Thursday, August 10, 2017

Remote Living: Don't Take Mother Nature For Granted

The biggest lesson I have learned from increasing our reliance on personal food production is:  “Don't expect last year's harvest to repeat.” Maybe Mother Nature has a sense of humor.  She certainly throws some curve balls.  Because each season's harvest varies, I am learning observation and humility, and rebounding with a range of preservation techniques and alternative crops and recipes for when X or Y disappoints.  Below is a summary of this year's results with birch sap, honey bees, chickens, berries, vegetables, and herbs.   High points:  raspberry mead, nasturtium pesto, and naturalized cilantro. Oh, and moose didn't linger to devastate the berry bushes and apple trees.  Low points: birch sap and a rainy July.
An 8 foot tall swarm of honey bees

BIRCH SAP:  We were TOTALLY SKUNKED on birch sap collection, which absolutely blindsided us since the prior three years had been so easy and successful. In fact, we nearly doubled the number of tapped trees in anticipation (from 30 to nearly 55) and finished off the remaining sap and syrup from the prior year. The desultory drips and measly harvest result, I learned, from meager diurnal temperature differentiation.  Ah, yes, that.    Heard and noted.  So no syrup this year (need to reduce 100 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup).  We made twenty gallons of beer with the sap, which was fine, but this year's carboy of birch sap wine tastes watery.  Darn.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Destructive Bear(s) Visit

June of 2017 was a very active month for bear-human encounters in Alaska.  Some were tragic (two deaths by mauling). Others were humorous (the bear caught wandering  into a Juneau liquor store and standing  up to survey the array of candy bars before being chased out).  Anchorage police received so many 911 calls regarding bears sightings that they issued a press release imploring the public to call the NON-emergency number to report “normal bear behavior.”

Bear claws on repaired bee hive
This period was active for us, too.  Whereas last year we saw not a single bear on our remote property all summer, this month three bears visited in two weeks.  One (brown/grizzly)  we scared off with a marine horn.  Another (black) went into the freezer (See preceding blog article with a dozen recipes).  The third was disconcerting.  He visited several times and was destructive. (I say "he" because there were no cubs).

If you believe in the view that “things happen in threes,” this bear arrived on a day of multiple vulnerabilities: (1) the electric fence around the bee yard was off because a moose had gotten entangled and damaged the circuits, (2) my husband had flown to town for two days and (3) he took with him a first floor cabin window that need to be replaced.  

That afternoon, at 4:30 pm, I was sitting by an open kitchen window when a black bear slowly ambled past, about 8 feet away.  (They are disconcertingly silent)  I wasn't cooking anything aromatic, but I glanced nervously at the unglassed window ahead of him, and shut the window next to me, alerting him to human company.  This caused him to turn away, but not run, as the brown bear had done a week before.

Since I (discovered to my dismay that) had left my marine horn at the power shed, I grabbed a pot and top, opened the door and banged them together to encourage him to seek out quieter acreage away from my cabin, outhouse, and chicken coop.  He trotted off, but without much enthusiasm so I anticipated that he would return, especially since the chickens were squawking, “Come and get me!” under the cabin. Perhaps surprisingly, to readers, we have previously lost only one chicken to a bear, (other poultry to mink, weasel, owl, some unidentified canid, and disease/old age).  However, given this one's comfort in the company of human sounds and buildings, I thought it prudent to load the gun that I feel most comfortable firing.

Sure enough, as I loaded bullets in the magazine I saw him through the rear window, lingering in the hollow, about 150 yards back.  It may sound silly, but I turned on my computer's Pandora music channel and played it on the back porch, so he would hear a continuous human sound.  Apparently he didn't care for Indian sitar music and vocalizations, because he disappeared, but because I was now on the porch, the chickens all jumped up  to be with me.  After 20 minutes, I decided to lead them  back to their coop and lock them in.  I admit that I was nervous about the short walk in our woodsy and hilly property, but I figured if the hens attracted a bear's attention, I'd rather that they were not near me and that vulnerable cabin window. Fortunately, they followed me closely and the walk was uneventful.

When I returned to the cabin, I locked the other windows, installed the bear bars on the doors, and retreated upstairs to watch a 1940's movie, thinking that might calm me down.  The upper windows were open for me to hear  ... anything.  An hour later, what I heard was a crash on the back porch immediately beneath me. By the time I looked out, the bear had disappeared, but he had climbed up and dumped over a tall set of metal shelves and its load of  logs, boots, and gardening tools, and swiped a can of wood stain, which painted the grass a blood red color.   Thank goodness I had moved the hens away from that very location!

The next morning, I must confess that I stayed in the cabin for several hours while convincing myself that  I needed to survey the property.  When I finally ventured forth, it was clear that the bear had been so busy that  I am astonished that I heard nothing during my apparently deep night's sleep.  The first evidence was a big pile of scat in the side yard, left like a “Kilroy was here” message.  Second, he had clearly tried for a long time to get into the chicken coop (90 feet away).  A hole indicated that he had tried to dig under the run but was stymied by the underground “fence” of roofing metal.  Around the "run" (fenced and roofed outdoor area) I discovered many dislodged fence tines, but never enough together for a whole, strong paw.  The poor hens must have been terrified to silence inside the coop (building), because he pulled at the window pane separaters, too, but did not punch in the glass.  No wonder they lay not a single egg the next day.

More bear claw marks
Our bee yard is about 450 feet from the cabin, over the lip of the hill.  I approached with some trepidation.  It had been absolutely trashed and the bees WERE NOT PLEASED. The bear left tufts of hair where he crawled over the barbed wire so I could follow his movements.  He had tipped over not only all four hives, but also the two, heavy horizontal 4x6 posts to which they were all strapped, lifting those supporting beams up out of the metal frames in cement footers that elevated them above ground level.  His claw marks registered bright white in the green painted wooden frames and polystyrene insulating covers, but, fortunately for us, he was unable to loosen the ratchet straps.  How long did he try? Surely the bees  were frenzied and stung him many times.  Perhaps their defensive actions explain the lack of interest evidenced in front of the five rabbit hutches at the opposite end of the bee yard.

As soon as  my husband landed at our dock, we spent the day repairing damage.  With duct tape (of course), and super glue, we reassembled some hive lids, replacing others. Bryan attached fence patches inside the chicken run and rewired the electric fence, added an additional strand of barbed wire, and wrapped the ratchet straps around the cement footers, as well as the 4 x 6s.

Three AND six days later, THE BEAR (or a buddy) RETURNED. First, he rummaged around under a corner of the cabin, cracking and dragging a panel of plywood that covers the entry hole to our underground “gray water” tank .  I am always amazed to notice how silently they move, but why didn't we hear the wood scraping?  Perhaps he timed his visit when we were kayaking or doing noisy construction work in the back of the property.  If so, such daytime raids are remarkable.  So, we placed on the plywood two metal pie plates filled with little stones for a future noisy shakedown. He also left a new pile of scat ... by the front steps.   My husband went on high alert for several evenings, while I weedwhacked  to shin high the rapidly growing wild grasses and ferns that would otherwise obscure a long view to the woods.


On the second visit, the bear tested the electric fence.  We could see the bowed barbed wire line about 2 feet up where his bulky body had pushed, but when body parts encountered the active electric lines, he skedaddled.   Since then,  no bears have returned, or, perhaps I should say, since they are so silent, that we have seen no evidence of their perambulations.

We called Alaska's Fish and Game staff to describe our encounters and solicit their thoughts, as we have always found them informative and helpful.  The officer did not know why this has been such an active summer but acknowledged the plethora of reported human-bear interactions.  Our region, he said, is “crawling with bears” (so why have they revoked the predator control hunting permit here?) and our destructive visitor could have been “one of Charlie's bears” referring to a man who fed dog food to several generations of bears for more than a dozen years at his cabin on Rabbit Lake, not far from here, before being hauled into court to cease and desist a few years ago. Apparently, "Charlie's bears" have been implicated in some other cabin forays.

Naturally, Bryan and I have reviewed our safety procedures and vulnerabilities.  For example, we routinely carry walkie talkies, keep bear spray and noisemakers in various buildings, and are scrupulous about locking buildings and burning trash thoroughly.  Whether last year's paucity or this year's frequency of ursine visitors is the new normal, only future years will show.  In the meantime, I've asked for spare window parts, and I wish Charlie (and other people) hadn't fed all those bears, now looking to others for another hand out.