By DREW FOULIS
Winter is approaching Skagway as quickly as the last ship day. The trees are starting to yellow. The air is growing colder. The signs of winter are as plain as the snow on Face Mountain. What are your plans for the winter? Are you fleeing for warmer weather or hunkering down for a long, cold winter? Every animal in Alaska, human or otherwise, alters its behavior to cope with the pressure that winter brings.
Before we delve into the wild winter world of survival strategies, there must be some clarification of terms. Everyone knows hibernation is when an animal stays dormant for a long of time in the winter. Few know about a very common survival strategy called torpor. Torpor is used by many animals from bears to hummingbirds. Torpor is when an animal lowers its metabolic rate, core body temperature and breathing rate for a short period of time, usually at night and only for a few hours. Hibernation is basically an extended period of torpor. Most animals awake and move around periodically during the winter to drink and defecate.
The mammals who do stay for the winter utilize two main strategies for survival, but they all use the abundance of summer to stockpile resources. Some animals use torpor and hibernation while others stay active all winter.
Bears eat constantly during the summer and fall, some consuming more than 10,000 calories a day, getting fat and happy for hibernation.
Amphibians also employ the hibernation strategy. The boreal toad and the rough skinned newt retreat underground to protected pockets. Some utilize spaces between rocks near springs where the temperature stays just above freezing, others occupy ground squirrel and vole burrows.
One of the most vocal locals, the red squirrel, caches calories another way. During spring and summer the little leaper has plenty to eat and is extremely active, jumping from limb to limb and even running head first down tree trunks. However as the seasons change, the squirrel starts putting most of its attention on accumulating spruce cones. Each squirrel can collect upwards of 100 cones a day, making large piles called middens where they can access the calories and stay active all winter long. This hungry harvester can collect as much as 70 percent of all spruce cones produced in certain areas.
The 800 or so residents of Skagway mimic these strategies as well. Some use the time for sedentary activities, such as reading, knitting and playing cribbage, while others actively adventure in the winter wonderland. Whether cross country skiing, ice fishing, snow-machining or just yack tracking around town, Skagwegians are able to make the most of winter.
The temporary residents of Skagway start thinning out around early September and are all gone by October. Most of the gray whales are halfway to Mexico by now. Migratory species like the Rufous hummingbird flee the cold weather and lack of food in search of greener pastures. There is one unique mammal that uses a combination of the two strategies. The Keen’s Myotis, or the mouse eared bat stays around Southeast Alaska year-round, however it migrates between its summer mating and feeding grounds to its winter hibernaculum. Mouse eared bats like to roost in tree cavities or under large pieces of dead bark. Caves and basements are also choice locations to hibernate in.
Whether you stick around or high-tail it out at the first sign of snow, Skagway has a bountiful summer season with numerous avenues for stockpiling resources. As you prepare for the winter, remember and compare your strategies with the wildlife all around us.
Drew Foulis has been enjoying the abundance of summer resources and is preparing for his migration south for the winter. Thank you Skagway for a summer I will never forget.