Al Batt: Stories, features, notes from Alaska


AL BATT/BLUFF COUNTRY READER Chilkoot Lake. Haines, Alaska. This lake is located on the panhandle region of Alaska. The closest town with a main road is Haines.

AL BATT/BLUFF COUNTRY READER Chilkoot Lake is surrounded by the Takshanuk Mountains. “Chilkoot” can mean “big fish.”
By : 
Al Batt
For the Birds

"Whale! Whale!" I cried in an excited duplication when spotting a humpback whale, a cold-blooded "kriller." It and others were feeding frenziedly on krill and small fish — up to 3,000 pounds each per day.

It was an early morning boat trip in Crescent Harbor in Sitka. I felt like Tarzan of the whales as whale tails (flukes) sliced the water's surface. The weather wasn't perfect. That was fine. If it had been, I'd expect it all the time.

Southeast Alaska, known as the Panhandle, is a long, narrow strip of coastline and 1,000 islands. Most communities have no roads connecting them, so residents depend heavily on ferries.

The Alaska Marine Highway System connects 35 communities. Routes stretch for 3,500 miles, from Bellingham, Wash., to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian Island chain.

It includes the Inside Passage, a spectacular cruise ship destination featuring mountains, glaciers and fjords.

The ferry is the lifeline for the smallest communities. It brings things, carries people to hospitals and clinics, sports teams to games. Alaska has a budget deficit due to declining oil production.

As a result, ferries have been removed from operation, ports cut, and staff reduced. Angoon, Tenakee, Pelican and Gustavus aren't receiving any ferry service at the present. Pelican, population under 100, had been getting one ferry a month, year round.

Haines and Skagway receive service once per week and Hoonah twice a month. Many residents of these communities travel to Juneau to shop Costco and/or Fred Meyer.

A visitor stopped at the visitors center in Haines. It seemed appropriate. He was driving to Anchorage and wanted a map.

He was given a free map and departed. He returned not much later and asked if he could get a map with all the roads. Alaska doesn't have that many.

My neighbor Crandall

"How are you doing?" I ask.

"Everything is nearly copacetic. I'm going to be a little late for the meeting tomorrow."

"How late?" I say.

"I won't know until I get there."

Catch-and-not-release

I watched a swarm of gulls feeding on the water in a harbor in Sitka, Alaska. A bald eagle flew in and expertly snatched a fish. It must have been one that a young gull had its eye on because it chased the eagle until our national bird had cleared the water. The eagle, not being catch-and-release, kept the fish.

A Batt and a bat

 I spoke at a Chautauqua in Lakeside, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie. I talked in a giant auditorium as a jumbotron behind me flashed my huge image to those seated far in the back. These gigantic-screen TVs were designed to accommodate a large venue. A bat entered the building and flew around me. It seemed appropriate.

Festival Al

The wheels on the bus went bump, bump, bump. Life has its rough roads and a good bus driver doesn't miss a pothole. The bus wasn't taking me to school.

It was taking me to a lek, a singles club for birds. It was April and I was a speaker at the Nebraska Prairie-Chicken Festival.

I was at lek superior watching male greater prairie-chickens dance as the females checked them out. The males performed elaborate courtship displays that included everything but wearing bell-bottom pants. It was like a junior high school dance.

One male danced by himself, working on his smooth moves. He made booming sounds in the hopes of attracting attention. He was chased away by the other males above him in the pecking order, which meant he was chased by all the other males.

He moved far from the center of the lek. It was if he were dancing in his own gymnasium. He danced as if there were hens near him. There weren't.

He danced as if hens could see him. None of them were looking. He danced as if no one was watching. He'd played the game of love and lost.

I hoped he'd have better days and would be allowed in the game.

Q&A

"How strong is a spider web?"

Relative to weight, the strength of a spider web rivals steel and Kevlar, the material used to make bullet-proof vests.

"Will barn swallows reuse their nests?"

They will recycle their nests by cleaning them and adding new mud. Their mud nests are resilient structures and examples of amazing architecture. Barn swallows often have two broods and the parents are sometimes helped by others in feeding the nestlings. The helpers are usually older siblings from previous clutches, but could be unrelated juveniles.

"Why do owls need to turn their heads all the way around?"

They can rotate their heads 270 degrees because their eyes are fixed in the sockets.

"How many different types of raptors are there?'

Six. Eagles, owls, hawks, falcons, osprey and kites.

"When do bald eagles get white heads?"

Young birds attain adult plumage in approximately five years.

Echoes from the Loafers’ Club Meeting

What do you want out of life?

To make a difference.

That's nice.

Yeah, but I'd settle for a new car instead.

Pothole Park

One of my favorite places on earth is Chilkoot Lake in Haines, Alaska. I see bears, eagles, ravens, magpies, Steller's jays and dippers there. The park road to the lake is laden with potholes. Not small potholes. I walked around one.

It wasn't the biggest pothole. I found that task too daunting. I walked around a medium-sized pothole four times and I'd made a mile.

It's a small world unless you have to paint it

I was at a banquet in Sitka, Alaska, visiting with a woman from Barrow. She asked me if I’d ever heard of a small town in Minnesota. I had. It was where I’d gone to high school.

Nature notes

November isn’t the favorite color of many. We have an average of 39% of possible sunshine in November, our cloudiest month. December, the second cloudiest month, gives us 42%. Those two months save us money on sunscreen.

There is the Farmers’ Almanac (since 1818) from Lewiston, Maine, and there is the Old Farmer’s Almanac (established in 1792) from Dublin, New Hampshire. The two publications are useful and entertaining, and make great gifts. They serve as reminders to get out there and enjoy nature.

Canada geese like lawns for two reason: goose food and safety. The grass provides the food and a lawn makes it easy to detect predators. They provide fertilizer in return.

The eastern chipmunk is about 10 inches long including its tail. Its cheeks can stretch to three times larger than the chipmunk’s head. I’m often told that its name came from the sound that the animal makes. However, the common name may have been "chitmunk" from the Odawa word jidmoonh or the Ojibwe ajidamoo. A male chipmunk is called a buck; a female is a doe; a baby is called kit, kitten or pup; and a group of chipmunks is a scurry.

Meeting adjourned

Be kind and wave at people you don't know. They will spend the rest of the day trying to figure out who you were.

Thanks for stopping by

“And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

“It's best to give while your hand is still warm.“ — Philip Roth

Do good.

© Al Batt 2019