July 26, 2014
It’s almost time! Time to grab your blueberry pail, a pair of pants you don’t mind getting stains on the knees and bum, a bandana to keep the rogue mosquito from flying into your ear, and a friend or two, and head into the berry bushes! Denali has multiple species of edible berries: nagoonberries, crowberries, soapberries, cloudberries, blueberries, currants, and three species of cranberries, to name a few. All are food for the voles, bears, foxes, and birds of the park, but are thoroughly enjoyed by the human residents as well!
I begin thinking about blueberries in June, when the plants produce the small, delicate, pale pink and white cup-shaped flowers which will become berries in a month or two. The flowers are so tiny (about the size of my nail on my pinkie finger) that it used to be thought mosquitos were the main pollinator. Such a lovely tale…but alas, not true. Denali’s major pollinators are bumblebees, flies, butterflies, and moths. Once a flower has been pollinated, the petals fall away and the ovary swells into a small green berry. In late July and early August the blueberries begin to turn blue and build up sugar content, “hoping” to lure a seed dispersing animal into eating them. Bears, birds, and other critters amble by, gorging on the ripe berries and dispersing the seeds away from the parent plant, sometimes miles away, in a conveniently nutrient-rich pile!
Our berries in Denali are aided in their growth by our near 24 hours of sunlight at 63 degrees north latitude. They are not as sweet or as large as the commercial blueberries you buy in stores, but, boy, do our berries have flavor! They are also powerfully packed with antioxidants and vitamins. Every summer I try to spend as much of my free time sitting in blueberry patches, filling my buckets to fill my freezer for the long Alaskan winter ahead. The berries go into my pancakes, smoothies, pies, and desserts throughout the year. Our staff here at Camp Denali and North Face Lodge collect the berries to be made into jams and syrups for guest use in our picnic supper while driving into the park and sourdough pancake breakfasts. And some of our staff pick and can the berries to give to each other as gifts during our annual “Christmas” in early September!
Believe it or not, there is a “code of ethics” to picking berries. You begin by picking as far away from the lodges as possible, leaving the berries closest to the cabins and the trails for our guests. Secondly, you pick every patch thoroughly….leaving only a few berries on each plant would tempt someone else to that patch, while a bare patch symbolizes “look someplace else!” Pick only in dry weather to avoid soggy, smooshed berries. Be gentle when picking. Getting some leaves and sticks is inevitable, but let’s not grab the whole plant! And of course, be mindful of bears. Never crowd them away from their berry buffets!
At the end of a good day of picking I feel happy and satisfied to have spent my time under a broad Denali sky, sometimes with the Alaska Range over my shoulder, smelling the sweet aroma of Labrador tea as it wafts up from the tundra and knowing I have an ever increasing larder to get me through the winter. When I close my eyes at night I see images of round blueberries hanging off the low branches in front of me, just like you continue to feel the motion of waves after a day of playing in the ocean. The sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of Denali come so vividly alive in those fleeting few weeks of summer when the berries are ripe.
June 30, 2014
It’s been a fairly cool and rainy summer overall for us here in Denali. Our annual precipitation is generally only 13-20”, which is about as much as Tucson, Arizona, so calling it “rainy” here is only relative. Typical of mountain weather (we are only 30 miles away from the base of the highest mountain in North America, after all!) an average summer day in the Park has some rain, some clouds, and some sun. We’ve had a few snow squalls in early and mid June, which don’t last long and are also not much of a surprise to those of us who have lived and worked here for many years.
But last week certainly bears mentioning. All day Wednesday we had light rains, and that night the skies seemed to open up. We had hard rains for about 24 hours which totaled 3.3” at the Wonder Lake weather station that the National Park Service maintains. On Thursday morning we awoke to the highest river, pond, and stream levels anyone at Camp Denali and North Face Lodge has ever seen. A waterfall was flowing down the hillside out the south end of Nugget Pond at Camp Denali. Moose Creek, not far from the lodges, was so high it was bringing down spruce and balsam poplar trees into the creek and washing them downstream. We feared for our roads, of course. Our operations staff went right to work using a loader, bulldozer, and F-800 truck to haul loads of gravel. It was “all-hands-on deck” amongst our staff to use rakes, hoes, and shovels to repair the trenches on the sides of our driveway to Camp Denali. More rain came on and off the following two days.
At three sections along the Denali Park Road there was significant damage. The photo attached shows owner Jenna Hamm at the north end of Wonder Lake on Thursday morning, where the road washed out and was repaired shortly by Park Maintenance staff. Two creeks further down the road from our lodges in the Kantishna Valley were in worse shape: raging and swollen with piles of debris washed down from the mountains. The guests and staff of Denali Backcountry Lodge, about 4 miles away from us down in the Kantishna Valley, needed to be evacuated by helicopter.
Because our buses go in and out of the park every Monday and Friday, our schedule was relatively uninterrupted. The worst of the rainstorm damage was on Thursday morning, normally a day of scheduled hikes for our guests. Instead of long hikes, our guests took time to explore the area and see the effects of high water and erosion on the landscape, as well as watched a movie on backcountry travel in Alaska, attended special programs by our naturalists and enjoyed steaming cups of hot tea and coffee nibbling cookies in front of a fireplace while the rain came down and crews worked around the clock outside. The next day our buses were able to take our guests back to the Railroad Depot and pick up our next guests on schedule.
‘Expect the unexpected’ could well be said to be a theme with the weather of Denali. A bluebird sky day may see a heavy thunderstorm and hail at 3pm, or vice versa. As our former owner Wally Cole says, “There’s no poor weather, only poor clothing.”
April 18, 2014
Walking into the dining hall after a day of guiding in Denali, I glance around for the wooden clothespin hand printed with my name to locate my seat for the evening meal. My clothespin is hand painted by fellow staff member, Hannah Berry, and I love its familiar sight. Tucked over a linen napkin, it shows I am seated with five others. Some faces are familiar, guests I’ve hiked with the past few days, and guests I have yet to meet.
First, the soup for the evening comes out (a wild rice and mushroom soup that has our mouths watering from the moment we catch a whiff from the kitchen) and a basket of still warm Alaska sourdough is passed around, with generous scoops of butter (we hiked today! We earned it!). We talk of what we saw on the hike…caribou, bear tracks, wolf scat, a lingering snow field the kids made snow angels in as our dinner plates arrive—pan seared NY strip steak with chimichurri, crispy Alaskan potatoes, and Alaskan green and purple beans. Unbelievable that we are so far from grocery stores, and yet have this bouquet of smells and flavors before us.
A tiramisu, made by our baker and elegantly plated with an edible blue bachelor button flower grown in our green house, arrives before me. I’ve always smiled inside to know tiramisu is Italian for “lift me up.” Our host, John, dings a glass to draw our attention, and, in a ritual familiar to us all from last night, asks an appointee from each hiking group to give a short “hike highlight” from the day.
The “foray” level group (the easiest level of hike with walks that may go up to a mile) had a tremendous sighting of a sow grizzly nursing her two cubs. They were able to watch from the road shoulder through a spotting scope and shared binoculars. The “strenuous” group told a brave tale of crossing a stream and surprising a small group of caribou cows and calves. The last group to give a highlight has appointed its youngest member, a 10 year-old girl. She shyly got up and mentioned how a highlight was getting to see a fox with a ground squirrel in it’s mouth, but mostly, she liked the cup of hot chocolate her guide, Shaleas, made for her when she reached the bus at the hikes end.
Why have cocoa at the end of a hike? Weather in Denali is unpredictable, and a bluebird morning can turn to a cool drizzle in a heartbeat. We embrace the constant changes of weather, wearing layers we can adjust and knowing that the changes in light can make the landscape so much more beautiful than any bright sunny day. Our guides come prepared with our own clever accompaniment, however. In the buses and vans, for the days when our hikes require an hour drive or so to get to our starting points, we bring thermoses of hot water, blue plastic cups, and a smorgasbord of hot drink items. We mix up refreshing apple ciders, hot tea, instant coffee, and every adults favorite, the Denali Mocha (a mixture of cocoa powder and instant coffee-sometimes it seems nothing has ever tasted better at the end of a hike in the park!). We have these little “bistros” pulled over at the side of the road, perhaps watching a moose browse in the distance, or in the parking lot of the Eielson Visitor Center.
Whether your highlight from Denali is a quick inhalation of breath as the bus takes the curves along the road at Polychrome Pass, the moment you learn that Denali is home to breeding birds from 6 continents, seeing the top of the mountain for the first time, stepping off the road into “spongy tundra”, or having a “Denali Mocha” amongst the camaraderie of new friends after a hike, we hope the opportunity to experience this National Park leaves you with a memory to last a lifetime.
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.