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The sounds of silence aren't hard to find in Alaska

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Posted: Sunday, February 7, 2010 5:28 am | Updated: 1:34 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

LAKE MINCHUMINA - I was in my ninth grade math class at Ryan Junior High School when the teacher made an announcement. “I was snowshoeing this week-end,” he said. “And when I stopped in the woods, it was utterly quiet. No airplanes, no wind, nobody talking, just total silence! I was so stunned I had to turn around and go home.” 

I was stunned too, stunned that something as common in my own life as total silence would be so uncommon that someone would give up on a jolly snowshoe just because he heard ... nothing. Many times I’ve been far from home and paused, listened hard, and heard only silence. Not a whisper of a breeze, nor the gurgle of a stream, no bugs, not even a raven call. 

Of course it never lasts. Around the next corner a flock of redpolls flits, twittering, through an alder patch. High overheard, 300 people roar past in a jet, and to the east I hear a Super Cub circling and circling, probably biologists radio-tracking critters or counting moose. Even softly-falling snow makes a slight noise as it hits clothing or builds up and slides off tree limbs with a gentle whoosh. 

I’ve been hearing about silence recently and it seems to have taken on a new meaning. Someone on the radio was rhapsodizing about the silence of a summer day on the Scottish moors. Gosh, I thought. No birds? No breeze? “Not a sound to be heard,” the speaker said. “No cars, no planes, just the silence of the wind and the singing of the birds.”

Oh. Not a true silence. More like our boisterous summer “silence": the warbling of song birds, the loud call of geese and swans, the roar of a thunderstorm hitting fully leafed trees, the murmuring stream, the incessant buzz of mosquitoes and flies. 

Of course, we make a lot of noise ourselves. Living in the bush is not as quiet as one might think. The little generator growls away most winter evenings until mid-February, when the noiseless solar panels takeover. Our sled dogs start up a howl, triggering the dogs inside to howl so loudly I have to listen to their music through plugged ears. An inverter hums softly in the basement, while a fan pushing hot air through the stack robber set in the stove pipe of the wood furnace buzzes much more loudly. 

But during winter nights, all those sounds cease. Except for the occasional creak as the house cools, the sigh of a snoozing dog, the quarter-hour chime of a clock and perhaps a rare airplane or tootling boreal owl, the house is totally silent. Sometimes the sled dogs get in an uproar because it’s time for their morning broth... their afternoon run... their evening run... false alarm for dinner... evening feed... after-dinner howl... the “I-think-I-hear-a-bear!” alarm at 4 a.m. 

On long treks, the closer we get to the mountains, in an ever-more-remote area, the more airplanes we hear as sightseers wing their way to view spectacular peaks and glaciers and researchers putter overhead searching for radio-collared wolves or bears. Then there is the noise that we actually want. “I don’t understand why people always have a radio turned on,” a seasonal worker at the local lodge once told me. “If I lived in the bush, I would just want to enjoy all the silence!”

“When I get home from being outside all day, often the first thing I do is turn on the radio,” I told her. “It’s the only way we have of getting current news, and nice to hear music after being outside all day. When I spend a lot of time alone, I like to hear something when I’m working indoors. After hours of silence, it’s meaningful.”

That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy and appreciate the deep stillness of mid-winter. Those cool, calm days provide hours of silence broken only by the occasional call of a raven, the soft crunch of snowshoes underfoot or the jingle of snaps and creak of wood as a team pulls a sled down a snowy trail. 

Any sound hinting at danger — the creak or crackle of bad ice, the rippling of water hidden under a shell of snow, that little pop-pop of overflow as it freezes or, in the mountains, the soft whump of shifting snow presaging an avalanche, loudly hit an ear attuned to silence. These gentle warnings of danger can’t be heard from motorized e vehicles, which is a reason why I enjoy traveling on foot so much.

One might think that the coldest days are the most quiet, but a 50-below afternoon can seem downright noisy. Contracting ice pops and cracks, and the abrupt sound of living tree wood sharply contacting can split the still air like the shot of a .22 rifle. Walking quietly on that brittley-cold snow is impossible as it squeaks and groans underfoot, while a stream of exhaled vapor freezes with an audible hiss. Only when the cold eases does the world become still again — except where it comes alive with birds, squirrels and other critters that move about in search of food. 

I was snowshoeing back to a trapping cabin recently on a relatively mild 15-below day after running a spur line. The quiet steady crunch of my oversize foot gear and the soft roar of a dying windstorm had kept me company during an otherwise silence day. Now the wind had stopped and if I stood still, I heard nothing except my own life. 

A slight movement caught my eye, and glancing upward I spied a great gray owl sitting calmly atop a nearby tree. We stared speculatively at each other, and I wished I had a dead mouse on a string. Maybe I could “fish” for the owl and draw it right up to me as Julie once did with a boreal owl. 

Lacking that, I took off one of my heavy gloves and tossed it lightly, sending it skittering across the snow. The owl’s head spun as it watched the movement. Then, it dropped from the tree, swooped down and hovered stationary eight feet above the glove and just 15 feet from where I stood. After three or four powerful flaps of its wings, it swung powerfully upward to perch in another tree, staring down with those classic owl eyes. 

During the entire flight, the owl made not a single sound. Its special downy feathers kept even the tiniest whisper of sound from alerting that wary glove to the owl’s predatory presence, even as it hovered strikingly overhead. 

Now there’s a critter who appreciates the value of silence.

Miki Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.


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