December 09, 2014
In mid-December a mysterious set of animal tracks appeared along a favorite local trail near our winter office (outside the Park). We call the trail “the bluff trail” because it meanders along the edge of a bluff with a gradual drop about 500 feet to the Nenana River. The area is boreal forest, dominated by white spruce trees and wiggly-trunked aspens, braving the sometimes high winds along the bluff. We commonly see animal sign along there….from black bear scat laden with berries in the fall, to perfect lynx and snowshoe hare tracks in winter, along with the ubiquitous and ever present runs of red tree squirrels and voles. Twice I’ve seen the tracks of wolves…..about the size of salad plates; they couldn’t possibly be confused with even the largest sled dog in the area.
One thing I’ve learned in my years as a naturalist is that sometimes the most helpful description of an unidentified species includes the type of habitat it was seen in. For instance, if someone saw a “big, brown bird”, asking where is was (cliffs, lake, tundra meadow, dense forest, willow thicket?) can help scores in its potential ID. There are outliers, of course, but typically an animal’s habitat falls within fairly narrow parameters.
So, this mysterious animal track.….Austin first spotted the tracks and attemped to describe them to me, and I was flummoxed. It had small feet, only about one inch long, with a very prominent tail drag mark. It had very pointy, clawed toes (like a squirrel’s?) and walked with a gait that was walking, not hopping. I was racking my brain to think what it could be...baby porcupine? (no--still too small and porkeys have rear feet like bears with a furry-looking, large tail drag), a tree squirrel dragging a stick? (no--they hop, and the tail marks swooshed side to side), flying squirrel? (no--the tracks walked around on the ground too much, and they hop, not walk), pine marten or elusive long tailed weasel? (no, they hop...also don't have long pointy toes), Ashley’s dachshund? (no--his feet are obviously doglike with a longer gait and no tail drag). What other small animals inhabit the forest here that could leave such marks? I studied them long and hard, and even took the attached photo. The tail looked to be solid....like a possum tail....not furry. They honestly looked like the tracks of a large, common RAT.
And then it hit me....muskrat!
Yep. Confirmed with track descriptions from a tracking book. Now the only mystery is: what was it doing on the bluff trail!? The nearest lake was perhaps two miles away, and the river was very, very far below. Spruce forest is not the realm of the aquatic muskrat! Many ideas came to my mind…perhaps the family unit had grown too big and this was an adolescent pushed out to find its own way in the world? Perhaps our snowless winter has been producing too much ice that is crowding them out of their lairs? A few days later, our neighbor, Fritz, showed Ashley and Teresa a curious set of tracks near his home. Indeed, they were the same.
One mystery solved, another began.
December 04, 2014
Winter is upon us! While it has arrived a bit late here in Denali (we only have a few inches of snow currently and November was unseasonably warm) the joys of the season are now in full swing. Whether it’s ice skating or hockey, community events like yoga or craft bazaars, mushing a team of dogs, or simply holing up with a good book or a podcast, our winter staff is enjoying it all. And to keep our internal temperatures high during it all, we always enjoy a good soup recipe. This one comes from Laura Cole, who was in charge of the kitchens at Camp Denali and North Face Lodge for many years and now runs the exquisite “229 Parks” restaurant at the park entrance area of Denali. Bon appétit!
Spicy Tomato Soup
Cilantro stems add a refreshing flavor to this spicy soup. It is great served either hot or cold.
**This recipe makes a lodge-sized serving of a whopping 30 cups! While perfect for holiday gatherings, you may wish to size it down for your family!
4 T Olive Oil
3 C Red Onion, diced
1 1/2 T Garlic, minced
1 T Kosher Salt
1 T Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
3 C Cilantro, chopped, stems included
4 each 28 oz Cans Crushed Plum Tomatoes in Juice
1 Jalapeno Pepper, seeded & minced
use care with pepper the juice is very hot
8 C Rich Chicken Stock
1 T Sugar
4 T Fresh Lime Juice
1 1/2 C Sour Cream
1 1/2 C Basil, cut into thin strips
In a large stock pot heat oil over medium high heat.
Add onion & garlic, sauté until tender & slightly golden.
Add salt & red pepper flakes. Stirring to combine.
Add jalapeno pepper and sauté until tender.
Add tomatoes & their juice.
Simmer on high heat for 10 minutes, when liquid has reduced by 1/4, stir in sugar & lime juice.
Stir in chicken stock.
Reduce heat to medium, simmer for 20 minutes to combine all flavors.
Taste & adjust seasonings.
Serve garnished with fresh basil & a hearty dollop of sour cream.
November 10, 2014
Well not yet at this exact moment, but having just “fallen back” to Alaska Standard Time, our days suddenly feel a lot shorter. Here we are coming up on 4pm, already on the heels of a quickly-setting sun. That, though, being relative; those of you who’ve visited towards the end of our season are familiar with our long, lingering twilight. So too it is in winter. It just starts earlier and stays darker longer.
So to answer that burning question: just how dark are Alaskan winters?
First, let’s look at our celestial milemarkers: summer solstice around June 21, the longest day of the year; autumnal equinox around September 23, one of two times annually when night and day are of equal duration*; winter solstice around December 21, the shortest day of the year; and vernal equinox around March 20.
To dispel a misconception: we at 63 degrees north do actually get daylight in the winter. In fact, depending on the topography in our view shed, most of us even see the elusive glowing orb itself, albeit for a mere 45-ish minutes a day around winter solstice. It’s not that the sun disappears, it just doesn’t get that far above the horizon, instead sleepily making its way along playing peek-a-boo through a valley now and again. But we still have about six hours of usable daylight—think twilight—from roughly 10am to 4pm.
Above the Arctic Circle, however, it’s a different story. This imaginary line demarcates 66 degrees north, the latitude at which the sun neither rises above nor sets below the horizon on the respective solstices. Go further north, and the duration increases. In Barrow, at 71 degrees north, the sun sets from approximately November 18 until January 22, leaving our northernmost city in two months of polar night. Though they, too, still have about three hours of twilight.
People ask if it’s “weird,” or if I’m affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder. No on both counts. What’s weird are the times of rapid change around the equinoxes when we’re gaining or losing an hour of daylight each week. Not to mention, the shorter days are actually a blessing for night owls and late sleepers; it’s the only time of year we’re awake early enough to catch the sunrise. On the flipside, it also means that you don’t have to stay up until the wee hours to catch a glimpse of the aurora or stargaze.
The darkness itself isn’t so scary. In fact, two of my favorite wintertime memories center around darkness. The first was several years back, walking home from a sauna at the neighbors’ cabin. It was very cold. And very dark. And I was very warm. As I was strolling down the center line of the highway (because you can do that up here in winter), I vividly recall feeling comforted by the night sky and the quiet, snuggled deep under a blanket of stars. The darkness felt peaceful, like being wrapped in a giant, warm quilt.
My other memory is of another cold night. 40 below, clear sky, and a spectacular aurora dancing overhead. I put on my insulated overalls and big burly parka, grabbed a thermos of hot chocolate and an ensolite pad, and made for the backyard where I plopped down into the snow, poured myself a drink, and sat back to watch the show.
It’s not for everyone, but I like the darkness. Its tranquility is a nice balance to the intensity of our summer daylight. But even so, everything is best in moderation, and come February and March, you will still find me enthusiastically welcoming our longer springtime days.
*The earth’s atmosphere refracts light, allowing us to observe daylight prior to the actual sunrise. Thus to our perception, the day still appears longer. This is also why the duration of our winter darkness is not an exact mirror image of our summer daylight.
It is our pleasure to present Dispatches, a journal of the goings on at Camp Denali & North Face Lodge. Written by members of our staff, Dispatches is an opportunity to peek into the special sightings notebook, brush up on Denali National Park issues, read about our ongoing projects in sustainability, and maybe get a whiff of what’s cooking in the kitchens. Dispatches will carry on through the winter, when we hope to share stories of snowy ski adventures, deep cold, and the events of a small Alaskan community.