I have always been fascinated by poisonous plants. I write murder mysteries, and what better murder weapon than a toxin from a naturally occurring plant? We have several poisonous plants here on Kodiak Island, and over the next few weeks, I will describe a few of them.
In the summer, most of Kodiak Island is covered by a dense jungle-like growth. We have beautiful wildflowers and plants bearing delicious berries, including salmonberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, crowberries, watermelon berries, and others. Rhubarb and raspberries planted by early settlers remain abundant in some areas.
There are a few plants here, though, that are not so innocent. The sap and outer hairs of cow parsnip, locally called pushki and one of the most prolific plants on the island, contains the chemical furanocoumarin which causes an extreme sensitivity to light. If a person comes into contact with the sap of a cow parsnip plant, within a few days, he will likely develop a red, itchy rash and blisters on the area the sap touched. These blistering sores last for days or weeks. I often use a weed eater to clear vegetation around the house, and I’ve learned the hard way not to cut cow parsnip with a weed eater because when the sap flies from the plant and splatters my hands and face, I know I will have painful, ugly, red welts in a few days. Some people are not allergic to cow parsnip, and others are so allergic they will react if they merely touch the stems or leaves of the plant.
Nettles are another troublesome plant on Kodiak. Fine, stinging hairs cover the leaves of a nettle. Some researchers believe formic acid causes the hairs to sting, while others attribute the sting to a histamine compound. If you touch the leaves of a mature plant, you will feel a prick, much like a wasp’s sting. The pain may last for a few hours but will eventually subside. Nettles lose their sting when cooked and taste delicious, much like spinach. Nettles also have many medicinal applications and may be used to ease sore muscles and joint inflammation
While these plants can be irritating and painful and make walking through the dense vegetation on Kodiak a challenge, neither cow parsnip nor nettles will kill a human. Over the next few weeks, I will cover the deadly toxic plants we have in our area and give accounts of cases where they have been used both in literature and in the real world.
Last week, I wrote about my next novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, and I promised some excerpts from the book over the next few weeks. This excerpt is a portion of the Prologue. A 17-year-old girl is running an aluminum fishing boat from a Fourth of July party at a cannery on Kodiak Island back to her family’s commercial fishing site. It is getting windy; she is plowing through large waves and begins to have engine problems.
Deanna pushed the throttle forward too fast and plowed into a wave, taking a shower of spray over the bow. The cold salt water smacked her in the face, and she gasped for air. The engine quit again.
“No!” She slammed the clutch into neutral and twisted the key – nothing. She tried again, but no luck. She turned the key several more times in rapid succession. The boat turned sideways in the heavy seas, waves rocking it violently from side to side. Deanna’s heart hammered in her chest.
“Calm down, calm down, calm down! You’ve got this, Deanna Kerr. You are seventeen years old, not a little kid. Think!” She unhinged the hood from the outboard, her hands shaking so badly she could barely hang onto it. She set the hood on the deck and stared at the shiny metal cowling. Panic started to overtake her. She had no idea how to fix this type of engine.
“Think!” She commanded herself. The engine isn’t getting fuel. It must be a fuel filter problem. A wave poured over the side of the boat, filling it with several inches of water. She fumbled for the bailer and started scooping water out of the boat, but then another wave hit and more water poured over the side. She had to get the engine started and get out of the trough of the waves; the boat would fill with water if she sat here very long. She realized for the first time that her father had forgotten to give her a handheld VHF radio to carry in the skiff. She should have remembered to ask for one. If she had a radio, she could call for help.
Another wave crashed over the side of the skiff, and Deanna reached for the bulb on the gas line and pumped furiously. She turned the key. The engine coughed and died. “Please God, make it work!” She tried again but no luck. A wave struck her broadside and nearly knocked her out of the boat. She fell on her knees in the water in the bottom of the skiff. She looked for water in the fuel filter, but she didn’t see any. Maybe the filter was plugged by something. She opened the tool box secured to the inside of the hull. Her hands shook as she grabbed the filter wrench and fought to loosen the filter from the fuel line. Maybe she could bypass the filter. She tried to think. What would her dad do? She wasn’t sure how to bypass the filter. She pulled out the old filter and looked at it, but it looked fine. She had no time to think; she grabbed another filter and secured the housing. As she stood, another wave hit her and knocked her back into the bottom of the skiff. She chanced a glance at the angry ocean. Conditions were worsening at an alarming rate. Around her, whitecaps piled one on top another, but even more ominous was the black ocean toward the north, toward her home.
Deanna pumped the bulb on the fuel line again. She said a quick prayer and turned the key. Nothing. She heard herself sob before she even realized she was crying. She didn’t know what else to do. There were oars in the skiff, but she would never be able to row against these waves. She would just have to hope the storm blew her back to shore before the skiff filled with water or capsized. She took several deep breaths and thought about home. When she got back to the fish site, her mother would make her change out of her wet clothes while she made Deanna a cup of hot chocolate. Then, mom would wrap her in a quilt and stroke her head until she fell asleep. Of course, Dad would never let her take the skiff out alone again, but right now, Deanna didn’t care about that. She would be happy never to get on another boat in her life.
Over the roaring wind and pounding waves, Deanna thought she heard an engine. She stood, but her legs were trembling so badly she sat again, and then she saw it, approaching from the north. She rubbed her eyes, hoping she wasn’t hallucinating, but no, it was real, and it was coming straight for her. She was sure the driver of the other boat could see her, even with the swell and high waves, but just to be certain, she stood, waved her arms, and yelled at the top of her voice. She wiped her eyes and nose. Now that it looked as if she was going to be rescued, she didn’t want anyone to know she had been frightened and crying.
The other boat pulled alongside. “Are you okay?” The captain called.
“Thank God! What are you doing here?”
“I’ll toss you a line. Tie a bridle at the bow.”
“Okay. I can do that.” Deanna stood, but her legs were shaking so much she had to brace herself against the gunnel and pull herself to the bow of the boat. The skipper of the other boat tossed her a line, but with her trembling fingers, she couldn’t hang onto it. His next toss was harder than the first, and the heavy line slapped her in the face. She grabbed the line and pulled it into the boat. She knew how to tie a bridle because her father had taught her. Her hands shook as she threaded the line through a hole on the port side of the skiff, across the bow, and through a hole on the starboard side of the skiff. She nearly dropped the line as she brought it back to the center of the boat, but she paused, took a deep breath, and focused on the line and what she was doing. The rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back in the hole. She pulled the line tight. She had it, a perfect bowline.
The skipper nodded and pushed the throttle forward. Deanna’s boat swung into line behind the other boat. She slumped onto the forward seat, shut her eyes, and allowed herself to dream about a cup of hot chocolate and her mother’s embrace.
Deanna only thought she was being rescued, and the situation was about to get much worse for her. Next week, I will reintroduce you to Jane Marcus, the protagonist in my first two novels. Please share any comments good or bad you have on my excerpts.
One of the main reasons Kodiak bears grow so much larger than inland grizzly bears is due to the abundance of food on Kodiak. Not only can bears feast on protein-rich salmon in the summer, but the archipelago is loaded with nutritious vegetation and sugar-packed berries. A brown bear’s jaws have powerful muscles and teeth that have evolved to adapt to an omnivorous diet of both plants and animals. Kodiak bears are opportunistic feeders. They eat roots, berries, grasses, sedges, wildflowers, wild celery, and other plants, as well as rodents, insects, large mammals (including deer and mountain goats), fish, carrion, and yes, unfortunately, garbage and pet food.
Bears’ stomachs contract during hibernation, and when they first leave their dens, they aren’t hungry. They eat little at first, concentrating on emerging plants and their roots. As the spring progresses, Kodiak bears can be seen feeding in grassy meadows and look much like grazing cattle. Their diet switches to salmon in the summer months, when they chase and catch fish in shallow streams or on the tidal flats near the heads of the deep, narrow bays on Kodiak. Bears also consume dead salmon that have washed up on shore. When the salmonberries, elderberries, crowberries, blueberries and other berries begin to ripen on Kodiak in late July and August, most bears spend at least part of their day in berry thickets, pulling the berries from the bushes with their lips and mouths. Salmon provide bears with fat and protein, and berries are high in natural sugars, all of which are important for building up a fat reserve for hibernation. As fall progresses, bears increase their consumption of salmon and berries as they strive to build up their fat layer before entering the den for hibernation. A diet rich in berries has its downside, though. Bears are one of the few wild animals susceptible to tooth decay. Abscessed teeth are not uncommon, and rotten teeth may affect the bear’s ability to eat and may even lead to starvation.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of bear viewing is watching a bear chase and catch a salmon. Sows teach their cubs how to fish and will often corral a salmon toward the cub in shallow water and then encourage the cub to chase the fish. A sow with newborn cubs that are still nursing will only allow her cubs to eat a small part of her catch after she has had her fill because she needs the extra protein to produce the milk to nurse her cubs, and the cubs are receiving most of their nutrition from her. As the cubs age, they nurse less, and the sow shares more of her catch with them. Finally, when they are old enough, she encourages them to fish on their own, and by the time the cubs are two years old, they can usually chase and catch a few salmon without the help of their mother.
Fishing is a skill bears learn with much practice over time, so young bears are often clumsy fishermen. A sub-adult bear may gallop back and forth in a stream for thirty minutes without successfully landing a salmon, while an older bear walks slowly downstream and pounces on a passing salmon with little effort. A bear may also develop his own unique fishing technique. One bear may sit on a fallen log hanging low over a stream and attempt to grab fish as they swim past. A second bear may “submarine” by dunking his head under water to watch for fish, and a third may obtain his fish by chasing another bear and stealing that bear’s catch.
ike and I just returned home after six weeks on the road. We had a great vacation, but as always, I am happy to be home, despite the cold weather and frozen waterline.
Spring is still two months away in this area of the world, and we’ve had a tough winter here. After several mild winters, the black-tailed deer population on the island had exploded, but many deer did not survive the freezing temperatures this winter. I haven’t had a chance to go hiking yet to see with my own eyes how bad the winter kill was, but I’ve heard it was bad. The cycling of deer populations is normal, of course, and the deer population here will recover, but I find it difficult to watch animals starve to death and die from exposure.
I was thrilled to get a dose of sunshine and heat on our vacation. We went sailing with friends in the British Virgin Islands, and then Mike and I traveled further south to Bonaire where we snorkeled and dived and enjoyed wearing fewer layers of clothes than normal. Besides spending time with friends, the best part of the vacation for me was that I could snorkel nearly every day. I studied marine and fisheries biology in college, and I have always been fascinated by the underwater world. I could float above a coral reef all day long, watching the interactions between the fish and marine invertebrates in that busy community. The area surrounding Bonaire is a protected marine park, so the coral is healthy, and the tropical fish thrive. I would grab my mask and fins, jump off the dock at our hotel, and instantly be immersed in a gorgeous, underwater world. Getting to Bonaire was not easy, but it was well worth the hassle to enjoy that little piece of paradise.
During the many, long plane rides and mornings on the sailboat on our trip, I had time to edit the manuscript of my latest novel. With each pass, I am polishing it into the story I want it to be. I think most authors would tell you editing is the least fun part of the writing process, but editing is necessary and can’t be avoided. In addition to questioning every comma and semicolon and trying to remember whether a character’s eyes are blue or brown, I worry that the plot moves forward in a logical progression. Will the reader be surprised or disappointed? Are the characters believable? Have I provided enough description or too much description? My working manuscript is long, so I’m concerned I need to cut some scenes. Luckily, I will get help answering these questions. Once I have the manuscript as perfect as I can make it, I will send it to a professional editor who will look at it line by line and then step back and consider the manuscript as a whole. A few friends have also volunteered to read the manuscript, and my publisher will read through it and give me his thoughts.
I also want to ask for your help with my manuscript. In a few weeks, I will post a few excerpts from the book, and I encourage you to let me know what you think, good or bad. I would much rather have the feedback now than read it in a review on Amazon once the book has been published!
Finally, I have a gift for my blog readers. Click on the cover of my book below and receive a free coupon for an e-book of my novel, Murder Over Kodiak. When you click on the link you will be taken to a site provided by my publisher, and you will need to register to download the book, but there is no catch. The book is yours free!
As many of you know, I write a monthly newsletter about crime and mysteries in Alaska. I think of spring as the start of the new season for my newsletter, and I have several interesting topics I plan to cover over the next months. My newsletters are free, and you can always unsubscribe if they aren’t for you. If you think you would be interested in my newsletters, you can sign up here.
A Kodiak bear’s coat may range from dark brown to nearly blonde. Bears are typically darker in the fall when they begin growing their winter coat, and older bears are often darker than younger bears, but these are just generalizations. One cub from a litter may be light, while his brother is dark brown.
Cubs often have a natal collar, a white band around the neck and shoulder. Some cubs have no natal collar, and others have a collar that is bright and distinct. This band gradually fades over time, and it has usually disappeared by the age of three, but occasionally, you will see a four-or-five-year-old bear that still has remnants of a collar.
A bear’s fur is an excellent insulator. It is dense and oily, keeping the bear warm and preventing water from penetrating. The fur consists of two types of hair, the “guard hair” and the “under-fur.” Bears shed both the guard hair and underfur annually. In the summer, Kodiak bears often appear shaggy and matted. The bear in the photo below looks as if she is sporting dreadlocks. To help remove their fur, bears rub against trees and rocks, often standing on their hind legs, backing up to a tree and rubbing up and down. It is humorous to watch a bear “scratch his back” in this manner. While the old coat is shedding, a new coat is growing, and by September on Kodiak, most bears appear darker in color and well-groomed. The old, loose fur is gone, and only the new fur remains.
Brown bears have non-retractable claws up to four-inches long. The claws of young bears are typically dark brown and then lighten with age. Although some young bears have light-colored claws, beautiful, pearly-white claws are usually seen on an old sow or boar. Look at the photos and notice the difference in claw coloration between the sub-adult bear and the old sow.
Brown bears use their claws to defend themselves and fight with other bears, but Kodiak bears primarily use their claws to dig for roots and other food and gripping food. Even though their claws look large and clumsy to us, they are quite dexterous and capable of manipulating small objects. Kodiak cubs use their claws to climb trees, but adult brown bears are poor climbers due to their body weight and the structure of their claws. It is not uncommon to see a sow send her small cubs up a tree if she senses danger, and they stay in the tree until she vocalizes the signal that it is safe for them to come down.
Bears, like all animals, depend on their senses to survive. They use their senses for many things, but especially to find food and detect possible threats. A bear’s sense of smell is its most important sense. A brown bear’s sense of smell is three to four times more sensitive than that of an average dog, and it is difficult for humans with our relatively poor sense of smell to comprehend what this means and how much a bear depends on this sense. A bear uses his nose to find food, locate a mate, and avoid danger. A bear downwind from you may smell your presence and run from you while you are still several hundred yards away from him.
A bear’s second most important sense is hearing. Brown bears have relatively small ears, but they can detect noises at a great distance. A bear can hear the click of a camera shutter over the sound of the wind, crashing waves, or a swiftly running river.
For a long time, biologists believed bears had poor eyesight, but scientific research has shown a bear’s eyesight is similar to that of a human’s. Bears are not nearsighted as was once believed, and they can see colors. Brown bears often stand on their hind legs to increase their sight distance and get a better look at an object. It is not a sign of aggression when a bear stands on its hind legs; the bear is just trying to gain more sensory input.
The important thing to remember is a bear does not use each one of these senses independent of the others. If a bear sees something unfamiliar in the distance, such as a person, a boat, or even another bear, he may stand on his hind legs to get a better look, raise his nose to attempt to smell the interloper, and pick up his ears to try to ascertain unfamiliar sounds. If he still cannot determine what the object is, he may approach it for a closer look or circle downwind from the object so that he can smell it better.
Next week, I’ll write about a bear’s fur and claws. Does a bear’s fur change with age? Why are some Kodiak bears blonde and others a chocolate-colored? What is the white ring some cubs have around their neck? How do the claws change with age?
If you haven’t signed up yet for my free monthly newsletter, don’t wait. You won’t want to miss this month’s newsletter about crime and justice during the Alaska Gold Rush written by Alaska historian and author Steven Levi.
Summer Friends at Amook Pass is a post by my friend, Marcia Messier. I love this humorous story about her animal encounters while she worked for us at Munsey’s Bear Camp. What Marcia doesn’t tell you in this piece is that I named our goat visitor Marcie because the goat’s daring trip each summer from the mountains to the ocean, reminded me of Marcia’s adventurous spirit. Prepare to smile as you read about Marcia’s adventures!
During the summer months at Amook Pass, the animals were my friends. That sounds a bit corny, but they were amusing, startling, and comforting, all that friends should be. I looked forward and anticipated who might stop by for a visit during my busy days.
I was privileged to know Gizzy, Fletcher, Elsie, and Olive during my summers at Munsey’s Bear Camp. They were my very best animal friends. I thought it was interesting that Gizzy and Olive had similar personalities as did Fletcher and Elsie; even though, they had never met. Gizzy and Olive were the sweet ladies, soft-spoken, polite, accommodating for a photo, well groomed, and perhaps just a little bit shy of visitors. Fletcher and Elsie, on the other hand, were true wilderness cats. Fletcher was getting along in years when I first met him, but he told me many a hair-raising tale about his hunting skills as a younger gentleman. Elsie was in her prime, and she loved to stalk bears for days on end. Many a time as Robin and I were mourning her early demise, we would hear Mike yell, “Elsie’s back!”, and there she would be, dragging herself through the door, ragged, dirty and ravenously hungry after her latest adventure.
Fletcher and Elsie loved to hunt voles, the tiny mouse-like creatures close to the bottom of the Kodiak food chain. They must be a very tasty snack because twice daily I’d find their tiny blue and green left-over parts deposited on the front door step. I used to tell myself they were loving gifts, but then again, whoever left the pieces always seemed slightly amused when I reached down to pluck the bits off the doorstep while making slight gagging sounds.
Freddie the Weasel became a daily late-afternoon house guest. Maybe the sound of the old generator starting up interrupted his afternoon nap. He’d shoot in the backdoor, zip through the kitchen and take cover under the couch in the living room to watch and learn about life in the big house. At first, I jumped and shrieked thinking he must be some kind of Kodiak rat, but later in the day, Robin calmly explained about weasels.
Gizzy and Fletcher were still with us then but getting along in years. They knew their limitations, so they decided to pretend Freddie was just a figment of my over-active imagination. Not wanting to insult them, I went along with the game and soon we all looked forward to Freddie’s daily antics. I knew when he heard the boat motoring up to the mooring; I would see the tail end of Freddie flip out the front door.
Early in the summer season, the female Sitka deer would bring their fawns into the yard to nibble the bright green salad-like greens growing around the cabins. Sometimes there would be twins, and I would think happy thoughts as I watched them through the kitchen window while preparing breakfast.
One day I came nose to nose with a deer! I was hurrying to the cabin with a load of fresh laundry, and we met coming around the corner at the same instant. We were both startled and just stared dumbfounded into each other’s eyes for a moment. I’m not sure who moved first, but a hunter later told me I was lucky it hadn’t given me a good kick in the shins before it bolted off! I guess that happens, but ours was a peaceful meeting, and I will forever remember that instant.
I live in Arizona, so the first time I saw a fox on the pathway, I excitedly reported to Mike I had seen a coyote in the yard that day. Laughing, he looked at me like I was nuts and said, “There are no coyotes on Kodiak Island!”. I felt a little foolish but still maintain at a distance, a big healthy Kodiak fox looks very much like a thin Arizona coyote in the summertime!
I’ve seen Bald Eagles before, but in Arizona, they are a special sighting. On Kodiak, they are commonplace, and I was thrilled to see a nesting pair close to camp. On my mid-day break, if the weather was good, I’d sit in a lawn chair facing the bay and watch the eagles fish. It was entertaining; an eagle would fly over the water and scope out a fish, and then in an amazing feet-first dive, catch the fish in its talons. After this, it was usually impossible to get airborne once again, so it had to row itself and the fish, still clutched in its talons, ashore with its wings. There, after expending so much energy, it would devour the fish and do it all over again.
More than once, on a nice day, while taking a siesta in the hammock, enjoying the warm sun on my face, I’d hear and feel the strong wing beats of a very large bird flying close over me, and I’d know I had been checked out by a Bald Eagle!
Some of you may have read my “Encounter” with a bear. I was walking along the path up to the guest cottage one afternoon, my mind far away, when I heard a “horse” snort. The sound brought me back to the present in a flash, and I must say, I have never confused the sound of a bear with that of a horse again!
A secret I’d like to reveal is Mike used to make a bear playground out of old red mooring buoys a distance up behind the generator shed. I heard him and Robin laughing once about how much fun the bears had rolling, tossing and chewing these old red buoys. I never did venture up past the generator shed and burn barrel. Wearing a red jacket, I didn’t want the bears to make a mistake. I did wonder if mother bears warned their cubs, “never go near that playground as there is a dangerous human there who makes frightening loud, smoky blasts come out of the shed and soon after makes fire leap high into the sky out of a barrel!” Thinking back, I was probably quite safe.
Marcie was my favorite yard animal. One warm July day, we spotted a solitary mountain goat strolling along the beach near camp. Mike and Robin reported this was indeed a rare sighting. We couldn’t help ourselves, Robin christened her Marcie, and we began to speculate about her life and why she was here on our beach. She was a rebel. Marcie was tired of billies, she had too many youngsters to raise, and the constant stress of all those steep icy mountain ledges was wearing her down. Maybe she had arthritis in her knees. Maybe she just wanted a vacation at the beach! We happily welcomed her, and for a number of years, she would appear for her annual July vacation at Munsey’s Bear Camp. One year she didn’t arrive. We looked and looked, but no Marcie. Right away we decided, instead of feeling sad, we would celebrate her life. We had a toast to Marcie, how brave she was to break away from the herd and dare to be different!
The sea otter is a zen-like sight floating on its back, paws pressed together as if in meditation pose. It’s a sweet maternal picture with mom floating on her back and a tiny baby resting on her belly. And how clever of them to use tools! They often are observed with a rock balanced on their belly, happily cracking open clams for lunch. Brilliant!
At Munsey’s Bear Camp, I often saw sea otters floating in the cove in front of the lodge, and the sea otters kept to themselves. Their cousins the river otters, however, were a different matter. A family of river otters took up residence under the dock. This dock was now their home, and no one else was welcome. The dock became their dining room and their toilet. A mop had to be stationed on the dock so that the horrid stinky mess could be swabbed away. The mop could also be used as a defensive tool.
With guests arriving and departing from the dock every five days, caution had to be observed. One day stands out in my mind. It was a beautiful, sunny Kodiak day, and we were all on deck welcoming new guests. As they were embarking from the float plane and luggage was being handed down, I took a step back and slid on an unseen mound of otter poo. I wanted to vaporize as I fell on my backside in an ungraceful plop! Afterward, we laughed about this incident, but I never forgot, and every time I saw a sweet little otter posing for pictures, I saw two little horns poking up through the top of its head.
I grew up near Cape Cod where everyone loved to fish. I didn’t. To me, the whole process from baiting the hook, to dragging the poor thing out of its natural habitat with a hook in its mouth, to butchering it, to stinking up the house with fried fish was cruel and disgusting. Fast forward 40 years and I’m a cook in a fishing camp. I politely listened and smiled at all the fish stories and quietly cooked the fish, wondering what all the commotion was about. One day my perception changed. Robin and Mike asked me if I’d like to go out on the boat with them for the day. We had only one guest, and it was a great day to get out of the house. Yes, I wanted to go! Like a good sport, I purchased my fishing license, and away we went. Mike anchored in a pretty cove, and as I sat down in the deck chair ready to enjoy the sunshine, Robin stuck a baited pole in my hands and showed me where to drop the line. Still not paying much attention, suddenly the pole was nearly yanked out of my hands, and the line was whizzing off the reel. “What’s going on?”, I hollered. Robin and Mike replied, “You’ve caught a fish.” They proceeded to give me instructions. Suddenly, the scenario was hilarious, like an old re-run of “I Love Lucy.” I couldn’t stop laughing which in turn made my arms weak and unable to reel in the line. In a second, Robin strapped a belt-like thing around me to support the fishing pole so that I could reel. Now we are all laughing hard, but with perseverance and aching arms, the fish finally emerged from the deep. I was leaned over the rail gasping in amazement at “my halibut” when all of sudden, Mike, with an expert jerk of his pliers, freed my fish from the hook and off it swam! Hey! At that moment I was totally conflicted. On the one hand, I proudly wanted to bring my halibut home for supper, but on the other, I wished it well and was happy it was able to live another day in Uyak Bay.
Happy Holidays from Kodiak Island! For many people, this is a busy time of year filled with holiday events, family gatherings, shopping in crowded stores, and long-distance travel. It’s an exciting season, but it is also very hectic. For many, the holiday season is a happy time, but for others, it is stressful and even depressing. Most of us experience all these emotions to some degree throughout the holiday season.
I won’t say I escape the psychological highs and lows of the season, but I think my holiday experience is unique because I spend it in the middle of the Kodiak Wilderness. I haven’t been to town since early June, and I don’t plan to fly to town until late January when we leave for our vacation. For me, the holidays are quiet! I find myself missing Christmas music and sometimes even the hustle and bustle of stores before Christmas (this is only a fleeting feeling, though). I miss family gatherings, and I’m sad when I remember past Christmases spent with my family. We only get a mail plane once a week in the winter, so we wait each week eagerly for Christmas cards and presents to arrive. We have to ship out our Christmas cards and presents by mid-December, so the first two weeks of December are busy, but then everything slows to a crawl. I take a deep breath and relax.
I spent the last two weeks of December and plan to spend the first two weeks of January doing what I want to do. This year I am editing my next novel and finishing the rough draft of my wildlife book. I take the time to fuse glass jewelry in my kiln, weave baskets, and make metal jewelry. I walk on the beach and through the woods with my cats, always with a downcast glance, hoping to spot a recently-shed deer antler. I read, write, watch wildlife, and enjoy the beauty of a Kodiak winter. This may not be the customary way to celebrate the holidays, but I have learned to love it. In a season when we talk about peace on earth, I truly do have two months of peace and quiet in my world, and I remind myself every day how lucky I am.
I don’t forgo all the holiday indulgences. We decorate the house, I make candy, we open presents, and we have a special dinner on Christmas day. I have a wonderful friend in Anchorage who sings with the Anchorage Concert Chorus, and he has sent me several CDs of Christmas music performed by the Chorus, so I enjoy those while I remember Christmases past and relish the present holiday.
Wherever you are and whatever holidays you celebrate this time of year, I wish you peace, quiet, and love in your world.
I recently published a new Mystery Newsletter. Check it out here. You can subscribe for my newsletter either in the upper left-hand corner of the link or on my home page. Anyone interested in our summer season at Munsey’s Bear Camp can read that blog post at the Munsey’s Bear Camp website.
The little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) is one of the six species of mammals endemic to Kodiak Island. The species ranges from Alaska to Labrador and south into central Mexico. It is more prevalent in the northern part of its range and is absent from much of Florida and Texas. It is the most common and widespread bat species in Alaska and lives in a variety of habitats, from the temperate rainforests of southeastern Alaska to the spruce/birch forests of the interior to treeless areas dominated by shrubs in western Alaska. While four other bat species are found in Southeast Alaska, the little brown bat is the only species of bat that lives in the Interior and South Central Alaska, and it is the only species that exists on Kodiak Island.
As their name implies, little brown bats are small mammals. They weigh between .18 and .32 ounces (5-9 grams) and are 3-4.5 inches (7.62-11.43 cm) in length. Their wingspan is 8 to 9 inches (20.32-22.86 cm) wide. They have cinnamon to dark brown fur on their backs, while their undersides are buff to pale gray. The hairs on their backs have long, glossy tips. The tragus, a fleshy projection that covers the ear canal, aids bats in echolocation. The shape and length of the tragus are sometimes used to identify bat species. In little brown bats, the tragus is half as long as the ear and has a blunt tip.
Little brown bats are efficient in the air and can fly at speeds ranging from 4 to 21 mph (6-34km/h). At an intermediate rate of speed, their wings make 15 strokes per second. They are most active at night, and their flight patterns are erratic. If knocked to the ground, they are clumsy crawlers, but if they land on the water, they can flap across the water for several hundred feet before getting tired. When roosting, bats hang upside down, and they achieve this position by flying up to a perch and grasping it with the long, clawed toes on their hind feet.
Little brown bats in Alaska mate between August and October, but fertilization is delayed until spring. After a gestation of 50 to 60 days, a female gives birth to a single pup. It is unusual for a small mammal to have only one baby at a time. Voles and mice give birth to large litters, and sometimes produce many litters per year. Voles and mice only live for one or two years, though, while bats may live 10 to 20 years. Pregnant or nursing females congregate together in maternity roosts. This clustering helps raise the temperature in the roost, speeding growth and development of the young. While bats normally hang with their heads down, a female gives birth with her head up, allowing her to catch the newly born pup with her tail membrane. A baby is born with deciduous incisors that along with its thumb and hind feet, allow it to cling to its mother. Pups are naked and blind at birth. They are weaned and able to fly on their own when they are three weeks old.
Little brown bats eat insects and feed at night, and this can be a problem in Alaska where the short amount of darkness at high latitudes in the summer reduces the amount of time bats can spend feeding. Bats use echolocation to find and capture prey, and they often hunt over lakes, ponds, and slow-moving streams and rivers. Bats drink while flying near the surface of the water. In Alaska, little brown bats eat moths, mosquitos, beetles, a variety of flies, and even spiders. They capture prey with their teeth, by netting them with their tail membrane, or by batting an insect with the tip of a wing and deflecting it into the tail membrane. They can then transfer prey from their tail membrane to their mouth while still in flight. During the day when not feeding, bats rest in roosts, and they conserve energy while roosting by going into torpor. A torpid bat reduces its metabolic rate and temperature, thereby decreasing its energy demands.
Little brown bats communicate with chemical signals produced by the nasal gland. These glands enlarge during the breeding season. Bats also use tactile signals when mating, and while they produce few vocalizations, they do make a honking sound, which may help to prevent mid-air collisions when foraging. Echolocation calls probably help bats locate roosts and hibernation sites.
It is not known how many little brown bats live in Alaska, and not much is known about where they hibernate, or if bats in the interior and far north migrate to warmer coastal areas before hibernating. Biologists hope to learn more about the migration and hibernation of bats in Alaska through ongoing research and bat-monitoring programs.
Bats face many threats, including wind farms. For some reason, bats are more susceptible than birds to being hit by windmill blades. Pesticides are bad for bats for two reasons. They can directly poison bats, and they reduce the number of insects that bats depend on for food. Habitat loss and disturbance can also affect bats, but at present, the greatest threat to bats, especially little brown bats, is a disease called white-nose syndrome. This disease is caused by a fungus that appears white around the nose and on the wing membranes. Biologists believe this fungus, or something associated with the fungus, causes bats to wake and move around when they should be hibernating, forcing the bats to use up all their stored energy and causing them to starve to death. White-nose syndrome has killed more than six million bats in northeastern North America since 2006, and the disease is slowly moving westward.
I have now written posts about the six mammal species endemic to Kodiak Island, and next week, I will begin a series of posts about some of the mammals that have been introduced to Kodiak.
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Our summer wildlife-viewing and sport-fishing trips ended three days ago. It was time for them to end because summer is over here on Kodiak Island, and a fall storm broadsided us with our last group of bear viewers. They were good sports as we fought through the wind and rain to watch bears. The bears didn’t seem to mind the weather and put on a fantastic show, and while our guests loved watching sows chase salmon while their cubs played, we were all very wet by the end of the day. I love our September bear-watching trips, but I am tired of fighting boats in the wind, and I admit I am ready for a break. It is time to let my bruises heal and curl up with a blanket on a rainy, windy day instead of pulling on my foul-weather gear and heading out on a boat.
We had a great season this year. No two days of our summer trips are ever the same, and every minute is as much of an adventure for us as it is for our guests. In July, we enjoyed great salmon fishing, and halibut fishing was good most of the summer. We saw bears in July, but they weren’t concentrated in any one place. As the summer progressed, the bear viewing steadily improved, and by September, we enjoyed phenomenal bear viewing every day. We watched several sets of sows and cubs this summer, and while our guests crouched behind fallen trees on a riverbank, they were thrilled by bears that fished only a few feet from them. They were so close; they could hear bones snap when a bear bit into a salmon.
We saw whales nearly every day of our summer season. Huge fin whales surfaced beside our boat, while humpbacks raised their flukes in the air. We saw killer whales a few times, and once, they swam over to us when we were in our 19-foot whaler, jumping beside the boat and playing in our wake. We saw dozens of sea otters and countless bald eagles every day, and we watched Sitka black-tailed deer prance along the beach while red foxes dug for clams.
On the sport-fishing front, our guests caught 17 halibut over 40 lbs. (that’s what it takes to make the Munsey’s Bear Camp halibut club) and many more halibut between 20 and 40 lbs. The largest halibut of the summer weighed 128 lbs. We enjoyed great pink salmon fishing in July, but we had a poor silver salmon run.
As always, we had guests from around the world, and we shared many laughs on ouradventures with them. Summer always seems to fly by too quickly. Sure, by mid-September I’m tired, but come next June, I’ll be excited for our summer season to begin again.
Visit our Munsey’s Bear Camp website for more information about our summer trips. If you haven’t signed up for my free Mystery Newsletter yet, head over to my home page and do that now. My newsletters chronicle true crime stories from Alaska.