Big and small, these bush neighbors make their presence known
Alaska is justifiably famous for creatures large and small, and the most noteworthy to me are moose and mosquitoes. We share our property with both species, trying to encourage the habitat for the former and eradicate it for the latter.
Mosquitoes are something of a marvel to me. How can something with no fat or exoskeleton withstand Alaska winters? REI offers nothing that competes with the winter wear of these survivors.
At our place, a few big, slow mosquitoes appear, like scouts, in May, before the fast, small, mean ones arrive in June. However, in 2013, our lake didn’t even thaw until May 30. A mere two weeks later, the newest generation of mosquitoes emerged, en masse, like something out of the Book of Revelation, and were the worst I had experienced in the past five summers. They were aggressively hungry, biting me through my gardening gloves, pants, and hair, sweeping into the cabin with bravado. My husband slept wearing a head net, cap, long sleeved T-shirt and pants – under the full-bed mosquito net.
During this period, we had guests from Florida. The husband emerged from the guest cabin looking, by his own admission, like the Elephant Man – because he was so swollen from insect bites – and with a new understanding for the mosquito net we had placed over his bed.
Even in summers of lower infestation, the pests are thick upon the window screens when we awake, so the first thing we do every morning (after starting the coffee) is to light a mosquito coil on the front porch followed by a smoky fire in the fire pit, where the prevailing breeze wafts the smoke over the gardens and deck, lulling or killing the bugs, I’m not sure which. Each endeavor is a sacrificial gift to every other human in the vicinity, because the act of standing still to light the fire invites a hungry horde that has been waiting for a warm-blooded victim to sustain the species’ next generation.
Our poultry are another line of defense. The ducks are the advance guard, when they waddle through the standing water of spring puddles, disturbing the larvae growing there. The chickens are the medics. When I return from the woods, surrounded by an angry circle of insects, the hens hop into my lap and deftly snap the offending creatures out of the air around my head.
This year, I bought tennis racket-like bug zappers that electrocute small insects mid-air with a satisfying sizzle. My husband demonstrates a graceful backhand stroke. Zzzzt. Man vs. Bug. 0-1, 1-0, 3-0. This is probably the best gift ever, besides the propane-powered flame thrower.
Fortunately, a generation of mosquitoes lives only about three weeks, and the onslaught markedly recedes by this time of year. It is no fun to be out in the woods in the meantime, but, in compensation, perhaps, we don’t have to deal with other pests, like termites, fire ants, snakes, rats, or cockroaches at any time of year.
By contrast, of course, moose are huge and great fun to watch … from a safe distance. Here, they stand 6 to 7 feet tall at the shoulder – the largest species on the American continents other than bison, which are shorter but heavier.
Can you imagine being a 1,200-pound pregnant herbivore rummaging around through 8-foot-deep snow looking for willow branches to keep up your weight and strength? They need 10,000 calories a day. No wonder they are so ornery in the winter.
Moose calves are born in May, after an eight-month gestation, and we see them once our property greens up. Our current “Mom” looks enormous and her coloring exactly matches the spruce bark. It amazes me how something so large can virtually disappear mere yards from my position. The other day, I watched her scarf up fireweed, elderberry and cranberry bushes as she ambled past our cabin on her way toward the fringe of birch saplings along the lake. Even though I saw where she had gone and could see the movement of branches she nibbled, I could no longer see the moose herself. This experience reminded me of that movie, “Predator,” in which you can’t see the alien bad guy, just his movement.
The cow bore twins, but we only saw the three of them once. One calf succumbed to something – maybe a bear, weakness, or disease. Almost every day we see the other little one, trotting after its mother who strips the leaves off woody cranberry and birch branches as though she is running dental floss through her big teeth. The branches of softer tissue plants, like fireweed, elderberry, and raspberry, are snapped off altogether. Afterwards, whole bushes remind me of Morticia Addams’s flower arrangements of thorny stalks sheared of their blossoms. The young one doesn’t eat the greenery for a few months. Rather it reaches up to nurse every time its mother pauses to eat or sniff the air.
Then the pair wanders down into the lake to drink or swim, perhaps to get away from mosquitoes, or to finish off their meal with a dessert of pond lilies and mares’ tail. After that, they drift off into the woods, more silently than I would imagine possible for a beast that looks like it was built by a committee and its knobby-kneed progeny.
In the evening, when the mosquitoes have retreated a bit, I sit on the upper deck, waiting for the moose where I can watch them, unobserved. For their post-prandial stroll, they reverse the morning commute, sniffing the dock, the kayak, the plane, and then work their way back up the path toward the deeper woods for a night-time bed. Thus, each of our three species ekes out a summer existence here, balancing our respective needs for blood, bushes, bug zappers.