While other parts of the country identify this time of year as autumn or fall, here in Alaska, we refer to its functionality. It is “the end of moose hunting season” or “the end of the float plane season” followed by freeze-up.
As temperatures drop, the 6-foot canary grass and fireweed die back, revealing the red, yellow and brown leaves of shorter ferns, cranberry bushes, and devil’s club. The birches shed their starry seeds and yellow, heart-shaped leaves along the brown woodland path behind our cabin. On a recent shopping flight to Anchorage, I saw a stunning sight: miles and miles of yellow birch and aspen, looking, from the 1,000-foot vantage point of our little Piper, like fields of giant daffodils as far as the eye could see.
August and September are the rainiest months in southcentral Alaska, so it always rains on moose hunters (mid-August to mid-September) and the planes that fly them. When flying ourselves, between skimpy patches of blue sky, we hear all the
other pilots communicating about evolving weather. I remember one flight last fall when, in a 30-mile diameter, a pilot was grounded by fog, another could see 10 miles, but under a low ceiling of clouds, and a third, like us, was trying to beat the rain pouring over a mountain. The next morning, I read that a private plane had crashed about 20 miles from us, killing the pilot. I assumed that weather was a factor, but subsequent reports indicated that the pilot took off with an unbalanced and heavy load after a successful hunt – a seasonal hazard for low-hour pilots.
Several years it has rained at our place almost every day for three weeks, making me feel like Mrs. Noah. Despite the showers, each evening, my husband wanders around our property, blowing into a horn to imitate a cow with sexy “come hither” appeal to a rutting bull moose. The following mornings, he hikes a short distance out into the woods, with a book, a thermos, and a .338 rifle, to sit on a fallen birch tree adjacent to a meadow full of tasty vegetation that moose have clearly chomped off in recent days. To tell you the truth, he has never shot a moose there, so I have concluded that he may have other reasons for this autumn ritual.
I’m not a hunter myself, but the silence and solitude, the scents of the woods, and the highly attentive awareness are satisfactions enough for most hunters I know. I imagine that most people wouldn’t discover this pleasure if told, “go sit in the woods and be quiet!” but perhaps this visceral pleasure is the real reason that Cabella’s does such a booming business.
The end of moose hunting season signals the end for float planes, too. The timing game is to keep your floats on as long as you have water to land on and not get stranded by a rapid, deep freeze. One friend’s Cessna 206 sank under an unexpectedly heavy snow in September (fortunately into shallow water). So float plane pilot conversations often include, “When are you off the water?” In our region, the target date is near Oct. 7.
That is when we fly our plane to a lake across the highway from an aircraft maintenance company. One of the partners meets us at a boat launch with a tractor driven trailer. We winch the plane up and he hauls it to his hangar, where he replaces the enormous, Ronald McDonald-like floats with short, slim skis. Then we get a friend to fly us home and wait for the lake to freeze. In the interim, we have no transportation.
The second hard freeze signals time to harvest cranberries. We crunch over frozen ferns, laid low by frost weight, and maneuver carefully around spiky devil’s club prongs. On the high bushes, berries dangle below graceful branches in groups of three to five from nearly invisible threads, at a convenient harvesting height of 3-5 feet. From a distance, the bright red berries appear to hang mid-air, as though by magic. We fill big buckets with as many berries as we wish until we get cold from being underdressed for this first touch of winter. We figure that the competition for these berries is not birds – most have flown south by now- but bears, doing their final “bulk up” before hibernating. We harvest any berries that the bears haven’t enjoyed the night before.
At home, we freeze the fruit, which may sweeten them and certainly makes them easier to clean. A day or so later, we pull off stems and bits of chaff and boil the berries in water with lots of sugar, after which we strain the cooled liquid through cheese cloth to remove the pit in each berry. The resulting juice is thick, like a nectar. I adore it. We drink it plain or mix it with orange juice, incorporate it into a vinaigrette, mix with apples in a cobbler, and make jelly. My husband also flavors his fall homebrew with cranberries.
With a warm mug of cranberry juice, and neither a plane to fly nor a moose to butcher, I settle in to wait for winter.