Dickerson: Bears, beers, bars and other odds and ends

I have been told (by my older brother who lives in Alaska) that if there are any grizzly bears around there will be a hint of them in the air before you actually see them. It’s a sort of early warning signal. Which is to say, they have a particularly potent odor. Those who have had more personal encounters with the big brown bruins often remember and describe that olfactory part of their experience as vividly as anything. Thankfully, despite having spent many days backpacking and fishing in Alaska with my brother over the past eight years, I’ve never actually had a chance to test that theory. For the most part, the only hints we’ve had of grizzlies have been the kind of almost unavoidable hints they leave in piles on the ground. And while a few of those encounters have proved rather unpleasant, I’m sure that meeting with the depositor would be even more unpleasant than a meeting with the deposit.

Speaking of hints in the air, there is certainly a hint of spring in the air: a promise that winter, however long and cold it has seemed, won’t last forever. That promise came in the form of sugaring weather. Daytime temps in the 40s. Nighttime temps below freezing. The forecast, at least, says that sap will be running for most of the week.

As sweet as maple sugar is, however, for me those stereotypically perfect sugaring weather days will have a hint of bitter mixed with the sweet. A recent family move, though temporary, will have me out of my backyard-sugaring hobby for a few years. I’m simply too far away from my trees and my boiling arch to make it practical. Which is especially too bad because this year is my favorite sort of year for it. With plenty of snow still on the ground, I’d be hauling around my sap on a sled wearing snowshoes. (I, not the sled, would be in snowshoes.)

It’s not a complete loss, though. For one thing, sugaring weather is also spring skiing weather. Short sleeves and soft snow! In the afternoons, that is. Mornings in the spring offer crusty, icy snow from the previous day’s thaw and the previous night’s refreeze. Not so fun. But spring afternoons on cross-country skis are hard to beat. And the snow cover on the higher elevation and more northern Nordic centers should last for at least a couple weeks of those delicious conditions.

Speaking of coming spring and the volume of snow, the significant snowpack in the mountains was a brief topic of discussion at this week’s New Haven River Anglers’ Association meeting. Come spring, when all that snow begins to melt, our local rivers are likely to be particularly high this year. So it was a great week for active club member David Crowne to give a talk about fishing flat water, especially across the bridge in the ponds and lakes of the Adirondacks — something he has proven expertise in based on some of the photos I’ve seen. When our Vermont rivers are unfishable from the runoff, I’m hoping to make use of some of that knowledge he shared.

Back on the topic of Alaska, though, a heavy snowpack is not the problem out there this year. In my previous column, I praised the virtues of snow and reminisced about great winters past. Alaskans have also been reminiscing about snow this year, but doing so out of lack rather than abundance. It has been unseasonably warm in the 49th state. Over the past several weeks Anchorage has frequently recorded higher temperatures than Vermont. Last week was the start of the Iditarod, one of the greatest outdoor winter sporting events in the world, and perhaps the most rigorous endurance race anywhere. This year’s start was in jeopardy, and though it happened, it was not without problems. There simply wasn’t enough snow, or the snow they had was too mushy for good mushing. Later in the year, that lack of snow could also wreak havoc in a state that over the past 50 years has experienced warming at twice the rate as elsewhere. The amount of winter snow left to melt in the spring and summer affects the seasonal flows of rivers, which in turn affects the spawning of salmon, which affects pretty much everything in Alaska.

And while on the topic of Alaska, I will be spending four weeks teaching a Middlebury College outdoor writing class there this summer. Preparing for the class has taken a considerable amount of work, and involved numerous individuals and offices at the college, including those in charge of such things as safety and risk management. (Hopefully none of them are reading this column.) They seem to have some level of fear about the bears in Alaska, and various other dangers associated with being in the great outdoors. Not me. I grew up in rural areas and have spent plenty of time in the wild, including in Alaska. There are numerous safety precautions needed, of course, when planning a trip in wilderness areas. It can’t be taken lightly. But at least I have a handle on what those are. I’m much more concerned about having my students living in a city for a few days. I’m not used to cities.

Anchorage is about 10 times the size of the largest city in Vermont and 50 times bigger than Middlebury. Which probably also means it has about 50 times as many bars. I’m not worried that my students will wander off and have an encounter with a pack of bears. I’m more concerned that they’ll wander off and have an encounter with a pack of beers. I guess I’ll have to ask my brother if there are any early warning signals about those — some sort of hint in the air to help me avoid certain areas.

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