In Southcentral Alaska, they are worst the first half of June, so I am just now lighting smokers and spritzing myself with vinegar based solutions I mixed with aromatic herbs that I hope will keep them at bay while I paint and weed and other "standing still" projects.

    I have not heard of March Flies here.

    I hope that you are not suffering from the depleting water tables I hear for some of Australia.

  3. I live in the east in a city called Melbourne. I believe the water tables are in good nick around here. The Western Australian (WA) state has the badly managed water table issues. And Victoria, the state that Melbourne is the capital of, does have what we call salt sinks, in the west. Smallish plots of abused land that are heavily salted.
    March flies are big fat flies that bite. Along with the Mossie (mosquito) they are summers worst companions.
    However we try to bot have still water about out homes so that the mossie doesn't breed. And we're big fans of frogs and lizards for pools of water, such as dams and billabongs.