Varykino

“Cue the moose!”

Jerry uttered his trademark exclamation, equally applicable to bears, wolves, whales, and, in this case, a large moose.  As usual, I had no doubt that he meant it ironically. 

The animals that we encounter in Alaska are not circus performers or animatronic robots that jump out at preordained and scheduled moments for our entertainment.  You might see them.  You might not.  They might put on quite a show, oblivious to your presence as observer.  They might not.  There is nothing even remotely cued about them.  And so it was one morning at Varykino, which is how I refer to our little cabin in the woods. 

In Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, and David Lean’s film adaptation, Varykino is the idyllic country estate to which Yuri Zhivago retreats with his family in summer, and with his mistress and soul mate, Lara, in winter.  Living in the caretaker’s cottage at Varykino, Yuri returns to the land in a style reminiscent of Tolstoy’s peasant ethic, growing his own food and finding spiritual contentment.  Later, he writes the Lara Poems to the sound of howling wolves.  Varykino is a metaphor combining an agrarian land ethic and a soul of wildness.  It is like some weird conflation of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, which makes the reference to Varykino seem oddly appropriate for a wilderness cabin in Alaska.

There is no road connection to Varykino, and miles of wet muskeg make overland access challenging in the summer months.  It’s easier in winter, when the ground is frozen and covered in snow.  In summer, I prefer to arrive by air taxi, the floatplane landing on a small lake that is also the source for cooking and cleaning water.  This is our only running water – we run to the lake to get it; drinking water we bring with us from town.  Heat is from a woodstove, and cooking and lights are mostly powered by propane.  A solar panel on the roof charges a battery that runs one fluorescent light and a radio, and also provides the juice for an electrified bear fence stretched across the front steps.

On this occasion, I was hovering over the propane stove, patiently bringing lake water to a boil for the breakfast clean up, while Jerry was sitting at the wooden kitchen table, gazing absently out the picture window that is a major feature of the compressed space.

We knew from an evening stroll the night before that a fairly large flock of migrating sandhill cranes had taken up temporary residence in what I call the second meadow.  This is a clear area of open tundra on the other side of some spindly trees that divide it from what is essentially our back yard, or first meadow.  Beyond the two open fields is the vast boreal forest, stretching for miles behind the cabin property.

As Jerry announced the arrival of the long-legged ungulate, and I moved over to join him by the window, we heard the distinctive trumpeting of the cranes.  “Ur, ur, ur,” they cried.  Their agitated bugling was due to the presence of the large cow moose that had ambled into what the birds clearly viewed as their territory. 

Several of the crimson-crowned sandhills bobbled over to confront the moose, which took a few steps back, mimicking the involuntary step backward that I sometimes make when approached by an unfriendly dog.  Then the moose regained its courage and surged forward, towering over the angry birds and stomping her formidable forelegs.  The cranes did not give way.  Instead, several of them reared up and displayed their broad wingspans, flapping and clucking.  “Ur, ur, ur!”  The moose hesitated.

There then ensued a balletic series of thrusts and parries between the opposing animals.  The moose would advance and retreat in a rhythmic dance synchronized to the ebbing and flowing movements of the frantic cranes.  The action alternated between chase and standoff, but gradually, and I assume by design, the cranes lured or drove the moose through the strip of taiga trees that separates the meadows, drawing her even closer into our view but away from the main flock gathered beyond.

Their mission apparently accomplished, the cranes abandoned the sport, leaving the perplexed larger animal to its own devices.  Eventually, it too wandered off.  For Jerry and me, it was just another day in Alaska.

Sandhill cranes fly across the south face of Denali.   Photo taken from the second meadow.

Sandhill cranes fly across the south face of Denali.  

Photo taken from the second meadow.

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