February 23, 2016

February – Where is Winter?

Filed under: Aurora,Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 4:49 pm

A blog entry about the Aurora, the Yukon Quest, a night visit to Denali Park, and Snowshoeing.  And a special “In Memoriam” for a childhood friend who left this earth too soon.


We have had an unseasonably warm winter – especially for Interior Alaska. Our snow accumulation is not up to normal levels either. While this isn’t something we’re necessarily ‘sad’ about, it can wreak havoc for well pipes and septic tanks.

Today the temperature is in the low 30s. Today is also the opening day for the Ice Park. Ice Alaska is a favorite event for those of us who live in the interior, and colder weather is definitely more desirable. After all, the ice park is open for a month, and the colder it is, the longer the sculptures last.

We have had a wonderful month of aurora viewing. As we gain back daylight hours, the aurora appears later and later. For the most part, we’re starting to see the lights shortly after 8pm if it’s an active forecast. And 8pm isn’t late by any means. But most of the time, it’s closer to 10 or 11pm or even later. And by that time, some of us have given up for the evening in favor of sleep. I would be one of those people.

However, I am also prone to middle of the night insomnia. Or middle of the night bathroom visits. And it is a natural reflex for me to step out of bed and immediately peek through the blinds in our bedroom to see if anything is going on. It is at these times that I usually catch a bright green band stretching across the sky.  And seeing the aurora is very very hard to resist – even in a sleepy stupor.

Fortunately, the aurora in the photos below arrived at a more reasonable hour – before midnight. These were taken in the last few days of January.

Aurora - January 27th Aurora - January 27th Aurora - January 28th
Moose at the end of the driveway - January 30th Aurora over House - January 30th Aurora Pano over Nordale Road - January 30th
Aurora Pano over Nordale Road - January 30th Aurora over Nordale Rd - January 30th Aurora over Nordale Rd - January 30th
Aurora over Neighborhood - January 30th Aurora over Neighborhood - January 30th Aurora and Raven - January 30th
Aurora over house - January 31st Aurora over house - January 31st Aurora pano over road - January 31st

Aurora over House on January 31st:
Aurora over House - January 31st


“There are things about your childhood you hold onto,
because they were so much a part of you.
The places you went, the people you knew.”
~ The Wonder Years ~

William “Bill” K. Daka
August 20, 1960-January 31, 2016

On January 31st, a childhood friend passed away. Learning about his death rocked me, and everyone who grew up on our road in Philadelphia back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

I wrote about Billy on my Facebook Page, and share it here:

William Kristo Daka - August 20, 1960 - January 31, 2016Today, I found out that my childhood friend Bill – who will always be Billy to me – passed away on January 31st. News travels fast in this world of technology, and FB messages have been moving back and forth between members of the “Tomlinson Rd Gang” – a lighthearted reference to those of us who lived and played on that road in Philadelphia 45+ years ago. It is hard to believe that Billy is gone. He was 55.

Billy was my first boyfriend. I was 10 and he was 9 (eight months younger). He was my first kiss, the first boy I “went steady” with, and the first boy to ask me to marry him. He proposed to me when he was 10 and I was 11. He even had a ring for me – a yellow citrine stone flanked by two tiny pearls and set in a 10kt gold band (photo below). I found out a few hours after his proposal, that he swiped the ring from his mother’s Sarah Coventry collection. Fortunately, she let me keep it rather than embarrassing her son by making him ask for it back! I have saved the ring all these years, even though it is cheap, tarnished and much too small for my grown up fingers. After all, it was my first ever engagement ring! The ring came with a love letter. Sloppily written in pencil on lined paper, Billy professed his forever love to me and… going on the Newlywed Game. *grin*

From the letter (photo below):

“When we grow up, I hope we can get married and go to the Newlywed Game. I hope they don’t ask us “who said the first words to each other?” Did I talk to you first or did you talk to me first? We loved each other for a long time. Love Billy”

And beneath his signature is the familiar heart we’d add to our notes: SS & BD. Several trees in the neighborhood were also etched with this heart.

Billy and I were boyfriend/girlfriend (on and off quite a bit), for about 3 years. During our *breakups* he wooed other childhood friends (you know who you are!) Billy was a popular boy in the neighborhood with both the girls and many of the boys too. He was the fastest runner, a great football player, and just plain cool.

He had a way of convincing the rest of us to do what he wanted. If he wanted to play football, we did. If he wanted to go bike riding, we did. If he wanted the boys to hate the girls for an entire summer – they did. (And what a miserable summer that was for us!)

I don’t know what precipitated the declaration of war between the boys and the girls, but I do remember being mad that they were off having fun at the fort, or hiking the railroad tracks, or catching minnows in the ponds, or doing cool things at the “Poop Factory” (an old water filtration plant just up the road that smelled like…. well, I’m sure you can figure it out!)

One day in late summer, we just about had enough. We followed them. Everywhere they went. Annoying them. Angering them. All the way to the Poop Factory – where they ambushed us from their hidden spots behind the building and deep, smelly water pits. Rocks flew. We threw them back. Another volley and BOOM – my friend Michele was hit in the head! They scattered when that happened, and we went off in pursuit.

When we caught up with them, I shoved Billy. I was so mad, I wanted to beat the heck out of him. (My daddy taught me how to fight, just as he taught my brothers how to fight. I wasn’t some delicate flower… none of us girls were raised that way!) What Billy had in might, I had in height. And longer arms. I grabbed him by the arm and swung him around…. and around…. and around… and then let him go. I bruised his ego more than his body, and unfortunately, I ruined any chances of the boys ever wanting to hang out with us again. It was a rather boring summer without them. Eventually we all made up and became friends again. But the boyfriend/girlfriend days for Billy and I were definitely over.

Not too long after, the neighborhood began to change. Some of the kids moved away. New kids moved in. Our block of kids expanded to three blocks and the group grew larger. We moved into our teens, started high school, made new friends, started formally dating, fell in love, stopped hanging out on the streets as much.

I married my high school sweetheart when I was 18. I moved out of the neighborhood and traded many of my childhood friends for new *married life* friends. But since my brothers were friends with Billy, I would occasionally hear about how his life was going. He married, had a son, divorced. Dated, found love again, had a wonderful life with her – a relationship that lasted many years. Last year, cancer took her. It was just after her death that I found him on FB and reached out to him to offer my condolences.

We exchanged a few private messages on FB. Always he wrote about his sadness. His loneliness. How much he missed her and how hard it was to live without her. My heart hurt deeply for him.

There is a condolence message on his obituary wall that ends with “Hope you have found peace.”

Rest in Peace, Billy. Thank you for being a part of my childhood – a time when we thought life would go on forever…

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” – from the movie STAND BY ME

So very true.

Billy Daka and other neighborhood friends - front and center Love Letter from Billy Promise Ring from Billy


The Yukon Quest started on February 6th. In even years, the Quest starts in Fairbanks and ends in Whitehorse. In odd years, it is reversed. As I post this entry, the race is over and the winner has already been declared.  Congratulations to Hugh Neff, who crossed the finish line at 2:31pm on February 15th, 2016! To read more about the race – and specifically the Awards Banquet held a few days ago on February 20th – check out this link.

I went downtown with my friend Amanda and her family. We made it to the start only about 15 minutes before the first musher left the gate. This gave us a short amount of time to grab some photos of the dogs and the sleds at the staging area, before finding a place along the race route where we take a few photos of the teams and the mushers. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay downtown for all of the mushers to get off the start, as Amanda and her husband Brian were on a tight time schedule. But for the time we were there, it was very exciting, as always!

The weather was just great – not so cold that it was unbearable. We managed to find a place near a small spruce tree, where we could sit in the snow and lean out into the chute as the teams came by. The sun was shining brightly and burned off the morning clouds, which made for a gorgeous day to be outdoors. I didn’t take as many photos as I usually do, but here are some of my favorites from the day:


Yukon Quest - Dog Staging Area Hugh Neff's Dog Box Yukon Quest Beautiful Dog
Yukon Quest - Ready to Run! Yukon Quest - Putting on Booties Yukon Quest - Dog Handler
Yukon Quest Sign Yukon Quest Sign in Distance with Antler Arch Yukon Quest - Laura Neese, McMillan MI Rookie
Yukon Quest - Mike Ellis Dogs Yukon Quest - Mike Ellis, Fox, Veteran Yukon Quest - Ed Hopkins, Yukon Territory, Veteran
Yukon Quest - Allen Moore, Two Rivers, Veteran Yukon Quest - Brent Sass I Believe Slogan at Start Yukon Quest - Paige Drobny, Ester, Veteran
Yukon Quest - Gorgeous Parka! Yukon Quest - Yuka Honda, Yukon, Veteran Yukon Quest - Little Girl and Happy Dogs
Yukon Quest - Dog Wink Yukon Quest - Gaetan Pierrard, Yukon, Rookie Yukon Quest - Dave Dalton, Healy, Veteran
Yukon Quest - Brent Sass, Eureka, Veteran Yukon Quest - Tore Alrightsen, Norway, Rookie Yukon Quest - Tosten Kohnert, Sweden, Veteran
Yukon Quest - Matt Hall, Two Rivers, Veteran Yukon Quest - Jay Levy, Durham NC, Rookie Yukon Quest - Rob Cookie, Whitehorse, Veteran


On February 8th – for only one day – a Boreal Owl visited my yard. This is my second visit from a Boreal Owl, and could be the same one who came to visit back in November. This time, he only stayed for one day, but I do believe he had a successful hunt with all the voles we have living here. Boreal Owls are some of the smallest of the owl family. They stand less than 9 inches on average. In the first photo, I was lucky to capture him with a chickadee sitting nearby, so you can compare the size of the two.

When I woke the next morning, he was gone. That saddened me a little bit, as I hoped he’d hang around longer, but a few days later I was out photographing the aurora at 3am and I heard an owl calling. I don’t know if it was him, but the haunting sound of the *whooo, whooo, whooo* was quite beautiful as I stood there watching the sky erupt in colorful light.

Boreal Owl and Chickadee Comparison Boreal Owl Close Up Boreal Owl Talon
Boreal Owl Preening Himself Boreal Owl in Spruce Tree Boreal Owl in Spruce Tree

The Boreal Owl sees something and focuses intently on it:
Boreal Owl Sees Something!


Steve had to work on Valentines Day, so my friend Joyce and I decided it might be a nice day for a drive to Denali National Park for some aurora viewing. Unfortunately, the forecast – while fairly good for a light show – wasn’t the greatest for clear skies. But sometimes you just have to take chances and hope for the best.

I drove to her house and we got on the Parks Hwy about 6:30pm. The park is 125 miles south of Fairbanks, and takes about 2 hours to get there (weather permitting). There are a few slippery patches in the areas of the highway that don’t see sunshine, but Joyce was driving and her car is awesome on slick roads. (My car is much too light and doesn’t do quite as well. Or rather, I have to drive way under the speed limit!)

We made the usual stop at the gas station in Healy to top off the tank and grab some high-octane coffee. The coffee is definitely a necessity when we’re planning an all-night “wait and watch” trip to the park.

The park road is currently open to mile 12.5 (Mountain Vista Rest Stop). This is a GREAT thing, but can change at any time depending on the weather. The further into the park you can go, the further away from ambient light (from Healy) you can get. When I went to Denali with Amanda a couple of years ago, it was so dark that we could barely see our hands in front of our face. (Super scary too!!!)

The sky didn’t look the best, with low clouds passing over. But we planned to hang in there “just in case”. When the aurora forecast became active – according to the many websites Joyce tracks via her phone – we could just barely make out the green light beyond the clouds. We continued into the park to mile 12.5, made a pit stop at the facilities (so nice that the outhouses were open!) and waited a little while before deciding to head back out of the park to a pull-off above the Nenana River, just outside the entrance. If the sky was clearer north, we were prepared to start heading back to Fairbanks, despite the two hour drive it took us to get to where we were.

Unfortunately, the sky at the pull-out outside the park wasn’t much better. We decided to drive back into the park and just wait it out. Our hope was that the clouds would move off and the green we saw in the distance would become more visible.

The clouds started to dissipate.  The green band became more visible. We could see stars too.  And planets. And the bright moon casting light on the landscape. I set up my camera to shoot a pano because the mountains looked gorgeous glowing in the moonlight. I was shooting the first frame of a 9-frame panoramic when a beautiful shooting star streaked down from the heavens just to the left of us. I hoped that my camera was positioned correctly to have caught it. So many times I have seen shooting stars, but never have I captured one in a photograph.

It was my lucky night!!!! In the photo below you can see that pano showing the shooting star, the aurora, the park road, and the gorgeous moonlit mountains. You can also see a very bright “star” in the center of the photo – over the road. That star is actually a planet. I believe it’s Venus. You can also see Orion quite clearly on the right side of the photo. What a thrill!!!

Shooting Star and Aurora Pano in Denali Park:
Shooting Star and Aurora in Denali Park

We hung out at the park until after nearly 2am. With a 2-hour drive home, we knew it was time to pack it up and head back to Fairbanks. All the way home, the aurora danced above us in the sky.

I walked in the door at 5am – a short time after Steve woke to get ready for work. I was glad I had time to say hello and goodbye to him before he went off to work, and I crawled into my warm bed. It was a fantastic night, and I’m so glad we went. I hope we can do it again soon.

Denali National Park - Aurora appearing behind the clouds Denali National Park Aurora and Big Dipper Denali National Park - Faint Aurora
Denali National Park Moon Denali National Park - Shooting Star and Aurora Denali National Park Moonlight
Denali National Park - Aurora over the Railroad Trestle Denali National Park Aurora Denali National Park Aurora
Denali National Park Aurora Pano Denali National Park Aurora Pano Denali National Park - Aurora and Moonlight
Denali National Park - Joyce Photographing the Aurora Denali National Park - Aurora Over Mountain with clouds Denali National Park Aurora Pano
Denali National Park Aurora Pano Denali National Park - Aurora Pano over Park Road Denali National Park - Me and the Aurora
Denali National Park Aurora Pano Denali National Park Aurora and Road Denali National Park Aurora and Road


I have been snowshoeing TWICE. The very first time I went, I went with my friend Tracy, and we snowshoed the Savage River Trail in Denali Park on a warm spring day in March. When I went with Joyce to Denali for the winter solstice snowshoe/walk/hike back in December, I was prepared to snowshoe again but we haven’t had much snow here in the interior, so we were able to walk the trail instead.

So when Joyce asked me if I wanted to go snowshoeing at Chena Lakes with her, I was all for giving it a go. Steve has a pair of snowshoes from his military days and they fit me fine. I was looking forward to trying them out with Joyce.

Last Wednesday (Feb 17th) she came to get me and we drove to Chena Lakes to walk one of the trails. Chena Lakes is really awesome for hiking, walking, nature trails, x-country skiing, snowshoeing, etc. Because the main trails are groomed for x-country skiers (and snowshoeing, dogs, mushing, etc isn’t permitted), we only really had one other trail that was short enough to be worthwhile without wearing us out.

I have to admit that walking on snowshoes doesn’t come easy. Especially if you tend to walk a little “duck waddle” with toes pointed out. I think there is a way to adjust the way your foot fits in your shoes so that the shoes are lined up to be straight ahead, even if you walk with a little foot spread, but we didn’t have time for minor adjustments. Because of this, I had to be a little more careful about where I placed my foot so I wouldn’t step on one shoe with the other. It happened once, and down I went! With snow being so soft, there wasn’t any injury except to pride *grin* and I was glad to have my trekking poles to assist in coming back to my feet. Of course going with a friend turns everything into a laugh fest anyway, so clumsiness is not anything to be embarrassed about.

Once I got my snowshoe legs, all went well. The trail we walked was fairly hard packed anyway, so there wasn’t much difficulty at all. We noticed moose tracks on the trail, along with fresh “nuggets”.  One set of tracks was larger than the other – most likely a cow and her yearling calf. We never saw them, but I suspect they weren’t very far ahead of us. With all the birch trees surrounding us, they could have been standing just off trail a couple dozen yards and we would have missed them anyway.

The trail was a little over a mile. Certainly not enough to qualify for a heavy duty workout, but certainly enough to get the blood pumping and the pink to appear on our cheeks. With the sun shining, it was truly a gorgeous day to be outdoors and I was really happy Joyce invited me to go.

If we burned an abundance of calories, we certainly ruined our progress with a trip to Little Richards Family Diner here in North Pole, where we spoiled ourselves with a yummy, but high fat and caloric, lunch. Heck…. you only live once.

Sunburst Through the Trees:
Sunburst Through the Trees at Chena Lakes

Joyce on the trail at Chena Lakes Sparkles in the Snow Low winter Sun
Wispy Clouds at Chena Lakes Sign for Venice Beach at Chena Lakes Snowshoe Trail Pano with Joyce
Riverfront Bench Chena Lakes Sunbeam through the woods, Chena Lakes Trail Map Chena Lakes


Just before midnight on two days last week, the aurora lit up the sky over my house. I didn’t venture far as the temperature was much colder than it had been and I was just too tired to go any further. But, as always, the sky put on a beautiful show for us – and I was able to view it only a few steps out my front door…

February 17th Aurora over my house February 17th Aurora over my road February 17th Aurora over my house
February 17th Aurora over my house February 17th Aurora over my house February 17th Aurora over my house
February 18th Aurora over my house February 18th Aurora over my house February 18th Aurora over my house
February 18th Aurora over my house February 18th Aurora over my yard February 18th Aurora from my front porch


Steve and I have both been very busy the last several weeks. It’s that time of year when we schedule our yearly medical exams and dental visits. Unfortunately both our dental exams revealed some in-depth work – namely crowns. I also had to have a broken tooth extracted, which I’m still healing from. I don’t remember it taking so long, but the tooth did have a very long root on it. It was a molar, which I’m sure contributed to the added pain. I also needed stitches.

Between fillings, crowns and my extraction, our Visa card is screaming in agony. We have dental insurance, but it’s really not worth the premium we pay for it considering how little it covers. Add in the fact that dental work up here in AK is much higher than the Lower 48, and often we find ourselves paying over and above because the amount submitted is more than allowed by the insurance company. I suppose I should be happy that we’re at least earning airline miles by using the credit card.


My friend Cyndi, who lives in Atlanta, will be here next Tuesday. She is visiting for a week and hopes to see the aurora. I am keeping my fingers crossed that it is a wonderful week for aurora viewing. I also plan to take her to the ice park, Chena Hot Springs, some of the local museums and attractions, and the Festival of Native Arts, among other things. A few days after she leaves, my friend Carla and her husband Gordon arrive. They live in Kenai and are making the drive to the interior also for the aurora and the ice park, as well as other winter activities.


Steve and I are planning a visit to Philadelphia to see my family in April. My sons are coming in from Madison to also spend some time with everyone. It has been nearly 10 years since I’ve been “home”, although I have seen my siblings a few times over the last decade. We all plan to do the touristy stuff in Philadelphia – especially because my son Chris is coming out with Kimmie (his fiancee) and she will be meeting the family for the first time. She has never been to Philadelphia and is looking forward to seeing the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and other landmarks. Brandon and Becky – who will be about 5 months pregnant by then – haven’t seen the family in about 5 years. It’s going to be a great, although short, family reunion.

While there, Steve and I (and I believe two of my brothers and their ladies) are planning to take the train to New York to visit the 9-11 Memorial. We visited Ground Zero the year after the towers fell, and want to see the museum and memorial in place now.

We are still doing a lot of planning and have been enjoying doing research on things to see and do. Mostly we’re excited about seeing everyone. And I hate to say it, but we’re also looking forward to getting out of Alaska during “break-up” season. The state is gorgeous in all seasons, but April has got to be the least desirable time to be here. With the snow melting rapidly, puddles appearing, and the still-bare trees, it’s not the prettiest time of year.


Sorry for the delay in updating my blog. I use WordPress to write, and the version I was using was very outdated – which could allow for hackers to get in and mess with it. My friend Joyce is not only a great friend, but an amazing programmer. She took care of updating the software for me, along with the glitches that inevitably come along with that. I owe her big time!

Until next time…


  1. Hi welcome to simi spring time. HA HA Sorry to hear about your long time friend passing away. It’s hard to think that even thou you havn’t kept in close ties over the years that you will never see them again. My next door neighbor that moved in yast year was my sisters ex so I talk to him often to keep up on his brother and others so it’s nice to keep up. Sounds like you have been busy. Loved all the lights. The long green one over the house was truly a sight to see. They all look great and trust me I know every one of us that comes to you site NEVER gets bored with them. Enjoyed the dogs also Tried to send my number to you on the site you gave me but couldn’t get on so I will just call you some time soon. Take care and keep safe and warm.


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Hi Bruce! It was good talking to you. I look forward to meeting you in person when we get to your neck of the woods!


    Comment by Bruce Rufer — February 26, 2016 @ 7:20 am

  2. Susan, when you travel out of Alaska, do you have
    someone dogsit Raven, or does he go to a kennel?…
    Down the road when you semi retire and leave for
    weeks at a time, will Raven accompany you?


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Hi Mary! Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. I had house guests for two weeks and I’m finally getting a moment to update my blog.

    When we travel within Alaska, Raven goes with us. She is used to roadtripping, and does very well in the car. We have a house-sitter who stays here while we’re gone to keep an eye on the house. If we go away for just a short weekend, we’ll sometimes leave her here with the house-sitter. When we fly out of state, we leave her here with the house-sitter too.

    In the future, our plans will include trips to the Lower 48, and she will go with us. The only time we don’t include her is when we fly, but anytime we travel by vehicle – she’s with us.


    Comment by mary m — March 2, 2016 @ 5:54 pm

  3. So sorry to hear about your friend passing away. You have some great childhood memories.
    I didn’t know the Yukon Quest ended in Whitehorse! Guess that makes sense with Yukon in the name. I love Whitehorse and would like to spend time there more than just passing through.
    The railroad just brought snow to downtown Anchorage from Fairbanks for the ceremonial Iditarod start, and today it’s snowing. Go figure.
    I love snowshoeing but haven’t gotten to do it this winter between lack of snow here and lack of energy for exercise due to carrying twins!


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Thanks for your condolences. It’s very sad to say goodbye to childhood friends – especially those who are my age. 🙁

    I saw that the railroad brought snow to you and it wasn’t used. Craziness. We just had a nice dump of fresh snow here (as I know you did too). At least things look pretty again! But I’m ready for spring. 🙂


    Comment by Mary Anne's Alaska — March 4, 2016 @ 12:12 pm

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