Talkeetna, AK, May 31-2, 2017

A NWS Sidetrip: Talkeetna, AK, May 31-2, 2017

This didn’t set out as a Northwest Soundscapes Project trip. I joined my wife in Anchorage for a few days at the start of a summer camp she was helping with and was offered the chance by the camp director to borrow a yurt in Talkeetna for a few days, most likely that I wouldn’t be underfoot for the rest of the camp. Actually just outside of Talkeetna, and a couple miles into the boreal taiga, the yurt was a short hike from Long Lake, a beautiful clear lake that I spent two happy days canoeing on, bringing along my recorder & microphones.

The first day, I noticed two loons floating in a small inlet by one of the islands on the lake. They were diving, swimming around getting their food, and popping back to the surface. Just living their lives. I just noticed that they favored one particular side of the lake, so I made a point to come back the next day when I would hopefully be able to be there during the twilight hour. That next night I got in the canoe around 11 PM. Sunset wasn’t supposed to be until close to midnight with last light well after 1:30 AM. I drifted out onto the lake, and as I did I heard a splash and sniffling sounds from behind. I turned to look and saw two river otters bobbing up and down in the water snorting at me playfully. They would bob up and down at a distance of about 15 feet, dart under the water to swim away, and reappear about 40 or 50 feet away. Bobbing and snorting at me, staring, after a moment they slowly swam in my direction. When they got within 15 feet of  me they darted back under the water and reappeared about 50 feet away. The whole thing just kept repeating, cycling over and over. I felt like they wanted me to follow them. So I did.

 I slowly paddled my canoe after them, following the line of bubbles they left behind as they swam. This went on for quite some time, maybe 10-15 minutes. The otters would appear from underwater and snort and bob. I would paddle after them. When I got close enough, they would dart underwater and swim off, and I would follow the bubbles. It felt like I was playing with two childhood friends. After a chasing around a few small islands and peninsula we arrived at the other side of the lake. It’s not big lake, but we ended up on a distant shore near a beaver lodge. When the otters approached the lodge there was a growl from within. The otters dipped beneath the water and swam away. I never saw them again. “You annoying rascals,” I thought. “You lured me away from my loons.”

Somewhat disappointed and believing that I wouldn’t be able to find the loons, I hauled myself over to the shore a little bit away from the beaver lodge, hoping that maybe I could at least record the beavers at some point this evening. I knew that I would be able to record the loons at least from a distance, but I’d been hoping for something closer. I pulled the canoe up on the shore and climbed up a little hillock to see what was on the other side. I always look for a good place for the microphones to sit before deciding if that’s really where I want to be. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I was on a thin isthmus directly opposite from the loons I’d been hoping to see. My mic cables were just long enough to reach over the hill crest and position. Those little rascal otters, instead of leading me away brought me directly to the best place to sit and wait.

It was nearing sunset, so I started recording. Sunset in Alaska very very long thing at this time of the night and it’s not a true set. Dusk only starts around 11:30 PM. Twilight begins around 1:30 AM and ends around 3:30 AM. There was blue sky above me the entire time and no stars. That may be old hat to residents up here, but I’d never experienced it. I like it.

Really soft! I didn’t know when loons were supposed to call. I’d read that they call at dusk, at twilight, at dawn… It seemed there was different “time” for loons to call merely depending upon what I read. I just hoped they would call while I was around.

The moss in the taiga is thick, soft, and heavily insulating. Pulling up a fleece blanket, I lay down for a nice night of listening.

Listening for these long periods seem like they should be tiring, but they aren’t. The first hour is just getting used to the life and letting the life get used to me. It’s important to sit still and not impose yourself on the surroundings. Some recordists like to drop their recorders for long recordings, leaving them out, and listening later to what they have captured. I have a difficult time doing that. There’s something about being present for the surprise that makes it feel real to me. Identify!My notes are scrawled with time-stamps and comments like, “What’s that whizzy-whistle bird on left? IDENTIFY?” or Sniffling jets??!?“LOUD sniffling….more sniffling…. recordist’s cough.” Sometimes there are gems along the lines of “Swainson’s Thrush!!!”If this is Swainson's heaven, what's Swainson's hell like?

If I listened through for the first time only later, I’d press pause and only document things I wanted to keep, without maintaining the excitement of being there. Being ale to take off my headphones and still hear the soundscape I’m recording is a privilege I can’t let go of. Craning my neck to see where a sound is coming from, without moving so much to disturb anything, is part of the fun and the challenge.

Speaking of Swainson’s Thrushes, these magical singers filled the forest. I’m not accustomed to hearing more than one at a time in Washington. Usually they’re just passing through… on their way to Alaska. Sometimes I’ll hear two at a great distance from each other. Here there were so many their songs stumbled on top of each other. They sing with a softly upward-spiraling flute-like song that swirls into a whisper that managed to echo throughout the forest.

Throughout the night other sounds came and went. There were some woodpeckers that darted about. An American Robin sang for a while after midnight, then seemed to remember what time it was and silenced. A raven periodically croaked and flew overhead, confusing me with a sound that felt not dissimilar to that of a Sandhill Crane. There were plenty of birds I didn’t recognize, of course, so I’ll be looking for help making the identifications.

At one point I heard what were either really big coyotes or wolves. I need to listen back later to hear if I can tell. When I pull that recording out I’ll add it to the playlist for this trip. I’ve never heard wolves in the wild. Plenty of coyotes, but no wolves. It’s possible I was just hearing feral dogs, or maybe even sled dogs. Exhilarating, nonetheless.

A beaver swam about after twilight really began. I love watching beavers. They scoot speedily across the lake, looking like they’re on a mission. But just before the water gets shallow they look like they’ve just realized they left the stove on and turn around to scoot back the way the came. But no, they didn’t forget, and turn around again. Back and forth they go. Later they begin territorially slapping the water with their tail. It seems that way me, of course. They could just be feeding, and slapping the tail helps them dive down somehow. But when they do this they don’t stay down for long.

Around 2:30 AM I’d begun to wonder if I’d missed the loons. Perhaps they’d swam off? Maybe they flew off? I heard splashing and flying earlier that I’d thought were ducks — there were quacks — but now I feared I was wrong. This was my last night on the lake and the only I stayed out all night for. Should I just pack cup and go? Or maybe I should let myself drift off to sleep.

I went with the sleep. The moss was soft, after all. No sooner had I closed my eyes but it happened: the first mournful wail, and from not far away either.  Three in all, it was the wail of one half of a breeding pair, wondering where the other half could be. In the distance I vaguely heard an answer. Their rich, sonorous voice carries far over the clear lakes, reverberating off the water and trees in distinct echoes that fade into a distant wash.

I smiled. I felt like a real recordist now. Sure, people record loons all the time. But this was my moment!

Fifteen minutes later began the tremolos. These are the “hear I am! This is MY lake!” territorial calls that can be a bit raucous. I have a feeling the birds nearby making the racket were female (or a female and a juvenile male) because the only male hooting I heard was in the distance. The male hoots sound a bit like screeching gulls, and it makes me wonder if I’ve heard loons in the past but didn’t realize it.

Soon it was over. The moment I’d eagerly awaited had passed. Other fliers came in and out. There was a brief “chorus” and the seemingly endless Swainson’s Thrushes transitioned into other more typically morning singers. Robins became more abundant. It was time for me to go.

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