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Reminiscing about another June passing by in rural Alaska

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Posted: Saturday, July 7, 2012 10:17 pm | Updated: 10:37 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - Well, another June has faded into memory. The heavy, sweet honeysuckle scent of chokecherry flowers no longer floats across the yard and the snowy fluff of aspen fuzz has settled into sodden masses. The river that flows past our bush home evolved from its May load of red runoff to the June silt of glacier melt, the water level dropping in cool, dry weather and spiking shortly after a heavy rain or a hot glacier-melting day.

May was too cool for aphids, and June was too wet, making these little pests less numerous than normal. That means fewer yellow jackets, who grow fat and prolific during big aphid years.

Mosquitoes arrived early with the warm spring, but even by late May they had not yet grown thick, perhaps because of the dry weather. However, as soon as the rain began, the small, busy black mosquitoes came out in force. They enjoyed wet weather for much of the month, making it the first time in several years that we had our normal big swarms.

The robins, as usual, nested early and the young fledged by mid-June. With several cabins on our property, they find plenty of dry nesting sites. These opportunistic birds have been unusually prolific in the last decade, unlike other thrushes who have been mysteriously absent from this area. In mid-June, the lovely upward spiraling song of several Swainson’s thrushes lifted my heart. Until then, I’d been hearing them around Fairbanks but rarely here at home. Maybe the robins pushed them out, but just as likely the thrushes met with some disaster and the robins merely proliferated to fill the niche that the more musical birds vacated.

The cliff swallows that build their mud apartments under the eaves have thinned out considerably this year. As with the thrushes, we have no real explanation for their absence but we always worry about what may befall them in the far south, where noise, development, pollution and tall buildings can take their toll. Or have they simply hit a natural bottleneck, a disease, or low survival of the nestlings? Maybe the (relative) dearth of mosquitoes over the last few summers left them too hungry to reproduce.

For the third year, our chokecherry turned white with flowers but stood in creepy silence in the yard. We’re used to seeing that big canopy of white-flowered branches positively vibrating with pollinators — bees, wasps, flies, bugs, butterflies and other winged creatures eager for a jump-start on their summer rations. The one chokecherry tree that we keep intact hasn’t produced berries for chokecherry syrup for two or three years now due to this troubling lack of early pollinators.

(We cut down most of our chokecherry trees a few years ago when they suddenly began spreading wildly from seed. We were worried if they began to proliferate, they might start to displace the willows that moose rely on for browse.)

The set nets that catch fish for dog food rarely do well in the early summer, and this year has been worse than usual. In fact the past few years have been discouraging. Again we can only speculate. Perhaps increasing siltation from the river that feeds the lake is driving fish away. Maybe with the warm Aprils and earlier break-up, the water gets uncomfortably warm early on, pushing the fish into deep, cooler water.

Our biggest freezer broke down with the spring thaw. We’d already eaten most of the berries and vegetables, but our summer supply of moose meat spoiled. It went to the dogs with much grumbling on our part, and drooling on theirs. Luckily, the dogs have not (yet) broken into the hen house, so we have eggs and the occasional whitefish to eat.

With an unusually warm rain in early June, the garden popped up with surprising ease. It’s a pleasure to watch the green things grow so fast, unlike dry summers when we spend hours watering only to see poor germination and stunted growth. We ate quite a few “weeds” in May — nettles, fireweed, and lamb’s quarters — but enjoyed fresh garden greens by early June, and will be freezing vegetables for winter soon.

While the garden is growing delightfully, I regret to report how far behind we’ve gotten on woodcutting. In an ideal year, by late May we’d have dry wood ready for winter and green wood stacked and covered for burning the following winter. In reality this doesn’t happen so often, and this year the wood work took several hits. A nasty combination of sciatica and arthritis has kept me from bouncing around the bushes, and several time-consuming trips to Fairbanks didn’t help.

Luckily we do have enough dry wood stacked for one winter, and green trees cut down to begin drying for the following winter. While I prefer my green wood split and stacked two years before burning, having the trees drying whole will make the blocks lighter weight and easier to stack when we do manage to get that work done.

Because the garden is planted but not yet ready to harvest, June gives us a bit of extra time to work on some projects. We replaced the roof of the puppy pen and built a new dog house right before Calico delivered eight fat husky pups. Late in June found us in Fairbanks and Anchorage doing book promotions and catching up on appointments.

July comes with a shifting profusion of wildflowers, the Jacob’s ladder, wild roses and iris yielding to arnica, pyrola and, later, to fireweed. The month might not give us any spare time, but it puts us that much closer to another glorious fall and, best of all, another Alaska winter.

Trappers and life-long Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books, which are available at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks.

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