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Signs of Spring: April 24, 2000

Today's Update Includes:

Robins Reach Anchorage!
Here's the announcement you've been waiting for! Sand Lake teacher Mike Sterling sent the news. Thanks, Mike, and all you Sand Lake Elementary students, for being our contest officials again this spring! Mike wrote:

"Ok, so I send in my 'no robins' message on Monday, the 17th before school. Then I'm riding my bike to work and I hear this strange 'music' in the background! I slow, look toward the source, and see a plump robin sitting way in the top of a cottonwood tree singing its 'come hither' song! On Tuesday, I hear--and see--the same robin. Ditto Wednesday. I ask my students: "See any robins yet?" They're all nodding their heads. "Where?" I ask. The answers vary, but they've been spotted in backyards, in parks, and (the kids claim) in the woods between Sand Lake School and the lake that is its namesake.

Bottom line: I think the robins are here."
The Closest Calls in Our Early Bird Contest
Challenge Question #3 asked: "When do you think the first robin will be spotted in Anchorage, Alaska (61.22 N, -149.90 W)?" The contest officials at Sand Lake Elementary gave the arrival date as April 17. This wasn't one of the entries we received, but let's give three cheers and congratulations to the students who came closest!

Mrs. Voelker's Fifth Grade Class said, "We predict that the robins will come back to Anchorage, Alaska on April 15. We based this on when our robins appeared and previous sightings in Alaska." (

Mrs. Nelson's science class #2 from Madelia Elementary in Madelia, MN predicted that "the robins will reach Anchorage, Alaska on April 20th." (

Both these classes are enjoying their own spring robins, and we thank ALL of you who sent your guesses for this year's contest!
It's SOOOOOOO Not Over

Ice-out, that is. Put on your virtual parkas and come along to see what's happening in our remaining Official Ice-Out Observation Posts! After reading the latest news from each, you're invited to send us your predictions for:

Challenge Question #15
"When do you predict ice-out will occur in the remaining Ice-Out Observation posts?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Rankin Inlet, Hudson Bay, Nunavut, Canada (62.60N,-93.50W)

Dear Journey North,
Rankin Inlet is a town of around 2000 people. Many elders were born on the land in skin tents and igloos. The school is named after Leo Ussak, an elder for the community. Rankin Inlet Schools ICT Coordinator Merv Tulluk told us the blizzards start at the end of October, and the snow starts melting in early May. He said, "Last year (1999), the ice on the last of the lakes left on approximately June 18th. Most rivers were out by June 4th, and Hudson Bay (Rankin Inlet) finally broke up and floated out to sea July 1st!"

Student Kenny Tatty wrote back in February to tell us more:
"Today is Feb. 16. Here in Rankin Inlet the weather is averaging about minus 10 to minus 35 every day. Sometimes it gets colder but that's what it's usually around. You might think different than me but I think this is a little too cold for most people. During summer the weather is not bad. It actually gets hot here. Three years ago we were the hottest in the North. It went up to +60 degrees here in Rankin."

Try This!
Check out the website for Leo Ussak Elementary School on the shores of Hudson Bay in Canada's Arctic. Read what students say about life in the Arctic. See the flag of Nunavut, Canada's newest territory, and find out how to say good day in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.

Tanana River: Nenana, Alaska

Sunset about 9 p.m. on the Tanana River at Nenana on Sunday, April 2, 2000.
Photo by Julie Coghill

Robins are singing in Anchorage, but in Nenana, the tripod stands firm on the Tanana River ice. According to the guesses you've sent for Challenge Question #10, ice-out could be any day! But what's the tripod got to do with it? Here's the story:

Each year a black-and-white tripod is "planted" into the ice of the Tanana River. A wire attached to a rope runs from the top of the tripod to a contraption in a watchman's tower on shore. Watchmen make sure nobody messes with the tripod. Anticipation builds as the weather warms. The ice under the tripod gets slushy, and then the water begins to flow. When water flows on the bank near the watchtower, the time is near. One day or night, the rocks jerk to the top of the tower as the tripod begins its journey, jerking along as the breaking ice chunks begin to move! One watchman described it as just like an earthquake, with rumbling and shaking when the ice starts to go.

When the ice breaks and the tripod begins to move, the rope raises a 50-gallon drum of rocks to the top of the tower. The action trips another line that releases a guillotine that cuts the main rope to the tripod. The cutting of that rope trips two other ropes. One rope stops a clock and the other sets off a loud siren. That's when the whole town finds out the winner of Alaska's oldest lottery, the Nenana Ice Classic. It's a big deal because the Ice Classic has handed out millions of dollars in prize money since 1917--for guessing the exact time the ice breaks up!

Try This!
The calendar at the web address below gives some history of ice-outs on the Tanana River. Use the calendar dates to "play" with the numbers: Figure out (a) the median (the middle date), or date at which half of the breakups occur before and half occur after; and (b) the mode (the date of most occurrences) for the ice breakups on the Tanana River.

Let's go farther north to see what conditions are like at the River Teno. Teacher Annikki Lauerma sends us this update:

River Teno: Utsjoki, Finland

April 19, 2000
Dear Journey North,

Photo Courtesy of Annikki Lauerma

The spring days are long and sunny in Utsjoki. The temperature is around 32 F with a bit colder nights usually. We still have about 30 inches of snow here. In the fjelds it is the best time for snowmobiling, skiing and ice-fishing. Many families have plans to spend the Easter time in their cottages relaxing in the nature. Many tourists do the same.

The River Teno is ice-covered. Just small spots of water with dippers and other aquatic birds are to be seen in places of currents. But in May the ice-out competition will be going on in full swing. The lucky ones who guess the right date and exact time will get prizes like bikes, a traditional lean-to, fishing gear, etc.

The ice-out in 1999 was on May 21, around 5 PM.

Best regards,
Annikki Lauerma
Utsjoen saamelaislukio

P.S. We still have about 30 inches snow here in Utsjoki on April 20, which means that we expect our tulips to emerge and bloom in June.

Chukchi Sea: Point Hope, Alaska
Teacher Sheila Gauqin sends this update to help you make your ice-out predictions for this observation post, and to share news of an ancient sprintime tradition in her part of the world:

April 20, 2000
Dear Journey North,

Photo Courtesy of Sheila Gaquin

Sunday afternoon (April 16th) the conditions for the annual whale hunt were perfect--there was an open lead because an off-shore wind was blowing, keeping the pack ice pushed back from the land-fast ice. Dozens of bowhead whales were moving north through the open water headed to the Beuford Sea.

Whaling crews who had been waiting for just these conditions moved out onto the ice. On Monday evening, around 7 p.m., one of the crews landed the first whale of the season. After a moment or two of rejoicing, almost the entire village went to work cutting up the whale and moving all of the meat, muktuk (blubber), organs, baleen and bone back to town with sleds and snowmachines. It takes a long time to move a 27-foot whale weighing around a ton per foot, across several miles of rough sea ice.

One of my students, Guy T., aged 9, along with several other boys from the village, helped with the work until 2 a.m. AND then came to school that day! The boys carefully observe the hunters to learn what will be required of them when they become hunters. For thousands of years this is how Eskimos have passed the traditional knowledge of the hunt to the next generation.

Since Guy is still so young, his job was to gather snow from the top of the sea ice and melt it so the workers could have fresh water to drink. He also had to keep the fire going so people could warm themselves when they became chilled in the minus 10 degree F. weather.

Soon--luckily after all the meat was safely stored in a sigalaq (ice cellar dug into the perm-frost)--a blizzard began blowing. The strong winds whipped up waves on the open water and the sea ice began to undulate. It was not safe to be so far from shore on such dangerous ice, so the crews returned to town to wait for calmer weather. An Elder once told me that learning to wait patiently is a large part of being successful in anything, but especially hunting.

The sea ice won't completely disappear for a couple months. Usually we are ice free by July 4th, but the ice will become "rotten" in another month or so, and it will not be safe to travel across. Until then, the crews will wait, watch and hope for good hunting.

Sheila Gaquin

P.S. The photo above shows a whaling crew on the ice cutting and hauling muktuk. As you can imagine, a 20- or 30-foot bowhead whale will yield tons of muktuk. It takes many many people working for hours and hours to cut, haul, and store all the muktuk.
Amphibian Advertising
Response to Challenge Question #11
"Why do you think a female might be more attracted to a louder, faster call? Is there some strategy in the call? What might it tell the female about the male?"

Experts believe that females may favor males with louder, faster calls because these indicate that the call belongs to an older, larger male.

Response to Challenge Question #12
"Why do the male frogs stay in the breeding ponds after they have already fertilized a female's eggs?"

For most frogs, the females are in the breeding ponds for a very short time--just long enough to lay their eggs. In contrast, the males stay in the ponds longer, because they hope to mate with other females that are attracted to the breeding chorus.

Frog Call Quiz
Response to Challenge Question #13

Our April 10th Update's Frog Call Quiz asked,

"If you were a Spring Peeper, which of the above calls would you listen for: Frog Call A, B, C, or D?"

Jake Bellinger and Trevor O'Marah identified all the calls: "The answer to the challenge question 13 is A is pacific chorus frog; B is chorus frog; C is spring peeper; and D is spotted chorus frog. (

Jose Franco from Susan Hoffman's 4th grade at Crested Butte Community School answered: "If I was a Spring Peeper I would probably listen to frog call #C." ( Right on!

"The classic advertisement call is the high pitched 'peep peep.' According to an excellent reference, Stebbins and Cohen (1995) "A Natural History of Amphibians," the advertisement calls are species identification signals. Only spring peepers will follow the location of a Spring peeper chorus.
Keeping an Eye to the Sky
Response to Challenge Question #14

"Which of these bird migrations do you think are timed to coincide with the return of frogs? Give one or two reasons why you think so."

Bird expert Laura Erickson sends this answer: Broad-winged Hawks and Northern Harriers are two hawks that eat a LOT of frogs. Also, Sandhill Cranes and Bitterns enjoy eating frog legs and their other parts, too. (By the way: Most birds that eat frogs swallow them whole!)

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Question
Please answer ONLY ONE question in EACH e-mail message.

1. Address an E-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #15.
3. In the body of the message, give your answer to the question above.

The Next "Signs of Spring" Update Will be Posted on May 8, 2000.

Copyright 2000 Journey North. All Rights Reserved. Please send all questions, comments, and suggestions to our feedback form

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